NJPW champion Kenny Omega: Changing the wrestling game

Gaming convention Gamestart Asia 2018 has barely kicked off and Kenny Omega is visibly distracted. Wrestling is not on the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) Heavyweight champion's mind this day, however. Gaming is. More specifically, Street Fighter V.

The 35-year-old Omega is a big fan of the classic Capcom arcade game and is also a gaming lifestyle ambassador for Razer. He was in Singapore to attend Gamestart Asia in October.

In June this year, the Canada-born Omega defeated Kazuchika Okada at New Japan Pro-Wrestling's (NJPW) Dominion event and in the process, became among a handful of "gaijin" or foreigners to win its top championship.

His many recent achievements include 13 Match of the Year awards in Japan. He is the only foreigner to ever win the prestigious G1 tournament in Japan and was named "Wrestler of the Year" by Sports Illustrated in 2017.

After wrestling all over the world, Omega moved to Japan and soon realised the need to learn Japanese.

Recalling his determination to pick up the language, Omega said, "It was always a constant struggle. I was trying to learn since 2008. I would buy books and subscribe to online programmes and none of it really worked. What I knew was so little and most of it was unusable."

In the end, Omega turned to a friend. "I would ask him for translations and he would tell me words and phrases I could use in conversation and I would write them down in my notebook. I would study them and memorise them and eventually, I had a huge list of words and sentences. I was able to look at these words and sentences and take apart the grammar and made my own sentences. I could recite my own thoughts. It was kind of a very strange way to learn but that was how I started to really build my own Japanese."

In January at Wrestle Kingdom 12, Omega had a match with WWE veteran Chris Jericho, a bout that was hailed in many quarters as the finest of the year. Omega won a hard fought battle that night and gained more fans in the process.

Their paths crossed again at Jericho's sea cruise at the end of October where they wrestled each other in a tag team match. "I feel like there's more to our story and not everything is finished between us," he hinted.

"A lot of championship runs in New Japan feel the same, look the same. It's just one person in singles matches on the same shows every year. It's not that it's boring, it's fine. I have the ability to do different things and so I want to show a different title run. I can do the singles matches, it's easy but other people can do that too. I want to show what only I can do."

Ask Omega to list his dream opponents and he names Kurt Angle, John Cena and Roman Reigns.

With NJPW catching the attention of more pro-wrestling fans around the world, Omega noted, "Everyone has a choice to watch whatever they want. It's okay to like both or other promotions too. When I was growing up, I thought there was only WWE. That's it. One promotion in the world. And then as I grew up, I found that there's local wrestling. There's WCW, there's ECW. In Mexico, there are the luchadores. And then finally, I realised there's wrestling in Japan."

"I think for many people, they think there's one giant promotion and that's all that there is. It must be the best. But as they expand their palate and their horizons, they realise that, oh, there's other wrestling out there. They might not necessarily like it more but it's an option now. It's cool that there are so many options for people all over the planet."

Omega is deeply aware of the role he represents as IWGP Heavyweight champion.

"I am sort of very much a part of representing an alternative. If my motivation was money, I would already be in the WWE. I was down on the current product and I wanted to create a style and have matches that my friends, my family and other athletes could watch and enjoy. There's a certain kind of of wrestling fan that will only like a certain style. They think that's the right way and that's okay but I'm not trying to impress those people. Those people are already kind of set in their ways. I'm trying to open the world to a different style, what pro-wrestling has the potential to be."

When asked the inevitable question as to whether he would join WWE one day, he replied, "It's a tough question. It's not just about the money. It's about having the creative outlet."

In June, Omega and his wrestling stablemates, the Young Bucks faced off against WWE tag team The New Day - not in the wrestling ring - but in Street Fighter V. The showdown at E3 in Los Angeles saw Omega narrowly defeating Xavier Woods 5-4.

In a world where the top two wrestling promotions, WWE and NJPW, seldom, if ever, cross paths, this represented a rare crossover.

"I was surprised and I'm sure (New Day) was surprised too. It was a very cool, unique, once in a lifetime opportunity. I hope that something like that can happen again but boy, we were so lucky to have it happen," said Omega.

Immediately after this interview, Omega scurries off hurriedly, saying he had another Street Fighter V match to play, and promises to return for photos and autographs. When he returns, he looked a little despondent.

"Did you win, Kenny?" No, he replies. Better luck next time.

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