Hideo Itami was granted his release from WWE at the end of January with a flood of goodbyes from across the roster. While it is easy to look back on the “what ifs” of his WWE run, we wanted to take a look back at the legacy he left behind.
Hideo Itami’s legacy in WWE is a complicated one.
It’s easy to explore the time of the man once again known as KENTA with “What ifs?” There were a lot of them in the nearly four and a half years he was with WWE. He was NXT’s first major international signing and it was clear that there were plans to make him a star on the yellow brand. It is often speculated he was going to be the one to dethrone Kevin Owens at Beast in the East. But a shoulder injury changed the course of history, and we all know the story of how Finn Balor was the one to do it.
He was even supposed to be in a dream tag team with Kota Ibushi for the second ever Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, but a neck injury courtesy of Riddick Moss squashed that dream shortly after Itami made his return to NXT.
Plus, we’ll never even know what the actual resolution of his own parking lot attack storyline would have been. We got the next best rehash with Aleister Black, but it’s still a mystery that vexes me nearly four years on.
Still, despite the injuries and “what ifs” that plagued Itami’s time in WWE, there were still positives. He helped create a new international scene in WWE, with other wrestlers from Japan like Asuka, Shinsuke Nakamura, Akira Tozawa, Kairi Sane, and Io Shirai coming along in the following years. It’s hard to imagine what kind of place if any at all they would have in WWE if Itami had not come along first.
While Itami may have never held a title in WWE, that doesn’t mean the matches he had along the way weren’t absolute bangers. Find time to watch his matches with Balor and Tyler Breeze from NXT TV. Go back and watch him and Black attempt to destroy each other at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III.
He really found his groove on 205 Live, though, and nearly any match he had there could qualify, but the Falls Count Anywhere match with Mustafa Ali was the pinnacle of his run. The ending of the match, where Ali yells “I always respected you” at him before hitting his 054 through a table, feels almost prophetic several months later.
Itami wasn’t just great at being a striker. He could command a match or a moment with ease. My favorite moment from any Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal was the time he got in the face of Big Show and started wailing on him before being ultimately eliminated. The entire Barclays Center got on their feet when he hit Austin Aries with his signature Go To Sleep during TakeOver Brooklyn II. The way he mocked his opponents and still demanded respect from them was frightening, frustrating and alluring all at once. You could make fun of Itami, but he would still find a way to make you regret it.
Still, Itami did it all with a love of wrestling. If I had to pick a moment that really defined his run in WWE, I would eventually settle on three: his mocking of Black during TakeOver that was actually a tribute to his friend Katsuyori Shibata, his absolutely hilarious and nonplussed reaction to Balor becoming The Demon for the first time, and his overt joy and surprise when he learned that he would be participating in WrestleMania 31. Itami was a killer obsessed with respect, but it was only because he loved what he did so much.
Whatever Itami does now is currently a mystery. What could have been done if his WWE run wasn’t a shipwreck of plans is just as much of one. For the time Itami was a member of the WWE roster though, he pushed through the hardship to deliver amazing matches and moments that deserve more respect than they got.