When Shinsuke Nakamura squared off against AJ Styles at Wrestlemania 34, the expectations were sky-high. It was a rematch of their classic NJPW match at Wrestle Kingdom 10. It would be only the second time the two men met in 1-on-1 competition. The match seemed destined for classic status.
Instead, it was a solid, but unremarkable outing. That's one of the drawbacks of booking a good guy to fight a good guy, especially in the United States, where wrestling fans treat the matches more like dramatic storylines rather than athletic competitions. Face vs. face matches split the audience; 50% of the crowd cheers for one good guy, and 50% of the crowd cheers for the other one. The heckling is distributed similarly.
But good guy vs. bad guy, booked properly? That unites 100% of the arena in both cheers and boos. There is no greater intensity. Now, Nakamura is a villain, and he's booked to face Styles at Backlash this Sunday, May 6; fans may finally get the high stakes match they've been expecting.
Everything about Nakamura's heel turn was booked to perfection. After losing to Styles at Wrestlemania 34, Nakamura dropped to one knee, in an apparent show of submissiveness, and presented the WWE Championship belt to his victorious opponent. As an Asian-American man, I felt embarrassed for Nakamura; it seemed a bit excessive and demeaning for him to kowtow like that, scripted or not. But then, Nakamura delivered a vicious low blow, and my jaw dropped. Finally, here was the anger and resentment that was missing from the entire, preceding match.
Two nights later on Smackdown, Nakamura explained his actions to Renee Young with a hilarious, well-placed one-liner. "Sorry. No speak English." Contextually, this was a swipe at the WWE audience. The final several weeks leading into Wrestlemania 34, some trolls had taken to yelling "What?" during Nakamura's promos ("Because he has an accent. Get it? Haha!"). Nakamura's deliberate subversion of the stereotype was the perfect way for him to address his haters. He owned the insult and made it into something funny--much funnier than it originally was.
As for his overall behavior. Nakamura didn't need to change much of anything. His weird twitches, hip swivels, and suggestive crotch points were already lurid when he was a good guy. Now, just slightly more exaggerated, his gestures appeared lecherous and predatory.
On the May 1 episode of Smackdown, Nakamura added additional tics and flourishes to his physical presentation. After low blowing Styles (again!), he got low to the the ground and got a good, hard look at Styles' pained face, as though he was a sadist who wanted to drink in his opponent's suffering. Nakamura was then played out to his recently remixed heel theme--probably remixed so his remaining fans wouldn't hum along to it.
Per Paige's announcement, the WWE Championship match between Nakamura and Styles at Backlash has a No Disqualification stipulation. Most likely, it will end with Styles finally returning the favor, low blowing Nakamura to secure the win. But Nakamura winning the match and the title would be the better, albeit less safe option.
No doubt, Styles is a proven champion; it's never not a good idea to have the belt on him. But Nakamura--specifically heel Nakamura--is an unproven commodity. And right now, while he's hot and has some buzz, there's no better time to give him a test run at the top of the blue brand.
For more on AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura and their battle at Backlash, check out our predictions for the event, as well as the full match card, and for live coverage, make sure to come right back here to GameSpot on Sunday, May 6.