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How KENTA Became New Japan’s Biggest Villain

Ciaran Hayward looks at the rise of the new villain in New Japan Pro Wrestling, KENTA.

KENTA cut his teeth in Japan under the NOAH banner, becoming one of the sharpest and fiercest wrestlers in the world.

He was blunted in America when he joined WWE as Hideo Itami. Now he is back in Japan, but this time with New Japan Pro Wrestling where he is one of the loathed men in all of professional wrestling, but also incredibly entertaining.

(Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

From the lowest of lows in WWE to newfound peaks in NJPW, KENTA has turned his fortunes around.

February 22nd 2019 saw WWE officially announce the release of Hideo Itami. The frustrated wrestler had spent more than 4 years being a cog in the WWE machine, spending his time in NXT and then 205 Live, never making as much of an impact as he did when he originally debuted in 2014. During his tenure he suffered two serious injuries that slowed him down whenever he put his foot on the accelerator. The WWE style that he had to adapt hindered him constantly, for years he could not knock heads off shoulders or kick out shins. KENTA was granted his release and now a free man, however a free man doesn’t equate to success. As KENTA said, “I’m putting my wrestling life on the line here. I will show the world my professional wrestling. Quite frankly, if this doesn’t pan out, I’m done.”

© New Japan Pro Wrestling

On June 9th 2019, KENTA was introduced to the New Japan audience during the Dominion show by none other than his NOAH tag team partner, Katsuyori Shibata. The Takeover were together in a NJPW ring and KENTA was entering the G1 Climax! This is the beginning of KENTA transforming his career. In WWE he was considered a cruiserweight on 205 Live but in New Japan he was being instantly pegged as a Heavyweight, and rightly so.

July 6th 2019, the G1 Climax began and KENTA defeated Kota Ibushi in his opening tournament match. It was clear that KENTA was shedding anything that remained of Hideo Itami, albeit the KENTA of old wasn’t entirely back, something still seemed a bit off. A decent G1 Climax ended for KENTA with only 8 points. It was disappointing for him but he had grander plans in place. He wasn’t in the final of the G1 Climax but he’d still be making the biggest statement of his entire career and would truly be burning the bridges of his past, both the good and the bad.

August 12th 2019, the infamous final night of the G1 Climax 29. KENTA found himself teaming with Chaos’ Tomohiro Ishii and YOSHI-HASHI to take on Bullet Club’s Bad Luck Fale, Tanga Loa and Tama Tonga. With the match nearing its end, KENTA betrayed his tag team partners by hitting Ishii with a GO2SLEEP and handing victory over to their Bullet Club opponents. KENTA had seemingly joined Bullet Club!! Before KENTA got the chance to explain his actions, Shibata hit the ring and dropped KENTA with one thumping forearm. For the first time since suffering an injury that almost killed him in 2017, Shibata was hitting wrestling moves! Shibata was irate and KENTA was feeling just how pissed Shibata truly was. But the Bullet Club numbers game would eventually get the better of Shibata. KENTA and his new Bullet Club brothers assaulted Shibata, ending the attack with humiliation as KENTA assumed Shibata’s signature cross-legged pose whilst sitting on Shibata’s prone body. This was officially the end of Hideo Itami and even the KENTA of old. The new snake KENTA had officially shed all his skin and was throwing it all in with Bullet Club.

© New Japan Pro Wrestling

With the history between KENTA and Shibata in NOAH and Shibata’s past few years of recovery after almost dying, this is for me one of the best wrestling moments of all time. The shock of KENTA seemingly aligning with Bullet Club! The pure thrill of seeing Shibata hit his signature stalling corner drop kick! The seething disgust that KENTA would assault his former best friend and disrespect him too would enrage the world’s audience, me included

August 31st 2020, New Japan comes to London and KENTA challenges for the NEVER Openweight Championship. Aligned with Bullet Club and back in his vicious groove, KENTA really got this new chapter of his career going. At Royal Quest in London he defeated Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Championship, winning his first New Japan title. He suffered a concussion in the process but the bastard still picked up the victory with help from Bullet Club. It wasn’t about winning with pride anymore or being a respectful competitor, a win was a win.

November 3rd 2019, KENTA defends his title by defeating Ishii at Power Struggle. Another big win for the venomous KENTA but that was just the start. KENTA interjected himself in the main event to help his Bullet Club partner Jay White retain the IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Hirooki Goto. In the process KENTA assaulted Shibata again! The flames left from the bridges KENTA has already burned were now entirely extinguished.

© New Japan Pro Wrestling

January 5th 2020, the second night of Wrestle Kingdom 14. KENTA was still the NEVER Openweight Champion, and had the longest reign the title had seen since early 2018, but his time with the Championship came to an end on this night at the hands of Goto. KENTA may have lost his title but he had far bigger plans that would eclipse everything that would happen at Wrestle Kingdom 14.

The victorious Tetsuya Naito stood proud in the Tokyo Dome after becoming the first dual IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental Champion. He was addressing the audience and beginning his LIJ rollcall to put a close to Wrestle Kingdom 14… But the snake sunk his teeth in again. KENTA attacked Naito and instantly became the most hated man in all of wrestling. Whilst Naito was writing the final pages of the biggest chapter in his career yet, KENTA penned his own addendum to the story. He tore Naito’s pages up and now their stories would be intertwined.

February 9th 2020 at the New Beginning in Osaka, KENTA challenged Tetsuya Naito for both titles in Osaka-Jo Hall. Exactly 8 months earlier Shibata introduced KENTA to New Japan in this same venue. This is just a week shy of when KENTA had been officially released from WWE one year prior. He had gone from requesting his release from the biggest sports-entertainment company in the world to being the first man in history to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight & Intercontinental Championships.

© New Japan Pro Wrestling

Throughout his time with NJPW one thing became quickly apparent to New Japan fans about KENTA… whether you simply hate him or purely despise him, he was damn entertaining. Inside the ring the former amateur kickboxer is a spiteful striker but outside the ring KENTA was giving us some of the best backstage promos in recent memory. He would constantly refer to the brutish Tomohiro Ishii as “Tomo”, calling him cute, posting pictures of Ishii on his own Twitter and trying to get #TOMO trending.

He would call YOSHI-HASHI ugly and also call Goto cute, “not at all like TOMO, but still cute.” Some of his backstage promos would be like something out of a dating game, he’d even have the cameraman nodding with the camera in response to his surreal words. KENTA truly surprised everyone with how twistedly delightful he can be when given the chance to speak without a script. Nobody was safe from his unique wrath, including you! Yes, even us fans on social media were berated; “there are a lot of dumb adults on Twitter” and “you’re all so lucky to be born in this age that you get to complain to wrestlers via social media”.

(Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)

He may have been unsuccessful in dethroning Naito in Osaka but KENTA had proven himself to the world. He bet everything on himself and although he fell at the last hurdle, he made it further than any would have expected whilst he was toiling away as just another name on the WWE roster. Now he is once again a prominent name in wrestling.

The overlapping narrative of his career has been a crucial component to his newfound success in New Japan and it has been skilfully used to ignite a new flame underneath KENTA. A company that takes pride in the history of its wrestlers and a wrestler that was ready to burn his historic bridges. KENTA set fire to the past and is now making waves in the present. 

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You can find me on Twitter @CiaranRH. Thanks for reading.

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