How did you feel when you saw Shinsuke Nakamura win the Royal Rumble? Were you happy at the concept of Nakamura finally getting a push on the main roster after a fruitful NXT tenure? Were you excited at the fact that we were going to see AJ Styles vs Nakamura on WWE TV after they set NJPW on fire? When I saw Nakamura win I felt both. The prospect of seeing another Nakamura/Styles match was incredibly enticing and seemed certain to make Mania a fun watch. This wasn’t necessarily the case. This feud has been a rollercoaster that still doesn’t have an end. We’ve had four matches so far with at least one more confirmed in the near future. Let’s break down this feud.
A Boost to Shinsuke/The Heel Turn
Shinsuke Nakamura was a hot commodity in NXT. From the get go he was treated as a big deal, fighting some of NXT’s finest and eventually winning the NXT title from Samoa Joe. Once Nakamura debuted on Smackdown fans expected more of the same, for WWE to let Nakamura be the same rockstar on the main roster. This didn’t happen. Nakamura was left in the fold for a while fighting Ziggler and losing in a title feud to Jinder before finally receiving a second title shot against Styles.
This changed once Mania came, his loss to Styles caused Nakamura to turn heel. He developed a meaner attitude and turned on fans. His entrance theme received lyrics to stop fans singing along and he started acting more aggressive. As harsh as it is to say, Nakamura became relevant again. One of the top talking points of Mania was the Nakamura turn and for good reason. It was interesting, it was different. This feud breathed new life into a dying Nakamura character. As much as fans loved him, it was hard to watch him going nowhere.
The feud also presents fans with the chance to see a heel champion Nakamura. Nakamura will always look like a strong champion. The strong style of wrestling is brutal to watch and as such this bad guy attitude will just make it hurt more. As champion it’s easy to see Nakamura as a feared champion. We can see new underdogs rise to challenge him. The potential is there for WWE to use. Just as an aside, imagine if Nakamura won then was challenged by Bryan for the belt. It’s an appealing thought to say the least.
A Strong Champion Either Way
Moving away from the fantasy booking and Nakamura praise, it is important to note that two of WWE’s best are in this title feud. Styles and Nakamura are great contenders for champion. Both are liked by fans and both can wrestle great matches. It’s easy to take for granted those traits in champions. We’ve seen Smackdown as the land of opportunity before when they gave Jinder the belt. It was an interesting surprise but Jinder was not a strong champion nor was he particularly exciting in the ring. Smackdown can reassert itself as a premiere show with a strong champion that is prominent to the show, especially since Brock is barely present with RAW’s top belt. Whoever wins this feud will still provide a boost to Smackdown as a deserving superstar is carrying the belt and should be prominent to the show.
Some “Decent” Matches
This is a bit of a tough one to write about because a lot of it comes from personal preference. What you like is subjective so what you may think is good, others may find terrible. So far Styles and Nakamura have yet to put on their dream match in WWE. To some fans hearing the phrase dream match may have set their expectations to the level of their NJPW classic. This was highly unlikely to happen in a WWE ring but the anticipation was still there. Their matches haven’t been terrible. They are both finding their chemistry with one another and every match has had some great spots to watch. There is intensity and story to get into as you watch them batter each other. Each match did something different to digest after another showing.
This week saw their best match as they battled on Smackdown to determine who picks the stipulation. They had a lot less time to play with but made the most of it. We also got to see more of Nakamura’s heel tricks as he pretended to have been low blowed as the referee was distracted. This led to him hitting the reverse exploder and Kinshasa for the 1-2-3. Each match has had a new stake and this saw Nakamura go full on traditional heel in the cheating department.
The Potential for More
This could be a rivalry that lasts a while be it in active feuds or general animosity. Since turning heel Nakamura has almost jealously and meticulously gone after Styles. He has sabotaged his matches, attacking him and playing excessive mind games to break his nice guy character. It would not be too farfetched to see this hatred play on after the feud. The potential for more is there as they can still take swipes at each other, face each other as parts of other feuds in tag matches or just occasionally be forced to fight again in the same way Zayn and Owens used to do. This can be turned into a massive ongoing storyline that sees them fighting for the foreseeable future.
Some Bollocks Booking
The biggest fault throughout this feud has been the booking. Despite the in-ring action being mostly palatable and fun, the conclusions to matches have been anything but. Two out of the four matches have had inconclusive finishes. The Greatest Royal Rumble saw them both get counted out because Styles lost his temper, a believable if slightly underwhelming finish to what was looking to be a decent match. At Backlash, it got more ludicrous as they went with a double knockout after simultaneous low blows. This was just ridiculous. Backlash was shaping up to be their best match yet and the bookers killed it with an anticlimactic ending purely used to further the feud with no one winning.
There was also a slight hole in logic as AJ seemed to continuously fall for ball shots. After taking a few of them by surprise it would seem like a reasonable idea to wear a cup or at least try to be ready for them. This never seemed to happen. Despite wrestling requiring some disconnects from reality, this just seems too implausible. Why would Styles not think to protect himself, especially since he was going into a no DQ match at Backlash where low blows would be allowed? Anyone can complain about booking or how they would do it better but here it is quite confusing as to how WWE creative could think this was a good idea.
The Dream Match Expectation
Dream match is an incredibly strong phrase to use in the build up to an event. The amount of pressure applied from the words alone can be worth more than some matches that are ever seen on PPV. Dream matches build to expectation and billing a Nakamura/Styles dream match is a worrying recipe for disaster. Expectations are always high in PPV matches, that’s a given but here with the performers in play, with what’s at stake and the stage it is on, it might not have been the best time to call something a dream match.
As this feud goes on, fans have still been waiting for the dream match. The perfect culmination of both wrestling styles that offers the perfect pace, balance and ending. A worthy way of ending this feud and letting both wrestlers start fresh. That has yet to happen as all of their matches suffer in one of these departments. Mania saw a match that felt like them going 50% at best, GRR had a naff finish, Backlash too suffered from the bad booking bug and their latest Smackdown match delivered, it just needed a little longer and a bigger stage. Each match gets better but it’s hard to worry if it’s gone on too long to deliver the match fans have been waiting for. If WWE have wasted too much time milking this feud for all it’s worth. The fire still burns between these two but can it burn hot enough on a fifth fight to really set the proverbial barn alight?
The feud might not be what fans were expecting but it is by no means bad. Though it struggled to find its feet at Mania, it has given us a heel Nakamura and brought out the fire in Styles. Opinions will wildly vary for the reception of their feud and the matches they’ve put on but hopefully there is one thing we can all agree on, this Money In The Bank match should be good. It might finally be that perfect ending (or as close to it as we’ll get) we’ve been waiting for. It has raised the stakes in a stagnant title scene too. It’s nice to see people fight for a belt with passion, even if it is fuelled by personal hatred.
Only time will show if the feud finally delivered. There has been so much potential riding on these two to perform that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact they have delivered some enjoyable if a little dull matches. It needs to end soon though or everyone will lose interest. Give someone new a chance at the title, regardless of who holds the belt. Either man will give us some interesting new title feuds.