A Body From the Balcony: The Devastating Erotics of Omega-Ibushi at Budokan Hall (Guest Post by LB Teufel)

I am so excited to present to you this essay by guest blogger LB Teufel about the origins of The Golden Lovers and a wild match that I now need to go pore over, as I have recently caught the Kenny Omega pheromone and know the thirst and awe of his divinity, oh yes! Enjoy this cool essay, and let’s hope we hear more from LB in the future. –Andrea

 

In August 2012, El Generico described the Kenny Omega-Kota Ibushi match at Budokan Hall for the King of DDT Openweight Championship as being the best one he’d ever seen live. It won Best Bout that year from the Japan Indie Awards. Dave Meltzer, on the other hand, called it “an exhibition of two guys working together to do some impressive stuff,” maintaining that it wasn’t close to being five star material.

Unlike El Generico, the Japan Indie Awards and professional wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, I’ve only been watching wrestling for a year and a half. I know a lot about it considering that it’s a relatively short amount of time, but still not enough to be able to say authoritatively that I know what the best wrestling is.

What I do know is why I am watching wrestling. I watch because I love stories that are told without words. I watch because I love performance. I watch because I love to ride the narrative arc of a struggle for dominance. I watch because I love hot people with muscles. I can’t tell you what the best wrestling story is, but I can tell you about the stories that capture me and the stories that I understand.

I would be lying if I said that the erotics of professional wrestling weren’t one of, if not THE primary factor that got me watching. And there is plenty of eroticism present in most of my favorite matches and storylines. I engage with this eroticism the way I’ve engaged with the eroticism of superhero comics and action movies my whole life. I find what I’m looking for in the shadows and spaces between the things I’m meant to be looking at.

It wasn’t until I started watching Kenny Omega’s wrestling that I felt not only that I understood the matches, but that the matches understood me. When you’re used to consuming media that isn’t for you, and then you consume something that is, there’s a feeling that is both validating and vulnerable. If my gaze is being not just acknowledged, but embraced, that means my gaze isn’t a secret. Part of the appeal of the erotic is the promise of intimacy, and part of the appeal of intimacy is the promise of truth. When I am invisible and my gaze is ignored, I get to cheat that. I get one-sided intimacy. But Kenny Omega’s matches feel uniquely catered to perspectives like mine. Beauty and eroticism are not afterthoughts meant to add a little sheen or appeal to the heart of the match. Beauty and eroticism are the heart of the match. That changes the essence of the intimacy I experience as a viewer. I am part of the truth that is being revealed. This is my truth too.

I had this experience the most viscerally watching the aforementioned Omega-Ibushi Budokan match. Even five years later, watching in the safety of my home, I am rendered speechless by the combined shock of both the match’s nerve-wracking spots and its intense, emotional, very obviously intentional eroticism.

Kenny Omega is widely considered to be one of, if not the, best professional wrestlers working today. It is unusual for me to connect so strongly with things that are considered the best of their kind. It’s almost unheard of for me to connect so strongly with anything that even I would call “perfect.” When I call Omega-Ibushi perfect, I mean it, but I know for a fact that my perfect is not always going to look like mainstream wrestling criticism’s perfect. (If it was, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and I would be on the same page every week talking about hot dudes.) I don’t think Omega-Ibushi 2012 is a blueprint for what a match should look like. I don’t think that big, risky moves make a great match. I don’t think that Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi should ever endeavor to have this kind of match again. But I watch this thing again and again. I watch to analyze and I watch to enjoy. Either way I come to the same conclusion: it’s perfect.

Most wrestling between men that I’ve seen seems to do one of three things with wrestling’s inherent eroticism: proceed as if it isn’t there, go out of its way to avoid it, or turn it into a grotesquerie. Together, Omega and Ibushi choose a fourth option. Their chemistry is breathtaking, and they proceed as if to say “of course it’s there, and isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t this some of the best wrestling you’ve ever seen?” (It is.) Instead of distracting from the wrestling or turning the whole thing into a joke, they allow the eroticism to settle into every move, every pause, every gesture. It is vital to their connection and to the story they’re telling. It doesn’t just make each thing they do mean more, it makes each thing they do mean everything. And it’s incredible.

Long before Kenny Omega was a wrestling demigod in a sexy Terminator costume (or more recently a sexy Destiny 2 costume), he was a frustrated WWE trainee. He had left his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba for WWE’s developmental territory in Georgia. He quit and returned to Winnipeg after one year of what he describes as struggling to maintain a sense of self and a sense of joy in the face of being turned into a robot. Kenny Omega experienced some success in the Northern American independent scene, but didn’t really come into his own until he joined the Dramatic Dream Team (DDT) promotion in Japan. DDT is famously subversive and bizarre. They hold matches on campgrounds, or with blow-up dolls and pieces of furniture. Their comedy wrestling is comedy wrestling at its most experimental and exciting. DDT’s commitment to whimsy and inventiveness infuses even their most serious matches with a feeling of endless possibility.

Kenny Omega’s first angle in DDT was challenging their “Golden Star” Kota Ibushi’s status as the ace, sending a video from Canada months ahead of his actual debut in Japan. Even watching their first meeting now, you can feel the tension the advance time had built. They play the suspense perfectly— two beautiful, brilliant, dangerous creatures intrigued and excited at the prospect of finding someone on his own level. The match contains all the elegant brutality and hunger necessary to set up a classic l’amour fou wrestling rivalry. Kenny’s and Kota’s choice to instead become the Golden☆Lovers, a cheeky, romantic babyface tag team, is a surprising one. I can’t overstate how effective and how brilliant I think it is. It maximizes the anticipation of their rivalry. It also makes theirs truly a love story. Audiences can cheer for them together as they win tag team championships in both DDT and New Japan, or for them separately, as each pursues titles on his own. You end up with two beautiful, charismatic, talented performers who know how to work both the appeal of their partnership and the excruciating tension of not consummating their rivalry. It takes four years for them to face each other for a rematch. Think about that. Four fucking years. I can’t imagine what that wait must have felt like. I look back at who I was in August of 2008 and compare it to who I was in August of 2012. Those are two completely different people.

This is the context in which they meet at Budokan.

Kenny is the first to come to the ring. This is pre-Bullet Club, bratty, clean-shaven Kenny Omega, all little green trunks and perfect golden curls. His energy is confident and somewhat cocky, but there are always glimpses of self-doubt at the beginning of these major matches for him. Ibushi emerges next, carrying both the DDT and IWGP Junior belts. As confident as he is, the proud defending champ, there’s a vulnerability and sweetness there too. He’s visibly psyching himself up. There’s nothing about him that isn’t endearing. We are presented with two astonishingly beautiful men representing two opposing fantasies of hot guy. Kota Ibushi is kind, hard-working and strong, but vulnerable. On the other side of the ring, Kenny Omega’s tongue keeps darting out of his smirking mouth. He’s disrespectful and mean, but complex and endlessly magnetic. These initial characters are ones built for the express purpose of being desired.

The erotic tension arrives immediately. Not even the preliminary handshake is quick. Kenny takes his time before taking Kota’s outstretched hand. Then, they circle each other, staring for a good thirty seconds before locking up, which they then repeat. Break, circle, lock-up. Desire, anticipation, tension. The camera lingers on their bodies, framing them in ways I never see in wrestling. Kenny taunts Kota into a fast, exciting exchange of strikes and counters, but the break in tension is just a tease. They stop and look at each other. Kenny stretches out his hand for a second handshake, and they circle each other again. This time, when the tension breaks, Kenny brutally targets Kota’s arm, and the match is underway.

They play their parts perfectly. Kota Ibushi is beautiful in his simultaneous vulnerability and tenacious defiance. Kenny is vicious and sexual and monstrous, tongue out, eyes wide, relishing beating on his partner. His initial cockiness turns quickly to vicious sadism, the cracks in his mask of confidence gone.

They are filmed heavily in medium close-up. The camera zooms in on them lovingly, continuing to frame and linger on their bodies. When they pause between bouts of action, the pace also continues to feel slower than what I’m used to seeing. They don’t stop long enough to make a full return to the initial tension they had built, but there’s enough. The residue weaves its way through the story. Kenny sells like a martyr in a baroque painting: lush, beautiful and expressive, eyes turned dramatically to heaven. Aside from expressions of pain, Kota is unemotive. There are very small glimpses into him and they feel goofy and surprising. It’s an odd contrast, but it works.

If a character is the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning, is the story really worth telling? Oftentimes in these epic bouts, the characters’ cloaks of pretense are dropped out of sheer exhaustion. (You see this in the Omega-Okada matches and it’s one of the best things about them.) This is not what happens with Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega. Instead, they actively rip the superficial layers off of each other, getting progressively more and more exposed as the match goes on. It’s Kenny’s match until they go to the outside and he makes to climb the arena scaffolding. Kota, who aside from selling has shown comparatively little emotion, is finally stripped of something. Or maybe it’s better to say that something is unleashed. He pulls Kenny off of the scaffolding and climbs it himself, slowly getting into position for the infamous balcony moonsault that got Ibushi a subsequent ban from the venue.

I’ve seen people criticize this spot as unrealistic because Kenny Omega has ample time to dodge the attack. It’s true. He just stands there, watching. If he’s immobilized by fear or disbelief or awe, I can’t say. Maybe it’s all of them. I think the balcony moonsault is strengthened by being so avoidable. This way, it’s completely clear that emotion is the only possible thing allowing it to hit.

There is nothing inherently sexual about this act. Erotic? Yes. Danger has an essential eroticism, as does any display of Kota Ibushi’s graceful athleticism. And this is a weaponized “look what I can do,” a perverse act of one-upmanship. After the dramatic impact, Kota stands back up with a smile that would be sweet if it weren’t a completely inappropriate response to jumping onto another human being from such a distance, he grabs Kenny by the hair and drags him back into the ring. The power dynamic has dramatically shifted.

As Kota Ibushi’s confidence grows, his magnetism morphs into something progressively less and less nice. Kenny’s confidence dissipates and we begin to see a different Kenny Omega—a vulnerable, sincere Kenny Omega. As Kenny becomes more flustered and overwhelmed, Kota, clearly just as tired as his opponent, is visibly enjoying himself. There is something shocking about the way he starts, more and more, to smile. The crucial thing about this dual transformation is that it’s relational. Kota Ibushi does not become a beautiful monster independent of Kenny Omega becoming a tenacious underdog. This is something that they are doing to each other.

Throughout this power exchange, they are still somewhat evenly matched. Ibushi’s next devastating spot to punctuate a shift in his favor is a frankensteiner to the outside that probably would have given me an actual heart attack if I’d watched live. They both lie on the ground panting, Kenny barely making the count back into the ring. Both men seem to be struggling to stand, but the difference in their attitudes is pronounced.

Even after what he later describes as the most painful bump he’s ever taken in his life, Kenny does not let up. Kota avoids and counters some of the attacks, but many of them land perfectly. It just isn’t enough. Omega funnels his frustration into determination, his performance transformed pretty much completely into a pure babyface battle against the insurmountable. This only works because Ibushi has also transformed. Barely able to stand, he is brimming with the focused confidence of a predator.

The monster heel is a well-established figure in professional wrestling, but as Kota Ibushi smiles, staggering back towards Omega after receiving a strike to the face, one wonders if there is such a thing as a monster babyface. There are glimpses of something off-kilter and dangerous about Ibushi. This isn’t the emotionless machinery of Terminator, this is Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner. He occupies that same complexity, managing to be both menacing in his resilience and endearing in his mortal fragility. He is beautiful and monstrous and still sympathetic as the audience chants his name, urging him to victory. He shifts to closed fist punches and Kenny Omega deftly steps around him, hitting a beautiful suplex…that Ibushi just stands up from, smiling again. This smile manages to be cute and playful in a way that has both charming and frightening implications. Before we can think about that, it’s followed by a roundhouse kick to Kenny Omega’s head.

Kenny’s wrist tape hangs off of him in a long piece, a physical manifestation of his own unraveling. I feel for him in a way I couldn’t have predicted. The exaggerated cockiness and sadism of first half of the match Kenny Omega are classic bully attributes. Even the frailty beneath is a bully’s sadness and self-doubt, no matter how charming he may be. Watching Omega struggle to keep up with Ibushi, not out of anger or disdain, but suddenly the protagonist of a shōnen anime trying to overcome the rival he loves and respects, I am struck by the feeling that what we saw in the beginning wasn’t true. This is the authentic Kenny Omega— earnest and tenacious— and this is the authentic Kota Ibushi— sublime and imposing. They are both unrelenting. They are both magnificent. They are both exhausted. And they just keep going.

Omega manages to hit Ibushi with his finisher, the One Winged Angel, and Ibushi manages to kick out. Omega gets him into an armbar, and Ibushi escapes it. Finally, Ibushi counters Omega’s attempt to do a Super One Winged Angel and hits a Super Phoenix-Plex. I had seen other people do variations of this move before and I have to say, it’s never looked quite like this. Kota folds Kenny in half and pulls him towards him. It very, very blatantly looks like fucking. When Kota lifts Kenny’s dead weight and throws him backwards, it’s as beautiful as it is brutal, which is to say, very. The entire spot is so much, from the care with which Kota aligns their bodies just so, to the way it almost feels like Kenny is giving in as he does, to the harrowing impact of Kenny Omega’s head and neck onto the canvas.

And still, he kicks out. At this point, even I’m tired just from watching them. I was already reaching emotional exhaustion before these two simulated sex on the top turnbuckle and now I feel like I’ve died. How haven’t they died? I want this to be over. I want them to not be in pain anymore. They are so beautiful and this is so much that looking at them has become excruciating for me. As though they have somehow reached through time to read my mind, Kota Ibushi hits a Phoenix Splash and Kenny Omega does not kick out. It’s over.

The results in professional wrestling are predetermined. I know that. Still, I like to watch my favorites win and I don’t like to watch my favorites lose. Kenny Omega is the big exception to that rule. I am as satisfied with a Kenny Omega loss as I am with a Kenny Omega win. Am I still heartbroken to see him fail? Of course, but it’s a very complete, cathartic kind of heartbreak. He loses artfully and poignantly, whether the finish is slow and drawn out, fighting for every last second, or if the finish is fast and out of nowhere. Kenny Omega loses in a way that makes me accept the loss because if it’s beautiful and transcendent enough, it may be a loss, but it’s not a failure. I feel grateful not only for the work of the performance I’ve just watched, but for the entire existence of wrestling. He makes me feel proud that this is the guy I connect with.

This is how I feel at the end of the match watching Kota pull Kenny back to him, the pin now an embrace.

This is also how I feel today, crying into my laptop on two hours of sleep because I made the mistake of checking Instagram at 4:30 am and rushing to New Japan World to watch The New Beginning in Sapporo. This is how I feel after six months of teasing and slowly built up momentum when I watch Kota Ibushi save Kenny Omega from the wrathful steel chair of Cody Rhodes. This is how I feel when, alone in the ring together for the first time in years, Kota Ibushi approaches his former partner. This story is almost a decade old. If the anticipation and desire that made the Budokan match so powerful was excruciating, the two full minutes that Kota and Kenny take to look at each other, not shake hands and then finally hug is one of history’s great masterpieces of emotional edge-play.

I wasn’t alive in 1978, but I’m pretty sure that when Audre Lorde wrote about the erotic, she was not in fact thinking about professional wrestling. Even so, sitting here mentally shuffling through these different moments of action and inaction over the last decade of the Golden☆Lovers, I find her words echoing in my head. “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.”

I know this isn’t what she was going for, but I think I maybe do have a definition for perfect wrestling. When fullness of feeling combines with a certain level of excellence, and I am given a sense of transcendent satisfaction, that’s what I’m going to call perfect wrestling. Perfect wrestling, like any perfect art, makes me strive to find that same feeling of completion in my own work and my own life. Whether they’re kicking each other in the head or jumping off of vending machines or biding their time in silence or saving each other from Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi do that to me.

 

 

LB Teufel was convinced to check out WWE in the summer of 2016 after seeing just too darn many delightful New Day gifs. Between the string of matches Charlotte Flair and Sasha Banks had on Raw and the weird, funny, tender friendship of Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, LB fell in love with professional wrestling. By the next summer, they were crying in a Long Beach convention hall as Kenny Omega won the IWGP United States Championship. A lifelong art bitch, on-and-off erotica author and the world’s foremost and only PhD hunkologist (a field of study they invented and then gave themself a doctorate in), LB comes to professional wrestling with an interest in performance, power, narrative, humor, intimacy, sexuality, and aesthetics. You can find them staving off panic attacks at Los Angeles independent wrestling shows or posting pictures of Kazuchika Okada eating dessert at @hunktears on Twitter.

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