While many in Transcona might know him as Tyson Smith, fans of professional wrestling — particularly fans in Japan — know him by a different name: Kenny Omega.
At 31 years old, wrestling has been Smith’s focus for half his life. In January, Kenny "The Cleaner" Omega took home the Junior Heavyweight Championship in New Japan Pro-Wrestling — the world’s second-largest wrestling organization after WWE — before a pay-per-view audience of over 50,000.
"Kenny’s the one guy who basically went on to make it on his own terms," James Korba said of the rising local wrestling star. Korba is the co-host of the podcast and UMFM program, Loose Ropes Wrestling, and a longtime fan of wrestling, both local and international. "When he won the (Junior Heavyweight) title, we were watching it on pay-per-view. We all stood up and cheered. To see a guy from here do that was pretty cool."
"We were watching it live from Japan, at 3 a.m. in the basement," said Josh Knazan, a ringside announcer for Winnipeg-based PCW Wrestling, of the Wrestling Kingdom 9 championship bout. Knazan has been following "Kenny Omega" since 2005, when Smith was wrestling locally with PCW.
Since those early years, working at Costco during the day and wrestling by night, Smith has pursued his dream with the same focused intensity he pursues an opponent—or two or three, regardless of weight class or age—around the ring. For Smith, that chase has been a lifelong one.
"When I was really young my favourite wrestler was Ultimate Warrior," Smith told The Herald after returning home from a tour with New Japan Pro-Wrestling following the Wrestle Kingdom 9 championship.
Growing up, Smith played AA hockey as a goalie, and felt that was the athletic path he would pursue. But when he was 15, one of his old Transcona Collegiate Institute buddies started training with local outfit Top Rope Wrestling. Smith knew his course in life had taken a turn.
"I watched his first matches, sat in on some training," Smith said. "I knew, when I was 16, I just wanted to train and get in the ring as soon as possible. That was the beginning of the destruction of my hockey career."
At the time, Smith recalled, "There was only one show in town." But the local wrestling scene in Winnipeg was an enthusiastic one.
When Smith finally stepped into the ring one cold Wednesday night at Chalmers Community Centre in February 2000, he’d already been learning the ropes for some time.
"Even though you don’t make your in-ring debut when you’re 16, you’re still there," he said. "Setting up the ring, doing announcing or doing the entrance music and that sort of thing."
"I was seeing guys coming up through Winnipeg, guys like Chris Jericho, Don Callis, Chi Chi Cruz," Smith said, who admired the drive the hard-working local guys showed as they worked their way up the wrestling ranks. "That made it seem like wrestling could be a viable career."
Once he’d graduated from TCI in 2001, Smith enrolled in university. But during his first year he spent more time hitting the gym and chasing his dream than hitting the books or chasing grades.
"When you’re touring around you’re gone for weeks," he said of life on the road during his early years, trying to make a name for "Kenny Omega" in the wrestling game. "I decided to focus on wrestling and hope for the best. So I quit university, and made an attempt to really get out there."
"He was at every show," said Korba, who remembers Smith’s early Omega bouts. "And you could tell, he was just that much better than everyone else."
On a whim, Smith entered a competition in Eldon, Miss. in 2005. As it turned out, Smith came out on top in Eldon, and was offered a WWE development contract.
"From there I was invited to do another week-long tryout," Smith explained. He passed the tryout, and once he got his work visas in order, he was off to the big leagues... sort of. "It was an opportunity to make some money, and at least I’d have some sort of name value if it didn’t work out."
Smith spent two years in the WWE development system, performing in Deep South Wrestling. But Smith quickly became disenchanted with the carefully scripted style that World Wrestling Entertainment had adopted.
"Everything seemed so pre-programmed," Smith said. "It’s just garbage, not entertaining at all."
After two years, Smith decided to quit the WWE.
"I wanted to prove alone, in my own style, that I could be a major player," Smith said. "I wanted to do it without ‘the machine’ ghost writing my story."
So, he returned to Winnipeg and underwent what he described as a sort of "identity crisis."
"There was a period after my release from WWE when I was going to focus on mixed martial arts," he said. "I thought, at least in MMA, people can’t tell me what to do."
Smith entered a few jiu-jitsu competitions, but never quite felt like he was doing the right thing.
"I did well, but I thought that even if I became a fighter, I cared more about how entertaining the match was than whether I won or lost," he recalled with a chuckle. "I figured I’d give wrestling one more chance. I told myself I’d be 1,000 per cent me. I sat down and thought about what makes me ‘me.’ How can I stand out from other people who are doing wrestling not just in Winnipeg, but worldwide? I came up with a pretty original move set that couldn’t be duplicated with the snap, power or speed that I could do it."
The creative, physical style that Smith exhibits when he becomes Kenny Omega and steps into the ring is clearly one of the reasons he’s successful.
"His style is so innovative, so creative," said Knazan, who has had plenty of opportunity to watch Smith in action over the years. "He’s constantly coming up with something new. At least once a match, he does something that makes you go, ‘Wow.’ I’m still blown away by some of the moves he creates."
After a particularly high-energy local match against PCW's A.J. Styles, Smith’s career began to take off. He started doing tours out of New Jersey and along the east coast.
"Around that time, I met this couple who do an online newsletter for Japan about independent wrestling in America," Smith said. The couple profiled him and shortly thereafter, in 2008, his longtime dream of wrestling in Japan came true.
For Smith, who’d fallen in love with wrestling in the glory days of the Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, and Jake "The Snake" Roberts, the Japanese scene appealed directly to his sense of creativity.
Since then, his star — both at home, and particularly in the land of the rising sun — has been on the rise.
In his seven years in Japan, Kenny Omega has been awarded "match of the year" five times, and has performed at the prestigious Budokan — where the biggest rock n rollers in the world go to record Live From... albums — to a packed house.
Smith, who is based out of Tokyo when he is working in Japan, still has plenty of long-term career goals ahead of him.
But not only is Smith happy with the level of professionalism of wrestling in Japan, he’s also thrilled at the opportunities to be the kind of wrestler he’s always wanted to be.
"In Japan it’s a lot different," he said. "They’ll give you every avenue and opportunity to show what you can do."
Most recently, Smith has delighted in giving babyface Kenny Omega a 180-degree makeover, switching from a good guy role to that of a ‘heel,’ and joining ranks with the bad boys in the Bullet Club.
"We’re all friends," said Smith of his Bullet Club buddies. "We do what we want, when we want. We don’t abide by any rules, we just be ourselves."
Smith said he’d also like to cross over into the heavyweight division. But right now he’s focusing on making the most of his current title as NJPW Junior Heavyweight champ.
"My goal is just to make that the best title run as possible," he said. "I want to do it as a Canadian, a foreigner. I want to do it as a guy from Transcona."
Kenny Omega will make a special guest appearance at a PCW Wrestling 13th anniversary event at Doubles Fun Club (20 Alpine Ave) on Sat., Feb. 28. The bell rings at 9 p.m.
Community journalist — The Herald
Sheldon Birnie is the community journalist for The Herald Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org Call him at 204-697-7112