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What Went Wrong With Hideo Itami?

Peter Barnes looks back at Hideo Itami’s time in WWE and why he is no longer with the company

As recently as Dominion 6.9, KENTA was the talk of the internet wrestling community having showed up in New Japan.

Flanked by Katsuyori Shibata, he announced his upcoming participation in this year’s G1 Climax. That the Pro Wrestling NOAH alumnus was in New Japan was newsworthy enough – he made his name in NOAH and was expected to return there upon his departure from WWE. For him to be entering in the G1 Climax made major waves. To think of the potential matchups he could have with the roster, it just goes to show what an exciting time it is to be a wrestling fan.

This situation would never have been thought of back in 2014 when KENTA signed for WWE under the new name of Hideo Itami – which translates to ‘Hero of Pain’. With such a badass name and coming from a strike-based background, it’s impossible to see how it could have gone wrong for him. Less than five years later, Hideo asked for and was granted his release. This article will look at what went wrong with Hideo Itami.

Things started strongly for Hideo. He feuded with one of the most dominant NXT teams in The Ascension. During this feud the storyline played out which was both obvious but to this writer never before seen. As Hideo was a new recruit, he had no allies to gain any parity with The Ascension – two against one doesn’t often go well for the one in that situation.

Eventually, he received help in the form of Finn Bálor, which led to teaming with him to beat Konnor and Viktor. This alliance was short-lived as Bálor was Itami’s semi-final opponent in the NXT championship number one contender tournament. A feud with Tyler Breeze would follow and all looked well for Hideo.

That was until the key issue of his NXT tenure – injury. The first of these was a shoulder injury that kept him from action for over a year.

Then he returned but for a matter of moments before a neck injury sustained during a match, from a nasty looking powerslam gone wrong. This meant he was unable to wrestle for the best part of another year. In his first three years, he spent approaching two of them injured. There’s nothing for killing momentum like an injury, especially when you aren’t established amongst a fan-base enough for that momentum to be retained post-injury.

He battled back and returned to NXT to take on Bobby Roode who was champion at the time. Short programmes with Kassius Ohno and Aleister Black followed but Itami’s time away from the black and yellow brand paved the way for the success of other wrestlers, pushing him down in the hierarchy.

Once his time with NXT was done, Itami moved to the 205 Live brand, which may have been the best place for him, but is also not the place to go if you want to be anything close to ubiquitous. Having arrived there Hideo had a storyline where he demanded the respect of his opponents, leading to one amazing spot. During a Falls Count Anywhere match, Ali shouts “I always respected you!” before hitting his 0-5-4 finisher through a table to pick up the win. This level of storytelling showed the considerable talent that both men have, and in some ways acted as a false dawn.

Itami would team up with Akira Tozawa, despite Akira presenting as a good guy and Hideo less so. I presume the conversation between the two regarding teaming up went a little like this: “I’m Japanese, you’re Japanese too… whoaaa, we have so much in common, we should totally team up!” Well, i presumed that until I watched the video above.

The video details Hideo’s last week with WWE after being granted his release, and shows that although he was well-respected and beloved backstage, he struggled adjusting to life in the States. Itami also struggled to learn the English language, which is understandable as Japanese being character-based is vastly different from the latin scripts of English. Psychologically speaking, it is difficult to live in a foreign country when you know the language, let alone when you don’t. They could have given him an interpreter, but then he would become reliant on them and he potentially wouldn’t have felt independent.

Itami did have Akira to team with, could have been the WWE’s attempt at giving him some support, and they are to be lauded for that. However, the issues with him never feeling able to integrate into the US culture really meant the end of his tenure with WWE.

Hideo is a wrestler with a tremendous amount of talent, whose strong strikes will stand him in good stead in whichever promotion he works for. The biggest contributor of ‘what went wrong’ was two injuries derailing any chance of early momentum. It is difficult but not impossible to regain that momentum. Given his struggles with missing Japan and learning English, it is fully understandable why the WWE didn’t work out for him. However, instead of looking at it as ‘what went wrong’ maybe we should look from the perspective of why New Japan Pro Wrestling is the rightful home of KENTA.

With the G1 Climax blocks being announced, there are a host of amazing matches he will be involved in. KENTA versus Will Ospreay, Zack Sabre Jr., Kota Ibushi and Kazuchika Okada are all delicious matches we are guaranteed to see. I don’t expect him to win Block A. If he does, the potential matchups against whoever wins Block B are also delightful. For that we should be truly grateful.

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