The pro wrestling world is still reeling from the news that Doc Gallows, Karl Anderson, AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura are on their way to WWE, but inevitably, thoughts have turned to how the WWE will utilise their new signings.
The worrying sign coming from the hype on WWE.com is that they may group all four men with Finn Balor as part of a NJPW alumni group. This would be a grave mistake. Styles, Balor and Nakamura are all headline acts that shouldn’t be playing second fiddle to anyone else in a faction – putting them together just means you're inevitably failing to maximise the potential of at least two of the stable’s members.
The pathway for the two Americans is clear: Anderson and Gallows should be reunited with Finn Balor as part of Balor Club. They have a natural chemistry together from their time in Bullet Club, and two big heavyweights acting as muscle for the smaller champion is easy heat. Also, together they may be able to plug the gap in WWE programming created by the asinine decision to break up The Shield.
For A.J. Styles, I would recommend WWE looks more closely at his TNA run than his more recent success in NJPW. Styles only truly convinced fans he was a heel in Japan because he was paired with already hated heels and matched against genuinely beloved babyfaces. WWE has neither of these and so should go with the grain and book him as a babyface. Styles had his most success in TNA as a modern-day reimagining of a mid-eighties WWF Intercontinental Champion, the secondary champion that is the connoisseurs’ favourite, and WWE should book him accordingly. Part of me thinks they’ll book him against Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania.
The more interesting, and challenging, person to successfully introduce into the WWE Universe is Shinsuke Nakamura. As somebody who only came aboard the New Japan bandwagon when NJPW World was launched, I’m confident that if presented properly he can become a huge star in WWE. While he may not be as verbally eloquent as the typical WWE superstar, he is a man who oozes visual charisma that naturally draws fans in. Don’t just take my word for it -- my seven year old son has been similarly impressed with the matches he’s watched with me.
What’s more, the fear that WWE fans won’t accept someone from Japan is overblown. Vince McMahon may never have treated Japanese pro-wrestlers seriously, but that didn’t stop Taka Michinoku, Yoshi Tatsu and, above all, Yoshihiro Tarijii from getting far more over than their pushes. Likewise, indie fans have regularly accepted visitors from New Japan as big stars, and the success of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan shows that indie sensibilities are not as far removed from WWE fan tastes as some on both sides of that divide may wish was the case.
However, there’s no doubt he needs to be introduced very carefully by WWE if he’s to be successful. As crazy as it sounds, I believe the man he should be programmed with is none other than Brock Lesnar.
Nearly four months after the strangely rushed climax of his feud with Undertaker, we are still no nearer to knowing who Lesnar will face at Wrestlemania. Worse, there seems to be no good options given that the WWE can’t risk pro-Lesnar fans turning on Roman Reigns if they were rematched while the rest of the roster is a sea of mid-carders. The natural response is therefore to bring an outsider in to face Lesnar. Alas, even here there are slim pickings. The dream match of him facing Steve Austin has been emphatically ruled out by all concerned, while no one is entirely sure whether actors The Rock or Batista would be available to wrestle.
Nakamura is the perfect man to step into this breach, not just because he’s a terrific pro wrestler who has not been defined down by inept WWE booking but because there’s a ready made story. For the uninitiated, Lesnar and Nakamura have already met with Lesnar crushing Nakamura to successfully defend his then-IGWP title. At the time, Nakamura promised to regroup and hone his skills by wrestling all over the world, so that eventually he would be strong enough to avenge his loss.
Using this backstory is the perfect springboard to introduce Nakamura. It gives him a clear rationale for moving to the WWE, and immediately slots him in as a top star. By revealing that Lesnar once held the IGWP belt, it would also validates the credentials of both Nakamura and Styles. But above all else, a feud with Lesnar is the best chance to hide Nakamura’s limitations and extenuate his positives.
Nakamura’s key limitation is that there’s nothing to suggest that he could deliver the monologues that WWE believes are effective promos. That can’t be solely blamed on the fact English isn’t his first language as even his Japanese promos seemed less smooth than some of his contemporaries. What’s more, New Japan rightly doesn’t place any emphasis on talking for 20+ minutes. However, it’s fair to say that Lesnar also lacks the verbal diarrhoea that WWE usually demands of its headliners.
So, pairing them together would allow the emphasis to be moved away from in-ring verbal confrontations that do neither man any favours. Just as Lesnar’s best promo work was in sitdown interviews before his match with Cena, both men would be able to deliver quick quips to put into video packages. Just as Lesnar relies on Paul Heyman to act his advocate, you could easily use either Mauro Ranello or Jim Ross to explain how great Nakamura is based on their previous roles with New Japan. Indeed, there may be an argument for doing a ‘Jim Ross meets Mick Foley’-style series of interviews.
And in a battle of two former MMA fighters (ahem), you could work to expand the build beyond the sometimes claustrophobic environment of RAW by using a HBO 24/7 style series of documentary segments to present a richer narrative of both men’s preparation for the fight.
Such an approach would allow you to introduce Nakamura as a big deal i.e. have him deliver his challenge to Lesnar to a (maybe worked) press conference in Tokyo, work with New Japan to splice in footage of their erstwhile Intercontinental Champion in action (maybe in return for allowing him to work Dominion), showcase his genuine presence in Japanese pop-culture and bring in outside figures (such as Kurt Angle) to vouch for how good he is. Given both are legitimate athletes, you could showcase their training preparations in the same way fans were given a look backstage for Lesnar’s preparations for his match against The Rock.
Done right, such a match would allow the WWE to build interest for the match without wasting too many of Lesnar’s dates or exposing Nakamura. Keeping the debuting Japanese superstar away from the WWE ring would also build intrigue for the match -- as long as the pretaped hype packages have convinced people he’s a big deal, the fact they won’t see him until his characteristically elaborate entrance is only a positive. And of course, Lesnar vs. Nakamura is as sure to be as good a match as you could book.
A throwaway show was transformed when they put Kevin Owens against John Cena. Whilst they wasted the momentum generated from Owens’ victory, the lesson was clear, WWE fans want fresh matchups and for new superstars to prove their worth against the biggest stars. Shinsuke Nakamura has drawn more money than anyone the WWE has hired since Goldberg speared Rock, and they should treat him as such. Put him straight into a featured match, protect him during the build, and watch him immediately repay the faith shown in him.
Will Cooling is a freelance writer who writes on combat sports for Fighting Spirit Magazine, pop culture for Geeky Monkey and politics at It Could Be Said! He urges everyone to support Scott Sawitz’s Confession of a Superhero Kickstarter.