Prior to signing with the WWE, Hideo Itami was one of the biggest talents not signed to one of the big companies. In the mid 2000s, he had revolutionised the Junior Heavyweight style, with his matches against Naomichi Marufuji being years ahead of their time. He also had incredible matches against stars like Bryan Danielson and Samoa Joe in Ring of Honor, increasing his popularity in the United States.
Before being known as Hideo Itami on NXT, he went by his real name – KENTA. Stylised in all-caps as many Japanese stars have been, he was given the name once signing for the WWE, who at the time wanted to own all the names of their stars. Kenta was his real first name, although he didn’t go by his full name (Kenta Kobayashi) due to similarities to his mentor Kenta Kobashi.
He was one of the most important Japanese wrestlers in modern times but by the time he joined the WWE, he was beaten up and past his physical prime. Despite this, he was only 32 and should have had the future in front of him. However, years of a physically intense style had caught up with him. He could no longer compete at the level he once did but was still a huge signing for the WWE.
His signing was announced during a WWE event in Osaka, Japan on July 12, 2014. He made his NXT debut at NXT Takeover: Fatal 4-Way, being introduced by William Regal first as KENTA, and then under his new name – Hideo Itami. The name translated from Japanese means “Hero of Pain” and he became an immediate valuable addition to the NXT roster. He engaged in a feud with The Ascension, being beaten down weekly by the Konnor and Viktor on the road toward NXT Takeover: R Evolution.
Hideo Itami’s NXT debut was a victory over Justin Gabriel, but his first big match was in a tag team bout against the duo at NXT Takeover R Evolution. He revealed another new signing from Japan – Finn Balor – to be his partner during the match and the pair greatly impressed as they defeated the Ascension and introduced themselves in a big way to the WWE Audience.
Sadly, a slew of injuries would limit his opportunities in WWE. He was attacked in the parking lot prior to NXT Takeover: Unstoppable and the injury kept him out the ring for an entire year. He suffered another injury upon his return and never managed a consistent run in the company throughout his five years in the WWE.
Hideo Itami was finally released by WWE in 2019, ending five years of injury hell with the promotion – but why did Hideo Itami leave WWE?
Why Did Hideo Itami Leave WWE?
Hideo Itami was released by WWE on February 22nd, 2019, ending the five-year run of the Japanese star in the company. The 37 year old requested his release from the company due to being unhappy working in the WWE, especially given how he was not able to use moves he had invented while in Japan (The GTS and The Running Knee, for example”. He was also very unhappy in the US and wanted to return to Japan as soon as he could – which he did when he signed with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Speaking to Sports Illustrated, the former Hideo Itami claimed he left WWE after five years because they were “the most frustrating days” of his life. He also noted the “humiliation in America” he felt, stemming from his injuries in the company and lack of success in the company.
“I’ve felt in my heart that the five years I spent in WWE were the most frustrating days of my life. I’ve talked about this, but I’ll always remember the humiliation in America. Being here reminds me of that regret. And when you’re not good, you tell yourself that. That is what inspires me.”
A WWE documentary also revealed how KENTA, as Hideo Itami, struggled to adapt to life in the United States, stemming from his struggles in learning English. This would have added greatly to his stress and unhappiness whilst working for NXT in WWE.
He also spoke about how WWE was not able to satisfy him creatively, and that working in New Japan since leaving has been something a lot better for him, as he can do what he wants and where he wants to, as opposed to being controlled by the strict WWE schedule.
It may have been possible [in WWE] to satisfy myself as I was in the “world’s largest organization”. But as a wrestler, I now prioritize what I want to do. I can do what I want and where I want to now.
KENTA also noted, while speaking to NJPW ahead of the 2019 G1 CLIMAX, that he didn’t achieve what he wanted to do in the WWE and that he came back to Japan for NJPW to achieve his “vision worldwide”.
“I went to America, I went to WWE, and I didn’t really achieve what I set out to do there. I didn’t get the results I wanted. While all this was going on, I was still in contact with [Katsuyori] Shibata, and we talked about this and that. In the end it boiled down to ‘OK, what do I want to do with myself’? What I concluded was that I didn’t want things to end this way, I wanted to try once more to bring my vision of pro wrestling to the world. So that said, business is booming for NJPW, and if there’s anywhere that I can bring that vision worldwide, it’s in New Japan.”
What Happened To Hideo Itami?
After leaving WWE, Hideo Itami signed for New Japan Pro Wrestling and returned to compete under his previous name of KENTA. KENTA aligned himself with Katsuyori Shibata early on in his run and competed in the G1 Climax in 2019, before turning on the legend and joining up with the villainous Bullet Club stable.
As a legend in Pro-Wrestling NOAH, it was surreal seeing KENTA wrestling the top stars like Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahshi and Kota Ibushi in a New Japan ring, and he seemed to bring back the spark he had prior to wrestling for the WWE. He won multiple championships in NJPW, being a former United States Champion and NEVER Openweight Champion, among a host of iconic matches since his debut in the company.
He also wrestled briefly for All Elite Wrestling, as the first man to cross through the “Forbidden Door” in 2021. He made a surprise debut for AEW at the Beach Break event on February 3, 2021, attacking Jon Moxley and reigniting their feud from New Japan. While their big title match would take place in a New Japan ring, he wrestled his debut match for AEW on the February 10 episode of Dynamite, where he teamed with Kenny Omega to defeat Moxley and Lance Archer in a Falls Count Anywhere tag team match.
He is now a key part of the New Japan roster and wrestles regularly as part of the Bullet Club stable.