Amidst the infighting plaguing New Japan Pro Wrestling's top stable, Bullet Club, the NJPW world is buzzing about the recent return of one of its greatest partnerships: the tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi, better known as the Golden☆Lovers. But for newer fans of NJPW, this doesn't really mean much. Who are the Golden☆Lovers? Why is it that the Japanese pro wrestling fan base loves them so much? Let's take a quick trip through their history to see what all the fuss is about.
In the Beginning (2006)
This "match made in heaven" began over a decade ago with Kenny Omega watching some of Kota Ibushi's matches as part of the DDT wrestling promotion, which was some sort of comedy promotion designed to mix wrestling moves and jokes (which seems like a hilariously dangerous cocktail). Kenny felt that he and Ibushi resonated in terms of their philosophy on that mix between art and comedy, and he believed he was destined to wrestle Ibushi.
Omega Calls Out Ibushi (2008)
This destiny became more of a prophecy on July 27, 2008, when Kenny posts a video to YouTube sending a message to Ibushi, challenging him to a match. The video is hilarious if only for a 10-years-younger Kenny Omega, and I highly recommend you check it out before moving on.
After this, Ibushi's home promotion agreed to bring the two together for a match. Their first bout was more of a street fight, as it didn't take place inside the squared circle, instead opting to be fought in warehouses and parking lots. The match had some fairly impressive spots for the two young wrestlers and ended with a great Phoenix Splash from the top of a vending machine onto Kenny below. Following the match, the two had nothing but good things to say about each other, and their friendship was cemented.
The Genesis of the Golden☆Lovers (2009)
This is the year where the pieces fall into place. Kenny decides to move to Japan and signs on with DDT, bringing the two closer together. Of course, since their first match was extremely well-received, DDT hopes that Omega and Ibushi will become fierce rivals, but they had different plans: they wanted to become a tag team. DDT obliged, and tried to come up with a name. They tossed around a couple different ideas (apparently "Golden Brothers" was one of these), but Omega and Ibushi settled on one that would fit the gimmick they'd use in DDT: Golden☆Lovers.
They began in love as explicitly as they could get (in kayfabe). Even though the relationship between the two of them turned to seemingly creepy on more than a few occasions, they elicited a great reaction from the crowd. I've heard that Kenny said the end goal for the tag team was "marriage" as well. People were starting to love the Golden☆Lovers, and they knew it. They have fantastic chemistry, pull off some incredible spots, and they pick up wins in both DDT and NJPW.
Then, the two of them start to have a skill gap: Ibushi possesses a lot of natural talent, whereas Kenny doesn't, but he's the more determined type of wrestler, someone who doesn't give up even when they're staring down the opposition. They remain a team, but the promotions start giving Ibushi more and more opportunities to fly solo, and, more importantly, win.
The Golden☆Lovers Face Off Again (2012)
Fast forward to 2012, when the Golden☆Lovers are still together with Ibushi still receiving plenty of solo time. They are pitted against one another in a match at Budokan, an arena originally constructed for Olympic competition, but was fairly popular for pro wrestling around this time.
At the time, many described the bout between Omega and Ibushi as the greatest match of all time (no joke). Ibushi pulls off one of the most impressive (and dangerous) spots I've ever seen, moonsaulting from the balcony in the arena. While fans raved about how great this match (and that spot) was, the moonsault, unfortunately, saw Ibushi banned for life from Budokan. Nonetheless, the match was impressive, and it helped cement these two as fantastic wrestlers among the Japanese crowd.
The Golden☆Lovers Separate (2012-2014)
A lot happens to both Omega and Ibushi over the next few years. Ibushi is offered contracts with both DDT and New Japan, and he signs both. During one of the G1 Climax Tournaments run by New Japan, which is one of their biggest events of the year, they push Ibushi up to the heavyweight division. Since that went over well, they move him up to heavyweight permanently only a couple of years later, while Omega stayed in the junior heavyweight division.
Finally, in October 2014, Omega and Ibushi wrestle what fans thought would be their final match together as a team. Following this, Omega decides to move to NJPW permanently, and all of a sudden turns heel. He joins the Bullet Club, a faction consisting of foreigners in NJPW that hate Japan and the Japanese fan base, which is surprising, considering Omega is a fan of the Japanese popular culture and is also fluent in the language. Omega's image shifts entirely to match that of the rest of the Bullet Club, and he now becomes a self-centred, arrogant wrestler who's in it to make a buck and get famous.
Omega Betrays Ibushi (2015)
In a move that essentially signalled the end of the tag team in 2015, Omega betrays Ibushi during his match against then-Bullet Club leader, the Phenomenal AJ Styles. Omega runs in on the match to help Styles win the match and the IWGP Heavyweight Title, which is NJPW's highly-prestigious belt. The crowd now knows that Omega cares only about winning, even at the expense of his former partner, Ibushi.
Following this, Kenny garners support from the rest of Bullet Club and overthrows Styles as the leader, placing himself at the top of the stable. He wins match after match, moves up to the heavyweight division, and puts on another fantastic match shortly after moving up. Though Omega becomes wildly successful in the promotion, the crowd believed that he had lost his soul and what made him so loved in the past. Don't get me wrong, people still like Omega, but they recognize that he's become the baddest of the bad in NJPW.
Ibushi, on the other hand, isn't having the best of luck. He suffers a nasty neck injury and realizes that being in two promotions means having twice the commitments, and he starts to get burned out. So, to cope, he decides to leave both DDT and NJPW and become a free agent. In that time, he tries to figure out what to do with himself. He even enjoys a bit of time with the WWE as a part of the Cruiserweight Classic. He does some crazy stuff (shooting fireworks from his own body, giving fans melons, and even inviting people to his birthday on Twitter) during his period of searching for purpose.
During the Separation (2016)
Though the Golden☆Lovers aren't wrestling together, something strange is happening between them: they are constantly referencing one another during matches. This was the year that Kenny Omega actually wins the G1 Climax, making him the only non-Japanese person to do so. Throughout the tournament, he does some of Ibushi's moves and won't say why.
Ibushi starts wearing gear that references Omega's finisher, the One-Winged Angel. His gear features a skeleton wing, and again, he doesn't really say why. Omega is asked about his former partner, and he cuts a promo talking about how Ibushi was always towering over him, but he has now surpassed the other half of the Golden☆Lovers. Ibushi responds by pointing out that Omega must be lonely, and Omega continues to use Ibushi's moves and touch base with him on Twitter.
Ibushi's NJPW Return (2017)
Prior to the following year's G1 Climax, Ibushi is announced as a participant, which confuses Ibushi. Ibushi thinks that if he wins the tournament, then the two will get back together. Fans begin to speculate that the Golden☆Lovers will face off for the first time in years during the finals, but those hopes are dashed: Ibushi doesn't make it. Omega, however, goes to the finals (and Omega's ring gear now references Ibushi) but is defeated.
The two meet backstage, and Kenny tries to push himself into Ibushi's arms, but Ibushi isn't having it. This is, after all, the first time they've interacted face-to-face since 2015. Despite what fans were hoping, this wasn't the glorious reuniting of the Golden☆Lovers, at least, not yet.
Reuniting the Golden☆Lovers & Betraying the Bullet Club (2017-2018)
That same year, the American Nightmare, Cody, challenges Ibushi to a match at Wrestle Kingdom, which was a great match overall. Ibushi defeats Cody in front of the Tokyo Dome crowd, but now Cody attempts an interesting play. Cody wants to take Omega's place as the leader of the Bullet Club, and he views the past between Kenny and Ibushi as the perfect way to get under Omega's skin.
Following Wrestle Kingdom, Cody convinces a chunk of the Bullet Club members to help him in an attack on Ibushi. Kenny, in a shocking move, betrays the Bullet Club and stops them. This begins the infighting that we're still seeing even now. By striving to save his former tag team partner, Omega put his Bullet Club leadership on the chopping block. The entire Club doesn't turn against Kenny just yet, but Cody works on changing perceptions of the leader.
After Cody attempts to pull the same stunt with Kenny as a target, Ibushi runs in to save him. Though Ibushi offers to help him to his feet, Kenny gets up on his own, thinking he is undeserving of the notion. Before Omega can leave the squared circle, Ibushi forces them to face one another. After a few moments of silence, the two of them embrace the thunderous roar of the Korakuen crowd, which finally confirms it: the Golden☆Lovers are back together!
The New Kenny Omega (2018-Now)
After this, Kenny Omega has changed. He admits in a promo that the two of them were always the best partners and that they never should've split. A documentary is released that helps give some more substance to their reuniting moment and also shows them training together to be a team once again. They're happy to be back together, and the NJPW crowd is happy that they've reunited.
But, not everyone is excited about their comeback. Following a great match at Honor Rising against Cody and Marty Scurll, Omega cuts a promo introducing them as the "world's best tag team." Before he can continue, they're interrupted by Bullet Club tag team Matt Jackson and Nick Jackson: the Young Bucks. They were alright with the Golden☆Lovers coming together again, but they take Omega's words as a challenge. They declare that they're moving up to the heavyweight division and insinuate a match between the two teams very soon.
The Future of the Golden☆Lovers
NJPW has already set up a feud between the Golden☆Lovers and the Young Bucks, and it's looking to be fierce. However, the Bullet Club civil war dispute will more than likely be resolved before we see much more action with the Golden☆Lovers. Kenny is scheduled to take on Cody at Supercard of Honor XII in April (the day before WrestleMania), and Ibushi is scheduled to enter the New Japan Cup starting this month (but Kenny isn't in it) so I'd imagine that we'll get more teasers for Golden☆Lovers vs. Young Bucks leading up to that, with the feud getting underway shortly after the leadership of the Bullet Club is settled.
The Golden☆Lovers have had one of the richest and most contentious histories in pro wrestling. Obviously, there is so much more to the story, but to chronicle, their entire partnership and everything they've gone through would almost require its own biography. So as the year marches on, we continue to wonder what's next for the tag team. Will Kenny Omega remain the leader of the Bullet Club while partnered with Ibushi? Will Kenny convince Ibushi to join the Club? And who'll come out on top between the Golden☆Lovers and the Young Bucks?