November 15, 2018

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Winnipeggers grappling with major success

Omega, Jericho wrestle to prestigious titles in Japan

Chris Jericho made his return to Japanese wrestling this year and claimed the second-most prestigious prize in NJPW after defeating Tetsuya Naito to win the IWGP intercontinental championship. (TV ASAHI NJPW, AXS TV)</p>

Chris Jericho made his return to Japanese wrestling this year and claimed the second-most prestigious prize in NJPW after defeating Tetsuya Naito to win the IWGP intercontinental championship. (TV ASAHI NJPW, AXS TV)

If you were to talk with people from all over the world and ask them what’s something they associate Winnipeg with, you might be surprised at what many would say.

Of course, the Winnipeg Jets would be a popular answer. After all, they’re coming off a franchise-best season where they were one series victory away from playing in the Stanley Cup final. You’d also probably hear people link the city to its famous bone-chilling winters that seem to never end.

But there’s an answer that might be even more popular than those — professional wrestling.

That’s because people from all over are talking about a guy from Transcona and a guy from St. James who are currently the faces of the second-biggest wrestling company in the world — New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW).

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If you were to talk with people from all over the world and ask them what’s something they associate Winnipeg with, you might be surprised at what many would say.

Of course, the Winnipeg Jets would be a popular answer. After all, they’re coming off a franchise-best season where they were one series victory away from playing in the Stanley Cup final. You’d also probably hear people link the city to its famous bone-chilling winters that seem to never end.

But there’s an answer that might be even more popular than those — professional wrestling.

That’s because people from all over are talking about a guy from Transcona and a guy from St. James who are currently the faces of the second-biggest wrestling company in the world — New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW).

Last weekend at Dominion 6.9, one of NJPW’s biggest annual events, two Winnipeg natives won the top titles in the Japanese wrestling promotion.

Kenny Omega, a 34-year-old whose real name is Tyson Smith, ended Japanese wrestling superstar Kazuchika Okada’s 720-day reign as International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) heavyweight champion, the longest in company history, in a two-out-of-three-falls match that lasted nearly 70 minutes.

It’s incredibly uncommon for NJPW to have a non-Japanese wrestler as its top guy. Omega, a Transcona Collegiate Institute alumni who grew up in the city playing AA hockey, joins a short list of foreign wrestlers to win the IWGP heavyweight championship — a list that includes current WWE champions Brock Lesnar and A.J. Styles.

But Omega wasn’t the only foreigner, or Winnipegger for that matter, to win a championship at Dominion 6.9. Chris Jericho, who made his return to Japanese wrestling this year after nearly two decades of working for World Wrestling Entertainment, where he won every title imaginable, claimed the second-most prestigious prize in NJPW, as he defeated Tetsuya Naito to win the IWGP intercontinental championship.

"For Chris and myself to win (NJPW’s) No. 1 and No. 2 belts, belts that are generally perceived by fans, critics and wrestlers themselves as the most prestigious titles in wrestling, it isn’t something that happens every day. And the fact that two foreigners, who are not only Canadian, but both from Winnipeg, is wow, just an incredible occasion," Omega said during a phone interview.

In an interview with the Free Press, Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, and widely regarded as the top wrestling journalist in the industry, compared two foreign guys from the same city being the faces of NJPW as "hitting two hole-in-ones — the odds are astronomical."

But this isn’t the first time the two Winnipeggers have been the focus of the pro wrestling world. Six months earlier, on Jan. 4, Jericho and Omega headlined Wrestle Kingdom 12 at the Tokyo Dome — NJPW’s biggest event of the year, their version of WWE’s WrestleMania.

It was the first time Jericho and Omega had a match against each other, and it happened on one of the biggest stages in all of wrestling. The ties to Winnipeg didn’t stop there, either, as Don Callis, a native Winnipegger and retired wrestler who worked for the WWE in the late 1990s as a manager known as "The Jackal," did the colour commentary for the match. Omega, who was the IWGP United States heavyweight champion at the time, successfully defended his title against Jericho in a memorable no-disqualification match that lasted more than 30 minutes.

Winnipeg’s Kenny Omega made history by winning the IWGP heavyweight championshi against Kazuchika Okada, a two-out-of-three-falls match that lasted nearly 70 minutes. It is being regarded by many as the greatest pro wrestling match of all time. (TV ASAHI NJPW, AXS TV)</p></p>

Winnipeg’s Kenny Omega made history by winning the IWGP heavyweight championshi against Kazuchika Okada, a two-out-of-three-falls match that lasted nearly 70 minutes. It is being regarded by many as the greatest pro wrestling match of all time. (TV ASAHI NJPW, AXS TV)

"That’s three native Winnipeggers in an arena with over 40,000 people. It’s not just for wrestling, it’s a cross-cultural culmination, as it’s one of the biggest forms of entertainment in Japan," said Jericho, a six-time WWE world champion, during a phone interview.

"(NJPW) is a company that’s slowly but surely increasing its worldwide popularity and basically breathing down the neck of the WWE. It’s a Japanese wrestling company, the top stars are Japanese, but there we were, two foreigners, headlining and main eventing the Tokyo Dome. It would be like two Japanese football teams in the Super Bowl. The fact it’s two guys from Winnipeg is a really huge deal."

It may be a huge deal, but headlining at the Tokyo Dome and winning the wrestling company’s top titles didn’t garner headlines in Winnipeg. Jericho admits the lack of acknowledgement from their hometown for their accomplishments in Japan is frustrating, as he believes it’s something Winnipeggers should be proud of and embrace.

"I’m not expecting a parade, but Kenny and I winning the top two titles, or Kenny and I headlining the Tokyo Dome, that’s news that should be on the front page of the sports section or the entertainment section. If the folk festival comes to town and someone wins best folk festival appearance and is going to play at the Pyramid the next week, they’ll get a story," said Jericho, who grew up in St. James and is the son of former NHL player Ted Irvine.

Omega lives in Winnipeg part-time and doesn’t mind the lack of attention. He said he gets recognized sometimes when he’s in town, but it’s nothing compared to when he’s walking the streets of Tokyo. He enjoys coming home and being Tyson Smith — "just a normal dude."

"I didn’t get into wrestling because I want to be famous in Winnipeg, I got into wrestling because I wanted to stand on a grand stage and be recognized worldwide," Omega said. "If being someone famous in Winnipeg was important to me, I would’ve stuck with hockey or started curling. The lack of recognition doesn’t bother me."

What’s more important to Omega is getting NJPW more recognition. As the new heavyweight champion and face of the company, Omega, as well as Jericho, are being relied on to lead the company to new heights in markets outside Japan. Since winning the heavyweight title, Omega has had "zero time for rest," as he’s been filming commercials, making television appearances and doing numerous interviews. He said it’s a responsibility he’s enjoying, as it gives him more platforms to connect with the audience outside of the squared circle.

"I was ready to shoulder this responsibility a long time ago," said Omega, who has worked for the company since 2010. "I have always felt I was the right person for the global expansion. I really trust my own style and believe it’s the style that’s going to appeal to people around the world."

Omega gets constantly asked when, if ever, he will make the jump to Vince McMahon’s WWE, despite the fact he makes more money in NJPW than he likely would in the WWE and is given more creative freedom over his matches, character and storylines than those who wrestle for the WWE. However, it’s still a question he can’t avoid.

"If someone asks me why not go to WWE, for me, I guess at the end of the day, I want to look back and be proud of the work I did. I also want to be proud I did it knowing that it was my own work — nobody wrote that work, nobody produced that work, other than the person themselves," said Omega, who has turned down several WWE offers over the years. "The WWE is kind of a place where you want to finish your career, kind of when you’ve already accomplished what you’ve wanted to accomplish as an artist, you go there to collect your paycheque and call it a day."

Jericho, 47, isn’t ready to call it a day on his career any time soon. He’s having some of the best matches of his 27-year career. He said he plans to return to the WWE at some point, but for now, he wants to take NJPW to another level.

"Obviously, you’ll never beat WWE, but to carve out a niche for yourself within the market, you have to do something different, and New Japan is a completely different animal," said Jericho, who has no announced date for his first title defence as IWGP Intercontinental champion. "Yes, it’s still pro wrestling, but it’s a completely different style and much more reformed, more hard-hitting and, in a lot of ways, more fun, depending on what you’re looking for."

Omega’s first title defence as IWGP heavyweight champion comes on July 7, as he takes on Cody Rhodes at the NJPW G1 Special in San Francisco.

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

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