Kenny Omega breaks through Japan's wrestling barriers to become a true champion

Kenny Omega celebrates his victory in the 26th G1 Climax tournament with his cohorts from The Bullet Club. Omega is the first non-Japanese wrestler to win this prestigious event. Courtesy of New Japan Pro Wrestling

Imagine the villain from some of your favorite '80s and '90s movies: a long-haired, leather jacket-clad, aviators-wearing guy in impossibly good shape, constantly getting the better of all of your favorites with a smirk and a sly comment each time he does it.

That should paint you a pretty accurate picture of Kenny Omega, or at least what you see on the surface. The 16-year veteran has taken a long and winding path to his current unprecedented success in New Japan Pro Wrestling as the first gaijin (a Japanese term for outsiders) to win the company's prestigious G1 Climax tournament.

As the current leader of the wildly popular heel faction, The Bullet Club -- which counts current WWE stars AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson as alumni -- Omega personifies a cartoonish evil that belies his ample in-ring abilities.

Omega's career started an ocean away and went on for eight years before he ever got a whiff of Japan. He featured for a number of North American promotions during that time, most of which were close to his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He also had a 10-month stint in the WWE developmental program that ended with Omega requesting and receiving his release because of conflicts with the training staff.

With those experiences in his rearview mirror, Omega found his way to Japan thanks to a leap of faith. Omega became aware of a Japanese promotion called Dramatic Dream Team (DDT) and one of its stars, Kota Ibushi, who performed in unusual matches in outdoor environments outside of a wrestling ring. With the hopes of attracting their attention, Omega filmed his own DDT-style match at home and sent it to DDT. It worked.

Omega found his new lifestyle fascinating, and his adjustment to the culture turned out to be easier than anticipated.

"I loved Japanese culture before even realizing it was, in fact, Japanese culture," Omega said. "The cartoons and anime I was watching as a child, my favorite video games and even in pro wrestling -- my favorite wrestlers and matches originated in Japan. Learning Japanese was certainly a task, but my passion for the culture, as well as my will to communicate with fans and friends, always encouraged me to continue."

DDT and its more relaxed atmosphere led to creative matches, moves and outcomes, and in August 2008 Omega faced off with Ibushi for the first time in a two-out-of-three-falls match. Omega lost, but he garnered a lot of attention and support from the fans for what he still considers one of the favorite matches of his career. Omega and Ibushi would go on to achieve great things as partners and as rivals in the years that followed.

It was also during this first trip that Omega first crossed paths with The Young Bucks, his eventual partners in crime in "The Elite," a subfaction within The Bullet Club.

"We happened to be on our first Japanese tour with Dragon Gate, and he happened to be on his first tour of DDT," Matt Jackson said. "Immediately we were like, 'Oh, we gotta become friends with this guy.'"

Their friendship wouldn't fully blossom until future meetings in California promotion Pro Wrestling Guerilla and elsewhere, but the seeds for some of the best matches of his career, and the current run that will likely be a career-defining time in Omega's career, were planted as far back as his very first trip.

Omega joined the DDT roster full time in 2010, and he tagged with Ibushi in a couple of one-off matches before the pair won the IWGP junior heavyweight tag team championships in October of that same year against Ryusuke Taguchi and Balor. It would be Omega's only NJPW title run for nearly four years.

It wasn't until Omega's DDT contract expired in late 2014 that a full-time position in New Japan Pro Wrestling became a reality. Although he was closer to achieving some of his goals, in joining The Bullet Club, reuniting with The Young Bucks and receiving an immediate title shot at the company's biggest show of the year, Omega still wasn't quite where he wanted to be.

"On paper it sounds like a great debut," Omega said. "I became 'The Cleaner' and won the IWGP junior heavyweight title in my first match at the Tokyo Dome. Yes, it was a real cool way to kick off a brand-new start, but I still remember being in the arena, changing out of my gear with the title and thinking of how to make it more than what it was."

In fact, despite his size and in-ring style making him a natural fit atop the junior heavyweight division, Omega had higher aspirations.

"Truthfully, I wanted to be heavyweight [champion], but with the belt I had a responsibility as champion, as a foreigner in Japan and even as a member of Bullet Club," Omega said. "Although I was proud of all my defenses, the total package never felt like it truly came together until my last defense at the Tokyo Dome."

That one-year span featured two separate IWGP junior heavyweight title reigns bookended by WrestleKingdom shows. The night after that loss in January 2016, Omega teamed with then-Bullet Club leader Styles in a winning effort, but with Styles set to leave for the WWE, the stage was set for a changing of the guard.

Postmatch, Omega led an ambush against Styles. The rest of the group -- including Gallows and Anderson, who also weren't long for NJPW -- participated in that first wave, but, as the rest of the group cleared out, The Young Bucks and Omega stood ringside before ultimately going back for a second helping.

It solidified for fans what had already happened away from cameras -- a friendship and partnership had come together between the three as "The Elite," and it led to another evolution that helped the Bullet Club stay fresh.

Omega declared a permanent move to the heavyweight division, earned a victory over Shinsuke Nakamura and won the Intercontinental title by defeating seven-time IWGP heavyweight champion Hiroshi Tanahashi. He cherished the opportunity but also felt the pressures that came along with it.

"The last thing I wanted to be known as was a transition guy, or just some foreign dude that had the belt until someone else won it," Omega said.

Omega's run with the title lasted for more than three months, with the highlight of the run coming in a historic match against fellow Canadian Michael Elgin.

"I wanted to raise the stakes, which is why I'd suggested the ladder match," Omega said. "I thought it was a perfect opportunity to forge ahead with a new New Japan. To give our Japanese fan base something special they'd never seen before."

Despite losing that match, there were even greater heights ahead. Omega was announced as one of 20 competitors in the 26th G1 Climax, and, in the introductory news conference, he made no attempt to seem humbled by the experience.

"Part of what makes my character work is the delivery of the truth behind my comments," Omega said. "It's easy to make rude comments simply for the sake of being rude, but I'd much rather go a more psychological route. When you consider some of the things I said, yes, you can say I'm an a--h---, but I'm not wrong."

Over the course of 20 days, Omega wrestled eight matches against eight wildly varying opponents. He had big matches night after night, but, starting with his fourth match, another showdown with Elgin, he had some of the most highly rated matches of his career.

With a final preliminary match set to determine the two tournament finalists, Omega and Tetsuya Naito tore the house down at Ryougoku Sumo Hall, in a match that that lasted nearly 30 minutes and received the rarest of honors from veteran wrestling scribe Dave Meltzer -- a five-star rating (out of five). Omega won, clinching his spot as just the third gaijin ever to make the G1 final.

"I was very proud of my performance as a whole in the G1," Omega said. "I'd said it before, just being in the G1 was never enough. I wanted to secure the match of the tournament and become the MVP. I wanted every match of mine to be very distinctly different from one another. It left me mentally drained, but I'm happy with the result.

"It's every day, and it never eases up," continued Omega, describing the grind of the G1. "There are days when you have tag matches, but you need to prepare for your next singles match on that same day. You also have to maintain your physique, rehab injuries, monitor your diet, appease your sponsors, do fan meet and greets.

"Although there are similar schedules to this out there, none commands the level of performance the G1 does: pay-per-view-quality matches every night for the better part of a month."

In the finals, Omega and 2008 G1 Climax winner Hirooki Goto put on another match that carried on for almost 30 minutes and brought a tremendous reaction from the same fans Omega had won over the previous night. It would be the performance of Omega's career.

"The day of the finals was odd because it'd felt like I'd never left the venue," Omega said. "There was adrenaline that hadn't left my body, but the fatigue of that match was still an issue. I'd come out of the G1 generally unscathed, but my knees were really inflamed, and it kind of changed my approach to the match."

Omega understood the scope of the opportunity in front of him -- a moment that allowed him to go beyond the typical tendencies of his character and lay his soul bare in the ring.

"In the end, I cast aside ideas of what would make me super heelish and paid more attention to the essence of what makes G1 the G1," Omega said. "I made it a battle of heart, and hoped that the real emotion and struggle would convey to the fans. I felt I'd honored the tradition of the G1."

After speaking Japanese to the crowd for the first time since joining The Bullet Club, Omega quickly snapped back into being the bad guy during his celebratory news conference. In his heart, though, there was a sincere sense of fulfillment and accomplishment

"In every way, it's the biggest, most important victory for me," Omega said. "I felt like I was struggling to tell this message and to show the world something in little tiny bits, but during the G1 I was given the opportunity to show much larger chunks of what my idea of pro wrestling is."

Over the past eight years, Omega has experienced the highs and lows of what wrestling can deliver, but, after two successful defenses of his title shot, he's guaranteed to main event WrestleKingdom this coming January in the Tokyo Dome in a match for the IWGP heavyweight championship against Kazuchika Okada, another New Japan legend.

Omega has broken down barriers for junior heavyweights, and for gaijin, but he doesn't take a single thing he has accomplished for granted.

"I'm very proud to say I have won six match of the year awards in Japan," Omega said. "I main-evented a sold-out Budokan Arena show, I participated in the first-ever ladder match in NJPW, made the transition from junior to heavyweight and earned a G1 win with a series full of performances that I'm personally very proud of.

"Any time I broke through the 'glass ceiling' by accomplishing things that foreigners weren't apparently able to do, they've been huge personal victories and career highlights for me."