This was first published in SteelChair Magazine Issue 7 – Read full magazine here
It sounds almost crazy. To any outsider, to somebody engrossed with any other sport or walk of life, it would sound absurd. The notion that somebody could be the very best in the world at their profession, and yet, for the fear or expectation to be that he’ll fail in the major league. I’d say “only in pro wrestling”, but that’s not even the issue. “Only in WWE” would be more accurate. That’s not meant to disparage or complain about WWE, but when evaluating the impending fate of Shinsuke Nakamura, it’s not hard for all those fears, that we’ve had realised for years in other cases, to come rushing back to the forefront of the mind.
For the uninitiated, Shinsuke Nakamura has been the most complete professional wrestler walking the planet for the last three years. Incredible matches with a variety of opponents, including some all-time legendary performances as IWGP Intercontinental Champion. A universal charisma that has gotten over everywhere he’s gone, as the trial and error of time morphed a once straight-laced MMA based performer (based on his real life experience in the sport) that earned him the nickname “The King Of Strong Style”, into an eccentric, captivating and idiosyncratic wrestler inspired by Michael Jackson, that oozes star power.
We know the obvious pitfalls and trappings for him in WWE. No prior track record of pushing a genuine Japanese star at a major level. The different style. Somewhat of a language barrier. The list could go on, but the point to focus on is thatNakamura is, obviously, such a break from the norm when it comes to the choice of signing, that we’re walking on unsteady ground because history dictates it to be.
But let’s take the optimistic approach first. The very fact that WWE wanted Nakamura enough to bite the bullet and drop some significant money on the table, as opposed to sticking to their own guns and wanting stars from elsewhere to conform to their own designated rules (as was the case with KENTA, now Hideo Itami), means there has to be legitimate intentions on some level. It’s also a boon in the sense that, as has often been the case in wrestling, the talent will be used to the level of their contract, at least at first while the sting of the investment is fresh in the brain.
In addition, Shinsuke is coming in at a time when WWE is on a kick of making a lot of moves uncharacteristic of their typical nature, such as the signing of Mauro Ranallo as Smackdown announcer and allowing him to maintain his Showtime association, or bringing in AJ Styles without changing a single thing about him. The WWE is currently walking the line between two worlds – the more traditional company vision built around a single top babyface, protecting their main stars and sticking to their rigid TV formula; and a more contemporary mentality based on bringing in the best people from around the world to one place, and using every available strength they bring with them to leverage their own agenda and build their business accordingly.
Shinsuke Nakamura enters the WWE in the middle of this great divide, and the timing may be right for a guy like him to be arriving just as the wave gathers its momentum. With the WWE Network available in Japan, it may be a benefit to WWE to allow him, like AJ Styles, to keep his name and identifying traits, so that potential Network buyers can attach themselves to the guy they know, in his pure form, over in another world. Not only that, but 2016 is already shaping up to be a year of transition for the company, both on and off screen, and Nakamura will clearly fare better in experimental times.
Reason being? WWE is at their worst when they fall back on their old philosophies, the mantras that provide a comfort zone for the man in charge, and the talent suffers as much as anyone. Five years ago, WWE may have told Nakamura to cut his hair. Or stop with the expressions that look like he’s spent the last 48 hours snorting cocaine. Or get regular tights. Or to never do his “Good Vibrations” move again because it looks like he’s having an epileptic fit. And the true test of the current environment will be to see how much of this act, the one that has worked for years on a major stage, they leave on the cutting room floor. But again, the numbers and timing are on Nakamura‘s side – reverting to comfort zones back in October and November (focus on Roman and Sheamus) led to all time record low Raw ratings, a change in fortunes that surely played a part in some of the experimental times we’re witnessing now.
The problem ultimately is that WWE, to a degree, has to be flexible in their presentation for Nakamura to be what we currently know him to be. And as open as they may be to signing different people, their television approach has still yet to change. When the “Divas Revolution” began, it was alarming how many people were encouraged by the idea of the women finally being treated like the men, ignoring the fact that an entire roster of men have to cut long promos, go 50-50 with wins and losses, and none of them are truly over as stars. As optimistic as we can be, we have to acknowledge that this an era where WWE has been unable to get anybody new over in any real way, so expecting that to change for somebody completely different to what they’re used to booking (and wanting out of a WWE Superstar) is a fool’s errand.
When looking at the landscape, one has to wonder how WWE will believe they can get use out of Nakamura. His upcoming debut against Sami Zayn and transition period in NXT will capitalise on his built-in audience, the crowd inclined to cheer him based on his previous work and, in the case of most fans, reputation. Common sense seems to indicate a similar intro to Styles as a babyface on the main roster for that reason, but with that niche catered for to a degree with AJ, and going back to WWE’s mentality of reverting to old habits in the clutch, there is a possibility they’ll see a use in Nakamura as the foreign heel we’ve seen countless times before. While it’s a move I see as dangerous in hurting his ability to get over by sapping so much of that charisma away and forcing him into a one-dimensional cookie cutter act, WWE has a very glaring weakness in major heels after WrestleMania, with only Bray Wyatt, a possible heel turn for Dean Ambrose, and the forever rumoured fantasy of Cena holding the fort. While I don’t foresee anything as drastic as the return of the Orient Express theme music or Nakamurathrowing salt to earn a victory, the Nakamura we get might be different from the one we know if they see him as a way to help the heel side. Hopefully better judgement will prevail.
In looking at this, the only comparison that feels accurate (and ominous at the same time) is when WWE hired Mistico and rechristened him Sin Cara. A guy with a reputation for quality performances, being a legitimate star and a major draw in a foreign land. They invested a lot in him early, but they couldn’t get away from their habit of making the tweaks they felt were necessary for him to connect, none of which proved helpful. When the early returns weren’t good, they gave up, and before long the anticipation of the huge star coming in from the outside were but a vague faded memory, replaced by a depressing reality that didn’t give anybody what they wanted. But there are differences between Sin Cara and Shinsuke. Nakamura‘s style will translate significantly better to the rest of the roster and to WWE itself than Sin Cara’s did. Lucha is a completely different mentality and way of doing things, and the style clashes were both inevitable and painful. On the other hand, Nakamura was probably the guy who has the most Americanised style of the New Japan natives. While Sin Cara rubbed people the wrong way with a bad attitude and unwillingness to learn English, Nakamura has no such negative reputation, and does speak the language (though not perfectly). And again, not enough can be said for the changing times – with the WWE in-ring style adapting the way it has, Nakamura in WWE 2016 with the roster they have is a far superior fit than Sin Cara in WWE 2011 with the roster they had.
So what’s the verdict? All the analysis, trepidation, hopes and expectations in the world can’t accurately prepare us for what we’re about to witness. WWE in 2016 is going to be a fascinating year to follow on screen and off, and in twelve months I truly believe, for the first time in a long time, that a lot of things will be different. Where Nakamura fits in that equation is a mystery, a question that can only be answered by the willingness of a company, that has been notoriously close-minded for years, to be flexible and try something new. It’s a gigantic leap of faith to expect a best case scenario of Nakamura as a genuine top level player, but at the same time, he’s so good that it’s not unachieveable. It’s not unfair to be cynical about the company, and at the same time there is an element of uncertainty about how Shinsuke Nakamura will get over to a crowd in Ames, Iowa who don’t know the first thing about his built-in rep. The fact the company need to follow through is absolutely crucial if he is to make any kind of real difference.
We are either walking into the absolute unknown, or the most typical and perhaps infuriating example of WWE’s refusal to see anything other than their own way we’ll ever witness. There is no middle ground. But if, in twelve months, we’re hearing buildings across America join him in his post-match battle cry of “YeaOh!!”, that will be the time for wrestling fans the world over to take in the magnitude of one of the most unique talent acquisitions in WWE history.