NXT talent Hideo Itami is almost ready to return to action according to a new Tweet, but he may have a tougher time standing out now that several more stars have joined the roster.
… yes, we’re talking about Shinsuke Nakamura!
— Hideo Itami / 伊丹英雄 (@HideoItami) April 14, 2016
35 year old Itami debuted in September 2014, to much fanfare from the hardcore audience, many who knew of his work in ROH and Japanese promotion Pro Wrestling NOAH. However it’s no secret that he found it hard to make the transition.
When non-WWE created talent enter the company, the style that made them is often toned down as they learn the “WWE Style” of slower pacing, increased selling and playing to the TV camera.
Itami (a ‘strong style’ striker who invented CM Punk’s GTS) lost a number of moves in this process and did not quite reach his stride before May 2015, when he was sidelined with the shoulder injury. In fact the live audiences were beginning to lose their initial excitement, because he wasn’t really living up to the hype.
In perhaps a contradiction Triple H told the press at the time … “I keep telling him Let go. Let loose. I brought you here for a reason. Let me see it.”
He said it was a “rough transition,” for Itami and he’s still waiting for “the light bulb to go off” for him. With any luck the injury has at least given him the time to settle-in culturally, because it’s a major setback for his on-camera development.
During his recovery, brief tag partner Finn Balor rose to the top of the brand. Meanwhile other names debuted, including Samoa Joe, Austin Aries and most importantly … Shinsuke Nakamura, who tore down the house with Sami Zayn at TakeOver Dallas and is one of – if not the – most hyped NXT debut.
Can two Japanese stars coexist in WWE? There’s no reason not to think so. But whether both will be given the same amount of upward mobility is another matter. Existing and thriving are no the same thing.
Let’s not beat around the bush, Vince McMahon has his chosen few and it was always going to be difficult for a minority Japanese wrestler to shatter the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’. Especially when they don’t speak fluid English and wrestle a style Vince has never cared to understand or promote. The odds of two making it are not good.
Of course Itami, Nakamura, Joe, Aries and others have the ability to put on some amazing matches that will elevate the NXT alternative brand. The main roster on the other hand is not targeting the same audience and doesn’t play by the same rules. There are only so many spots, and the NXT call-up track record is not good.
In that regard Itami’s stock has significantly dropped with the arrival of Nakamura, who has a level of charisma that not even McMahon can ignore. It was arguably this charisma and crossover popularity that allowed him to keep his name and have some effort put in to his theme song. In comparison Itami seems generic and in hindsight the company could have done more for him creatively.
What certainly helps both of them is the WWE Network launch in Japan and the company’s desire to continue touring there. This is one of the reasons Vince began taking notice of the Japanese stars in the first place. Yet it’s Nakamura who is the biggest acquisition and the largest investment. Itami (when he was Kenta) was a stand out in what is now the number 2/3 promotion. Nakamura was the face of NJPW – essentially Japan’s WWE. It’s rumored that he makes as much money as main roster superstars already.
For Itami to reclaim his informal spot as the Japanese face of WWE and to have a chance at getting to (and thriving) on the main roster, he’s going to have to make a much bigger impression the second time around. He needs a more memorable theme song, perhaps a slightly tweaked look, and whatever company or self-imposed restraints he had in the ring need to be lifted.
Maybe one way to bring the best out of both men is to have them square off against each other?