As Kenny Omega hurtles forward through this year’s G1 Climax, destined to wrestle Kazuchika Okada for a third time this year and, if the dice fall the right way, Kota Ibushi, it’s important to reflect on what his success in New Japan—and the success of wrestlers like him who, for whatever reason, have not darkened the doors of World Wrestling Entertainment (or only did so for a cup of coffee)—means for the future of professional wrestling.
As a fan who has been watching wrestling since I was four, I’ve heard it said on more than one occasion that the only real measure of a wrestler’s success (particularly an American or Canadian wrestler) is whether or not he can hack it in WWE. It’s a question that’s been asked of every major non-WWE wrestler since it was clear that WWE was not only going to win the Monday Night War, but that they were essentially going to be the only game in town. Three years ago, calling Wrestle Kingdom 9, Jim Ross openly espoused the idea that wrestlers like Okada and Shinsuke Nakamura were can’t-miss prospects for his former employer. Reports that William Regal or Dave Finlay or some other WWE scout are at PWG’s annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament happen every year and, as such, you can almost see the clock ticking on indie workers who are known quantities. Adam Cole’s recent run as Ring of Honor Champion and Johnny Come Lately member of the Bullet Club was less about that championship than the question of how well he’d do in WWE, how much time he’d spend spinning his wheels in NXT, how a Raw crowd would react to his eventual debut, how well he’d do in front of the less enthusiastic crowds of the great plains or Corpus Christi, Texas.
Are these things fun to think about? If you’re a certain kind of person, I imagine so. Is “making it” in WWE a goal for a lot of wrestlers? Absolutely. As WWE has used their NXT brand as a vehicle to train their green prospects in an atmosphere not unlike the super indie vibes of ROH circa 2005 or the PWG of today, I’ve seen a lot of people who I’ve known as a fan or an announcer happily sign WWE contracts that, years ago, seemed impossible. That Johnny Gargano or Ruby Riot or Asuka are the type of people that WWE wants on their roster was unthinkable and, in a lot of ways, it’s evidence that the larger business of wrestling is moving forward to embrace wrestling as a kind of art.
What’s persisted, as evidenced by Ross being paid to call New Japan events and essentially acting as a talent scout, is the myth of WWE being the Only Place that Matters, an idea the company has stood for since Vincent K. McMahon began expanding the company, and one that they really started flogging in 2001, beginning with McMahon staging a public firing of Jeff Jarrett on the last telecast of Nitro, a wrestler whose contract was with AOL/Time Warner and thus beyond McMahon’s jurisdiction.
It’s easy to believe in WWE as the only company in wrestling that matters, especially when they can go to countries like Mexico and Japan and sign top stars away like it’s no big deal. This is where wrestlers like Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks are beginning to change things. While more men and women are making a full-time living working on the independent scene or touring other countries, the three men at the center of the Bullet Club have done so while breaking the media’s perception of WWE as the only game in town. Indie wrestlers can get coverage if they’re lucky or have a gimmick that’s zeitgeisty, but there’s always a little piece in those articles about that wrestler’s desire to work for WWE. Omega is different. The Young Bucks are different. As the health and vitality of independent wrestling and the global wrestling market continues to trend towards growth, Kenny Omega is written about as if he’s on par with Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and other WWE Superstars the company is grooming to carry it into the future.
That, ultimately, is a good thing. Despite decades of conditioning to chant the initials of your favorite company during a show or after an incredible spot, wrestling isn’t a story about companies—it’s about wrestlers. Being able to see wrestlers as individuals apart from the companies they ply their trade for is good. Being able to consider a wrestler’s achievements as important without their happening in WWE is good. The ability to make a living outside the strictures of a company that’s functioned as a monopolizing, homogenizing force for longer than many of its fans have been alive is a very good thing. And while fans and wrestlers alike may still want to work for WWE, it’s an incredibly good thing to have wrestlers out there who cut a different path for themselves.
One of the last WWE events I attended was WrestleMania XXX, where Daniel Bryan succeeded in capturing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship with the kind of finality he’d otherwise been denied. The angle was a variation of the company’s go-to since the Austin/McMahon war of the Attitude Era (or, I guess, Hulk Hogan moaning about Jack Tunney), the idea that a wrestler could take off despite the corporation’s plans for them. That Daniel Bryan was fired once from WWE, that he began his tenure getting berated weekly by The Miz, Matt Striker, and a bunch of other stooges asserting that his decade or so of accomplishments didn’t mean much in the harsh light of an uncaring NXT season one crowd, and that he lost a WrestleMania title defense against Sheamus after one boot to the face have always leant a kernel of truth to the idea that Bryan was perceived as a “B+ Player.”
The same is true of WWE’s attempt at simultaneously building up and tearing down CM Punk, under whose reign as the most talked about man in wrestling we were given the term “Reality Era,” the idea that fact and fiction had blurred so much that the struggle between the two was ultimately what mattered. Bryan and Punk, like Steve Austin and Mankind before them, were promoted as outsiders to the system, and in a lot of ways they were. But what never changed was the idea that what was at stake was the company’s identity, its ideology. But as it stands, that’s never happened and it probably won’t, no matter how many pictures Triple H takes of himself shaking hands with a dude whose tapes from seven or eight years ago he somehow fell in love with. If it’s the company’s image we’re dealing with, the wrestlers themselves are interchangeable parts. Figures like AJ Lee or Paige, important to the early concept of a “women’s revolution,” can be replaced by the Four Horsewomen while the company gets to keep all of the credit for evolving with the times.
That’s why I’m fascinated with Omega, though I’ll admit that it took me a while to get into the idiosyncratic nature of his wrestling. He will always be the subject of rumor and speculation as far as WWE contracts, and one day he may sign one. But what’s important are the possibilities that he, the Bucks, Colt Cabana, Chuck Taylor, and others like them are opening up. WWE’s often promised revolt of the talented indie darling against the unflinching corporation is happening right now, it’s just that the road may never lead to WrestleMania. How exciting, the possibility of ending up somewhere else.
Colette Arrand is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon,. She can be found on Twitter, @colettearrand.