Prior to his WWE debut, a mystique surrounded Shinsuke Nakamura’s presence. Though unknown to much of the main roster audience, Nakamura was already a cult favorite, famously arriving to a hero’s welcome in NXT. It’s easy to forget that initial impact, the stunning impression Nakamura left in just one TakeOver match opposite Sami Zayn. His charisma was undeniable, his style incomparable and on that night at least, his ceiling appeared boundless. In truth though, that prior perception is now just another distant memory but as recent weeks have shown, this chapter isn’t quite complete yet.
Far from it in fact, as Nakamura now once again has gold around his waist. With Sami Zayn suddenly by his side, Nakamura is Intercontinental Champion, standing at the start of a brand new main roster opportunity. It must be said though, Nakamura certainly hasn’t gone without those in the past. Nakamura isn’t a traditional tale of creative failure, his struggles are slightly more complicated than that. From a presentation point of view, Nakamura certainly could’ve been handled more carefully but his placement was hard to critique.
Just months into his main roster stint, Nakamura was in the WWE Title picture and months later, he’d win the Royal Rumble too. While elements of the route taken were questionable, the destination was ideal. In his first WrestleMania, Nakamura would take on AJ Styles in a rematch of their memorable WrestleKingdom clash. It was billed as a dream match, a rare case of a main event singles match being preserved for the perfect setting. The programme perhaps lacked true conflict but in a traditional sense, it had certainly been positioned to succeed.
In some ways, they did succeed too. Styles and Nakamura had a good match at WrestleMania but not quite the classic that some had envisioned. Nakamura didn’t leave ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’ as champion either but did exit the event as a villain, emphatically rejecting Styles’ post-match embrace. That offered a potential new path for Nakamura, re-implementing the villainous edge that had once been so rich in his NJPW presentation. That was exciting and made the rivalry with Styles easier too, continuing their story in a far more conventional format.
They’d continue to have solid matches as well, even if failing to meet the high expectations that once surrounded their WrestleMania bout. Either way, Nakamura left the lengthy Styles feud without claiming the WWE Title, soon taking the US crown as his main roster career entered a new chapter. In the end, Nakamura’s time as United States Champion proved forgettable, holding the title for quite some time but failing to increase the belt’s importance to SmackDown Live. Eventually, the end of Nakamura’s title reign would lead him to a new tandem, teaming up with recent rival Rusev.
As a unit, Nakamura and Rusev were an admittedly exciting fit, combining comparable yet still contrasting in-ring styles. Rusev’s oncoming absence soon halted that direction though, leaving Nakamura aimless for the first time since arriving in WWE. As Nakamura briefly faded into the background, it was hard not to have a finalized view of his WWE fate. Though Nakamura had entered with immense intrigue, his main roster run had generally flattered to deceive. His highest highs hadn’t been quite high enough and for a range of reasons, things just hadn’t really worked out.
If nothing else, Nakamura’s move to WWE had certainly been an interesting experiment. It had tested WWE’s seemingly shifting approach as well as NXT’s ability to prepare talents for a weekly TV format. Nakamura was certainly a unique acquisition and immediately received the focus befitting that status. However, he felt misplaced at times too, ill-suited for WWE’s TV playbook and almost overexposed as a result. In a vacuum especially, Nakamura had certainly produced some enjoyable in-ring affairs but considering context, it was hard to compare the final product to the expectations that preceded it.
Thankfully, those conclusions may have been slightly premature though, as Nakamura became Intercontinental Champion at Extreme Rules. That victory didn’t initially result in a direct return to the spotlight but that shift now feels more possible than ever. This time around, Nakamura is armed with Sami Zayn, providing the verbal firepower to accentuate his every in-ring move. That allows Nakamura to rebuild and maintain a familiar mystique, projecting his distinct charisma while avoiding the traditional TV tropes. Those are now Zayn’s responsibility, continuing his recent tirades while proudly placing Nakamura on a pedestal.
On paper at least, this direction appears to be an immensely positive step in the right direction. Whether it’ll be executed well enough to succeed, that much remains to be seen. If so though, this next portion of Nakamura’s career could redefine his WWE stint. It feels hyperbolic to deem Nakamura’s transition a failure, but it’d also be generous to suggest that it’s totally delivered too. We can’t quite yet close the book though, as this Sunday at Clash of Champions, Nakamura takes on The Miz in his first title defense with Zayn by his side.
This renewed focus could swiftly become another false dawn but in the small sample size we’ve seen so far, it’s definitely worthy of some optimism for now. Sunday is the first stop on this new journey but history suggests it could certainly be a short ride too. As Clash of Champions comes to a close, Nakamura may not be a major talking point. However, if things go well, he could finally be back en route to a position that once upon a time, he seemed simply destined to land.
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