The finals of the New Japan Cup-USA Tournament air Friday night on the New Japan World streaming service, with Kenta battling David Finlay for the right at a future title shot against IWGP United States Champion Jon Moxley.
The 39-year-old Kenta Kobayashi starred for Pro Wrestling Noah in Japan before coming to NXT in 2014. He never found success within WWE, and a move to 205 Live in 2017 did not gain him any momentum in the company. He made a surprise debut for New Japan Pro Wrestling in February 2019, and there are high hopes for his run in Bullet Club.
Kenta, whose answers were translated from Japanese, spoke with Sports Illustrated about his disappointing run in WWE, the potential for a match against Jon Moxley, and his goals in NJPW.
Justin Barrasso: You have wrestled all over the world, most notably starring for Pro Wrestling Noah and your time with NXT. Even with all of your experience, wrestling amid a pandemic in front of empty arenas is very strange. What has it been like for you to wrestle without a crowd?
Kenta: I felt weird before the bell rang, but [no crowd] didn’t matter for me. Whether the fans are there or not, what I do is the same.
Barrasso: You appear to be in top physical condition, and social media buzzed with your new hair style. How did you spend your time when you weren’t wrestling over the past few months?
Kenta: I was just staying healthy and safe. I don’t know if you guys like my new hair, but I’m like the Justin Bieber now in this business. I don’t want to grow my hair, I just don’t want to go to an American barber. American barbers have the worst technology. I’ll cut it off soon when I can go to Japan.
Barrasso: No one does tournaments better than New Japan. Did you ask to be in this eight-man tourney for a shot at the IWGP United States title?
Kenta: I said many times that I’m going to prove that I’m the best pro wrestler in this business. That’s why I’m here. I’ve had ridiculous past feelings here in America, and I want to get rid of that humiliation. That’s why this tournament is a great opportunity for me.
And I want to get the belt from Moxley. Honestly, a few years ago, Moxley and I were at different levels. But I don't feel like that now.
Barrasso: You had a very entertaining tournament matches the past two weeks against Karl Fredericks and Jeff Cobb, now you have the finals against David Finlay. What has stood out to you most so far about your work in the tournament?
Kenta: I am hungry. I feel strongly that I will succeed in Japan. My enthusiasm and feelings about wrestling are what is different now.
Barrasso: If you win the tournament, a match with current U.S. Jon Moxley would be compelling. What excites you most about a match with Moxley?
Kenta: Life is funny. I think no one thought Moxley would do a match with me a few years ago. But if I win this tournament, it could come true. This is the best chance. I’ll shut up those who looked down on me. That is one of my motivations.
Barrasso: You added significant meaning to the NEVER Openweight Championship during your four-month run with the belt. Were you happy with the title reign? And is your goal now to add further meaning to the U.S. belt?
Kenta: I’m going to be the first-ever Japanese IWGP U.S. Champion, and I’ll bring that belt to a higher level.
My time with the NEVER belt was like a greeting for fans of New Japan. I had to prove that I’m a person who can aim for higher levels with NEVER. And the U.S. title has a totally different feeling. A few years ago, a guy who fell in America surprised the world with U.S. title. Don’t you think it’s the coolest story? I’ve never forgotten my American humiliation. If I have the belt, it will get more attention from both Japanese and American fans.
Barrasso: Many wrestling fans were disappointed you left NXT. Why is NJPW a better fit for you?
Kenta: It may have been possible [in WWE] to satisfy myself as I was in the “world’s largest organization”. But as a wrestler, I now prioritize what I want to do. I can do what I want and where I want to now.
Barrasso: I know you’re in the United States, so you weren’t there when it happened, but what was your reaction watching Evil join Bullet Club and become both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental champ?
Kenta: I’m looking forward to seeing if EVIL and I can get along well together.
Barrasso: You did not meet your goals in WWE. What is your current inspiration in wrestling?
Kenta: I’ve felt in my heart that the five years I spent in WWE were the most frustrating days of my life. I’ve talked about this, but I’ll always remember the humiliation in America. Being here reminds me of that regret. And when you’re not good, you tell yourself that. That is what inspires me.
Barrasso: You meet David Finlay in the finals of the tournament. What will make this Friday’s show stand out?
Kenta: Bullet Club is taking over the tournament. And there are many young talented wrestlers that will surprise you. New Japan STRONG will be my show. It will be centered around me, so people better keep an eye on it.