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Already a well-known superstar among hardcore fans, Shinsuke Nakamura burst onto the WWE scene over WrestleMania weekend, having his debut match at NXT TakeOver: Dallas and stealing the show with Sami Zayn. The match was widely regarded as being the best of the weekend and has received match of the year buzz from fans and critics alike.
The match proved that many of the hesitations fans could have had about Nakamura's WWE run are not going to be a factor. Nakamura was allowed to wrestle under his real name and he wore the same ring-gear as he did in New Japan Pro Wrestling. He even kept his same mannerisms and wrestled virtually the same way that he did in Japan, which was distinctively un-WWE like, which was impressive. That one solitary match showed fans that WWE at least has a basic grasp of what made Nakamura so successful in Japan and that they are looking to market that in the United States. Nakamura really couldn't have asked for a more successful debut in the company.
The thing that sets Nakamura apart from all of his contemporaries is his off-the-walls charisma that transcends every match he takes part in. Nakamura has "it", a hard-to-describe ability to consistently remain active in every aspect of the match; it could be on offense; it could be selling; it could be walking to the ring. Nothing that Nakamura does is without a well-defined purpose to entertain the fan watching him. There are certain aspects of the wrestling industry that you can't really teach, and that is one of them.
Nakamura also transcends the language barrier that usually restricts Japanese talent in American promotions. Being able to have a high-quality match has never really been a problem for any Japanese wrestler looking to make it in the United States, rather it has been the inability for Japanese wrestlers to really express themselves as anything but high-quality workers. That is certainly not going to be a problem for Nakamura, his charisma is so visually impressive it doesn't really matter if he doesn't speak. Nakamura didn't become a top star in Japan because he was cutting long promos, and he won't need to do so in WWE to get over.
One of the things that always impressed me about Nakamura was that he was incredibly popular with American wrestling fans. Even those who did not really care that much for Japanese wrestling (which is fine, puroresu isn't for everyone) would be impressed by Nakamura's work. Nakamura was a big star in Japan, but he was the undisputed kingpin of Japanese wrestling. Hiroshi Tanahashi has always been significantly more popular within Japanese audiences and Kazuchika Okada was at least equal in popularity to Nakamura. However, to Western fans Nakamura was certainly the most popular Japanese wrestler and that is because his charisma was so obviously distinctive, there were no real cultural barriers in preventing him from getting over with non-Japanese audiences. I would actually argue that Tanahashi is more charismatic than Nakamura, but because his charisma relies more on cutting promos and working the unique Japanese wrestling crowd, he doesn't translate nearly as well to Western audiences as Nakamura does.
In addition to his strong debut, Nakamura and his fans can be comforted by the fact that for the most part WWE has kept what made their prized recruits popular outside of WWE in-tact. What made guys like Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and Neville popular on the independents is still what makes them popular in WWE, so Nakamura should be able to continue to do what he has done so well for NJPW over the last several years.
However, there is still much to be seen from Nakamura and how WWE handles him going forward, particularly his transition from NXT to the main roster. There have been several wrestlers who were successful in NXT that get moved up to the main roster only to be immediately lost in the shuffle of the main roster. I imagine WWE is paying Nakamura a lot of money so they have a stake in promoting him as a top name, but nothing is a guarantee in WWE.
Nakamura's gimmick, the very thing that makes him so popular, could also end up jeopardizing his future in the company. Back at Wrestle Kingdom 9, Jim Ross was doing commentary for the English broadcast of the event and he described Nakamura as "This guy grew up being influenced by Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson, and he emulates them in the ring, but he is also a bad-ass. I know that sounds hard to do but this guy manages to do that." At TakeOver Corey Graves mentioned something similar, saying that while Nakamura has this incredibly unique and strange personality, but you cannot forget that he is one of the most dangerous strikers in the world. Nakamura's personality is extremely weird and unconventional and that fact that he has been able to perfect into this incredible mechanism is a testament to how talented of an entertainer he is.
At the same time though, his gimmick is walking a tight-rope in WWE. For fans that have been watching Nakamura for years we expect him to do some pretty strange stuff in the ring, but a majority of WWE fans are just discovering Nakamura right now, and some of the objectively weird things he does in the ring might alienate some fans. It's not out of the realm of possibility that WWE's goes overboard with the gimmick to the point that Nakamura becomes nothing more than a Michael Jackson impersonator, moonwalking his way as the caboose of a Bo-Train with rest of the Social Outcasts. Nakamura has a very high ceiling in WWE, but his gimmick is going to need to be handled with tremendous caution to avoid overdoing it and taking Nakamura from a top-level contender to a comedy act.
Less worrisome but still a concern is Nakamura's adjustment to working in-the-ring in WWE. He was able to have a good match with Zayn in his debut because Zayn has a lot of experience working with Japanese wrestlers, so they could essentially have a NJPW match in WWE. Almost as distinct as his personality is Nakamura's wrestling style. He goes by the nickname "The King of Strong Style" but he actually doesn't even really wrestle basic strong style, the way that Jumbo Tsuruta and Riki Choshu defined it as. Rather, he works more of a UWF shoot-fight style that was popularized by Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada. This is obviously very unique to WWE, and while some wrestlers like Zayn can easily work with it, if Nakamura is going to become a major player in the company he is going to have to work long matches against more challenging opponents, such as John Cena, Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt, who might struggle to adapt to Nakamura's style.
My final ruling on Nakamura is fairly simple: the guy clearly has the talent to be a major star in WWE and in Dallas he showed that his work can get over with large audiences. The fear for Nakamura is entirely in relation to how WWE management wants to treat him. If they allow him to be himself and continue to do what brought him to the dance he will be more than fine. However, if WWE begins to tinker with his gimmick or second-guess his ability to get over with "casual" fans, he could find himself in for a disappointing run with the company.
Here are my star ratings for the NJPW event "Invasion Attack":
Yujiro Takahashi and Bad Luck Fale vs Ryusuke Taguchi and Juice Robinson-**
Yuji Nagata, Jushin Thunder Liger and Satoshi Kojima vs Kazushi Sakuraba, YOSHI-HASHI and Toru Yano- **3/4
Hirooki Goto and Tomohiro Ishii vs EVIL and BUSHI-***
Roppongi Vice vs Ricochet and Matt Sydal-****1/4
KUSHIDA vs Will Ospreay- ****1/2
Michael Elgin, Yoshi Tatsu and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega-****1/4
Katsuyori Shibata vs Hiroyoshi Tenzan-***1/2
Tanga Roa and Tama Tonga vs Great Bash Heel-***1/2
Tetsuya Naito vs Kazuchika Okada-****1/4