Shinsuke Nakamura in WWE should’ve been the easiest thing in the world to get right.
The former NJPW superstar showed glimpses into this very idea during his NXT run, hitting the ground running in immediate fashion with a fantastic build-up and match with Sami Zayn at last year’s Takeover before WrestleMania.
The writing elements that made the build to such a sudden match were two-fold. First, the crowd gave authenticity to the hype of Nakamura coming stateside. For all I have complained about NXT crowds in the past and their propensity to make shows more about themselves than the guys in the ring, you know for sure by their initial crowd reaction if a new NXT superstar is a big deal or not.
Nothing can discount that initial pop where the crowd roars and even someone out of the loop goes “Oh, I get it.”
The second writing element that sold Nakamura in the correct way was the reactions of Sami Zayn leading up to Shinsuke’s first appearance and their match at WrestleMania weekend. Leading up to the reveal, Sami’s story was requesting the best of the best for his match at Takeover, wishing to stand out among the crowd and take on the toughest challenge he could possibly face.
This is a story element that works for a face or a heel, though Sami obviously falls into the former category. After all, WWE is supposed to be competition-based, and whether you’re a plucky underdog or a sneering heel the goal should be to beat people on or above your level. This is sold further by Sami after the King of Strong Style is unveiled, with Zayn hyping Nakamura’s credentials and showing serious signs of being taken aback by the appearance of the former NJPW heavyweight champion.
Go back and take a look at Zayn’s facial reactions as Nakamura makes his way into the ring at Takeover: He sells the idea that Shinsuke is a hill to be climbed and a worthy challenge.
Let’s fast-forward to the past month and Shinsuke’s introduction to Smackdown Live and the main roster fans. Despite getting his introduction right, WWE may have already knee-capped Nakamura’s momentum — Or should I say, Dolph Ziggler may have.
If you’ve been a fan of WWE for longer than five years then you know that the company absolutely loves their own form of branding, nicknaming, and sloganeering. We’ve heard it for years; stupid monikers such as ‘The Devil’s Favorite Demon,’ ‘The Yes Man,’ ‘The Cybernetic Rattlesnake’. and my favorite terrible attempt at a nickname: ‘Booger Red.”
Blame Jim Ross for that last one.
The point being, WWE will hammer a forced label on a guy until it either works, or until the crowd stops responding. Look no further than some used in the last year, such as “The new sensation – Neville” or how Rich Swan was being called audacious every ten seconds.
It’s awful because it plays into WWE’s creative process that assumes the fans are stupid and can’t latch onto performers without having some kind of coded system of banner. You see this less in NXT because the wrestlers are able to, in most cases, just be their character and not worry about the mythological “first time ever watching wrestling” viewer for whom WWE gears their main roster content towards.
Safe to say, when they start referring to Shinsuke Nakamura as “The Artist Known As” every ten seconds I can’t blame the crowd for showing apathy. This is just another way that WWE sets up their most talented workers to fail, despite known success. A similar thing happened to Samoa Joe upon being brought up (then promptly forgotten about come WrestleMania weekend) and it almost happened to AJ Styles as well, as he languished in an awful feud with Chris Jericho and commentary kept trying to make dumb nicknames like “the pitbull” sounds authentic.
The second problem here is how Dolph Ziggler as a heel responded and reacted to the presence of Nakamura. Triple H once said in reference to his classic 2000-era feud with Mick Foley that the only way to properly sell the feud to a crowd was if Triple H himself showed weakness and fear of Cactus Jack. Specifically, he references the moment where Mankind bows out of their Royal Rumble street fight match and offers up a different opponent.
This entire segment hinges on Triple H losing his mind at the sight of Cactus Jack. The cocky, holier than thou heel melts in an instant at the appearance of the mythological beast that is Foley’s most danger alter-ego. To sell the crowd on the concept, a give and take is in order.
This didn’t happen with Ziggler and Nakamura. Instead of respecting the accomplishments and aura of the renowned challenger, Ziggler did what every heel does now: Denies. He denied Shinsuke’s talent, his achievements, and his prowess. This line of writing never waivered, with Ziggler even spending 70 percent of their match at Backlash on the offensive and constantly berating Nakamura as he beat him down.
This is a WWE problem, and one we’ve seen many times before, including in the aforementioned AJ Styles/Jericho feud. Jericho insisted on calling Styles a rookie, and pointing out that he had only just made it to WWE — all in a similar style to what Ziggler did to Nakamura. The problem with this line of thinking is that it takes power away from the incoming talent and places the idea in the minds of the viewer and fans that this person can be overlooked. There’s a difference between a cocky heel overlooking his opponent and completely no-selling their supposed feelings about the person in question.
This is the difference between success and failure with the Jack/Triple H feud. Helmsley could have easily laughed off Cactus Jack, and pointed out that the last time he was seen on TV he was getting shoved into dumpsters with Terry Funk in the middle of the show while Hunter was main eventing. Instead, he sold the appearance of Cactus Jack as a ‘coming to Jesus’ moment, giving a character who had’d been a main eventer before some instant credibility and pathos.
Nakamura should have been given the same treatment, with Ziggler talking a big game but showing cracks in his confidence, giving credence to Nakamura’s past and selling him as potentially a dangerous man. Instead, we got a downright awful promo in which Ziggler attempts to compare Nakamura to Michael Jackson, stopping just short of making a Neverland Ranch joke, and a wet, sloppy noise of a match in which Shinsuke appears to barely get the win.
I’m not sure Nakamura can recover from having so much of his power and aura stripped from him. Just like that, WWE creative did what they do best: Make sure that nobody gets over based on their past, outside of the company work.
Will Harrison is a journalist in Austin, Texas covering technology, video games, the Episcopal church, and anything else. He’s also the video game critic for the Toledo Blade; a daily, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. Contact him on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison.