NXT Takeover: Fatal 4-Way was important for a number of reasons. The show presented us with a stellar NXT Women’s Championship match. It gave us a Hair vs. Hair match for the first time in almost five years in WWE. It also allowed us to witness a splendid four-man match for the NXT Championship. Each of these events are recognizable. However, one can argue that none had quite the intrigue as the debut of NXT’s latest talent: the man formerly known as KENTA.
Before anything else, it’s important to make note of KENTA’s debut on NXT because, to me, it was one of the strongest in WWE overall. After receiving a strong introduction from NXT General Manager William Regal and ovation from the Full Sail faithful, KENTA addressed the WWE Universe. He told us that not only would he go by a new name - that of “Hideo Itami" - but that he was setting his sights on the NXT Championship. Follow this up with a strong showing against the Ascension and you have a star, in Itami, that people will be keeping their eyes on.
If you know anything about the man formerly known as KENTA, you already know what to expect from him in terms of in-ring ability. Across Japan, he was one of the hottest talents and one that illustrated just how gritty and aggressive pro wrestling could be. Hell, he brought life to the GTS, a move that CM Punk would make popular during his WWE run. Regardless if Itami takes back his move, going forward, it’s easy to be confident in the rest of his athletic game.
Perhaps Itami’s strongest ability, in my view, is the way in which he looks like a contender despite his size. Itami stands at 5’9”, which isn’t short in real-life but definitely so when it comes to the overall scope of pro wrestling. Despite the arguable focus that WWE’s been having on smaller wrestlers lately, Itami may look like an underdog… That does not mean that he fights like one.
Judging from his offense on the Ascension during Takeover alone, one can see that Itami does not hold back. It does not matter if you match him face-to-face or if you have a good foot over him; the Japanese superstar will come at you with everything he has. His experience in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Noah have made him a legitimate threat, ranging from his array of kicks to his stiff strikes featured in moves like the Go 2 Sleep and the Busaiku Knee Kick. It isn’t his ability to tell a story in the ring that will be in question. If there’s any reason to be skeptical about Itami’s future in WWE, it’s the company itself.
WWE has afforded Itami a tremendous opportunity but whether or not they will follow up on it remains to be seen. To expand on this, keep in mind that Itami is already a favorite down in NXT. When NXT entities like Emma, Xavier Woods, Bo Dallas and the Wyatt Family achieve success and become popular, it goes without saying that they will, ultimately, wind up on television. Unfortunately, WWE’s handling of NXT favorites, on television, has been spotty at best.
Yes, you have men like Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns who seem to be positioned quite highly. However, you also have the likes of Emma and Bo Dallas, who have either been underplayed as of late or simply ignored altogether. It can be argued that some of the Wyatt Family’s mystique has disintegrated under the main WWE umbrella. I can’t remember the last time Xavier Woods won a match and his potential storyline back to prominence fizzled out rather quickly. It’s almost like the individuals in charge of television are ignorant to what made these men and women special to begin with and I am fearful of Itami for that reason alone. If that was the only reason, though, maybe it could be argued that he will become like Reigns, Rollins, or Dean Ambrose. Maybe he could rise above. More than WWE’s mishandling of NXT talents, you have to look at WWE as it relates to their handling of different cultures.
No one can deny that WWE has employed Asian talent in the past, some of them fondly remembered by the long-term wrestling audience. However, how many of them have actually been treated as threats within storylines and overall context? Perhaps the best example I can name is Taka Michinoku, who came to WWE in 1997. To their credit, they started off Taka’s run rather strong, since they made him the first-ever Light Heavyweight Champion. Later on, even, they allowed him to have a surprisingly competitive match against then-WWE Champion, Triple H.
The problem with Taka’s run, overall, was that he became something of a punchline by the end. He would team up with Sho Funaki as the duo known as Kaientai. WWE poked fun at their inability to speak fluent English, giving them English dub artists with the tagline, “Indeed!” It was clear that between this, and the lack of true wins under their belt, Kaientai was not going to be treated as a legitimate force. As a result, Taka’s skills seemed to be best suited for Japan, where he’s still working to this day.
In a more culturally-sensitive environment that we find ourselves in, especially when compared to the late-90s, one can argue that Itami’s chances on the main roster will be better. It’s also worth nothing that, according to several accounts, he has been working hard to learn English. It’s a commendable piece of knowledge and it shows just how badly Itami wishes to thrive in the States. If WWE has the desire to feature Itami, as an actual star with legitimacy, they’re going to have to handle him with care.
Perhaps one of the better ways this can be done is to associate Itami with a successful manager. Maybe an advocate of sorts? Think about how much of an impact Itami’s debut would have, if this was the case. You’d have this Japanese ass-kicking machine storm the ring during a mid-card tag team match, obliterating everyone while a smirking Paul Heyman watches on. A roundhouse kick here, a Falcon Arrow there, the good stuff. Cap it off with a GTS on Zack Ryder, perhaps, and then you can have Heyman grab the mic to proclaim, “Say hello to the latest Paul Heyman guy… This is Hideo Itami… And his time has come!”
Whether Itami has the backing of a manager like Heyman, or is flying solo, there’s no doubt that he will be under a microscope for the foreseeable future. He’s a strong talent with a track record to speak of. NXT gave him the red carpet treatment, so it’s clear that his skills are recognized. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, though, it’s up to WWE to show that it can book Asian talent so that their skills and strengths are emphasized, not downplayed in favor of comedy.
Hideo Itami is no laughing matter. WWE, you have the ball in your court and it’s up to you to follow through.