Shinsuke Nakamura‘s abrupt heel turn at WrestleMania 34 not only took the entire wrestling world by surprise last Sunday night but it also significantly shook up the landscape of WWE SmackDown Live.
Over the past year, Nakamura has been positioned prominently on the blue brand as a top babyface alongside AJ Styles. However, he has failed to eclipse The Phenomenal One as the undisputed face of SmackDown time and time again, including at WrestleMania.
Many expected The King of Strong Style to walk out of WrestleMania with his first WWE Championship, cementing his coveted spot on SmackDown in the process. Instead, he fell short of victory and proceeded to turn heel, which seemed like an illogical next step for him considering his popularity.
After all, even when his matches managed to underwhelm and his promos disappointed because he largely couldn’t be understood, at least he always had the crowd behind him. Granted, it can be argued that was because of his insanely catchy theme music, but his crazy charisma also played a part in him remaining over with the audience.
There was a fear among fans coming out of the Show of Shows that turning him heel might have killed any appeal he had left, especially as someone who moves merchandise and always elicits strong reactions. As a villain, he could be stripped away of everything that made him special in the first place.
Whether his unforgettable entrance will be altered now that he’s a heel remains to be seen, but there is the chance that WWE will fail to capitalize off this opportunity to reboot his stagnant persona.
Shinsuke Nakamura @ShinsukeN
Real emotion is beyond description. Worry not about my words, you will see my actions and feel the vibe. I will continue to express my art. Always. https://t.co/Uc5MU3xTFl
Look no further than Ryback. He also journeyed to the dark side following a string of losses in 2013, and although the change in character was refreshing at first, it ultimately hurt him in the long-run, and he was never able to recover.
Then again, Nakamura is much more skilled than Ryback in almost every way, so if anyone can make this heel turn work, it’s him. Plus, it helps that his betrayal of Styles occurred on such a grand stage such as WrestleMania, peaking people’s interest and forcing fans to tune into the aftermath on the subsequent SmackDown.
Speaking of which, although the former two-time NXT champion said very little on Tuesday night, his brief backstage segment with Renee Young was genuinely entertaining and among the best promos he’s cut on the main roster, so perhaps the heel turn was exactly what he needed to feel comfortable as a character.
As if that wasn’t enough, he reemerged later on in the night to spoil the marquee main event between Styles and Daniel Bryan. He succeeded in drawing an overly negative response in front of a crowd that would normally adore him, which is a very good sign for his future as a heel.
Even in his few minutes of airtime on this week’s SmackDown, he came across like a natural bad guy. He has experience working as a heel from his days in Japan, so he knows what it takes to thrive in that role and already he’s off to a strong start as an antagonist in WWE.
Needless to say, his feud with Styles is far from over, and it’s quite clear he’ll have that WWE title in his grasp eventually, possibly as soon as May’s Backlash pay-per-view.
SmackDown has been in desperate need of a credible heel in the top spot for many months. Jinder Mahal was not compelling as a character in the slightest while Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens were constantly being cut down by the brand’s authority figures.
Unless there is a drastic shift on SmackDown in the Superstar Shake-up this coming week, the blue brand could use a heel to build around. The Rockstar is in the perfect place to flourish at the moment, and as long as he is not losing on a regular basis, he can be cornerstone of the program moving forward.
There’s nothing stopping Shinsuke Nakamura from returning to being a babyface down the road, but for now, he will finally fulfill his potential as SmackDown’s lead heel.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham “GSM” Matthews, is an Endicott College alumnus and aspiring journalist. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and “like” his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.