Ospreay transforms from a superhuman daredevil into a brutalist brat
I have a habit of calling certain professional wrestlers and the absurd things they do “magic”. I don’t know when it started but that word always pops into my brain when a move somehow looks both impossible and incredible at the same time. A perfect bridge after a clean Northern Lights suplex? Magic. An especially slick strike combo? Magic. Practically anything VENY does? Magic.
Will Ospreay might embody this reaction the best, though. He was already absurd between the ropes, but Ospreay’s current gimmick and new in-ring style highlight his ridiculousness in the best way.
The wrestling equivalent of a car crash
Ospreay has been an impressive performer for years now, a high-speed highflyer who effortlessly pulls off incredible feats of athleticism. As a major player in New Japan’s junior heavyweight division, Ospreay represented how the division contrasts against the heavyweights: an emphasis on speed and exhilarating lucha-style performances compared to the more methodical, grounded and evenly-paced battles of the traditional main event scene. I won’t say that I know this distinction intimately, but it doesn’t take long to notice a big difference in style and overall approach.
In-ring, Ospreay casually dodges nearly anything thrown at him. He moves like he’s made out of air. His opponents only seem to land damage when they get lucky. With the same ease at which he uncannily floats himself through space and time, Ospreay will land sudden impromptu attacks out of nowhere. His kicks and chops come from another dimension, slipping into the smallest breaks and gaps like he’s rushing to make up for lost time – and Ospreay has lost all of it.
However, in early 2020, after gaining enough mass and muscle to hit at least 100 kg (or enough to look like he did), Ospreay officially jumped over to New Japan’s heavyweight division. A prodigious junior heavyweight evolved into something new and fearsome. He combined the immediate and frankly unfair athletic ability of a high-level junior with the power and stockiness of a heavyweight.
Not long after, Ospreay debuted a new persona to match: the Commonwealth Kingpin, leader of United Empire.
As a face, his speed and precision is what made Ospreay so easy to root for. Pushing himself to go faster and harder, he was an exciting daredevil who overcame his opponents with blistering speed while risking the wrestling equivalent of a car crash. As a heavyweight heel, though, these qualities have become twisted and amplified.
Ospreay has slowed down but he still blazes past almost everyone he faces. All of his sudden strikes, teleporting in from the ether, have been upgraded from disruptive to outright destructive. Slowing down has made Ospreay more thoughtful and aware, and less impulsive. He can still deflect most anything thrown his way (whittling down his opponent’s energy in the process), but now he can tank nearly anything that actually hits him, too, making it even harder to break his momentum once he grabs it. Add a dollop of brutal heel mercilessness on top for good measure, like the frosting on a very mean and spiteful cake.
Neo-Ospreay is a force of nature who has maxed out his stats in both strength and agility to the detriment of everyone he faces. The dude just seems to will his way wherever he wants without even trying. Everything looks so easy for him, like he’s using hacks to blast his way through any given match instead of playing “fair”.
In other words: Ospreay is now a New Japan heavyweight with Fuck You acrobatics. As a heel, he’s frustrating: if you want the other guy to win, Ospreay is that dick using cheat codes.
Basically a cockroach
Where he’s at now, Will Ospreay is basically the opposite of Jay White. White is the other top non-Japanese heel in New Japan Pro Wrestling and leader of the cartoonishly villainous Bullet Club. As of June, he’s also the heavyweight division’s top champion.
Compared to Ospreay, Jay White is a “counter wrestler” whose moveset is designed around countering his opponents. His in-ring style is analytical: he’s a mastermind who targets his opponent’s limbs to undermine their offence, finds opportunities to counter their (now slower and weaker) offence, then capitalises on these counters to milk as much damage as he can from the opportunity. Being the leader of Bullet Club also means that White shamelessly jumps at absolutely anything that gives him an advantage.
Altogether, Jay White is basically a cockroach. He survives and survives and survives and almost never stays down when you want him to. He’s the opposite of the babyface who never gives up while the crowd is cheering them on; White begrudgingly accepts his opponent’s offence as the price for finding the weak spots in their game, then internalises and shuts down their options until there’s only two possibilities left: White counters for the win, or White’s body gives up before that happens.
Therefore, Jay White is a perfectly frustrating villain. You cheer for the other guy to win, even if it’s only because White is the bigger asshole – and then White wins anyway. His opponents seem to take the momentum in the early stages of a match because this is how White works: he lures both his opponent and the audience along the path of the “correct” story, the one where the hero wins and the villain loses, before the momentum suddenly shifts and White’s standing tall. He creeps his way to victory. His victories aren’t just disappointing but dispiriting.
Will Ospreay works in reverse. Where White is a tactician who works towards an end goal, Ospreay seeks to dominate as soon as possible. Jay White will win against anyone given enough time, a living countdown to his own victory who challenges the other guy to outrace him. Ospreay is a freak of nature whose rapid, impactful offence needs to be endured before anyone can even put up a fight. When Ospreay magically dodges every other attack, his opponent needs the energy to waste on these empty strikes just to hopefully land the next one.
But their biggest similarity is that they’re frustrating. The bad guy shouldn’t have all these advantages, and yet they do. They shouldn’t win, and yet they do. They don’t even need to cheat or play dirty to win since they’re already at the top of the food chain through skill alone – and yet.
A symbol of privilege
As the leader of the faction United Empire, Ospreay stands tall as a symbol of privilege, both physically and socially. Despite his rapid rise in the heavyweight division, even capturing the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in 2021, Ospreay is still insecure enough to build a stable around his own privilege, to protect his own image while declaring omnipotence over the company and wrestling in general.
The idea that someone like Ospreay (the character), someone gifted with far more natural ability than the average pro wrestler and has risen so quickly in the world of pro wrestling, continues to feel so insecure and afraid of his own position in the world and the company, throwing obnoxious tantrums while continually calling out the best wrestlers in the world – that Ospreay simply doesn’t have enough is hilarious and cutting. Whether it’s intentional or not, Ospreay is a pitch-perfect skewering of modern-day white privilege.
That Ospreay and United Empire trumpets colonialist cliches along the way elevates the entire gimmick so much further.
If the name didn’t give it away, Ospreay’s faction is based on the real-world Commonwealth of Nations in which almost every member, including Australia, is a former territory of the British Empire. The Commonwealth is led (ceremonially) by the British Monarch, currently the probably-alive Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the acting Head of State for 15 of these 54 nations. As a faction, United Empire sports a similar structure: Will Ospreay plays king while every other member represents an individual nation, whether by birth or heritage. Also, most of Ospreay’s underlings are non-white, which is not unimportant.
Jeff Cobb was born in Hawaii, raised there and in Guam, and has Filipino heritage; TJP is of Filipino descent; Aaron Henare is from New Zealand; Aussie Open (Mark Davis and Kyle Fletcher) are (white) Australians; Francesco Akira is Italian; and Great-O-Khan is Japanese with a gimmick that combines Genghis Khan, Killer Khan and a jiāngshī together, which I guess represents China or Mongolia? (For all I know, Great-O-Khan has a more direct lineage to someplace that isn’t Japan, but I couldn’t find anything to confirm this.) Meanwhile, the leader is naturally the white Brit Will Ospreay, doubling as a subtle-for-wrestling upending of British nobility and a subversion of what diversity can represent as he embodies the continued presence and elevation of colonialist structures.
As a performer and character, Ospreay plays his part in the ensemble perfectly.
Ospreay triumphantly makes his way to the ring in one of several spectacular ornate coats, each one a green and gold-centric patchwork of royal gilded floral designs, black-and-white square spirals evoking the Aztec, patches of zebra fur patterning, and a collar of black fur that leads to a gold-fanged black lion head on his left shoulder. It’s a ludicrous, prideful display of the United Empire faction as a colonialist melting pot, practically reminiscing over the raiding of indigenous cultures by Britain and other Western nations.
When the bell rings, Ospreay is a brash brutalist who, compared to how he was previously, rampages through his opponents like he’s out to send a message every single time. He’s a stubborn, demanding mob boss who thinks he’s owed everything he wants and doesn’t have. Ospreay represents privilege itself as both a wrestler and a white man, with a persona that captures both sides incredibly well.
The pinnacle of this upsetting reminder
On one hand, the entire United Empire is a fucked-up reminder of entrenched classism and white supremacy today. United Empire is innately diverse, it’s literally about individuality and the power that individuality can garner someone – compared to other NJPW factions like Bullet Club or House of Torture, United Empire is built on pride and its members don’t interfere in each other’s matches. It’s upsetting that this theme is in service of a heel gimmick where everyone happily works for a petulant colonialist tyrant. Of course, it’s meant to be a bit upsetting, pushing back slightly on the escapism that pro wrestling usually provides, which is part of why it works so well.
On the other hand, it’s incredible that pro wrestling can effectively present this theme in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or shallow – though I’ll readily admit that I’m not the one to decide this. It’s still a wrestling gimmick, so it’s not exactly profound, but Ospreay and his United Empire succeed because it embraces the reality of these themes and their continuing impact today. They take these core ideas around societal inequality and build a tongue-in-cheek ode to the notion of diversity, both historically and currently, without diminishing its importance.
Will Ospreay is the pinnacle of this upsetting reminder. A man with all the advantages (in wrestling) who improves and “evolves” only to find himself even more insecure and unsure of his place in the world, obnoxiously chasing after anything and everything he wants with brazen entitlement. His rocky pandemic-era journey so far has somehow fed this story perfectly: he wins the top belt but is forced to vacate due to neck injury, roams the US with his now-unofficial title belt and loudly whines that he’s still the official champion, loses his title match against Okada at this year’s Wrestle Kingdom, demands SANADA give him the United States IWGP Championship that he was sullenly vacating at Hyper Battle, misses this title shot after testing positive for COVID-19, then wins the US title at Dominion 6.12 among a series of prominent Bullet Club victories.
The world rebuffs him, he throws a tantrum, and the world bends backward to his (very loud) will: again and again, Ospreay exploits his status and shameless temper to push himself to the top despite the near-certainty that he can achieve it the “right” way. He’s genuinely one of the best wrestlers in the world right now, but his competitive drive has distorted into an outspoken entitlement that almost never works out against him.
Embracing the inevitability that Ospreay represents – the fate of a talented white man, basically – and playing his support pillars has worked out for everyone else in United Empire, too. They trust that Ospreay will always hover around the top of the card and that cynically following him and his goals will only ever benefit them.
I have no idea how intentional all of this is or how much of this reading is presumed on my part – stories in pro wrestling are like that sometimes. The Commonwealth allegory isn’t up for debate, but themes of privilege and colonialism could be a coincidence of that comparison and not entirely by design. Either way, I think it’s incredible that Ospreay’s Commonwealth Kingpin and United Empire can have me stewing on all of these ideas in the first place. It’s a premise that’s made me reconsider what kind of stories pro wrestling can tell, or try to tell. As the newest group to invade All Elite Wrestling in the lead-up to Forbidden Door, I’m curious to see how United Empire’s story will grow in the coming months.