When Lou Thesz was the perennial NWA World Champion in the 1950s, he had a very specific approach to wrestling. Thesz’s selling point was that he was a master wrestler, and he would go into different territories and put on dominating displays of grappling skill, dispatching all-comers. The point of that kind of booking was that it established the NWA World Championship as the title that had the most credibility, as it was around the waist of a completely dominant performer who not only never lost, but rarely ever seemed to be on the verge of losing. Thesz was regarded as one of the legitimately toughest shooters in the business, which added real-life credibility to the title as well.
Years later when Ric Flair was the perennial champion, he had a very different style.
Flair’s selling point was that he would go into each territory and let each regional challenger, regardless of actual skill, get very close to beating him. Oftentimes the match would end in a draw, or Flair would retain through heel shenanigans. The key was that Flair made it seem like each regional star was good enough to become world champion, which helped the regional star feel like a bigger deal when working with their regular opponents.
In modern times, it is a challenge to strike a delicate balance between Thesz and Flair’s respective styles. It’s important to have your champion presented as the undisputed, top wrestler in the company, but at the same time it’s extremely valuable to leverage the credibility of the championship to help elevate less-established talent.
When Kenny Omega strode to the ring on Saturday night, there was no denying he was the top wrestler in AEW. Draped in gold, Omega was praised on commentary and while they chastised his heel antics, the announcers were in agreement that he was the best wrestler in the world. He entered the ring with credibility, both in kayfabe terms thanks to his long title reign, and in real life thanks to the insanely high standard of in-ring performance he had established throughout his career.
Across the ring from Omega stood 24-year-old Jungle Boy, who much like Tommy Rich or David Von Erich, was a young wrestler looking to get some credibility by pushing the great champion to his limit. The result of the match was exactly what should happen when two talents like that get into the ring together; the young guy gets plenty of chances to show off their skills and can get close to beating the champion; but in the end, the champion shows their class and puts away the upstart challenger.
This sounds simple, but it’s a real artform that not every pro wrestler can pull off. Omega, like Flair, is the rare type of wrestler who can pull off both aspects of being a champion. He can look like the best wrestler in the world, clearly a cut above his competition, while also being very giving to his opponent and make it seem like they are close to knocking them off.
For a young wrestler like Jungle Boy just dipping his toes into the main event scene, that is all that they need to move up a level. He doesn’t need to beat Omega, he just needs to do enough to convince fans that one day he will.
It was nights like those that show that Kenny Omega is on his own level when it comes to certain things in professional wrestling. Nobody can hit the ring with the reputation of being the best wrestler in the world and then deliver a back-and-forth match that makes a younger guy while also establishing himself as a dominant force that is clearly better than any of his opponents. There are many talented wrestlers in the world, but Omega seems to be the best at this very important skill, and AEW leaning on him to help make new stars and add credibility to their youth movement is probably the best use of his considerable talents.
To compare him to another wrestler, Roman Reigns, the differences are not just in skill, but overall philosophy. Reigns is more Thesz, he is pushed onto an unreachable pedestal and eats people up in his matches, culminating in his match at WrestleMania where he stacked both Edge and Daniel Bryan on top of each other like firewood and pinned them at the same time.
The primary goal with every Reigns match is to make him look like a strong, dominant force and the impact it has on his opponents comes secondary.
That strategy is not without its merits, in most cases, the biggest draws in wrestling history were essentially unstoppable superstars who never lost; Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Mil Mascaras, Steve Austin, etc. Taking one star and elevating them above the rest has been a historically winning formula.
The problem with Reigns is that WWE has been pushing him to be above everyone else (except for Brock Lesnar) for years and years, and in 2021 the problems stemming from that kind of push are extremely evident. Nobody on the roster feels like they are on the same level as Reigns, which has left him devoid of competent challengers. There is a time and place to set up somebody to run through an entire roster; Hogan had a litany of challengers brought in from the dying territories and Steve Austin had a long list of top names all lined up for when he first won the world title. Mascaras traveled the world searching for fresh opponents that would do a job for him.
For Reigns though, that chance has already come and gone.
Reigns has been cleaning out the roster for years and the time now should be dedicated to elevating new names that can stand alongside him. Instead, Reigns is eating up his opponents in matches and the result has been a profound lack of star power in WWE.
Comparing Reigns to Omega, there is a clear distinction that showcases what makes Omega so great. The aura of Roman Reigns is almost entirely tied to the fact that he is WWE’s choice to be the top guy, and is booked to destroy everyone in his wake. If Reigns wasn’t pushed as such a dominant force, like how Daniel Bryan was pushed, his appeal would be significantly weakened. While Omega has a lot of kayfabe accomplishments, he has never been booked to dominate everybody the way Reigns has.
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Omega’s aura comes from the real-life talent of his in-ring abilities. Much like Flair, if a young wrestler hangs with Omega in the ring, part of the story being told is that the young wrestler is matching the most skilled wrestler in the world. The fans bought Flair because he was the perennial world champion, but they also bought him because they knew that he was maybe the greatest performer in the history of wrestling. Omega is the closest performer we have today to 1980s Flair when it comes to reputation. If you can hang with Omega in the ring, it makes the story feel so much more real because you can’t fake in-ring quality the way you can fake kayfabe dominance.
When awards season comes and people are debating about who the Wrestler of the Year should be, I hope they remember Omega’s match with Jungle Boy, or his match with Rey Fenix. You can even go back to his matches with literal nobodies like Alan Angels and see Omega’s pure quality. Who is more valuable than a guy that exudes god-tier aura while also having the skill to pass on that shine to less-heralded competitors? Nobody else can really supply that at the same level as Kenny Omega.
In the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings and Jason Ounpraseuth talk about the current wrestling media landscape. They go over the history of wrestling media, public confusion about what being a wrestling reporter actually entails, the awkward state of WWE and AEW media calls, the surge of interest in wrestling news and much more.