An intriguing subject this week as we go to undoubtedly one of the most popular wrestlers worldwide, as he is right on the cusp of making his full time debut in America for the most popular worldwide wrestling promotion, WWE via their NXT branch. This man has numerous accomplishments in NJPW, and has found a way to remain relevant for over a decade, as well as having one of the fastest rises to the top in history, becoming the youngest ever IWGP Heavyweight Champion, a record he continues to hold to this day. I know most all who take the time to read this know the “King of Pop-err Strong Style” Nakamura, but there was a time he was very different, and we’ll go through ’em all.
He started out as a fan as a child, enjoying the video game Fire Pro Wrestling he became entrenched in the puroresu world, latching on to talented technical wrestlers like El Samurai, Akira Maeda & Shinobu Kandori, he took his love of the strong and courage showed by the wrestlers of the time as well as his love of Jackie Chan with him, he was a standout in his wrestling team going through the school system, and in an appearance at a national competition he met longtime friends Goto & Shibata, and since both Goto & Nakamura were wearing puroresu shirts they became fast and great friends. He had a great mind for puroresu as well, being an astute follower of all promotions and is known as a huge fan back in the day, following all different styles including Shoot, Joshi, FMW, Lucha, and of course top companies NJPW & AJPW. He also was a very strong Martial Artist in his early years, appearing at PRIDE as Michiyoshi Ohara’s second. In his early years Akira Maeda actually asked him to join RINGS, but he was set on wearing the Lion mark, instead asking Goto how to get into an NJPW tryout. (Spoiler alert: he passed)
He started off in NJPW going to America very early into his career in 2002, meeting wrestlers like Bryan Danielson and training MMA with Tank Abbott! His career at the time was largely based around Crazy Inoki’s belief that his wrestlers should also be good MMA fighters. The good thing for Nakamura is he was actually pretty good, after his debut loss to Daniel Gracie he never suffered a true loss again, winning 3 of 4 fights (He largely dominated Alexey Ignashkov until a flash strike knocked Nakamura down and a corrupt referee stopped the fight despite Nakamura standing up right away. It was overruled as a No Contest later on and Nakamura defeated Ignashkov in Nakamura’s last MMA Fight with a submission) and that aided him greatly to gain his far too early push, despite being apart of “The New Three Muskateers” with Hiroshi Tanahashi & Katsuyori Shibata.
Today’s match is a rare look at the youngest era of Nakamura, as we see a 6 man tag from 2003, the Young Lion already teaming with two of NJPW’s bigger stars (and best wrestlers and overall just the kinda guys you’d want to be teaming with) Yuji Nagata & Osamu Nishimura, taking on the much less inspiring team of Takashi Iizuka, Tatsutoshi Goto, & Hiro Saito. This match is from May 27th, 2003. Nishimura starts off with the ridiculous looking Goto. Just to start off, I liked Iizuka a lot around this era, and Nagata got the biggest pre-match reaction. Nishimura & Goto trade wristlocks for awhile before Saito tags in and Nishimura guides the vets to some solid technical work, then Nakamura comes in against Goto, immediately hitting a nice takedown before Iizuka comes in and gives Nak a nice exchange before Nagata tags in and he & Iizuka actually do some very nice work. In general as the match progresses Nagata gets showcased, with Nak tagging in minutes later and hitting a double leg suplex before getting locked in Iizuka’s Sleeper Hold, and plays possum while the ring cleans out, and when Iizuka starts to look for the Blizzard Suplex Nakamura pops up and hits his sweet Flying Armbar and the Supernova taps out Iizuka! It’s obvious even here Nakamura was a big part of their future plans, and already even this early Nakamura was rising the ranks to the top.
From there Nakamura went on, along with his fellow New Three Muskateers Katsuyori Shibata & Hiroshi Tanahashi competed in the 2003 G1 Climax. While that is widely regarded as one of the best G1s in history, Nakamura’s role was small and mostly unimpressive, only gaining wins on Shibata and Tadao Yasuda. But his fortunes would change to the surprise of many, in December in Hiroyoshi Tenzan’s first title defense after his long awaited G1 and World Title win, Nakamura defeated Tenzan, becoming the youngest IWGP World Champion in NJPW history. The move was cried foul by many, not just because it messed up the much more talented Tenzan’s run at the height of his popularity, but because although everyone would admit Nakamura had great potential at the time, he obviously wasn’t ready and it made him look bad in the long run, with many speculating he got the title because of his success and skill in MMA which Crazy Inoki favored. He main evented the January 4th Show and defeated Yoshihiro Takayama in a Title Unification match in the Dome. Of course his title reign came to an end shortly afterwards due to an injury suffered in his aforementioned MMA fight. I love Crazy Inoki. He returned a couple of months later and quickly rose up the ranks to challenge the next champion…Bob Sapp. The Supernova still did well, entering the G1 that year and making it to the 2nd Round before losing to the eventual winner who got his revenge, Hiroyoshi Tenzan. By the end of the year, he seemed to be out of the main event picture, and in a memorable match, faced a troubling time in having to deal with Inoki’s bizarre ways. A famous incident occurred in November 2004, where Nakamura sensing a shooter that Inoki had brought in to legitimately hurt Nakamura, Naoya Ogawa was coming for him Nak was fully prepared and rallied a lot of the NJPW wrestlers backstage around him, and getting the traditional NJPW Young Lions ready to back him up and whoop some ass if anything were to go down and Nak got overpowered in the shoot. Instead it backfired when Ogawa got wind of the youngster’s plan and dropped half of his own pay to get out of wrestling Nakamura and potentially get beat up, Inoki placed the two in separate tag matches with Nakamura teaming with Nakanishi to take on Kazuyuki Fujita and Kendo Kashin. Inoki was none too pleased with Nakamura for daring to want to fight back in a potential shoot fight, so Inoki got his revenge by ordering even tougher fighter Fujita to shoot kick him in the face viciously with his finish, then Inoki decided to slap Nakamura in the face afterwards personally, teaching the young Supernova toughness in his mind. But still, not a few weeks later Nakamura would still get a good position on the card. Minoru Suzuki & Yoshihiro Takayama had a dominant run as tag team champions that year, holding the titles for 10 months, only losing the titles when Takayama suffered an injury. The decision for the vacant titles gave Minoru Suzuki the first crack, with Takayama picking Kensuke Sasaki to replace him, a heck of a replacement to get the titles back, going against the young gun team of Nakamura and his hand picked partner…the U-30 Champion, who would defend his title against Nakamura on January 4th, Hiroshi Tanahashi, with the titles being up for grabs on December 11th, 2004.
This match was all about Suzuki & Sasaki beating the crap out of the Young Lions, particularly Nakamura for a large part of the match. This was very fun to watch. They come back near the end with Nakamura taking out Sasaki on the outside while Suzuki & Tanahashi do battle inside the ring after Nakamura takes him out with a twisting plancha, with Tanahashi getting put over strong and kicking out of the Gotch-style Piledriver! (after a cocky cover) Suzuki looks for the kill with the Saka-Otoshi, but Tanahashi counters with an Inside Cradle for a huge nearfall (The Inside Cradle was one of Tanahashi’s big moves in his younger days) and after a kickout, immediately hits his finish, the Dragon Suplex for the upset win to a great crowd reaction and even better reaction from Tanahashi who was absolutely brilliant here. (And also I’ve always liked Tanahashi’s “Do It Myself” theme” so that made it even better) Of note Nakamura was noticeably improved here from 2003 when he won the title, and it was obvious at this point these were the two stars of the future for the company and they might just have struck gold with the High Flying Star and the Supernova.
The team of Nakamura and Tanahashi were more symbolic than a definitive force, with only 5 successful defenses (One in México) before losing them to Cho-Ten. Hardly the most memorable title reign in history, but nothing to be ashamed of considering the IWGP Tag Titles, After dropping the titles and then on January 4th, 2006, losing to Brock Lesnar in an IWGP Heavyweight Title match, he headed abroad, traveled to México, America, Russia, & Brazil, bulking up and expanding his techniques, but he was called back a few months later after Lesnar decided he didn’t want to lose to Hiroshi Tanahashi and it was all hands on deck. He returned as the number 2 of the villainous BLACK faction, headed by Masahiro Chono with the intention of taking over NJPW with Nakamura reigning supreme as the Ace. Well, let’s just say it didn’t really work out that way, and although Nakamura had good momentum in the 2007 G1, he ended up dislocating his shoulder in his semi-final match vs. Yuji Nagata. After his returned plans had changed, and Nakamura took over the faction and remodeled it in his image as RISE, along with Hirooki Goto, Milano Collection AT, Minoru, Prince Devitt, Giant Bernard, & Travis Tomko. And he returned to the top after 4 years, defeating his biggest rival and former tag champion partner. Hiroshi Tanahashi at the January 4th 2008 Egg Dome Show, setting yet another chapter with their rivalry. However though he won the technical leniage of the IWGP Heavyweight Title, there was one problem…the actual belt itself had been kept by Brock Lesnar and Antonio Inoki (who had also “left” NJPW by this point) and his new promotion Inoki Genome Federation had brought in Lesnar claiming mistreatment by NJPW and decided to ignore NJPW’s stripping of the title. In IGF’s first show Lesnar faced TNA star Kurt Angle for what was dubbed as the IWGP Third Belt Title as well as Angle’s TNA World Title, Lesnar’s one and only shot thus far for the TNA World Title. Angle emerged victorious. However NJPW was none too pleased that the title and the IWGP letters was used in such a fashion on a competitor’s show, with Nakamura seeming to be the one to regain the belt as after Angle won the title Nakamura publicly vowed to hunt Angle and the IGF for the mockery of the IWGP Title (though at the time he wasn’t champion). The long story short of it was it was a complete circus, of course started by Crazy Inoki, but it did culminate in today’s match, just over a month after main eventing the Egg Dome and becoming IWGP Champion, he would face Angle in a Title Unification bout, proving for good who the true champion is.
The pre-match video is extremely well done, with NJPW wrestlers of importance talking about the match, how important it is to get the belt back, and putting over Shinsuke Nakamura, interspersed with comments from Kurt Angle where he put down Nakamura & Tanahashi as great athletes who didn’t know how to wrestle, he was the real IWGP Champion and that “I’ll kick your ass all over Tokyo!”. This was basically the precursor or beginning of my favorite Shinsuke gimmick, as you could see him do the prayer motion during his entrance. This had a really big fight feel in ways you don’t see in a lot of the modern day Okada defenses, this even taking a page from Dragon Gate’s playbook, playing the USA & Japan National Anthems beforehand as well as TNA’s Jeremy Borash doing English ring announcing for Kurt. The match itself doesn’t quite match up to the epic buildup in terms of length, but there was some fun heeling from Kurt and an absolutely awesome Belly to Belly directly over the top rope. I actually thought for what it was I very much enjoyed this in contrast to the typical Kurt Angle “hit lots of finishers” match. Nakamura wrestled very well from behind, and got a lot of shine kicking out of a Super Olympic Slam and withstanding the Ankle Lock, and had a very unique counter into a Sleeper Hold. But the finish came with a long back and forth struggle between the Ankle Lock and Nakamura fighting for an Armbar, with the crowd reacting louder to every time Nakamura broke Angle’s hands apart before finally earning the tapout on his Armbar, and “no charisma” Nakamura pops up with a reaction of jubilee to a great crowd reaction while at the same time hobbling from the Ankle work. ’08 Nakamura I love thee. After the match Angle raises Nakamura’s arm and all is well with IWGP again. (I also want to mention I thought the music they played while Nak got his title and trophy was tremendous) This match is a good reflection of his career, then compared to now. Lower on sizzle and higher on steak, working basic holds in an intelligent way with great struggle. Truly the foundations were laid for the Black Savior to come forward and stand tall in NJPW.
Nakamura won back the honor of NJPW, finally bringing back the IWGP Title and gaining the two biggest wins of his career up to that point. He would then go on to lose the title 2 months down the line to AJPW’s boss and NJPW’s legend Keiji Muto. What a guy. He seemed to take a backseat to his #2 Hirooki Goto with Goto surprising everyone by winning the G1 Climax (with Nakamura helping fight off Goto’s Final opponent Togi Makabe’s group GBH in the Final) after Goto got a direct win over the RISE leader. However the world wasn’t long for Real International Super Elite, as Nakamura’s next big move and the start of my favorite era of Shinsuke, as the remaining GBH members besides Tomoaki Honma, led by Toru Yano turned on Togi Makabe. Nakamura took leadership of the group now under it’s current name, CHAOS, with Nakamura taking on a darker heel persona and announcing his intention of resurrecting the true Strong Style, showing disgust at the change in product since Antonio Inoki left. It was at this time we saw him drift away from his previous ring style, and introducing his largely knee based offense and his straight right hand, with much emphasis placed on his Boma-Ye finisher and a general feel of violence. He also seemed to adopt more religious imagery into his persona, adopting the nicknames “The Black Savior” & “Son of God” as well as wearing t-shirts adorned with wings and a particularly sky blue shirt on it that I thought looked cool, and often “SS” for Strong Style. In the 2009 G1 Final Nakamura, despite losing to Makabe for some reason, he went on a big run, going undefeated and breaking the IWGP Champion Tanahashi’s face with his Boma-Ye, and forcing him to vacate the title, allowing Nakamura to immediately avenge his loss to Makabe and win the IWGP Title again. He then went on to do something that will forever solidify him as one of the best characters in NJPW history…criticized Antonio Inoki in promos! Now, sadly he didn’t rail against all of his maddening decision making in the early part of the decade that’s brought headaches to yours truly going back on these NJPW guys, instead targeting Inoki’s original IWGP Heavyweight Title and lifting the Strong Style curse Inoki left behind on the company. Sadly a match between the two never came to fruition despite how amazingly bad/amazing it would have been, instead Nakamura never quite got the rocket his rival Tanahashi had, losing the title back to Makabe in May of 2010. He entered G1 at that point a bit of a wild card, his main mission seemingly (stupidly on NJPW’s part) failed, though still clearly respected as a strong (no pun intended) wrestler and main event player for the company. Nakamura, along with 3 other men were still in play to win their Block on the Final day, including his opponent for today’s match, the at the time Pro Wrestling NOAH Ace Go Shiozaki in the first match of their rivalry that would carry them to the Dome that year.
First off I want to mention Nakamura coming out in the exact cool looking shirt I mentioned, though his actual entrance is akin to someone who hadn’t slept in 3 days. I wonder what a shock it is for those who only know him as Japanese Michael Jackson to see the more traditional and calculating Nakamura. I’ll try to avoid the play by play but let me just say that this is much more of a Go/NOAH/Ark Style Main Event than a traditional NJPW match, complete with one very well done show of good old Fighting Spirit from the NOAH Ace, and Nakamura again brought the great selling I’ve come to miss over the recent years, very much making him using multiple Boma-Ye’s look better. I also thought they did a very nice job filling so much time and things are never overly slowed down. Although truth be told I wasn’t the biggest Go fan alive in 2010 I thought this was a great match, the best of their series, a standout Shinsuke performance, and much like his entire heel run here, a true hidden gem. Definitely give this a look if you’ve got the time, and get treated to a strong match in addition to another perspective on the career of the King of Strong Style.
After his feud with Go wrapped up at Wrestle Kingdom 2011, his run as his most notable character, despite popularity at the time, was on its’ last legs with seemingly little hope of redemption or way out, and Nakamura seemed destined to fall to the wayside, The Black Savior failing to reach his full potential…until after yet another big loss, this time to Hiroshi Tanahashi he went on a tour of México in 2011, where some things happened that only he knew about, and he returned with a radically different character. Though still bearing the “King of Strong Style” nickname, the once determined Strong Style master was replaced with the bizarre amalgamation of many different things, largely inspired by the King of Pop, with a new attitude, ring entrance vest, and haircut, it’s little wonder many almost look at him as having two separate careers. Now to add a personal point of view to this, as I’ve said, I thought his previous character was quite a bit more 3 dimensional and better than what he’s best known for as he’s largely been more focused on catchphrases and mannerisms that don’t appeal to me as much personally, but with that said at this time period I was still very much a fan of his in the ring, he still retained much of the fundamentals and strong pure wrestling ability, though he just felt a little bit more of the heat now in his matches and considering the way things were heading before his excursion, nobody can blame him for choosing this path. It also provided a shot in the arm and immediate success as he won the 2011 G1 Climax, defeating upstart Tetsuya Naito in the final. Sadly things really hadn’t changed that much as he would lose his title match to Hiroshi Tanahashi and he drifted back to the midcard for months, until July 2012, in which he defeated Hirooki Goto for the still fledgling at the time IWGP Intercontinental Title for his first of four prolific Title Reigns, and around this time he threw out the first pitch in a game between the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays, which I would love to know A. Why and how it happened, B. How he was introduced to the crowd, and C. how he was received. His G1 win was unsuccessful as a theme of the last few years of his career in NJPW, taking a backseat in the IWGP Heavyweight title picture to Kazuchika Okada, as Okada would win the G1 in 2012. He finished out the year with back to back Title defenses against the man he took the title from, Hirooki Goto and guy who always seems to get November Title shots for some reason Karl Anderson. After his match with Anderson Nak got on the mic afterwards with the now legendary syllable callout that for as much as I don’t love him, I thought this was awesome and if you go back and look at this or next year’s variation, it got an incredible reaction both times. “Sa-Ku-Ra-Ba! Sakuraba!” So the shooter himself who had just returned among a storm of controversy in the locker room along with his friend Katsuyori Shibata was getting a featured Title match on arguably one of NJPW’s more important shows, the first ever January 4th show broadcast live Worldwide on ippv, being the USTREAM days and all. So let’s take a look at that match. Nakamura vs. Sakuraba for the IWGP Intercontinental Title from January 4th, 2013, Wrestle Kingdom 7.
First of all let me just say Stan Hansen comes out to start off. There really isn’t much of a connection here, but it’s always cool to have a legend the level of the great Stan Hansen here, and truly this was the first BIG big match of Nakamura’s “second career” so that’s great. Okay I have to admit that sideways Moonwalk Shinsuke does on his entrance is awesome. I desperately want this to be busted out on his NXT debut. The match starts off with some nice matwork, Sakuraba controlling the way early on. Shinsuke does an awesomely cocky slap that sets the bombs off as they start throwing hands with the match significantly picking up with Sakuraba actually hitting his jumping double face stomp thing! I totally forgot this happened and it was vicious and made me happy. The reason I forgot though was because of the spot this match will always be remembered for, Sakuraba’s incredible knee strike of doom. The crowd was very much into the finishing stretch, especially when Shinsuke would hit his big moves like the Landslide or breaking out of Sakuraba’s Kimura. After back to back Boma-Yes, Nakamura gets the 3 with Sakuraba kicking out just after. …At the time I was much lower on this match than many, but holy cow did I think this was incredible here. Nakamura showed a lot of heart, and the action was violent and heated. A certain NJPW MOTYC in 2013 and a likely highlight of both men’s careers. Also of note I thought Shinsuke was very good in not only his in-ring through 2012-2013 but enjoyed his character work as well and his more lighthearted take on himself. It really shines a light on the coming years for him, and I wish we’d seen more of this level of character from Shins. Regardless Shinsuke/Sakuraba is worth a rewatch if you’ve seen it and is must see if you missed it somehow. Just a great and very nicely compact match.
It’s amazing how Nakamura’s next & final two years would be in the company from an accomplishment standpoint as he would hold the Intercontinental Title on and off. He had a pair of feuds going into the Summer of 2013 and personally it felt like to me that this was a time period where he was trying a lot of different things, he was going deeper into this wild character even in his entrance, I was watching a few of his early matches of 2013 vs Shelton Benjamin and Shelton looked good in the match but Nakamura was trying to introduce a springboard variation of the Boma-Ye against him and Davey Boy Smith Jr., that was quickly shelved after an embarrassing slipup against Shelton. He continued feuding primarily with Shelton going into G1, as well as a feud in two different countries with La Sombra, with “The Shadow” handing Nakamura his first IC Title lost, though Sombra’s reign wouldn’t last long as Nakamura would get the belt back in Japan just over a month later, in a really great match I might add. Still, going into G1 2013, Nakamura was seen as a potential winner along with Hiroshi Tanahashi who also had a natural matchup with the IWGP World Champion at the time, Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito who had just returned to injury and had arguably the most buzz of any wrestler heading in, and the champion himself, as NJPW has a habit of giving Okada as many accolades as possible. That leads us to today’s match-up, the match that won the Tokyo Sports match of the year for 2013 in fact as for the very first time ever Nakamura would take on someone that would come to play a bigger role in Nakamura’s career, “The Golden Star” Kota Ibushi.
Now, the AXS version with English commentary is what I watched this on, so they showed Nakamura’s interview talking about his thoughts on the match beforehand where he spoke about his motivation primarily was to one up his friend and rival Tomohiro Ishii, who had had an incredible match vs Katsuyori Shibata earlier in the night, as well as to see what Ibushi brought to the table as a Heavyweight as “It would be a waste for him to be a Junior only”. I love Ibushi’s entrance video read “Independent” on it which made me laugh. Of note Nakamura still uses his Black Savior video wall two years after he dropped it, and it plays to a comment of a friend yesterday questioning if there was a big angle or explanation for his character change, of which well…not really. The feeling out process was spirited and aided by an excited crowd early on. Barnett calls Ibushi “Ibuta” at one point, and Mauro mentions his MMA career was unsuccessful, but he was 3-1, should have been 4-1, he was actually pretty good. Way better than Shibata. A great highlight happens as Ibushi goes for the Triangle Asai Moonsault, but Nak slides into the ring and hits a jumping knee, to which Ibushi takes a perfect fall to the ring apron and the floor. Nakamura was really on point here, and I have to say watching him in 2013 has really made me gain an appreciation for this time in his career as a pure wrestler. He was for the most part still doing very good as a “wrestler’s wrestler”, perhaps undersold by yours truly. You could tell there was an undertone of Nakamura disrespecting this Jr. indy wrestler, which Ibushi and Nak have a really stiff and great exchange at one point, finishing with a rare well done Pelé Kick by Ibushi. Ibushi’s high flying attacks were well timed and definitely played a big role in making this match so well liked. Nakamura’s strength was strength and viciousness of his strikes for the most part and this really fit into a NJPW “epic” style match. Ibushi has a boss moment where he hits his awesome windup Lariat followed by a a throat slash, then had a really well done 1 count kickout after the Boma-ye, and this match in general was not just a showcase of Nakamura being a great wrestler, but helping make a rising star look great. In the end though, a 2nd Boma-ye brought the King of Strong Style the win. Post-match YeaOh and it was a job well done.
Nakamura wouldn’t win the G1 but did get praise as I said, winning the Tokyo Sports match of the year, and setting the stage for an epic future rematch as well, as Ibushi would say in his interview after the match…”This is so not the end.”
At that point Nakamura put his sights on his longtime generational rival Hiroshi Tanahashi, as he again did his syllable challenge after defeating Minoru Suzuki and setting the stage for arguably the company’s biggest main event possible for Wrestle Kingdom 8, to the point that after originally being scheduled second from the top, due to G1 winner Tetsuya Naito and IWGP World Champion Kazuchika Okada ‘s lackluster feud, a fan poll was announced to determine the main event of the Egg Dome’s show in which Nakamura/Tanahashi won in a landslide. The more things change, the more they stayed the same though as again when light shone brightest Tanahashi came out on top, ending his Intercontinental Title Reign. They continued their rivalry over the next 3 months, after Tanahashi won in a rematch in February (of note, I thought was the second best match they ever had together after their February ’09 performance and sandwiched in between two matches I thought were utterly disappointing), Tanahashi likely thought he’d put The King of Strong Style in the rearview mirror, the 2014 New Japan Cup saw Nakamura win over Davey Boy Smith Jr., Prince Devitt, Minoru Suzuki, and Bad Luck Fale in an inspired performance despite a bloodied face. Nakamura targeted Tanahashi with his title shot, and again won the title right back (a pattern that would be repeated yet again just months later with Nakamura losing, then regaining the title from Fale without Fale defending against anyone else as champion.) The G1 was eventful that year, main eventing the first non-January 4th Dome in years in the Seibu Dome, he came up just short, losing to his top CHAOS friend, Okada. Things wouldn’t be so bad for him though, as Nakamura would bounce back in pretty fine form. Again looking for a challenger after a Power Struggle title defense for the 4th year in a row, saying he was looking for a Joker card, which brought out Kota Ibushi, who had been out with a concussion for months, making his return and hitting a German Suplex and mocking the King with a (completely ridiculous sounding) YeaOh! At Wrestle Kingdom 9, in front of one of one of NJPW’s bigger audiences as it was it’s debut on English language pay-per-view with Jim Ross on the call, he delivered in my opinion, despite an up and down 2014, his best performance and both his and Ibushi’s best match, and many agreed, as it was voted Match of the Year by various countdowns, websites, and newsletters, including by yours truly. Just an incredible performance that definitely made him seem like one of the best wrestlers alive. Sadly after that we saw the down of Nakamura, having lackluster performances against Nagata and two against Goto, as well as a lackluster first half of the G1 that also saw him have an injury, even lifelong defenders were questioning if the bloom was off the rose for Shinsuke, and for someone like me who Nakamura had jumped the shark long ago with, I actively disliked him greatly, particularly because Goto needed his effort on his big wins and got basically nothing from Nakamura. Still, I thought by the end of this tournament he really kicked it into gear and showed that any issues he had wasn’t about base talent, as he rocked the house against Ishii, Honma, & Okada, in particular I thought his match vs Okada saw him look as good as he had personally in quite some time, taking him to the Final for a second year in a row. Of note here if you go back and watch his last two matches of the tournament vs Okada & Tanahashi, you’ll notice he’s wearing a black armband in place of his usual red, and before going for his patented Boma-ye struck a prayer, directly referencing his previous character. Now, this pure speculation on my part but in rewatching these, and his general malaise in his IC matches, he had one foot out the door already as this really felt like saying goodbye to that era for good. So this match with Tanahashi, the G1 Climax Final, likely his last ever match vs the man he’ll forever be linked to among longtime NJPW followers, his friend, and greatest rival.
Now it goes without saying that this was a great match, but I thought Nakamura brought a lot of the little things that made me such a fan in the first place, such as only doing his Backcracker with only the leg Tanahashi didn’t work on, his facial expressions, and bring the desire to win against Tanahashi who brought out a great performance of his own. Scthick was played to a minimum here, this was big match Nakamura through and through, and I loved that he brought back his old Armbar and was working towards that, which is a thread throughout the entire tournament. (It only would be better had it been the Shining Triangle) The whole match, like a movie built to it’s climactic scene of both men battling up top, and Tanahashi knocking Nakamura partially off & hanging down, and then a High Fly Flow was hit that took out both men, looked wild and truly fit the level of G1 Final match. Sadly, Nakamura wasn’t the only one doing callbacks that night, as Tanahashi ended up hitting 3 High Fly Flows to pick up the win, overcoming Nakamura yet again, in perhaps the Final chapter of the story that will play a large role in defining both of their careers. The post match was poignant, with Nakamura offering a handshake to his rival, again perhaps having some kind of greater meaning, though that’s probably reading a little too much into it.
More speculation on my part but I wonder had NJPW gone all the way and given Nakamura his title shot against Okada at the Dome, would it have kept him around? After winning the IC Title from Goto a month later, his comment was even in essence “I’ve had this belt for so long and I don’t know what to do with it anymore.”. Could the allure of doing something different finally and ascending back up top kept him? I don’t know. Still, after beating Karl Anderson in perhaps the lamest duck title defense ever, announcing beforehand that Nakamura would make a Tokyo Dome challenge after the match, which was answered by AJ Styles in a match that set the wrestling world ablaze in intrigue, setting the stage for NJPW’s last big first time match, and at the Dome. Despite an AJ back injury that was widely talked about, they delivered, having in my opinion the best match of the show and ending with a cool fist bump that most certainly had deeper meaning, as by the next day both men were reported to close up shop in NJPW, and as we would soon learn, heading to WWE, in Nakamura’s case vacating the IC title and cementing his place as the greatest champion in that belt’s history for a long time to come. Still, one wonders if this wasn’t for the best for all involved as his spot opening up opened the door for others to rise, and another year of an unmotivated Nakamura doing the same thing he’s done for 4 years with the IC Title isn’t something that I was very excited about quite frankly. Though there is some poetic full circle type thing in that Nakamura’s first title win was seen as largely unnecessary and it unquestionably did major damage to a rising star, and his last title win was under nearly the exact same circumstances. In WWE, the noted fan of American culture will get a brand new start with many fresh matches waiting for him in Double Double E, including his debut match in NXT vs. one of the company’s best wrestlers in Sami Zayn. It’s sure to be an incredible matchup and it being in NXT nearly assures many fans will overlook any flaws that are possible to happen anyway. But regardless I do predict a great match and strong showing for the King of Strong Style. And love him or hate him or anything in between, it says a lot that heading into his 36th year on Earth, the future looks brighter than ever for him.