Shinsuke Nakamura, pro-wrestling’s ‘Artist’, hopes to see Southeast Asians join WWE
The King of Strong Style has some good insights.
It wasn’t that long ago that Shinsuke Nakamura’s profile was still low-key enough that he could walk around Singapore while still remaining relatively unnoticed.
Back in 2015, the Japanese pro-wrestler was in town to do a show.
He swung by the Merlion and even wandered around Clarke Quay for a few beers.
However, this wasn’t with the giant American promotion World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), but the Japanese New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW).
Nakamura performed in front of a raucous crowd of about 100 fans, and although it was perhaps a smaller show than he might have been used to, he still gave it his all.
I happened to be sitting in the crowd that day, cheering him on. And after he made the jump across the Pacific from Japan to the U.S., signing on with the WWE, I continued to follow his career.
Nakamura debuted on the WWE’s NXT brand in 2016, which functions as a training ground for rookie wrestlers or new hires.
By 2018, he had climbed the ranks and competed in a title match at the company’s flagship show WrestleMania 34, watched live by 2.12 million households.
So when Nakamura returned to Singapore recently to promote the WWE Live show taking place on June 27, 2019, it was with considerably more fanfare.
The interview takes place in a luxurious room in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with a floor-to-ceiling view of Marina Bay.
Flanked by large posters bearing the WWE logo, Nakamura perched on a sofa, sipping a cup of tea, the sole object of attention for the gathered media teams and camera crews.
Despite the activity around him, Nakamura seems serene, more like the laid-back surfer dude he comes across as on Instagram, instead of the hard-hitting ring warrior persona he presents on TV.
The years in America have improved his English, with Nakamura not needing a translator, albeit answering questions with a strong Japanese accent.
He speaks slowly, thoughtfully, with the air of someone who’s done a thousand interviews and will do a thousand more, but will still do his best to get this one right.
Sparkling clean Singapore
Just a couple of hours before our conversation, Nakamura shared a picture of himself enjoying a meal at a Hawker Centre in Toa Payoh.
“I love Singapore’s food culture, so far,” he says. An old friend who used to live in Singapore brought him to sample local Indian cuisine on his previous trip here.
What’s the first word that comes to his mind when he thinks of Singapore? “Kind of clean,” he responds thoughtfully.
He adds that Singapore’s reputation for cleanliness was well-known, even when he was a young student back in Kyoto, Japan.
“Yeah, so when I was a kid, if I mess around, always my teacher talking about Singapore. ‘Hey, if you make a mess in town, you need to pay a fine!’ So for example like the chewing gum (laughs).
So that’s why, maybe Japanese think Singapore’s image is clean, cleanest Asian country.”
Diversity in the WWE
The discussion turns to the WWE, by far the most popular promotion as far as Singaporean fans are concerned. The last time the WWE visited in 2017, Nakamura wasn’t around, but his scheduled opponent Seth Rollins was.
Rollins currently holds the Universal Championship, and Nakamura will face off against him for the title at WWE Live, happening this week at the Indoor Stadium.
Nakamura agrees it’s nice that fellow Japanese wrestlers Asuka and Kairi Sane will also be performing here on Thursday, especially because Asian wrestlers were such a novelty back in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Used to be (that) the WWE has only one Asian talent, but now there are Chinese (wrestlers) in NXT, Kushida in NXT now, one Japanese guy in 205 (Akira Tozawa), two women in women’s division, and myself.
So, it means… WWE wants a world market, I think. Indian, South Eastern, Middle Eastern, a lot of diversity.”
He also explains why it’s common these days for Japanese wrestlers to enter the industry.
“Wrestling in Japan it’s one of the cultures. It’s a normal thing, so now (more) Japanese wrestle in the WWE.”
South East Asian wrestler?
Given the way pro-wrestling has developed, might yet see a Southeast Asian wrestler make it to the big leagues. Nakamura perks up at this.
“Oh yeah, yeah. Of course. Now I know there is (a) wrestling promotion in Singapore. Also, I heard (of) a new promotion in Shanghai, maybe Dragon Gate helped them.”
He blanks on the name Oriental Wrestling Entertainment, but remarks that he found their “kung-fu” style interesting. It is that infusion of unique styles he feels could benefit the WWE.
“That’s very interesting, so maybe the Southeast Asians can bring a kind of new style to the entire wrestling business, I think.”
NXT and the WWE
Speaking of Asian representation in the entertainment wrestling scene, Nakamura has long since blazed his own trail, bringing his MMA-like “strong style” to the WWE.
And there’s no question about who his favourite opponent in the WWE is so far.
“Hmm, so far I need to say AJ Styles, of course. Because AJ Styles, we had the chance to wrestle a lot.”
AJ Styles, a former WWE champion, also wrestled Nakamura in Japan. But Nakamura also likes challenging the unknown.
“Favourite, favourite… but still, I like to face kind of new opponents. Because new opponents give me a surprise.”
He lists Sami Zayn, another NXT alumnus, as an example.
“He was (someone) I faced for the first time in my NXT debut match. Also, we could make huge chemistry from the match.”
Fans have hailed it as one of the best matches in recent memory.
NXT was also where Nakamura had the opportunity to work with Triple H up close, whom fans may recall as one of the most successful wrestlers in history.
As the son-in-law of the WWE’s billionaire owner Vince McMahon, Triple H is well-placed to someday run the empire.
“He’s the kind of, he’s sometime like our leader… maybe he’s definitely the leader of NXT. And in WWE, (he’s) kind of a good producer, sometimes he becomes a mentor (to) a lot of people. Most wrestlers respect him, also trust him.”
With guys like Triple H in a backstage role, and other former stars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin in films, I wondered if Nakamura aspires to follow in any of their footsteps.
“Oh, never,” he laughs. “Never.”
Wrestling and acting could be similar, he concedes, insofar as both involve giving backstage interviews or “promos” to hype an upcoming match.
“But one of the important things in wrestling is ad libbing. So that’s why we like to adjust (to) the moment, how to react in the ring, we feel the audience first, we change the plan sometimes.”
Nakamura himself doesn’t seem all too interested in administration or backstage politics. His nom de plume of “The Artist” in the WWE reflects his own view of the business.
“People love watching wrestling, maybe people think wrestling is one of the arts, that’s why people love watching wrestling, I believe. Each country has art right? Art, music, and wrestling.”
Perhaps that’s the best way to think of this hybrid art/sport that Nakamura has devoted his life to.
Nakamura will be fighting at the WWE Live event this Thursday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Tickets can be purchased here.
Top photo by Ilene Fong.