The NXT Step for a Legend II: A Great Year for the Empress of Tomorrow

Last year I wrote about my favorite wrestler’s impending signing with WWE in NXT Step for a Legend. A year and a half later and I’m back to look back on her impressive initial period during this new phase of her career.

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At NXT Takeover Brooklyn in August 2015, somewhat in the shadow of the great Sasha vs Bayley NXT Women’s Title match that was about to start, the camera cut to show superstars in the front row and next to Ric Flair was the “World Famous” Kana.  There had been speculation that her announced “hiatus” from wrestling could be foreshadowing a move the the WWE, but surprisingly there had been no real information or clues, so seeing her on camera at a NXT/WWE event was a legitimate shock to most.

At the September 10 NXT tapings Kana made her debut (air date September 23), and took the name Asuka.  Interestingly while WWE announcers themselves have repeatedly pushed the fan speculated theory that the name is an homage to Lioness Asuka, Kana herself stated on Twitter that it wasn’t the case. She said she chose the name for its meaning of “tomorrow/future” and it had nothing to do with the legendary Crush Girl.

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Asuka’s trademark kabuki masks worn during her entrances have become a huge part of WWE’s merchandise efforts for her, with three worn so far and subsequently turned into plastic masks for the fans.

Dana Brooke and Emma crashed her initial interview,  leading to Asuka’s in ring debut for NXT against the former on October 7. She pretty well destroyed Brooke, with a surprising amount of her pre-WWE look, character, and style kept intact which allowed her to make an immediate strong impression on the crowd.

From that strong start Asuka’s continued to dominate and never looked back. About 50 matches and 6 months after her debut match the undefeated Asuka defeated likewise fan favorite Bayley to claim the NXT Women’s Championship. During her title reign she’s continued her string of impressive victories, including a rematch against Bayley and defenses against Nia Jax, Micke James, etc.

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She’s excellent at playing up her mystique, and the choice to keep her undefeated (at over 140 matches and counting) has amplified that advantage considerably. Long term some care will need to be taken to make sure she keeps getting her opponents over as well as herself. In that respect there has been talk among some fans of her as a “division killer,” but I personally haven’t felt that to be the case thus far. People don’t necessarily look bad getting dominated because she’s portrayed as such a insurmountable obstacle, and often her opponents get to hang in with her just enough to look impressive despite the defeat.

Also, there’s potential in varying the formula, such as when Mickie James returned to challenge Asuka at NXT Takeover Toronto and was portrayed as one of the first real threats to the champion to great effect. And whenever someone does finally get a pinfall on her an instant star will be made (as long as it’s not booked in a flukeish manner).

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A sample of the WWE trading and “relic” cards available featuring Asuka.

Having been a big fan of Kana before she signed with WWE (particularly in Shimmer, where among other accomplishments her match with Ayako Hamada was the best in the promotion’s history), it’s been intriguing to watch her evolution in NXT. From things like her improving English to the effect on her ring style.

In interviews and other public statements she’s shared significant insight into the challenges and personal growth that has come with it, such as needing to engage American crowds more fully faster when pacing a match than with Japanese crowds. She’s also talked about her initial reluctance to speak in Japanese at all during matches, only to later realize conveying emotion was more important and even if the crowd couldn’t understand her words yelling at her opponent in Japanese could still be a useful tool to connect with the crowd and tell the needed story.

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I was lucky enough to see her wrestle live at NXT Takeover Brooklyn II and later at an NXT show at Madison Square Garden. Takeover was almost two years after the last time I had seen her live at Shimmer, and in addition to just having the opportunity in general it was a treat to see how things have changed for her during her time in NXT.

It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for the Empress of Tomorrow, as the WWE’s eventual direction with her could go several ways. Her mastery of her craft and uniqueness as an attraction begs a spot on the main roster, but there are huge benefits to having her in NXT to expand the breadth of training of others in addition to the general advantages of having her on those shows.

Although whatever Asuka’s path holds going forward one thing’s for sure: for her opponents, “tomorrow brings danger.” 😉

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