Article Thumbnail

We’ve Entered the Era of Sexually Fluid Professional Wrestlers

It’s a movement led by the man considered by many to be the best worker in the ring today—New Japan’s Kenny Omega

The streamers are usually for the winners — an ostentatious bit of Japanese wrestling tradition to send the fans home happy in the same way one might be pelted with confetti after the clinching game of the NBA Finals. They add an air of legitimate sport to the predetermined outcomes of professional wrestling — theater, combat and acrobatics squeezed together. Kenny Omega, however, didn’t win his match. He lost his IWGP United States Championship to Jay White at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s January New Beginning event. Beaten, bruised and humbled, he lay exposed to the fans in Sapporo, Japan. On this night then, the streamers and the celebration were for something else — something much bigger than wrestling.

Omega’s former tag team partner and implied lover, Kota Ibushi — an angelic, distractingly handsome wrestler capable of incredible feats of athletic achievement — had sprinted to the ring to save Omega from a beatdown at the hands of the nefarious Cody Rhodes. Omega and Rhodes were in a heated battle for control over the highly popular Bullet Club, a group that sells millions of dollars in merchandise through a lucrative deal with the Hot Topic clothing chain. After years of emotional distance and public scorn from Omega after their breakup, Ibushi was ready to forgive. Omega, defeated and unsure of what was next, finally let go of his anger and hugged Ibushi, the one true thing in his life, as the streamers fell.

Wrestling is designed to elicit a variety of emotions in the service of getting you to return to the arena to part with your money again — anger, disappointment, happiness, titillation. Rarely does that include romance. And even more rarely does that romance involve two men. Omega, the superstar world champion of New Japan Pro Wrestling — the second largest wrestling promotion in the world after WWE — aims to change that. “I don’t know if [Ibushi] wants what I want,” Omega tells me over the phone prior to his IWGP Heavyweight Title defense at New Japan’s July G1 Special in San Francisco. “But if he does, we can do something amazing together.”

Born Tyson Smith in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Omega has become the biggest draw in professional wrestling outside of the monolithic, multi-billion dollar empire that is the WWE. He did so by doing the opposite of the well-worn template for success. Wrestling heroes (“babyfaces,” as they’re called in traditional insider-speak) are usually all artifice — you like them because they’re blandly handsome and they overcome insurmountable physical odds to triumph in the end. Wrestling villains (or “heels”) were cowards, sneaks, cheaters, and sadly, occasionally gay. Despite the presence of out gay employees in wrestling offices, like WWE writer and talent wrangler Pat Patterson and promoter Jim Barnett, wrestling storylines would mostly paint homosexuality as heinous.

One of the first great bad guys in modern pro wrestling was Gorgeous George, who just so happened to share Omega’s curly golden locks. George rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s and was despised for his “flamboyant” behavior, coded language for homosexuality. Decades later, WWE fans in the 1990s would still hurl homophobic slurs at Dustin Rhodes’ Goldust character. Even announcers like Jerry Lawler would pile on in the service of riling up the primarily male audience.

Omega, however, is the poster child for a new template for the wrestling hero, one that’s becoming more and more prevalent: sexually fluid, emotional and fully modern. Wrestlers like WWE’s Finn Bálor, Ring of Honor’s Dalton Castle and others are representing LGBTQ culture in a variety of ways, but Omega is at the forefront of this movement. His post-match interviews revolve around his unparalleled in-ring skill, but also his hope to “change the world.” What that means is rarely given much specificity, but the overall message is clear: Omega wants to change our attitudes about pro wrestling, to evolve the sport beyond simplistic storytelling and to redefine what it means to be a man in perhaps the most traditionally male form of entertainment left.

In order to put himself in the position to be that transformative figure, Omega had to refocus his character. Back in 2014, after years of playing a fun-loving gamer in an implied relationship with Ibushi, he curdled and turned to darkness. “There was this boom in indie wrestling where everyone’s character was, ‘Well, I can kick your ass,’ and that’s it,” he says. “Well, my character is that I’m kind of a bitch and a video game nerd, but I’m really athletic. That was enough for me to stand out from the crowd.”

After a brief run in WWE’s developmental system, he moved to Japan, honing his craft in small companies like DDT (Dramatic Dream Team), which emphasized comedy and showmanship over Japan’s usually hard-hitting, strong-style matches. It was in DDT that Omega started tagging with Ibushi as the Golden Lovers. The name emphatically told audiences what to think of them: blonde, handsome and very much in love. Their style was fast-paced, humorous and sexually charged. (Omega and Ibushi would often share kisses when they worked in DDT, which at the time, were usually played for laughs.)

Eventually, Omega and Ibushi hit the big time and signed with New Japan, but the Golden Lovers team didn’t last long there. In storyline, Omega ended the tag team due to Ibushi jumping up in weight class to heavyweight, but under the surface, audiences could see jealousy forming in Omega’s character. He’d always wanted to be the star. He felt abandoned by Ibushi when Ibushi joined New Japan first. Because of their implied romance, it felt more like a real break-up than a mere storyline contrivance. Nonetheless, the sexually provocative aspects of Omega’s character were removed, and Omega turned to the Bullet Club, a group of foreigners working in New Japan initially modeled after the popular nWo faction from the American wrestling scene of the late 1990s. To that point, Bullet Club were considered solidly evil, defaming the traditions of New Japan. Their first leader was Bálor, an Irish wrestler who has gone on to great success in WWE. Omega would be next in line for that honor after Bálor’s replacement, AJ Styles, also left for WWE.

In order to fit into the heel template, Omega ditched the Street Fighter cosplay and morphed into a hitman-esque persona dubbed “The Cleaner,” which Omega says was the brainchild of New Japan’s creative team, inspired by the Luc Besson film The Professional. New Japan’s writers wanted him to look as much like Jean Reno’s Leon character from that film as possible: Dark sunglasses, black jackets and a permanent scowl. The only accoutrement Omega balked at was wearing Leon’s trademark beanie. With his long, curly, blonde hair flowing out of the hat, it looked far from menacing. Beanie or no beanie, the finished product ended up making him look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, a trait that led to fans clapping the Terminator theme music to urge Omega on in his matches.

The arrogance and the nastiness that defined the new Omega was a defense mechanism against ever being hurt by someone like Ibushi again. It also, though, gave him a fatal flaw — something that his opponents (such as another archnemesis, Kazuchika Okada) could exploit. And so, poetically, it wasn’t until Ibushi rejoined his side that Omega ultimately vanquished Okada and achieved his biggest professional accomplishment to date — winning the IWGP heavyweight championship. Because to finally achieve his dream, Omega had to bare his soul.

It’s telling that Omega’s favorite wrestlers growing up — Rob Van Dam and Mr. Perfect chief among them — were preening narcissistic heels rather than tough guy babyfaces. Even at a young age, Omega was interested in the characters who colored outside the lines of what was considered the norm. Not surprisingly, it’s this willingness to be different that sets him apart from the WWE’s current top star, Roman Reigns. Certainly, the way hardcore wrestling fans approach the two characters is drastically different. While Omega is approaching folk-hero status, Reigns is divisive, to put it mildly. During Reigns’ match with Brock Lesnar at this year’s WrestleMania, the 78,133 fans in attendance broke out in a chorus of boos directed at Reigns, the man WWE has tapped as their next big star (in large part because of his bloodlines — he’s real-life cousins with The Rock).

Part of that audience disconnect stems from Reigns’ character being out-of-step with the zeitgeist. Where Omega is comfortable showing a softer side, Reigns is all hardman swagger. “That’s what makes me appealing — that I’m confident, I believe in myself and I think everybody can relate to that,” Reigns explains to me. “That’s something everybody should relate to. It’s called self-esteem for a reason. You can’t get it from anybody else. If I project that, if I portray that, it’s empowering to so many people who are a little insecure, who get nervous.”

When I tell Omega about Reigns’ take on the psychology of wrestling, he laughs. “It also doesn’t seem true, either,” he says. “People go through [heartbreak] in all walks of life, regardless of age, sex, religion or whatever. There are times you break up with a loved one, a friend or whatever. You feel alone. It’s a very easy feeling to understand — the feeling of loss, heartache and pain. So I’ve put myself in a position to feel pain alongside with the fans.”

Needless to say, wrestling almost never allows two men to be vulnerable and to love one another. Yet even when love is portrayed in a heterosexual context, it’s an outlier in a sport/artform that prefers humor, ironic detachment and righteous fury. (A business built on the dramatic notion of revenge and how to exact it doesn’t often go for pathos.) The best example is probably Macho Man Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth tearfully reconciling in the ring at WrestleMania VII in 1991. “You could feel it through the screen,” Omega remembers. “This was something huge, because of the energy of the people, the commentary.”

In recent years, though, the sport has truly tried to reverse its allergy to actual human emotion — and in the most progressive way possible, with a heavy emphasis on LGBTQ performers and characters. Darren Young was the first active WWE wrestler to come out as gay back in 2013, roughly around the time the Golden Lovers were finding an audience in DDT. And while Young is no longer with the company, WWE has publicly stated a desire to incorporate more LGBTQ stories into their programming. (At this year’s WrestleMania, for example, Bálor came out with local New Orleans LGBTQ fans in special rainbow-accented merchandise — a rare, highly symbolic statement of solidarity and acceptance from a company that doesn’t have a great track record in that regard.) Meanwhile, Castle, the world champion of the American independent promotion Ring of Honor, is a straight man portraying a sexually ambiguous character who often comes to the ring flanked by shirtless men that he calls “The Boys.” In a massive reversal of expectation, Castle is a beloved fan favorite rather than a hated heel in the mold of Gorgeous George.

In his case, Omega says, his relationship with Ibushi is merely relatable — and deeply germane to his experience as a wrestler. “Regardless of the sexual orientation between the two male characters [in the Ibushi storyline], it’s based upon a deep camaraderie. We have that everywhere. The type of camaraderie you see in the backstage area, in the locker room of the arena. There’s a lot of deep emotional connections between wrestlers. Those are the types of relationships where the two wrestlers have each other’s back and make sure they aren’t going looney. Making sure you’re waking up in the morning to make your flight and all that.

“It’s strange that no one has ever decided to explore the depth and the deeper meaning behind why two people would tag together, why two people would hang out together. I never meant it to be something revolutionary. I just meant for it to be real.”

WWE doesn’t venture out into this territory much. As Reigns puts it to me, WWE believes what their fans want is the superhero who never gives up. It’s an easy story to tell, one that men have responded to since the beginnings of drama. “[WWE] keep it simple, because they feel as simple as possible is best. It’s the easiest to book for television as well,” says Omega. “You can micromanage things to the second that way. If there’s real emotion you can’t.”

As WWE’s market share grows and their coffers fill up with money from their new TV deal with Fox Sports, there’s less and less incentive to make their storytelling more modern. Omega, the Young Bucks, Rhodes and the other members of the Bullet Club, however, are differentiating themselves by giving fans an alternative that feels not only modern, but forward-thinking. In wrestling, two men crying can feel revolutionary. It’s a chance to re-educate a whole generation of young boys on what it means to be a man. As Omega says, “Even if you can’t really understand what’s going on [as a child], you can feel, and as long as you can feel something, it’s better than coming out of it and feeling nothing.”