After being the king of the midcard for his final few years in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Shinsuke Nakamura may have always been destined for similar success in WWE and nothing higher than that.
It feels like just yesterday that Shinsuke Nakamura made his highly anticipated debut on WWE’s main roster and appeared to be on the fast track to super stardom. With a vast majority of the audience behind him from the get-go, some fans figured he would be an overnight success.
That is, however, until he wasn’t.
To be fair, Nakamura has racked up his fair share of accolades over the last three years on SmackDown and can by no means be classified as a failure. He’s had reigns with the NXT, United States, and Intercontinental Championships, in addition to winning the 2018 men’s Royal Rumble match.
While none of his title runs were particularly memorable, it’s safe to say he has yet to live up to the lofty expectations fans had for him when he signed with WWE four years ago. Then again, fans may have been wrong to assume he was going to be anything more than a midcard competitor on the grand stage to begin with.
Before coming to WWE, Nakamura made a name for himself in New Japan Pro-Wrestling and held almost every active title the company had. Despite holding the IWGP Heavyweight Championship three times, the IWGP Intercontinental Championship scene (established in 2011) was really where he shined.
For the last stretch of his run in Japan, The King of Strong Style was always prominently featured toward the top of the card. However, it was clear that he had done everything there was to do there, and at the age of 36, he likely realized his most physical years in the ring were behind him.
His decision to join WWE at the onset of 2016 was far from foolish, as at the time, it was reported (h/t WhatCulture) that he signed the most lucrative deal in NXT history. This would have included a lighter schedule and the chance to wrestle a style that was easier on his body.
In his official debut for the black-and-gold brand at TakeOver: Dallas, he wowed the audience with his awe-inspiring entrance and contested a classic with the departing Sami Zayn. As amazing as his arrival was, he never quite reached those heights again for the remainder of his run in NXT.
Although his next year in NXT included two NXT Championship reigns and several solid matches with Samoa Joe and Bobby Roode, it was his unparalleled charisma that kept him so popular with fans. His promos were nearly nonexistent, but his connection with the crowd was unlike anyone else’s in the history of the brand up to that point.
When it came time for him to be promoted to the main roster post-WrestleMania in 2017, WWE undoubtedly should have been positioned him as a top talent and immediately capitalized off his hot momentum in NXT.
To the company’s credit, they gave him that star-like treatment for the first few months of his SmackDown stint but didn’t go all the way with him when it mattered most.
His crowning moment should have come at SummerSlam when he challenged Jinder Mahal for the WWE Championship. Instead of ending The Modern Day Maharaja’s reign right then and there (or in their rematch at Hell in a Cell), he fell short and quickly settled into a midcard role on the show, much like he did in NJPW years earlier.
However, the biggest difference between the two promotions is that at least NJPW was willing to experiment with him as their world champion on a number of occasions, whereas WWE never had any intention of making him a main event player for more than a month or two.
His 2018 Royal Rumble win came as a bit of a shock because of how he had been floundering on SmackDown leading up to the event. WWE was smart to give fans what they wanted in Nakamura vs. AJ Styles at WrestleMania 34, but the feud underwhelmed and did nothing to change fans’ perception of Nakamura as someone who couldn’t win the big one.
It’s been two years since his rivalry with The Phenomenal One concluded and he has been a mainstay in the midcard scene on SmackDown since then. Unfortunately, it isn’t as if he’s treated as anyone important there, either.
Considering how he was used in the latter half of his tenure in NJPW, it shouldn’t be too surprising that he hasn’t been given the main event treatment permanently in WWE. That said, it’s inexcusable for him to be booked like a complete afterthought on Friday nights, especially at a time when SmackDown could use as many headliners as it can get.
Nakamura’s alliance with Sami Zayn had potential but ultimately accomplished nothing, while his recent tag team with Cesaro has also gone nowhere. With Roman Reigns out for the foreseeable future, right now would have been the perfect opportunity for him to re-enter the world title picture had he not been portrayed as a stepping stone for so long.
The former NJPW star re-signing with WWE last year would seem to suggest that he isn’t too frustrated with how he’s been handled thus far. After all, he has outright admitted that his situation is constantly changing and that he’s “living with it,” according to an interview he did with J Sport last summer.
If finding good waves to surf is his top priority, then it’s safe to assume he’ll be with WWE until he calls it a career.
There have undoubtedly been occasions where the company could have done better by his character and pushed him to the top, but to say that he’s been a bust in WWE would be inaccurate with the success he’s had in the last four years.