When Kenny Omega, the Winnipeg native that spent much of his formative years under the DDT banner in Japan, defeated Okada to capture the IWGP Heavyweight championship in June 2018, it was the culmination of a series that began a year and a half earlier. The epic Okada-Omega showdown that brought an entirely new spotlight to Kenny Omega at the Tokyo Dome at Wrestle Kingdom in 2017 was the beginning of a four-match series that saw the two stellar athletes trade victories as well as wrestle to a 60-minute draw during the 18-month span of their rivalry in New Japan. When Omega finally claimed the belt in an exhausting 2-out-of-3 falls bout last June, he cemented himself as one of the biggest stars around the globe as one of the few foreigners to win the championship in the extensive history of NJPW.
While the win could’ve been the start of his status as the top performer in Japan, his claim to the title was actually the beginning of the end of his New Japan career. At the same time that The Bullet Club boosted the New Japan profile internationally, the stable used their social media presence to establish themselves as legitimate money-drawing stars in the United States outside of the WWE banner, something that is rarely seen because of the sport entertainment empire’s dominate share of the market of the industry in America. As Cody, The Young Bucks, Omega, and Adam Page used the Japanese platform to further establish themselves, they took that buzz and became a major draw for Ring Of Honor, which allowed them to expand their popularity in the domestic market as well. Their tremendous in-ring ability and social media popularity allowed them to gain a major following among the audience. That core group tested the waters last September, running their own independent show, All In on pay-per-view, which sold out the 10,000 venue in Chicago in 15 minutes. The live attendance put it among the biggest draws in America for a non-WWE event in the past two decades. The pay-per-view buy rate of roughly 100,000 also put it among the biggest non-WWE shows of that time span. Clearly, the Elite had something that garnered a demand and drew money in the process. The success of All In was pivotal to the series of events that unfolded after it and set the stage for much of the current wrestling landscape. Tony Khan was impressed and agreed to launch the professional wrestling company, which was announced at the start of this year. For the first time since the Attitude Era, there was a group with the buzz and the funding to potentially establish itself as a national competitor to Vince McMahon. Obviously, how that develops remains to be seen, but it undoubtedly had a ripple effect of the rest of the industry.
Through the association of the Bullet club and Elite stable, Omega was linked to The Young Bucks, but would the IWGP champion depart from a prominent spot in one of the biggest promotion in the world for an upstart group in America?
Ultimately, Omega chose to follow his Elite stablemates and signed a deal with AEW and was also named one of the vice presidents of the organization. Leaving New Japan saw him drop the IWGP belt to the legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi at this year’s Tokyo Dome event. Jay White briefly won the title in February for a short reign before he was defeated by Okada. For a run that had over a year and a half of build up behind it, Omega’s six-month stint as champion was somewhat underwhelming. While his matches were always solid, the relatively short run didn’t really give him the stage for memorable title defenses that could define his time as champion. Perhaps, New Japan brass saw his possible exit and didn’t want to invest too much into him if he was leaving, which makes sense. Either way, while his run in New Japan took his career to a completely different level, it almost seemed like he had more to do there prior to his AEW deal. Since he left, there was speculation that management wasn’t happy about his decision and there were rumored plans about his role in the expansion into the US, which was seen recently with the American subsidiary company. Make no mistake about it, when Kenny Omega inked an All Elite contract, New Japan had one of their biggest stars leave the organization.
A similar situation occurred for Ring Of Honor when Cody, The Young Bucks, and Adam Page, some of the league’s most popular acts, didn’t re-sign because of the formation of AEW. Since the Elite departure, ROH saw a dip on basically every level and the Kelly Klein controversy a few weeks ago prompted questions about the stability of the organization. Despite the solid roster, ROH appears to still be on shaky ground, even though the Sinclair-owned group could’ve theoretically offered the Elite stable the money to sign a new deal, which would’ve prevented the launch of AEW. Keep in mind, Sinclair Broadcasting is worth a few hundred million dollars so the question is not about its revenue to keep ROH competitive, but rather how much they want to invest in the wrestling company.
One of the many aspects that made the previously mentioned All In event standout was that it booked stars from several different companies on the same card, which was possible because of the independent status of the show. A few of the many great bouts on the show included Okada/Scurll and Omega/Pentagon. Naturally, when AEW was an official project, questions surfaced about potential working agreements that might book matches not thought possible before, which was the basis of Chris Jericho’s initial New Japan run last year.
However, the discontent about Omega’s exit as well as New Japan’s partnership with ROH, including this past April’s Madison Square Garden event appeared to be potential roadblocks for any type of AEW/NJPW collaboration. In truth, Omega probably made the correct decision to leave New Japan because even as one of the top stars there, Okada was rightfully still going to remain the top priority for the company. At 32, Okada is in the prime of his career and the company invested several years in him to allow for him to get a run as the top draw for them while he delivers consistently solid matches. Hypothetically, even if Omega was the foundation of the American subsidiary, it will still be second to Okada because New Japan must focus of the domestic market as the first priority from a business prospective. Plus, the New Japan schedule and style can be grueling, especially with the addition of more events through the American group so it’s possible that AEW was a better option for him to add years to his career.
In a recent interview with Fox Sports, Harold Meij, the CEO of New Japan, mentioned that the Japanese league would consider working with AEW if it could be beneficial to both brands. With the New Japan subsidiary in the US, that could theoretically be seen as competition to Ring Of Honor’s live schedule so that might effect the status of their working agreement next year. If there’s not a continued NJPW/ROH deal, it might bring the All Elite option to the table. As far as mutually beneficial, booking Okada for an AEW pay-per-view match could be a unique selling point, which is needed for a show with a $50 price tag in an era when the WWE Network offers thousands of hours of content for $10 a month. At the same time, a Kenny Omega return to New Japan could help boost their business for specific events as well. If it’s done right on a limited basis, the two groups could exchange talent in a way that doesn’t conflict with their respective live event schedule. I would say that the best decision would be for the two sides to agree to a deal, as the New Japan talent could help AEW get off the ground in the United States while the return of former NJPW stars could help add depth to the Japanese events to boost ticket sales. Ironically, Chris Jericho is scheduled to work at the Tokyo Dome this year in a match with the previously mentioned Tanahashi so that might a way for a deal to be discussed. Either way, the next few months could prove to be extremely interesting if AEW could bring New Japan talent to the company, especially for the AEW/NXT ratings competition.
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