Doctor’s Orders: Analyzing The Complexities That Shape The Perception of AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura

”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: What is your opinion of the overall manner in which WWE has handled the Nakamura vs. Styles situation in 2018?

One of the stories of the year in 2018 thus far has been the situation surrounding Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles. It would be safe to say that what it has become is incongruent with what many expected it would be, the many chapters of its saga creating a complex web of emotions among a WWE fanbase attempting to reconcile the combination of a tremendous Royal Rumble Match, almost zero build for the ensuing WWE Title bout at WrestleMania, a lesser performance on the grandest stage when so much more was hoped for, and a character-building alignment shift for The King of Strong Style, among other things. Rather than add a classic match to the list of considerations, their second rematch at last Sunday’s Backlash only further fanned the flames, and now the heat is on as blood boils amidst the lingering question of whether or not WWE will ever allow them an opportunity to showcase with each other that which made Styles vs. Nakamura on the WrestleMania marquee a dream scenario for diehard enthusiasts intimately familiar with their respective time in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Four weeks ago, it seemed fair to suggest that The Show of Shows encounter would struggle to shake what many called a booking-induced puny payoff compared to the hype behind it. I went into it intentionally anticipatory on account of mostly what you guys had told me about their match at WrestleKingdom in 2016, which I refused to watch so as to leave the canvas blank for them to paint their potential grandest stage masterpiece to virgin eyes. The disappointment it left yours truly, then, stemmed less from the sting of not seeing potential realized because I knew full well what they were capable of and more from my opinion that WrestleMania 34 really needed them to deliver a Match of the Year candidate to save the last half of the show from following in the footsteps of the other two showcases of immortal length and basically dying a slow death until the Roman Reigns match speared the final breath of life from the event. On the post-Mania edition of The Doc Says podcast, I relayed my feeling that WWE handcuffing Styles vs. Nakamura was the latest example of the part-timer problem continuing to rear its ugly head, disallowing the current generation of stars the proper opportunity to prove that they are ready to roll with maybe one or two old-timer all-stars instead of five-plus per Mania Season.

Nevertheless, while you could say that the unexpected plot twist after AJ’s beautiful Kinshasa counter into the Styles Clash to score a rather surprising victory in New Orleans should have happened in early February to ensure the Mania title bout the optimal chance for maximum success, the fact of the matter was that it created character conflict where there previously had been so little. Nakamura was awesome throughout the month of April, his “no speak English” promos and the remix on his iconic entrance theme combining with recurring episodes of “America’s Funniest Shots in the Nuts” to forge some very satisfying early returns on a heel run that will already feels like it is succeeding where the whole “Artist” / generic babyface (aided by two clean losses to The Modern Day Mediocrity over his first six months on the main roster) act had failed. The Nak story basically got the brightest spotlight in the lead-up to both post-Mania pay-per-views, The Greatest Royal Rumble and Backlash, his shocking heel turn creating a major launching point off of which The King of Strong Style has made up for the lost, “much ado about nothing” ten weeks between his amazing Royal Rumble Match victory and his so-termed “dream match” with the Phenomenal WWE Champion. As agonizing as it was watching the air seep out of the proverbial balloon during a muted bell-to-bell performance at WrestleMania, it has been a pleasure to watch Shinsuke blossom as a personality in the month since.

Personally, I have been apt to let this whole Nakamura-Styles thing marinate over the past few weeks, so I actually did not watch the rematch until Saturday night and had not rewatched the Mania bout until last Friday night, meaning I capped off my weekend having dedicated essentially an hour each night to the most overt display of New Japan’s influence on WWE to date. Though I am compelled to reiterate my stance that WrestleMania should have been the place to end the story rather than start it, adding in the context of what Nak has been doing since the initial low blow has aided the Mania replay aesthetically, if nothing else. It will never be mistaken as a great match worthy of the pre-match “dream” label, but it helped set the stage for a return bout at The Greatest Royal Rumble which had a notable extra gear. I certainly was not blown away by the Friday and Saturday night viewing experiences, but I did take solace in the concept that what I had watched was leading somewhere bigger and better.

Bigger and better did not come on Sunday night; I went to bed after Backlash feeling the same about the rivalry that I did before Backlash, which was that the evolving saga eventually needs to make good on its pre-Mania promise of an all-time classic and that nothing short of a Match of the Year candidate would suffice. WWE did not have to make that promise, mind you, but it most certainly did when it booked Nakamura vs. Styles for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania and lauded it a “dream match.” Both that promise and the failure to deliver it cannot be taken back; the only thing WWE can do now is give those guys the platform to do what so many diehard fans know that they can do and leave it up to them to sink or swim. What WWE did by booking the heel turn at Mania and subsequently booking DQ and count out finishes in the rematches was tell the combatants, “go write an origin story and two more chapters.” Now, it is time to let them write a glorious climax.

Having a personal preference for a meatier storyline, I posit that further building the feud on a revitalized Smackdown brand for the next month or so can and will be helpful to ensuring that the ultimate (albeit revised) goal is reached and that Money in the Bank would be the perfect place for the Match of the Year candidate from Styles and Nakamura because it will be in front of a Chicago audience that routinely provides a grander atmosphere than its 15,000-ish crowd size would otherwise suggest. All State Arena, presuming it hosts a rematch minus the outs for double groin kick and similar non-finish catalysts, would then place the pressure back where it was before WWE booking got in the way: on AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura.

I feel like there is a lot riding on the overall success of this rivalry for both combatants, just to be clear, a statement rather obvious for Nakamura given the kind of year that he has had and perhaps a little less obvious for AJ because, even though he had another Wrestler of the Year type resume in 2017, he has been anything but Phenomenal for much of the past twelve months. Dating back to his better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 4-star surprise hit of the entire calendar at WrestleMania 33 with Shane McMahon, the only matches Styles has had that were anywhere near the generally accepted level he reached routinely during his banner, Wrestler of the Year in 2016-earning post-Mania 32 run were in back-to-back autumn months at TLC with Finn Balor and at Survivor Series with Brock Lesnar, the latter of which reflects back as a sloppy mess that just so happened to be captivating on the night. After consensus 4-star matches just about every month between April 2016 and April 2017, Styles has hit the 4-star mark just a consensus twice since, with a long list of really good but not great Kevin Owens matches highlighting the situation best.

The comparative drop-off prompts thoughts of the WWE schedule maybe having caught up with AJ (reducing his expected quality to very good instead of consistently awesome) or the creative team holding him back (see Nakamura at WrestleMania) or Styles being miscast and uncomfortable in a more traditional babyface role (an underrated aspect of this conversation given that Styles had a very good start in 2016, then ramped it up considerably when he began accentuating an attitude of “follow that” even before his official turn to the dark side in May).

One thing that was for certain about the WrestleMania 34 match was that it came across more like one of the Nakamura matches from NXT opposite Samoa Joe, quintessential examples of really good main-events that still underwhelmed in the face of comparatively big expectations, when many had assumed that Nak would merely climb on board the Styles train at WrestleMania 34 in a match showcasing in the ring a reflection of what built AJ’s stature with WWE to the point that he was featured in the WWE Title match on the grandest stage possible, a match with near unparalleled fluidity that formatted the strong style and its King into his smooth as silk routine. I think that AJ needs somewhat of a redemptive effort in this “what have you done for me lately” world in which live, his last 4-star match several months and a different calendar year in the rearview. Anyone else, especially younger top stars like Owens, Reigns, Rollins, or Ambrose, would be dealing with a public narrative of something like failing to live up to the hype if their 3 ½ star type performance with the lights on brightest in a match expected by some of its most ardent enthusiasts to be an all-time classic came up short; should Styles be immune to comparable narratives (like having lost a step) when it is he who failed to live up to the hype?

Nakamura’s WrestleMania encounter with Styles was supposed to be his proper platform for living up to considerable hype. Instead, it left him still without a classic to his main roster resume, while it also left his biggest fans wondering if WWE will ever give him the chance to put on display what brought him to the dance in the first place. Three WWE Title matches with AJ about which the main highlights were the climactic or post-match low blows have the people who were excited to see him based on his work abroad and the skeptics on the fence about his potential alike clamoring for him to pack his bags and go back to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Vague reports dating back to last summer about his dislike of the travel schedule and his consequent “going through the motions” attitude until presented with something worth going all in on painted the picture of a veteran talent who scratched most of his American itch in NXT, where he was treated like a star by a promoter who played to his strengths; Smackdown certainly has struggled to facilitate the living of an American dream for him. At this point, no matter if the reason is because WWE has booked him poorly, he is lacking motivation, or he doesn’t have what it takes to get it done in a Vince McMahon-influenced environment, the perception of The King of Strong Style seems to be of a star not nearly as super as we may have hoped he would be. Would a Match of the Year front-runner (or two) concluding a calendar quarter (or longer) rivalry be enough to alter perception, reset Nakamura’s WWE course, and send the talented Japan native into a run in year 2 on the main roster that helps people forget the disappointment of year 1?

Forget the volume of pay-per-view matches for a moment, the reality is that the Nakamura-Styles feud is only a month old, two if you insist on counting the heatless farce of a story written for them in between the Royal Rumble and WrestleMania. I am of the opinion that WWE did a good job in building foundational heat for them in the four weeks between Mania and Backlash and that no less than two more pay-per-views should be spent allowing them, with booking shackles removed, to let loose a pair of epic matches to help quell the negativity surrounding their rivalry to date, thinking that the more fans are given what they asked for when clamoring for Styles vs. Nakamura, the less the Mania flop will sting. Plus, in these uncertain times, with other hot-button issues grating on the patience of diehard WWE supporters as well, we could use Styles returning to top form and Nakamura cashing in on his potential.

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