Noob Japan: Of A Distant Time And Land

East and West,
Legacies that collide
When lightning struck the blue
It could never be recaptured, not in the pale white
No matter the power of the dome
Only once had it hit, setting the stage to come
The rain hasn’t stopped but the thunder has ended
Now it lives in another land
Never will it hold the same devastation
Unless the gods so deem it to be
And the thunder and the lightning reign supreme once more

Sometimes franchises span out for multiple entries. Sometimes they fade away, sometimes they burn out. From what I can gather, the latter is oft the sentiment of AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura when their feud carried over from New Japan to WWE.

I, having watched or seen very minimal NJPW at the time, did not know the significance of the two facing off in a WWE ring. Yet, I liked both wrestlers immediately. AJ was one I had seen in the minimal dips I had of WWE after he joined in 2016 and his time in TNA Wrestling prior. Shinsuke, I was introduced to at the 2018 Royal Rumble when he won out over Roman Reigns and feeling like a big deal, like the wheels of WWE were turning his way. Let us adjust our monocles pretentiously and release a snobby chuckle at the expense of our past selves.

I recall the lead-up to their match at WrestleMania 34 feeling exhilarating, like something monumental was on the horizon. And then…I liked it. I genuinely liked it, and didn’t know why others, unanimously, had felt deflated. Even the crowd seemed lifeless. What gives? I thought to myself. It was fun and intense. I thought it lived up to the dream (re)match hype, a match that blew the roof off of Tokyo Dome once upon a time.

Well, it took several years (Really? Wow.), but I’m finally here. I’m heading to Wrestle Kingdom 10, to the Tokyo Dome to witness Shinsuke Nakamura vs AJ Styles in their first singles meeting, and as always with this series, I’m seeing what’s new, Scooby-Doo.

What I Know
As stated earlier, I knew of Styles during TNA and the Royal Rumble, and Shinsuke from the Royal Rumble. But, as I grew, I knew there were many important things of note as to why this collision was important in the grand scheme of things.

AJ Styles was an indie darling and a wrestler from my childhood. He’d faced off against Christian Cage, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, Sting, Kurt Angle, and we will honestly be here forever if I list off who I remember seeing him fight. I mostly knew him from when he signed with WWE, the 2016 Royal Rumble debut to the Boneyard Match and everything between; The Phenomenal One had finally made it following the near-two decades since he had first tried out for WWE, following the collapse of his former home in WCW. That’s right, he was in WCW.

Shinsuke Nakamura was, to my knowledge, one of the “New Three Musketeers” that NJPW had fashioned to be the future for the company (the other two were Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata). Nakamura was a legit striker and was considered one of the best. Boasting an MMA background and an impressive resume from his time in Japan, Nakamura carries notoriety under his belt. What I would come to know is his time in NXT, a time I had not known about. 

While AJ had a monumental grand entrance to the main roster, Nakamura had begun work on the black-and-gold brand with his debut match being a NJPW-esque struggle against the soon-to depart NXT sweetheart in Sami Zayn, the beginning of a run that solidified how big a star he is. Shinsuke’s call-up to the main roster in 2017 was off to a rocky start, but in 2018 the build to the aforementioned WrestleMania match with Styles felt nuclear… but the importance of the match had become a wet fart. Subsequent matches that year would fare better, but the damage was done. 

If you ask me, however, Shinsuke still has it in him, should WWE let him go nuts. Like many stars, it’s always stop-and-start with the King of Strong Style, but one day we will see that star that would always keep the wrestling world abuzz.

Credit: NJPW

The collision course for these two superstars was set, the platform no bigger than Wrestle Kingdom. This was their first time one-on-one, and while Nakamura was on a tear of his own in the decades spent in NJPW, AJ Styles had a generational run in the span of over three years in the lion-crested company. The leader of Bullet Club, Styles was set to take the IWGP Intercontinental Championship from the man who made it mean something, a symbol that could vie for main event status as much as the main Heavyweight Championship. 

January 4, 2016, Wrestle Kingdom 10, the final chapters would be written for the future WWE superstars. 

The Match
AJ Styles makes his grand entrance in full Bullet Club regalia and a sick-ass mask that compliments his growing hair. It just looks so cool in a way only pro-wrestling can make it look cool.

The King of Strong Style takes his own stroll down the ramp to cheering and adoring fans as his theme ‘Subconscious’ serenades the flamboyant Nakamura down to the ring, he dances and writhes with the music as if he were tasting it upon his tongue and savoring each bite. Yea-oh!

The bell rings but it takes a while for the two to lock up. A lock-up is all Styles needs, as he knows the striking distance of Nakamura is strong and mighty and could spell doom. He just needs to get close enough to bring him to a hold. Nakamura slips out like the little weasel he is and had it not been for some pesky ropes nearby, he could have inflicted hell. All for naught, but the time will come. It will come.

A second lock-up guarantees an explosive reaction, a burst of kinetic energy that now Styles has to wriggle out of, and in an instant fear washes to respect as he knows this will not be easy. It was never meant to be. The third time’s the charm, for in this lock-up neither is indisposed, but Nakamura plays mind games with AJ Styles in his true fashion – head pressed against the stomach of his opponent and dangling his arms before beckoning his foe to strike.

AJ Styles points at Nakamura, aims for high noon, and fires an invisible bullet, which Nakamura catches (must’ve been a slow-ass bullet), gulping it and greeting the world with a Cheshire smile. Like a bullet, however, the two dart around dodging and jumping at high-speed with Styles in the lead, but Nakamura is too deadly. He stands in the face of the grandeur and theatrics of signature poses and symbolism in modern professional wrestling and spits at it.

Though Nakamura tarries not in the revelry of excess in his sport, he does stop his brutal nature when a yank off the top turnbuckle sends Styles crashing to his back. Perhaps it is by humanity or by professionalism, but Nakamura shows concern. Such kindness is met with ridicule and unsportsmanlike conduct; no good deed goes unpunished. Styles played possum and like a true bastard he brought with him pain and misery. In a hold that would break anybody, Nakamura proves he isn’t just anybody, he is the King of Strong Style and he endures. He endures the fires of agony and rows across the river of death for a rope break. 

Styles is a tactician, however, and continues targeting the strengths of Nakamura, aiming to cripple. Nakamura, however, was forged in the designed machinations of Antonio Inoki, which would spare him the destruction, as the back of AJ Styles was now an intentional target. A backbreaker on Shinsuke’s knee and a whip into the barricade crushes Styles, and now Nakamura is in control. Against the turnbuckles Styles would go, as Shinsuke drives his foot into The Phenomenal One, grinding him into stardust via Good Vibrations. Nakamura drives his knee into him and slams him back to the cerulean blue, sparing no mercy or time on Styles. Tonight, the violence is crunchy and delicious, and must be eaten with haste.

The momentum rides and rides like a wave with Nakamura, still aiming for the back of Styles, but the folly of time mismanagement bites him in the behind as a forearm smash turns the tide, Styles adapting like a true wild animal; two failed standing suplexes at the fault of his unsound back leads to a snap suplex, with just the right momentum allowing a seamless transition into a calf-killer (known now as a calf-crusher in WWE), eventully broken in desperation by Nakamura.

Credit: NJPW

The systemic approach of both men serves them ill, as the opponents are made of different clothes that are meant for each other. Turning each other inside out and leaving little opening, Styles again attempts a calf-killer. If he does another, that could be it for Nakamura, as he clutches for his dear leg. That’s the exhilarating part of this match – to see who’s attempts on breaking the source of power for either man will bear fruit.

Through the heart Nakamura goes as he flies off the turnbuckle like a gazelle, driving his knee through his rival. For now, elbow strikes are the heartbeat and it only flatlines with a slam by Styles that brings madness and frenzy with a close two-count. Like two bucking adult deer, the horns are locked and it is by instinct alone that they collide again and again. A 450-Splash by AJ Styles almost closes the story.

Nakamura tolerates the abuse at the hands of Styles no longer, flying around like a damn spider monkey and ensnaring him into a vicious hold, allowing no rope breaks. Under the strength of sheer willpower, Styles rises and transitions into a Styles Clash, the scent of a title win is snatched away yet again as Nakamura kicks out. The fans are erupting, singing their raucous song. 

This is no longer a battle for accolade and title, this is survival. Neither man wants to quit. The men are bruised and battered, exuding sweat and having the spit kicked out of each other. Perhaps it is the heat of battle, perhaps it is the adrenaline of the hot crowd, but after all this time, the war rages on into the closing moments. With a Bomaye (now WWE’s Kinshasa), the deed is done, as Nakamura flies across the ring and another sends Styles to his grave. The IWGP Intercontinental Champion retains, his legacy safe for another day. 

The spectacle is over. In sportsmanlike conduct that would dictate their later match, the men are no longer competitors, but comrades as they fist bump each other. Nakamura makes a grand celebration as he is sent out with a bang while Styles is carried to the back by two Young Lions, one of which being a young Jay White.

This was one of the many matches that brought more Western eyes to NJPW and with a performer of Styles’s calibre carrying across the sea, it’s not hard to see why. With Shinsuke Nakamura, a beloved wrestling icon in Japan, he made the match legendary, such as his matches with Kota Ibushi, Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi.

The tenacity and fire on January 4, 2016 would carry over two years later in the United States, in the Silver Dome within New Orleans, Louisiana. A Wrestle Kingdom story being the crux of a WrestleMania story does feel surreal, but that’s the power of strong style.

I’ve recently rewatched the WrestleMania 34 match between Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles, and it doesn’t hold up as highly as I remember, perhaps because I’ve now seen what Nakamura is capable of. Hell, I’ve seen it twice in WWE: in that Sami Zayn match in NXT and the gauntlet match on Smackdown. Don’t get me wrong, the WrestleMania match was fun in its own right, and I love when the audience comes alive in the end stretch, but the same sentiments everyone has expressed before is something I now share.

Credit: NJPW

The audience was quiet because this was so far down a long card that it should have gone on first, especially with a Shinsuke that wasn’t the Shinsuke we know and love, but the safer way of WWE.

My Thoughts and Feelings
The Shinsuke Nakamura I saw a glimpse of following that 2021 gauntlet match is the one I wish WWE would have stuck with. He felt like a fire was lit underneath him, with backstage promos asking for fans to stick with him and cheer for him so he could reach that place. He started wearing gear close to his NJPW and pre-heel turn run. His music returned, he felt like he was in love with wrestling again and there seemed to be an aura about him. Then, he was paired with Rick Boogz. Granted, Boogz is fun, but he’s not someone I want to see around Nakamura. Nakamura is enough on his own.

Styles, he continued to prosper. He gave The Undertaker his last great match and it wasn’t even in a wrestling ring. There was a weird time he spent with Omos that I could never stick with, but Styles continued the best he could. There’s always a mixed bag with Styles in WWE, because sometimes he churns out gold, and sometimes he simply doesn’t. One standout is the triple threat ladder match at Night of Champions in 2021, during the ThunderDome era, where he faced off against two competitors who excelled at ladder matches: Jeff Hardy and Sami Zayn.

Regardless of where the competitors are now, lightning struck the Tokyo Dome and left a blaze. In a period where New Japan became a hot spot for pro-wrestling that would see an influx of new fans outside of WWE, this will be one of those matches, one of those matches that will be immortalized in the annals of wrestling history, never to be forgotten. 

It’s nice to see where things began, what the hype was all about, and now that I’ve taken that chance, I know now what I was missing. There’s deeper art beyond the more accessible, all it takes is the effort of searching beyond your comfort zone.

Find it in a distant time, and in a distant land.