Are the Golden Lovers gay? Are they just close friends? Are they simply professional acquaintances working to pursue mutual goals?
The best professional wrestling storylines are the ones which blur the lines between fact and fiction, leaving it up to the individual viewer to draw their own conclusions on where reality ends and fantasy begins.
So if you want to go ahead and chalk up the relationship between the New Japan Pro Wrestling tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi in the category of “It’s complicated,” then Omega, for one, has no qualms.
“Let people think what they want to think,” Omega told Yahoo Sports. “If LGBT people can identify with our story, if they think ‘the Golden Lovers are my team,’ I’m good with that. It’s the story of two wrestlers who shared dreams on their way up, who became fast friends, who are now reuniting at the top of their game.”
The latter part of that statement is unambiguously true. Omega, the alter ego of Winnipeg, Manitoba native Tyson Smith, and Ibushi, of Kagoshima, Japan, have reunited what was once a buzzy underground tag team just in time to headline what might be the hottest non-World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestling event in the United States in a generation.
The Golden Lovers will wrestle the cult sensation team of The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) in the main event of a New Japan Pro Wrestling card on Sunday night in Long Beach, California
“This is a chance for fans in the U.S. to see a dream match,” Omega said. “It’s the reunion of a great team they might not have had a chance to see the first time around against one of the current best teams in the world. It’s the right place and the right time for this.”
Omega, for his part, has become the North American face of Japan’s most popular pro wrestling company as it pursues a slow-but-steady North American expansion.
The wrestling world outside of the dominant WWE’s time-tested — some would say dated — presentation has undergone a revolution in recent years. Hardcore fans have access to more wrestling product from around the world than ever before. Promotions have rushed to fill the demand by building streaming services and, in New Japan’s case, getting onto American cable television via AXS TV.
New Japan debuted in Long Beach last summer, drawing sellout crowds of 2,500 for a two-night tournament in which Omega was crowned the company’s first United States champion. Sunday’s event on the campus of Long Beach State sold out 6,000 tickets in about 15 minutes, leading to speculation the company could have found success booking the show at a larger venue.
“They’ve been cautious about building things up,” Omega said. “They had no history here, so they took it slow. The first show, they wanted to test and see if there’s an audience. This show, could it have gone bigger? Maybe, but it gets bigger, step by step, and to me that shows New Japan’s commitment to making this work.”
On the individual side, savvy up-and-coming wrestlers build their brands on social media, which, in the case of talents like Omega and the Young Bucks, has led them to a point where they don’t need the WWE’s big machine to make a real go of things.
Omega’s star rose through the word-of-mouth over blow away performances in matches like a trio of 2017 bouts with Japanese superstar Kazuchika Okada and a big January matchup against wrestling legend Chris Jericho in front of more than 40,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome.
“It’s about taking advantage of the moment when you’re presented with the opportunity,” Omega said. “I have a vision for what I want wrestling to be, and I was fortunate not just to have the opportunity to show my talents at the right time, and not just to have the right opponents, and not just to have the knowledge that the front office has faith in me, but also the good fortune not to get hurt in the middle of all this. I’ve been blessed to have this chance to make wrestling a little more what I want it to be.”
Before all this, though, there were the Golden Lovers, who worked their way through the ranks of the Japan-based DDT promotion with a team that played the “are they or aren’t they gay?” card, at times in a less-than-subtle manner. Even after the team broke up and went about their individual paths, the duo would make occasional references to one another, whether it was hints dropped in interviews or using one another’s moves in their matches.
“Ibushi was the very first friend I made when I came over and started wrestling in Japan,” said Omega, who speaks fluent Japanese. “When two people start at the bottom of a business and work their way up and find success, that stays with you, whether you’re working together or separately. Now, the time is right for the next chapter.
While Omega says the LGBT aspect of the team won’t be emphasized in its current iteration, he’s also not running from the Golden Lovers’ contribution in making the wrestling game a more welcoming space.
“I think it’s important to show in the 21st century that if you’re gay, lesbian, trans, whatever, that you should feel just as welcome to be a wrestling fan as anyone else. You’re welcome in the space,” Omega said. “I do get some stupid messages on Twitter from homophobic people and they’re usually WWE fans, which kind of drives things home. In WWE, a gay person is usually portrayed like some sort of comedy act to be mocked and laughed at. The world’s not like that anymore. Everyone should feel welcome to the show.”