Shinsuke Nakamura elevated NJPW’s Intercontinental Championship. Now he wants to do the same with the WWE United States Championship. 

By Justin Barrasso
November 21, 2018

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every week and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

Shinsuke Nakamura explains his new goal in WWE

Though he was defeated by Seth Rollins, Shinsuke Nakamura’s match on Sunday at the Survivor Series was among the top performances of a weekend that also included Charlotte Flair-Ronda Rousey, Daniel Bryan-Brock Lesnar and a phenomenal NXT TakeOver.

And even in defeat, Nakamura successfully accomplished part of his goal. He plans to raise the stature of the United States championship, just as he did New Japan Pro Wrestling’s IWGP Intercontinental title.

“My purpose is to make the United States title like I did the Intercontinental championship in New Japan,” said Nakamura. “I want to make the title different. I want to wrestle a lot of different kinds of wrestlers for the U.S. title.”

The 38-year-old Nakamura was a highly decorated champion and celebrity in Japan, but he is still adapting to life in the WWE. Part of that adjustment is moving his family to the United States, while another component is the change in wrestling.

“WWE is a different form of wrestling,” explained Nakamura. “It’s different than New Japan. I wrestled a different style with New Japan, but WWE is a live TV show.”

Since his move to the U.S. in 2016, the differences in lifestyle and language, he noted, have been the two most challenging parts of his daily life.

“I’m still learning,” said Nakamura. “My family speaks the language better than me, and they’re trying to fix my English. It’s so different from Japanese. The other stuff—moving, adjusting, and all that, that was a little bit tough.”

Stardom often becomes ingrained in the psyche of a superstar, but Nakamura is the rare type of humble star who embraced the entirely new challenge of starting over in the U.S. after attaining fame and fortune in Japan.

“This was a challenge for me, starting at NXT,” said Nakamura. “It was rare for me to be in that spot, but I enjoyed that experience. That NXT experience was a first-time for me. I studied so hard.

“That type of opportunity is only in WWE. I learned American, WWE style at the Performance Center. It wasn’t humbling, because I was too busy enjoying the moment.”

WWE has presented Nakamura with a plethora of opportunities, and he noted that he is thrilled to be part of the worldwide leader in the business. An additional highlight is working as an ambassador for the company, a role in which he is serving for the WWE 2K19 video game.

“It’s awesome to be part of a wrestling game,” said Nakamura. “When I was a fan, I dreamed about stuff this like. When I was a kid, I loved Nintendo. I played all kinds of wrestling games, especially Fire Pro. Now the graphics are very, very realistic.”

When asked to name the most talented gamer on the roster, Nakamura chose his rival AJ Styles, noting that his own video game skills need some work.

“AJ is the best at video games,” said Nakamura. “For me, the controllers for XBox and PS4 are too complicated, so I prefer to play CPU vs. CPU. It’s like watching a TV show.”

Nakamura has perfected his wrestling persona, which is a mix of Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury with the added factor of unparalleled athleticism.

“Wrestling is a universal language,” said Nakamura. “The moves, the facial expressions, most people understand. So I tried to find my own character.

“For me, I like to be different. I didn’t want to imitate another wrestler. I always try to find something from other genres, like movies, books, art, and musicals. That’s how I made my style.”

The comparison between the stars of WWE and NJPW is a popular topic among wrestling fans, but Nakamura was quick to compliment his peers from both companies when asked to compare the likes of AJ Styles, Kazuchika Okada, John Cena, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Randy Orton, and Kenny Omega.

“Okada is really, really good,” said Nakamura. “I feel sympathy with AJ Styles and Tanahashi with the way they wrestle. They are all great wrestlers.”

Nakamura stated that his list of goals still includes a run with the WWE championship, but for now, his sole focus is to add importance to the United States title.

“I love wrestling and I love telling a story to the audience,” said Nakamura. “I’m always looking for something new, even small things. My wrestling style changes, but I try to control the audience. I want to give energy to the audience, and the audience gives me energy. I love that back-and-forth. I really love what I’m doing.”

Trevor Lee Set to Enter Free Agency in January

Impact Wrestling star Trevor Lee is set to become a free agent in January, and he is eagerly anticipating the chance to show off his work to new audiences.

“I would love to go to WWE or New Japan,” said Lee, who has delivered some very good matches during his run with Impact yet never clicked with their television product. “I’ve done a lot in the United States in terms of big independent companies, I’ve wrestled in Mexico, Canada, England, and India, but I’d love to go to Japan.”

Lee is only 25 and would add value to television content on WWE, New Japan, Ring of Honor, or Major League Wrestling. He has starred in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla for the past four years, performing must-see matches against Kevin Owens, Tommaso Ciampa, the Young Bucks, and Cody Rhodes.

“The best work that I’ve ever done in my life has never been on TV,” said Lee, who is hungry to change that. “My TV work has been to help the product, but outside of that is where you see the real Trevor Lee.”

Lee grew up entrenched in the business. His father, the late Tracy Caddell, co-founded OMEGA Championship Wrestling in North Carolina, which was the promotion that helped launch the careers of Matt and Jeff Hardy, Shannon Moore, Joey Mercury, and Shane Helms.

“My father started OMEGA with Matt Hardy in 1997,” said Lee. “My fondest memories are having a wrestling ring in our yard. Matt and Jeff Hardy, Shannon Moore, and guys from all over the Cameron area were training in that ring. At school, kids would say, ‘Why do you have a wrestling ring in your yard? That’s not normal.’ They would have a basketball goal in their yard, but to me, wrestling was just a normal way of life.”

Lee lost his father, who was only 50, this past summer to a heart attack.

“Me and my father always stuck together,” said Lee. “He was married three times, and we lost a couple things through those divorces. When I was in the sixth grade, we had to move out of our house after a bad divorce. We ended up living with my grandmother, and me and my father actually shared the same room until I graduated high school.”

Although Lee has patched up a once-broken relationship with his mother, the one constant throughout his life was he always had his father.

“In ninth grade, my father put on a show and I saw this match between Kamikaze Kid and Ultra Dragon,” said Lee. “They had a high-spot type of match, and I fell back in love with wrestling.

“I’d been getting in trouble a lot in school, but I just needed an outlet. My father started a new promotion, so I had a wrestling ring with regular availability and I started training again. I always knew how to take bumps. I’ve been practicing suicide dives with Jeff Hardy since I was four.

“My father helped me find that avenue back into wrestling. He made me believe that I was really good at wrestling, and that everything we went through was for a reason. I was extremely close with him and it was difficult to lose him. But that’s made me stronger, as well.”

The 6-foot, 215-pound Lee is carrying his father with him in his heart as he prepares for his next step in wrestling.

“I’m not chasing my father’s dreams, but I do want to do something for him,” said Lee. “And it’s for me, as well. Ultimately, I would like to go to WWE.

“That’s the dream. It’s always something my father really wanted for me. He was actually an extra the first time the Hardy Boyz won the tag team titles in Fayetteville. He was an extra in the segment before that, the one with the APA. My father was very much in love with the business.”

Some of Lee’s most compelling work is from CWF Mid-Atlantic, where he even put together one match that was an hour-and-45 minutes long against Roy Wilkins.

“The down south, Mid-Atlantic wrestling style can work anywhere,” said Lee. “That’s where I learned to perfect that craft. Between CWF Mid-Atlantic, PWG, and Impact, I’ve been able to learn from each and every one of those guys. I gained confidence from working with some of the best.”

Lee is willing to add more flavor to his character, only half-joking that he could be “Sweet T” Lee and become a modern-day Ric Flair.

“I’m willing to try anything,” said Lee. “I wouldn’t mind wrestling in the 205 Live scene. It’s a good spot with great talent, I like those matches. I feel like I can compete in the top guy scene, too. Guys like Rollins and Balor aren’t that big, and I feel like I could be right there with them.

“I used to live on the same street as the Hardy Boyz and see them come home after being on the road. Ultimately, I’d love to follow in their footsteps.”

In other news…

• The NXT TakeOver: War Games from this past Saturday highlighted some of the best content, from beginning to end, produced on a WWE show all year.

Triple H was rightfully proud of the buzz the show generated, and the company takes pride in its ability to trend worldwide on Twitter.

To the victor go the spoils, so WWE has every right to champion the success of their show. But it will be very interesting to watch next April when NXT’s WrestleMania weekend TakeOver is up directly against the New Japan/Ring of Honor supershow at Madison Square Garden.

Which of those two shows is likely to generate more interest? Who will headline each card? Trending number one on that particular evening will be even more of an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Last Friday’s “Death Match” between David Arquette and Nick Gage was a black eye for pro wrestling.

The match, available on FITE TV and run under the Game Changer Wrestling promotion as part of “Joey Janela’s LA Confidential” show, saw Gage cut Arquette’s neck with a piece of broken glass. The cut was accidental, but there were a number of factors to blame in this situation.

The first problem was holding a death match in a small indoor venue like the Hi Hat in Los Angeles.

Sports Illustrated learned that Arquette and Gage had a conversation earlier before the match; Arquette wanted to fully embrace the hardcore, death match style and requested the use of fluorescent light tubes in the match.

One of the tricks to using fluorescent light tubes in a wrestling match is to use new lightbulbs, not expired ones, as they are pressurized with chemicals that illuminate them once plugged in. Therefore, hitting your opponent with a light tube is safer than it appears as the glass explodes outward. But that is still unsafe, particularly for the fans in the crowd, due to the glass and the chemicals.

Light tubes also become very dangerous when there is broken glass in the ring, which a wrestler could land on, or, as witnessed in the Arquette-Gage match, use as a weapon.

The moment the Arquette-Gage death match lost control occurred when Gage hit Arquette with a light tube that was already broken, cutting Arquette’s neck in the process.

In an effort to minimize risk in already dangerous environment, Gage should not have hit Arquette with a piece of broken glass. But Gage has been in situations with a heightened sense of danger, and wrestlers are taught to strike the neck and the chest, so Gage likely viewed the spot as merely transitional.

The blame also falls on Arquette, who was not prepared to be in a death match with someone as experienced as Gage.

Both men wanted to save the performance, but a lack of communication doomed the match.

Arquette, holding his neck and unsure of the extent of the cut, left the ring and went to the floor. Arquette then returned to the ring, under the assumption that he could communicate a way to Gage that they needed to go to the finish, but Gage instead grabbed another bundle of light tubes. Gage was in the ring with someone with a lack of wrestling experience that could not properly communicate that he did not want the match to continue.

At that point, Arquette wanted nothing to do with any more light tubes, and that is when the two men started scrapping, eventually going to the finish, which was Gage winning by pinfall. Instead of selling the defeat, Arquette popped right up after being pinned, holding his neck the entire time in fear of the potential injury he suffered.

There was a lot at play in this fiasco.

Gage should not have hit Arquette in the neck with a piece of broken glass. That was compounded by the fact that Arquette did not clearly communicate that the match needed to immediately go to the finish, and his lack of experience was on display as he seemingly, and justifiably, panicked as he rolled outside the ring.

Fault also is directed to the referee, who needed to play a much bigger role in relaying information between the two wrestlers. The match aired live on pay per view, so Arquette and Gage were limited in the way they could communicate with each other, so that responsibility fell directly on the referee.

The promotion is also to blame, as that venue was too small for a death match. My initial reaction to the light tubes was that Arquette and Gage would land on them for the finish, but instead they were swinging them at each other. That leads to carcinogens in the air in a small venue and the potential for glass to fly into the crowd. From a promoter’s perspective, you need to ensure that the wrestlers and fans are safe, and that was not the case. Even though it appeared the crowd enjoyed the match, if one person in the crowd was cut by glass, that entire promotion could be shut down.

Wrestling often flirts with crossing the line, and this show crossed the line.

Incredibly, there were still positives to come out of the match.

Arquette was not seriously injured and gained a whole new level of respect and admiration from wrestling fans. As for Gage, who plays up the fact that he is a convicted felon, he can now use this moment to add to his growing reputation as one of the most feared men in wrestling.

Wrestling often comes up short because the action that takes place in the ring cannot always match what is conjured up in your mind. In this situation, which saw a convicted felon and storied death match wrestler in Gage wrestling a celebrity in Arquette, was more of a spectacle than anyone could have imagined.

In the end, one thing was certain: nothing like this could happen in any other form of entertainment but pro wrestling.

• Stokely Hathaway enters the ring for Beyond Wrestling twice this weekend, wrestling at “TFT NIGHT 1” on Saturday in Philadelphia at the Chikara Wrestle Factory and again on Sunday at “TFT NIGHT 2” in Worcester, Massachusetts at the Electric Haze.

Hathaway is known for his work as a manager, but he is now intent on showing that he can hold his own in the ring, beginning Saturday in his match against Orange Cassidy.

“This weekend is special because I get to wrestle Orange Cassidy for the first time,” said Hathaway. “He actually had a hand in helping train me. So this is teacher vs. student. He’s one of the most underrated guys on the independent scene today, and it’s going to be a blast.”

The two Beyond Wrestling shows will also present Hathaway with an opportunity to be viewed by a sizable audience. Saturday’s show streams live for free on Beyond’s YouTube page, which has over one million subscribers.

“Beyond is taking a lot of risks and I respect that,” said Hathaway. “Saturday will be live-streamed on YouTube, and that’s pretty historic. Beyond has over a million subscribers, so it’s a chance for over a million people to be watching, which is really surreal to think that there could be a million people watching my match against Orange Cassidy.”

Hathaway has worked for promotions across the United States, and credits Beyond owner Drew Cordeiro as the reason that the promotion has reached its levels of success.

“The thing that separates Beyond is the creativity,” said Hathaway. “Drew Cordeiro doesn’t just book the shows, there is a lot of back-and-forth. I’m allowed to give my opinion. He might not always agree, but he understands my viewpoint and I understand his.

“The fans are very focal, as well. They are right on top of the ring, and I am very conscience of the fact that I need to bring my A-game whether I am wrestling or managing at Beyond.”

Hathaway has been a unique force as a manager, exuding a strong presence and cutting entertaining promos. He now seeks to further evolve by stepping into the ring.

“2018 has been very interesting,” said Hathaway. “It’s time for my character to change. Managing is fun, but now it’s time for the wrestling to come into play. Stokely can no longer be solely the manager. Wrestling is a new challenge, and there is going to be an entirely new arc for the character. I hope that people follow Stokely Hathaway into the next chapter of his career.

“This is only Stokely’s second match in his ‘comeback season’ as a wrestler. There is a lot at stake. If I beat Orange Cassidy on Saturday, that means Stokely Hathaway could be in the title picture for the Powerbomb TV championship. Nothing would make me happier.”

• Another book worth investing in for wrestling fans is “NITRO: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner’s WCW” by Guy Evans.

Evans is a professor of sport management, and his detailed research for the book included interviews with over 120 former TBS and WCW employees.

It contains a wealth of information on World Championship Wrestling, including details about flagship Monday night show Nitro and the nature of the company’s eventual sale to Vince McMahon.

“Similar to many other young people at the time, I was a fan created through the mid-to-late ’90’s boom and followed both the WWF and WCW closely,” said Evans. “When WCW was sold, I stuck around through the ‘Invasion’ storyline, but again, like many others, I eventually tuned out in 2002.

“It was TNA’s attempt to essentially recreate the head-to-head competition—vis-à-vis its short-lived Monday night run in 2010—that initially sparked the idea for this book.

“A friend alerted me to the news and consequently, I started reflecting on how much wrestling was a part of my life growing up. I went back and looked at all of the content produced about WCW’s ‘rise and fall’—the DVD’s, the interviews, the other books and so on. While I found it all to be very informative and useful, I knew there was perhaps a richer or deeper story still out there. Finally, in late 2014, I decided that it would be a fun passion project, albeit one that would eventually encompass over 120 interviews with former TBS/WCW employees, delivering a plethora of new information in the process.”

WCW had a number of fascinating layers, and Evans focuses on three themes throughout the book: WCW’s relationship with its parent company, Turner Broadcasting; the head-to-head competition with WWE; and the way in which the media and cultural landscape supported pro wrestling’s mainstream popularity.

“Personally, I found Theme 1—the WCW-TBS dynamic—and Theme 3, with wrestling as a phenomenon alongside wider media and cultural change, to be most interesting,” said Evans. “As we know, WCW did not exist in a vacuum, by virtue of its relationship with TBS. The fact that it operated not as a ‘standalone’ entity, but rather as a subsidiary of a larger broadcasting empire, inherently manifested itself in a number of interesting ways. It became clear to me that exploring this dynamic would glean the new material, and consequently, there are several details in the book that could be described as revelations—alongside many other stories, insights and details that fans have not heard before.

“To that end, ‘NITRO’ contains input from a wide spectrum of former TBS/WCW employees, including Eric Bischoff, Jamie Kellner, Harvey Schiller, former TBS President Bill Burke, Stuart Snyder, Kevin Nash, Diamond Dallas Page, Kevin Sullivan, Vince Russo, Buff Bagwell and many more. There are also a host of quotes from auxiliary people who at some point, interfaced, directly or indirectly, with WCW—even Mark Cuban, for example.

“And as I alluded to, the WCW-WWF wars occurred during a very interesting time period. I wanted to capture that era—within the context of WCW, of course—and take readers on a journey back to that time.”

WCW’s massive rise was nearly as great as its fall, but Evans details the demise and sheds light on the real reasons for WCW’s collapse, separating fact from fiction.

“There has certainly been much speculation around the cancellation of WCW from the Turner networks, with most commentary alleging of Jamie Kellner’s supposed hatred for the genre,” said Evans. “Therefore, it has been implied—or in some cases, explicitly argued—that Kellner, TBS’ incoming CEO in March 2001, simply did not want wrestling on TBS or TNT, irrespective of its financial performance, historical cache, or future viability.

“Even if we accept this notion as accurate—Kellner responds to the claim in the book, incidentally—it was actually immaterial to his decision. According to Brian Bedol, who was co-founder of Fusient Media Ventures, the investment group supporting Eric Bischoff’s takeover attempt in 2001, a key provision in the Fusient deal effectively sealed WCW’s fate. This is significant. 

“Rejection of this specific provision—outlined fully in my 6,000-plus word chapter covering this topic—allowed Turner Broadcasting to both ‘kick-off’ its rebranding efforts, culminating in TNT and TBS becoming distinctive entities, while enabling WCW’s losses to be ‘written off’ through a process called purchase accounting. As stated in the book, ‘in the post-merger environment, the new conglomerate was able to ‘write down’ money losing operations, essentially eliminating those losses because of their irrelevancy moving forward.’ In other words, a condition of the Fusient purchase agreement was integral to everything that happened thereafter.”

Evans’ exhaustive research led to some findings that WCW fans will find of interest, especially regarding the company’s finances.

“There has always existed a lot of ambiguity surrounding WCW’s financial performance, and so learning about the financial structure employed at TBS was very illuminating and somewhat shocking,” said Evans. “The notion that you could simply subtract WCW’s expenses from its revenues—thus deriving a profit or loss like any other business—is certainly a misconception. The book provides the numbers, based on exclusive access to company records, but more importantly, outlines the context from which these numbers were generated.”

‘NITRO’ is a worthy addition to any wrestling fan’s library, and the credit is due to Evans’ relentless reporting for the book.

“The book is the result of hard work, persistence, and the kindness of some particularly helpful people,” said Evans. “Conducting so much original research was definitively the most challenging aspect of ‘NITRO’, although simultaneously, it was the most enjoyable part, too. The end result is a nearly 600-page book that has generated a tremendous amount of positive interest, both from readers and members of the media.”

• Conrad Thompson returns for a new “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” this Friday at noon, discussing the 1993 Survivor Series that took place at the famed Boston Garden.

“There is a ton of meat on the bone for this pay per view,” said Thompson. “We’ll start right off by looking at Shawn Michaels replacing Jerry Lawler, who had a team of knights set to wrestle the Harts, including one knight that was supposed to be Terry Funk.”

Lawler was set to battle the Hart family, led by Bret Hart. The match was intended to serve as the pay off to a nearly long angle between the two, but came to a crashing halt after Lawler was indicted on charges of allegedly raping a 15-year-old girl (the charges were later dropped).

“Vince McMahon had to call an audible here, and it looked like the end of Lawler in professional wrestling,” said Thompson. “Obviously the charges were dropped and Lawler became a staple of WWE programming, but we’ll touch on the rumor and innuendo, as well as the whole storyline with Terry Funk.”

The ’93 Survivor Series also helped set up WrestleMania X the following March, which saw a singles match between Bret Hart and Owen Hart.

“It’s an interesting time in wrestling that isn’t explored enough,” said Thompson. “Business is down, Vince is searching for his next Hogan, and it’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since it first aired.”

Thompson will also post a new show on Thanksgiving, exploring the highs and lows of Survivor Series 1988.

“On Thanksgiving night, we’ll post our Survivor Series ’88 show,” said Thompson. “Bruce and I will be discussing the team concept, and we’ll look at a 20-man tag match that goes 42 minutes. This is the most challenging thing we’ve ever done, and that’s coming out on Thursday night as part of our Thanksgiving Day tradition.”

“So we’ll have the podcast, plus some turkey, but there is no stuffing in the South. We have dressing and we’ll be rocking that, along with some casseroles. It’s going to be a pretty Roll Tide day, especially when we get to Saturday and Alabama stomps Auburn, which is the most important game of the year for us every year.”

Tweet of the Week

Steve Austin is right: Becky Lynch, Charlotte Flair, and Ronda Rousey are redefining pro wrestling.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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