After months of anticipation, Hulk Hogan announced WWE's newest signing on Saturday night at the company's house show in Osaka, Japan—Kenta, who recently bid farewell to Pro Wrestling Noah. On Thursday, WWE posted a series of interviews with Triple H, Daniel Bryan, Cesaro and Seth Rollins to help introduce Kenta to WWE fans.
Real name Kenta Kobayashi, he changed his ring name to KENTA (the formatting we'll use in this article when discussing his past work) to avoid confusion with Kenta Kobashi, the legendary star who served as his mentor and occasional tag team partner. Early on, he was a promising high-flyer who helped put Noah's junior heavyweight division on the map, especially in inter-promotional matches with Tatsuhito Takaiwa of Pro Wrestling Zero-One.
Those matches aren't necessarily representative of the Kenta you'll see in WWE. Still, they're well worth watching if just to see how good he was early in his career. From the beginning, he was a very polished performer with a quiet charisma; he just didn't put it all together until later.
Over time, he evolved his style into something different. He still did some flying, but with fellow Noah stars Naomichi Marufuji and Kotaro Suzuki being more spectacular in that department, he went in a different direction. Instead, he focused more on hard kicks, knees and chops with moves like the KENTA Rush (the series of chops and kicks that CM Punk did early in his WWE run), the Go 2 Sleep and the Busaiku Knee Kick (Daniel Bryan's flying knee/Solid Knee Plus).
One of the best matches I've ever seen live was when KENTA got a shot at Ring of Honor champion Bryan Danielson (now Daniel Bryan, of course) in New York City. If you enjoyed Bryan vs. John Cena at SummerSlam in 2013, then you'll love this, as the matches are actually much more similar than you'd expect with two very different opponents. It was a great showcase for both and showed KENTA's appeal in front of an American crowd in a main event match. He also had a tremendous match with Low Ki (Kaval in WWE) in New Jersey during that run.
While KENTA eventually did end up in the heavyweight division, it was a slow process. For years, his path to competing with the bigger wrestlers was in tag team matches as the partner of his mentor, Kobashi. One of the earliest of these matches is a personal favorite of mine, as in 2003, they took on the Zero-One team of Shinjiro Ohtani and former ECW champion Masato Tanaka, who were known collectively as Emblem.
While it wasn't a match-of-the-year-caliber bout, it was still excellent, and KENTA had a standout performance. On paper, it was all about Ohtani and Tanaka's first time facing Kobashi, but KENTA, who was obviously there to take the fall, did a tremendous job taking charge and making sure he came off as more than just the "little buddy" partner.
In the last several years, Noah was in turmoil. Their top star and company president, Mitsuharu Misawa, died after an in-ring accident, and their other top star, Kobashi, was forced into retirement by a number of injuries after having beaten kidney cancer. Of the next generation, KENTA was the most popular star and became the anchor of the company.
It's this last run, which included a lengthy heavyweight title reign, that likely gives us the best peek into what exactly the WWE version of Kenta will look like. Obviously, it's the most recent, so it's a good look at his overall improvements as well as his adaptation to age and injuries, but it's also when he worked with larger heavyweight opponents more regularly.
Overall, what you should expect is someone with an aggressive style that allows him to "wrestle bigger" than he actually is. I don't necessarily envision Kenta in the main event mix beyond maybe some showcase matches with Bryan upon his return from his neck injury, whenever that is, but he's good enough and adaptable enough to do well for himself.
This is also a very different situation from the original Sin Cara (CMLL's original Mistico, now known as Myzteziz in AAA). The Japanese style is a lot closer to American style than lucha libre is, and Kenta doesn't have nearly the chip on his shoulder that the original Sin Cara had. By all accounts, he's humble and knows that he has a long road ahead of him. It will be fascinating to see exactly how this goes.