This is yet another match review request that came to me from some of our loyal and dedicated readers here at TJR Wrestling.
On that note, before we get to this match, I want to thank all those readers that’ve reached out to me lately with match review recommendations. I’m old school and don’t use social media so the only way to reach me is via email. Some of you have taken the time to give me your suggestions and some of you have told me how much you enjoy reading what I write. I am honored that so many of you enjoy reading these pieces of mine and I will continue to do these reviews whenever I have time. Please continue supporting TJR Wrestling and all of us here will continue to do our best to deliver the best we can to you.
So with that, let’s take a look back at the match that, despite all the incredible wrestling that has come this year, is still widely considered the frontrunner for Match of the Year for 2023.
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.
When Kenny Omega left New Japan for AEW, he left a void that was not so easily filled. While token heel gaijins were a dime a dozen in Japan and had been for decades, Omega was, for better or worse, irreplaceable. He fit a very specific niche in the company: not only was he a successful leader of the Bullet Club after succeeding AJ Styles, but he transcended his pigeonholed role as obnoxious heel by having scale-breaking and attention-grabbing matches. From his G1 Climax debut in 2016 to his final match for the company (at the time) at Wrestle Kingdom 13, Omega became respected and in some cases admired by the Japanese fans as much as he was by his international fans.
But when he left, New Japan needed someone to fill his boots and unfortunately, no one could really do it. In many ways, the company needed two different people to do fill Omega’s role: Jay White took Omega’s place as Bullet Club’s leader and Will Ospreay took Omega’s place as frenetic foreigner that had great matches.
While Ospreay had been working his way up New Japan’s ladder for years, Kenny Omega’s departure gave Ospreay the opportunity to graduate to the heavyweight class, at least on paper. He moved up to that class ahead of the 2020 G1 Climax and, despite wrestling in a more hybrid style that still combines his high-speed cruiserweight origins with a more power-based arsenal, managed to find quite a bit of success as “the new Kenny Omega”.
And while Omega remained focused on his own problems and rivalries at home, something pulled him towards his old stomping grounds. And once he turned his gaze to the East, he wasn’t impressed with what he saw. From his perspective, Will Ospreay, the man pegged to be his replacement, failed to live up to those lofty expectations.
And so Omega announced his return to New Japan. He vowed to save the company and do what Ospreay couldn’t. He also vowed to show the world the difference between himself and all those others that looked and acted like Ospreay.
It was a sort of past versus present/future angle. Omega represented NJPW’s recent past while Ospreay was the company’s current top foreign star. Both men had similar bombastic wrestling styles and penchants for frenetic pacing. Both guys hit hard and pushed their bodies to the limit. Omega was more experienced but Ospreay had youth on his side. But keeping things even between them was the laundry lists of injuries and physical problems ailing both men. Omega had spent almost a full year sidelined recovering from multiple surgeries and other problems while Ospreay, at 30 years old, has already started publicly questioning his future in the wrestling business.
Needless to say that neither man was 100% going into this match. And yet, both of them were going to put everything on the line, as though this match could be either man’s swan song. Given how much both of them cared about their legacies and their need to prove themselves, expectations were sky high. But could these two go even further than anyone else and possibly break the scale once again? There was only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on January 4, 2023. It was rated ******1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, a rating it shared with Omega versus Okada II from Dominion 2017. Only Omega versus Okada IV from Dominion 2018 is rated higher. Now that most of the initial emotion surrounding this match has died down, let’s look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
This is for Ospreay’s IWGP United states Heavyweight Championship. Ospreay charges at Omega the second the bell rings but Omega dodges. A lock-up leads to an around-the-ring struggle with hold exchanges and some paintbrushing on Omega’s part. A chain grappling sequence ends with Omega in control. Ospreay fights to his feet and flips right back up following an Omega shoulderblock. Some trash-talking leads to a bitchslap from Ospreay. Omega blocks two corner charges and goes for a standing Frankensteiner but Ospreay lands on his feet and succeeds with a Frankensteiner where Omega does not. Omega falls to ringside and Ospreay follows with a pescado.
Ospreay shoots Omega into the steel barricade and then tosses him into the ring. He goes for some springboard move but Omega stops him mid-move and shoves him backwards off the apron and into the barricade as well. Once Ospreay is back in the ring Omega targets his back with forearms and his ‘You Can’t Escape’ fireman’s carry slam/moonsault combo for a two-count. Omega follows with a hiptoss/spine punt combo and starts acting cockier with his movements and covers, to the point that the ref won’t count any pins with Omega’s foot on Ospreay’s chest. Omega follows with a corner foot choke and a hard Irish whip into the opposite corner. He removes a turnbuckle pad and sends Ospreay into that corner but Ospreay blocks. Ospreay tries fighting back but a big boot from Omega launches Ospreay into that exposed corner. Omega follows with a single-knee backbreaker and covers for a two-count.
Omega continues attacking Ospreay’s back and sends him off the ropes for another hiptoss but Ospreay counters with a cobra twist. Omega hiptosses his way out and charges but Ospreay flapjacks him onto the top rope, charges, and hits a big boot of his own. Omega blocks a vertical suplex and tries his own but Ospreay counters with a midair stunner. Omega reverses an Irish whip but Ospreay hits his springboard corkscrew kick and then hits a springboard forearm for a two-count. Omega blocks a powerbomb so Ospreay lands a Kawada kick and a stiff chop. He escapes a second powerbomb and chops back, but on his next charge Ospreay hits a step-up enzuigiri.
Both men end up on the apron and start trading chops. Ospreay answers a pump kick with a side kick and goes for an Os-Cutter on the apron but Omega holds onto the ropes. Omega takes advantage by bringing out a table and dropping it into Ospreay’s back. Then he lands a diving double stomp from the apron onto the table and creates a hole in it right on the small of Ospreay’s back. Ospreay sells for a moment and then suddenly fires up. He lands a barrage of one-two punches to Omega’s gut and then suplexes Omega onto the back of the table, i.e. the underside that’s not meant to have anything on it. Ospreay’s not done. Sky Twister press from the top rope to the floor.
Ospreay tosses Omega into the ring and hits an Akiyama-style diving elbow to the back of Omega’s neck for a two-count. Ospreay tries another Os-Cutter. Omega blocks and T-Triggers the back of his head and lands both a Poisoned Frankensteiner and an Aoi Shodou fisherman knee neckbreaker. One, two, Ospreay kicks out. Ospreay blocks a dragon suplex but Omega forearms his back. Omega goes for an avalanche dragon suplex. Ospreay lands on his feet and hits both a Robinson special corkscrew kick and a successful Os-Cutter. One, two, Omega kicks out.
Ospreay sets Omega up in a corner for his Cheeky Nandos through-the-legs kick. Omega gets his hands up to soften the impact but Ospreay still kicks with plenty of force. Omega’s hands come down and Ospreay lands more kicks and stomps to Omega’s face. A strike exchange ensues with a rope between both men and Ospreay tries to land a top-rope Spanish Fly while somehow balancing himself on the top rope. But Omega blocks and lands a DDT into the exposed top turnbuckle.
Omega gets time to recover as blood pours out of Ospreay’s forehead. The referee begins his ring-out count but Omega stops him at seventeen to land a baseball slide dropkick. Omega follows with his rise of the Terminator suicide dive to the floor and then smashes Ospreay’s head into what’s left of that same table from before. Back in the ring, Omega lands a piledriver for a two-count and follows with a strike barrage to Ospreay’s forehead. The crowd wills Ospreay on as he refuses to allow a stoppage decision. Out of pride, frustration, or from blindness due to blood in his eyes, Ospreay shoves the ref aside but walks into a snap dragon suplex from Omega. After a second such suplex connects, Omega teases a V-Trigger knee but Ospreay traps his leg. This angers Omega and he unloads with a fury of kicks and palm strikes. Then Omega lands a double underhook piledriver but Ospreay gets his foot on the ropes. Another V-Trigger sends Ospreay back out to the floor as the twenty-minute mark passes.
Omega tosses Ospreay back into the ring and goes to the top rope. He takes too long as Ospreay staggers blindly into the ropes, causing Omega to lose his balance. The normally sure-footed Ospreay struggles to climb the ropes so he slaps himself to regain focus. He goes for a super Frankensteiner but Omega counters with a faceplant into the top turnbuckle again. That’s followed by another V-Trigger knee and Omega teases a One-Winged Angel from the top rope. Then Omega adjusts in midair and lands Croyt’s Wrath. German suplex from above the top-rope to the canvas. One, two, Ospreay kicks out. V-Trigger! Ospreay kicks out again.
Omega puts Ospreay in a kneeling position and lands two more V-Triggers. Ospreay catches Omega’ s knee on a third one but Omega hits back with punches, apathetic to the ref’s warnings. Ospreay fires up and lands Kawada kicks as Omega punches his open wound. Ospreay also lands some chops in between but Omega answers this barrage with a kick to Ospreay’s arm and yet another V-Trigger. Omega teases a lariat. Ospreay does a flip counter into a high-angle Ligerbomb. One, two, Omega survives. Ospreay elbows the back of Omega’s neck and goes for a Hidden Blade. Omega ducks one but can’t dodge a second. Super Os-Cutter. Omega kicks out, escapes a Stormbreaker, and tries another OWA. Ospreay counters that with a sunset flip for another two-count. Ospreay hits a Styles Clash, removes his elbow pad, and lands a massive Hidden Blade elbow. One, two, and th – Omega kicks out again. Ospreay tries the Stormbreaker again. Omega escapes and lands yet another V-Trigger. Omega maintains wrist control but Ospreay hits first with another Hidden Blade. Both men collapse but Omega still hold onto Ospreay’s wrist.
Both men get to their feet and trade elbows. Ospreay gets the upper hand but then Omega ducks and hits a straightjacket German suplex for another two-count. Omega spins Ospreay into position for Kota Ibushi’s Kamigoye double wrist-lock knee strike. Ospreay spits on Omega and yells F**K YOU loud enough to be caught on camera. Omega connects with the Kamigoye and the OWA. One, two, and three! Omega beats Ospreay!
Winner and NEW IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion after 34:38: Kenny Omega
I know a lot of people absolutely adored this match when it first took place. When I watched it live for our WK17 review, I thought it was pretty damn impressive based on initial reactions. But looking at it now I’m struggling to see where people see this alleged scale-breaking, six-star performance. The match didn’t come across as a single cohesive story; instead, it felt like a collection of individual pieces pushed or squeezed together. Imagine a puzzle but with pieces forced into place by a frustrated player unable to see the larger picture or a rollercoaster that has its biggest and most exciting loops thrown somewhere at random instead of right at the end. While individual moving parts in this match were pretty impressive, the final and combined larger picture left a lot to be desired.
Let me begin by saying, though, that certain parts of this match were excellent. Both Omega and Ospreay excel at pulling off these crazy daredevil sequences that make one question their sanity. The dives to the floor, the balancing acts in the corners, all the one-inch-from-death head spikes, all make these guys look like incredible performers who have indeed spent years training and perfecting their craft.
But that’s just it: they were performers. There was so much cooperation going on here because these two wrestlers went all in with the style over substance mindset. In between all those great “moments” was plenty of downtime and a general lack of realism or sense of struggle. One minute one or both guys was on the mat struggling and the next one or both were sprinting around the ring. They shifted from one segment to the next like they were sequences on a checklist to execute instead of something actually resembling a fight some kind of wrestling struggle. As a result, the match’s had inconsistent pacing that rendered much of the bigger moves earlier on insignificant. They both siloed individual parts of the match from one another instead of putting the match together as though it were one cohesive story. The space between notes, the (in)action between key spots, wasn’t consistent with the action being told during the match’s most important moments.
And while some out there will point to the match’s most explosive spots as proof of these wrestlers’ purported greatness, I have a hard time believing those arguments when the wrestlers and others involved in a match do things that are so illogical. Yes, I know, wrestling isn’t always going to be realistic; but there are still those wrestlers that try to wrestle in a somewhat believable and understandable way and there are those that through logic to the wind no matter what and this match was mostly a case of the latter. Omega hit his fireman’s carry slam/moonsault combo a minute after taking what looked like a nasty bump into the unforgiving steel ring barricade. Ospreay going for an apron Os-Cutter knowing he had a weakened back made him look somewhat stupid. Omega ripped a turnbuckle pad off less than five minutes into the match and neither the referee nor anyone else tried to put it back on, even though in New Japan removing turnbuckles is anywhere from frowned upon to illegal. The ref’s counting of the ring-out action was spotty at best. Ospreay saw and felt Omega holding his wrist and didn’t try to jerk himself free even though he knew that this whole “maintain wrist control” gimmick has spelt disaster for anyone caught in that sequence many times before. When Ospreay was setting up his overly-complicated Cheeky Nandos kick, all Omega had to do was lift one or both legs and his head wouldn’t be trapped. Just because a move looks cool or makes the crowd make noise doesn’t mean it’s good for the match, for the wrestlers, or for wrestling in general. The moves mentioned aove were but some examples of stuff Omega and Ospreay did that had weak payoffs that didn’t justify their setup.
I’m also not a fan of Kenny Omega’s expressions. Many times he acts like he’s pantomiming things and he does these bizarre expressions that look overly animated. Maybe he thinks that, since Japanese people aren’t usually as expressive as American fans, he has to overcompensate by being as exaggerated as possible. This was blatant when he did a ‘HERE’S JOHNNY’ from The Shining. Why? It didn’t add anything to the moment aside from an unnecessary bit of comedic levity that didn’t fit into what was going on. He didn’t come across as serious or urgent as he played to the crowd at points so it contradicted the tone and atmosphere he was trying to build. It was as if he was trying to be comedic during a serious match. One can argue that he was able to do that because he was so fully in control, but it took one out of the story being told.
Now, despite all of these flaws, I still think that the match was great, but not to the level that so many other fans and observers have claimed. It was a strong match and an absolute clinic in showcasing conditioning and the incredible physical toll this sort of performance takes. There’s no denying that these two are athletic; one could have to be daft to make that argument.
In terms of historical greatness, though, this match fell far below the mark. It was unpredictable and competitive from bell to bell, that’s for sure. Both guys showed plenty of intensity and they did their best to tell a cohesive story. It might be hard to follow, but the logic of these guys throwing horrifying bombs at each other in order to soften each other up for their known surefire finishers was there. It wasn’t necessarily executed perfectly – some spots like the underhook piledriver, the top corner DDT, Ospreay’s Ligerbomb, and Omega’s Croyt’s Wrath all could’ve been believable and justifiable finishers – but it was still a somewhat believable story that, to an extent, justified the escalation of moves seen from both men.
But the best matches are those that, on top of the positive traits above, also have a sense of realism and a pacing that makes everything flow together smoothly and this match had neither of those things. It felt like a movie fight or a Cirque du Soleil performance and, in my opinion, both of those things are far removed from what professional wrestling is all about. If wrestling is about striking an emotional chord to sell a ticket, then this match had little emotional expression. Omega’s movements and emotions were ones of comedy and staginess, while Ospreay only really showed any genuine personality during the final five minutes. If wrestling is about making a scripted fight look real then this match missed the mark on that front as well. The “cool moves” shown in the match were impressive, but then again so are some movie fight scenes and many of them are choreographed to hell to protect the actors. It seemed like both of these guys were trying to reinvent the wheel to compensate for any inexperience or limitations they have as wrestlers. To conceal any flaws or limitations they have, they did some sleight-of-hand deception to shift the audience’s focus elsewhere. It’s like seeing how fast food companies keep topping themselves over time: they add more and more bold flavors, loud colors, and wacky taglines in their commercials to draw you in and distract you from the fact that what they’re offering isn’t that good for you to begin with.
Final Rating: ****1/4
If there’s anything to learn from this match it’s that we shouldn’t always trust our initial reactions to something. Far too easily we get lost in the emotion, hoopla, and in the atmosphere of something and they cloud our judgment. It’s why I came up with this match reviews series in the first place: time gives us the space we need to separate ourselves from our earlier emotion and look at things with a clearer mind.
I’m sure there are people reading this that can apply this lesson to any other facet of life. No doubt you’ve made a rash decision once in your life and, looking back, you regret the choice you made. The same rule can apply to what are supposedly the best wrestling matches of all time. This match was exciting and in some ways impressive, but nowhere near the best of the best. It had some great moments but a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sequences in a 34-minute match does not a wrestling classic make.
But it’s not Kenny Omega and Will Ospreay are incapable of having top-tier matches; they are. You can find some of those matches here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. But just because a few snake oil salesmen tell you that these two are the best wrestlers in the world right now doesn’t make that statement true.