MMA, Mahjong and the Evolution of WWE's Shinsuke Nakamura

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterApril 5, 2018

Photo courtesy of WWE

Without a bearded mahjong expert's assistance, we may never have seen the hypnotic rock star of a wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura is today.

The native of Kyoto, Japan, is electric. He fuses a martial arts-inspired offense with a theatrical flair. Competing in a WWE ring, Nakamura dances, shimmies and rams his knees into a man's gut.

None of that seems to have anything to do with mahjong, the Chinese table game with decorative tiles. Getting to the point where his persona is as vivid as it is today, though, involved an assist from a whiz at the pastime, which dates back to China's dynastic days.

A mahjong player with decades of experience helped The King of Strong Style conquer the mental side of the art of wrestling.

"When I was a kid, I was a like a crybaby," Nakamura told Bleacher Report. "I learned to have a strong mind, to have more toughness."

Toward the start of his pro wrestling career in the early 2000s, stage fright and indecision held him back. "When I was a student of wrestling, before a match I became so nervous," he said. "I couldn't move like usual."

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Shinsuke Nakamura.
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The young Nakamura became friends with an older man, a mahjong expert. Their relationship morphed into a mentorship of sorts. The mahjong master offered Nakamura advice about letting go.

"He told me how to control myself," the former NXT champion explained. "Before, I was scared about my opponent, scared about what I could do. Then I knew my real opponent is just myself."

Thank the wrestling gods that Nakamura had that revelation.

His charisma blossomed, making him one of the most unique acts in the wrestling world. Not only did he bring a physical, teeth-rattling approach to his contests, but he also entertained with over-the-top gestures. He looked to Michael Jackson and other pop stars for inspiration, something one can see during his lively, kinetic entrance.

If he seems unlike any WWE star you've ever seen, that's by design.

"When I became a wrestler, I wanted to be different," Nakamura said. "I didn't want to copy from somebody."

But while his charismatic style often gets the bulk of the attention, one shouldn't forget about his athletic skill.

Nakamura was once an MMA fighter, scoring three professional wins as a heavyweight between 2003 and 2004. All three times, he forced his foe to tap out. 

He sported a less snazzy haircut in those days, but WWE fans looking back at that era of Nakamura will recognize his 1,000-watt smile and hard-hitting ways. 

Nakamura's in-ring offense borrows plenty from his MMA career. He dishes out rapid-fire knee strikes. He snakes his legs around a foe and clamps on an armbar. In between flashes of showmanship, he brings a sense of realism, of danger to his bouts.

He's trained in a variety of fighting styles, and he merges all that into his on-air persona. "My character is from everything I have in my life," Nakamura said. "I have experience in karate, kung fu, boxing, kickboxing, pro wrestling, submission wrestling and more."

Fans first saw all that on display with New Japan Pro-Wrestling, where he won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship and grew to be one of Japan's top stars.

In early 2016, The King of Strong Style ventured to the U.S. when he signed with WWE's feeder system, NXT. The transition was tough from a cultural perspective. He's still in the process of learning English today. He was away from his homeland, and it took some time getting used to how Americans drive.

Nakamura always had the solace of the ring, though.  

"In the ring, it was OK," he said. "Wrestling is a universal language. The basics of wrestling are basically the same."

Even so, there was an adjustment period between the ropes. His opponents weren't used to his in-ring habits. He was not just an athlete on a new team; he was in a whole new league in an unfamiliar country.

The Nakamura who fans saw tear down the house with NJPW only showed up in flashes, and the same was true when he moved to SmackDown last year. He feels things are changing as we speak, though.

"Getting better and better, I think," Nakamura said when asked about how he's been doing on the blue brand. "Now, I feel comfortable in the SmackDown ring. Maybe I can show more."

Stepping into the ring against AJ Styles for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 34 will help with that process.

The two men met in Japan at Wrestle Kingdom 10 and killed it in the ring, and there's no one better in WWE right now than Styles to have one's signature match against.

Nakamura believes his WWE title clash will be a chance to display his best. "Fans are going to know what strong style is," he said. "I think I haven't shown my 100 percent yet. I'm going to try to show them 100 percent of myself at WrestleMania."

At this year's Royal Rumble, Nakamura earned his shot at the WWE Championship by winning the event's trademark Battle Royal.

It was a memorable night for the SmackDown star. The King of Strong Style ousted both John Cena and Roman Reigns to seize victory. The Philadelphia crowd's response to it all stuck with Nakamura.

"In the ring, I felt the energy and vibe from the audience," Nakamura recalled. "Wrestlers give energy to the audience, and the audience also gives us energy. That time, I felt a connection."

He's poised to experience similar electricity Sunday at WrestleMania 34.

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans will be filled with ardent fans, many of whom view Nakamura vs. Styles as a dream match.

History says this will be a classic, especially if the true Nakamura emerges.


Ryan Dilbert is Bleacher Report's WWE Lead Writer. You can find him on Twitter @ryandilbert.


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