What happens when an unstoppable terminator meets an immovable ego?
Charlie Davis (@geneticghost) and Mikey Zee (@quantumdotdot) continue with part 2 of the thrilling Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada three-part saga! This episode covers from NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event to Dominion 2017. Cover art by the amazing @changochamango on Twitter!
After spiraling for months now, one of wrestling’s most popular factions could finally self-destruct in spectacular fashion at All Elite Wrestling’s All Out this Saturday. But in order to understand why that matters, first we have to talk about how it all started.
In 2016 the tag team of brothers Matt and Nick Jackson, aka the Young Bucks, formed The Elite together with men’s singles star, bisexual wrestling terminator, and best bout machine Kenny Omega “The Cleaner.” They became a trio who stood atop of The Bullet Club, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s villainous faction of foreigner heels.
With Kenny leading and The Bucks as his right-hand men, The Elite blazed a trail through NJPW with Bullet Club in tow. Kenny lived his gimmick of The Cleaner, the ruthless and cold hearted leader of the Bullet Club who prioritized winning above everything and through him, Bullet Club reached both its greatest heights before dovetailing into its lowest lows. The Cleaner’s path as relentless executioner was met with the unwavering devotion and love shown by his estranged tag team partner, Kota Ibushi. So, consumed by guilt, Kenny Omega sacrificed Bullet Club on a pyre. He shed his ambition and cutthroat will to win, and traded it in for a chance at redemption.
(Kenny vibing with his boyfriend Kota Ibushi)
The Bucks, feeling slighted at first, rejected Kenny’s new-found clarity. Their dissension was stoked by Cody Rhodes, a driven businessman with an eye on Bullet Club’s throne, and his own right hand, Hangman Adam Page, a lawless cowboy. These Bullet Club members viewed Kenny’s change of heart as bad for business. Thankfully, the friendship between The Elite couldn’t be broken so easily by meddling forces, and The Bucks rejoined Kenny in his biggest moment of triumph; embracing as he finally stood atop the mountain of NJPW as its IWGP Heavyweight champion. They had all been cleansed of their sins—at least for one moment.
(BFE. Big Friend Energy)
In 2020, things are different, but as the world is so rudely reminding us: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Brought together by the formation of then-new US-based promotion All Elite Wrestling, The Elite along with Cody Rhodes and Hangman Adam Page had seemingly reconciled from previous disagreements. Their fellowship from NJPW metamorphosed into the early cornerstone of the fledgling company. Ironic then, that they are on the precipice of crumbling all together.
Kenny Omega has been on the straight and narrow since 2018. After reuniting with Kota Ibushi, a switch had seemingly been flipped. Kenny ditched his callous demeanor and embraced softheartedness. The Bucks, after initial resistance, followed his lead. Cody, the most ruthless of the bunch, even seemed to see the light. And Hangman, who was always just looking for a place to fit in, joined along as well. They have been the quintessential good guys since AEW’s inception—pitted against aging rockstar Chris Jericho’s evil Inner Circle faction. Unfortunately, some wounds just don’t heal so easily.
Last Labor Day weekend at the inaugural All Out, Hangman faced Chris Jericho for the right to be called AEW’s first world champion. The week before, Adam had asked The Bucks to “second” for him, to accompany him to the ring for moral support, on the biggest night of his wrestling life. They declined, placing their faith in him, and telling him that due to commitments on the same night, they wouldn’t be able to. Shaken, but not deterred, he barreled into the match and… lost.
(Depressed bolo tie hours)
Hangman lost his confidence that night. Not only in himself, but in his friends. The weeks and months that followed were not kind to the cowboy. Burnt to his very core, he let his growing anxiety, obvious imposter syndrome, and depression fuel him. It became increasingly clear that Adam felt like he never belonged in The Elite.
In November of 2019, he told Matt and Nick exactly this. They didn’t hear him. Guided by pride, ego, and their own inability to listen to their friend, The Bucks’ stated confidence in Adam became sneering. Adam wanted space, but The Bucks wouldn’t give it. He symbolically left The Elite, but he was still glued in place, stuck together by shared history and a vague idea of what that group was supposed to stand for.
Enter an equally-lost Kenny Omega. Kenny had been having his own issues. Leaving Japan had meant leaving his beloved Kota, who had a genuine shot at becoming NJPW’s next star champion. So half of Kenny’s heart stayed in Japan. In the beginning months of AEW, it was clear Kenny didn’t know how to move forward outside of his Tokyo Dome bubble.
With no partner to protect him, the hunter became the hunted. A snarling avatar of violence with a chip on his shoulder named Jon Moxley set his sights on Kenny, determined to make an example out of the so-called best wrestler in the world. After months of menacing him, he drug Kenny through a bloody deathmatch, forcing him to once again flirt with his previous persona of The Cleaner just to survive. It was a failed effort almost before it began.
(hey fellas is it gay if…)
The next month would see Adam Page and Kenny Omega’s cross paths. Although they were theoretically brothers in arms, Kenny and Adam had never had a true relationship.. At worst, Kenny had been Adam’s overbearing and oftentimes-unhinged boss. At best, they were work acquaintances with mutual friends. The Bucks provided the two men a bridge, and they were thrust together as an unlikely tag team. Kenny who couldn’t commit his full heart to anything, and Adam who was looking for a place to fit in… just clicked in the ring. Adam was still spiraling, but Kenny was winning again. Adam used his new partnership and success against The Bucks, letting his bravado and anxiety push him towards a more antagonistic relationship with his erstwhile friends.
When Hangman and Kenny won the tag team championships—titles that had eluded The Bucks despite widely being considered one of today’s best tag teams—that was the final straw. The Bucks became outright hostile, falling into old patterns as the drive to win no matter what took over them. Their ire remained strangely focused on Hangman, Kenny left as the go-between to placate all sides.
They finally collided one frigid February night in Chicago. The match was the paragon of tag team wrestling, but it was UGLY. Fueled by anger, loss, regret and guilt, the 4 men fought as if they had never been friends at all. Old wounds and scars left by the Bullet Club civil war years ago opened back up, easily.
In the end Adam and Kenny were triumphant, and after coming back to their senses, The Bucks seemed willing to patch things up as well. Kenny’s usually good nature pushed him toward reconcile, but Adam stayed aloof—even giving a small tease of what insidious emotions like jealousy could lead to if left unchecked. He sauntered up the ramp: beer in hand, Kenny at his side, arm wrapped around the other man protectively. He’d carved out a notch for himself. Proved to himself, Kenny, Matt and Nick that he could hang with them at the top.
In the subsequent 6 months, I regret to inform you that nothing has gotten better. After a brief-yet-heartfelt reunion to defeat the Inner Circle for the soul of AEW, things between The Elite seem worse than they have ever been. The arrival of FTR, The Elite’s oldest, handsomest, and maybe most-personal rivals, poured gasoline on a fire that was still smouldering. Devoted to winning and showing their dominance, FTR set their sights on the most fractured member of The Elite, winning Adam over with easy friendship and booze to further drive a wedge between the cowboy and the avowed sober Bucks.
With Adam’s eyes elsewhere, Kenny’s underlying abandonment issues flared up again. In the weeks preceding this write up, he’s grown increasingly unhinged. Kenny is slipping back to old, familiar territory as the darkness of isolation and fear of being left behind takes hold. The Bucks know the old Kenny well, and thankfully have intervened at crucial points to make sure Kenny doesn’t fall too far over the edge. They have been taking care of this man for years; they sense a chill in the air.
(florida man slips slowly closer to a mental break)
With the rest of the Elite’s attention on maintaining their oldest friend’s stability, Adam’s betrayal was impossible to see coming. A gauntlet match of AEW tag teams would determine who would get a chance at Adam and Kenny’s tag team title. Manipulated and gaslit by FTR’s professional handsome men Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler, Adam blatantly stopped Nick Jackson from hitting the finisher, keeping the Young Bucks from both victory and a title shot. A guilt-ridden Hangman shuffled away slowly in the aftermath—leaving his friends baffled and angry.
Later that night they confronted him in the bar. Without words to defend himself, he let the brothers tear into him. They screamed that he’d “always been good enough,” that “all [they] had wanted was a friend” and for months they’d been clinging onto a friendship that wasn’t there anymore. They announced they were done pretending, and formally threw him out of The Elite before slamming the door behind them. Adam stood in silence, looking at his cracked reflection in the broken glass left in their wake.
(sad cowboy emoji)
Kenny Omega was absent for the fallout, but addressed it a week later in his first solo in-ring interview since joining AEW. He explained that he understood that people make mistakes and that when you do, you must live with the consequences. He’d been on to FTR the whole time and spoke his peace, only to be interrupted by first them and then Adam. The cowboy was full of sadness and anger, but there would be no reconciliation between tag team partners this time. The damage had been done. There was no taking it back.
(oh no. adam’s got his anxiety on. he can’t hear you)
All of that leaves us in a rather interesting predicament. The righteously angry Bucks seem hell-bent on winning their match this Saturday, a loss could truly push them over the edge. Kenny and Adam’s relationship seems tenuous as ever and FTR understands just how to exploit it. Will Kenny turn back into The Cleaner without the Bucks there as his keepers? We will have to wait for most of these answers, but we seem destined to get back to where it all started: the terrifying trio known as The Elite, the menace of NJPW, finally wreaking havoc on the AEW roster. Cody, the last bastion of hope, absent.