The lights were down and after months of waiting, the time had finally come.
Almost 10,000 people rose to their feet and a thunderous “Nakamura” chant started with immediacy. It had been just under three months since the news of Nakamura’s WWE move broke, and an aura and mystique had organically built around the enigmatic star. One of Japan’s most beloved wrestling son’s was leaving home and the intrigue couldn’t be higher. Many American fans had previously took a liking to ‘The King of Strong Style’ in his unforgettable clash with Kota Ibushi, a match that took place on the only Wrestle Kingdom show ever broadcast on PPV in America, an event even commentated on by Jim Ross. He was colorful and charismatic with a sense of brutality behind all the unique animation.
Since that January 4th 2015 classic, Nakamura had put on one final year of thrills in NJPW. Injuries had hindered his G1 slightly but Nakamura eventually found that magic and put on storytelling masterpieces with Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Heading into the Tokyo Dome as Intercontinental champion once again, Nakamura shared the ring with the almost unparalleled AJ Styles in a dream match that delivered on every level. In a moment that now stands in history, post-match the two bumped fists in a symbolic signaling of an era’s end. For the past 18 months, Styles had shown his true greatness and revitalized his career while Nakamura had gone from strength to strength. As we found out the next day, both would now head to the WWE.
Almost three months later and Styles was on the WrestleMania card but the Friday before the super-show would mark Nakamura’s promotional debut as he featured on the NXT TakeOver event. The decision to place Nakamura in NXT was immediately controversial but the prospect of a debut match opposite Sami Zayn kept most happy. So that brings us back to that memorable Friday night, the lights down and the crowd chanting, it was NXT TakeOver and Nakamura was about to make his debut entrance. As his now iconic music began to play, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a watered-down version of Nakamura but instead a more grandiose one than ever seen before.
The crowd was already excited but now the atmosphere had reached a fever pitch. A quick glance and wink at the camera perfectly summed up Nakamura’s immediate comfort on this stage. Anyone that had ever seen Nakamura rock the Tokyo Dome wouldn’t have been surprised but it was still satisfying to see his charisma translate so well. The action itself was spectacular with an unforgettable ‘fighting spirit’ style spot even eliciting a “Fight Forever” chant. With blood pouring from his nose, Nakamura turned on the violence too, unleashing a flurry of kicks that encapsulated his ‘King of Strong Style’ moniker. As the referee counted three and Nakamura regrettably sent Zayn out of NXT, a genuine moment had just occurred.
A legitimate superstar had arrived and he’d delivered in every way. Personality, charisma, excitement as well some pure brutality. Along with the universal critical acclaim also came that seemingly unanswerable question though: why isn’t he on the main roster already? It’s a valid question too, at 36 year and after years of honing his skills across the globe, why wasn’t Nakamura immediately placed on the biggest stage? He was already a major star elsewhere so why not just put him straight in the deep end? Well one year later and Nakamura now is in that deep end and while at the time his NXT run seemed wasteful to me, in hindsight I feel it may have actually be the smart move.
It’s easy to get swept up in that incredible debut but in reality, we have to remember how unique the atmosphere that night was. The match was superb but it was the crowd’s energy and passion that made it truly special. That was arguably the most hardcore crowd to fill any arena for a WWE event all year and the perfect crowd for Nakamura’s debut. Much of the audience was not only aware of Shinsuke but had also actually watched and loved his work beforehand. The truth is though, a huge portion of the WWE audience had no idea who Nakamura was and while that in itself may not have been a good enough reason for Nakamura’s NXT tenure, it’s surely a factor.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Nakamura would’ve gotten over on the main roster but he’s such a unique and special package that he works much better when immediately received as a massive star. One of the main complaints surrounding Nakamura’s NXT stint was that it stalled his momentum somewhat. After that TakeOver debut it was always going to slow down slightly but in reality, NXT television just isn’t really a good way of maintaining momentum. No one is featured every week and when they are used it seems like one of every two appearances is a flat victory over enhancement talent. Add in the language barrier and its limits on his promos and Nakamura was no different.
That’s not a critique either, the NXT TV product allows them protect talent and keep everyone strong but in this area, it’s flawed. Nonetheless, Full Sail was a nice safe spot for Nakamura, he would always be over with that crowd and that translates to the viewing audience at home. Nakamura felt like too big of a star for NXT from day one but luckily, he wasn’t the only one. while Samoa Joe and Finn Balor completed their NXT title feud, Nakamura entered a program with Austin Aries. The now Cruiserweight contender had debuted on that same TakeOver event but struggled to capture the same excitement. Nonetheless, playing the tweener before his inevitable heel turn on No Way Jose later that summer, Aries was more comfortable and he and Nakamura put on a strong match at what turned out to be Full Sail’s final TakeOver event in June.
With Balor soon to be departed NXT needed a new babyface centerpiece and Nakamura was the clear fit for that role. It’s slightly ludicrous that in a company that features a brand split and desperately needs stars, there still has to be thought put into who will be flying the flag for NXT, a bizarre amalgamation of developmental and WWE’s take on an ROH style product. Nonetheless, I digress and the groundwork for Nakamura’s elevation into the spot would come in the form of a victory over Balor, almost a passing of the torch as strange as that is to say about these two particular talents. Nakamura would solidify his ascension by vanquishing Samoa Joe in a four match series in which he won, lost and eventually regained the gold.
It was a feud that featured some really good in-ring showings and Joe was a good opponent not only due to his Japanese influenced style but also his ability to control the story’s direction on the microphone. Nakamura’s year in NXT came to a close with two TakeOver main events against Bobby Roode. Their January title tilt, while divisive, was an excellent one in my opinion. The selling and psychology was spot on and led to a dramatic climax with Roode taking the belt. Unfortunately, I feel that the writing was too on the wall by the time the rematch rolled around and it suffered as a result. It was WrestleMania weekend and a Nakamura debut just seemed too imminent to expect anything other than another Roode win.
That hurt the match in my mind but regardless, it was now time for Nakamura’s main roster arrival. It wouldn’t come on the Monday after WrestleMania though but instead the Tuesday, with Nakamura debuting on SmackDown Live and simply making his spectacular entrance to a wild ovation from the still somewhat rowdy crowd. You would expect a good reaction from that crowd but the next week the response would be strong too and a graphic just showing Nakamura’s face seemingly received a pop this week. An opening program with Dolph Ziggler seems to be a smart choice and much to my own surprise, I’ve concluded that in hindsight Nakamura’s year in NXT wasn’t a bad move at all.
If NXT is a priority--and like it or not it is--Nakamura simply had to stay. There were men in front of him that needed calling up first and Nakamura beat them all on the way out while waiting his turn. I do concede that perhaps there could’ve been a middle ground that didn’t mean a full year but in reality, if there wasn’t a clear WrestleMania match for him, why not wait until now? A decent portion of the massive WWE audience would’ve now seen a Nakamura match in NXT and at the very least most would’ve heard about him. It’s that mystique that allows Nakamura to come across as a big star and the positive crowd responses accentuate his charisma wonderfully. In history events may lead to this being viewed differently but at this point in time, I genuinely believe that one year in NXT was in fact, the perfect introduction for ‘The King of Strong Style’.