On this past Friday’s SmackDown, fans saw a glimpse of the Shinsuke Nakamura that everyone knows and loves, but WWE once again followed up poorly.
It’s been a long time since Shinsuke Nakamura has resembled the guy who was one of the two or three biggest stars in New Japan Pro Wrestling at the height of his powers. Yes, fans have gotten glimmers of that guy throughout his NXT and main roster WWE runs, but with him stuck in a tag team with the equally underrated Cesaro, it felt more and more like the guy who seemed like a can’t-miss signing would remain sunken among the flotsam that is the company’s midcard.
That is, however, until this past Friday’s main event happened. On that Jan. 8 SmackDown broadcast, Nakamura participated in a five-man (later six-man, more on that in a bit) gauntlet match to determine Universal Champion Roman Reigns’ next challenger for the Royal Rumble pay-per-view.
In a match stacked with elite in-ring talent — and King Corbin — few expected Nakamura, who was still a heel at the start of the match, to have a chance to win. Even if he had another one of those sterling performances that were getting rarer and rarer, most fans likely expected it to be a means to put over whichever babyface ultimately got the victory.
Instead, Nakamura BECAME that very babyface, as he ran through Corbin, Rey Mysterio, and Daniel Bryan — who gave him the handshake that signified Nakamura’s apparent realignment as a fan favorite — in consecutive outstanding performances to become the number one contender to Reigns…or, at least, he should have.
You see, this gauntlet match also contained the side story of Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman gaslighting WWE official Adam Pearce into competing in the very contest he booked for the show, with the subtext being that Reigns wants a less-than-credible challenger for the Rumble.
Now, WWE could’ve told a great story in this match with Pearce, if they wanted to. They could’ve booked Pearce to enter first in the gauntlet with Reigns smugly watching from ringside, only to have Reigns’ arrogance and bravado turn into frustration and concern when Pearce — a former five-time NWA Champion — gained some confidence with some early fluke pins before definitively winning the gauntlet.
Sure, having a non-wrestler beat five other top stars — even Sami “Honky Tonk Castro” Zayn — would run the risk of making those guys look like jokes, but that quintet and Pearce were collectively talented enough to make that story work.
If not that, then WWE could’ve had Pearce — who has excelled as RAW and SmackDown’s de facto general manager over the last few months — enter last and, instead of wrestle, stand up to Reigns, concede his spot in the gauntlet, and name Nakamura as “The Tribal Chief’s” next opponent.
But WWE elected to do neither in that final segment.
No, fans instead saw WWE do what it always does in these situations: put heat on the heel at the expense of the babyfaces. Pearce indeed came out last to face the battle-weary Nakamura, but before he entered the ring, Reigns and Jey Uso assaulted “The King of Strong Style”. Reigns then threw Pearce into the squared circle, where he ate a Uso superkick before Uso dragged his carcass over Nakamura for the deciding pinfall.
Keep in mind that this was only a week after Reigns and Uso took out Kevin Owens to close that episode of SmackDown. It’s almost like WWE is making up for having one show — literally on Christmas, mind you — ending with a babyface standing triumphantly.
Yes, WWE will probably have Pearce forfeit his title shot and give it to Nakamura as soon as next week, but after such an effort from the former United States and Intercontinental Champion, simply gifting him a championship match when he could’ve just won the gauntlet match is akin to walking 50 miles to walk around a swamp when you could’ve saved yourself 49.9 by crossing the bridge, all because they felt it was more important to put more heat on Reigns.
Listen, Reigns has been a revelation as a heel since returning last August, but that doesn’t mean he has to end nearly every single show with him getting heat (or at least heat that goes unanswered from whichever protagonist he’s matched up against).
At some point, the babyface has to get a bit of shine to make those moments where the heel stands tall feel more crushing than if the heat getting is the standard operating procedure. If the fans believe the babyface has no chance to win, then they will have no reason to get excited about a potential match.
WWE had a chance to give fans some of that hope with Nakamura following his return to form on Friday’s show. But unfortunately, the company once again picked the option that did the least for Reigns, Pearce, and most disappointingly, Nakamura.