What's Holding Hideo Itami Back in NXT?

There have been ups and downs for the Japanese star since debuting in September. Can he make it in the WWE Universe?

Hideo Itami takes on Tyler Breeze in the main event of 'NXT.' Credit: WWE

This was a banner week for Hideo Itami. He represented NXT at WrestleMania in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, main-evented Wednesday's show in a great match against Tyler Breeze and yes, he hit the GTS at a live event. It raises a question, though: What does the future hold for him?

Itami debuted in NXT back in September to a ton of fanfare. It could be argued that more was made of his signing than any wrestler (besides Sting) WWE has signed in years. Yet, while his run so far hasn't been terrible by any stretch, it's been somewhat lackluster for such a heavily hyped wrestler.

The first thing that has to be pointed out is that Hideo Itami is still adjusting – not just to the American style of wrestling, but to America itself. Triple H even pointed that out in a recent conference call, saying it's been a rough transition for Itami, and that he's still waiting for the light bulb to go off. He's not wrestling the same style he wrestled in Japan. If you watch him in NXT, you see some physicality out of him, but you'd almost be willing to classify him as more of a finesse guy. Anyone who has seen him in Japan knows that he was, to put it mildly, a complete ass-kicker. Whether that's just him toning it down while he picks up the nuances of the U.S. style, or something more, it seems like he's not showing everything he is capable of.

His character hasn't been fully developed either, and due to the language barrier, it's much harder for him to establish it. He's a somewhat generic babyface right now. The biggest pop he gets is when he attempts (or when he actually hits) the GTS. The feud with Breeze has helped somewhat, as it's given him someone to play off of, but at the same time, Tyler's outrageous personality has also put a spotlight on the fact that Itami is more or less playing the straight man in the feud.

This isn't to say that he's doing a terrible job so far. However, debuting at the same time as Finn Bálor and Kevin Owens, who have done so much so quickly, has made Itami look worse by comparison. Which is unfair if you think about it. NXT is still technically supposed to be developmental – just because some people progress faster than others shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing; it's more an inevitable byproduct of learning the ropes.

So what is it going to take for, as Triple H said, the light bulb to go off? The first thing is that Itami needs to let loose. Whether it's him neutering himself while he focuses on learning a new style, or if it's something that he's being taught, he just doesn't look completely comfortable in the ring. He needs to stick out in some way, and while he's still adjusting to the language barrier, the best way to do that is let him cut loose in the ring. You saw brief glimpses of it in his two-out-of-three falls match against Breeze last night, and it was a good look for Itami: there simply isn't an ass-kicker of his size in the company right now.

The talent is there – even those who doubt him right now admit that. We've seen that the WWE wants him to succeed; he wouldn't have been at WrestleMania otherwise. It may simply be a matter of time before everything clicks, or it might take a little push, either in-ring or in his character. Either way, his path will be watched closely.

  • Sami Zayn made his return to Full Sail for the first time since losing to Kevin Owens. He gave a brief, but passionate, promo about how he didn't recognize the Owens that showed up to TakeOver. He said he had a plan, which involved taking back his title and kicking Owens' ass (no one ever said it was an overly complex plan). Zayn's promos over the past six months have taken a huge step forward. He doesn't tend to do anything overly fancy on the mic, but the conviction and his connection with the crowd ensures that everything he says hits.
  • Speaking of title shots, Rhyno ran through another wrestler, both in the ring then backstage with Zayn, when he said that he didn't come to wait in line for an NXT title shot. It seems like Zayn will spend some time with Rhyno before turning back towards Owens, which you would assume will happen at the next NXT TakeOver event. It's not a terrible decision if that's the way they're going. If TakeOver isn't until mid-May, that's another 6-7 weeks, so Zayn needs to have one small program before moving back to his personal feud with Owens. And any direction for Rhyno is a good thing at this point.
  • Emma and Bayley's match was a clinic on how psychology in a match can matter more than the moves. Emma was working out what her new heel-ish character was, both in reality and in kayfabe. The way she regarded Bayley throughout the match was fascinating: she was patronizing (which cost her the match), arrogant and, ultimately, surprised. You can see the wheels turning. The way Bayley reacted was just as important though, as her struggle to stay happy, bubbly Bayley shone through. Both of these two will be fun to watch in upcoming weeks.
  • The Lucha Dragons made what will likely end up being one of their final appearances in NXT in a losing effort to Blake and Murphy. They, of course, made their debut on Raw this week, where Kalisto became one of the most talked-about aspects of the show. The NXT tag division will certainly take a small hit without them there.
  • Jason Jordan and Tye Dillinger had what I assume was their blowoff after their tag team broke up, which Jordan won. This was slightly awkward, simply because the fans had very little connection to either man, so the match didn't have much passion behind it. However, both of these guys are athletic, and both have plenty of potential.
  • In a final bit of unfortunate news, at least for NXT fans, CJ Parker asked for – and received – his release this weekend. From one fan's perspective, this is a major bummer, because Parker was a highlight every time he was on screen ever since working out his environmental warrior gimmick. He didn't have too much chance to grow, as he was used primarily as a jobber for the past year, which probably contributed to his leaving. More than the loss for us, his departure sparked an outpouring of emotional messages from the rest of the NXT locker room, showing how much Parker was liked and respected there. Good luck to him in the future, and hopefully they can figure out a way to repackage that phenomenal gimmick.