Wrestling’s butterfly effect moment of 2019 has happened only seven days into the year.
Kenny Omega announced in Tokyo Sports that he will be leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling when his contract expires on January 31st. The move raises questions about not only the future of the man that has drawn more international eyeballs to New Japan than anyone else, but of the company he appears to be departing, and the future landscape of four of the biggest wrestling promotions in the world.
So many of the ramifications of the move are to be determined, and with more moving parts than sands in an hourglass, all changing by the minute, the wrestling world is destined to look radically different on December 31st, 2019 than it does today. With the knowledge that Omega’s deal was coming up and the announcement of All Elite Wrestling, financed by Tony Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC, it was no surprise that Omega was going to be the subject of interesting negotiations. He has been the single most talked about wrestler outside of WWE in years, and with his obvious value, WWE wants him. New Japan got behind him full bore in 2018, giving him the IWGP Heavyweight Title over Kazuchika Okada at the peak of his powers. At the same time, he has been an integral part of the Elite’s expansion from self-promoters to promoters, and is as critical a piece of talent for Khan’s operation than anybody. Now, at crunch time, the cards are slowly starting to be revealed with subtext as much as bold proclamations.
The crux of the issue lies with New Japan’s decision, as reported by Dave Meltzer on Wrestling Observer Radio, to maintain ties with its American business partner, ROH, rather than align with Cody and The Young Bucks. This may, upon further reflection, be the key to Omega’s announcement in Tokyo Sports.
Fans may recall the closing scenes live at All In, after the event went off the air, where Cody, the Bucks and Kenny Omega stood in the centre of the ring vowing that whatever their next move was, they were all sticking together.
It bears repeating that Kenny is a unique case, an individual for whom personal satisfaction, friendship and loyalty overrule the almighty dollar. To this writer, WWE is, remarkably, the least likely option for Omega, despite what is surely an incredible offer on paper. Unless Omega is wavering from an offer too good for anybody to turn down from WWE, an offer that would pull him away from the land and people he’s closest to, Kenny will be joining his allies on the start-up project, and forsaking his incredible standing in New Japan to do so. The closing moments of today’s “Being The Elite”, the camera zooming in on Kenny Omega’s phone ticking ominously, exactly as it did for Cody, Hangman Page and The Young Bucks, suggests he’s being true to his All In sentiments.
Prior to Wrestle Kingdom, there were whispers and hints that Kenny Omega’s main event match with Hiroshi Tanahashi would be his farewell, at least for now. As soon as Jay White pinned Kazuchika Okada at Wrestle Kingdom, the gut instinct was that White’s landmark win was a compensatory measure for an impending departure. It appears that gut instinct is correct. You almost have to question New Japan’s feelings about Kenny’s decision, with no farewell given whatsoever. Perhaps after giving him the keys to the kingdom, making the decision to forgo the company alliances to join his Elite comrades wasn’t met with the highest regard.
But on the surface, this looks to be a move that benefits nobody. The ideal scenario was a joint contract between All Elite and New Japan that allowed Kenny to work everybody’s big shows and reap the benefits of his talent and following. It is unlikely that Omega’s wish was to necessarily leave New Japan given his affinity for the country and the company, but their stance on AEW ultimately forces his hand to make a decision between two sides. His comments in Tokyo Sports, hinting at wanting to wrestle Tanahashi again, echoes that. By opting to leave New Japan, the decision looks to be made. Making such a move for WWE seems far less likely for somebody of Kenny’s reported disposition than making the move for his friends.
And what of Kota Ibushi? A man that just so happens to be among the most talented wrestlers alive and is extremely close to Kenny Omega? He may end up left behind, or he, as free-spirited as he is in his own right, may follow. Given the legitimate connection between the two, the smart money says Kota goes All Elite as well.
For New Japan, the loss of the Elite faction, Omega and potentially Ibushi in particular, is devastating, a huge void that isn’t easily filled. While similar feelings arose three years ago when AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows left, there was enough depth in the promotion to fill those spots and then some. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. But if New Japan’s belief is that Switchblade is going to fill the gap at the top, they are sadly mistaken. As improved as Jay White is, there is a missing intangible with him that you can’t book out of thin air. Maybe in time it will develop. But right now, White is surrounded by charismatic superstars whistling stranger in paradise. Taichi as a challenger for Tetsuya Naito’s Intercontinental Title doesn’t relieve concerns about depth either.
Will Ospreay and Juice Robinson are two obvious beneficiaries with Omega gone, vying for the top foreign star position that, barring injury, feels like Ospreay’s for the taking. Whether the expected focus on the next crop injects a new life in the promotion is to be determined, but this is easily the biggest test for Gedo’s booking in years.
Similarly, AEW without access to New Japan and ROH’s talent pool to draw from is left with a great core nucleus and little else obvious to the naked eye. One of the underrated aspects of the success of All In was how necessary collaboration was with others, notably New Japan, Impact and ROH. Without good timing and huge expenditures, AEW’s roster will be a cobbled collection of whoever is left. With so much talent out there, maybe that will still be enough. Maybe. But gambling so much on a maybe, given the track record of start-up promotions in the last eighteen years, is a risky proposition.
Which begs the question of why not go the extra mile to make the New Japan/AEW deal happen for Kenny? This move by New Japan clearly establishes that AEW and ROH are on opposite sides of the fence, but why the threat? The only answer is that exclusivity on talent is important to All Elite. Meaning they’re going, quite literally, all in as promoters, and not doing this company by halves.
So what is the scope of AEW, something that could pose such a threat as to break strong ties like this? The impending television deal, with apparently multiple suitors (and reportedly good ones), has to be equal or beyond ROH’s to be considered a threat. Clearly that’s the belief, in which case ROH is right to show concern – while AEW’s goal should be to reach the biggest audience possible, the lifeblood of wrestling in North America for the last few years has been the die-hard niche wrestling fan. There comes a point where people will make choices where to spend their money, a choice ROH doesn’t want fans to make.
Meanwhile, WWE is going back into competition mode. With endless free cash on hand, they’ve had interest in Juice Robinson (which went nowhere) and scooped KUSHIDA from New Japan. The loss of KUSHIDA adds another major blow to the company depth, a guy who has been an absolute cornerstone for the last five years in the Junior division. While never as charismatic as a Hiromu Takahashi, or as spectacular as an Ospreay or Ricochet, KUSHIDA has been one of the most underrated wrestlers in the world for some time. His expected signing is another of the moves McMahon has been making since 1983 – a hire that does more damage to the opponent than it does benefit for his company.
With the scene perking up in North America, McMahon has been stockpiling talent for over a year, but it’s only going to intensify if a television battle of any kind comes to pass. The money spent on talent will rise, and for the first time in years, all signs are that professional wrestling is going to get a serious injection of adrenaline in terms of behind the scenes movement. In front of the camera, however, the benefit may not be felt, unless the people behind the promotions, with so much on the line, are able to use their reduced talent rosters in such a way to captivate the imaginations of the masses.
But as the butterfly began to flutter to the left, it does so with all the signs appearing to point to something incomprehensible as recently as a year ago – A new American promotion with major money, a big television deal and Kenny Omega as the top star, going balls out to compete. If those things really are all in place, 2019 may be the most important year for professional wrestling in North America since 1996.