In one of the craziest weeks in recent memory when it comes to wrestling news, one story that's getting downplayed a little is that KENTA, one of the top wrestlers in Japan of the last decade, is trying out at the WWE Performance Center this week. Broken by Mike Johnson at PWInsider.com and confirmed by Bryan Alvarez at F4WOnline.com, it says a lot about the current state of Japanese wrestling as well as WWE opening their minds up to more different types of wrestlers.
KENTA debuted in All Japan Pro Wrestling under his real name, Kenta Kobayashi (not to be confused with his mentor, Kenta Kobashi; that's why he changed his ring name after about a year), on May 24, 2000. Four days later, on May 28th, almost all of the AJPW wrestlers and office staff announced they were leaving for a new company, Pro Wrestling Noah, headed by departing AJPW top star and president Mitsuharu Misawa.
The change of scenery was likely good fortune for KENTA. He was a small junior heavyweight in a company that never put much of a focus on its junior heavyweight division, but Misawa had different ideas for Noah. Centered around Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Naomichi Marufuji, Takashi Sugiura, Kotaro Suzuki and KENTA, it was supplemented by a number of outside stars, including Jushin "Thunder" Liger and Daniel Bryan. With friendly rival and Liger's home promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling on the downswing, Noah became the home of the best junior heavyweight style wrestling in the world.
The Noah junior heavyweights all had distinct styles. Kanemaru was the veteran with more of a traditional junior heavyweight style, and Marufuji was more athletic and known for moves like his coast-to-coast dropkick. Sugiura was the amateur standout who patterned his style after Kurt Angle, Suzuki was the innovative high flyer, and KENTA built his style around hard kicks and knees. Marufuji and KENTA became closely linked as both partners and rivals, at one point battling to a 60-minute draw in one of their most famous matches.
Noah started to collapse in 2009. Amidst financial problems, Nippon TV cancelled Noah's TV show, ending the 55 year tradition of wrestling on the network that went back to Rikidozan's days as the biggest star in the country. While Noah continued to have television deals on cable and satellite stations, pay TV has never really caught on in Japan, and the company was dealt a huge blow in both rights fees and exposure. Just a few months later, Mitsuharu Misawa died in the ring after being internally decapitated when he took a bad bump on his long-damaged neck.
The company has been in shambles since, with a mass exodus of talent last year. While New Japan's business recovered and has been booming, it hasn't extended to the other promotions in Japan. The idea that KENTA looked for this type of lifeline says a lot about the state Noah is in. A short Japanese junior heavyweight who's pushed as a top star and doesn't speak English isn't something WWE usually looks for.
I'm honestly not sure what they'll think of him. I'm sure they'll recognize that he's incredibly talented, but his style is a 180 from what WWE likes. If his attitude is good, he has the potential to impress them. Even if they think he's an amazingly gifted in-ring wrestler, though, what type of spot would they have for him?
While Yoshi Tatsu (who wrestled in Japan under his real name of Naofumi Yamamoto) isn't quite the worker KENTA is, he's still really good, and he's a much bigger guy with the type of charisma that lends itself well to American wrestling. Tatsu has been stuck in developmental hell for a couple years now, and according to a report from Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in October (F4WOnline.com subscriber-only link), WWE told him he had to continue training in Florida when he asked for permission to move to a Japanese community in Texas. If Tatsu is spinning his wheels to that degree, why would KENTA, who's smaller and has a rougher style, be more upwardly mobile?
While I'm sure he could adjust, KENTA has been working his rough style for so long that with the language barrier, it will take time. Living abroad where he doesn't speak the language and has just one potential Japanese friend while he's not making great money could be too much pressure. A lot of guys in developmental have cracked over a lot less.
KENTA is still in Orlando right now and may even wrestle on the NXT tapings tonight. It wouldn't shock me if he's tested the same way Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards were recently, getting squashed to test his attitude. If he has no issues with being destroyed in three minutes by Alexander Rusev or whoever, that could help him a lot. The long-rumored all-cruiserweight show for WWE Network could also help his chances if it's still in the works.
This is so out of the ordinary that it wouldn't shock me at all if he was signed, but it would be incredibly weird and tracking his progress would be fascinating. What do you all think? Should he take a deal if offered one at the same compensation that your average independent wrestler would get? Would WWE be confident enough in him to pay him better a la someone like Sin Cara? Will he last if signed? Let us know in the comments.
David Bixenspan has been Bleacher Report's WWE Team Leader and a contracted columnist since 2011. His article about WWE's 1984 expansion from regional powerhouse to national juggernaut is featured in the newly released issue #102 of Fighting Spirit Magazine, available worldwide online and in print in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @davidbix and check out his wrestling podcasts at LLTPod.com.