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Why Kenny Omega Signing to All Elite Wrestling Is a Sign of Major Change

Are WWE fans ready for something different?

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Kenny Omega celebrates a win against Cody and Kota Ibushi during the King of Pro-Wresting at Ryogoku Kokugikan / Masashi Hara/Getty Images

Cody Rhodes, the scion of a legendary wrestling family who had asked for his release from Vince McMahon’s clutches in 2016, has worked hard to create what could be the biggest competitor the WWE has ever faced, All Elite Wrestling. Fans have been eagerly awaiting more announcements about the fledgling company’s roster—especially after All Elite pledged that race, gender and sexual orientation would not be a barrier in its hiring. Until last Thursday, it was unclear if this statement was just an empty promise, but All Elite Wrestling’s latest batch of signees proves the company is making good on its word, putting itin sharp contrast with its increasingly out-of-touch rival.

 

The biggest news of the most recent rally was the signing of mega-star Kenny Omega, a performer so consistently excellent he broke prominent critic Dave Meltzer’s five-star scale. Omega, who made his name as Japan’s top gaijin (foreigner), rose through the ranks to become one of the most beloved icons of the entire industry.

 

When rumors began to circulate about his contract expiring with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, many speculated that he wouldn’t be able to turn down offers from the WWE, which was practically salivating at the prospect of bringing him aboard. But with the WWE’s reputation of stifling stars’ creativity, it was unclear if Omega, a firm believer in the art and theatricality of the genre, would play along with the McMahon family’s hyper-corporate ethos. It became clear that Omega would not be re-signing with NJPW when he dropped his heavyweight belt to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom in January, but it wasn’t until last week that his fate was officially revealed.

What makes Omega’s decision so significant is that some of the most well-known individuals in the industry are now seeing alternatives to signing with the WWE, which, up until now, had been considered the barometer of success in the pro wrestling business. The highest-profile stars are turning down offers from the WWE, further fueling endless rumors of current talent at least considering leaving the company.

 

But Omega’s signing isn’t only significant because of his celebrated status as a performer. Questions about his sexuality have persisted throughout his career, as the star has done something between dropping hints about his bisexuality and fully coming out, all the while portraying what appears to be a romance with his longtime tag team partner Kota Ibushi—meaning that his connection to AEW is somewhat of a victory for diversity. 

 

While the WWE met with GLAAD in 2016 in the hopes of eventually integrating queer plots amidst its numerous storylines, it has yet to follow through on this promise and still has only one out athlete, Sonya Deville, on its main roster. 

 

In its infancy, AEW has already surpassed WWE in terms of signing openly LGBTQ talent: Amongst the newest names announced are Sonny Kiss, an openly gay indie darling frequently (but not derisively) described as “flamboyant,”  and Nyla Rose, an out transgender woman established as a tough-as-nails heel. In an industry with a history of homophobia and transphobia, it’s hard to emphasize what a strong statement the presence of these new hires makes.

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Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi compete during the King of Pro-Wresting at Ryogoku Kokugikan / Masashi Hara/Getty Images

What may seem to many like a publicity stunt is actually rather significant when looking at the big picture of what’s happening in wrestling in 2019. While the WWE continues to pay lip service to progressivism (despite depicting liberals as villains, donating millions to the Trump Foundation and forging unholy alliances with the government of Saudi Arabia),AEW is earnestly positioning itself as younger, fresher and more open-minded.

 

Along with its varied cast of both big names and rising stars, AEW is also promising to treat its employees better than the WWE, which continues to hire performers as independent contractors so as to avoid providing them with health care.

 

For generations, WWE has represented the pinnacle of pro wrestling. While indie companies have always thrived on much smaller scales, it was hard to see any other brand as a legitimate threat. But with starkly dropping ratings, consistent waves of audience disappointment and an increased awareness of WWE’s shady practices, wrestling fans are making it known they want something else. We won’t know if Rhodes’s gambit will pay off until years from now—a TV deal has not even been announced yet—but, at least symbolically, a new future already seems possible.

 

Read more: Daniel Bryan’s ‘Heel’ Turn Is Bigger Than Wrestling

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