Shinsuke Nakamura's Face Turn Goes Down As Another Missed Opportunity For WWE
As WWE continues to fail to build top babyfaces, Nakamura's 2021 so far could have been so much more
2021 could have - and should have - been a new dawn for Shinsuke Nakamura.
The three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion had been grossly underused in the two-and-a-half years after his feud with AJ Styles came to an end. He spent much of his time as United States or Intercontinental Champion, but The King Of Strong Style had three entirely forgettable reigns and was largely treated as an afterthought on Friday Night SmackDown.
That looked set to change earlier this year, though, and Nakamura appeared to be on course for a long-term push as 2021 began.
He opened the year with a strong performance in a number one contender's gauntlet match for the Universal Championship, defeating Rey Mysterio, King Corbin and Daniel Bryan before losing to Adam Pearce following interference from Roman Reigns.
The match also resulted in Nakamura turning babyface for the first time since early 2018 and he appeared to be back to his old self after he made his way to the ring to the original version of The Rising Sun on the following week's show.
Nakamura then continued his winning ways over the next couple of weeks leading into the Royal Rumble and a Superstar who had gone dormant in many fans' minds suddenly appeared to be at the forefront of WWE programming once again. Many even thought he could go all the way and win the Men's Rumble with odds of 100/1 at the beginning of the month falling to 12/1 as the pay-per-view drew closer.
Alas, it wasn't to be for The King Of Strong Style. Nakamura entered the Rumble at number seven and, while he did last 22 minutes in the ring, he was dumped over the top rope long before the final stretch by King Corbin of all people.
Nakamura's 2021 has only continued to go downhill from there.
Reports noted in the following weeks that Nakamura’s strong performance in the gauntlet match was only because Cesaro had yet to re-sign with WWE and the five-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion was drafted in as a last-minute replacement. WWE instead reportedly only planned to push Nakamura for a couple of weeks and The King Of Strong Style was told his role in the company was to put over new stars.
That has been evident in his booking ever since. Nakamura quickly descended back into the mid-card, serving as a build-up rival for Seth Rollins before The Messiah clashed with Cesaro at WrestleMania 37. The former NJPW star then exchanged wins with Apollo Crews ahead of The Showcase Of The Immortals and he has since settled into a 50/50 feud with King Corbin where the main focus is on a crown and Nakamura's new guitarist Rick Boogs as opposed to the 41-year-old.
WWE could and should have done so much more with Nakamura once the opportunity presented itself, though. While the company only intended to push him for a couple of weeks after uncertainty over Cesaro's future surfaced, fans appeared to be genuinely behind Nakamura for the first time in two years and were excited to see him back at the top of the card, regardless of how brief it was.
A crowd was not in the building to vocalise their support, but WWE surely has enough people behind the scenes who could have recognised Nakamura's popularity on social media and changed course from the short push he did receive.
Fans were ready for him to be back at the top of the card after two years of career stagnation, yet WWE instead found a way to squander Nakamura's talent yet again. A man who should have found himself as one of the pillars of SmackDown.
The opportunity to push Nakamura also presented itself at what is a difficult time for top-tier babyfaces in WWE. Kevin Owens, Cesaro and Rey Mysterio have all found themselves in the Universal Title picture on SmackDown. Owens rejuvenated himself as a babyface with his feud with Roman Reigns after a mostly forgettable post-WrestleMania 36 run, but few would argue he, Cesaro and Mysterio have been presented as main event calibre babyfaces, despite their talents.
WWE has instead slotted them more as upper-mid carders who can be trusted for a world title programme if the champion needs somebody to defeat. Big E has also mixed it up on the blue brand, but he isn't quite a main event-worthy talent yet, having just come off his Intercontinental Title reign.
SmackDown has also lost its fair share of top babyfaces in 2021, with Edge having turned heel ahead of WrestleMania 37 and Daniel Bryan having departed the company following the expiration of his contract.
Yes, Roman Reigns isn't lacking for an opponent at two of the next three pay-per-views with Rey Mysterio set for Hell In A Cell, while John Cena is the man WWE wants to face The Big Dog at SummerSlam. But what about after SummerSlam?
Nobody expects Roman Reigns to drop the Universal Championship for any longer than a few weeks anytime soon, and with him having already run through much of the competition on Friday Night SmackDown, there are hardly many opponents on the horizon for The Tribal Chief outside of maybe a Brock Lesnar return and Big E's likely elevation to main event status.
Many of the same problems also exist on Raw where Bobby Lashley is currently in his first reign as WWE Champion.
The All Mighty's months-long feud with Drew McIntyre appears to be coming to an end and there are a few babyface options WWE could turn to should Lashley retain at Hell In A Cell. The likes of Kofi Kingston and Jeff Hardy will always have credibility in a world title feud due to their popularity with fans and their past reigns with the gold. Damian Priest could also be someone WWE can push to the main event picture in the coming months, with The Fiend also in the background while off TV. Keith Lee should be in this conversation as well, but his absence from TV continues.
The same problem arises, though, whereby those talents can be put at the top for a short time, but WWE would have to give them a sustained push to provide them with the credibility to be in the main event picture for a long period, similar to what the company has done with both Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley over the last year.
Amidst the current babyface landscape, WWE needs another Superstar in that top echelon of talent alongside Reigns, McIntyre and Lashley and it would have behoved the company to elevate Nakamura to that status and begin to repair the damage they have done to his aura over the last two and a half years.
The King Of Strong Style has the charisma and the in-ring talent to be back at the top level in the company and he would be able to produce matches worthy of closing the show with Roman Reigns or Bobby Lashley. He could have even feuded with both, with a match at Money In The Bank against Reigns before being traded to Raw after the rumoured WWE draft following SummerSlam.
But no, Nakamura continues to find himself stuck in WWE's forgettable mid-card, forever spinning his wheels as fans hope that one day he will be pushed to the main event once again.
We'll always have those three weeks in January to cherish, I suppose.