On Jan. 4, 2017, as part of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom 11, Kyle O’Reilly ended his Ring of Honor tenure in a match against former partner and eternal rival, Adam Cole. The action was crisp and brutal. The damage dealt felt shockingly real. It was the kind of performance that made you understand how O’Reilly earned the nickname, “The Violent Artist.”
The majority of the match played out as an homage to O’Reilly and Cole’s eerily similar careers. It’s a series of eye-for-an-eye exchanges, culminating in a succession of mirrored pump kicks that send both men to the canvas, exhausted. But from that point on, Cole seems to dominate, with very little offense from O’Reilly for the final two-and-a-half minutes. Cole eventually gets the win and the ROH Championship, which he had previously lost to O’Reilly only one month prior. O’Reilly goes into the history books as having the shortest championship reign in Ring of Honor history.
In a vacuum, the outcome was a shocker. But in the days leading up to the match, industry dirt sheets revealed that O’Reilly’s contract with ROH had expired. And so Cole’s victory was inevitable: Instead of resigning with Ring of Honor, O’Reilly was going to test the unknown world of free-agency.
“The future for me right now is a little uncertain,” O’Reilly said. “You know, in wrestling, you never say never and you never get your hopes up too much. Things can happen in this industry that are unexpected.”
O’Reilly had mixed feelings about what could be his final Tokyo Dome appearance. It was the first time he would not wrestle in the Dome with his tag team partner Bobby Fish since debuting for New Japan in 2014. As reDRagon, O’Reilly and Fish are two-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, and won the Super Junior Tag Tournament in their first year, wrestling as ROH representatives.
In the video from that match, you can see O’Reilly mouth to the camera, “this is for Bobby Fish.” It was a bittersweet moment for the former champion.
“I was kind of heartbroken that he couldn’t be there with me,” O’Reilly said. “But getting to work with Adam Cole, who is another very close friend and probably the best opponent of my career, and someone I’ve had so many matches with as a tag team, that made that match extra special.”
Since then, O’Reilly was able to return to his family home in Vancouver and, in an unannounced appearance on Jan. 14, capture the local Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling title as a surprise opponent in the promotion’s marquee event.
He would go on to wrestle all over the world, but for O’Reilly, ECCW was where it all started. He graduated from the promotion’s wrestling school in 2006, part of an impressive cohort of ECCW grads that included 205 Live’s The Bollywood Boys, SHIMMER mainstay Nicole Matthews and El Phantasmo, the man O’Reilly defeated for the ECCW title and who he says “should be on every major promotion’s radar.”
“There’s certain classes that come around in wrestling where it seems like guys start together, grow in the indies together, start getting booked in bigger companies together, and eventually find the main stage together,” O’Reilly said.
The secret to that group’s success?
“It’s just a group of people that encourage each other, and that creates an environment where everyone is willing to learn. There are no egos or backstabbing, it’s genuinely good friends that just love wrestling. [When we started] we were all helping each other strive and helping the company grow.”
Most pundits believe O’Reilly is likely NXT-bound, although nothing has been officially announced. With a new, potentially PG employer on Kyle’s horizon, one has to wonder if he worries about his hard-hitting, MMA style being tampered with. But O’Reilly says he prides himself on his adaptability and coachability.
“I’m a company guy. I’m happy to do whatever the promoter asks me to do. That’s just the nature of the business,” O’Reilly said, diplomatically. “That said, I’m hoping I can just continue to try and create pro-wrestling like how I enjoy pro-wrestling, and that’s the most believable combat exhibition that I can possibly create.”
The day after Wrestle Kingdom, Kyle performed at NJPW’s New Year Dash. He was part of a light-hearted multi-man tag on the undercard alongside a mishmash of NJPW legends and “young lions.” After the match he can be seen conspicuously thanking the crowd and soaking in his Korakuen Hall surroundings, as if aware he would not be back anytime soon. So what’s next for the wrestler KUSHIDA called the “best wrestler in the world?”
“I’ve always just wanted to create art, so I’m going to do my best to just keep doing that,” O’Reilly said. “I’m just going to keep trying to be the best professional wrestler I can possibly be, no matter where I end up, with whatever company, and just hope for a successful and healthy 2017.”