A little under a month ago, Japanese wrestling sensation Shinsuke Nakamura made his long-awaited debut on the main roster, showing up on the SmackDown brand. His year-long tenure in NXT saw him slotted firmly into the top babyface position, taking over from everyone’s favourite arm-flailing lunatic, Finn Bálor. His stretch in WWE’s developmental territory saw two NXT title wins, awe-inspiring entrances, and a lot of people getting kneed in the face. Towards the end of this run, fans were pointing out that Nakamura had started to become overexposed, and that the wow factor of his matches was suffering from diminishing returns.
It’s easy to understand this train of thought. The King of Strong Style’s debut match against Sami Zayn at NXT TakeOver: Dallas last year was heralded by many as a Match of the Year contender, and in my mind was only bested by Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi at WrestleKingdom 10 and AJ Styles vs. John Cena at SummerSlam. Shinsuke just couldn’t seem to top his barn burner of a debut as the bar had been set far too high.
This is why his main roster call-up was so sorely needed, the change of scenery and exposure to a different audience would prove to be a brand new challenge for the man now known as The Artist (which seems a little distasteful a name, Prince’s body is still warm for God’s sake). And now, as SmackDown’s next pay-per-view, Backlash, is on the horizon, there are already complaints that Shinsuke hasn’t worked a match on television yet. Truth be told, I’m not crazy about the fact that his feud with Dolph Ziggler has consisted mainly of name-calling and repetitive promo segments from week to week, but the impatience of the modern wrestling fan annoys me infinitely more.
There is a reason why Nakamura’s bright spark burned out after only a year in NXT, and it is all to do with WWE’s programming schedule. Shinsuke’s home of New Japan Pro Wrestling doesn’t have a weekly television show like a Raw or a SmackDown, their programming is far more sporadic. They also don’t have two pay-per-views a month to accommodate for having two segregated rosters, meaning most matches feel fresh, even if we’ve seen them before. New Japan fans are salivating over the inevitable day in which Kenny Omega finally captures that illusive IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Okada, the moment will be all the more sweeter when it happens. Those two wrestlers haven’t clashed in singles competition since January, but the rivalry is always there. In WWE, they would have already worked several rematches and exchanged the belt multiple times by now, it’s just a different method of operating business.
Now that Nakamura is away from the slower build of NJPW’s model, it’s essential to treat him like a big match player. Having him wrestle on TV every week would be a mistake, and WWE have rightfully avoided it. His first match on the main roster is being constructed as a major selling point for Backlash, it’s his debut and he’s already the focus of the promotional trailer on the WWE Network and the main subject of the poster. When AJ Styles first came into the WWE, he wrestled Chris Jericho his first night on Raw, then they wrestled again, and again, and then again at WrestleMania. By the time their blow-off match came about, it wasn’t fresh and exciting anymore, it felt less like a feud and more like a series of exhibition matches.
The Artist known as Shinsuke Nakamura must be treated with reverence, it has to feel like an event every time he steps through the ropes, a must-see showcase. Dolph Ziggler has been spinning his wheels for a while now and it’s tough for me to get excited about his matches anymore, but he’s never faced Nakamura before outside of dark matches, and when you think you’ve seen everything as a wrestling fan, something new is always appreciated. Just imagining how Ziggler will sell the Kinshasha has me salivating (as long as his head doesn’t actually come off), the idea of how bombastic and insane Nakamura’s entrance might be has me actually looking forward to a pay-per-view with Jinder Mahal in the main event.
The slow build is perfect and seems to be a rarity in WWE these days, but it’s a proven formula. Kane and the Undertaker didn’t come to blows in a match until six months after the Big Red Machine made his debut, and it’s proven to be one of the most interesting and fondly remembered storylines of the Attitude Era. Cast your attention to WCW and Sting didn’t wrestle or even talk for an entire year after unveiling his Crow gimmick, skulking around the rafters and stalking the NWO week after week. The culmination of this build at Starrcade 1997 led to it becoming the highest-grossing WCW pay-per-view of all-time, and had the card been booked with some common sense, WCW may have even won the Monday Night War.
Now imagine if fans complained en masse about the “slow” progression of those storylines, failing to recognise the effectiveness of building a narrative up over time. Modern day culture revolves around instant gratification, we live in an era where a sense of being entitled to everything at that precise point is commonly accepted behaviour. WWE have burned through so much potential in recent times by having the same guys wrestle repeatedly on a weekly basis. It’s the reason why the fans turned so vehemently on John Cena and have done it again with Roman Reigns. When you have a talented performer, you will quickly expose their limitations when we’ve seen them wrestle more times than we’ve had hot meals.
So, have a little patience if you’re not satisfied with Nakamura’s main roster run so far, and if you appreciate a slow build, enjoy it while it lasts. I have no doubt that Vince McMahon will eventually peddle him out on TV once every seven days, with a disregard as to how the man got so popular in the first place. Until that day comes, however, let us admire the fact that Shinsuke Nakamura is being portrayed as the star he truly is.