If wrestling is art, then Kenny Omega is one of Canada's greatest performing artists
The boundary-defying Winnipeg-born wrestler compares it to episodic television or a night out at the theatre
Pro wrestling is definitely an art form, says Eero Laine. For one thing, its scripted nature means that, while it's athletic, it's not technically a sport; for another, if it's not art, then it's just "madness."
"When Marina Abramović cuts herself with a knife, it's the same way as a wrestler blades," he says. (Blading is the practice of wrestler's hiding a small piece of razor in their wrist tape, and then cutting their forehead — where a small, superficial wound can create a lot of blood — for dramatic effect.)
Laine is an assistant professor of Theatre and Dance at the University at Buffalo. He studies popular entertainment, with a particular emphasis on pro wrestling. He says that if you were going to compare pro wrestling to another art form, its closest cousin is probably musical theatre.
"Instead of, in musical theatre, breaking into song, wrestlers break into fights," he says. "If you look back at the early WWE, when they were forming their public company, they described their business model as theatrical. It's a touring show."
That said, Laine says wrestling defies neat categorizations. Although its business model is musical theatre, it's descended from carnival sideshows, and it regularly gets compared to soap operas. Sometimes it becomes experimental and verges into performance art. This flexibility is what Kenny Omega loves about professional wrestling.
"I like to compare what I do to episodic television," says Omega. "But in a lot of cases, it can be like performance art, or a night out at the theatre… I think that one of the beautiful things about professional wrestling is, depending on where you are and the audience you're performing for, it can be either/or."
The 38 year-old Omega, whose real name is Tyson Smith, is a professional wrestler. But Kenny Omega isn't just a wrestler. For one thing, he's also a wrestling promoter, working as an executive vice president of All-Elite Wrestling (AEW), a well-funded upstart promotion that is challenging the WWE's stranglehold on televised wrestling in North America. For another, he's a really, really good wrestler. In fact, Kenny Omega is arguably THE professional wrestler of our age.
The Winnipeg-born performer was recently ranked the number one male wrestler in the world in 2021 by Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the people responsible for ranking such things. It was his second time winning that honour (the first was in 2018). He's been in their top 10 for four of the last five years. Sports historian — and, effectively, wrestling critic — Dave Meltzer has actually had to re-adjust his ranking system to accurately reflect the sort of work Omega was doing, giving Omega's 2018 match against Kazuchika Okada an unprecedented seven stars on what is ordinarily a five-star scale.
If you accept pro wrestling as an art form — which, according to Eero Laine, you have to for it to make any sense — then Kenny Omega is one of its great performers. In fact, one could argue that if wrestling is an art, that makes Kenny Omega one of Canada's most celebrated and prolific performing artists.
Omega the Storyteller
"I felt when I was watching Kenny that I was watching someone at the peak of this art form," says Corey Erdman. "That he was doing something more complex and more athletic than I had seen before."
Erdman is a veteran combat sports journalist and lifelong wrestling fan. He was also part of the team that made a 2019 TSN documentary about Omega entitled Omega Man: A Wrestling Love Story. He says that what drew him to Omega wasn't just his ability to perform amazing, off-the-top rope athletic manoeuvres, or his ability to have long, endurance-testing marathon matches — it was the way he thought about story.
"I think what makes Kenny special in the ring is the connection," says Erdman. "He's always cognizant of what the story is that he's trying to tell. And having seen him put a match together, in real time backstage, he thinks about them basically like a 30-minute television show."
He adds that even in a big, physical genre like pro wrestling, he appreciates how Omega brings nuance and detail to his performances. He points to how Omega draws on his athletic background — he was a junior hockey goaltender prior to discovering wrestling — to do things like sell his opponents' offence and portray injury. ("Selling" is the wrestling term for making another wrestler's move look like it's hurting you.)
"He thinks of himself as a true stage performer, but also as a true athlete," says Erdman. "He is cognizant of how you would actually act in a sporting competition if you were tired or if you were upset or if you were hurt. Guys sell a leg, for example, in wrestling, but then they just kind of just start jumping off of it again. Kenny always keeps that in mind — like, 'Hey, if I were in the middle of a hockey game and I got slashed, but I still had to go out there and skate, like, how would I actually act?'"
Omega started his career with Winnipeg's Premier Championship Wrestling in 2001. After a brief stint in a WWE developmental territory, where he felt creatively stifled, Omega landed in the U.S. indie scene before heading to Japan. It was there that he eventually found stardom. While he now speaks fluent Japanese, he spoke almost none when he first got there; that meant he had to learn to tell a story in the ring without the benefit of language.
"One thing I noticed is not always, but can be, universal, is comedy," he says. "I found that certain types of jokes, certain mannerisms in English were understood in Japanese, right? And even though the culture was very different from east to west, there are things that are understood across the board."
He adds that, where language failed, he could also rely on pure athleticism to get him over with the crowd. But he also warns that relying on a "great athletic base" isn't a recipe for a long, or necessarily interesting, career.
"I recognized that we all break down," he says. "There's a very short shelf life to this sort of style. You burn the candle at both ends, and all you have to look back at on your body of work is that you pushed yourself athletically, right? Maybe you can pop in a tape, a DVD, a file or whatever at some point in time, say, like, 'Hey, guys, look, I used to do this back in the day.' But for me, that wasn't enough. I was dedicating everything to it."
"I had lost a lot in my personal life to wrestling. I wanted to make these connections both with the fans and my comrades [in] wrestling, right, my workmates. I didn't want to do them a disservice by going through all of this mental preparation, this physical preparation, just to have a match that isn't appreciated in the grand scheme of things."
To him, having a match that matters "in the grand scheme of things" means being the best storyteller possible.
"That was sort of the goal for me as a performer," he says. "How can I mix everything that I've learned from the different styles that I know in wrestling, from the tapes that I studied, from the pop culture references, culture in general and media? How do I take all of these things and how do I become the best storyteller I can be?"
Pushing the boundaries
Omega is known for big, physical, cinematic matches. But even more than that, he's known for performances that ask the question, "What is a professional wrestling match?" And if you ask many wrestling fans what Kenny Omega's greatest in-ring work is, they might not talk about his hour-plus long epic ballets of violence with Okada. They're just as likely to talk about the "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" match.
In 2009, Omega and Bryan Danielson — most widely known for his time in the WWE under the name Daniel Bryan — stopped in the middle of a match for California-based independent promotion Pro Wrestling Guerilla (PWG), and danced around the ring singing children's song "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt."
"[Danielson] was known primarily for being a wrestler's wrestler," says Omega. "He was known for being the guy to have very long, epic, storied matches that wouldn't necessarily have any back story to it. It wouldn't be any follow to it, but he would have these incredible performances in the ring and fans loved him for that. The only problem with that to me was that if you weren't a wrestling fan, what was there that was pulling you in? What is there that you remember after it's all said and done?"
To Omega, if he and Danielson had gone in the ring and put on a good wrestling match, or even an epic wrestling match, that would have been "the status quo." That would have been the pair doing what was expected of them.
"What's special about doing what is expected of me?" says Omega. "I wasn't in the business to just do what was expected — I wanted to show the potential of what wrestling can be."
While sharing a meal on the road, Omega, Danielson, and some other wrestlers were talking about childhood songs that were still burned deep in their brains.
"Here is this super-serious Bryan Danielson, a guy who is the wrestler's wrestler, you know, the quintessential ass-kicker, the guy who is known for presenting wrestling in a very serious physical fashion, and we're laughing and joking about 'The Song That Never Ends,'" he says.
He describes it as a moment of genuine connection with someone whom "I'm not sure if he's a guy who I would hang out with outside of wrestling." He saw an opportunity to push the boundaries of what a pro wrestling match is.
"We could do what people expect from us," he says. "And it would be normal and people would go home feeling satisfied. But would they talk about the match the next day, 24 hours from then? Would they talk about it 48 hours from then? A week from then? Probably not. And to me, that sounds like a waste of our talents. I wanted to make a moment that would live on for as long as possible."
(The PWG match also featured a thumb war.)
This sort of intentional weirdness would become as much a part of Omega's brand as his ability to sell an opponent's offence, his top-rope manoeuvres, or his ability to convey emotion with his face. He once wrestled a blow-up doll. In 2011, he made a guest appearance at a women's wrestling show in Japan to face off against a nine-year-old girl named Haruka, who he made look like a credible threat (for those able to suspend their disbelief). Even in AEW, a promotion meant to appeal to a broad, North American TV audience, he still manages to put together matches that look like no one else's.
But this sort of boundary breaking has earned him critics, too — mostly from legions of social media trolls, but also from the likes of Jim Cornette, a former booker and manager with the WWE and WCW, who is now a wrestling pundit and podcaster. The basic criticism is that, by doing things like wrestling a child or blow-up doll or singing "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt," Omega is denigrating the art form. It's not "really" wrestling. Omega says this kind of criticism is to be expected.
"The styles of music, styles of acting, styles of film that were very unconventional were probably mocked when they first were introduced," he says. "So when I see people, wrestling purists, that are upset about me not wrestling the way that they think wrestling should be, or wrestling the way that they grew up knowing... I don't take that as a personal insult."
Indeed, Omega will go so far as to say he respects those who come right out and tell him they don't like what he's doing.
"[If someone says,] 'Hey, I don't like what you're doing because I grew up watching wrestling in this way,' totally fine. I can completely understand that — I even respect it," he says. "I do have a very deep respect for what wrestling used to be; otherwise, I wouldn't be doing it right now."
"But I think when there's an opportunity to do something else with it or to maximize the opportunity with a particular person or persons to really create a memorable experience, I'm going to go that route."
The Golden Lovers
What Omega can't stand is when those criticisms of his work become hateful.
"I feel disappointed in our wrestling culture when that happens," he says. "If you don't do things the way that I do them, then insert personal insults here, right? Racial comments here or sexual orientation slander here. It's a shame that things sort of automatically drift toward that direction."
Part of the reason Omega receives "sexual orientation slander" has to do with another way in which he has defied wrestling tradition.
"Gay angles" have been a part of professional wrestling since Gorgeous George first sashayed into the ring in the 1940s. And without exception, any character who has been either explicitly stated or (as is more often the case) just strongly implied to be gay has been a villain. Sometimes they were a campy object of scorn, sometimes a genuine lavender menace, but they were never the good guy.
Brian Bell, who writes about wrestling for LGBTQ+ sports site Outsports, says that these gay-ish villains — from Adorable Adrian Adonis and Adrian Street in the 1970s and '80s to Rico and Goldust in the 1990s and '00s — were "a double-edged sword" for LGBTQ+ fans.
"A lot of them could be formative for us," he says. "But at the same time, they perpetuate these negative stereotypes that contribute to the harm of the community."
The Golden Lovers were a tag team consisting of Omega and Kota Ibushi that worked together on and off for a decade. As per wrestling tradition, the Lovers were never explicitly said to be gay or a couple (nor has Omega publicly commented on his sexuality) — they were just very strongly coded that way. And in an absolute break with tradition, Omega and Ibushi were, and still are, profoundly beloved and embraced by fans.
Bell says that for LGBTQ+ wrestling fans, having a same-sex love storyline that was portrayed in a positive light was a breath of fresh air.
"With Kota and Kenny, there was much more of an authenticity to it," says Bell. "These were just two men who grew close wrestling for [promotion] DDT in Japan, and that blossomed into this very close friendship, and ultimately became something that a lot of [LGBTQ+] fans felt like there was a positive representation for them to latch on to at the time."
Bell adds that he always appreciated the fact that The Lovers never had a female manager or valet, something previous gay-coded wrestlers like Goldust and Street used to maintain plausible deniability.
"So many of these character had beards, in that they had a female manager who was associated with them, so they could always point to that and deny that they were gay. Kota and Kenny never had that. It was just them as The Golden Lovers. And so the moments where they gave each other a peck during a match, or the big huge reunion a few years back where they embraced and there were tears in the middle of the ring, those moments felt real because you latched on to these men together as a unit."
Omega says he was thrilled to be embraced by the LGBTQ+ community and to give them a story they saw themselves in.
"I'm beyond proud and so happy that it became something that the LGBTQ community could take to and enjoy," he says. "And I'm glad they felt that it was a great representation of that. All of these [gay] stories in the past and up to this point, it's always a point of ridicule and it's always presented as comedic. And some of the most creative people, some of the most artistic people, some of the most talented people, friendly people, kindhearted people that I've ever met are part of that community. I wanted to show that two very talented wrestlers, some of the most talented currently going — possibly, hopefully in a conversation for the most talented of all time — can represent that."
Whether it be via storytelling or via athletics, there is something very entertaining and rewarding you can take from pro wrestling, especially in the year 2021 and beyond.- Kenny Omega
Laine says that wrestling, like every other art form, is constantly evolving. And although it is still tarred as lowbrow, as more wrestlers do what Omega has done — push boundaries, include new audiences, focus on story, play with genre conventions — that could change.
"Take the circus, for example," he says. "We think of the circus as this popular lowbrow art: get as many people into the tent as possible, make everybody happy, get them out. And yet you can look to Cirque du Soleil that has taken the art form and elevated it in certain ways, got it out of the dirt floor tent. So I wonder if there's a moment for pro wrestling to break out?"
For his part, Omega understands why some people are reluctant to embrace wrestling as an art form — but he says that almost everyone can find something in pro wrestling that speaks to them if they know where to look.
"It's very easy to discard wrestling as something that has a bad rep," he says. "But I would implore people who maybe have a curiosity in wrestling give it another chance."
"I do believe that whether it be via storytelling or via athletics, there is something very entertaining and rewarding you can take from pro wrestling, especially in the year 2021 and beyond. I think we've grown a lot."
"I do think that there is something for everyone. They've just got to find it in the right place, that's all."