The WWE Performance Center (often called the PC) is not, by most metrics, a conventional wrestling school. It functions as a supplementary spoke on the overarching wheel of World Wrestling Entertainment. In truth, it is more like a nebulous corporation that serves as the primary antagonist in a science fiction novel. Tinkering with the health of wrestling at large, scores of gifted wrestlers from across the world have been drawn into the void by the all-too bright colors, the ubiquitous branding, and almost psychologically implanted dreams of superstardom. WWE, as presently constructed, is a parody of the magical art form known as wrestling, a bastardization of combat made digestible at the most base, common level.
The WWE PC, to this point, has performed admirably in its role to help attract notable stars of the independent scene and other wrestling companies. While the number of noteworthy in-house, sidewalk-to-ringside trainees is few, it has aided in helping several generational talents prepare and, unknowingly, be indoctrinated into the systems of WWE. One of its first, signature cases was KENTA, or as he would soon be known, Hideo Itami.
KENTA’s entrance into the company was nothing short of spectacular, as he rode into the company on a tidal wave of fanfare and hype (alongside Kevin Steen and Prince Devitt, two men with WWE careers performing well under expectation). Even on a personal level, it was clear that KENTA was elated to have an opportunity of such magnitude with WWE. It was a stark contrast from his outward appearance in his home promotion, Pro Wrestling NOAH, seeing such a level of excitement and jubilance. He spent several months overcome by a prevailing sense of happiness, overwhelmed by the far-flung notions of being mythologized within WWE’s sphere of influence. Given this information, it is harrowing to see how Hideo Itami looked and felt just before his exit from the company, a staggering five years (roughly twenty years in today’s landscape) after his monumental arrival.
I don’t even wish to comb through the details of KENTA’s moment-to-moment run in WWE; instead, I want to look at the day and night contrast between what KENTA is and what WWE warped him into.
KENTA, as a pro wrestling persona, can be compared to your favorite toy on Christmas—he’s perfect out of the box. Any perceived apprehensions about his height, build, or first impressions are utterly negated by his presence and wrestling style. He’s at his best being a stone-cold killer, an utter asshole who seems to only take pleasure in maiming and mauling his opponents. Between violent kicks, forearms, and knees, KENTA suspends your disbelief against your will. KENTA is at his highest peaks when he can be himself. In theory, a simplistic sequence can be followed to propel him to the highest level: let him be silent, let him kick people into oblivion, and let him win. Unfortunately, cut and dry home runs like that are just too hard to come by in WWE.
Hideo Itami was WWE’s idealized version of KENTA.
Other than a scant few moves in the arsenal, the only similarity between the two is that they happen to share the same physical body. Hideo Itami quickly, unaided by a barrage of injuries, became a man scraping for vestiges of himself – cosplaying as his own favorite wrestler. Languishing without concrete storylines or compelling programs, he lost momentum, motivation, and fulfillment within wrestling in one fell swoop. He had lost sight of himself, in desperately trying to comply with indefensible directives.
This idea, however, fits in line with WWE’s ultimate goal: to present their best idea of wrestling in its (supposed) best possible format. By making every wrestler a larger-than-life character, by shoveling everyone’s geographical nickname down your throat, and by aggressively individualizing every single roster member, everyone is simultaneously sanitized.
Hideo Itami, in this way, is no different. He entered the company heralded as one of the best wrestlers of his generation, before eventually being stretched and distended into a “superstar.” By the end, he was a faceless palette swap of one of his two hundred plus contracted peers, a one-of-a-kind talent turned nobody.
Thankfully, KENTA is on the mend, rediscovering himself at a blinding clip. As I am writing this column, he is hours removed from main-eventing a sold-out show in Osaka against Tetsuya Naito—a championship match built primarily on the hype surrounding their interactions. He has redefined himself as himself again, unearthing his old mannerisms, aura, and the burning core of his personality, all while folding in new wrinkles along the way (he’s a wonderful promo). Comically, he can barely stop to remember the dystopian version of himself.
Overall, KENTA was never a fit for the myriad systems of WWE. Asked to be a perfect, clear-cut hybrid between entertainer and wrestler, seamlessly blending the best elements of himself with the tonally dissonant demands of the company, he spent five arduous years treading water in a soul-sucking abyss.
KENTA was built and designed to be a wrestler, just never WWE’s idea of one.