Will Hideo Itami Finally Reach His Potential at NXT TakeOver: Chicago?


In a loaded card for NXT TakeOver: Chicago, Hideo Itami’s story of redemption sits at the top of it all.

In the summer of 2014, WWE NXT had been gaining steam as this little-known brand Triple H was running at Full Sail University. The promotion was born two years prior, but with the WWE Network in place, more fans started getting their eyes on the action. It helped with familiar faces from the pro wrestling world being brought in to wrestle for NXT, like Hideo Itami, who was known as KENTA in Japan.

Itami began the revolution of popular wrestling stars going to NXT and adding star power. He stepped in with all the hype in the world around him, being this big name to carry developmental into 2015 and lead it as one of its top babyfaces — maybe even as the best good guy.

It took the Japanese Sensation a while to start realizing his potential in NXT, so after six months, he hadn’t found the success everyone thought he’d receive. Whether it was his move set not being fully there or the language barrier, something didn’t connect with the viewer. That started to change around March 2015, when Itami teased the “Go to Sleep” finisher he hadn’t used for his first chunk of time on the NXT roster.

So something looked to be brewing with Itami, giving him some excitement and making fans want to see when he would hit this popular finishing move. However, that all changed a short time before he was about to compete to become the No. 1 Contender to the NXT Championship at TakeOver: Unstoppable.

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At this live special, it was announced someone attacked Itami in the parking lot, injuring his shoulder in the process. This took him off the match card and allowed Finn Balor to earn the next opportunity at Kevin Owens’ NXT Championship. It also caused Itami to miss the next 15 months.

One has to wonder if, during this time, the plan was for the former Pro Wrestling NOAH star to become the NXT Champion. After all the hype that surrounded him and the progress that had been made, it seemed like an opportune time to see the NXT Championship on him. He could have feuded with Owens and received the Japan opportunity to win the belt at Beast in the East, not Balor. While the Demon had plenty of ties to this country, this is where Itami wrestled for most of his life and would have had a more special homecoming and victory celebration, especially with it being his first title win in NXT.

Nine months after Balor’s Beast in the East win, he had completed nearly everything in NXT. He rose to become the Face of the Brand, headlined almost every live event that went on the road, and closed out four TakeOver events. The Irishman became the top star of NXT, and likely the biggest one in brand history. No one can deny the impact he made there, one that will be everlasting. However, you have to wonder what if Itami hadn’t been hurt? Would he have been in this spot? Could the spotlight have been shared with Balor?

Itami’s next roadblock became Shinsuke Nakamura, who jumped right in as NXT’s top Japanese face in April 2016, as well as the Face of the Brand from July to January 2017. Due to still recovering from the shoulder injury and hurting his neck, Itami missed just about this entire run from the King of Strong Style. It put him further in the background and even more lost in the shuffle, while Nakamura did everything Balor did as the Face of the Brand.

Once Nakamura returned to NXT TV, it opened up a spot in the NXT Championship scene for the first time in nearly one year. Anyone could have been the next guy to face Bobby Roode, but somewhat surprisingly, after all the injury issues from the past two years, Itami was chosen. He made his return to Full Sail to confront Roode and proclaim his desire for the show’s top belt.

Just like that, Itami was launched into the main event scene. He had to first defeat Roderick Strong to earn this title opportunity, but that seemed obvious once this altercation took place.

So here we are. It’s Saturday, May 20, 2017. Itami debuted all the way back in Sept. 2014, and it’s taken this long for him to rise to the title scene and actually close an NXT live special. He’ll get the main event of NXT TakeOver: Chicago with Roode, with the chance to finally show everyone what made him one of the first prized signings for the brand.

Time and other Superstars have passed Itami by in these 32 months in WWE. This prevented him from opportunities, but on Saturday, he’ll get his first real chance at making an impact in NXT. It might feel like it’s too late, but this is the time for Itami to get in the NXT Championship mix and actually win, as names like Aleister Black, Drew McIntyre, Strong, Eric Young and Kassius Ohno are all pushing for the same thing. If NXT doesn’t let the International Sensation win at TakeOver, his opportunity may never arise again and these previously-listed names may pass him by, just like Balor, Nakamura, Roode, Samoa Joe and others did before.

Next: NXT TakeOver: Chicago Live Review

It will all come to fruition for Itami in Chicago, IL. Will this be his moment to shine, wrapping up a nearly three-year journey?