In sports, it’s commonplace for a coveted free agent to send a fanbase into a frenzy. The summer of 2010 had NBA fans from coast to coast wondering what city LeBron James would be taking his otherworldly talents. Kevin Durant broke millions of hearts with an essay on The Players’ Tribune on July 4, 2016. Last winter, NFL front offices were pitching Tom Brady to make their team an instant Super Bowl contender.
In pro wrestling, these moments are few and far between, but in 2018, as Kenny Omega’s contract ran out with New Japan Pro Wrestling, arguably the greatest in-ring performer of a generation was looking for a new home.
Although rumors swirled about his future, Omega was on the cusp of signing a long-term deal with All Elite Wrestling, a startup founded by Tony Khan and one where his friends Matt Jackson, Nick Jackson and Cody Rhodes served as executive vice presidents. Evidenced by his dual roles as a performer and EVP himself, Omega wasn’t simply looking for a new company, he was in search of a new challenge and to bring a new culture to the professional wrestling industry.
“One of the coolest things being a part of AEW is that not only did I undertake this new project with these new responsibilities and challenges that I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing,” Omega told Yahoo Sports. “I was working with this team of my absolute best friends in wrestling who I knew were talented, who I knew were competent, who I knew could do these big things if given a chance.”
No introduction needed
Although he was coming in as a world-renowned performer, Omega would essentially find himself out of the AEW championship picture as the company kicked off its television deal with TNT in fall 2019. Putting AEW’s top belt on Omega would have certainly made sense from a business standpoint in the short term, but Omega and the rest of the executive team had a different plan for their new promotion.
“For me, I was lucky where we had a fan base where people were a little familiar with my background and what I had done in New Japan and otherwise,” Omega said. “I’ve always been very confident in my ability to do whatever needs to be done in the world of pro wrestling, whether it be in the ring or some other means of storytelling.
“The last thing I wanted to do was to monopolize the upper echelon of AEW and then when it’s my time to step down there’s no one there ready to take the mantle, even though we have the talent that is more than capable to do so. Year one and change, I just really hope that we got to know some of the very talented people we have on our roster. Had we had not done that, I would have thought for sure I would have failed as someone with a vision to show just how great our pro wrestling is.”
As AEW continued to gain ground in an industry that has been dominated by Vince McMahon’s WWE for two decades, Rhodes and the Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) joined Omega in distancing themselves from championships, at least initially.
Overall, the four EVPs were decidedly more focused on a culture shift surrounding their promotion versus simply putting themselves over.
“You see that when you’re right on the inside — especially since it’s an entertainment industry — that people who have a lot of power in the industry are also doing something in front of the camera in the industry,” Omega said. “You start to see that sometimes people have ulterior motives. It’s very tough to be aligned with everyone and follow one vision, one goal. The Young Bucks and myself, we have built our entire careers by being selfless people and willing to help others. It’s really been so rewarding for us as athletes, to see the best wrestlers in the world and find out who the good people are in professional wrestling. I think that’s a reason why AEW comes across as something very different than what we’ve seen in the wrestling business for quite some time.”
Amid tragedy, Omega’s leadership shines
All in all, AEW’s approach was working. The promotion was going toe-to-toe with WWE on cable television on Wednesday nights, selling out arenas on a weekly basis and had even signed an extension with Warner through 2023 and was planning to add another show to its schedule.
Even as the global COVID-19 pandemic halted travel, AEW utilized Daily’s Place, an open-air arena next to TIAA Bank Field, where Khan’s Jaguars play, to keep producing television shows. AEW was beginning to feel like it was hitting its stride as a wrestling company as it expanded its offerings to include action figures and eventually a video game — something Omega, an avid gamer, is working on very closely from a creative standpoint.
With fans back in the arena, socially distanced, and Omega in the midst of a heel turn, the time was right to put the AEW heavyweight championship on Omega. It was a moment AEW fans had envisioned and waited for for nearly two years.
As things appeared to be firing on all cylinders, tragedy struck and Jon Huber, known as Brodie Lee to the wrestling community, suddenly passed away last December. AEW and Omega, as a leader both on and off screen, were thrown into uncharted waters.
“A lot of times you look for ways to help someone when you’re in a position of power in a wrestling company,” Omega said. “That would equate to giving someone a match, booking, segment. We thought real life had hit us hard with the COVID situation, but as a company I felt that we had made lemonade out of lemons. I don’t want to say that we felt untouchable or invincible, but I had felt that no matter what was thrown our way, we were able to deal with it. To just have a situation where we had someone who became very ill out of nowhere and they didn’t know how to fix it or what they could do, you just feel so powerless.”
As the company and wrestling industry as a whole mourned, AEW opted to set aside all of its storylines and feuds for one night to celebrate Huber’s life. As powerless as Omega felt in the moment, it was a night that was oddly cathartic, allowing Huber’s peers to honor him while also giving his son, known in AEW as “Negative 1,” the chance to live out part of his dream.
“If there’s one positive thing to take out of it, it’s that everyone in the company really valued this man’s life and who he was as a person,” Omega said. “There was no person that ever once questioned our tribute show. We all wanted to celebrate his life. We all knew and preferred to put storylines, gimmicks, angles aside at least for a night and really celebrate a member of our family. I’m glad we took the time to open the floor for everyone to have that moment to perform for him and his family.”
A true mission statement, not just another cliché
Helping to put on the Brodie Lee tribute show is just one example of how Omega approaches his place in AEW and pro wrestling. The reality is, if Omega had decided to walk away from the industry instead of joining AEW, he still would have gone down as one of the greatest performers in history.
“My mission statement has always sort of been “Change the world.” A lot of people ask me what that means or if I’m just saying it because it sounds nice,” Omega admitted. “To be honest, I’ve just always sort of felt that I had accomplished all of my goals in professional wrestling a long time ago. There wasn’t much more for me to do as an active professional wrestler. After winning the IWGP heavyweight championship, what was left for me? I needed something bigger than me, bigger than what I had been doing.”
That motivation is part of why Omega has taken on such a large role in helping usher along AEW’s women’s division. Women’s wrestling has undergone an industry-wide transformation over the past decade, with fans shifting their focus on the technical talent and storytelling ability of the athletes they are watching as opposed to strictly looks.
Although strides have been made, there are still many difficulties that face both the athletes and the creative forces behind them, something Omega is seeing first-hand.
“It’s always been challenging because you always have so many talented women, and as talented as they are, there’s always going to be this very small window of time to tell stories with,” Omega said. “I truly believe to this day that women deserve more time, deserve their own show, center stage — I would love at some point as time goes by and more AEW content becomes available, that is the ultimate goal.
“Until then, we have to take those baby steps and every one of them has to be a home run. No matter what I do in wrestling or video games or side projects that I undertake, my main goal is to help women’s wrestling to get that chance in AEW and show how talented and hungry they are.”
As he balances all of his duties with AEW, Omega has been working with two other wrestling promotions as well. Omega is currently the heavyweight champion in Lucha Libre AAA Wrestling, a Mexican promotion, and has worked alongside former NJPW colleagues Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson in IMPACT! Wrestling, appearing weekly and most recently working on their “Hard to Kill” pay-per-view event.
While most traditional wrestling contracts have been promotion-exclusive, Omega views the cross-branding as an opportunity to overhaul the mindset of some fans of the medium and, in a way, be a uniting figure for all.
“I noticed how much wrestling promotions and fan bases had been so divided over the years and a lot of people liked to take sides,” Omega said. “I understand there’s joy in that, it’s like picking a winning team or cheering for your favorite sports team, I get that. The only difference is that we’re not playing in the same league, so when you’re cheering for someone’s failure, you’re cheering to put them out of business, to have people not be able to put food on the table or pay their bills.
“I understand why people want to do that in professional wrestling because it’s maybe one of the only ways to cheer for something that has a scripted outcome. Why not try to put everyone on the same playing field then. If we’re all united in some way then someone’s success can be everyone’s gain, someone’s loss can still be everyone’s gain and the fans can still have fun cheering for one side over the other.”
Omega recognizes that his outlook seems extremely difficult and sounds like the “pinnacle of naivety,” but for someone who has accomplished nearly every feat there is in his industry, the only thing that’s left is for him to try.
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