How Winnipeg’s Kenny Omega became the biggest wrestling star that most Canadians never heard of

In the early 2000s, you might have been one of the few to see Kenny Omega wrestling in a ring set up in a Winnipeg bar, to an audience of dozens.

Fast forward to this Wednesday night, and he’ll be headlining AEW: Dynamite, the flagship show of U.S.-based All Elite Wrestling, in front of thousands of fans there in his hometown. 

“It’s cool to have a televised wrestling product come back to Winnipeg, and have people that are about to watch what we do live, and on a grand scale, at the arena. So I’m very excited. It’s very cool,” he told Front Burner’s Jayme Poisson.

Omega was one of AEW’s foundational performers when it was formed in 2019 with the backing of American billionaire Tony Khan.

This will be the first time he wrestles at Dynamite in front of a Canadian crowd. But when asked about this homecoming, Omega is quick to praise other Winnipeggers who made a name for themselves in the ring, which include one of his opponents tonight, Chris Jericho.

“Winnipeg is actually a very deep and rich wrestling culture. There’s a lot of great stars that are from Winnipeg … that are going to go down in the history books as legends in the business,” he said.

“I think it’s really important for us to embrace our Winnipeg wrestling culture. We love our hockey. We love our curling. Let’s love our wrestling, too.”

Three flamboyantly dressed pro wrestlers pose in front of the crowd.
Matt Jackson, Omega and Nick Jackson, left to right, collectively known as The Elite, make their entrance at an All Elite Wrestling show. (All Elite Wrestling)

Beyond a short stint in its developmental sub-leagues, Omega — real name Tyson Smith — has never competed for World Wrestling Entertainment, the undisputed champion of pro wrestling in North America. 

He built his reputation in untelevised shows in smaller U.S.-based wrestling shows and later becoming a megastar in Japan, he was virtually unknown in Canada until recently.

“I think a generation of fans missed out on seeing Kenny Omega,” said Steve Arginteau, a wrestling reporter, photographer and occasional announcer based in Toronto.

While fans of the WWE have long known performers from Canada including Jericho, Bret and Owen Hart and more recently Sami Zayn, “we could have been talking in the same vein about Kenny Omega,” he said.

Like many Canadians, Omega grew up loving hockey, and played in minor local leagues as a young teen. But he also grew up loving pro wrestling, watching tapes that his father recorded on VHS because it aired past his bedtime.

Eventually, he said he fell more in love with the “amalgamation” of athletics and performative theatre that professional wrestling offered, over purely competitive sports.

His own ‘master and commander’

After working the independent circuits in Winnipeg and the surrounding area, Omega got a tryout for one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) developmental leagues. But he left within a year, never appearing on WWE television.

The WWE’s production style, which employs a large writer’s room and uses storylines that are often criticized for being formulaic and familiar, didn’t suit Omega at the time, he said.

Instead he was drawn to the different styles of wrestling offered around the world: the acrobatic, high-flying lucha libre style of Mexico, and the hard-hitting “strong style” in Japan.

“I just wanted to be my own master and commander,” he said. “What I wanted to do was I wanted to make my stories more relatable. I wanted to tell human stories.”

His most storied run was with the Tokyo-based New Japan Pro-Wrestling in the 2010s, where he won multiple championships and became one of the company’s most popular Western stars ever.

“His resumé in Japan is certainly the greatest of any foreigner in the last 20 years and among the greatest of all time,” said longtime wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer.

Meltzer, who gives star ratings to matches at nearly every major wrestling show, awarded Omega’s June 2018 match with Kazuchika Okada his highest rating ever — seven stars, out of a scale that typically tops out at five. That puts it, according to Meltzer, in the conversation for the best wrestling matches of all time. 

“It’s the best match I’ve ever seen. Yeah, I’d say that,” Meltzer said of the gruelling physical contest that lasted more than 64 minutes.

“I’ve seen a bunch of 60-minute matches. I don’t know how many wrestlers would be capable of cutting that kind of pace for 60 minutes that he does,” Trevor Dame, wrestling columnist and podcaster, said from Kelowna, B.C.

At the same time, Omega became known for his versatility, competing in so-called “death matches” filled with steel chairs, barbed wire and blood; but also comedy matches against a blow-up doll in one instance, and a nine-year-old girl in another. 

LGBT-friendly storylines

That same versatility shines through in his characters’ many story arcs, whether he’s a cackling super villain or a sympathetic hero fighting against better sense through nagging injuries.

“He’s one of these guys that really has a very definite artistic vision for what he does,” said Dame.

Perhaps his most-praised saga took place over several years, with his rival-turned-partner, Japanese wrestler Kota Ibushi. As rivals, they brutalized each other in the ring with bodyslams and forearm shots to the throat.

Eventually they reconciled with an in-ring embrace, and wrestled together as a tag team with the name the Golden Lovers.

It’s a far cry from other stories about gay or gay-presenting wrestlers who were treated as “a punchline” or “bad comedy,” said Omega.

“I wanted to tell a story that whether you were straight, whether you’re gay, whether you are, you know, X, Y or Z didn’t matter. You could look at this story and you could appreciate the love between two individuals, the hardships of being in a competitive business, struggling together, struggling apart, [and] the power that they have when they’re focused together as a team.”

Rumours of move to WWE

As for the weeks and months ahead, speculation has been running wild in some online circles that Omega’s contract with AEW might be nearing its end in the next year or so. Some commentators have pondered whether he might consider jumping to the WWE.

For now, he’s a linchpin of the upstart AEW company, which owes its very existence in part to a 2017 match in Japan between Omega and Jericho.

“If it was not for Kenny Omega, there would be no All Elite Wrestling,” Meltzer stated definitively.

A wrestler wearing tights looks at the camera.
Omega eyes his opponent during a match for All Elite Wrestling. (All Elite Wrestling)

Omega hasn’t directly answered the many questions about his wrestling future; but neither has he closed any doors.

“I always kind of try to find my own way, or at least try to lean in the direction of where my heart is pulling me,” he said.

“I haven’t had that sort of epiphany yet.”

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