Those who only pay attention to the American pro wrestling landscape are currently missing out on one of the single greatest stories ever told in the vicinity of a ring over in New Japan Pro Wrestling: the ten-year odyssey of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi, collectively known as the Golden Lovers.
Here’s a quick recap. The two former tag team partners and close friends went their separate ways in 2014 after the momentous original four-year run of the Golden Lovers as individual goals overtook those of the collective. While Ibushi won the hearts of the fans and respect of his fellow wrestlers, Omega felt abandoned and channeled his anger into one of the most memorable two-plus year runs in recent history. As Omega joined and eventually took over the key villain NJPW stable, Bullet Club, he constantly deflected any mention of Ibushi, choosing to not acknowledge his unresolved emotions even as Ibushi began trying to re-enter his life following a tough loss in the G1 final last August. Ibushi’s attempts to win back Omega drew the ire of fellow Bullet Club member Cody Rhodes, and when he challenged him to a match at January’s Wrestle Kingdom 12, a wedge was driven between the two alpha males in the group. All of these small moments culminated in Cody attacking Omega in February. Before Cody could finish the job, though, Ibushi sprinted to the ring to save his former partner, and, after refusing to shake Ibushi hand, with tears building as everything he internalized over the past four years finally came out, Omega and Ibushi embraced in the middle of the ring as a shower of confetti rained down on the reunited Golden Lovers.
Now, if you think that sounds pretty gay, A. shame on you, and B. you’re totally right. It is pretty gay, and that’s one of the main reasons why this story stands out above every other one in pro wrestling right now.
Pro wrestling and homosexuality have a misinformed and, let’s face it, frustrating past. The machismo-drenched artform has featured gay wrestlers, such as the legendary Pat Patterson, going as far back as the ‘50s, but rarely have they lived their lifestyle completely open while being an active competitor. The business has featured effeminate male characters that are presented under the moniker “androgynous” in order to not classify a grappler as overtly gay dating back to the ‘40s. Comically drenched in make-up and usually accompanied by an attractive female valet, it’s a tradition focused on drawing the fans’ ire or by groping or kissing a wrestler during a match. It’s almost always a transparent tactic, though, and never a true statement of homosexuality.
Yes, pro wrestling has always been about over-the-top personalities, but a sense of alienation persists when the only representation that those in the queer community, myself included, have in mainstream wrestling companies is Goldust and his cruddy knockoffs.
The Golden Lovers represents something completely new and refreshing for those of us who identify as queer and adore the artform, and it says something about American sensibilities that it took a company based in Japan, which has commonly held homophobic sentiments culturally, to present a realistic, understated homosexual relationship. It’s not like the WWE didn’t have their chance. It’s been over four years since Darren Young became the first pro wrestler in America to come out as gay while under contract to the company, which spurred Stephanie McMahon to announce that the company would begin looking at creating storylines based around “alternative lifestyles” in the near future. In 2018, Darren Young is no longer with the company, the WWE still hasn’t acknowledged the first openly gay female wrestler in the company’s history (Sonya Deville), and we’re still waiting on those new stories. Honestly, that might be for the best considering the WWE pulled a bait and switch on GLAAD the last time they committed to a gay relationship angle.
It’s true that the Golden Lovers storyline doesn’t come out and say Omega and Ibushi are gay, but it doesn’t need to. Heterosexual relationships are as common a storytelling tool as in any other form of media, but they are never classified separately as “heterosexual.” They just exist, which is exactly why the presentation of Omega and Ibushi’s relationship as a relationship without a qualifier sets it apart. Being queer does allow for a self-identity that differs in some ways from our heterosexual peers, but it doesn’t categorize our relationships as ones that must exist separate from the social norm. They expand it. The ultimate goal of a marginalized community is to be recognized at the same level as what is commonly accepted while remaining true to oneself. This relationship happens to be between two men, but their love and admiration for one another is no different than any other relationship.
Through short conversations and snappy cinematography on the Young Bucks’ YouTube show “Being the Elite” and mostly silent moments on NJPW’s shows, the happiness of rekindled love where it was once thought lost comes through. One smile from Omega followed by a reserved Ibushi looking down at the ground before returning the favor makes my heart flutter. I still tear up when I see the two hug tightly while streamers cover them from above, and I’ve watched that scene at least a dozen times over. Finally, not only do I have something in the industry I love that allows me to see myself in it, other than Goldust (not every over-the-top character was bad, thank you), but it’s drawing the admiration and, more importantly, the acceptance of fans worldwide.
The Golden Lovers wrestle the Young Bucks at New Japan’s Strong Style Evolved show this weekend. It airs on AXS TV on Sunday, March 25, at 8 PM E / 7 PM C.
Brian Bell is an intern at Paste.