In the aftermath of his victory over Kazuchika Okada at Dominion, new IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega made some comments about the New Japan roster which raised a few eyebrows:
“But I’m serving this as warning to all the domestic talent in New Japan. You guys have to step up your game. Because right now, you are not at our level. And I don’t mean that as a negative comment. I want everyone to do their best. I’m just saying that we need to do the best that we can, and that what you’re doing right now isn’t enough.”
There are at least a couple reasons this statement by Omega, the seventh non-Japanese wrestler to win the promotion’s top belt, could be viewed as pretty standard promo material (which we’ll discuss below). But because there was an ethnic line to his work ethic observation, it stirred up some controversy online.
Enough that this week – during a conference call set-up by AXS TV to promote their broadcast of New Japan’s upcoming return to the U.S., Sat., July 7’s G1 Special in San Francisco – Omega addressed the backlash he’s received and further explained his comments:
“And as for the comments I said at the press conference – I’ve heard people overreact, ‘Oh Kenny, you’re racist.’
How so exactly? And what’s funny about that is the general feedback from the Japanese community is ‘Kenny, you’re right.’ So it’s so strange that I’m hearing all these English-speaking people, people from foreign countries tell me that I’m being a racist individual when all I’m doing is speaking the truth.
And in a way, like, those comments were sort of kayfabe, if you will. I mean, you don’t see how hard anyone’s working. But I do, and I see it every day. I see it every time I go to the gym. The gym is myself, Michael Elgin, Juice [Robinson]. It’s all the foreigners. You never see any of the Japanese talent at the gym – with the exception of a couple guys. And when you’re looking at guys that are eating food and dieting, it’s always the foreigners who are trying harder. When you’re looking at guys who are thinking outside the box to create something new and exciting for the brand, most of the time it’s the foreigners because they’re hungrier and they want it. And the Japanese talent is mostly just waiting for their turn. And I’m not saying that this is a racial thing whatsoever. It just is what it is. And I couldn’t help but notice that the guys that are absolutely killing it right now are mostly foreign talents. Why is that?
I want everyone to do well. I want New Japan as a whole to do well – I want our team to be the best team in all of professional wrestling. I don’t want to be a turn-waiter. I don’t want anyone to do that. I want everyone to want it. So if you want to know why I said those comments – that’s why.”
It’s worth noting that the criticism bothered Omega enough to get him to admit his initial statement was “sort of kayfabe”. For all the flak he’s taken in his career about exposing/killing the business with comedy or otherwise unrealistic matches, the Canadian usually lives whatever story he’s telling, whether it’s the years long Golden Lovers angle with Kota Ibushi or the recent battle for leadership of Bullet Club with Cody Rhodes.
And the “gaijin [non-Japanese] work harder” message plays right into what’s likely to be his big feud for the IWGP strap, against Tetsuya Naito of Los Ingobernables de Japon. Naito’s entire gimmick revolves around not caring. Omega addressed it earlier in the AXS call, saying:
“Naito in a way is a pseudo-Stone Cold Steve Austin, anti-hero-esque character. I really don’t appreciate his message and I really only think it works in Japan.”
The Best Bout Machine is a fan favorite now, but he may not be when he faces Naito – or eventually, inevitably, Ibushi. In addition to sowing the seeds of conflict with the Tranquilo One (who just lost the IWGP Intercontinental Title to another foreigner, Chris Jericho), Omega may be playing the long game of a heel turn, or accepting the fact he’ll likely get booed in some big programs he’s got lined up.
As the Heavyweight Champ, Kenny is also accepting the mantle of locker room leader for New Japan. And in wrestling, as we’ve seen John Cena do multiple times in WWE, that job seems to involve publicly calling out the roster as a motivational tactic. We can debate whether it’s an effective or fair thing to do, but it seems to be expected from the “top guy”. As a foreign wrestler atop a Japanese promotion, this was how Omega chose to approach that.
Maybe it was a misstep. Some western fans seem to think so. Time will tell.
In the meantime, Omega again has the wrestling world talking about him and the company he works for.
He’s still doing something right.