Bruiseday is Ian Williams' weekly column discussing the biggest cultural stories in pro wrestling.
When Shinsuke Nakamura left New Japan Pro Wrestling to start a new venture in WWE, there was a terrible risk. He arrived with the weight of expectation which befitted his stature as a subcultural force of nature in Japan. He was—and I now think we were wrong about this—in the discussion for greatest wrestler in the world, having come off a scintillating match with AJ Styles, another former NJPW champion who joined him in WWE, and was one of the most famous men in the country.
It was chancy. There is simply no delicate way to put it: WWE destroys talent as readily as it makes it. WWE has a style and code of arcane, corporatized rules all its own and it does not buckle on either one for the sake of individual wrestlers. There are absolutely some broad spaces to color within that, but those are the breaks. As I've written about before, if you're a submission specialist, you won't be making opponents tap out on a regular basis (unless you're a woman, in which case it's apparently fine.) If you're a "flippy" guy, you're probably a babyface; if you're a heel and a flippy guy, you probably need to stop being a flippy guy. Don't work too fast. Don't say "wrestling," say "sports entertainment." Don't say "fans," say "universe."
Nakamura came over to the United States anyway, despite inordinate risk to his image. Understand that Nakamura is a legitimate badass who got his start in pro wrestling around the same time he was carving out a brief but winning mixed martial arts career, who then parlayed the sense of menace around him into a slow reinvention as a weird, violent man who mixed humor, oddity, and heavy hits into a character that, after years of refinement, became well and truly unique. He is, to paraphrase Jules Bentley, a Takashi Miike character come to life. It's my favorite descriptor of him: Shinsuke Nakamura as the real life equivalent of Miike's violent, sexual, stylish characters.
At SummerSlam, Nakamura had his first WWE championship match, against current champion Jinder Mahal. It was the biggest match in Nakamura's still young-ish WWE career, at the second biggest pay-per-view of the year. And it was fine; Mahal sucks, but Nakamura dragged him to probably the best match of his tortuously long reign, a reign which has mostly centered on a feud with the always bored Randy Orton.
But the match wasn't good, which reveals a real problem: None of Nakamura's WWE matches, save his NXT debut against Sami Zayn, have been good. They've been functional, okay, average, and none of that is what Nakamura was known for prior to his arrival or what everyone was hoping for. What gives?
Nakamura arrived with a reputation for phoning it in outside the big shows. To a certain extent, this is completely understandable—he worked a style in Japan which was hard on his body and WWE's road schedule is the harshest in the world by several magnitudes. More power to any wrestler going half speed on house show number 287.
That's been both the knock and the reason for the average matches, with the unspoken coda that Nakamura would turn it on at one of the big shows. But we are now more or less out of big shows; the only thing bigger than SummerSlam is Wrestlemania, and if we can't switch on for SummerSlam, phoning it in may not be the issue.
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He's certainly been booked poorly. His debut feud on the main WWE roster was against Dolph Ziggler, who's been spinning his wheels for the better part of five years now. To boot, WWE likes their babyfaces to sit in rest holds before hulking up, a style which doesn't really suit Nakamura. There's also a sense that he's been asked to tone it down; watch the match versus Sami Zayn linked above and compare to any of his recent work and you can see a marked difference in how he approaches his strikes. He looks—and I can't believe I'm writing this—soft now.
There's also the specter of Jinder Mahal hanging over proceedings; he is clearly, nakedly champion to boost Indian WWE Network subscriptions and is way out of his league, having dragged everyone he's wrestled down a peg. WWE doesn't even really hide it, droning on and on about how he's a hero in India (he's not) and how salivatingly large the population is there, a frankly pretty unseemly betrayal of the illusion pro wrestling is supposed to specialize in. To understand pro wrestling, you have to understand two things: Everything is subservient to business and that it shouldn't be obvious that this is the case. Putting butts in seats is all that matters, a holdover from its origins as a carnival attraction, where the loudest barker got the biggest ticket sales. Those who follow it know it and talk about it, it's baked in, but the art is in not making it so painfully apparent at what's materially driving booking decisions.
Above: Nakamura taking out the Singh Brothers as they interfere in his SummerSlam match.
Having Nakamura lose to Mahal sets up a probable rematch in a month or two where the former wins the title, but the entire proceedings with Mahal just feel a little gross, the curtain having been pulled back just a bit too much on the material decisions preoccupying WWE's corporate offices. If you're not going to bother with obfuscating the charts and ticket sales driving the decisions, why even be in pro wrestling at all?
But other wrestlers don't go 100% in every match and there's a firm counter to Nakamura's problems with booking and altering his style: Samoa Joe.
Samoa Joe has been on a tear since early summer. Nobody has had more reason to come into WWE for a quick paycheck and a half speed run than Joe. The man has been through injuries and the purgatory of TNA, where he languished along with everyone else. He's pushing 40, just a year older than Nakamura. His style in no way matches what WWE demands, nor does his body type. Yet he's experiencing a renaissance, tweaking just enough to demand the crowd's attention while keeping WWE brass happy.
The best match at SummerSlam—and the card overall was just fine, though overlong—was a raucous main event four way between Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, and Samoa Joe. It wasn't the best match of the year, but it was arguably the most fun; gigantic men throwing one another around like ragdolls and the seeming insistence on making Lesnar fear tables for the rest of his life has a surprisingly high ceiling.
Joe didn't win—this is still WWE, where everything is subservient to their vision—but he was the glue guy in the match, facilitating the action and getting plenty of heat of his own. On the heels of a great, albeit short, match with Lesnar at Great Balls of Fire, that's a good place of his own making for a guy who seemed to be destined for perpetual midcard status in WWE. Not to play into Vince McMahon's brass ring rhetoric, which was always ludicrous given that he's both jeweler and distributor of such rings, but Joe adjusted and busted his ass to get here.
Which brings us back to Nakamura and a third option, perhaps the most likely of all: It's not that he takes nights off or has been poorly booked, or at least it's not just those things, but that he perhaps was never as good as we thought in the first place.
That doesn't in any way mean that he sucks; those matches in NJPW happened, we remember them, we thrilled to them. It doesn't even really mean that he's overrated. But pro wrestling is, for all the talk of economics, subscription numbers, and the workrates of various wrestlers, about romance. The romance of illusion and big characters doing big things.
The Nakamura we willingly created as we traded YouTube clips, tapes, and streams may never have existed.
It may simply be that part of the romance of Shinsuke Nakamura was pairing him with pro wrestlers from the same dojos working the same styles. It may be that seeing him in the harsh glare of WWE's floodlights is different, a somehow lesser experience than watching him wrestle in a darkened Tokyo Dome with camerawork more akin to mid-1990s cable than to WWE's attempts to overdose on shaky cam.
Nakamura is flexible and great pro wrestlers need to be flexible. But they also need to know when to pump the brakes, when to say, "no, this is my style, my art, my living, and I can't alter it anymore". Watching him, it seems that he's too flexible, unable, in the face of the all-consuming maw of WWE's commitment to an in-house style which is leashed to Vince McMahon's increasingly manic whims, to insist that pulling too many blows or stalling out in too many rest holds makes him less Nakamura. He's adjusted, but he seems close to being swallowed up and turned into just another WWE wrestler.
We don't know the specifics and odds are we never really will, but something is going on. Nakamura isn't who we fell in love with anymore. Maybe the reasons don't matter, or at least they don't matter any more than they did when someone like Cody Rhodes couldn't get a shot. You don't get clean wins over John Cena unless WWE believes in you, but it all feels so precarious for Nakamura and, increasingly, devoid of the romance he created for so many years in New Japan
The Nakamura we willingly created as we traded YouTube clips, tapes, and streams may never have existed. I dearly hope that's not the case; we're all poorer for it if it turns out he never conjures the illusion into reality. He has until Wrestlemania season to prove he's as capable an illusionist as we'd hoped.