In 1989, Don Callis was a rookie wrestler, competing in Tony Condello’s WFWA in Manitoba. Already a natural in the ring, Callis was immediately pushed to the top of the promotion. Many of the veterans did not like it, with one notable exception: The Golden Sheik. The Sheik was a Winnipeg mainstay with a gravelly voice and a golden keffiyeh perched on his head. The veteran trained Callis, but as his own career was winding down, he saw potential in the young heel who was already a top interview. After retiring from the ring, the Sheik told Condello that he wanted to manage Callis, giving the young champion an instant boost in credibility. As part of the Mercenaries of Mayhem, the two became inseparable, with the Sheik, real name Larry Anson, guiding Callis not only in-story but in real life. Anson became a father-figure to Callis in a business where men are traditionally more interested in self-preservation than teaching the next generation. Callis also met Anson’s nephew, a young fan by the name of Tyson Smith.
Callis’ career trajectory took him from the legendary northern Canada “Death Tours” to Madison Square Garden, where he performed for the WWF as the Jackyl. After leaving the WWF, Callis joined Paul Heyman’s ECW, providing color-commentary alongside Joey Styles on its TNN program. After ECW folded and a chance to become the color commentator for the Eric Bischoff-led WCW rebrand fizzled, Callis joined TNA. It was around this time when Callis caught word of a young grappler who had made something of a name for himself back home in Winnipeg.
“He was seventeen years old, green as grass, but he just moved differently than everyone else. He had an explosion and almost a poetry to the way he moved that just made him different. (I thought) this kid’s got something!”
The kid’s name was Kenny Omega. Under Callis’ advice, Omega ditched the mask he’d been working under and told Callis that he’d been a fan from his days as The Natural. Callis, remembering how The Golden Sheik helped steer his early career, forged a quick bond with the youngster. While booking his own shows in Winnipeg, Callis used Omega, trying to get the talented grappler to show more of his own natural personality.
While looking back on those days, Kenny Omega said, “I remember treating those as my first huge goal to strive for—especially since he would only use a small crew, stars from ECW (who were the cool thing on Spike TV at the time), and featured what the local boys considered as the highest standard of wrestling we had in Canada. I remember getting called out by one of our local guys who never made the cut. ‘Why are you using the kid who’s greener than goose shit?’
“Don’s reply: ‘Because I’m looking for guys that can bring it.’ Hearing that started to forge the double edged sword which was my style. Very self destructive at first, but thankfully less so as time went by and I developed as a performer. Don having faith in me helped a lot with my self confidence, though, and gave me a starting foothold when I was struggling to find my own identity in wrestling.”
Omega left for a short stint in the WWE-affiliated Deep South Wrestling before heading to Japan to find himself in DDT. Callis left professional wrestling altogether, finding success in the private business world.
A few years later, Callis received a surprise phone call from Omega, who asked him to deliver the eulogy at his uncle’s funeral. Confused, Callis asked who Omega’s uncle was, and the answer was an even bigger surprise: The Golden Sheik.
“I had the double shock of not only was the Sheik gone, but he was Kenny’s uncle. I had no clue, but that’s something that’s very Kenny. Keeping something quiet for years and then to just come out with it. He’s a very different cat when it comes to how he shares information.”
Kenny Omega and Don Callis reconnected after the Golden Sheik’s passing. Callis kept tabs on Kenny, like an uncle checking in on a favorite nephew off chasing his dreams. Callis himself remained disconnected from the wrestling business until guesting on Chris Jericho’s 25th Anniversary podcast.
At the same time, Kenny Omega went from playing the Bullet Club’s junior heavyweight in New Japan to becoming the company’s top foreign performer. A series of matches with IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada elevated Kenny to elite status, with some saying he had become the greatest performer in the world.
At Chris Jericho’s urging, Callis teamed up with Lance Storm to create a podcast of their own called Killing The Town. Now firmly entrenched in the podcast world, Callis came together with Jericho and Omega to do a Winnipeg’s Greatest Sons episode. On that show, Callis remarked that the Gateway to the West had usurped Calgary’s role as the home for the best Canadian talent. But it was another off-handed remark that would change the course of professional wrestling.
“I said to him, ‘good luck in Japan. Get me booked, kid.’ Get me booked is just an old school, throw away line. It’s just something you say.”
Omega had been trying to get him booked as a color-commentator on New Japan’s English broadcasts. The New Japan office felt that Omega having his own commentator would add weight to the character, especially during the Okada rivalry. NJPW booker Gedo’s first suggestion was the legendary Bret Hart. Omega declined, saying Hart was great, but they should use Callis, who he called “family.” The NJPW office was unfamiliar with Callis’ work (apparently, they missed when ECW had its most exposure). Omega referred Tiger Hattori to Callis and Storm’s podcast. The New Japan office was so impressed with the work that they made an instant offer … to Lance Storm.
“Lance has many great qualities, but being a great talker is not at the top of his list. This is like them calling me for the Super J (Cup). It just doesn’t make any sense!”
Don having faith in me helped a lot with my self confidence, though, and gave me a starting foothold when I was struggling to find my own identity in wrestling. — Kenny Omega
Omega went to bat, and soon Callis was brought to New Japan, teaming with Kevin Kelly. The duo quickly became one of the premier commentary teams. Callis fashioned a manager-on-commentary character inspired by Bobby Heenan’s relationship with Ric Flair. In a way, Callis had come full-circle, representing the nephew of the man who guided him in his early days. Family taking care of family.
Kenny Omega recalls fighting for the man who industry insiders say is his closest ally in wrestling, next to the Young Bucks. “Family connection aside, I knew Don and his perspective would be a fresh take on commentary for New Japan. As a huge fan of Japanese pro wrestling, one thing I knew couldn’t be touched was the passion of the Japanese commentary. Whether you understand the language or not you feel the passion for the matches they call. Don in the same way elevated all of my major performances in New Japan with moments that were just as special as the moves being performed in the ring. It’s all part of the production and part of what makes a good match a great match, or a great match, a classic.”
A year later, Kenny Omega, while having great matches, found himself mostly uninspired with his options heading into the 2018 Wrestle Kingdom show.
“I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Japan, thinking to myself, ‘How can I help Kenny?’ I start thinking … Jericho!“
Jericho had said on record numerous times that he would only work with Vince McMahon but found himself in malaise after a popular WWE comeback hit a creative wall.
Callis called his long-time friend and pitched a scenario. “What about headlining the Tokyo Dome with Kenny Omega? Two guys from Winnipeg with me calling it and Chris said, ‘I love it!'”
Jericho and Omega planted seeds for the match, which seemed impossible on Twitter, with both men arguing but agreeing that nothing could ever happen. Until Jericho made a surprise appearance at the World Tag League final, attacking not only Omega but his long-time friend, Callis.
Jericho would make his first appearance outside of a WWE ring since 1999, as part of a double main event for Wrestle Kingdom 12. Fans who had never seen the New Japan product were suddenly hungry to watch a WWE legend compete against the man dubbed the best bout machine.
New Japan’s Takaaki Kidani said they hoped to get 30,000 people in the Tokyo Dome. When tickets went on sale the company was shocked to see how many were purchased from outside of Japan. Kidani said it was “like nothing before for any Japanese pro wrestling show in history.” The match was such a draw that New Japan had to open a new block of tickets the day of the show. The match did big business, spiking not only ticket sales but reportedly added tens of thousands of New Japan World subscriptions to see a match that earlier in the year would have been considered impossible.
According to Chris Jericho, AEW’s Tony Kahn remarked that match, which more than lived up to its hype, was an inspiration for his company’s formation. Don Callis, “the invisible hand” with the MBA who engineered the whole angle, sat back in commentary like a proud father watching his protege and best friend battle at the biggest show of the year.
“I was happy to do something for Chris, but I was really happy to do something like this for Kenny because he’s family.” — Don Callis
In the month leading up to Wrestle Kingdom, Omega worked a small indy show in Winnipeg. To his surprise, Omega told Callis that he wanted him on the show, not just to cut a promo but to wrestle against him. To the shock of the tiny crowd crammed into a dingy bar, and to New Japan’s chagrin, Omega lost to Callis.
“I asked him why he would possibly want to put me over? It doesn’t make any sense. He said, ‘I’m asking you as a favor as family, will you do this for me?’ What am I gonna say? I love the kid. ‘Fine. Let me find my boots.’ That was Kenny, and I having fun.”
In the aftermath of Wrestle Kingdom 12, Callis himself became a hot commodity, with him and Scott D’Amore taking over the reins of Impact Wrestling after thirteen years away from pro wrestling.
“I’ll say this: If AEW had not come into play … Kenny Omega would have come into Impact Wrestling. Not that he ever agreed to it, but it’s something that Scott D’Amore and I would have made happen.”
This past Saturday, Callis made a surprise appearance at AEW Full Gear, commentating the opening match between Omega and Hangman Adam Page. Callis was visiting Jericho in Florida, and at both men’s urging, he attended the show. The night before, Omega asked Callis to step back into the commentary booth. The Impact Wrestling higher-ups worked with Callis and Tony Kahn to make the details work because, as Callis says, “Family trumps business ten times out of ten.” Though it was largely unplanned, Callis easily slipped back into the role. His commentary added an element lacking from some of the former Cleaner’s earlier AEW matches. It just sounded right.
“Kenny Omega wants to change things. He wants to change the wrestling business. He wants to create art.”
While Callis enjoyed calling one more Omega match and was overwhelmed with the positive reaction to his commentary, his job as Impact Wrestling‘s Executive VP would make it nearly impossible to make a return to AEW, making his Full Gear appearance even more special for Omega.
Callis makes special mention of the one wrestling piece that Kenny Omega always carries with him. AEW fans got a glimpse of the item Callis refers to during an interview with Tony Schiavone. A sepia-toned photograph of The Golden Sheik and The Natural Don Callis. A picture of his family.
“Kenny and I laugh about this. The whole use of the word golden. Kenny came up with that for him and Kota Ibushi as the Golden Lovers, and I took it for the Golden Announcer. In actual fact, the whole thing goes back to the Golden Sheik. My trainer, my manager, Kenny’s uncle. So Kenny and I are inexorably linked and intertwined from a family and a business perspective. That’s how far we go back.”