During its recent tour of Japan, WWE left with one of that country's most talented wrestlers: Kenta.
Kenta (often stylized as KENTA) comes bearing abundant promise but also trepidation for fans of his work back home. WWE could stain the legacy of a popular warrior or else have found the next great producer of classic matches.
It feels as if Kenta joining WWE won't be anything in the middle.
As reported on WWE.com, WWE signed the Pro Wrestling Noah star over the weekend. WWE didn't use Kenta's stylized name, as there won't be a Kenta Kobashi around to cause any confusion.
He heads to Full Sail University with fans unsure of what to expect. Kenta has spent his career making audiences gasp and churning out standout matches. He could be one of the most successful Japanese stars in WWE history.
Or he may join a long list of wrestlers who saw scant success with WWE, becoming statistics, not stars.
How It Could All Go Wrong
The first thing that will pop into many fans' heads about the signing is Kenta's country of origin.
As rich a pro wrestling history as Japan has had, it hasn't translated to many crossover stars. That's especially true for WWE.
WWE's track record with Japanese wrestlers is bursting with examples of failure.
Ultimo Dragon excelled in Japan and WCW, and at one point he carried around so many titles that one had to wonder if it was bad for his back. He is also a member of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame.
Yet he remains a footnote in WWE history, lasting only a year with the company and making little impact.
Kenzo Suzuki was a promising talent for All Japan Pro Wrestling before having a forgettable run with WWE. The company didn't do anything with Yoshi Tatsu after he arrived from New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Tajiri beats all those wrestlers out in terms of WWE success, but the company failed to capture the magic he displayed while working for ECW. A part of the problem was that WWE turned him into comic relief.
Were WWE to have Kenta play a goofball like Tajiri, it would be a gross misuse of his talents. He didn't become such a well-known performer because of his comic timing.
WWE has too often in the past failed to make these wrestlers two-dimensional characters, instead leaning too much on their cultural origins to build their personae.
Being Japanese is not a gimmick. WWE will be smart to portray Kenta as a tough-nosed, head-kicking warrior who is out to prove that he belongs on the big stage. Turning him into a stereotype is a guaranteed belly flop.
Keep him away from Japanese flags, geishas and anything to do with samurai, or else he has a good chance of becoming a joke.
Once WWE gets his persona sorted out, Kenta's next hurdle will be meshing his in-ring style with that of his opponents. Generally, Japanese wrestling is more physical, and its storytelling often focuses on the sports aspect rather than theatrical showmanship.
It will help that Kenta is first going to NXT, but there still has to be a concern that he will struggle to adjust to the shift.
Sin Cara developed a reputation for being a sloppy performer when he had trouble working the WWE style after years in Mexico. Fans who know little about him are not going to give Kenta a long leash, just as they didn't with Sin Cara despite his fantastic work back home.
There's also a chance that WWE will ask Kenta to tone down his style so much that it'll be too diluted.
His ring work is built around hard strikes, kicks to the head and making flesh-on-flesh collisions echo through an arena. Take too much of that away from him, and he'll likely end up awkward and ineffective. It's like asking a major league pitcher to start throwing underhand. His skills just may not translate.
Translation may be an issue in terms of language as well.
So much of creating a connection with fans comes from interviews. It's not often Superstars who aren't fluent in English are able to make that bond.
Sin Cara's silence hurt him just as much as his botches did. It kept the audience from seeing much of his personality.
That's what has hampered many other Japanese stars as well. It's hard to separate oneself from the pack, to get a crowd to invest, without talking. Language skills are going to have to be on Kenta's NXT training regimen, or else he'll have to lean on a manager a la The Great Muta and Gary Hart years ago.
As Jim Ross wrote on his blog, "KENTA can get over if he speaks English or gets someone to be his mouthpiece specifically if KENTA is going to be a villain."
How It Could All Go Right
Kenta's arrival may signal a significant shift.
Maybe the sports entertainment giant is ready to embrace Japanese wrestlers in a way that it hasn't before. Triple H told WWE.com, "WWE's signing of Kenta reflects our continued dedication to creating a diverse roster that appeals to our global fan base."
If that's the case, WWE will look to avoid making Kenta some generic Japanese dude whom people soon forget about.
The fact that the company went through with the pageantry of having Hulk Hogan announce the signing in front of cameras is a sign of high regard for Kenta.
Kaz Hayashi, Tatsu or Funaki didn't get that kind of treatment. Kenta, though, is a bigger star at this point in his career.
He's been one of Pro Wrestling Noah's most exciting performers for several years. Championships have come his way time and time again, and he's squared off against Japan's biggest names including Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama and Takeshi Morishima.
Throughout his career, he's shown off his great speed and skill in the ring. That has led to a number of stellar bouts.
The best-case scenario for him is that he wins over fans and WWE officials by creating more of those. Should he develop great chemistry with Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins and others, chances are that instant classics will come by the truckload.
Very excited to see what @WWE does with KENTA. Lots of "what it?" possibilities. Lots of potential classics on the horizon.— Mike Johnson (@MikePWInsider) July 12, 2014
Kenta has inspired Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t ProFightDB.com) to be generous with his star ratings over the years. A sampling of Kenta's highest-rated singles bouts includes the following:
- May 26, 2002-vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru (4 stars)
- Nov. 30, 2003-vs. Takashi Sugiura (4.25 stars)
- March 5, 2006-vs. Kenta Kobashi (4 stars)
- June 4, 2006-vs. Takashi Sugiura (4.25 stars)
- Oct. 29, 2006-vs. Naomichi Marufuji (4.75 stars)
- March 1, 2009-vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima (4.5 stars)
One will see a plethora of kicks in his battle with Nakajima that will make one cringe, in a good way. Kenta's in-ring storytelling skills are evidence as well. He wears his frustration and pain on his face, a trait that will boosts his chances of success at WWE.
While he won't have Nakajima or Sugiura to work with at either NXT or WWE, he will eventually have a familiar face in Daniel Bryan.
The two have met in the United States and Japan, each time clicking like rivals who have been sharing the same ring for years. Once Bryan recovers from neck surgery, he will offer Kenta a great way to introduce himself to the WWE fans.
Taking on the beloved Bryan would provide a big stage with eyes aplenty, and the two men's kick-heavy, fast-paced offense would lead to electric encounters just as it did when they met before.
Whether it's Bryan or someone else, finding the right rival will be key for Kenta, especially early on. The better mat workers with versatile styles (i.e. Cesaro) will allow him to use his skill set more effectively.
Officials need to also find a happy balance between letting Kenta be himself and adapting his work to a WWE environment.
Should the company let him retain some of the physicality he's famous for, he's bound to stun fans. He brings something new, exciting and fun to the WWE world. If it's not watered-down too much, his style will entice.
As skilled and popular as he's been in Japan, it's easy to imagine Kenta being one of WWE's top stars in time. Unfortunately, it's just as easy to imagine WWE making a series of bad choices, making Kenta a punch line.