One of the most drawn out signings in WWE history finally drew to a close Saturday, as KENTA became the latest member of the WWE roster. During a WWE event in Osaka, Kenta officially was unveiled as a WWE Superstar in the presence of Hall of Famers Hulk Hogan and Jimmy Hart. A legendary competitor for Pro Wrestling Noah and ROH, a great deal of excitement has surrounded this acquisition by WWE, not only in Japan but amongst fans generally.
Looking to avoid another Sin Cara/Mistico fiasco, KENTA will be trained in WWE’s Performance Centre in Orlando, and will likely soon make his debut on NXT. This will ensure he becomes fully accustomed to the WWE style, which differs from the strong style heavily employed in Japan, and find him a workable gimmick before he is transferred to the main roster. Some may see this as an unnecessary step, and at thirty-three KENTA is not exactly a spring chicken. However, in order to realise his fullest potential, it is important he is comfortable in a WWE ring and is able to get over with American wrestling fans, both casual and hardcore.
However, the question is how far can KENTA go in WWE? Will he be lost in the shuffle of the lower card, a perennial mid-carder challenging for the Intercontinental and US titles, or can he ascend to the dizzying heights of the main event? The varying fortunes of superstars called to the main roster from the proving ground of NXT means it is difficult to predict whether KENTA will be a flash-in-the-pan or the first (recognised) Japanese WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
Being realistic, it would be highly surprising that KENTA would achieve the same level of success that his tenure in NOAH brought him. He is a former GHC World Heavyweight Champion, a three-time GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion and a former tag team champion. Such accolades are possible in WWE, but it would take a significant amount of effort and changing attitudes to make that so.
It is uncommon for superstars outside of the USA and Canada to ascend to the top of the WWE hierarchy. Although the company likes to have a variety of nationalities on their roster in order to appeal to its global audience, few of these will be considered main event material. Taking a look at some of the past Japanese wrestlers to compete in WWE, it makes for grim reading for KENTA’s chances of being a future world champion. Hakushi, Taka Michinoku, Funaki, Tajiri, Ultimo Dragon and Yoshi Tatsu may have been somewhat memorable, but none really experienced sustained and long-lasting success.
KENTA’s size might also be an issue. Though WWE has shown a progressive attitude towards pushing superstars based on their popularity and in-ring skills as opposed to their size, with CM Punk, Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan notable beneficiaries of this, KENTA may not be so fortunate. Not being American would mean a connection to the audiences to the same degree as the aforementioned stars would be challenging, especially as most foreign stars to reach the main event of WWE have been monster heels, such as Yokozuna, The Great Khali, and inevitably Rusev. KENTA, at 5’8 and 181 pounds, does not come close to fitting such a character.
Nevertheless, he does have the ring craft to allow fans of his to dream of his chances to reach the top of the biggest wrestling platform in the world. The innovator of the Go-to-Sleep move utilised by CM Punk, he has been wrestling for over a decade, has had numerous world class bouts with the likes of Naomichi Marufuji, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Takeshi Morishima, and has competed against Daniel Bryan during their respective times in ROH. He undoubtedly has the talent in the ring to excite and amaze the WWE audience – that element of any future success is without question. Thus, how far he makes it in the company will be his ability to transcend the evident admiration he holds in his home country and among the hardcore wrestling community, and draw a connection with the casual WWE fan the ratings are predicated upon.
Personally, considering the history of WWE’s utilisation of Japanese talent, and factoring KENTA’s size and ring style, it would be unlikely that he would ever be a feasible world champion. Nevertheless, his exciting mixture of high-flying flair, powerful kicks and lethal submissions means he is certainly capable of becoming a prevalent part of the mid-card, and championship gold could certainly be on the horizon for the Japanese sensation.