After months of waiting, WWE and Fergal Devitt yesterday confirmed that they had come to an agreement, with the former New Japan Pro Wrestling star reporting to the Performance Centre in Orlando. The Irish wrestler, who as Prince Devitt held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title three times for more than a thousand days in total, told WWE.com: “This is something I’ve been looking forward to since I was maybe four or five years old.”
The announcement was a long time coming. Devitt parted company with his Japanese employers more than six months ago and seemingly spent the entire intervening period teasing fans on Twitter with hints at the inevitable.
I'm NOT 'jumping ship' ... I'm a Pirate! pic.twitter.com/rRlm5BdeT6Prince Devitt (@fergaldevitt) May 23, 2014
Devitt trained in the UK, but his break came when he was spotted by scouts for New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2005 while wrestling at a spot show in Nashville, Tennessee. Moving to Tokyo, he took to the ‘dojo’ lifestyle, training hard and living there even after he became an established name. By 2007, he had won his first title, the junior heavyweight tag belt. Three years later, he cut through the best of his weight class to take win the Best of the Super Junior tournament and then the junior heavyweight title itself, following in the footsteps of honourable gaijin such as Owen Hart and Chris Benoit, as well as Japanese legends like Jushin Liger.
From then on, he remained around the business end of the card, defeating top-tier homegrown wrestlers like Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi and forming Bullet Club, a stable of foul-mouthed Anglophones which shocked Japanese crowds with brashness, violence and, of course, cheating. His defeat to Kota Ibushi in his last match at the Tokyo Dome in January marked the end of his third and longest IWGP Junior Heavyweight title run. It also heralded the beginning of a world tour of indie shows in comic-book cosplay, ending only with his signing to WWE and presumably becoming subject to copyright laws.
It remains to be seen whether Devitt can succeed in the WWE environment, much less aggressive and more colourful than the Japanese promotion where he thrived. A shade below six feet tall, with a Celtic complexion and a malevolent whisper of a voice, he doesn’t fit the prototype of the American ‘superstar’.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. The first is simply that the WWE came for him. He won’t seem imposing in the Land of Giants. He has little experience at any significant level in the United States. The company already has the ‘Irish guy’ box ticked. But the talent scouts and decision-makers of Stanford, Connecticut still decided that Devitt had whatever they’re looking for. Though the announcement didn’t come until yesterday, Devitt’s loss to Ibushi – and his subsequent disappearance from New Japan – pulled him out of a trajectory that seemed inevitably headed toward contention for the second most prestigious title in the world. In fact, his immediate replacement as the leader of Bullet Club, AJ Styles, won the gold on his first night. Promises, you feel, must have been made to Devitt.
The second reason Devitt is likely to succeed is simply that he is an utter phenomenon in the ring. His signature two-footed stomp seems, even in the context of strong-style Japanese wrestling, unnecessarily vicious. His movement and sense of space are impeccable. He wrestles like a man who wants to win the fight. If anything instructive has come from Daniel Bryan’s long, slow rise, it’s that being good at your job is sometimes enough, even if your muscles don’t pop.
But then again, Devitt’s muscles do pop – he is unlikely to run into the problems Chris Hero encountered with shedding his belly. He will work hard. His personality isn’t particularly conducive to a goofy gimmick, meaning WWE will probably at some point have to let him vituperate at the Miz before breaking his limbs – getting him over with the smarks. If you’re going to sign the short white guy, Fergal Devitt is as safe an investment as you’re going to find.
There are risks, however, for his career as much as for the WWE. Stardom in Japan is one thing, but the lure of being able to turn on the television for back-up when your aunt asks you what exactly it is you do for a living is a strong one, and plenty of indie wrestlers with momentum behind them have been deflated by the bureaucracy and the reprogramming of WWE’s developmental programme – not least the aforementioned Chris Hero.
The lustre of Devitt as the man who went toe to toe with Tanahashi will have faded if, in 18 months, he is out of the company and casting around for work in the super-indies. And, frankly, if he wrestles in the same style on Smackdown as he did in Japan, he will scare children. Whether he can temper the aggression but maintain the attitude is the great question of the NXT era.