Kenny Omega was the Wrestler of the Year in 2018. That isn’t my opinion; that was the general consensus among many fans and wrestling journalists. His matches that year were said to be so great that he was basically showered with awards and accolades once that year came to a close.
Not only did he win multiple Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards that year, but other publications likewise praised him for his work, including Weekly Pro Wrestling, Tokyo Sports, SoCal Uncensored, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, Nikkan Sports, and CBS Sports.
But was he really that good in 2018? To answer that question, let’s take a look at another one of Omega’s eight 5-Star matches from 2018. This time, we’re looking at his tag team match alongside Kota Ibushi against Hiroshi Tanahashi and Will Ospreay from New Japan’s Road to Tokyo Dome tour in December 2018.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
This match took place during New Japan’s late-December Road to Tokyo Dome tour. It was one of the last few stops before NJPW’s biggest show of the year on January 4th. And on that show, all four of these men would be involved in big singles matches with one another. At Wrestle Kingdom 13, Omega was scheduled to defend his IWGP Heavyweight Championship against Tanahashi while Ibushi was to defend his NEVER Openweight Championship against Ospreay. With so much pressure on the two champions, they wanted to send a message to their respective challengers that they were in for some major fights in the Dome.
There was another story at play as well. Omega and Ibushi had reformed their team as ‘the Golden Lovers’ earlier in the year and had promised to reinvigorate tag team wrestling in New Japan. And while there was no denying that the Golden Lovers brought some much-needed attention to NJPW’s tag division, their matches together were, in my opinion, hit or miss. Some of their matches were pretty solid (like this one), while others were horribly overrated (like this one).
But those two earlier matches didn’t have the same stakes as this one. Not only were Omega and Ibushi looking to keep the spotlight on themselves as the (self-proclaimed) best tag team in modern wrestling, but they were also looking to send a message to Tanahashi and Ospreay.
Of course, Omega and Ibushi were right to be worried about their respective challengers. Ospreay was quickly rising through the ranks in New Japan and was quickly becoming one of the most dazzling performers in that company. People loved him for his incredible high-flying acrobatics, but he was also looking to make the jump to heavyweight and prove that being smaller didn’t matter. As for Tanahashi, he was basically New Japan’s wrestling god and was tired of Omega’s maverick wrestling style infecting the rest of the New Japan locker room. He believed that pro-wrestling had rules and structure for a reason, and Omega disregarding these things to ‘move wrestling forward’ was nothing more than a farce.
So with such high stakes, it was anyone’s guess who would win. Would the challengers for the titles score an important win before the biggest show of the year? Or would the champions, acting as a more cohesive unit, maintain their dominance as a duo?
This match originally took place on December 15th, 2018.
Ibushi and Ospreay start things off with a nice technical chain grappling sequence. They follow with a quick cruiserweight sequence and Ospreay tosses both Ibushi and Omega to the floor. He goes for a dive but poses in the ring instead. Ibushi rushes in to attack but Ospreay dodges him some more, leading to some synchronized acrobatics and a standoff. Ibushi tags Omega who demands Tanahashi tag in and he does. Tanahashi takes Omega down with some scientific grappling. Omega tries to fight out for a headlock but Tanahashi reapplies it quickly and then lands a crossbody when Omega tries escaping a second time.
Five minutes have passed as Ospreay tags in and lands an aided splash on Omega for a one-count. Omega holds onto the ropes to avoid an Irish whip and then counters with his own and knees Ospreay in the gut. He chokes Ospreay with his shirt (not sure how that’s allowed) and then tags Ibushi who hits some hard forearms while daring Ospreay to hit him back. Ibushi wins that forearm exchange and tags Omega, who drives Ospreay back into the hard turnbuckle and then drops him with a big chop. Omega follows up with a rib breaker and gets in Tanahashi’s face as he tries to save Ospreay. Ibushi tags back in and locks in a bodyscissor to further target Ospreay’s ribs. Ospreay reaches with one arm but Ibushi traps it, yet he manages to get a ropebreak with his other arm, breaking the hold.
Omega tags back in and he stomps away on Ospreay’s back. Ospreay tries fighting back but Omega shuts him down with a hard whip into the corner. Omega goes for a back suplex but Ospreay lands on his feet. He elbows Ibushi off the apron, dodges a corner charge, and kicks Omega’s head. He crawls over to tag Tanahashi but Omega grabs his leg. He goes for a counter enzuigiri but Omega has him scouted and ducks the kick and also cheap-shots Tanahashi. He sends Ospreay into the ropes but Ospreay does his handspring flippy kick to counter. In comes Tanahashi. He unleashes a flurry of elbows and dropkicks Omega in another corner. A second-rope senton gives Tanahashi a two-count. Tanahashi charges but Omega blocks and goes for a dragon suplex. But Tanahashi elbows out, catches Omega’s leg, and lands a dragon screw leg whip. He goes to follow up with a Texas cloverleaf but Ibushi intervenes. Tanahashi attacks Ibushi and goes for an Irish whip, but Ibushi counters it, leading to some tandem offense from him and Omega. Ospreay tries to save Tanahashi with a top-rope crossbody, but Omega and Ibushi catch him and dump him to the floor. Time for some more choreographed double-team offense. Both Ibushi and Omega land triangle moonsaults to the floor, which they call ‘the Cross Slash’.
Back in the ring, Omega goes for his ‘you can’t escape’ fireman’s carry/moonsault combo, but this time Ibushi adds a shooting star splash to it. Omega goes to the top rope but Ospreay cuts him off and lands a springboard sunset flip powerbomb and drops Omega onto Ibushi. Where does he come up with this stuff? Tanahashi and Omega struggle to their feet and then start trading forearms. Tanahashi gets the upper hand and goes for a slingblade, but Omega counters with a snap dragon suplex. He thinks he’s in control now, when Tanahashi bursts up and connects with his slingblade. Both men go down as the fans chant for Tanahashi. Hot tags to both Ibushi and Ospreay.
Ibushi dashes at Ospreay still on the apron but Ospreay blocks and prepares for some springboard move. Except Ibushi cuts him off as he teeters on the ropes and attempts his over-the-ropes deadlift German suplex. Ospreay escapes that and lands a kick, followed by a diving clothesline and a shooting star splash for a two-count. Now it’s their turn to trade forearms. Ibushi takes over with a KENTA rush and charges into the corner. Ospreay blocks with an elbow and goes for a moonsault press. Ibushi catches him on his shoulder for a lawn dart. More lightning-fast counters and switches. Ibushi lands a bridging German suplex for two and then tags Omega, who boots Tanahashi off the apron. Omega goes for his fisherman neckbreaker, but Ospreay counters with a Stunner out of nowhere. He goes for a tag and realizes his partner’s nowhere to be found, so he goes for his springboard Os-Cutter instead. Except he can’t because Omega catches him and goes for another snap dragon. Ospreay lands on his feet and runs into a huge chop. Omega charges but he runs into a flurry of kicks. Ospreay charges again…and eats a V-Trigger knee to the face (1). Omega charges for another one…and runs into a standing Spanish Fly moonsault slam out of nowhere. Ospreay pins but Omega kicks out.
We’re twenty minutes in as Ospreay lands a corkscrew kick to Omega’s head. He goes to the top rope but Ibushi holds him in place. Ospreay tries fighting him off but Ibushi manages to land a springboard Frankensteiner onto Ospreay. But Ospreay lands on his feet. And thus a meme was born!
The shocked look on Ibushi’s face disappears as he slugs it out with Ospreay once again. Ibushi lands a STIFF roundhouse kick to Ospreay’s chest and dares him to hit back. Ospreay does and the two of them go back-and-forth until Ospreay feints and lands a kick to Ibushi’s leg. He charges but Ibushi goes for a lariat. No, Ospreay flips through Nakamura-style and goes for a powerbomb. Ibushi counters that and drills him with a lariat! Sick sequence. Tanahashi comes in. Ibushi lands a Pélé kick but then eats a dragon screw. Omega comes in next and drops Tanahashi with a slingblade. Omega mocks Tanahashi’s signature pose and then goes for the golden Trigger double knee smash with Ibushi. But Tanahashi attacks Ibushi to prevent that from happening. Tanahashi hits both of them and charges, but eats a superkick/V-Trigger (2) combo. Then Omega points to the turnbuckle. Apparently, they’re going for a move they call the Golden Shower (they really have to reconsider that name). Both of them stand on the same turnbuckle. But Ospreay comes back from the dead and jumps onto it as well. Double Spanish Fly! Tanahashi goes to the top rope and lands a high fly Flow! Shooting Star Press by Ospreay! One, two, no, Ibushi makes the save.
Ospreay lifts Omega onto his shoulders for his Stormbreaker finisher but Omega escapes and lands a poisoned Frankensteiner. Then Ibushi comes in and drops Ospreay with a Last Ride Powerbomb. And then there’s a Tiger Driver ’98 from Omega. Three devastating moves in quick succession. Surely that must be it. Apparently not. Another V-Trigger (3). Omega goes for the One-winged Angel. Ospreay tries to escape. Omega goes for the Styles Clash instead. No, Ospreay escapes that with a Frankensteiner pin. One, two, Omega kicks out and goes for another V-Trigger. Ospreay ducks and lands a hook kick. He goes for his Os-Cutter. Omega blocks and holds him in place for Ibushi. Ibushi goes for a kick. Ospreay ducks and Ibushi hits Omega instead. Stereo arm-trap German suplexes by both Tanahashi and Ospreay. Both Omega and Ibushi kicks out, even though only one of them is legal. Ospreay kicks Omega’s head in and goes to the ropes again. But this time Ibushi catches him. He fights Ibushi off but Omega gets him in position for the OWA. Ospreay keeps fighting out. Omega and Ibushi decide to switch things up and hit the Indy-taker aided spike Tombstone Piledriver. Omega pins but Tanahashi makes the save. Ibushi kicks Tanahashi back to the floor. Golden Trigger connects. One, two, and three! There’s the match!
Winners after 28:46: The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi)
This felt like two matches, not one. The first twenty minutes was filled with the typical fast-paced daredevil craziness that New Japan, and in particular Omega and his closest friends, have become famous for. Then once the Ospreay meme part took place, they took that approach and cranked it up to eleven while still making that final nine minutes feel completely different. And while it was exciting, to be sure, it was also one of the silliest and most exaggerated matches I’ve seen from New Japan.
I remember reading up on the Tanahashi/Omega rivalry (which was the foundation on which this match was built), and remember hearing one of Tanahashi’s biggest criticisms of Omega. He said that Omega’s matches lacked a dramatic structure and only the last five minutes of the match truly mattered. Well that was the case here, except Omega wasn’t alone in wrestling in that way. Ibushi did the same, and so did Ospreay, Tanahashi’s partner in the match. Point blank, nothing from the first twenty minutes really mattered. Tanahashi tried to infuse some psychology and tension into the match, but he was largely ignored by three guys that were more interested in putting on a spectacle than telling a story. This match was supposed to build tension and excitement for both title matches at Wrestle Kingdom 13. It succeeded, but in a minor way. The tension and desire to see at least one of the two WK matches – Ospreay vs. Ibushi – was gone by the end of this match. As for Tanahashi vs. Omega, there was some build to that match, but it too fell by the wayside in favor of Omega and Ibushi throwing tons of stuff at a wall, hoping for something to stick.
This isn’t to say the match wasn’t exciting; it definitely was. There were plenty of terrific counters and edge-of-your-seat moments during which there was no way of telling what was going to happen next. That is perhaps the biggest strength all four of these wrestlers share: you watch their matches and it’s very hard if not impossible to predict whether a big move will be countered, blocked, hit successfully, or kicked out of. That in turn led to some great tension, though 90% of said tension came in the last ten minutes.
And yet, most of that great action came across as…empty. Pro wrestling is supposed to be a form of physical storytelling, yet very little of that was shown here. Tanahashi was largely reduced to a non-issue here, which gave Omega and Ibushi plenty of time to bully and destroy Ospreay. They tried to make him look like a valiant warrior by kicking out of so many big moves in quick succession. But it just wasn’t believable. Ospreay, who earlier took tons of damage to his back and regained control by doing handspring flippy stuff, survived three devastating high-impact bombs – two of which were brutal head-spiking moves that would’ve ended lesser matches – and still had the wherewithal to move around as though nothing happened. I don’t like to pick on a specific wrestler, but Ospreay’s just as guilty as Omega, if not more so, of cramming so much into a single match that it leads to excess and surrealism.
So even though these guys did a ton of crazy moves for almost thirty minutes, that’s all that it was: crazy moves. There wasn’t much of a story, the wrestlers repeated key spots seen in almost every prototypical New Japan big match, and all the most critical moves were so blatantly choreographed. There was no spontaneity or realism, just nonstop acrobatics. And while these four wrestlers did show plenty of athleticism, it was for naught because they didn’t really do anything unique. If you’ve seen one Golden Lovers match you’ve seen them all. The same can be said of Ospreay, who likes to land everything he possibly can in one match, instead of saving anything for the future. As for Tanahashi, he did what he could with the circumstances, but not even he could work his usual magic here.
Final Rating: ****1/4
I’ll give credit where credit is due: this match did have a few cool moments, including one that somehow transcended wrestling and became a lesser-known meme. But aside from that, there’s nothing really exceptional here. Lots of flips, unrealistic action, blatant no-selling, and an emphasis on over-the-top wackiness and acrobatics over sport. So if you like moonsaults, top-rope craziness, and nonstop move spam all taking place at a blistering pace, you’ll find something to love here.
And yet, there are so many matches from New Japan (and now AEW as well) that are similar to this match in many different ways. When you see so many matches featuring the same structure, spots, and wrestlers, they all start to meld together. There’s only one part of this match that truly stands out, and that isn’t because of anything the wrestlers did; the only reason that one bit with Ospreay and Ibushi became quasi-famous was because the Internet did its thing with something Ospreay had done at least once before.
Thanks for reading.