It's rare to enter a foreign country as an outsider and grow into one of the country's own, but New Japan Pro Wrestling's (NJPW) Kenny Omega has done so while becoming pro wrestling's version of a video game character.
Among the moves and concepts Omega has incorporated into his act include a double palm thrust to his opponent's chest that he calls the Hadouken, taken from Street Fighter. Also, Omega's current gimmick of "The Cleaner" was directly inspired by combining Neo from The Matrix and Albert Wesker from Resident Evil. Additionally, Omega has performed Zangief's Ultra from Ultimate Street Fighter 4, and wears the shades that Marion Cobretti wore in the 1986 Sylvester Stallone film, Cobra.
While that entire persona and the antics have gotten Omega extremely popular in Japan – where he lives full-time and fluently speaks the language -- it's always a concern that the American audience won't be as receptive to his shtick.
"That's always been a concern of mine, I worry that if I spend more and more time in Japan, people will know me here, stateside, less and less," said Omega. "I feel that anytime I come back to the States, whether it be East coast, West Coast, where ever it may be, I feel like I have to my best foot forward and try, just like I did in 2008 when I first started on the indies to remake a name for myself. So I'll never come here to mail it in, I'm always gonna come to have the standout match and match of the night regardless of where I go."
Preparing to face wrestling independent wrestling standout Tony Nese for Five Borough Wrestling toward the end of 2015, it's one of just a few stops on the independent circuit for Omega. A full-time superstar with NJPW, Omega's time in the USA is limited.
But much like Cody throws rocks in Street Fighter, Omega threw out a piece of advice for wrestlers looking to break into Japan.
"What I would tell them, a lot of promotions now are looking to have business partnerships with American indy federations so what you either have to do is simply; either be a standout in that federation, that the Japanese promotion is partnering with. Or, you simply have to be so good, on your own, that there's no way they can deny you being on their roster."Like a federation such as Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) based out of California. As one of the most popular independent companies on not just the West coast, but in the world, PWG consistently books some of the biggest names in the industry, Omega included.
"PWG is somewhat like a home away from home," Omega said. "Just before I left for Japan, I was just breaking into there and the fans there are very receptive. They love me, they love my character, and they love my matches. The promoter there took a chance on me when others wouldn't and I entered the main event scene with the highest quality of opponents there before any other promotions. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for PWG."
The reason for Omega's success is originality. The Transcona, Manitoba, Canada, native has been able to parlay his love for video games into a unique character that's never been seen. Early on in his career, Omega toiled away on the independent circuit, which also included an ill-fated stint with WWE.
"That's one thing Deep South Wrestling taught me, which was the WWE developmental at the time when I was there. Some people thrive being programmed, some people need to have a direction told to them, some people need to be created from the ground up to even stand a chance in this world. But for people like me, I really need my own creative freedom and be in an environment where that can I flourish."When he left DSW in 2006, Omega embarked on a journey to Japan, a country he wanted to enter and dominate for a long time. A decade later, Omega is one of the top superstars in NJPW. Omega is a mainstay in the Bullet Club, the top faction in Japan, a former two-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, and a one-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (with Kota Ibushi).
Those credentials partnered with Omega having the creative liberty to portray his unique character in a multitude of ways is the appeal of being in Japan. But on independent shows, Omega likes toying with other character traits, just to evolve as a wrestler.
"I'm in various incarnations of that character, maybe a touch different," said Omega. "Today, you may not see 100 percent Bullet Club Kenny Omega, but rest assured it's still me. That said, I would really have it no other way, if I couldn't be myself, this video game-centric character that you'll see in the ring tonight, if I couldn't be that guy, I just wouldn't be in wrestling."
In regards to the Bullet Club, Omega says the faction's "merchandise is just cool to wear," and something people at times might not recognize but still makes for "a cool, pop culture, fashion thing."
However, since the Bullet Club was founded in 2013 by Prince Devitt (now Finn Balor in WWE NXT), the design of the club's merchandise has been copied by droves of wrestlers. It may prove as a financially prosperous tactic for those who rip-off the logo, but Omega's questions those wrestlers' originality.
"I think it's sort of a cheesy cash-in, like, it's bad enough that we have so many parodied t-shirt designs that people are buying," said Omega. "It's bad enough that you have to parody a legitimate wrestling logo. Parody a movie, parody a game, parody a TV show, but a wrestling shirt parodying a wrestling shirt, that's a little cheesy. Can't you go a little deeper than that?"
Omega said: "Chances are you're either a mother f***ing robot yourself that has no original idea, or you just wouldn't be able to sell your own merchandise so you have to make something so similar to Bullet Club that people wanna buy it, in my humble opinion. But what do I know, I'm only the guy who has had six matches of the year."
Digging deeper into the Bullet Club, Omega believes that there are members in the group who should've never been allowed in, but did not specify any names. In early 2015, AJ Styles told ReviewFix that there isn't anybody in the wrestling world he'd add to the Bullet Club.
"For me, it would be a selfish answer because I want to get out of the Junior Heavyweight division and move up to heavyweight so I'd want to find a really good Junior Heavyweight to take that singles spot, you know what I mean?... I could tell you when I was looking for a junior tag team partner, I was lobbying really very hard for Chuck Taylor because of our history at PWG and our chemistry."It's an apropos time to search for new members. While the Bullet Club may not be a thing in NJPW anymore – replaced with The Elite – it's still likely to heavily scout for new members. Styles is gone, Gallows and Anderson appear next, leaving Omega, The Young Bucks, Tama Tonga, Yujiro Takahashi, and some of the current members.
There is one name Omega feels is Bullet Club material, but it'd definitely have to be somebody who brings something new to the group.
"Thinking of who fits that Bullet Club mold, maybe Sami Callihan?" said Omega. "I feel like we need a more gritty, grimy, aggressive Junior Heavyweight wrestler to pick up where I left off. I was sort of comedic style but we'll need somebody a little rough and tough."
Audio of the interview is available here.
[Image by Mark Suleymanov]