Thursday, May 12, 2016

Nakamura Ambition: Why His NXT Stay Needs to Be Short

This was a fun sight, but Nakamura means more than clobbering jobbers
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The personal highlight for me on this week's episode of NXT was Shinsuke Nakamura treating Alex Riley like the nothing nobody he really is. To be honest, Riley's final WWE match could have featured anyone, Elias Sampson, Eva Marie, hell, even a one-time-only comeback from a cipher like Heidenreich, and I would have enjoyed it thoroughly. I hope AJ Lee gets the date of his release tattooed on her neck below the date she won the Divas Championship. But this isn't about Riley. The way Nakamura was booked to go over Riley was immaterial, to be honest. It was the way he executed on his entire script for the show, from dismissing Riley's RAAAGE in the pre-match promo to his controlled fury in his strikes and finishing sequence. The King of Strong Style showed how a true, elite wrestling superstar should be presented against a talent that is not in his league.

And while I enjoyed the whole thing, it presented the biggest problem with Nakamura in developmental. WWE signed a guy who had spent the last decade at the top of the only company in the world even close to competing with it, and he's being started out in the nominal cradle squashing dudes like Sampson and Riley. Of course, NXT is positioned as more than just "developmental" anymore, a point that still causes great contention among pundits, fans, and even workers. Nakamura is there to do what he did at Takeover: Dallas - have bomb matches with the cream of the crop like Sami Zayn. But is he even above that mantel?

When Nakamura signed in the wake of WrestleKingdom 10, I (as well as many of you) had WrestleMania dreams for the King of Strong Style. Realistically speaking, Nakamura couldn't make his debut in advance of Mania 32 because WWE has only started making exceptions for newly signed, already-tenured talent to go to the RAW roster. AJ Styles and Karl Anderson perhaps got the benefit of the doubt being English-speaking American talents, and Luke Gallows has a history with the company. I am making a complete guess here, but my thought is that Vince McMahon had hesitations on bringing what he thought was a relatively unknown Japanese wrestler on the road on RAW.

The reality of the situation is Nakamura would have been tailor made to debut on RAW or at a major pay-per-view due to the way WWE has seemingly priced out families for most televised events. Crowds in major cities and at most big pay-per-views have a vocal makeup of hardcore fans, those who either know Nakamura, or who recognize that a guy who came over from New Japan Pro Wrestling would have to be the goods.

But playing complete Devil's Advocate here, I will agree with the assumed McMahon strawman and say Nakamura had to go to NXT to be comfortable with American crowds. He's already showing that's not a problem. His English is good enough to cut promos; if you want to be sassy, you could say he's already better on the mic than Styles. In one match, he's created enough of a buzz to get everyone talking. What's the point of him working these squash matches on television?

But then the next checkpoint for him has to be the NXT World Championship, but then WWE gets into a situation where it puts the title on someone that seems a bit too unbeatable (almost like the situation with Asuka holding the Women's World Championship), a bit too special. Or it puts the main title on a guy with long-term aspirations when he is presumably getting paid enough cash to have pried him away from NJPW. Keeping Nakamura at his assumed salary level in a known (designed?) money loser just for buzz seems to be counterproductive.

I don't want to put an arbitrary time constraint on WWE, but to me, it feels like if Nakamura isn't at WrestleMania 33 with the most grandiose entrance of all-time, then his signing was at least a short-term failure, at least in the way Brock Lesnar's return felt flat until the CM Punk match at the earliest and when he ended The Streak at the latest. A company doesn't poach one of the top performers in the world just to stick him in obscurity. The question then becomes when the time is right for Nakamura to make his debut on RAW. I don't think an exact date is correct, but the sooner he makes the jump, the better it is. I can't imagine WWE waiting much longer than the night after SummerSlam to pull the trigger. Then again, if I'm McMahon or Triple H, I'm planning on getting him in the mix so that he's in one of the marquee matches at the summer's tentpole event.

Of course, the counterargument is that Nakamura will lose his special aura if he's subjected to 50/50 booking and spammed rematches on RAW each week. While the constant repeating of matches is still a huge problem with week-to-week booking, the creative team has done a much better job protecting wrestlers overall. Styles, Kevin Owens, Roman Reigns, and the New Day for the most part have remained protected over the last half-year. Obviously, it can be hard to completely trust the scorpion that is WWE's writing staff and match producers, especially after a RAW this past week that saw a bunch of rollup finishes and Champions getting pinned in non-title matches, two staples of that group's incompetence.

Still, the allure of a wider variety of matchups is only on the table when Nakamura has breached the divide between developmental and main narrative. People lost their goddamn minds when they thought Nakamura vs. John Cena at a house show in Hawaii might be broadcast on The Network. The odds of Cena going to NXT to wrestle that match are slimmer than the pickings down the bread aisle in advance of a major blizzard in the Northeastern United States. Ditto Brock Lesnar, Styles, Reigns, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, Triple H, or Alberto del Rio. The same goes for guys fresh from NXT like Owens, or lower priority wrestlers who would still give Nakamura an interesting run of it like Randy Orton or Sheamus.

I get why Nakamura debuted in NXT, but keeping him there for too much longer will probably lessen the impact of his signing. He's not a spring chicken; he's already 36 and has a lot of tread on the tires. Nakamura is too much of a star to be hanging around, Kinshasaing jabronis on weekly TV and being bogged down defending a title that really doesn't need him, or that he needs. The best course for everyone involved would be for him to have one more marquee NXT match at the next Takeover and then show up to start kneeing fools in the face on Mondays, Thursdays, and every fourth Sunday.