Shinsuke Nakamura’s WWE career has played out as one of the biggest failures of the modern era. The King of Strong Style first arrived in NXT shrouded in hype: expectations were high and the WWE Universe prepared themselves for a fresh character to ascend on the main roster. As the years have gone by, Nakamura’s star has dimmed and his passions have been seemingly stolen by the lack of creative direction for this truly unique superstar.
Things are slowly starting to improve for Nakamura. This past week on SmackDown Live, we saw Shinsuke defeat the Intercontinental Champion, Finn Balor, in dominant fashion. Nakamura nailed his former NJPW colleague with some lethal Kinshashas, setting things in motion for a huge dream match at either Extreme Rules this Sunday, or SummerSlam. WWE are making a big deal out of Shin’s sudden resurgence in the mid-card scene, and presenting him as a threat, we can only hope that this is leading to a career revival of sorts over the summer.
WWE obviously has faith in the Japanese sensation. He’s a marketable star with a charisma that keeps a very prominent fanbase loyal to him. Fortunately for him, fans haven’t quite lost faith in him as a credible champion — Nakamura is primed for the comeback run of his career is he’s allowed to get back in touch with who and what the WWE Universe fell in love with.
Nakamura’s debut with Sami Zayn at NXT TakeOver: Dallas stands out as one of those timeless classics that will forever be considered one of the best matches produced under the WWE umbrella. The hype of seeing Nakamura bring his eclectic strong style to the WWE for the first time added another layer to the excitement and intensity of the match itself. The rest of Shinsuke’s NXT career maintained his superstardom. Nakamura became the face of the brand, competing in dream matches against the likes of Samoa Joe and Bobby Roode, putting together matches that were rated very highly on a consistent basis.
After dropping the NXT Championship to Roode, Nakamura debuted on the main roster on the SmackDown after WrestleMania. Fans were more than ready to see him rise through the ranks and eventually stand on top of the supposed land of opportunity.
And then things started to fall apart.
Shinsuke won his first feud with perennial welcoming committee host Dolph Ziggler. This propelled him into the title picture right off the bat and saw him compete against WWE Champion Jinder Mahal at that year’s SummerSlam. Nobody wanted to see ‘The Modern Day Maharaja’ walk away with the win, and logically speaking, Mahal couldn’t even touch Shinsuke in the ring. But for some bizarre reason, WWE decided to keep everyone waiting and gave Nakamura a crushing loss at the hands of Mahal.
Shinsuke was able to dust himself off and carry on as hot as ever in his debut year. Nakamura dropped in and out of feuds and put on some instant classics with the likes of John Cena and Kevin Owens on episodes of SmackDown Live. WWE were smart enough to give Shin the win at the 2018 Royal Rumble. It almost felt like there was a changing of the guard, as Nakamura stood alongside Roman Reigns and Finn Balor as they went face-to-face with Cena, Orton and Rey Mysterio in a collision of generations. Nakamura’s win was such a special moment for fans of global independent wrestling, witnessing him overcome both Cena and Reigns – WWE’s two golden boys – only went to certify his place at the top of the food chain.
Nakamura used his Rumble win to instigate another highly requested dream match for WrestleMania 34. Nakamura went toe-to-toe with AJ Styles for the WWE Championship in one of the show’s headlining performances. The grandeur of this match made the wait worthwhile, everything felt right for Nakamura’s coronation.
And then things started to fall apart again.
Nakamura once again took the loss in his deserved title match, and left looking a lot less of a star than he did when he walked in. The surprise heel turn managed to pull back momentum slightly, but ultimately, Nakamura lost the feud with Styles at Money in the Bank in a Last Man Standing match. This rivalry should have been his career defining chapter, but will now go down in history as one of the biggest wasted opportunities.
The matches themselves weren’t terrible, but they certainly weren’t as impressive as they should have been. A lot of fans are quick to compare their WWE title series to that of their groundbreaking contest at Wrestle Kingdom in 2016. Of course, WWE and New Japan are two very different environments, where the performers are given different levels of restrictions and creative freedom.
Having missed the ball with Nak’s heel turn and title victory, WWE were left with quite the predicament: how to still make Shinsuke Nakamura a megastar on the main roster.
Shinsuke was immediately thrown into the US Title picture, which he won from Jeff Hardy in their first encounter. The two feuded for the best part of 2018, but the entire run felt like a huge step down from his potential. The gimmick was incredibly forced and almost felt like a joke. Nakamura was suddenly transformed into the generic foreign heel, who berated the United States for the sake of generating some cheap heat. Of course, this barely worked, seeing as everyone still wanted to see Nakamura succeed in spite of WWE’s lack of effort. But still, nobody benefited from the Nakamerica gimmick, especially not Shinsuke.
It almost seemed like WWE had lost faith, it shining through on a week-to-week basis. He was given less screen time, practically no promos and eventually lost the title to Rusev on the New Year’s Day broadcast of SmackDown Live.
Nakamura entered 2019 directionless, which was a stark contrast to where he was a year prior. Nakamura managed to regain the US Title but soon dropped it to R-Truth, in what is considered one of the most upsetting parts of Shin’s WWE career. For a guy to come in looking like a rockstar, only to end up dropping the mid-card title to the same guy that would be jobbing out to the likes of Jinder Mahal and Mojo Rawley only a few weeks prior, was a complete travesty. His chances at being a top star had diminished and you could tell he was simply along for the ride at this point. WWE would be a suitable place for him to wait out his career and cash the cheques.
His good-for-nothing tag team with Rusev failed to get over, and afterwards the Superstar Shake-Up left him on SmackDown Live. But things have started to turn around with this sudden rivalry with Finn Balor.
At this point, it’s worth looking back at what made Shinsuke a globally recognised name. Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship fights with Kota Ibushi, Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi put him on the map, all of which taking place while other stars competed in the main events. Nakamura seems to thrive in the mid-card, which only begs the question: perhaps if he were to take the WWE Intercontinental title off of Finn Balor, we could start seeing the King return to form.
Shinsuke’s comeback couldn’t come at a better time. With Eric Bischoff and Paul Heyman now stepping up to help with creative direction, he could be in store for a complete career revival as Intercontinental Champion. Finn Balor’s run has established him as a worthy successor to the SmackDown Live main event scene; it’s time for that title to do wonders elsewhere and give Nakamura a leg-up to greener pastures.
With the SmackDown Live roster being as stacked as it is, Nakamura could truly redefine himself as one of the show’s biggest workhorses; competing with other talented mid-carders like Apollo Crews, Ali and Aleister Black, who are all looking for that big breakout performance. Nakamura’s ability to get any match over when he’s fully impassioned could do wonders for the show during their transition to Fox. Shin could hold down the ‘wrestling’ aspect of the programme, while acting as a suitable star to help tap into the global market.
With New Japan slowly on the rise in the US, there’s no better time to start re-pushing Shinsuke Nakamura as one of WWE’s biggest draws. The fans want to see him succeed more than ever. This is their last chance to make it happen. Do you think they’ll pull it off? Let us know in the comments below.