Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Golden Champions: How the Omega/Ibushi Story Continues Across Continents

As a lifelong comic book reader, long-term storytelling in pro wrestling is something that really gets me going. When a wrestler jumps from company to company, they often find themselves reinventing themselves or creating new characters to work. But occasionally, a wrestler or two come along who are so invested in long-term creativity that they make damn sure that everything they do in the ring serves to slowly advance their career character arc, and in a "sport" that is basically a grunting, sweating theater in the round, it can be really fascinating to follow. Take the story of The Golden Lovers, the closest thing you'll find to a long-term, epic romance in pro wrestling. 

Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi are two of the most purely talented pro wrestlers on Earth. They also may or may not have been in a relationship back when they were a tag team called The Golden Lovers in Japanese comedy promotion DDT. The short short version (which is still long, long, long) of the story goes like this: 

Back in 2008, a young Kenny Omega, nerdy, in his mid-20s, and still relatively young in his wrestling career, saw a video of Kota Ibushi wrestling in Japan and became instantly enamored with him, recording a super-enthusiastic promo challenging Kota to a match in DDT. For whatever reason, everyone kinda went for it, and that year, Kenny flew to Japan to meet his destiny. They wrestled a wild match that went into a parking lot and featured moonsaults off parked cars and vending machines and other wild shit. Kota won the match and they basically fell in love with each other. DDT signed Kenny with the idea that he would become Kota's rival and they would have shitloads of insane matches with each other, but they swerved the promotion by saying "NO we're in LOVE and we want to be a TAG TEAM because we LOVE EACH OTHER so much." DDT said, "oh, uh, what's your team name?" "We're THE GOLDEN LOVERS and WE'RE IN LOVE." DDT: "Oh, shit, so you're not just saying that, huh?"

So the Golden Lovers become a tag team working a gay couple gimmick that is played for comedy in DDT because DDT is a comedy promotion and, well, that's how gay gimmicks have historically been presented. Pro Wrestling: sometimes problematic! But a weird thing happens with the Golden Lovers: they take their storyline seriously and start to become a serious tag team, also wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling and becoming Jr. Heavyweight Tag Champs. It doesn't hurt that they straight up blur the lines of reality, hinting quite strongly that their relationship isn't just a wrestling gimmick. Kenny has strongly hinted at being pansexual in interviews and Kota...well, Kota is the Rocky Horror of wrestling: he's beautiful and muscular and kind of doofy and prrrrrobably gay, but may also be asexual because all he thinks about is wrestling. Seriously. He doesn't read books because it may distract him from thinking about wrestling. Yeah.

Look how adorable. (Photo via Reddit,
posted by packagefan99)

As is the case with wrestlers who invest heavily in their characters and exert control over their long term, comic-book style soap opera arcs, certain traits emerge in Kenny and Kota. Kota is the naturally gifted wrestling genius who barely needs to apply himself; Kenny is the one who has to bust his ass and scrap and claw. But at their core is the fact that they are a UNIT, a THING, and that they are wonderful. 

Of course, as is the case with most tag teams -- and many couples! -- they eventually break up, focusing on solo careers. Kota, being the naturally gifted, heavily pushed company star, decides to move up to the heavyweight division, immediately becoming a main eventer and having banger matches with Shinsuke Nakamura and the like. Kenny stays in the Jr. division and immediately loses his way without Kota. Perhaps a little bitter at Kota moving to heavyweight, he joins the villainous Bullet Club faction and starts interfering in matches and cheating and all kinds of evil chicanery...but he does win the Jr. Heavyweight title. He even interferes on behalf of his stablemate, IWGP Heavyweight Champ AJ Styles, when he's defending against...Kota Ibushi! Kenny distracts Kota on the apron, Kota shakes his head at him sadly, but AJ takes advantage of the distraction and wins the match. Kenny is guilt-wracked because he still loves Kota but can't admit it to himself. Kota is crushed and actually leaves the company, becoming a journeyman for a hot second. He even pops up in WWE for the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic. But eventually he makes his way back to New Japan, where Kenny has, in his absence, graduated to leader of the Bullet Club (AJ has since signed with WWE) and become a stellar heavyweight, having his own run of amazing, legendary matches with Kazuchika Okada and others. 

Kenny doing just enough to fuck up Ibushi's flow. 
Invasion Attack 2015 vs. AJ Styles

We still don't know if the
Young Bucks are staring
with concern at their 
junk on their book cover.

Ah, Kenny. Here's Kenny's deal: he's one of the greatest wrestlers in the world. Maybe the greatest. But he's at his best when he is with his one true love, Kota Ibushi. When he's not with Kota, he tries to fill that void with other friends, like the Bullet Club, and his closest friends in that faction, the Young Bucks -- a hot-shit flippy tag team that may very well be the best tag team in the world (FTR is better, but never mind that now). Kenny and the Young Bucks become known as “The Elite,” an appropriately hyperbolic title for an overcompensating crew of wrestlers. 

Kenny has a series of insane, next level, mind-blowingly artistic wrestling matches with Kazuchika Okada over the IWGP Heavyweight Title, which is the pinnacle in NJPW. For these matches, Kenny has the Young Bucks in his corner for support (and occasional heel interference because that's what Bullet Club does). He becomes known as one of the best in the world, and the matches break the star scale when it comes to rating wrestling matches...but Kenny can't beat Okada for the title. He loses their first match in 46 minutes. Their second match goes to a one-hour draw. (In Japan, long matches = EPIC AMAZING OMG HOLY SHIT. Amazingly, this also often ends up being true. Do not argue this point with me, fellow wrestling nerds. Japanese wrestling matches that go over 30 minutes are MY JAM.) He manages to win their third match, but it's in the middle of the prestigious G1 tournament and it's not for the title (and it's less than 30 minutes, so how could it really count? OK, now I'm kidding). 

All the while, Kota is back in the company and doing his thing, watching Kenny from afar. They actually keep referencing each other in their movesets and ring wear (Kenny's finisher is called the One Winged Angel and Kota has had one skeletal wing on his trunks for forever now...also, Ibushi is the only man to ever have kicked out of the move. Shit like that is important and poetic in wrestling), like that annoying couple that split up but keep making eyes across the room at each other while their new dates are heavily annoyed. They're Apollo and Starbuck in Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica, but less gross. 

And eventually, they get back together! After a weird angle where Cody Rhodes, another Bullet Club member, tries to get under Kenny's skin and make a play for BC leadership by fucking with (and acting like he's trying to fuck) Kota, the Bullet Club eventually splinter, with Cody's faction attacking Kenny in the ring not long after the January 2018 Wrestle Kingdom (NJPW's WrestleMania). Kota rushes to Kenny's rescue because he's wanted to get back with him the whole time. With BC chased off, Kenny's ashamed and turns away from Kota, but Ibushi forces the issue, and they finally embrace (and streamers and confetti go off; it's hilarious and wonderful). 

Back with Kota, Kenny is reinvigorated. They have a phenomenal 2018, wrestling killer tag matches (including a very dramatic match with the Young Bucks where Kenny works out a LOT of issues with his complicated mean bad guy friends and his boyfriend, kind of turning the Bucks babyface in the process). With Kota in his corner instead of the Bucks, Kenny FINALLY defeats Okada at Dominion in June and wins the IWGP Heavyweight Title, ascending to the pinnacle of pro wrestling with Kota at his side. (The match goes 64 minutes and it's the best wrestling match you will ever see in your damn fool life.) 

By the way – when Kenny wins the IWGP title with Kota in his corner, he happens to be wearing tights that feature pansexual pride flag colors in the striping. Just pointing that out. 

Now, this has become all about Kenny at some point. More accurately, Kenny has kind of made it all about him. Ibushi has always been the more confident of the two; he's naturally talented and doesn't prioritize championships quite as much as Kenny does. Kota just wants to use wrestling to make people happy and enjoy life, and yes, sometimes that includes championships, but that's a byproduct of pursuing happiness. Kenny wants to be happy too, but he is much more deeply insecure than Ibushi and is more focused on the props and prizes in their chosen business. And most importantly for this part of the story, Kenny, while now happier than he's been in a long time, still doesn't fully believe he can win the big matches on his own, without friends—more specifically, without Ibushi. 

This spells Kenny's doom at Wrestle Kingdom 13 the following January, where Kenny is slated to defend the IWGP Heavyweight Championship against New Japan's long running company ace, Hiroshi Tanahashi. Kenny and Tana beef about their competing wrestling philosophies; Tana is a traditionalist who believes in old-school psychology and mat wrestling, while employing a few well-placed areal moves (like his finisher, the High Fly Flow frogsplash). Kenny, meanwhile, has formed a friendship with the Young Bucks based around “changing the world” by changing how wrestling is perceived and how it can be presented. 

Unfortunately for Kenny, the opening match of Wrestle Kingdom features Ibushi defending the NEVER Openweight Title against Will Ospreay. Said opening match is high-flying and dangerous and ends with the always-flirting-with-traumatic-head-injury Ibushi suffering a concussion. He's carried from the ring on a stretcher and won't be around for the main event. 

And that's when I knew that Kenny Omega would lose the IWGP Championship to Tanahashi. Indeed, with only the Young Bucks back in his corner, Kenny loses the championship (in a thrilling and highly emotional match). 

Dejected, and possibly a little ashamed that he couldn't win the big main event without Ibushi at his side, Kenny announces that he is leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling. He and the Bucks feel like they can't “change the world” in New Japan; the company is still clinging to the old ways, as symbolized by new champion Tanahashi (ironically, Tana loses the title a little over a month later to the 26-year-old new Bullet Club leader, Jay White, but White is a New Japan dojo graduate and could represent a more youthful version of New Japan's traditionalism, his current faction affiliation notwithstanding). So in order to change the world of pro wrestling, The Elite move to North America and, with Billionaire Tony Khan and frienemy Cody Rhodes, form a new promotion, All Elite Wrestling (AEW). Meanwhile, Ibushi has decided that he is going to settle down in New Japan and make it his full-time home. So the Golden Lovers break up again – amicably, but it's another breakup nonetheless. 

AEW takes the world by storm, and it's widely assumed that Kenny and the Bucks will coast to being crowned the first World and Tag Team Champions of the new promotion, because, well, it's their company. Also, at their first big Pay-Per-View event, Double or Nothing, Kenny is facing Chris Jericho in a #1 contenders match. These two faced off in an instant classic at Wrestle Kingdom 12 which drew a ton of fresh American eyes to New Japan Pro Wrestling (to be honest, while I had watched the last few WKs before WK12, this was the match that caused me to finally cave and subscribe to NJPWWorld and follow the company full-time). Omega won that match, and was the favorite in this one. 

Buuuut, Omega loses, and loses cleanly. He gets knocked out with Jericho's new finishing move, a  back elbow strike called the Judas Effect, and gets pinned in the middle of the ring, clean as a sheet. And to make matters worse, Jon Moxley, who recently and very publicly exited WWE for creative differences, debuts by attacking both Jericho and Kenny after the match, and the building explodes. Just like that, Kenny Omega is an afterthought in the world title picture. (Later in the year the Bucks also get upset in the opening round of the AEW World Tag Title Tournament.)

So Kenny sort of wanders for the next two years – not really spinning his wheels, but he's a little unsure of what he's supposed to be doing in AEW if he's not the top guy. He has a hardcore feud with Moxley but loses (and gets tossed into a briar patch full of barbed wire for his trouble...wrestling is real). Mox goes on to dethrone Jericho for the AEW Title. While Kenny does manage to win one of Mexico's top championships, the AAA Megacampionado, Kenny decides to focus on tag team wrestling in AEW, perhaps in a bid to reclaim some of that old Golden Lovers magic. He and another friend from his New Japan days, “Hangman” Adam Page (whom Jericho defeated for the title) spend a good two-thirds of 2020 as AEW Tag Team Champions, but their reign is a rocky one. They are never in sync like the Golden Lovers were. Page is caught up in his own issues (he also felt like he was chosen by fate to be the first AEW champ, and his loss to Jericho also messes with his head) and is drinking a bunch to cover for them; Kenny is straightedge and a little weirded out by whiskey. It's their strength as singles wrestlers that keeps them afloat, usually gelling just in time to put their opponents away. Eventually, they lose the titles when FTR, a team of Southern Boys that have more in common with Page than Omega does, manipulate Hangman into a fake friendship that they exploit to easily and obviously betray Page mid-match and win the titles. Kenny – either furious that Page was so caught up in his own shit that it cost them the titles, or disgusted because he sees his own friendship-related insecurities reflected in the hard-drinking Page – immediately abandons Hangman and declares that he's going to focus on singles wrestling again, beginning to exhibit a lot of the same snarky, petty mannerisms he exhibited in his last heel run with Bullet Club. 

Meanwhile, back in NJPW, Kota Ibushi begins a slow but steady march to greatness. No longer focused on supporting Kenny (he famously answers a reporter's question about his feelings about Kenny leaving by saying “I'm trying not to think about him right now”), he is able to really focus on his own career. Also at this time, he notably signs a full-time contract with New Japan (he was technically a freelancer before this), publicly announcing his intention to retire in NJPW. He quickly rebounds from his NEVER Openweight title loss to Ospreay by swapping the IWGP Intercontinental Title with one of his long-time rivals, Tetsuya Naito. After coming up short in the G1 tournament in 2018, he finally breaks through and wins the G1 in August, securing a guaranteed title shot at Wrestle Kingdom 14. All the while, his momentum leads many to speculate that WK14 could be Ibushi's time, now that he has fully committed to New Japan, to ascend to his rightful spot atop the company. He's widely considered to be maybe the best wrestler in the world (it's generally a three-way debate between him, Omega, and Okada), and women absolutely adore him, often weeping openly after his biggest wins and losses. It has to be his time, right?

Except it's not his time. During Wrestle Kingdom's new two-night format, Ibushi comes up just short, losing his night one title match with Okada (in an INSANE banger of a match), and then losing a night two consolation match with Jay White, who constantly seems to have Ibushi's number. In the closing seconds of the 39-minute war with Okada, Ibushi recovers from one of Okada's deadly Rainmaker clothelines by connecting with a desperation V-Trigger – Kenny Omega's signature jumping knee strike. The Golden Lovers have always called to each other by referencing each other's moves in the ring, but this is one of the first times I've ever seen Ibushi hit the V-trigger, and it feels like a last-ditch cry across the ocean for help, to channel his absent soulmate in order to propel him to victory. But Kenny's not there, and Kota falls just short. 

Ibushi resolves that 2020 will be his year. He has long looked at Hiroshi Tanahashi and (now WWE star) Shinsuke Nakamura as his personal “Gods” of pro wrestling, and he resolves that it is time to ascend to their level. He begins using Nakamura's Bomaye knee strike in matches as a lead-in to his own finisher, the Kamagoye knee (what is it with Ibushi and knee strikes?). Kamagoye roughly translates to “Killing God” or “Surpassing God” based on what I can find on the internet, so that's fun. He forms a tag team with Tanahashi and they briefly hold the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championships before dropping them to Taichi and Zack Sabre, Jr. Tana blames himself, as he is getting older and being moved down the card, and gives Ibushi his blessing in his quest to become “God.” In October, Ibushi becomes the first person in 13 years to win back-to-back G1 titles, besting SANADA in the finals. 

The Ibushi of 2020 is confident, self-assured, with a single-minded determination to bring his style of wrestling to the top of the company. If there was a hope that 2019 would be the year of Ibushi's ascension, in 2020, it was nearly a certainty. 

Meanwhile, back in America, Kenny Omega responds to his own tag team title loss with petulance. While Hangman Page expresses a desire in interviews to keep the team together, Omega is dismissive and claims he's moved on. Also determined to ascend to the top of the wrestling world, his path is almost just as much a given as Ibushi's. But Kenny doesn't see it that way. He doesn't have Ibushi at his side, and he just abandoned Page out of disgust. As he marches his way through AEW's #1 Contender World Title Eliminator Tournament, eventually defeating Hangman in the finals at November's Full Gear PPV, he exudes bravado and confidence, insisting on a new, completely ridiculous, over the top ring entrance that includes a laundry list of trumped-up accomplishments that don't actually need embellishment. As his title match with Jon Moxley on December 2 looms, Kenny feels like he once again needs someone in his corner for this, his first ever opportunity to wrestle with the AEW World Title on the line. The obvious choice is the Young Bucks, but their support has never been enough for him in the past, has it? They're not going to help him past Jon Moxley, a guy he's lost to in a big match before. 

Enter Don Callis.

Don Callis is a wrestling industry vet who has worn a number of hats in his 30+ year career. Most American fans came to know him as a manager, wither as “The Jackyl” in the WWF or “Cyrus the Virus” in ECW. As of the late 2010s, he has settled into his role as commentator and executive. In 2020 he is an executive for Impact Wrestling after a couple years on commentary in New Japan. He is also a Winnipeg, Manitoba native and has known fellow Winnipegger Omega for 20+ years. He also, notably, was on commentary when Omega won the IWGP Title. So when Callis shows up on AEW TV to give guest color commentary for Kenny's World Title Eliminator finals match against Page, it raises eyebrows due to his position at Impact Wrestling—an AEW competitor—but it's also understood that he and Kenny are tight. And when it's time for Kenny's title match against Moxley on Dec. 2, Callis is back on the mic.

Omega and Mox battle back-and-forth for 28 minutes. It's a clean, fairly-contested, and brutal brawl. Since their previous contest ended with Kenny swimming in barbed wire, he dared Moxley to avoid using weapons in the match, and Jon sticks to their gentleman's agreement. But at a key moment late in the match, after Omega has absorbed blow after blow from Moxley and is possibly about to require meidcal attention, a concerned Callis leaps from the announce table with a live mic, pleading “he's hurt!” to the ref. Seemingly desperate to protect his friend from serious injury, Callis taps Moxley on the shoulder to beg him to lay off, and Mox clocks him. Callis drops, but manages to slip the microphone into the ring behind the referee. Kenny grabs it, makes his way back to his feet, and BAM! clocks Moxley with it, violating the no-weapons gentleman's agreement Kenny himself pushed for. A grip of V-triggers and a One Winged Angel later, and Kenny is AEW World Champion, hi-tailing it out of the building with his buddy Callis in tow. Once again, Kenny Omega is atop the wrestling world, with the help of one of his friends, in the worst possible way. 

Back in Japan, Ibushi calmly & confidently marches toward Wrestle Kingdom 15. He doesn't have any friends by his side, but hasn't forgotten about his best friend either. While he walks to the ring by himself, he silently carries in his heart the friends and mentors who have walked with him in the past. He continues to channel Shinsuke Nakamura with his use of the Bomaye knee, and he's using Kenny's V-trigger more and more. Finally, the two-night WK15 rolls around, and Ibushi's dance card contains a pair of men who represent hurdles Kota has never fully cleared. His night one opponent, Tetsuya Naito, is the IWGP Heavyweight AND Intercontinental Champion, having unified the titles a year earlier. (Naito has his own long-term love/hate relationship with the IC belt that is also worth exploring; Naito making peace with the IC title by merging it with the Heavyweight belt is a whole thing, and it's ridiculous and great.) On night two, the winner of the match must defend against Jay White, the snotty current Bullet Club leader who has defeated Ibushi in the majority of their singles matches, most recently snatching the G1 winner's Wrestle Kingdom contract from him (and defeating him in that night two consolation match at WK14). 

The match with Naito is exhausting, emotional, back-and-forth. A war. Naito and Ibushi have a history of working together in dangerously high-impact matches that feature an uncomfortable amount of head and next trauma. One of their IC title clashes in 2019 featured a spot where Ibushi was flipped onto the ring apron, clipping the corner of the apron with his head and neck and landing with a sickening thud on the arena floor that stopped the hearts of wrestling fans worldwide. How Ibushi didn't sustain another concussion with that contact is still a mystery, but that's part of what makes the Golden Star special: he truly does seem inhuman sometimes. He's naturally gifted and has a reputation for fast recovery and quick healing. Maybe he really is a god, who knows. After a half hour of high impact strikes and holds, both men are barely able to stand as Ibushi connects with his Kamigoye knee, but it only scores a two as Naito digs deep to stay alive. As Ibushi sets up a second Kamigoye, Naito springs to his feet and connects with an enziguri kick to the back of Kota's head. He connects with his Valentia brainbuster variant, again dropping Ibushi on his damn head. These two are fiends for head trauma like Donald Trump Jr. is for cocaine. Naito winds up for his finishing move, Destino, but as he flips over Kota's head to position for the falling reverse neckbreaker that has one him title after title, Naito is caught on Ibushi's shoulders. He drops to the floor, but Kota has Naito's wrist under control. And just like that, the last two moves of the match strike in rapid succession: a Kenny Omega-esque V-trigger and immediate Kamigoye which connects flush with Naito's chin. 

1, 2, 3. The Golden Lovers are both world champions.   

Kota passes out from exhaustion after the final bell. He's so out of it, in fact, that when he comes to, he doesn't hear his music playing, instead seeing Naito lying next to him and instinctively covering him again, not realizing that the match is over. The referee taps his shoulder and emphatically explains to him, “the match is over. You won! You won!” After 11 on-and-off years in New Japan, he's done it. And he's done it by himself. But he's also done it with the spirit of Kenny Omega by his side. 

The night two match against Jay White is an equally hard-hitting affair, but after the emotional high of night one, it would be downright criminal for Ibushi to lose. No, after 48 minutes, the longest main event match in Tokyo Dome history (besting the 46:45 Omega vs. Okada WK11 match), Ibushi vanquishes the leader of Kenny's old crew. 

It's certainly not Ibushi's intention to surpass his fellow Golden Lover, but there's a kind of poetry to the fact that by ascending to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, he breaks one of Kenny's records, defeats the leader of his old faction, and adds the Intercontinental Title as an added bonus. Kota may have said that he wasn't trying to think about Kenny after he left, but their relationship casts a long shadow. Kota was always the more effortlessly gifted of the two, but he's never really rubbed it in. Instead, it just sort of...happens, that Kota wins a Wrestle Kingdom closing match, something Kenny never was able to do. He does it while channeling his best friend's signature move, while still wearing that skeletal One Wing on his trunks. 

And while Kenny may have become a despicable, cowardly heel in order to win his title in AEW, he's not so out of sorts that he can't send a sincere, loving message of congratulations across the ocean to his forever tag partner. 

What does Kota think about Kenny's latest attitude change, I wonder? It probably doesn't matter, ultimately. At this point in their relationship, Kota knows how Kenny is: he knows that Kenny tends to get lost without Ibushi by his side. But he also seems to understand that Kenny's insecurities are something he has to figure out on his own. In 2018, Kenny was the dominant personality of the Golden Lovers, using their friendship, love, and spiritual connection to rise to the top of his profession. But Kota Ibushi is quietly the rock of their relationship, sad when they're apart, but secure in himself to know that while they may be separated by an ocean, they are always together. Perhaps he sees Kenny aligning with Don Callis, cheating to win the AEW title, and ditching the Young Bucks in favor of another of his tag team pals, the Impact Tag Team Champion Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson, and shakes his head a little sadly, the way he did when Kenny interfered in his title match with AJ Styles all those years ago. But with the knowledge of 2018 behind him, knowing that the Golden Lovers always find their way back to each other, that head shake is maybe a little less sad. After all, no matter how it happened, the Golden Lovers, the gay-panic comedy tag team of DDT Pro Wrestling, are world champions on two different continents. Hell, throw in the IC title and the AAA Mega belt, and The Golden Lovers hold four of the world's top singles titles. That's not too bad for a pair of guys in love, navigating through a hypermasculine sport that historically has used queer wrestlers for easy heat and pushing the audience's buttons. 

And there is more story still to be told, which is how it goes in professional wrestling. They say wrestling is a soap opera, but it's also a real life comic book. The story winds and turns and swerves, but the hero's journey never ends. Kenny Omega may be a champion right now, but he's still a bit lost. Maybe he'll find himself without Kota; maybe they'll need to reunite for him to return to the light. What makes pro wrestling so wonderful and compelling is the journey we all take in finding out.  


That One Tweet Thread About the Golden Lovers, Annotated

Stories That Are True to Our Hearts: Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi (via The Spectacle of Excess)

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