SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.
News of the Week: Omega defeats Okada, ends his historic title reign at record 719 days
Kenny Omega defeated Kazuchika Okada in a best two-out-of-three falls match this past Saturday to capture the IWGP heavyweight championship.
The match took place in Osaka at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s massive Dominion show, which, along with January’s Wrestle Kingdom, is one of the top two shows of the year on the New Japan calendar.
The sight of Omega hugging the Young Bucks and Kota Ibushi, all while the defeated Okada was carried out of the ring, was especially poignant. Omega chose to embrace the Young Bucks instead of first receiving the IWGP championship.
“Many wrestlers lose themselves, lose their soul to the money and pressures of the business,” said Omega. “I wanted to make it very clear that this journey didn’t cost me my humanity.”
The card also saw the Young Bucks win the IWGP tag titles for the first-time ever, officially cementing their status in the heavyweight division, a thrilling six-man tag that included Rey Mysterio in the same match as Hiroshi Tanahashi, Jushin Liger, and Cody Rhodes, as well as Chris Jericho increasing his legendary status by defeating Tetsuya Naito to win the IWGP Intercontinental title.
Yet the main event is the moment that changed the industry, as Saturday marked the dawn of a new era in professional wrestling.
The day ended with CM Punk’s UFC annihilation, but began early that morning in Osaka with the rise of Kenny Omega as the new IWGP heavyweight champion.
Many fans are still pining for the return of CM Punk to the wrestling ring for the first time since 2014. Yet, four years later, Omega and Okada combined to produce one of the most emotionally compelling matches ever witnessed or felt by wrestling fans.
Omega’s win over Okada is historic on a worldwide level in this industry, especially in the manner in which he captured the title. Omega stayed true to his personality, even after losing the Wrestle Kingdom 11 main event in January of 2016, and never became embroiled in backstage politics or negative commentary about his perceived standing in the company. With or without the IWGP title around his waist, Omega never strayed from his core belief that kindness, creativity, and tenacity should all serve as essential ingredients for a champion.
“I think those are things always synonymous with a good team player,” said Omega. “Of course there will be moments when you ask for the ball or even take the ball by force but, in my case, I always kept the company’s best interest in mind moving forward and put myself in positions to contribute positively even when I wasn’t the focus of a story.”
The Dominion match once again proved that there is no better big match wrestler than Kenny Omega, but he now inherits the added responsibility of carrying the New Japan banner across the wrestling landscape. Omega was asked what specifically about this odyssey toward the IWGP heavyweight title meant so much to him.
“Perhaps it was recognizing that pro wrestling, for me, was lacking something,” explained Omega. “Something athletic, something entertaining, something with heart and soul. I never once felt I was close to being the best wrestler in the world, not by textbook standards, but I did what I could to represent a style that I thought could be universally entertaining. In small baby steps, I made adjustments and improvements, and now here we are.”
There were times, Omega revealed, including the aftermath of 2016’s Wrestle Kingdom, where he doubted himself and questioned whether he could ever fulfill his championship destiny. Since January of 2011, only Hiroshi Tanahashi, Okada, AJ Styles, and Tetsuya Naito have worn the exclusive IWGP heavyweight title, and it often appeared that Naito was again next in line. Despite the obstacles, Omega never lost faith in his dream.
“Doubt is always there,” said Omega. “But I never stopped believing that the type of pro wrestler I was meant to be was the one I am today.”
There was a moment in the Dominion match this past Saturday, which occurred shortly before Omega picked up his first pinfall, that was extremely gripping. Omega began attempting to German suplex Okada through a table outside the ring, and the scene was overwhelming by its gravity: that battle to overcome Okada mirrored Omega’s journey.
Omega was supposed to be an afterthought after he left WWE’s Deep South developmental brand in 2006; Omega was never intended to be more than a lightweight in New Japan Pro Wrestling; Omega, some claimed, could never be the face of the Bullet Club and certainly never dethrone IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada to the cheers of a crowd in Osaka. Yet he found a way to overcome each roadblock.
Although Omega never put Okada through that table outside the ring, as appeared to be his original intent, he still found a way to win the match and capture his goal.
That sequence, explained Omega, was particularly emotional for him, with the echoes of the crowd’s cheers still amplifying in his head nights after the match.
“Everything, from the entrance video I directed and produced, to mostly all of the details, were placed to have both a surface and deeper meaning,” said Omega. “It’s always super fun and rewarding to hear from those that are spot on with everything. I think it’s also great though to be able to turn your brain off and enjoy it as well if you like. I can’t always accomplish one or the other or both, but I try.”
From Omega’s entrance to his precise basement dropkicks to the One-Winged Angel to his overall presence, Omega embodies the fighting spirit of a pro wrestler in a time where others only play that same role on television. He has long called himself the “Best Bout Machine,” yet now he is more: with the IWGP title, Omega is the single best in the world.
“I’m just happy to be in that discussion,” said Omega, who is far more humble off-screen than the brash performer fans are accustomed to seeing in the ring. “I’m not flawless and have my weaknesses as a performer, but I do my best to play to my strengths while also highlighting my opponents’.”
Okada, who held the title for a record 719-day reign, raised the IWGP heavyweight championship to an elite standard of excellence that not even AJ Styles and the WWE can currently match. Omega was asked whether he can further elevate the title.
“In a wrestling sense, what Okada accomplished is something I can never top,” admitted Omega. “I excel in my creativity and ability to draw raw emotion. From these, I’ll tell stories different from Okada’s reign. It won’t necessarily be worse or better, but it will certainly be different. From that, I hope I can add layers of character to everyone I work with.”
Omega’s work is far from finished. He and the Young Bucks, who are now referring to themselves as the Golden Elite, are battling WWE’s New Day in what should serve as a memorable battle in Street Fighter V this Thursday at the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles, California.
Omega will remain in the States in advance of New Japan’s G1 Special in San Francisco live on AXS TV this July 7, with a card that features a main event of Omega against Bullet Club rival Cody Rhodes. He will also be running his own New Japan show on June 29 at CEO Fighting Game Championships in Daytona Beach.
Although Omega will not be defending the IWGP title in Daytona, the new champ will be on the card.
“I’ve got a great one planned for the folks making the trip out to Daytona Beach,” said Omega. “Stay tuned.”
Brock passes Punk’s mark
Brock Lesnar’s title reign as WWE champion has reached 437 days, officially surpassing CM Punk’s run of 434 days with the title.
All signs point to Roman Reigns defeating Lesnar and winning the title at this August’s SummerSlam in New York, which would certainly generate a passionate response from the crowd in Brooklyn.
Two links between Lesnar and Punk, who just prevailed last week in a defamation lawsuit brought by WWE doctor Chris Amann, are that they wrestled at SummerSlam 2013 (by far, Lesnar’s best match in the past six years) and both were managed during their title runs by the brilliantly talented Paul Heyman.
Heyman never fails to have his finger on the most pressing pulse of pro wrestling. His ability to remain relevant, long after many of his ECW stars faded, is most apparent in his ability to connect with a crowd.
There is no better way for Heyman to connect with hardcore fans than a guest appearance at All In. An interview in the ring during the show with CM Punk—who said he is done with wrestling but remains grateful for wrestling fans—could potentially generate more pay per view buys than any match on the card.
In other news…
• This Sunday’s Money in the Bank pay per view provides WWE with the opportunity to reposition its entire booking strategy for the upcoming year.
The card will feature a men’s and women’s “Money in the Bank” ladder match. Although the concept is better suited for a heel, there have been times when a babyface won, with a perfect example being Daniel Bryan in 2011 as his eventual cash-in on the Big Show was more opportunistic than villain-like, as well as Dean Ambrose in 2016. Sasha Banks would be an ideal winner for the women, and the winner of the MITB match for the men is far more likely to appear from SmackDown Live, with The Miz making the most sense. A winner from Raw would make less sense considering their Universal champion, Brock Lesnar, rarely appears on the show unless he is in an established angle.
Sunday’s show will also help establish if WWE has plans to further the program between Seth Rollins and Elias, allow Roman Reigns to transition away from Jinder Mahal and back to the Universal title picture, and provide Ronda Rousey with a chance to win the Raw women’s title.
The Rousey match is unlikely to main event the card, as WWE will capitalize on her first main event with the proper build. For Sunday, the company instead prefers for the sports world to see Rousey highlights on ESPN’s 11pm ET SportsCenter.
• The return of Lucha Underground has arrived, with Season 4 ready to debut this Wednesday on El Rey at 8pm ET.
Chavo Guerrero, who serves as both a producer and on-air talent for the show, is a firm believer that the wrestling galaxy is a better place with this alternate, underground world.
“We created a new product,” said Guerrero. “We didn’t take the same thing. Our executive producer Mark Burnett would rather fail being different than succeed being the same, and that is what we did. [WWE] is like the Coca Cola of the wrestling industry, so if you’re creating another cola, you’re just a knockoff. We at Lucha Underground created this whole new universe.”
Season four will also highlight Pentagon, who is known on Lucha Underground as Pentagon Dark. The show’s evolution of stars, from Alberto Del Rio to Rey Mysterio to Prince Puma in past seasons, now rests in the gloved hands of Pentagon, who is Lucha Underground’s champ and face of the franchise. The luchador with zero fear has also seen his stock rise considerably since Lucha Underground aired its Season 3 finale in June of 2017, going on to star as Impact Wrestling’s champion and for Court Bauer’s Major League Wrestling.
“We create our own world here at Lucha Underground, and we promote and use talent from within,” said Guerrero. “So when I saw Pentagon Dark and Fenix, who is his brother, I started calling them, ‘Los Nuevos Hermanos Dinamita,’ which is the New Dynamite Brothers, because they’re so good. It’s cool to see the world catch on and agree with us in how talented these guys are. Their style of lucha adapts to so many styles.”
The 47-year-old Guerrero is the nephew of the legendary Eddie Guerrero, as well as the son of the late, great Chavo Guerrero, Sr. The Guerrero family, which also included patriarch Gory Guerrero, as well as Hector and Mando Guerrero, is wrestling royalty, on a distant perch with the likes of the Hart family, Rhodes, and Von Erichs.
If the Guerreros were in a dream match against any other wrestling family, with all the family members still alive and well, Chavo said his wish would be to team against the Hart family.
“We’d have to wrestle the Harts, only because we did wrestle the Von Erichs a lot back in the day,” said Guerrero. “We never really wrestled the Harts. We’ve been in the ring with some of them, like my uncle Mando and Bruce Hart in Hawaii, and I’ve done some stuff with Bret Hart, but to have all of us in our prime, to have our family versus their family, that would be pretty awesome.”
Guerrero has been involved in the business for the past 25 years, wrestling for WWE, WCW, TNA Impact, as well as Lucha Underground. He is a two-time WWE tag team champion and six-time cruiserweight champ between his time in WWE and WCW. He noted that the current talent roster for Lucha Underground reminds him of WCW’s famed cruiserweight division in the mid-1990s.
“The WCW cruiserweights changed wrestling back then, and we’re changing wrestling right now,” said Guerrero. “This is something new.”
Although Season 4 has yet to start, Guerrero was asked if there are plans for a fifth season of the show.
“Absolutely,” said Guerrero. “You never know what is going to happen in the TV world, but we’re focused on this season and it’s going to speak for itself. We have to constantly one-up each season, and that’s what we’re doing every year to get the greatest product out there.”
Guerrero was hired for the Netflix series GLOW as its fight coordinator, which he attributes to his work with Lucha Underground, and he will be involved with the show’s upcoming second season.
“I’m super proud of both shows, Lucha Underground and GLOW,” said Guerrero. “To have them both air in the same span of a couple weeks, and to be part of both hit shows, it was surreal.
“I really like creating. I’m in charge of a lot more than just my match in the ring, and I really like that. Your time in the ring is limited, so it provides a chance for longevity, as well as for me to be able to get into stunts and into Hollywood.”
Guerrero believes wrestling fans will embrace the fourth season of the show since it is so uniquely compelling in a far different manner than any other promotion.
“It’s like a comic book combined with a wrestling show and action-drama,” said Guerrero. “I really believe in Lucha Underground, and we’re creating the best show possible.”
• Jonathan Gresham has his sights on Cody Rhodes.
Gresham wrote an essay for Sports Illustrated in 2016 detailing his journey to make it in professional wrestling as someone who stands only 5’4″ yet who is not a high-flyer.
Gresham is a skilled technician, one of the best mat wrestlers throughout all of the independents, but he is constantly underestimated due to his size. Gresham hopes to use that to his advantage against Rhodes in a match that will take place at the Aztec Theatre in San Antonio this Friday and will air on ROH’s HonorClub streaming service.
“Cody is at the top of his game right now and one of the most popular wrestlers in the world,” said Gresham. “He has so much going on that I think he’s going to underestimate me.
“Cody has two or three world championships to worry about, so why would he be worried about me right now? So I’ll keep my course and do what I’ve trained myself to do, and that is outsmart my opponents, pick them apart, and exploit their weaknesses. And I know Cody’s weaknesses.”
Gresham has been traveling the world, to England, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, and Amsterdam, for the past 11 years in his quest to become one of the world’s best wrestlers, delivering memorable matches stateside along the way with the likes of Zack Sabre Jr., Adam Cole, and Timothy Thatcher. He believes that his time in Japan’s Zero1 promotion in 2012 taught him a different set of skills and elevated his confidence to an entirely new level.
“I was back-and-forth between Germany and Japan during that time, and that’s when I was able to wrestle so many different styles,” said Gresham. “That’s when I came into my own and realized who I wanted to be in the ring.”
The 30-year-old Gresham is thrilled for the opportunity to grow in Ring of Honor.
“Ring of Honor is a company I’ve always wanted to work for, but every time I accomplish a goal, I always try to set new ones,” said Gresham. “Being underestimated has been such a part of my life in wrestling and my real life, and that keeps my drive and hunger alive.
“Right now, my goal is proving to the world I am what I say I am, and that is the best technical wrestler in the world. Moving forward in Ring of Honor is what I’m trying to do. It’s a ladder that I’m trying to climb, and Cody is one of the first steps.”
• “Big” Sean Studd may not yet be a familiar name in wrestling, but he has been around the business for his entire life.
Sean Studd’s birth name is Sean Minton, and he is the son of John Minton, better known to the wrestling world as WWE Hall of Famer “Big” John Studd.
“I am the youngest son of ‘Big’ John Studd,” said Studd, who lost his father when he was only four years old. “I have some memories of him, but more memories from being able to watch him on YouTube and the WWE Network.
“Growing up, I did not know my father. I had his action figure, but I didn’t have much else of a connection to him. Once I got into the business, I felt a connection to my father like I never had before. Meeting a lot of his friends from the business and hearing how respected he was means a lot to me. I have big shoes to fill, not only in terms in what I accomplish but also how I carry myself in this business.”
Studd is bringing back the “Bodyslam Challenge” gimmick, where a cash prize of $10,000 has been put up by an undisclosed benefactor to anyone who successfully bodyslams the giant. His next appearance is this Saturday in Hanover, Massachusetts, for New England All-Star Wrestling.
The 27-year-old grew up in northern Virginia and is a proud student of Booker T.’s wrestling school, the Reality of Wrestling, in Houston. Although Studd has been wrestling for four years, he is still returning to Booker’s school for the summer.
“Once I walked in the ring, I instantly knew this was what I wanted to do with my life,” said Studd. “Booker is helping me get to the next level.”
Standing barefoot at 6’6” and weighing 275 pounds, Studd is an even more intimidating presence with his boots on once he steps into the ring.
Studd’s CrossFit workout regimen is a little different from his father’s, but he is grateful that the wrestling business connects him with his late father, even running a Pro Wrestling Tees shop for his dad. Just like the elder Studd, he is also wrestling a giant’s style in the ring.
“At the end of the day, a wrestling match is a fight,” said Studd. “I didn’t get in this business to do flips. When you see me wrestling, you’re going to get a great match of me slamming a guy as many times as I want.”
Studd has never had any contact with WWE about working for the company, but the second-generation talent promises to be prepared if and when the phone one day is to ring.
“I’m in this business for the long haul, and I’m not in a rush to get anywhere,” said Studd. “When my time comes, I want to be ready.”
• Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, with a look at WWE’s Bad Blood pay per view from 2003.
“It’s an interesting time, Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair are working together five years before their retirement match and Kevin Nash is in a Hell in a f—— Cell against Triple H with Mick Foley as the hardcore referee,” said Thompson. “It’s a company in transition here, and the year 2003 almost feels like it doesn’t fit. It’s a little bit of the ‘Attitude Era’, a little of the ‘Ruthless Aggression’ era, and it’s a hodgepodge of stars getting squished all together.”
The card also included Scott Steiner, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Goldberg, and Chris Jericho. The podcast will air on the 15-year anniversary of the pay per view.
“Scott Steiner has an interview on this show that was entirely deleted, but what he probably wishes was deleted was when he fell off the apron face-first,” said Thompson. “There was the moment when Mae Young famously put sardines down her pants to rib Eric Bischoff at the direction of Vince McMahon.”
The WWE Network’s “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” show was postponed 48 hours last week due to creative differences over the content of the WWE-ECW show. Thompson remained transparent to his viewers about the situation.
“I was really happy with the final product, and you got to see Bruce and me at our most passionate,” said Thompson. “I’m passionate about ECW and what it was, and I don’t want people to s— on it, which isn’t necessarily fair. That interview sparked such a debate with Bruce being such a WWE apologist, and they flat-out screwed up a good opportunity.”
The Wednesday episode on the Network will cover AJ Styles’ years in TNA from 2010–2013 with Bruce Prichard working backstage. WWE made a deal with Anthem-owned Global Wrestling Network for footage from Impact Wrestling to be included.
“The AJ stuff did get licensed,” confirmed Thompson. “And we’re going to explore why the TNA office didn’t see the talent they had in AJ and how the office thought he had a bad attitude. People look back at AJ and say, ‘He was TNA’s guy,’ but he was never the top draw for a long period of time. He never had the full confidence of the office, and we’re going to talk about why, as well as the entire debacle that Bruce was privy to over AJ’s contract ending.”
This past week’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” detailed Bischoff’s relationship with Dusty Rhodes, and the show made headlines for a surprise interview. The 1:33:20-mark included a guest spot with the legendary Hulk Hogan.
“As a wrestling fan, that interview was a dream come true,” said Thompson. “My parents put in a VHS of WrestleMania IV, the double-tape set, and while the Macho Man was the star of the show, I became enamored with Hulk Hogan. He became my favorite wrestler, and I remember doing his poses in the den as a kid. The idea that I got to do this podcast interview with him, with Eric catching me on my heels, was one of the highlights of my podcasting career.”
Tweet of the Week
That’s quite an endorsement for New Japan’s Juice Robinson.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.