On July 12, 2014, WWE made the huge announcement that the company had signed Japanese wrestling sensation Kenta. WWE Hall of Famer and pop culture icon Hulk Hogan presided over the ceremony, which took place in the ring at a Live Event in Osaka during WWE’s recent Japan Tour. Hogan, who became a star in Japan before Hulkamania ran wild at Madison Square Garden, mentioned Kenta in the same breath as Japanese legends (and Hogan contemporaries) Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami.
Kenta has the potential to be as transformative as any of those stars. Rising to fame in Pro Wrestling Noah — an organization he helped build alongside owner Mitsuharu Misawa — Kenta caught the attention of American audiences during stints with independent organization Ring of Honor, where he wrestled Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins in acclaimed bouts.
WWE.com spoke with WWE’s COO Triple H, Bryan, Rollins and Cesaro, to learn more about Kenta’s unique style and the global ramifications of him joining WWE.
WWE.COM: When did Kenta first come on your radar?
TRIPLE H: I’ve known about Kenta for years. He’s one of the biggest stars in Japan. He’s a huge talent, obviously. I’m excited for him to try to bring his brand of sports-entertainment to WWE and see how he does.
WWE.COM: Had you seen his work or was it only word of mouth?
TRIPLE H: No, no, I was absolutely familiar with him. It’s funny, because WWE is a different world. You’ll hear players all the time talk about making the switch from college football to the NFL and the difference in the game. I think it’s the same when you come to WWE. I don’t care where you’ve been or how big you’ve been anyplace else. When you get here, it’s a whole different world. There’s no ceiling for anybody in WWE. You just have to come here and prove that you belong to be in the ring with the best in the world. If you can hang with them, that’s exactly where you’ll be. Kenta has all the tools to be able to do it — he’s proven that for years in Japan. Now let’s see what he can do in NXT. Adapt or perish.
WWE.COM: Who would you like to see Kenta wrestle in NXT when he goes down there for the first time?
TRIPLE H: There’s a massive amount of talent I’d love to see him work with down there. The obvious guys are Sami Zayn and NXT Champion Adrian Neville, but there are ton of guys down there like Tyson Kidd, Justin Gabriel and anybody in that class. NXT is the proving ground to get to WWE, and that’s where Kenta’s gonna have to prove himself. He’s gotta prove that he belongs in WWE.
WWE.COM: What is Kenta’s training status and when can we expect to see him on Raw?
TRIPLE H: He just signed with us. I was there when he had his tryout at the Performance Center and I met with him there. We’ve been working on this for a while. His training will start when he gets here. The thing is, you can be a big star anyplace else in the world. That gets you in the door. What you do once you get here is a whole different ballgame. He’s no different than anybody else once he walks through the door of the Performance Center.
WWE.COM: What makes Kenta different than other international stars WWE has signed in the past, and what does he do for WWE’s international appeal?
TRIPLE H: For the Japanese markets, it’s a huge opportunity to see one of their stars come try to make a name for himself in the US and on a global basis. We are a global company and we recruit globally. We are looking for the biggest and brightest athletes all over the world.
NEXT: Daniel Bryan discusses why wrestling Kenta is one the favorite matches of his career
WWE.COM: What message does the signing of Kenta send to both the roster and the WWE Universe?
DANIEL BRYAN: It’s excellent. They’re signing an international guy who has the reputation for being the best. Kenta is one of the best guys I’ve ever been in the ring with. Some of the best matches I’ve ever had have been against Kenta. He’s going to make everybody step up their game.
WWE.COM: What is it about his style that separates him from other guys?
BRYAN: He has the ability to be a highflier and do all of that kind of stuff, but he was vicious as opposed to flashy. If you look at a lot of popular WWE moves, Kenta originated them. The Go To Sleep is a Kenta original. The running knee that I do is a Kenta original that I learned from being hit with it from Kenta [laughs]. He’s somebody who hits very hard and very fast. He’s just one of the most exciting wrestlers in the world.
WWE.COM: That sounds like a perfect description of Daniel Bryan. Did you see a lot of yourself in Kenta?
BRYAN: I did not see a lot of myself in him, other than just the hard work.At the time, I was wrestling a completely different style. It’s actually funny, because for me to appeal to WWE, I thought I needed to wrestle more like Kenta [laughs]. I saw Kenta and thought, “This guy can get [a reaction] anywhere in the world because of how he wrestles.” Everywhere you go, you can learn from people, and that’s one of the things I’ve done throughout my career. You learn from the guys you wrestle and the guys you watch. Watching Kenta I thought, “Wow, I need to be a little more like this.”
WWE.COM: What’s it like being in the ring with a guy who hits that hard?
BRYAN: One of my favorite matches of my career was against Kenta in 2006. I was the Ring of Honor Champion and I had just recently separated my shoulder. I wrestled him in the Manhattan Center in New York City for 25 or 30 minutes in one of the toughest and best matches of my career. I can’t hear very well out of my left ear and that’s because of Kenta [laughs]. I can’t swim or go underneath a certain depth of water because he ruptured my eardrum in 2007 and I’ve never gotten it fixed. He can definitely swing for the fences.
WWE.COM: That was from one of those hard kick to the head?
BRYAN: No! It was actually from a slap! We were slapping each other in the face in Chicago.
WWE.COM: Who would you like to see Kenta wrestle in WWE?
BRYAN: I would love to see Kenta against Seth Rollins. Especially if it was a high level match, like on a pay-per-view or something like that — two guys at the top of their game. I’d like to see him against Cesaro. That would be incredible. I would pay money to see Kenta vs. Big Show. Some matches I’ve seen Kenta have against huge wrestlers have been awesome, because he is just fearless.
WWE.COM: What do you think the future holds for Kenta in WWE?
BRYAN: Kenta has wrestled in the United States, Europe and Mexico. He knows how to switch his styles up with what WWE is doing, so the sky is the limit for him. He has worked hard at speaking English. I don’t necessarily think he should be doing long interviews, but if you told him to, he would be able to do it within a year or two because he’s so smart. And the big thing is, he’s cool. It’s like when you meet The Rock, he’s cool. Kenta’s just cool, and somehow it translates in the United States. When people see him and meet him, they’re just like, “Man, this guy’s cool.”
NEXT: Cesaro on wrestling Kenta in Japan …
WWE.COM: When did you first hear about Kenta and what did you think of him the first time you saw him wrestle?
CESARO: The first time I saw him was a Kenta vs. [Naomichi] Marafuji match that had everyone talking in 2004. It was described as this awesome, great match, and when I finally saw a video, it was true. They did things that I’d never seen before. It was likened to Tiger Mask vs. Dynamite Kid.
WWE.COM: What was it like to meet Kenta and wrestle him?
CESARO: The first time I met him was when he came to Ring of Honor for a weekend or two, and then I met him again when I wrestled him in Japan for Pro Wrestling Noah.
WWE.COM: Can you tell us a little more about Pro Wrestling Noah? What was it like wrestling Kenta there?
CESARO: That company comes from All Japan Pro Wrestling’s background. And if you don’t know what All Japan Wrestling is, then do your research. His style is very hard-hitting and competitive, so naturally I was a great fit.
WWE.COM: What was it like wrestling him in Japan, where he is such a big star?
CESARO: A lot of people would have been intimidated being in the ring with him, but not me. I showed him that there are fighters outside of Japan who can hit just has hard or even harder. I have a Herculean appearance, while he has a very understated appearance, but don’t be fooled by his appearance. He’s a very skilled grappler.
WWE.COM: Who would you like Kenta wrestle in WWE?
PAUL HEYMAN: I’d like to answer that question please. On behalf of my client, I wish for my client to not endorse any other specific talents here in WWE. Your organization has taken advantage of my client’s willingness to discuss other people and their attributes. You have exploited this to no end, and my contempt, disgust and disdain. The most qualified opponent for Kenta is Cesaro, and I say that only because this interview is being conducted in Japan. Bluntly, Cesaro is no one’s opponent. Kenta would be Cesaro’s opponent. Please cease and desist any further questioning of my client involving others besides his talents specifically or his opinion on this extraordinary talent that WWE had the good sense to sign.
NEXT: Seth Rollins discusses both wrestling against and teaming with Kenta …
WWE.COM: When did you first hear about Kenta?
SETH ROLLINS: I learned about Kenta in 2004 or 2005 when I first started breaking into the wrestling business. I caught some tapes of him in Japan wrestling for Noah against Marafuji and thought to myself, “That guy kicks harder than any human being I’ve ever seen in my life and I don’t know how anyone is getting up.”
WWE.COM: What are some of your favorite Kenta matches?
ROLLINS: Any match against Marafuji. They had an extended rivalry. Also, Kenta vs. Daniel Bryan in Ring of Honor [at Glory by Honor V in 2006] is one of my favorite matches of all time.
WWE.COM: What was the first time you met him, and what was it like to meet him?
ROLLINS: I met him at a Ring of Honor show we were both on. Very intimidating, but in the end, just a quiet, soft-spoken, very humble Japanese fellow.
WWE.COM: What does the signing of Kenta mean for the landscape of WWE and the roster in general to have an established Japanese star?
ROLLINS: It’s been quite some time since WWE has really went out of its way to sign an established Japanese star. If you look at his resume, not just in Japan, but worldwide, it’s a coup for the company. He’s a legitimate, bona fide global wrestling phenomenon, and I’m looking forward to having him on the roster.
WWE.COM: Who would you like to see Kenta wrestle in WWE?
ROLLINS: I wouldn’t mind locking horns with him one more time. I would love to see him get in the ring with Cesaro. I think he would have a really interesting match with Sheamus. I would love to see how someone like Randy Orton might combat him. I think it’ll be really interesting just to see how he gels with the locker room.
WWE.COM: Do you think he’ll need to adapt his style in WWE?
ROLLINS: Anybody that’s ever come here has had to adapt their style in some way, shape or form. You’ve gotta find a medium between what brought you to the dance and what’s gonna get you to the top. I hope Kenta is able to — and I’m sure he will be able to — find that in-between. Overall, I hope he doesn’t change too much. He’s super talented, and I just want to see him succeed and do well.
WWE.COM: What is Kenta’s potential to succeed here?
ROLLINS: The sky’s the limit for him. He’s got unlimited potential based on his skill set. He’s not the prototypical WWE Superstar. He’s not Hulk Hogan and he’s not John Cena, but he has a certain charisma about him that’s completely different than what anybody else has in the company right now. He’s got an opportunity to bring a different style to the game in an era when MMA is very prominent. Guys his size who hit as hard as he does are very popular and can connect with an audience.
WWE.COM: You teamed with him in a match in 2009. What was that like?
ROLLINS: Teaming with Kenta was awesome, just because that meant I didn’t have to get kicked by him. He had a rivalry with [Katsuhiko] Nakajima and I had a rivalry with Austin Aries, so we were paired together by circumstance. We gelled very well as a tag team and won that match, due in no small part to how awesome he was and how willing he was to incorporate my style into his. We had a really good time.
WWE.COM: What was it like to wrestle him later that year in Chicago?
ROLLINS: There was no rivalry going into that match. It was just one of those dream matches that Ring of Honor was very famous for putting on. His style was completely unlike anything I was used to. His speed and ferocity were unmatched at that point in his career. I just wanted to do my best to survive and I came out of it relatively unscathed. I had lots of bumps and bruises, had the wind knocked out of me on multiple occasions, but I survived, and I thought we had a pretty good match. I had a helluva time, but it was one of those deals where when you’re in the ring with him, it’s more about survival than it is about winning.
WWE.COM: Do you prefer teaming with him or competing against him?
ROLLINS: I’m a glutton for punishment. I liked wrestling against him rather than teaming with him. I like anybody that can bring out the best in me or showcase a side of me that I’m unfamiliar with, and he definitely did that. He took me to a place mentally and physically where I had never been before. I had to take a lot of blows. Not that I’m not used to that, but I’m telling you, his kicks are lethal. I enjoyed wrestling him before and I’m hoping to do it again.