This is the Shinsuke Nakamura we all wish we got when he came to WWE.
When Nakamura signed with WWE in 2016, that announcement was met with both excitement and confusion. Those with the latter feelings didn’t know why WWE would sign a wrestler like Nakamura, especially given their past treatment of Japanese wrestlers (which, let’s be honest, is checkered at best). But those with the former feelings knew why this was a good idea (at the time): they knew just how awesome Nakamura was, both as a character and as a wrestler.
The match we look at today is quite possibly his best performance ever. In my opinion, it’s his magnum opus, a match that perfectly encapsulates Nakamura’s personality and wrestling skills, all condensed into one fantastic wrestling match.
This match was originally rated five-stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and was voted as 2015’s Match of the Year. Today we find out of all that praise was overblown or if it was completely justified.
Four years earlier, NJPW created a new singles championship: The IWGP Intercontinental Championship. It was meant to give NJPW’s growing midcard something to fight for. Although a handful of different wrestlers carried the belt, it didn’t gain any real prestige until it was won by this man.
Shinsuke Nakamura had one of the most interesting journeys as a wrestler that I’ve ever seen. He was the youngest world champion of any major wrestling promotion in the world, having won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in 2003 at age 23. But at the time, and indeed, for the better part of the 2000s, Nakamura was also one of the most boring wrestlers on the planet. He was a generic ‘angry MMA fighter’ with absolutely no personality and lacked anything truly unique in terms of how he was presented. Then, at the beginning of the 2010s, something changed. Nakamura became the polar opposite of that past and turned into one of the most charismatic and attention-grabbing personalities in wrestling history.
Gone was the always-serious MMA fighter that never showed emotion. In his place was a character that was, and is to this day, painstakingly hard to explain. So I’ll let Jim Ross do that for me:
“He is one of the most unique human being I’ve ever talked with. He loves Freddie Mercury, the former lead singer of Queen for you kids out there that don’t know. He’s a Michael Jackson devote. He’s also called the ‘King of Strong Style’. Meaning he’s a badass. How you can go from Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson to being a badass is a unique journey, but this multi-talented, unique personality gets it done.” – Jim Ross, NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 9, January 4th, 2015
So there you have it. Nakamura is basically a walking performance art masterpiece with a wacky haircut and some of the most unusual mannerisms ever seen in a wrestling ring. But that ‘artistic’ persona belies how dangerous he is. Not only does Nakamura have some legitimate MMA experience (he went 3-1 in his early years), but he has been built up as having the most dangerous knee strike in the entire business. So an opponent of his would step into the ring with him and laugh at his wackiness, only to be taken completely off-guard by Nakamura’s very real wrestling and striking ability.
And that’s what makes Nakamura so dangerous. He knows people will mock him, not take him seriously and try and take advantage of him. But those people would be walking into a trap. Nakamura acts all smug and obnoxious in the ring because he can back it up. He’s bold because he can take someone down with ease. He taunts his opponents because he knows he can rile them up enough for them to make a mistake, which he’d capitalize on. And he knows all he has to do is get them in position for the Bome Ye and the match is over.
So in this match, Nakamura defended the IWGP Intercontinental Championship – a title that was synonymous with him at the time because he was the one that elevated it to being almost on par with the Heavyweight Championship – against Kota Ibushi. Ibushi had spent many years wrestling as a junior heavyweight and NJPW decided it was time for him to ‘graduate’ to the heavyweight division. And his first big test was for him to try and take Nakamura’s title on New Japan’s biggest show of the year.
The bell rings and we have an MMA-like standoff. They trade kicks a few times but otherwise there’s no contact between them. Nakamura gets Ibushi on the rope and tries his ‘I-put-my-head-in-your-gut-taunt-because-I-know-you-won’t-do-anything’ mockery but Ibushi shoves his head. Bad idea. Nakamura hits a hard knee to Ibushi’s gut. Ibushi reverses and tries a dropkick but Nakamura holds onto the ropes. Ibushi dodges a stomp and lands a kick but Nakamura rushes him and we get another standoff as the crowd applauds.
Nakamura hears and mocks them, then extends his hand in an exaggerated way. An evil smile flashes across Nakamuea’s face as he knees Ibushi in the gut again and ax kicks him in the back of the head. Nakamura charges with the Bome Ye but Ibushi dodges and dropkicks him into the corner. Then, as an act of his own mockery (and of general insanity), Ibushi uses Nakamura’s own ‘vibrations’ foot stomp in the corner. Ibushi continues to mock Nakamura, but Nakamura gets up and has this terrifying look in his eyes like, ‘Alright, now I’m going to fucking kill you.’
Nakamura knees Ibushi again and lands his own ‘vibrations’ foot stomp and then knees him to the gut on the top turnbuckle. Ibushi falls out of the ring and Nakamura lands a running knee to the side of the head, and then a diving knee to the back of it. Ibushi tries to get back into the ring but struggles to do so, because that’s how much damage Nakamura has done already.
Back the ring, Nakamura cinches in a cravate then a knee drop to the head for a two-count. He continues with a grounded sleeper/Koji Clutch submission hold transitioned into a sort of crucifix pin that gets a one-count. Nakamura keeps rolling into one-count pins whenever Ibushi tries to get a reprieve, but as soon as both shoulders are up the pressure from the submission hold intensifies. Nakamura’s doing awesome work here.
The hold is broken on the ropes and Nakamura starts walking into Ibushi as if to say, ‘what’re you gonna do now?’Ibushi starts fighting back, but Nakamura dusts himself off. On the third strike Nakamura answers with a brutal flurry of his own. He holds Ibushi’s head down with one hand and slaps him in the face like a douche and Ibushi falls to his knees. Nakamura tries a kick but Ibushi dodges and bitchslaps Nakamura in retaliation. They go nose-to-nose, like they’re genuinely mad at each other.
Nakamura ducks a swing and hits a Backstabber. He attempts his inverted exploder but Ibushi lands on his feet and hits a snap frankensteiner that sends Nakamura out of the ring. Ibushi dropkicks him off the apron and hits an amazing Triangle Moonsault. Wow, what an incredible move. Ibushi’s timing is absolutely perfect.
Ibushi tosses Nakamura back into the ring and lands a hard springboard dropkick. Nakamura escapes a German suplex attempt but Ibushi ducks his elbow and Ibushi lands a KENTA rush and a huge kick to the chest and a standing shooting star splash. All of that only gets Ibushi a two-count. Inushi charges but lands on the apron. Nakamura tries to suplex him over the rope but Ibushi knees him in the head and goes for another springboard dropki—no, Nakamura kicks him right in the face. Wow, Nakamura kicked him right under the chin in midair. Excellent move.
Nakamura gets up first and drills Ibushi with a heel kick to the head followed by a gourdbuster. Then he lands multiple MMA-style knee strikes to Ibushi’s head. Nakamura charges with the Bome Ye, Ibushi dodges and Nakamura lands one more knee for jumping onto the top turnbuckle. Ibushi tries to fight back but Nakamura’s strikes are too much for him and he lands on the apron. Suddenly, Ibushi chops Nakamura’s chest. Springboard hurricanrana from the top rope! Good God! What the hell was that?! Amazing! Ibushi goes for a cover…no, Nakamura kicks out at two.
Ibushi attempts a dragon suplex but Nakamura fights out of it. He goes for an elbow but Ibushi reveres it into a snap dragon suplex. Nakamura ducks a kick but can’t avoid Ibushi’s standing phoenix splash. My God, this man’s athleticism is off the charts. That only gets another two-count for Ibushi.
Ibushi teases a Last Ride Powerbomb but Nakamura fights out of it. So Ibushi pulls a Nakamura and starts stomping on his opponent’s head. The character work in this match is just fantastic. Nakamura fights out of another powerbomb attempt, but Ibushi turns it into a sunset flip that gets another two-count and then roundhouse kicks Nakamura hard in the side of the head. Nakamura falls to the mat and the camera zooms in on his face. The look on it is priceless. It’s as if he’s thinking, ‘what the hell have I gotten myself into?’
Ibushi picks him up…Last Ride Powerbomb connects. The referee counts one…two…thr—no, Nakamura kicks out at 2.75. Ibushi teases the Phoenix splash from the top rope and…NO, Nakamura dodged it. BOMA YE knee strike. To the back of the head. Both men are down.
Nakamura gets up first and he is PISSED. He starts stomping the ever-loving hell out of Ibushi, especially his head. The ref tries to make Nakamura stop but he keeps going. He wants Ibushi to die so he stomps and ax kicks the guy’s head as much as he can. He even swings his foot over so his boot touches Ibushi’s face. And all the while, Ibushi’s smiling. The crazy bastard is smiling as Nakamura’s trying to murder his head and neck. I always thought Ibushi was crazy, but this is something else.
Ibushi gets up and just starts throwing bombs at Nakamura. I mean, he starts wailing on him with sick lefts and rights. Man, Ibushi’s so mad he’s willing to use close-fisted punches, which are extremely rare in New Japan. The referee warns Ibushi, but Nakamura takes advantage and tosses the ref into Ibushi. That allows Nakamura to hit a huge right hand of his own. Well, now that was a dickish move.
Nakamura’s got a nice shit-eating grin on his face as he tries to mount a comeback. But Ibushi won’t have any of it and hits a hard knee to stop Nakamura in his tracks. Ibushi teases a huge punch or clothesline…NO! Nakamura reverses it. Flying Armbar. What a sick counter! Nakamura’s trying to cinch it in, but Ibushi counters. Nakamura won’t release the arm, so Ibushi starts stomping on Nakamura’s face now. Now it’s Ibushi’s turn to stomp on Nakamura’s head as revenge from before. He cinches in a sleeper hold and follows that with Nakamura’s signature reverse exploder. But Ibushi’s still not done.
He wants to send a message to Nakamura. He does Nakamura’s signature corner pose. Wow, now this is how you make a rivalry feel personal and realistic. BOMA YE BY IBUSHI! He drills Nakamura in the face with Nakamura’s own finisher. The ref goes for the count, but Nakamura kicks out at ONE! Holy crap, this has been amazing so far.
Ibushi punches and kicks a grounded Nakamura some more. Nakamura’s as angry as ever as he lands more hard elbows and kicks of his own, sending Ibushi down. He continues with vicious kicks and stomps, and even tries to force his boot into Ibushi’s mouth. Damn, this is straight savage.
Nakamura tries to hit more strikes but Ibushi dodges them, catches Nakamura’s leg and chops him hard in the chest. They both slap each other hard at the exact same time and have another strike exchange that Namamura wins. Nakamura charges…but Ibushi has him scouted and lands a dropkick into a foot stomp to the chest! Brutal.
Ibushi gets up first as Nakamura recovers under the bottom rope. Ibushi nods to the crowd. Something big is coming. Ibushi then jumps onto the top rope. Then he hoists Nakamura over the top rope with a Cobra Clutch suplex. Good God what an amazing move! Where does Ibushi come up with this stuff.?
The referee counts one…two…thr—no, Nakamura kicks out at 2.9! What a close call.
Ibushi gets up first and he’s smiling. He lifts Nakamura up. He’s going for the Phoenix-plex, an extremely dangerous move. That’s the one that, three years later, would put Hiromu Takahashi on the shelf for 16 months with a brutal neck injury. Wait, no, Nakamura escapes with head-butts. He mounts Ibushi and starts elbowing him in the back of the head. Ibushi gets up slowly. Nakamura jumps onto the top rope. Jumping Boma Ye to the back of the head. Ibushi goes down…but Ibushi gets right back up! He absorbed a knee to the back of the head and he’s back up and still smiling. What is this guy made of?
Both guys charge each other with running knees and hit each other. Ibushi charges…and runs into a Landslide from Nakamura. BOMA YE by Nakamura again. Right to the face.
The referee counts one…two…THREE! There’s the match. What an epic fight.
Winner and STILL IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 20:12: Shinsuke Nakamura
Here’s the full match with English commentary.
Before watching this match I hadn’t seen Nakamura wrestle in years, and the only exposure I had to Kota Ibushi was the video of him ‘wrestling’ a sex blow-up doll. As such, I didn’t go into this with the highest of expectations.
That all changed within ten minutes, before this match was even over.
Aside from having arguably the best entrance in wrestling history, Nakamura was an awesome character. Everything about him screamed ‘megastar’ and he had an aura of badassery about him. From his empty, cold stare to his contorted facial expressions, he was captivating. And he acted like such a dick in this match, smacking Ibushi around and rubbing his boot in Ibushi’s face mockingly. He was daring Ibushi to strike back, and to be honest, I didn’t think Ibushi had it in him to do anything beyond his typical cruiserweight ‘flippy shit’. But Ibushi, too, proved me wrong.
It was as if a switched had suddenly turned on somewhere in Ibushi’s brain. He went from doing his typical straight-laced junior heavyweight shtick to throwing bombs and sick right hands like he wanted to murder Nakamura. Sure, Ibushi still did his crazy dives and flips, but they were done with a renewed sense of purpose. Ibushi wanted to beat Nakamura and humiliate him at the same time. Ibushi even showed some great ‘fighting spirit’ by eating a Boma Ye knee strike and getting up seconds later shaking his head and smirking.
In doing all of that, these two wrestlers managed to blur the line between scripted and real in an excellent way. At some point, they both decided that they weren’t going to put on a wrestling match and that they were going to destroy one another. And in watching their actions and their facial expressions, you got the impression that there was genuine hatred between them. Nakamura acted like the cocky jerk that was convinced he was better than everyone else, and proved this by stomping on Ibushi and slapping him around like a little bitch.
And Ibushi took all of that punishment from Nakamura and then some, and fought back with some of the most realistic-looking strikes I’ve ever seen in wrestling. It looks for all the world that Ibushi and Nakamura were having a fight with some wrestling moves sprinkled in a few places, instead of having a wrestling match with a few bits of ‘realistic fighting’. That made this match so much more fun to watch.
Final Rating: *****
It goes without saying that this match more than earned its five-star rating. Everything about this match is perfect: Nakamura’s amazing entrance, Kota Ibushi surviving Nakamura’s obnoxiousness and fighting back, Nakamura acting like a dick in the match thinking he was better than Ibushi, the moves, the counters, the sickening strikes, all of it. This was wrestling perfection. I loved this match.
This is a textbook example of how to get wrestling characters over without promos. I had no idea what Nakamura was until JR explained it. And Nakamura showcased what his character was through his mannerisms and how he fought (not wrestled, fought). He stayed true to his persona of the King of Strong Style while also putting on an epic fight. He acted all smug and superior while also being wacky, which led to Ibushi falling into a false sense of security by thinking he could out-strike Nakamura.
While the match didn’t have much in the way of traditional ring psychology, both wrestlers more than made up for it by making this into a brawl and targeting each other’s respective head and neck with brutal efficiency. If you want to see two great athletes do a masterful job of looking like they’re trying to kill each other for your amusement, you’ve found your perfect match.
This match just felt so much bigger than it really was. It was just a title match for another secondary title, yet it came across as a brutal war between two rivals that’ve known each other for years and resent each other for existing. They managed to take this twenty-minute title match and make it into something truly epic.
Highest recommendation possible.
You can check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Review series right here. Thanks for reading.