Last year saw two of the biggest names in WWE graduate from NXT to the main roster. Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka were the talks of the town when they made their debuts on Smackdown Live and RAW respectively in 2017. The Japanese performers were treated like the biggest stars of their divisions and rightfully so.
We, as fans, finally saw diversity in WWE. Two non-Americans were being pushed as the biggest stars of their respective brands despite their lack of English language skills and inability to cut 15 minutes long promos.
Everything looked right with the King of Strong Style and the Empress of Tomorrow when 2018 rolled in, and the feeling was strengthened more when Nakamura won arguably the best Royal Rumble match ever and Asuka went on to win the first ever women’s Royal Rumble match in the main event of the same show.
They both were presented as absolute stars with Nakamura beating both John Cena and Randy Orton clean on different episodes of Smackdown Live, and the undefeated Asuka carrying the largest win streak ever with her.
One submission loss to Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania later though, changed everything for Asuka. The Empress was humbled that night in a moment that not only marked the end of her undefeated streak but a clear end of her monster push too. Suddenly, Asuka was losing to The IIconics and Carmella and finding herself in pointless segments alongside Naomi.
It was a sad fall from grace fans had to witness in the span of just a few short months due to WWE’s inability to capitalize on her popularity just because she couldn’t cut long English promos.
Nakamura’s fall wasn’t as drastic though. While WWE had previously shown signs of not having enough faith in Nakamura before the Rumble (a la his SummerSlam loss to Jinder Mahal and elimination to Braun Strowman at Survivor Series in 2017), there were still sky-high expectations with his match against AJ Styles at WrestleMania.
Unfortunately, neither that match lived up to the hype nor did Nakamura win in the end, yet he managed to emerge as one of the biggest talking points of the show, thanks to that epic heel turn after his loss. Following weeks made us realize just how good Nakamura is and what was once considered his weakness, turned into his greatest strength with the “no speak English” gimmick.
Nakamura went onto have better matches with Styles but always came up short, yet those losses were still overshadowed by the quick work he made out of Jeff Hardy at Extreme Rules to win the US Championship and an intriguing dynamic that was building between himself, Hardy and a newly-turned-heel Orton.
This was, however, the last we saw of Nakamura for months. The obvious three-way feud was turned into Orton vs Hardy and despite holding the United States Championship, Nakamura sat out several episodes of Smackdown and consecutive PPV events. He appeared occasionally after that but only to take meaningless losses to others.
As we speak now, Nakamura has lost that US belt to Rusev too and Asuka has found a way to win the Smackdown Women’s Championship towards the end of 2018. But that’s far from being successful in rehabilitating her. Despite being the champion, Asuka feels like the third most important female on the blue brand behind Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair.
She will need overtime effort to come across as the monster champion that she was in NXT, but given how the company is leaning more towards the horsewomen from WWE and UFC to potentially base the entire division around, Asuka may turn out to be nothing more than a transitional champion. As for the King of Strong Styles though, with the only reason for him appearing occasionally on TV, the US Title, snatched now, sadly Nakamura has no coming back to relevancy in WWE.