A month ago, when Kenny Omega and Michael Elgin wrestled each other in the main event of a New Japan Pro Wrestling show, they were part of a new beginning for the promotion. What they didn’t know is that they were actually setting a precedent for both Japanese and Canadian wrestling history.
More than 50 Canadian wrestlers have wrestled for New Japan since its creation in 1972 and most of them main evented at least one show. A list of Canadians who have worked for New Japan would include Dave Ruhl, Jacques Rougeau Sr., Raymond Rougeau, Johnny Powers, Pat Patterson, Chris and John Tolos, The Love Brothers, Stan Stasiak, Brute Bernard, Dave McKingney, Gilles Poisson, Hans Schmidt, Ivan Koloff, The Hangman (Neil Guay), Paul Vachon, Roddy Piper, Bret and Owen Hart, Rene Goulet, Rocky Johnson, Dino Bravo, Tony Parisi, Dan Kroffat, Rick Martel, Chris Jericho, Tyson Kidd and Davey Boy Smith Jr.
However, two Canadians have never had a singles bout in a main event. The closest was on November 5, 1981, in Tokyo, when Montreal’s Dino Bravo and Windsor’s Abdullah the Butcher (although he wasn’t billed from Canada) wrestled each other, second from top, in a bloody match that became very popular with tape traders a few years later.
That all changed on April 27th, in Fukuoka, when IWGP Intercontinental champion Kenny Omega, from Transcona, Manitoba, defeated Michael Elgin, from Oshawa, Ontario, in a 23-minute main event.
The explanation has to do with the history of wrestling in Japan and how outsiders were booked over the years.
Since the pro wrestling scene started in Japan, the country has always welcomed foreigners and especially Canadians. In fact, on the very first tour held in September 1951, when Rikidozan, considered the father of puroresu, debuted, Quebec’s Ovila Asselin wrestled Bobby Bruns. Three years later, Hamilton’s Mike and Ben Sharpe became the first foreigners to become major stars in Japan.
“Few Japanese had television at this time, but a February 1954 tag team tournament featuring Rikidozan and partner Masahiko Kimura was carried on two networks. Thousands of people packed themselves in front of Tokyo store windows to watch the pair take on Americans Ben and Mike Sharpe,” wrote Keith Elliot Greenberg in Pro Wrestling: From Carnivals to Cable TV, getting their nationality wrong.
That feud set up the formula for gaijin (foreigners) in Japan for years to come.
In the early 1970s when Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba went their separate ways, they both continued to bring foreigners. In Inoki’s company, New Japan Pro Wrestling, more often than not he was the one wrestling the hated outsiders, and usually in the main event. Although Inoki kept that position for a very long time, when he wasn’t putting himself on top against an American or a Canadian, wrestlers such as Seiji Sakaguchi, Tatsumi Fujinami, Masa Chono were the chosen ones.
The other aspect to look at is how Japanese wrestling featured a lot of tag team and six-man matches in the main-event spots. Therefore, even an American against another American on top happened only on a few occasions.
In the 1980s, Bob Backlund main evented against Dusty Rhodes and Stan Hansen, Andre the Giant took on Killer Khan, and Abdullah the Butcher fought Hulk Hogan, but as years passed by, fewer North Americans were put in the main event position, and generally it was against a Japanese star.
For Omega, being the first was something special.
“Any time there’s a first in this business, you’re privileged with setting the standard for everything to follow – for drawing the blue print,” he told SLAM! Wrestling in an exclusive interview.
The show has a story of its own since it was almost canceled because of the earthquakes hitting Japan just 10 days before.
“Mother Nature almost cost us the chance to perform, but in the end the company scrambled to give the fans the advertised match, and us the chance to perform it,” said Omega. “It was an honor to be trusted in that position and I’ll have nothing but positive memories of that very special experience. Hopefully fans of NJPW, Japanese pro wrestling, and ‘pro wrestling’ in general, can look back at that match and enjoy our performances.”
Elgin shares similar feelings, although it was even more special to him as it was also his very first singles main event in New Japan.
“Any person who takes pride in the heritage of the country they come from has to be proud of being part of the first all-Canadian main-event in New Japan’s history,” Elgin said. “It’s a surreal feeling to be given that opportunity and to have been trusted by the company like that. I was fairly new to the company and I hadn’t even been there a full year and they trusted me to represent the company in the main event against somebody like Kenny Omega who is a star over there. It’s something I’m always going to look back on and it will hold a special spot in my heart. It’s a special moment in my career.”
- Michael Elgin story archive
- Twitter: @michaelelgin25
- Kenny Omega story archive
- Twitter: @KennyOmegamanX
As a Canadian (even though he’s from Quebec), Pat Laprade is very proud to see Omega and Elgin representing our country like they have done and wishes that more Canadians have a chance to perform at that kind of level in the future.