Where did WWE go wrong with Shinsuke Nakamura?

How did the promotion miss the mark on such a can't miss signing?
Shinsuke Nakamura Jan.jpg
Shinsuke Nakamura Jan.jpg /

New Japan Pro Wrestling legend Shinsuke Nakamura's signing with WWE in January 2016 brought plenty of excitement from fans who had followed his career in the country's largest promotion. For good reason, too: This man spent the previous seven years as one of NJPW's key stars, pulling audiences in with his effortless charisma and wowing them with his strike-heavy wrestling style.

Still, fans had plenty of reason for skepticism when he joined the biggest wrestling federation in the United States. After all, this is a company that long struggled to book Asian wrestlers in a non-stereotypical manner. Cautionary tales like Kai En Tai, Yamaguchi-san, Kenzo Suzuki (and the original plans for him), and the constant infantilization of Akira Tozawa are just a few examples of WWE relying on the sort of retrograde presentation that the promotion has defaulted to with its non-white wrestlers.

It's unacceptable in general, but especially for a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Fortunately, Nakamura avoided these trappings when he joined the NXT roster. He kicked off his "Fed" tenure with an all-timer against Sami Zayn and a few months later, he won the NXT Championship.

Once he reached the main roster, however, the waters got a bit choppier for the surfing enthusiast. While he experienced quite a few highs, his time on Raw and SmackDown fell below most fans' expectations. This begs the question: What happened?

So, where did things go south for Shinsuke Nakamura in WWE?

Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer once you start digging into Nakamura's main roster run. Sure, WWE made plenty of big mistakes that we'll discuss throughout this piece, but there are also a lot of granular ones that everyone noticed along the way.

Things started well enough when Nakamura debuted on the April 4 episode of SmackDown, joining the roster as part of the Superstar Shakeup (basically a draft that WWE didn't want to call a draft). Interrupting The Miz and Maryse's impersonation of John Cena and Nikki Bella, WWE gave him the sort of fanfare that's befitting of a star of his caliber (and indicative of a future main eventer).

With Lee England tearing it up on the violin and the fans harmonizing along with the music, Nakamura felt like a superstar, and on a SmackDown roster light on top draws, this was a very welcome introduction.

So, how did WWE capitalize on this rousing success? Well, the company put him in a feud with...Dolph Ziggler. Now, this isn't meant to knock Ziggler, an excellent hand with a steady track record as an upper midcarder, but by this point in his career, fans had grown weary of the constant start-and-stop pushes he received, so seeing him step up as Nakamura's first major foil felt underwhelming.

If Nakamura and Ziggler's feud merely led to a brisk eight-minute match on TV that Nakamura won, most fans would've been fine with that. Instead, we got a 15-minute attempt at a classic at Backlash 2017 that fell well below those aspirations (it was an ok WWE-style match).

This set the tone for the rest of his year on the blue brand: acceptable matches and adequate booking, but little to make fans feel like they were seeing the sort of special attraction that New Japan and even NXT fans got to experience. Like far too many WWE stars of this era, Nakamura felt like just another wrestler on the roster, another poached trophy in Vince McMahon's extensive collection as part of his decades-long settler-colonialist pro wrestling project (until his exposure as a monster got him removed from the company).

At the very least, however, WWE had enough sense to tease a match with former NJPW rival AJ Styles. The two last met a little more than a year prior at Wrestle Kingdom 10 (NJPW's equivalent to WrestleMania), where they battled for the IWGP Intercontinental Title in an instant classic. Nakamura and Styles stared each other down during the Money in the Bank ladder match to the immense delight of the crowd, signaling a future showdown between the legends.

After seeing fans lose their minds over Nakamura and Styles look at each other for a few moments, WWE knew exactly how to follow up with "The King of Strong Style": have him go after the WWE Championship. He even got to beat John Cena to get the title shot (in easily Nakamura's best singles match on the main roster).

There was just one problem: the WWE Champion was Jinder Mahal, a former jobber that WWE shockingly hurled to the top of the card in an attempt to boost the company's marketability in India (why they tried to do this by making Mahal Generic Foreign Heel #4,506 is worth it's own column).

There's no need to relitigate the quality of Mahal's world title reign, but to keep it short, Mahal's bland heel schtick and paint-by-numbers title defenses didn't resonate with the WWE audience, reflecting SmackDown's broader creative struggles in 2017. And with WWE being WWE, they exacerbated the issue by building the feud with Nakamura around Mahal making racist comments about Nakamura's looks and voice.

Following this gross ploy for cheap heat, you'd think WWE would book Nakamura to win the belt. Instead, Nakamura lost to Mahal at SummerSlam and again at Hell in a Cell. The matches were the usual uninspiring Mahal affair filled with interference from The Singh Brothers, and the entire exercise cast a bleak cloud over Nakamura's prospects.

By January, a glimmer of hope broke through when Nakamura won the men's Royal Rumble, outlasting company darlings like Cena and Roman Reigns to get another world title match. Nakamura promptly announced his intentions to pursue the WWE Title again, but this time, it was the opponent everyone hoped for: AJ Styles.

WWE knew they had a dream match on their hands, and they let the fans know it every chance they could during the build to this match. Yes, it was a little heavy-handed, but that seemed like a minor complaint given Nakamura's (and Styles', to be honest) previous feuds.

All WWE needed to do was stick the landing at WrestleMania 34. Sadly, that didn't happen. To be clear, Nakamura and Styles had a very good match, but it fell well short of its Match of the Year expectations.

The loss at WrestleMania also seemed to airlock the lid on Nakamura as a headliner. He got a couple more shots at Styles after turning heel (including in a No Disqualification match that ended in a no contest), but after another loss at Money in the Bank, he settled into a midcard role, winning the US, Intercontinental, and tag team titles a few times, but it was a far cry from where he was when he joined the company.

Looking at Nakamura's career in totality, there's a lot to like. There aren't many wrestlers who can say they've won a Royal Rumble or participated in a world title match at WWE's flagship pay-per-view event. Few have the WWE championship résumé that Nakamura has, either. But when you factor in the larger context of who he was in NJPW, even who he was in NXT, it's hard not to feel disappointed.

When Nakamura signed with WWE, fans expected more than a few forgettable runs with midcard belts that the company didn't care much about (at least until Vince McMahon resigned in disgrace). Considering WWE's aforementioned history, perhaps it shouldn't have been much of a surprise that Nakamura would only make it so high up the ladder, but that doesn't make it any less of a missed opportunity to cultivate another top star.

Again, it's easy to point to one match, angle, or storyline, but like most of WWE's creative blunders, they chipped away at Nakamura's momentum with a thousand cuts until the fans finally gave up on him. Even though he has received better booking under Triple H's creative direction -- including cutting great promos in Japanese -- it's still hard to take him seriously as a threat to the big names due to how often he comes up short in big matches.

Still, that apparently hasn't extinguished Nakamura's passion for the sport. Here's what he said about his role in WWE to SportsNet's Aaron Bronsteter (h/t to Fightful's Corey Brennan for the transcription):

"Oh, yeah. So I've been wrestling over eight years right now. So I want to keep wrestling in WWE. Also, I give the fans more like a dream. So that's what I want to do. So I want to show my passion. So also I brought the Japanese style to WWE, but still I think not accomplished. So still I'm challenging, keep challenging."

Next. WWE dropped the ball on Dijak. WWE dropped the ball on Dijak. dark

Clearly, Nakamura believes that he has plenty left to offer in the ring, and his output over the last year backs that up. We haven't seen him on WWE television since April, but when he returns, we hope he'll get a chance to make fans forget about the creative missteps that plagued his early WWE run.