It was a little past 7 a.m. when Kenny Omega received the phone call.
He was in Japan in the midst of the grueling G1 Climax tournament. Sore and half-asleep, he grudgingly answered the cell phone’s ring. He had agreed to take this call, even though he didn’t know what is was all about.
“We’re joined now by the IWGP heavyweight champion, Kenny Omega, in the midst of an amazing run,” Jim Ross’ voice boomed at the other end of the line. “Dan Murphy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated is here. Dan, the floor is yours.”
That’s how Kenny Omega learned the news. The IWGP champion had been named number one in the 2018 “PWI 500.” The official reveal had been made in a call taped for the “The Ross Report” podcast.
It took a moment for Omega to process.
“That’s not the news I expected to hear early in the morning,” he said after a moment. “I’m very happy to hear. It’s quite the honor. Thank you.”
Omega first cracked the “PWI 500” in 2008, earning a ranking of 422. That, in itself, was a notable accomplishment for Omega. He was off a disappointing stint in Deep South Wresting, one of WWE’s developmental territories at the time, and was looking to establish himself on the American independent circuit. He had also made his first tour of Japan.
Unbeknownst to him, his life was about to change. Japan would become a second home to the kid from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Over the next 10 years, Omega continued to climb the ranks, both in the U.S. and in Japan. His PWI ranking continued to improve—318 in 2009, 185 in 2012, 23 in 2016, 5 in 2017. With impressive runs in Ring of Honor and New Japan, Omega began to develop a reputation as one to watch.
In 2018, he put all the pieces together.
His rivalry with Kazuchika Okada has been legendary, shattering Dave Metlzer’s vaunted star rankings system and earning Omega the sobriquet “The Best Bout Machine.” An incredible in-ring performer with undeniable charisma, Omega battled his way to the top of New Japan Pro Wrestling. And at Dominion on June 9, Omega finally managed to vanquish “The Rainmaker,” besting Okada in a best-of-three falls classic to finally claim the IWGP championship.
For the editors of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, that epic win sealed the deal. There could be no other discussion: Kenny Omega is clearly the top wrestler in the world today.
“I want to thank the people responsible for making this decision,” Omega said. “There’s going to be more interesting things to come. There’s still the G1. There’s the Jericho cruise (Chris Jericho’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling Rager at Sea in October). There are a lot of cool things that are yet to happen this year.”
Omega becomes the second Japan-based wrestler to top the annual “PWI 500,” following in the footsteps of his arch-rival Okada, who was number one last year. Prior to that, dating back to 1991, the only one non-WWE or WCW-contracted wrestler to have ever claimed the top spot was then-TNA champion AJ Styles, who accomplished the feat in 2010.
In a sense, both Omega and Okada owe each other a debt of gratitude. The matches between the two have been all-time classics and have elevated both men, while also helping elevate New Japan in the eyes of fans worldwide. Though the company lags behind WWE in terms of revenue, size, and global recognition, New Japan—bolstered largely by the work of Omega and Okada—has built a reputation for presenting the finest in-ring product of any company worldwide. Other wrestlers have had a terrific 12 months, but none have made quite the impact that Omega did.
Omega is breaking boundaries and re-setting the gold standard for “five-star” matches. He’s forcing the world to take notice. He has succeeded entirely on his own terms. He is the clear choice as number one in the world today.
Not too bad for a Winnipeg kid who went unranked for the first eight years of his career before breaking though at 422.
“Hopefully, I guess, at this point, whatever photos are selected for this article are halfway decent ones,” Omega joked. “I’ve got a lot of wacky ones out there.”
We’ve got the photos covered, Kenny. You just go out there and continue to break new ground and redefine the standard for excellence.