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Up until now, the Shinsuke Nakamura era in WWE has been a big success for everyone involved. Considering WWE's history of pushing Japanese talent and their booking inconsistency in general, anyone that was a fan of Nakamura when he was a star for New Japan Pro Wrestling had an uneasy feeling about his leap to WWE. To their credit, WWE has responded by pushing Nakamura very hard, protecting him from significant losses and marketing him as a major star in both NXT and on SmackDown. Nakamura's uncanny charisma and in-ring ability, along with WWE's marketing have gotten him over with a lot of fans that had no idea who he was a couple of years ago. WWE has done as good of a job of pushing Nakamura as could be reasonably expected.
On Tuesday, Nakmuara got his greatest push yet, cleanly defeating John Cena to become the number one contender for the WWE Championship and will be wrestling Jinder Mahal for the title at SummerSlam. While Nakamura has been on SmackDown since early this spring, he has been intentionally limited in his performances. He beat Dolph Ziggler, he made an appearance in the Money in the Bank match, he wrestled a bad match at Battleground against Baron Corbin; the training wheels have kind of been on him. It wasn't until the match against John Cena on SmackDown that Nakamura really got pushed into the main event. With a world title match at one of the largest events of the year coming up, it is make or break time for Nakamura.
The question now is just how big of a star Nakamura can become in WWE. From a momentum standpoint, he feels like he could end up being one of the top three or so full-time wrestlers in the company. If you don't count Cena as a full-time wrestler, really Roman Reigns is the only wrestler who feels like they are in a position that Nakamura cannot reach. Suppose that Nakamura defeats Mahal at SummerSlam and holds the WWE Championship for several months, something that is very much a possibility, he would be in a position to be the top star on SmackDown by far. I think when we use the term "major star" we should be referring only to a wrestler who genuinely affects business. Ratings and house show attendance are up on shows that feature Cena as opposed to shows who do not. As talented as Seth Rollins maybe, he doesn't really have that kind of impact on business. Nakamura could easily be at the Rollins level if he isn't already, but can he ever reach the level Cena, or even Reigns is on?
Nakamura's rise to prominence in WWE has been practically ideal. The hardest part for Nakamura coming to WWE was always going to be his promo ability, largely because of the difficulty in learning English. Even though Nakamura understands English fine, it is obvious when he speaks that he has a heavy accent and he just isn't going to be a guy that cuts long, engaging promos. However, the prevailing thought among Nakamura fans was that his charisma was so great that he would be able to get over without talking very much; and they ended up being right. Nakamura doesn't talk much, but his charisma inside the ring, in quick backstage segments and during his entrance, which WWE smashed a home run on, has largely overcome the hurdle of his lack of speaking ability.
It has not always been smooth for Nakamura in WWE however. Those who were hoping that Nakamura would be a high-workrate guy have been disappointed, and fans of his in Japan have noticed that he seems like he lost a step over the last year or so. Since coming up to the main roster he hasn't had a stand-out match the way his debut match in NXT against Sami Zayn resonated with fans. His most recent PPV-effort against Baron Corbin was probably the worst PPV match of his WWE career. His match against Mahal is his biggest opportunity, yet I don't think anyone is really banking on it being a very good match, partly because Mahal is mediocre and partly because Nakamura hasn't distinguished himself yet in WWE as a guy that can be counted on as always having very good matches.
Another concern is that Nakamura has been involved in two injuries in the ring. Austin Aries suffered a significant orbital bone injury in a match with Nakamura in October, and on Tuesday Cena took an awkward reverse exploder suplex from Nakamura and landed right on his neck. Cena could be seen afterwards opening and closing his hand to see if he had any feeling in that part of his body, which is scary stuff. I have no idea if those injuries are going to be held against Nakamura, but it isn't something that is going to work in his favor either.
I think something that could hold Nakamura back from being truly a top guy in the company though, is his lethargic attitude towards house shows and less important matches. Nakamura in Japan had a reputation for kind of going through the motions for a lot of matches. When it came time for big title defenses or matches in the G1 Climax he could bring it as good as anybody in wrestling; but for a lot of the time he wasn't putting in a max effort. That I think is why you hear disappointed house-show reports from fans who didn't think Nakamura did much outside of his entrance, and why a lot of his matches on SmackDown have been forgettable. If you have plans on being THE GUY in WWE, you can't really have that attitude. If Nakamura is WWE Champion he is going to have a lot more of a burden to be the ace of the brand and bring it every night. Say whatever you want about Cena or Reigns, but rarely do you hear someone complain about their lack of effort. If Nakamura wants to be the top guy on SmackDown that is going to be an aspect that he must improve upon.
If we are playing the prediction game, I would guess as of right now that in a year or so Nakamura is more likely to be in a Dean Ambrose or Bray Wyatt level role than someone like Reigns. I think the language barrier is ultimately going to be a make or break kind of deal with him, and Vince and WWE management will never really buy into him as the top babyface in the company. As WWE continues to crave mainstream media attention, they want to have guys like Cena and The Miz in big roles because they want to have guys go on Good Morning America, or ESPN, or whatever talk show, and give off a combination of intelligence, humor and marketing. Cena and The Miz are the best at it, but Owens, Rollins, Reigns, Orton, Styles and others are also capable of performing that role. Nakamura is just so much different from those guys, and maybe that is a good thing, but I don't see WWE comfortable in putting him in a role where he is going to end up as an ambassador for the company.
What makes Nakamura so fascinating is that in WWE he is this eclectic array of talents. Charisma wise he is on a different level, his mannerisms and timing are so great that he got over to a lot of incredulous fans without really talking, or having amazing matches. That is an incredible achievement and if you think someone is talented enough to do that, they are truly a special superstar. However, while you are getting that charisma that you are not getting from anybody else, you are also not getting some things that are taken for granted in other stars. His limited mic skills handicap the kind of storylines he can be in, as well as his role as an ambassador for WWE. His age is also a factor, since he is already 37 and has been wrestling for 15 years.
With Nakamura as a superstar, you are getting two sides of a coin. On one side you have the skillset of an incredible superstar, one of the best the industry has ever seen. On the other side, you are getting an extremely limited talent that would have a hard time getting work in WWE if it wasn't for his talents on the other side of the coin. I think conceptually Nakamura could end up being a colossal star for WWE, but in practice it would take a lot of faith in his ability to continue to overcome the language barrier, his age and his performance on house shows to warrant that kind of a push. I'm not sure WWE has, or should have, that kind of faith in him.
Must Watch Matches:
SANADA vs Kazuchika Okada: **** NJPW G1 Climax 27 Tag 6
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Juice Robinson vs Kazuchika Okada: **** NJPW G1 Climax 27 Tag 10
Tomohiro Ishii vs Yuji Nagata: **** NJPW G1 Climax 27 Tag 11
Kota Ibushi vs Hiroshi Tanahashi: ****¼ NJPW G1 Climax 27 Tag 11
El Lindaman, Shingo Takagi and Takashi Yoshida vs Ben-K, Naruki Doi and Big R Shimizu: **** Dragon Gate Rainbow Gate Tag 8