On April 13, a little more than a year after I saw Shinsuke Nakamura’s first NXT house show outside of Charlotte, I got to see one of his last in Atlanta at the historic Center Stage Theater. It was a weirdly emotional time watching him tag with Hideo Itami against Bobby Roode and Andrade “Cien” Almas. It was a fun match for sure, but knowing that this was the last time I was going to see Nakamura between those yellow ropes caused a lot of reflection.
Nakamura’s year in NXT certainly caused a lot of debate. Some say he peaked during his debut match with Sami Zayn and that his title reigns were not very interesting. I don’t necessarily agree with these points, though it does feel like the problems with his title reign were endemic to where NXT was last summer, right after several of the brand’s longtime stars were finally called up to the main roster, including Finn Balor and Bayley. NXT has always been a brand in flux, but the past year or so has been especially rough as the main event scene completely shifted. At that point, it was less that Nakamura needed the NXT Championship, and more that NXT needed a star like Nakamura for the entire brand to rally behind.
Let’s face it: Nakamura is a force of nature wherever he goes. No matter how many criticisms you have of his title reigns or his character, it’s hard not to be wrapped up in him when the violins hit and he walks into the ring. He’s truly a fount of charisma and the comparisons to Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury are not unfounded. In the wake of Balor and Bayley’s departures, NXT needed a character like him. They needed his magnetism to keep eyes on the brand as they rebuilt from the inside. There are different ways they could have handled that, of course, but Nakamura as the ace of the brand was not a bad call.
Of course, Nakamura needed NXT as well. He was exceptionally talented before coming to WWE, but there were still things he needed to work on in the transition to WWE. His promo skills have definitely improved from when he first arrived, with him looking more comfortable talking on the mic with each address to the crowd, as seen this past week on Smackdown Live. He knows how to play to the cameras now just as much as the crowd. Most importantly, though, his ability to sell injuries can put us all on edge more than almost any other wrestler. Maybe not to the level of Zayn or Sasha Banks, but the way he played up his main weapon being taken out against Bobby Roode is leagues away from his matches with Austin Aries and Balor in comparison.
Nakamura will be a star wherever he goes. That part is undeniable. He was ready for the main roster the day he signed with WWE, but his year in NXT was definitely needed. Not just to help the development of the brand in a time of extreme flux, but to help his own adjustment to America. And now, as he trades the yellow ropes for blue, America is about to see how overwhelming his star power can be.
Ashley Leckwold is a freelance writer based out of Atlanta who specializes in comic books, professional wrestling, and pop-punk music. Besides being regularly found at Graphic Policy and The Outhousers, you can find her at her blog and on Twitter @misskittyf.