If you haven’t been watching professional wrestling recently because Roman Reigns and John Cena pale in comparison to your memories of The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, then let me advise you to watch NXT on the WWE Network. In four short years, the wrestler development sub-brand has started a sports entertainment revolution with a blend of new-to-wrestling performers and established journeymen including the recent, game-changing addition of Japanese mega-star Shinsuke Nakamura.
Thirteen-thousand fans sold out the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Center in Dallas, Texas the night before Wrestlemania to see Nakamura’s NXT debut against fellow indie darling Sami Zayn, and the rest of a card that was more sport than spectacle. But what is it about Nakamura’s “strong style” wrestling that has WWE fans so excited they’re chanting “fight forever” during his matches?
For the better part of 40 years, the unique combination of mixed martial arts kicks and strikes and the never-say-die attitude that defines Nakamura has been a staple of Japanese pro wrestling. Born in Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling, “strong style” developed largely from Inoki’s training for his 1976 “boxer vs. wrestler” match with the late, great boxing icon Muhammad Ali. Ali took the match lightly, but Inoki, as a pro wrestler looking for a reality-based gimmick, seriously wanted to win. He developed a strategy utilizing kicks, aggressive grappling, suplexing and hand-striking, and very little in the way of traditional wrestling takedowns. The match ended in a 15-round draw without much action but Inoki’s “strong style” set the groundwork for the eventual rise of Nakamura.
Now 36 years old, Nakamura is a 15-year industry veteran and three-time holder of New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a belt that Inoki himself initially held. While a skilled pro wrestler, Nakamura is also well-versed in modern mixed martial arts (including a brief and halted career that stands at 3-1-1), and in 2009 evolved his wrestling gimmick to evoke Inoki’s “strong style” legacy by adopting a flying knee strike to the head called the “Bomaye,” or as it’s referred to now in NXT, “Kinshasa,” as his finishing manuever. Both names close the loop from Ali to Inoki to Nakamura. During his super-duper-star-making 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Kinshasa, fans chanted “Ali Bomaye,” at Muhammad Ali, a phrase meaning “kill him” that Inoki later borrowed for his own use in Japan.
The self-proclaimed “King of Strong Style,” Nakamura seems to be a much better fit for the online-only NXT show than on either of the WWE’s cable network programs, Raw and SmackDown, which are all soon to feature separate talent rosters as the company returns to the “brand extension” concept for the first time since 2011. Many hardcore WWE fans were already aware of wrestlers like Nakamura—and his NXT colleagues, Samoa Joe, the submission fighting “strong style” adapter, and his current rival, the Batman-like vigilante (and former New Japan veteran) Finn Balor—because they built their acclaim in independent and global federations that streamed their matches via YouTube and DVD. Nakamura’s arrival to NXT from New Japan is a huge deal as he’s easily the highest-regarded digital-age name lured over to be a backbone of it’s next-level Network offerings.
The veteran grappler is also a superstar because he’s the first Japanese wrestler (in a bonafide line that includes Inoki, and legendary icons like The Great Muta, Masa Chono, and Yoshihiro Tajiri) to come to America and blend more attributes of American pro wrestling and pop culture into his wrestling persona than just “strong style.”
Nakamura has his hair styled with the left side long and right side shaved like EDM superstar Skrillex. When strolling to the ring, he waves his arms and dances in time to his violin and bass-drum driven theme song wearing a leather jacket, pleather pants and generally looking like an extra from Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video. Once he gets into the ring, he firmly grabs the top rope with his right hand and leans back to the point where his head touches the mat behind him, looking as flamboyant and triumphant as Freddie Mercury.
While all of that sounds cool, what else is it about Nakamura hitting his opponents in a surprisingly aggressive manner (for pro wrestling) that has a world of fans chanting “fight forever” at him? It’s not just the MJ and Queen vibes, it’s a spirit. A fighting spirit that was borne of American wrestling champions Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, who spent a significant amount of time in Japan and whose charisma became somewhat of a staple of Japanese wrestling. When the essence of legendary American wrestlers and Antonio Inoki’s “strong style” fighting combine, pro wrestling becomes as passionate of a sporting moment as Stephen Curry lining up from 35 feet and hitting nothing but net.
On June 8, Shinsuke Nakamura continues his quest to “fight forever” and aid NXT in becoming something more than just WWE’s developmental organization when he faces globally-renowned and championship-level wrestler Austin Aries at NXT’s TakeOver: The End showcase. By mixing UFC-style drama, the ghosts of pop music icons, and the spirit of great wrestling champions into a potent formula, Nakamura’s “strong style” potable may help him not just defeat Aries, but allow WWE to succeed in the digital age.