Hideo Itami finally appears to have found his footing in NXT after nearly three years. Not because he was incapable, but due to several injuries which offset his course and brought to a halt his rise through the company.
Itami has not fooled himself. He knows his NXT career thus far has not met expectations, including his own. He took to Twitter to voice that thought to the world, adding that now he was finally ready to show everyone who Hideo Itami really is. The question, though, is whether or not Itami can still be what he once was pegged to be in NXT. After all the delays, has the moment been passed by, or can it still be ignited?
He made his way to NXT at the beginning of what many consider the golden era of the promotion thus far, coming in late summer of 2014. Even more so than now, NXT was the WWE brand for hardcore fans, so fans knew exactly how Itami was and how special it was for him to be in NXT.
Formerly known as KENTA, having made his name primarily in Pro Wrestling NOAH and creating a North American presence in Ring of Honor, Itami was the first major Japanese talent to enter NXT. For fans watching at the time, the hype around Itami was as large as anyone who had been in the promotion to that point. The reactions he drew from the crowd wholly reflected that.
Since I've come to WWE. I haven't lived up to my expectations. But finally I will have the opportunity to show, WHO I AM.
Get ready #G2S
— Hideo Itami / 伊丹英雄 (@HideoItami) May 18, 2017
Today, though, the mood is completely different. The hype has dwindled down drastically. Surely some of the reason has to do with the fact the hype around NXT as a whole has fallen since Itami first debuted, but the allure of Itami has undoubtedly fallen as well.
Only some eight months after his NXT debut, just as he was about to be elevated to the main event scene, Itami injured his shoulder. An injury that was expected to keep him on the shelf for six months ended up turning into over 13 months.
His comeback was warmly welcomed. Most fans felt robbed in some sense by never getting to see Itami reach the peaks of NXT like his counterparts who debuted around the same time had in Finn Balor and Kevin Owens, as well as the other key figures before them in Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville.
It was no more than four months, though, when Itami suffered another injury—this time a botched powerslam on his head causing a neck injury. And once again, he disappeared from television. Another six months before he was seen on NXT television again.
Now Itami is set to challenge Bobby Roode in the main event of NXT TakeOver: Chicago for the NXT Championship. You’ve got to remember, though, when Itami first entered NXT, Neville was still NXT Champion. From then to now, NXT is almost a completely different promotion altogether.
Itami is the last one of his generation to even still be in NXT, practically. Neville, Zayn, Owens, and Balor are long gone. Then you have Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura who were in the generation afterwards, and both had extended NXT runs before making it to the main roster where they now reside. Yet Itami is just barely able to get his run going as of a few months ago due to the two major injuries prior.
It is almost as if Itami has lost his shine. The way an old toy in the toybox loses its shine to a child after he has acquired so many new ones to play with. After all, three years of start-and-stop is a long time to maintain hype even for the most popular or talented performer. Perhaps NXT fans have, in a sense, mentally moved on.
All that said, the opportunities are there for Itami to reclaim the momentum he once had, at least in some form. He is, after all, getting the opportunity to headline the upcoming NXT TakeOver event with Roode, who is wildly over himself.
Unlike Roode, Itami was never one to get over due to character work. Itami has always been more of an in-ring talent than anything. His matches with the likes of Naomichi Marufuji, Low Ki, Bryan Danielson, and Katsuhiko Nakajima will stand the test of time. It is the spectacular work he did in such matches that originally made him so popular.
Safe to say if Itami can reestablish his reputation as an incredible ring worker, he can win the crowd’s enthusiasm back to levels it was previously. Less of his control, NXT creative must be careful with his booking. Based on how the crowd is taking to him currently, it would probably be a bad idea for Itami to become the new champion in Chicago.
However, it would also be a bad move for Itami to lose clean. You want to establish him as a force to be reckoned with again. Roode should not come out the better man, but as the heel who squeaked by because he knew he was losing in a fair fight. In doing so, you effectively establish a foundation for fans to start getting behind Itami once again with basic pro wrestling booking that easily fits the situation.
Hope is not lost for Itami to be a major star in NXT and perhaps move on successfully to the main roster. But it is going to require the right moves at the right times by all parties involved. And, really, it all starts at NXT TakeOver: Chicago.