Is it overstating things to say that the most important date of 2018 for a wrestling company is only four days into the new year? Maybe, but only slightly. That’s the unique position that New Japan Pro Wrestling finds itself in for Wrestle Kingdom 12 with the dream matchup of Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega.
If you’re like most people, there’s a strong chance you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. If you’re a pro wrestling fan, there’s still only a marginal chance you have any idea what I’m talking about. But, in the span of just a few days, that’s all very likely to change, and in a big way.
Let’s start with the basics. If you’re a wrestling fan, you know Chris Jericho.
Jericho became known to the United States crowd through his stint in WCW in the mid-to-late 90s. Then, after jumping ship to the WWE on August 9, 1999, Jericho became a superstar. Undoubtedly one of the biggest of his era.
So who the hell is Kenny Omega?
Kenny Omega is, hands down, the biggest wrestling star on the planet not in WWE. A Canadian, Omega has wrestled professionally since 2001, but has only truly become a superstar since joining New Japan in 2014. There, he joined the Bullet Club, the most successful heel stable currently operating in wrestling. This would be the same Bullet Club that now has shirts all over Raw and SmackDown television broadcasts. It’s also the same Bullet Club that Prince Devitt (now WWE’s Finn Balor) founded with Anderson and Gallows back in 2013 in New Japan.
As a member of the Bullet Club, Omega’s stock has soared. After A.J. Styles left the Bullet Club for the WWE, Omega became the natural leader. As such, in 2017, he put together one of the greatest years for any professional wrestler ever (detailed in part here). Using famed wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer’s star rating system, Omega wrestled in four, 5-star or greater matches. That’s in a single year. Most wrestlers are lucky to have one 5 star match ever. Shawn Michaels, for instance, had two in his entire professional career.
In other words, Omega’s one of the top performers in the business, and, arguably, the top performer. WWE fans could counter, rightly so, with A.J. Styles. To them I would say that A.J. was in the exact same position in New Japan as Omega and never had anywhere near the run that Kenny is having at this moment.
But for most people (and especially since WCW ended many moons ago), pro wrestling begins and ends with WWE. And that’s fair. But 2017 (and the years leading into it) signaled a shift for the wrestling business. Now, probably more than ever, independent wrestling is booming. Companies the world over are running successful promotions. This is especially true when it comes to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW for short).
In WWE parlance, New Japan’s WrestleMania is Wrestle Kingdom. This year, as with every year, Wrestle Kingdom is held on January 4th. Just four days into every new year, NJPW holds the biggest show of their calendar year. From January on, everything builds back towards next year’s Wrestle Kingdom.
This year, with Wrestle Kingdom 12 and Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, New Japan is set for the biggest show of their 45 year existence. These three separate but glorious things (Jericho, Omega, and Wrestle Kingdom) are coming together to, potentially, shape the next few years of professional wrestling.
Don’t believe me? I can assure you that Vince McMahon is paying attention. I’m sure it was merely a coincidence that McMahon finally put the OG Bullet Club (Balor, Gallows, and Anderson) back together on Raw this past Monday, right?
Before I get hate mail from WWE-only fans, I’m not suggesting New Japan is going to compete head-to-head with WWE in the United States. That would be silly.
Instead, I would argue that there will be more eyeballs on this Jericho-Omega match (both live and in the days that follow) to create a conversation about the state of professional wrestling in the United States. By proxy, that means talking about the WWE and its product.
In the current WWE, there are no superstars. Not really. There’s the brand – the shield. And no, I’m not talking about these guys:
The star of the WWE is the WWE itself. Characters are not allowed to stand above the product itself. They actually seem to have forgot how to build a superstar. The only wrestlers that could even be considered Superstars with a capital “S” are part-timer crossover stars like John Cena and Brock Lesnar.
A.J. Styles would be the exception to this, but he’s a star because of his career as a whole and because, try as they might, the WWE can’t bury that much talent. In other words, his star power has nothing to do with the WWE having him feud with Jinder Mahal.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: The nail that stands above the rest is the first one to get hit. That’s the current status of the WWE. The reality of the situation is this, though: If everyone’s a superstar, then no one is. If you don’t have truly vital characters asserting dominance and being *gasp* creative, you’ve got a product that is like mayo on saltines: Technically sustenance but ultimately bland and unsatisfying.
So how does Jericho-Omega play into this? Well, in the summer of 2017, New Japan ran their very first televised United States special, The G1 Special in the USA. This was televised on AXS TV (available on many cable systems, including Dish Network, which is how I watch), and commentated by the legendary Jim Ross, as are many other NJPW shows.
The G1 Special was held in Long Beach and drew a sellout crowd of roughly 5000 fans total over the two-night special. The action served as a quality appetizer to draw fans to the New Japan product. The only mistake was booking such a small venue. With crowds being turned away, they could have easily sold twice as many tickets to the event.
But New Japan appears to have learned their lesson, as they’re doing a sequel of sorts to the G1 Special called Strong Style Evolved on March 25th, also scheduled to be in Long Beach. This time, however, they’re selling out an arena that is, in fact, twice as big.
There’s also this: Kenny Omega and his Bullet Club stablemates The Young Bucks (brothers Matt & Nick Jackson) have pulled off the enviable coup of creating a merchandising behemoth. After signing a deal with Hot Topic back in April, the trio that calls themselves “The Elite” (a subgroup inside the Bullet Club) has made themselves millionaires.
Now, it’s impossible to go to any wrestling show anywhere in the United States and not see some form of a Bullet Club shirt. Hot Topic now sells over 40(!) different New Japan-related items. These guys are printing money. If you’ve been living under a rock, here’s the basic Bullet Club design:
Having made enough money off t-shirts, the Young Bucks (along with former WWE and current NJPW star Cody Rhodes) have even decided to self-finance a 10,000 seat arena show at some point in 2018, and it’s seeming likely that that’ll sell out as well.
Wrestlers like Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks have now created a sort of Access Economy, not unlike Uber and Airbnb. They are bringing wrestling, merchandise, and online content (their “Being the Elite” YouTube channel with 160,000 subscribers) to the people, all without the considerable machine of the WWE. It’s basically a grassroots wrestling campaign.
That’s the rub here. Jericho-Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 12 will serve as a window to the world of wrestling outside of WWE for many fans. It’s (probably) not going to be a 6-star classic like Omega’s battles with Kazuchika Okada or Tetsuya Naito. Jericho is 47 years old and, while still a capable performer, well past his prime years. That’s why the match has been made a no disqualification match, a style of match that’s very unusual for New Japan. The violence of the match, which has been teased heavily in promos by both Omega and Jericho, will help cover up some of the Jericho’s physical limitations.
That said, the quality of the match almost doesn’t even matter at this point. The promotion for the event has guaranteed that they’ll receive more eyeballs than usual. Even if the casual WWE fan doesn’t tune in, they will have at least heard of the match at this point. That’s more than can be said about past Wrestle Kingdom cards, great as they’ve been.
At the end of the day, this match will prove, at the very least, one thing: Wrestlers no longer need the WWE to have a successful career. There is money to be made all over the world if you’re creative enough. You don’t have to sign with the WWE and be forced to trade wins with Elias or Jason Jordan or Jinder Mahal. You can rise up, stand out, and get paid.
If wrestling fans begin to see that, the WWE will begin to see that, and, as hard-headed as Vince McMahon can be, there’s two things that he cares about: Money and winning. Eventually, if Kenny Omega and New Japan are successful enough, he’ll be forced to pay attention and realize that the way to make money isn’t to make everyone good. It’s to make a few people, the right people, truly great. One way or another, whether the product comes from WWE or elsewhere, wrestling fans are about to win again very soon.
Watch Chris Jericho take on Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 12 on January 4th. You can stream that match and the rest of the card on New Japan World.