Over the last few years, New Japan Pro Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom has expanded from an event that only hard-core wrestling fans were aware of to something greater. That's thanks in large part to NJPW World and weekly coverage on AXS TV in the United States, to be sure, as well as the undeniable talent and performances that have set a high bar for the year that has to follow in the world of wrestling.
While there has been crossover between the WWE in both directions, with current stars like AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura signing with the WWE after a prominent role with NJPW, and former WWE stars performing on Wrestle Kingdom shows, the co-headlining match at Wrestle Kingdom 12 on Thursday is something else entirely.
On one side, you have Kenny Omega, who has had a meteoric rise over the last several years to become arguably the No. 1 performer in the world outside of the WWE -- and some would put him above the entirety of that roster. As the leader of the Bullet Club, and in tandem with The Young Bucks as "The Elite," Omega has done tremendously in the world of merchandise sales, with his t-shirts available in Hot Topic stores all over the world.
Opposite Omega in that match is Chris Jericho, a living legend and surefire future Hall of Famer who's just months removed from his latest white-hot WWE run. After stating multiple times that he'd never perform outside the boundaries of the WWE ever again, Jericho shocked the world in early November when he appeared on screen at NJPW's Power Struggle to challenge Omega to a historic match at Wrestle Kingdom 12.
ESPN spoke to both Jericho and Omega on the eve of their match at the Tokyo Dome to better understand why and how it all came together, and what it could mean for the future of professional wrestling.
Chris Jericho's career began in the early 1990s, and after training at the Hart Brothers School of wrestling he began performing throughout Canada. Though the Winnipeg native didn't have imposing size his hard work and determination brought Jericho success, as he took chances and made a name for himself in Mexico and Japan. Those efforts, which spanned nearly the first five years of his career, got him the recognition and experience that helped him catch on in ECW, and then WCW.
Jericho's runs in WCW, and later the WWE, happened in the perfect window to inspire another young Winnipeg native who was starting his own journey into the world of professional wrestling.
"I mean, of course it is the ultimate compliment," said Omega, of the opportunity to work with Jericho at Wrestle Kingdom 12. "When you really strip everything away there's this really kind of cool Winnipeg connection that we have going on here. Two dudes from Winnipeg, careers that are somewhat mirroring each other. When I was going about my Indy career locally here, locally in Winnipeg -- when I went to go move onward and upwards -- I really wanted to be like Chris Jericho."
It wasn't just the geographic ties between the two men, or their similar size, which also played a certain factor in Omega looking towards Jericho for inspiration -- it was also the way he presented himself every time he appeared on TV.
"He was a real cool, charismatic character, he knew how to have fun, but he was an innovator," Omega continued. "He was always able to find a way to get himself in a position where he was the topic the people were talking about. Even in WCW, when he was a cruiserweight, he got people talking and he made that belt mean something when he was champion. People could watch his matches and they would be physical, they would be athletic, but then he would still be fun when he would cut a promo. Anything that he did on TV was entertaining. That's kinda the character I wanted to be."
Fast-forward some 17 years, and the careers of Jericho and Omega are finally intersecting at the Tokyo Dome, on the largest stage that wrestling has outside of WrestleMania. Jericho had dozens of title reigns and memorable rivalries with all of its biggest stars over the last two decades, but Omega's path to wrestling stardom was quite different.
While Jericho spent more than half a decade going to Mexico, Japan and Europe to build his name, once he had attained his status with WWE, he never competed anywhere else. Omega worked his way up to a certain point in North America, including an almost year-long stint at WWE developmental territory Deep South Wrestling, but his success would be harder to come by.
Omega made his debut for Japanese promotion DDT in 2008, and over the last decade he's moved to the country, ingrained himself in the culture and learned the language. The combination of his athletic gifts and charisma matched well with DDT and its often over-the-top style, and over time Omega was able to slowly build up his name with best match awards and several clips that went viral online.
Eventually, through his partnership with Kota Ibushi and later as a member of the junior heavyweight division, Omega broke into New Japan. His career took a massive swing upwards after he became the leader of the Bullet Club in early 2016, and in becoming IWGP Intercontinental champion and winning the 2016 G1 Climax, Omega made a name for himself by venturing into unprecedented ground, time and time again. It only got better in 2017, as he had an all-time great trilogy against IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada and helped bring more attention to NJPW worldwide than it's ever had before.
With so many factors in play, from the state of the company and the individual careers of Jericho and Omega, to the relationships each man forged over the course of their careers and so much more, it's equal parts unbelievable and undeniable. On the eve of Wrestle Kingdom 12, two Canadians are poised to bring more eyes to New Japan Pro Wrestling to an entirely new level -- but it's very important that it's these two foreign performers in particular.
"Kenny and Okada are the top guys in New Japan, and Kenny has the respect of all the Japanese fans," said Jericho. "He speaks Japanese. He lives in Japan, so he's almost like honorary Japanese. Me, I've been here almost sixty times. My first tour, I was 20 years old.
"So even though, on the surface, it's two foreigners, it's really not," continued Jericho. "It's two foreigners that have an extensive history in Japan and have the respect of the Japanese fans. There are people that have been following me since 1991. There people that's been following Kenny since those [first] tours with DDT."
Even with so many elements working in favor of this match, a lot of the key parties still had to make big leaps. None of this would have been possible if NJPW bookers Jado and Gedo didn't offer the platform and the freedom for Omega and Jericho to do what they want. Omega could've balked at the abruptness of it all, too, but none of this would have happened if Jericho hadn't made the decision to have his first match in New Japan in over
"Not really leaving, it's just that my contract was done," said Jericho, of stepping out of the WWE's boundaries for at least one match. "I don't belong to anybody, and when the idea for the match came up I thought, 'That's pretty exciting, I like that idea.' And here we are."
This isn't the first time Omega's tried to draw someone who made a name for themselves in the WWE into a match, though the execution was far easier because of Jericho's contract status (or lack thereof).
"Last year I had attempted to do the crossover, and that was just me stepping out of my boundaries, I really tried to make The Elite, myself and The Young Bucks, versus the New Day because I thought it was best for business," said Omega. "I thought I could make everyone a lot of money. I thought it would just be great for fans because there are things that are lacking on both sides of the fence, and I thought that would really bridge the gap and give the fans something really cool and something to be excited about, and then at the end of the day it would also be real fun.
"Essentially now, with Chris, who is able to call his own shots, he saw the same opportunity," continued Omega. "We're two guys that have very different ways of going about how they tell stories, but at the end of the day we are both storytellers."
Credit for the match can also be traced back 25 years, to the very earliest stages of Jericho's career. Jericho met Jado and Gedo while he was wrestling in Mexico, and forged a friendship that lasts to this day; he also met Don Callis, who now works as an English commentator for New Japan, very early on in his career.
Callis, who ran some of the earliest independent shows that Omega performed on in his own career, was the catalyst who can take a fair amount of credit in bringing Omega and Jericho together.
It was all too appropriate, then, that after Jericho made a surprise appearance by attacking Omega during the World Tag League Finals show on Dec. 11, Callis came into the ring and ate a Codebreaker too. It was another symbol of just how committed all of the involved parties were to throwing themselves into the angle and surprising fans at all turns.
"People woke up on the morning of Nov. 5, that were wrestling fans, and saw that Chris Jericho appeared on New Japan and was facing Kenny Omega -- they flipped their lids," said Jericho. "The same thing happened when [they] found out that Jericho showed up and beat the s*** out of Kenny Omega and left him lying in a pool of his own blood. It's exciting and it creates a buzz, which creates business."
"Chris is so good at selling a match," said Omega. "There really isn't anyone who is a better talker than Chris right now. I felt that the best way to sell tickets, to sell this match, to make it interesting to not only to the people that were familiar, but those unfamiliar especially, was our ability to tell the story beforehand. We really had to set the table and the stage for Tokyo Dome for all parties involved."
The match certainly would have had a lot of interested eyes on it had Jericho and Omega never touched. It would've been a battle of the eras, WWE vs. New Japan and a half-dozen other interesting angles, but in the end it likely would've boiled down to a fairly familiar clash of the stars, in which both guys hit their finishers a few times and call it a day.
With Jericho blindsiding Omega and busting him open with the IWGP United States championship belt, which set the stage for the no-disqualification match their clash has become, fans got a visual of a bloodied Omega that seemed vulnerable. When they went to war during a news conference the following day, felt more like the kind of build you'd see in the late '70s territory era, a la Jerry "The King" Lawler, as Jericho pointed out.
"It's something that you don't see a lot, at all, and it adds a new layer of character to Chris, it adds a layer to my character in New Japan that no one has ever seen," said Omega. "Yeah, Chris has probably done something like this before, but for me, on a worldwide scale, I'm allowed to show my range to a new audience as well. There are too many positives for everyone to not go about the way that we have. It makes me really excited."
Unlike Dec. 11 and 12, Jericho didn't pull any punches when it came to just how much this back and forth before Wrestle Kingdom 12 and the match to come could mean for New Japan and the state of the wrestling business as a whole. "I don't think there's ever been a match between two foreigners that had this type of buzz in New Japan history," said Jericho. "Maybe if you go back to Hansen and Brody, or something like that. But this is the biggest match in wrestling that you can put together, out of anybody in any company."
According to recent reports, ticket sales for Wrestle Kingdom 12 back up Jericho's bravado. Current estimates sit at more than 30,000, with New Japan set to release even more tickets for walk-ups on the day of the show. With more tickets for Wrestle Kingdom sold outside of Japan than ever before, there's even an outside possibility of completely selling out the Tokyo Dome.
The only step left is the match itself, and while the hype and excitement surrounding the build and the historic repercussions of such a clash are high, no one really knows exactly what to expect. Considering what we've seen so far, it should come as little surprise that Jericho foresees an intensely physical match that's more in line with his style.
"It's not Japanese style, it's Chris Jericho style. I don't work Japanese style, I work the way I work," said Jericho. "After 27 years of experience, I know how to do a match. I know how to do a match that's exciting in any country."
Even if the match is catered more towards Jericho's strengths, there has to be a concern that Jericho has been on tour with his band over the last few months, rather than performing in a ring. Omega is in peak physical condition, and he's coming off in which he took part in at least a half-dozen of the best and most taxing matches in the world.
"As far as conditioning, it always makes me laugh when people who stopped wrestling stop working out. I ride 20 miles a day on my bike, every day," said Jericho. "Fozzy does 90 minutes nonstop, [and I] always leave the stage covered in sweat. So I'm always in shape. It felt good to be out there eating the ropes and bumping and all that sort of stuff. I did three Codebreakers -- I hadn't done a Codebreaker in five months, but it felt good.
"Now, there's definitely ring shape, and it's not easy," continued Jericho. "It's not gonna be easy to do a match, a one-off at the Tokyo Dome, but I've done it many times before. To me, it's where you place things, the psychology of the match. All of that means so much more. And I'm always in shape, and I'm always mentally in shape, so I'm not too worried -- I'm actually been very excited about it."
No matter how many "seven-star" classics he's had, or how many t-shirts he and the Bullet Club have sold, this match puts a spotlight on Omega that's brighter than anything he's ever experienced -- and that puts a lot of pressure squarely upon his shoulders.
Though Omega is thoughtful and not outwardly arrogant, at least when the NJPW cameras are off, the moments he's experienced over the last year-and-a-half allow him the confidence to step into Wrestle Kingdom with as much confidence as he could ever hope for.
"After the G-1 last year that I won, I really felt that things were changing, and that not only was the company really trusting me to push this thing forward, but it was almost the expectation now that they knew that I was the guy to deal with. It was a good feeling to have that trust placed upon you."
There's also a trust in Jericho that's permeated this match and its build from the very beginning, which lies in his experience, versatility and ability to adapt as necessary.
"Chris understands that, being a guy that's involved in all kinds of different sort of forms of entertainment, not just pro wrestling," said Omega. "He's a rock star, he's an actor, he's a dancer. He knows how to engage the audience. We are drawing inspiration from all corners of the planet to make this something really original and different from every other match on Wrestling Kingdom and just different from what is happening in the wrestling world in general."
So what kind of stakes are there for Jericho in this match? As far as his legacy in wrestling, it's about as set in stone and locked in as anyone still actively competing in the ring. There are certainly benefits to Jericho reaching out to a new audience, especially as he tries to sell out his Rock 'N' Wrestling Rager at Sea cruise in late October and bring a bigger following to any of his other pursuits.
But the deepest reason he would take this big a chance at this stage of his career is evident in everything he's done over the last decade. Every time he returned to the WWE, or entered a new space, Jericho took major chances with his character and tried out new ideas that most others wouldn't dare try. He's the man who got "The List," a clipboard with some paper attached to it, as over as anything else on WWE TV.
That's the kind of adventurous spirit he's carrying into the Tokyo Dome.
"That's kind of how I live my life. If it's interesting to me, creatively stimulating, exciting, you're damn right I'm gonna do it," said Jericho, "Because if I didn't it'd be a pretty boring life."
For Omega, the match itself is far and away the most natural and familiar aspect of the process -- and that's all that's left. Now that the fans have bought in, he and Jericho have the canvas and all the materials they need to paint a masterpiece at Wrestle Kingdom 12.
"I'd say that I hope the fans are going to enjoy it, but I know they are," said Omega. "It's really cool to have that anticipation building up, and I just feel like the hard work of it has been done. Now it's just this excitement of taking on this new challenge and this brand new approach to wrestling."