When Ichiro Suzuki came to Major League Baseball 16 years ago, the American public didn’t know what to expect.
Sure, baseball stateside had seen Japanese players before – Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu come to mind – but Suzuki was different, he was the first Japanese position player to sign with a major league team and his first year was legendary, capturing the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards.
What Ichiro did for baseball all those years ago is what Shinsuke Nakamura is doing for the WWE today.
Nakamura, who made his WWE debut last year at NXT TakeOver Dallas during WrestleMania 32 weekend, has quickly become one of the most popular wrestlers under the company’s umbrella, and in less than a year, has changed the way American fans consume the experience.
Much like Ichiro, Nakamura came to the United States after a long and successful career in Japan. Nakamura began his wrestling career in 2002 – coincidentally the same year as WWE stars such as John Cena and Randy Orton did in the U.S. – and quickly rose through the ranks of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
By the time he was 23, Nakamura had become the youngest IGWP Heavyweight Champion in history and would go on to win nine IGWP titles over the next 14 years, building a reputation as one of the greatest Japanese wrestlers of his generation.
Touting a literal Hall of Fame resume, the next step for Nakamura on his wrestling journey was logical. He needed to come to America and compete on the grandest stage of them all.
“I feel as if I accomplished everything in Japan, so I wanted to challenge myself,” Nakamura told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted something new, so I decided to come to WWE. WWE has the biggest wrestling platform in the world. I also wanted the challenge of moving to the U.S. Everything was new for me, I wanted to experience it.”
Thus began a whirlwind year for Nakamura, who would wrestle Sami Zayn in one of the year’s best matches at NXT TakeOver: Dallas on April 1, 2016. Nakamura, who was just a few days removed from a flight from Japan, defeated Zayn in his debut and began his climb to stardom here in the United States.
Over the next year, wrestling fans across the country would become familiar with Nakamura, which was important, because everything about the 37-year-old star is unique. From his violin-techno entrance – which has taken on a life of its own – to his performance in the ring, Nakamura introduced us all to what is considered the norm in Japanese wrestling.
Perhaps most notably, Nakamura’s style is a stark contrast to what most are used to seeing in professional wrestling here in the United States. Nakamura is hailed as “The King of Strong Style,” a nickname he earned after years of perfecting the technique he learned from WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki.
“What everybody calls Japanese Style, we call ‘Strong Style,’” Nakamura explained. Everybody misunderstands it, like it is a hard-hitting style. Yes, one of the [defining traits] is that it is hard hitting, but there’s more. [Inoki] taught me about “Strong Style.” He used anger and emotion and put them into wrestling. I use every kind of emotion in my wrestling so that’s why people call me the ‘King of Strong Style.’”
Nakamura’s rapid ascent only validates a push the WWE has been making over the past few years.
As the company continues to expand globally – it has recently signed talent in China and has completed a special tournament in the U.K. – talent like Nakamura – and A.J. Styles, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, who also have had successful careers in Japan – are showing the ability to thrive on the biggest stage of them all, evolve and inject new life into the brand.
“Sometimes I teach and give advice to the young talent,” Nakamura, who has held the NXT Championship twice and was named NXT’s Competitor of the Year for 2016, said.
“We have a lot of great coaches in the [Florida-based] performance center. Some young wrestlers ask me ‘please watch my match’ right after the wrestling show and I can give them advice based off of that. I also can learn from them, the younger people [in NXT]. Being around the young people makes me feel younger, like I’m 25 again.”
Nakamura is once again taking part in WrestleMania weekend, this time facing Bobby Roode for the NXT Championship at NXT TakeOver: Orlando the night before WrestleMania 33.
“Last year people were saying ‘Oh Shinsuke Nakamura is coming from New Japan Pro Wrestling, but this year it’s WWE and NXT wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura,” Nakamura said. “I want to enjoy the moment of the biggest TakeOver of the year. I will try and bring out the potential, the ability, and the experience in Bobby Roode.”
Regardless of the outcome, there is speculation that Nakamura will be called up to the main WWE roster shortly after his match against Roode. Traditionally, WrestleMania serves as the culmination of the WWE’s schedule and the Monday following it essentially starts a new season – which means a chance for new talent to debut and make their mark.
While Nakamura says he doesn’t “expect” anything yet, it’s hard to deny that he has the tools – and track record – to succeed at any level.
“I want to be bigger than everybody,” Nakamura said when asked about his goals for when, not if, he’s eventually called up to the WWE main roster.
For now though, Nakamura will just have to settle for being the “King.”
More WrestleMania 33 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Handicapping WrestleMania 33: The 5 best bets to make
• Med school to WrestleMania: WWE star’s unlikely journey
• Goldberg on return to WWE: ‘I’m absolutely miserable’
• Paul Heyman: Why the Monday after WrestleMania is so important