The Perception of Kenny Omega

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To say that Kenny Omega is one of the most important wrestlers of the 21st century would be an understatement for some. While his decisions and plans, like the integration of joshi in AEW, hold significance, his remarkable contributions in the ring shine even brighter.

What was initially impressive was his ability to stamp his name outside of the biggest gun in the West for the past few decades, WWE. Aside from a disappointing time in their development territory, Deep South Wrestling, Omega has yet to step inside a WWE ring. Perhaps he may never will. Not that he needs to, mind you. Personally, I’d be fine if he never does.

Instead, Omega went across the world at a young age, solidifying his talents primarily in DDT Pro-Wrestling and Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) and stints in Ring of Honor from 2008 to 2014 before signing with New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he debuted as a member of the Bullet Club (and arguably the best leader).

During his time in DDT and PWG; however, the Winnipeg native was already setting the world ablaze with insane matches against and alongside his Golden Lover Kota Ibushi, and PWG bouts such as a hilarious match with Bryan Danielson. Already, he was setting expectations that he wasn’t a one-trick pony. 

On one hand, you’d get an Omega that could deliver high-octane thrillers of matches filled with emotion and determination, wrestling’s equivalent of the Leonid meteor shower of 50,000 to 150,000 “stars” above North America on November 12, 1833. On the other hand, Kenny would be a goofball, offering slapstick and simple humor taken from past comedic wrestlers and has been since adopted today to varying degrees and tastes. When he says he studies the tape of Kurt Angle, he’s not lying – this is peak early Angle that Omega borrows from.

That’s what separates Kenny from most in the industry today. While there are contemporaries that will be damn good in one or a few spots, he’s able to fill more and is willing to try all sorts of new things. If he can’t, he’ll do his best to have chemistry with talents he locks up with (as is often the case).

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From the puro style he’s best known for to the Shawn Michaels-style showboating and storytelling, from his technical masterclasses to even explosive deathmatches, there’s no one way to define him.

He’s very much a free spirit in that regard. To deny him of that would be like depriving a plant of water and sunlight. There’s so much fun in his movements that either provide escapism or provoke thought. 

Yet, when I talk to or listen to pro wrestling fans, a few things come to their mind. His NJPW run as The Cleaner brought eyes to the overseas product, as did his segments on the YouTube series Being the Elite. Other fans may recognize him from his tag team run with “Hangman” Adam Page or his monumental reign as AEW World Champion. Some have their criticisms of him, or at least aren’t a fan of some of the other styles he works. 

This perception of his work in Japan shaped his earlier AEW run. Feeling the need to meet the expectations of this super-workrate wrestler everyone saw in him, he kept falling short of that each time, but by design.

It stemmed from his loss to Jon Moxley at Full Gear in 2019, which sent him down this further spiral. He was lost within the expectations of his own greatness and the wear and tear on his own body. An important match in the context of this narrative was on his match on the April 22, 2020 episode of AEW: Dynamite when he took on then-jobber Alan Angels, scoring a clean three count in a somehow controversial fashion due to the meager Angels getting a lot of time in during this bout. He even kicked out of the V-Trigger!

Some fans were perplexed by this. Presentation-wise, Omega was seen among pro wrestling’s elite (heh), but here he was, suffering to a mere “jobber” who had been brutally and quickly decimated by Lance Archer. For someone of Kenny’s illustrious pedigree, this shouldn’t be possible. Yet, from a storyline perspective, it made all the sense in the world.

It took over a year for him to fall into the side of his that fans yearned for, as he quickly chased the World Championship, to give the fans what they wanted – a heel, Cleaner-esque workrate god emperor. In doing so, in poetic artistic irony, he became a parody, a caricature of what he was trying to emulate. As a character, that’s what made his run compelling. 

Remember two paragraphs ago, when I spoke about the Alan Angels match? That would find its own payoff when Kenny squashed Sonny Kiss, then a full-time roster member. 

And he did it while his body practically begged for a massive break. Over the years in NJPW, AAA, and AEW, he incurred multiple injured body parts and a case of vertigo so bad that he had to learn to work around it to wrestle effectively. Day in and day out, he performed beyond human capabilities and limitations.

Yet, on some occasions, it wasn’t enough. 

Despite the strain on his body, he won the AEW World Championship from Jon Moxley, in a dirty fashion. What followed next was an unforgettable run. He was over-the-top in promos and explosive in the ring as he carried AEW out of the pandemic era and into the new environment of crowds as fans made their return en masse. The payoff? A story that spanned a few years with former Elite member “Hangman” Adam Page, completed with all the emotion and passion and impact that makes professional wrestling special.

To this day, sometimes I read the opinions of a vocal few who’ve stated that his AEW run still doesn’t serve their tastes as his work in Japan had, while others prefer his Western approach to pro wrestling storytelling more. Perhaps that’s just how things don’t account for personal tastes. Despite this, he’s beloved for the most part.

I don’t know what spurs such anger from those who strongly dislike Omega. Sure, there’s no pleasing everyone. There hardly ever is. Maybe it’s his daringness to challenge the norm of what was expected of professional wrestling for decades. Maybe, it’s bigotry. Maybe it’s both.

But his strongest critics feel he’s too effeminate or he tells stories in a way that disagrees with his non-fans. There’s an…interesting assessment. When detailed in constructive and helpful ways, it would be easy to see their points. Yet the loudest of these detractors delve into the pointless remarks that can veer into outright bigotry. I’m not going to go too deep into it for the sake of others, but I think it’s an odd thing that may drown out anything constructive.

Regardless of perception, Kenny Omega has shaped a lot of what modern professional wrestling is, without even trying. When I revisit his previous work, he doesn’t approach things from a business perspective, but from an artistic one. The emphasis, the emotion, the chemistry, and the precision are thought out carefully in each flourishing detail. 

Even the simplest of movements is like a small brush stroke that tells its own story within a painting.

Watching Kenny Omega is like viewing a Rorschach test. What we see in it is what we get in our subconscious bias. Maybe you prefer him silly or serious. Perhaps he’s endeared you by his love of animals and video games. Or his chill attitude. There’s no shortage of reasons to find Kenny Omega to be compelling. Even for hate-watchers. 

Ultimately, no matter how you perceive him, the visage of his cool gear, flowing blonde hair, and whatever facial expressions he’s showing dictate the image of Omega that will stir conversation. He’s not the only one to show versatility and flexibility – Toni Storm, Kurt Angle, Terry Funk, Shawn Michaels, Jon Moxley, and Bryan Danielson share that.

And that’s not to say that someone who works only in certain styles is bad. I’m a fan of the territory style that Cody Rhodes embodies while enjoying the vicious European strikes and holds of Gunther. Give me multi-man PWG madness or middle-aged Japanese wrestlers slapping the blood vessels out of each other’s chest. Really, I’m not hard to please as a fan. 

At the end of the day, Kenny Omega set out to make art and change the world. His matches against Kazuchika Okada, Kota Ibushi, Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, Adam Page, and Bryan Danielson solidify that. 

There’s been a verifiable domino effect to some of the things he’s done. Tag team storytelling gained a following. LGBT grew in fanbase and talent. Fans expanded past WWE and maybe Impact to find his work on Being the Elite and NJPW. Dave Meltzer broke his own rating scale (which Omega himself disagrees with). All Elite Wrestling was born and blossomed under him. WWE itself was inspired by a lot of what the industry was pivoting towards before and after its regime change. 

His work in the joshi wrestling scene helped put a spotlight on how far women’s wrestling can go thanks to his tag matches with Riho and bringing talents like her, Emi Sakura, and Hikaru Shida to AEW. Recently, Starlight Kid of Stardom asked: “Kenny Omega is watching, are you?” at Stardom American Dream 2024. While the advancements of women’s wrestling should be strongly attributed to, y’know, women, Women’s wrestling has made great strides thanks to women, but talents like Omega play a key role in shaping the next generation of wrestlers who will learn from him and his peers for years, maybe even decades to come.

With that, Kenny has seen what many forward-thinkers in the industry’s history had long since known: wrestling isn’t meant to fill just one box. Never has been. It’s going to be what you like and it’s going to be what you dislike, and it wears that unapologetically. That’s one of the many reasons the business has changed in the past decade. Breaking away from the mold creates a texture that you never thought you could feel before.

And yeah, sure, there are plenty of wrestlers who’ve helped in that change. From El Generico/Sami Zayn (they’re the same person, screw the bit), Kevin Owens, Cody Rhodes, Kota Ibushi, Kazuchika Okada, Adam Page, CM Punk, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks/Mercedes Mone. I could go on. 

But with Kenny Omega, he’s done a lot of things in a lot of different ways. I might not enjoy all of them, but I’ll definitely enjoy most of them. That’s what makes talents like him special, is that they give you something. He, whether intentionally or not, set out to do things a different way than the standard. It wasn’t about making money through talent; it was about showing what limits you could break with that talent.

I’d say that when it comes to changing the world from a professional wrestling perspective, Kenny Omega succeeded.  

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