Kenny Omega, Kota Ibushi, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Three of the most well-known names in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Each enormously popular personalities, commanding small armies of fans. And for the most part, the paths of the recently-reunited Golden Lovers and the Ace of New Japan have remained largely separate – until now.
At Wrestle Kingdom 13, Kenny Omega will defend his hard-won IWGP Heavyweight Championship against G1 Climax winner Tanahashi. In turn, Tanahashi bested Omega’s partner Kota Ibushi for this privilege, thereby drawing the three men into a common orbit.
This sudden proximity, it seems, has been too much for Omega and Tanahashi, who have spent months exchanging barbs on Twitter, in interviews and post-match promos, ranging from the airy and dismissive to the downright personal.
Context, as always, is very important. When Kenny Omega calls Tanahashi a ‘piece of sh*t’ playing a hero, he’s not just delivering a pithy insult. When he refers to the Ace as an ‘embarrassing’ ‘old f**ker’, it’s a statement that goes beyond a personal attack.
Kenny Omega is attacking the very person whose presence and philosophy changed the landscape of New Japan Pro Wrestling forever, paving its present-day path and, some say, single-handedly rescuing the company from the scrapheap.
Hiroshi Tanahashi: The Saviour of New Japan
Hiroshi Tanahashi rose to prominence during a particularly dark period in NJPW’s long and storied history. Young, good-looking and flashy, Tanahashi returned from excursion in Mexico displaying the kind of exciting, dynamic style the heavily MMA-influenced promotion had been sorely missing. He would come to be known, along with Shinsuke Nakamura and Katsuyori Shibata, as one of the ‘new Three Musketeers’.
Tanahashi was a breath of fresh air, but he wasn’t an overnight sensation; it took time for fans to adjust to his nuanced, story-driven philosophy, the antithesis of Antonio Inoki’s hard-hitting ‘strong style’ principles that had so mired NJPW for so long. Simply put: the modern NJPW style so beloved by fans today owes an enormous debt to Hiroshi Tanahashi.
There is a profound philosophical schism that separates Omega and Tanahashi. While Tanahashi did things the ‘right’ way, cutting his teeth in the New Japan Dojo, Omega’s pro-wrestling education was pieced together through years of experience in a number of promotions across the US and Canada, including Ring of Honor and WWE developmental territory Deep South Wrestling.
Eventually, Omega wound up in Japan as part of DDT Pro Wrestling, where he and Kota Ibushi would become known as the Golden Lovers. He’s travelled a circuitous route to get to New Japan, and it’s taken him a long time to rise to stardom. Longer still to win the promotion’s top accolade: the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
In that time, Omega has developed his own philosophy on the art of professional wrestling, a vision stitched together from the varied and diverse influences Omega has encountered and embraced throughout his journey to New Japan. Omega’s criticisms of Tanahashi, then, are rooted in something much deeper than rivalry.
Kishōtenketsu vs Memorable Moments: An Ideological Divide
If Hiroshi Tanahashi’s wrestling philosophy has become New Japan orthodoxy, then Kenny Omega’s drive to ‘change the world’ can be seen as nothing short of blasphemy. You might think of it as a ‘post-Tanahashi’ vision of the future of professional wrestling.
Omega believes that Tanahashi represents the past, a style of wrestling which had its place and served its purpose, but is ultimately no longer fresh, no longer relevant. Omega claims that when he watches a Tanahashi match, he “feels nothing.” Tanahashi’s matches, he says, are devoid of emotion and memorable moments. They are ultimately forgettable.
For Omega, professional wrestling is a pliable medium, shifting and evolving. For Tanahashi, there’s a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way. Omega’s style, Tanahashi says, is akin to “watching a movie with no Kishōtenketsu…the last five minutes of a Kenny match is all that matters, because there’s no story.”
Omega is not the only one who has seen the sharp end of Tanahashi’s judgement: he’s critical of Naito’s attitude, which he considers disrespectful, and his historical antipathy towards Katsuyori Shibata is well-documented.
The flipside to Tanahashi’s utter dedication to New Japan is a critical dogmatism, a rigid attitude towards what constitutes Good Wrestling. His vision saved New Japan, and he is invested in the continuation of that vision; other styles, he believes, are not sustainable in the long term. They are flash-in-the-pan frivolities which might captivate for a time, but – as with Inoki’s ultimately disastrous MMA experiment – they are doomed to fail in the long term.
Tanahashi may well be the Saviour of New Japan, but, you might argue, his attitude towards deviating from the formula stands to stifle the creativity of those around him. And where there is stagnation, decay will follow.
Kenny Omega’s ideology is diametrically opposed to that which is so precious to Tanahashi. And, like Naito, who rejects the sanctity of championships as a marker of a wrestler’s worth, Omega is wildly popular with the crowd, not in spite of his nonconformity, but because of it. As Tanahashi is deified as the ‘Ace’ by a crowd who view him as exemplary of the very best that New Japan has to offer, so Omega is adored as a man who exists beyond the traditional.
As far as Omega is concerned, evolution is not just logical, but essential: the modern wrestling crowd is increasingly global, and NJPW’s current roster reflects this reality, with New Zealanders, Canadians, Americans and Brits working alongside Japanese talent, some of whom bypassed the Young Lion phase, earning their stripes elsewhere. Worldwide expansion is the obvious next step.
Changing The World, One High Spot At A Time
There is an irony in the antipathy between Omega and Tanahashi. For all their ideological differences, they share a love of the dramatic, and storytelling is the cornerstone of both philosophies.
When Tanahashi talks about kishōtenketsu, he’s not just expressing his appreciation for traditional Japanese story structure; it’s a formula which informs the structure of his own matches. In simplistic terms, kishōtenketsu is comprised of four key components: introduction, development, twist, and conclusion. The story is told from start to finish each time, and dramatic tension is built upon this framework.
Omega’s matches are different. Stylistically, they are far more explosive than the style Tanahashi has fostered over the years: a series of high spots punctuate the narrative of each match, and while Tanahashi and Omega both value drama, Omega’s drama owes more to spectacle. The high-risk, high-impact style Omega espouses carries an inherent danger akin to the Strong Style of ‘old’ New Japan.
For Tanahashi, high-impact moments are to be used sparingly, employed as punctuation. For Omega, they’re an intrinsic element. Spectacle is king. And increasingly, NJPW’s younger cohort seem to be aligning themselves with Omega’s philosophy – Hiromu Takahashi, Will Ospreay, Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi. Whether directly or indirectly, Omega’s signature style has bled over the years into their own, and like Tanahashi before him, his vision seems set to become part of the fabric of New Japan.
Whether a Tanahashi match makes you feel or an Omega match holds your attention beyond the final five minutes is largely down to your preference as a wrestling fan. Both men, in my estimation, are masters at affecting a compelling tension: whether it be a prolonged and agonised struggle to relinquish a submission hold, the selling of an injured limb, the body-and-soul exhaustion of a gruelling match, when Tanahashi and Omega struggle, you believe.
And perhaps Omega does lean more towards explosive thrills than Tanahashi, while Tanahashi has turned the intense slow-burn into pure theatre. But as with all art, resonance lies with the person experiencing it.
Between a Golden Lover and a God: Kota Ibushi
The back-and-forth between Omega and Tanahashi is dramatic enough in its own right, but there is a third element at play here: Kota Ibushi. On the surface, this one is simple to reconcile. Ibushi is visibly aligned with Kenny Omega; their history as the Golden Lovers turned bitter rivals turned Lovers once more ensures that Ibushi will always be innately linked with Omega, whether they are together or apart.
You might reasonably assume that in the great clash of ideologies, Ibushi would side with Omega – not least because Ibushi himself is something of a maverick. Like Omega, he forwent the traditional Young Lion route in favour of accruing experience in various promotions.
To date, Ibushi has still not signed a permanent contract with NJPW, preferring to remain a ‘freelancer’. He does not live and breathe New Japan as Tanahashi does, and some have speculated that his refusal to commit to the promotion is why Ibushi is yet to win a heavyweight title.
And yet despite Ibushi’s unorthodox background, he himself has admitted that he has regarded Tanahashi as a ‘god’. Ibushi has refused to align himself with either Omega or Tanahashi; Chris Charlton quotes him as stating “I don’t stand for either style.” The result has been something of a passive-aggressive tug of war in which Kota Ibushi finds himself caught between a man he loves and a man he reveres – between a Golden Lover and a god.
Throughout it all, there is a very real sense that both Omega and Tanahashi are sincere in their admiration for Ibushi. Omega, of course, wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Ibushi, at least since their reunion, and when he says Ibushi is the best wrestler on the planet, he’s not just blowing hot air; it’s clear that he speaks from a place of absolute love and absolute respect. If Ibushi’s prodigious talent has been a source of strife for Omega in the past, it’s water under the metaphorical bridge now.
For Tanahashi, Ibushi’s potential to be a ‘top guy’ is hampered by Omega. Tanahashi contends that Omega is holding Ibushi back, and the insinuation is that this is deliberate. Malicious on Tanahashi’s part, perhaps, but not without historical precedent: Omega’s bitter frustration at Ibushi’s past success was the key turning point in the dissolution of the Golden Lovers, and we have seen the ghost of this frustration emerge at key moments.
The three-way match between Omega, Ibushi and Cody at Kings of Pro Wrestling saw Omega resort to deliberately sabotaging the three count, robbing Ibushi of the win. If Tanahashi believes that Omega is orchestrating events to keep Ibushi forever in his shadow, it’s difficult to deny that his feelings on the matter are not without justification.
But there’s a crucial element that Tanahashi is overlooking. Omega accepts Ibushi as he is, without question or condition. Ibushi is a key part of Omega’s vision to ‘change the world’, and if Omega is still struggling with his own personal issues surrounding success as a measure of worth, he nonetheless remains Ibushi’s biggest proselytiser.
Omega wants Ibushi to succeed on his own terms; he understands Ibushi’s vision, even if Ibushi does not subscribe wholesale to Omega’s own. Tanahashi, for all his praise, lacks an understanding of Ibushi as a performer, and as a person.
For Omega, Ibushi deserves success unconditionally. For Tanahashi, Ibushi’s talent is prodigious. He could be one of the new generation of Musketeers, but until he commits himself fully to New Japan – and, by extension, to Tanahashi’s way of thinking – then he will never truly achieve his full potential.
A Battle For The Future of New Japan
Ibushi maintains a neutrality on matters of philosophy, but that does not necessarily mean he is on the fence. The rejection of Tanahashi’s handshake at the G1 finals signifies a decision of sorts: Ibushi himself characterised this handshake as a tacit agreement with Tanahashi’s way, and admits that he had considered accepting.
But, as Chris Charlton translates, when Ibushi saw Omega’s face, he realised “no, that’s not who I am”. Post-match, Ibushi simply acquiesces to Tanahashi’s victory. There is no hug, no show of respect. He simply walks away.
Rejecting Tanahashi’s ideology does not equate to accepting Omega’s, and Ibushi has been quite clear in asserting that he stands for neither. But on a personal level, walking away with Omega at his side is a clear statement that their relationship matters more to Ibushi than Tanahashi’s approval. Tanahashi may be a god, but Omega respects Ibushi’s right to be himself.
When Omega and Tanahashi face off at Wrestle Kingdom 13, it is not just the IWGP Heavyweight Championship that is at stake. An Omega victory signifies a paradigm shift, altering the very landscape of New Japan just as Tanahashi did so many years ago.
A Tanahashi victory signifies that New Japan is not ready to accept a new philosophy – the era of the Ace will continue, unchanged and uninterrupted, at least for the time being. Who knows where Omega will go should this eventuality come to fruition? Who knows if Ibushi will follow him?
Whatever the outcome, the marks Omega and Tanahashi have left on New Japan are indelible; whether the future ultimately belongs to the Ace or the Best Bout Machine, the victor will always have to contend with the presence of their rival woven into the very fabric, ethos and history of New Japan Pro Wrestling.