By Nathan C. Vance
I had never heard of Shinsuke Nakamura prior to January 4, 2015. That was the date of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom9 event. It was an event that I decided to watch after it was announced that commentary legend Jim Ross would be doing the play by play for the show. Boy, am I glad I tuned in.
Wrestle Kingdom was an excellent show. It was a unique production in that it featured a more physical brand of competition. I’m more accustomed to WWE’s product which is more storyline and dialogue-driven. The action kept me engaged throughout the night despite having very little background on the performers or their feuds. And I kept thinking that their brand was good…and then I saw him.
I was in awe. Wrestling has been such a major part of my life that late ’80s wrestling matches are literally some of my earliest memories. Point being, I’ve seen a lot of great performers. I don’t know that any have ever grabbed and held my attention quite like this enigmatic Japanese star did. At first look, it was obvious to me that Shinsuke Nakamura was a rock star. He had the evasive “it” quality that so few performers have.
His entrance was mesmerizing. I felt like I was watching a replay of a Freddie Mercury performance at the height of Queen’s fame—only Nakamura seemed like a cooler, hipper version. It was obvious to me that he had carefully constructed the arrival to the arena, from the music, to the visual theatrics, to the costume, to his mannerisms. What was more obvious was that his raw charisma brought it all together in a transcendent way. Only during Hulk Hogan’s prime have I ever seen anything like what I witnessed that night.
Had his night ended with his over-the-top entrance, I would have been fully satisfied. What I didn’t know was that he was about to wrestle a match that would immediately move into the top ten wrestling matches I had ever seen. He and his counterpart, Kota Ibushi, dazzled the audience with brilliant storytelling, excellent pacing, toughness, athleticism, and believability. Their style was incredible. I watched from the edge of my seat, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t end. When Nakamura’s hand was finally raised in victory, I felt like a little boy cheering his favorite hero. Only I wasn’t a little boy and he wasn’t my hero. I was a 30-year-old watching Shinsuke Nakamura for the very first time.
I’ll never forget texting a group of friends and telling them that I had just witnessed the greatest wrestler of our time. I predicted that night that he would become WWE Champion sooner rather than later.
Flash forward one year and it was announced that Nakamura was leaving New Japan Pro Wrestling to join World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). On April 1, 2016, he had his first match in the WWE developmental system known as NXT against Sami Zayn. It was a classic. Without even giving his very best performance, Nakamura announced himself to a new fan base with authority. Suddenly the world understood what I had learned: this guy is special.
On Sunday, Nakamura will have his first match on a traditional WWE main card pay-per-view entitled. “Backlash,” against long-time WWE star Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler is the perfect opponent to help Nakamura shine because he’s so good in the ring and, because of his amateur wrestling background, he is so believable. I have to give Ziggler another compliment; he has really built a solid feud against Nakamura without much help. I predict that Sunday he’ll have all the help he needs. My hope is that the two men are given time and creative freedom. If that happens, this match will be an instant classic. My other prediction still holds: Nakamura will eventually become WWE world champion. The King of Strong Style, as he is often called, will eventually become the King of the WWE.
There is a caveat to this. The only “Japanese” champion in WWE history was actually a Polynesian. His ring name was Yokozuna. He was advertised as being a Japanese sumo master because of his massive size and was accompanied by legendary manager, Mr. Fuji. Yokozuna was champion in the mid-1990s, famous for his feuds against Lex Luger, Hulk Hogan, and Bret “Hitman” Hart.
In a 2013 article, Ryan Dilbert of Bleacher Report touched on WWE’s championship lineage and lack of a Japanese champion. He does mention that Japanese icon Antonio Inoki defeated Bob Backlund for the championship in the late 1970s. However, he adds that the title change has never been recognized.
Nakamura has the size, the wrestling ability, and the charisma to succeed in WWE, and he does speak English but can be very hard to understand when he does. There may be a feeling among WWE executives that he cannot reach the highest point in the company if he cannot communicate clearly with the majority of the fan base. After all, WWE’s wrestling show is very much driven by storylines and dialogue.
Enter my suggestion. Paul Heyman has been a fixture of the pro wrestling landscape since the late 1980s when he used the persona Paul E. Dangerously. His current client, Brock Lesnar, rarely, if ever, speaks and yet he’s been among the biggest stars in the sport for nearly 20 years. Lesnar doesn’t need to speak because Paul Heyman handles that aspect of his career for him. Why? Because Paul Heyman is one of the greatest public speakers in the history of the sport and probably the entire world. He knows how to work an audience in a way that few other ever have. His communication skills free up Lesnar to do what he does best and that’s beat people up.
If WWE feels like I do, that Shinsuke Nakamura can become an elite performer for them and that his only drawback is his ability to clearly convey a message in English, then they would be crazy to pass on this opportunity. Having a mouthpiece like Paul Heyman would free Nakamura in the way that it has Brock Lesnar. WWE would be smart to feud the two stars against each other and allow Heyman to organically change allegiances from Lesnar to Nakamura. It doesn’t really matter how exactly it is done; only that it is eventually done.
In the meantime, I can’t wait to see the next ascension of the already extraordinary Shinsuke Nakamura. His match Sunday should put the wrestling world on notice that his time has arrived. And despite being in his late 30s, he is very much the future!