WWE made global headlines on last Saturday by announcing the signing of Kenta Kobayashi to its NXT brand. The announcement took place during a ceremony at a WWE live event in Osaka, Japan with WWE Hall of Famer Hulk Hogan presiding.
For those unfamiliar with his body of work, Kenta is one of the most talented workers in the entire business.
Kenta debuted in 2000 with All Japan Pro Wrestling. When All Japan president Mitsuharu Misawa decided to break away and form Pro Wrestling NOAH Kenta was one of the several All Japan wrestlers he took with him. From 2000-2008, Pro Wrestling NOAH was the dominated the Japanese wrestling landscape.
While technically considered a junior heavyweight, Kenta would go on to become one of NOAH’s biggest stars.
He first rose to prominence as part of a tag team with fellow junior heavyweight standout Naomichi Marufuji. Both were two of the company’s premier young workers. They captured the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship on two occasions and were voted best tag team from 2003-2004 in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter year-end awards.
When NOAH’s ace Kenta Kobashi was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, Kenta and Marufuji were suddenly thrust into the main event spotlight. On October 29, 2006, the two former partners met for the GHC Heavyweight Championship in a match that was widely praised by wrestling critics. Kenta defeated Katsuhiko Nakajima to win his first GHC Heavyweight Championship on March 1, 2009.
2009 was not a good year for NOAH. First, they lost their network television contract. Next was the death of company president Misawa, who tragically died inside the ring after taking a back suplex. Cancer had reduced Kobashi into a shell of his former self. Each of these events played a key role in the decreasing the company’s popularity. NOAH’s downfall was reflective of the overall decline of the once thriving Japanese wrestling industry.
Despite NOAH’s weakened state, Kenta continue to maintain a high standard of in-ring excellence. He eventually became the face of the company.
Kenta ended his 13-year NOAH run having held the GHC Heavyweight, Tag Team, Junior Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships. He also won multiple tournaments including the 2005 Differ Cup, 2012 Global League and 2013 Global Tag League.
Historically, WWE have given its Asian wrestlers the stereotypical gimmick of either being a childlike babyface that speaks little English, or that of a sneaky salt-throwing heel. Former WWE performers such as Tajiri, Hakushi, Taka Michinoku, Yoshi Tatsu and Kenzo Suzuki each played a variation of these two gimmicks. With all due respect to these individuals, neither of them are in Kenta’s league.
While the company’s track record is cause for concern, there are a few factors going in Kenta’s favor. Let’s examine each one:
Hulk Hogan’s endorsement
Linking Hogan to KENTA was a stroke of genius. It’s not everyday that you get one of WWE’s all-time legends endorsing a new guy. Making the announcement in Japan was equally brilliant. Hogan was a major star in New Japan Pro Wrestling before joining WWE, even defeating Antonio Inoki to win the inaugural IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Many historians would likely rank Hogan right next to Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen and Abdullah the Butcher on any list of the most enduring foreigners to wrestle in Japan.
Triple H and NXT
Unlike his father-in-law Vince McMahon, Triple H understand that there is a bigger wrestling world out there than just WWE. Since Triple H’s last highly touted international signing (Sin Cara) was a bust, I have every reason to believe he will do everything in his power to not make the same mistake.
Starting Kenta on NXT is a wise move. He would likely get in the shuffle if he were to debut on Raw or Smackdown. Being on NXT will allow more leeway form him to get his style of wrestling over with the audience. The NXT faithful in Winter Park are used to seeing great action from the likes of Adrian Neville, Tyson Kidd and Sami Zayn. Kenta would fit nicely in that bunch.
NXT is Triple H’s baby and he will do his best to ensure its stars shine brightly.
From a technical standpoint, Kenta is miles ahead of all but the most elite workers in WWE, but he’s not entering with a cocky mentality. Kenta has publicly admitted that it will be challenge adjusting to a new culture, but it’s a challenge he’s excited to face. He understands that he will have to tweak his ring style.
Before he developed a reputation for botching spots left and right, the original Sin Cara came into the WWE with the mentality that he was better than others. Since he was such a big star in Mexico he didn’t see the need in going through the developmental system to learn WWE style. Sin Cara also refused to learn English, which made him even more of an unpopular figure backstage. It’s pretty hard to succeed in WWE when you cannot speak the dominant language.
Kenta is willing to adjust his style and learn the language. That alone should greatly help his cause.
Respect from current members of the locker room
Kenta is not just a spectacular worker, but he carries tremendous respect from some of WWE’s biggest names. C.M. Punk’s GTS and Daniel Bryan’s Busaiku knee were taken directly from Kenta’s arsenal. Both have praised him as an influencing figure on their styles.
In addition to his work in Japan, Kenta made several appearances in ROH from 2005-2009, a period where he worked extensively with future WWE stars Bryan, Seth Rollins and Cesaro. There is a great feature up on WWE.com where all three share their thoughts on Kenta
Final Thoughts: Although it’s too early to predict anything, my gut tells me that Kenta will not go the way of past WWE Japanese talent. I do not expect him to be a world champion by this time next year, but he should be an established part of the midcard by then.
WWE has something special in Kenta. They’d be foolish to squander his potential.