On a cold January night, Shinsuke Nakamura relit a fire.
I’d been a wrestling fan from childhood, growing up on the leftovers of the Attitude Era, which blossomed into Ruthless Aggression. I was captivated by the colorful characters, pure physicality and engaging storylines. Some of my fondest memories are of huddling in front of the TV, watching SmackDown on Sky One.
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As I grew older, the love faded. Wrestling became a glowing neon sign in the background of my life.
Anxiety had gripped me for most of my life. Being around people caused me such distress that I left primary school, and then secondary school. Home education became my life, and when not studying, the solitude of my room was mainly filled with wrestling games. Wrestling was always there, even if it was just embers.
I’m telling you all this so you can understand the strange and visceral reaction I had to Shinsuke Nakamura. To this day, I am unsure what quite caused it.
I’d plucked up the courage to attend a local college, fighting through the daily stresses of interacting with other people. I’d kept abreast of the latest wrestling news, when I saw an advert on social media for Wrestle Kingdom 9. New Japan Pro Wrestling. I was curious, and unable to sleep, I subscribed to the earliest version of NJPW World and watched.
The show was good, but I can’t say I remember a whole lot from it.
And then he appeared.
The King of Strong Style had a magnetic appeal to him. His outfits were a feast for the eyes, his movements hypnotic, his wrestling stiff and sleek. In that stadium, there was no one who mattered more, and it showed in the match itself.
I can’t give him all the credit. It helped that he was in the ring with a wrestling savant, a man of superior athletic prowess, Kota Ibushi. For nearly thirty minutes, I watched every kick, knee, suplex and hold with crackling delight. My mouth was agape as I observed two master craftsmen battle for a cracking looking belt, throwing everything they had at one another.
I knew nothing about these men, but I wanted to know everything about them.
When Shinsuke won, at around 3am, I cheered. It was the first time since I was a child that I had cheered for wrestling. It was the first time in about six months I had been excited for anything.
Shinsuke was a wrestler that I felt comfortable talking about to family, to friends, to my partner at the time. I wasn’t ashamed of him.
I think I wanted his confidence. I wanted to walk into a room and own it like him. Looking back now this seems ridiculous, but we consume media to provide solace. When I watched him, I felt safe.
The match became a comfort, and I rewatched it over and over.
The fire had been relit.
It was easier for me to consume WWE than NJPW, and while I kept a keen eye on Shinsuke and his career, my eyes were focused squarely on the rise of Daniel Bryan. College actually made me happy, with a creative writing class and friends I loved.
The fire inside was burning steadily, and I would tell my coworkers and friends that I enjoyed professional wrestling. And that my favorite wrestler was Shinsuke Nakamura.
Fires only need a bit of kindling to grow bigger. That came in 2016, when I heard the rumors that Shinsuke Nakamura was coming to WWE. NXT had been a highlight of wrestling for me at the time, and the idea of him mixing it up with Daniel Bryan, Antonio Cesaro and Sami Zayn made me shiver with anticipation.
I devoured his Wrestle Kingdom 9 match with AJ Styles, an incredible match by two world class workers. But to me it was the starter, and no matter how delicious it might have been, the main course was mouth-watering.
Shinsuke signed a contract, and before long was announced to be debuting at NXT TakeOver against Sami Zayn. I was ecstatic. Despite my problems with the product growing steadily, this was the shot in the arm I felt it needed. Seeing how WWE handled AJ Styles only heightened my expectations.
TakeOver night, I paced. I walked and walked and thought about how much my life had changed. I felt confident in myself for the first time since I was a child. And I felt confident in the match.
The match, as we know, exceeded expectations. Seeing Shinsuke in that environment was surreal, but he still came across like the biggest star in the world. Bigger than any other athlete or performer, he provided a masterclass in wrestling against Sami Zayn. I cannot undercut Zayn’s work here, but I wasn’t looking at him — my eyes were squarely fixed on the King of Strong Style.
The minutes flew by, and when the match was over I once again cheered and clapped. I messaged my friend who was into wrestling and said, “Shinsuke is the coolest motherfucker alive.”
He was. He looked like a star, a shining example of a professional wrestler. My love was now a bonfire.
My friend said I howled when I saw Shinsuke live.
I’d not attended a live event since I was five years old. But NXT was coming to my hometown, and I had to see Shinsuke in person. Big crowds were not my thing, but the anxiety I felt was shut down by the air of importance this had to me.
We’ve all had that moment where we’ve seen a star. A true, bonafide legend in person. That night, surrounded by other wrestling fans, I let the world know that I was witnessing a wrestler I adored. I screamed his name over and over as if he was going to notice me.
He was facing Samoa Joe for the NXT Title, and I remember nothing of the match. I wish I could remember how he moved, how he acted, but all I remember is the aura. A sense of controlled chaos that permeated throughout the room. A room he controlled.
He pummeled Joe, mashing his brains in with a beautiful Kinsasha, and retained the title. The crowd dispersed, and the event ended. Over drinks afterwards, my friend said he’d never seen me so relaxed. “Which is weird,” he said, “because you were howling at him.”
It was like watching a firework display from the top of a hill your entire life, and finally feeling confident enough to watch it up close. The bonfire burns brighter and looms larger the closer you get to it.
In some ways, I associated the supposed downturn of his career with the troubles of my own life.
Over the next few years, Nakamura’s career entered a gradual tailspin. None of his matches in NXT hit quite the same as his war with Zayn, his two losses to Bobby Roode for the NXT Title didn’t do him many favors.
From there, he jumped to the main roster, winning the Royal Rumble and feuding with AJ Styles for four months. What was once a match-up that served as an incredible appetizer for a much-anticipated WWE run was now flat and lukewarm. He never one the big one, and slumped even further down the pecking order when he lost to Jinder Mahal.
My own life had also tail-spinned. I’d left college again, the anxiety getting the best of me in a battle I thought I won.
In times of crisis, you come to conclusions. Mine was simple — I could never become the person I wanted if I stayed the same. I decided to eliminate everything about me I disliked. Everything I thought was childish, or weak. Every hobby, interest and desire.
Wrestling was on that list.
On reflection, it was a ridiculous move. But when you’re in the throes of depression, you’ll do anything to claw your way out.
Soon after this decision, a friend messaged and said that Shinsuke had a pretty good SmackDown match. Did I want to watch it with him?
I said no. The name Shinsuke Nakamura made me remember the old days, of a child who couldn’t stay in formal education, of someone who chased media as a way to feel good. He didn’t make me feel anything anymore. The fire was extinguished.
When I first caught sight of him, he looked like a star. Now he just looked like anyone.
For years, I avoided thinking about him. Wrestling had become a trigger word, a nervous shrug when my family mentioned it to me, a joke I laughed about with friends. Of course I don’t watch wrestling anymore, of course I’m no longer interested in it. Don’t be so ridiculous.
It felt dirty. It wasn’t just WWE’s downturn, either. I viewed that period of my life as a black mark — a sea of anxiety and loathing that I wanted to forget. All the good and all the bad molded into one cancerous cloud, and I was determined to cut it out.
By taking such a drastic step, my life improved. I built a career as a dog trainer, got a partner, and became the person I thought I wanted to be.
Despite these changes, I still resented that teenager who’d spent hours watching wrestling and ranting about a King of Strong Style. I couldn’t let him reach the surface again.
In the background, though, embers flared. For years I would read wrestling websites, check Twitter, and keep abreast of the news. Late at night I’d check out clips and gifs, a secret hobby that I dared tell no one.
I got therapy. I worked through my issues with my childhood, dealt with my anxiety issues, and became confident enough to understand that who I was when I thought things were ‘good’ was not who I wanted to be.
I watched an AEW PPV a few months ago, my first wrestling show in years. And I loved it. The fire was relit, although not as brightly as before.
As my wrestling fandom begins to burn again, I still avoid his matches. I’ve not looked back, and I’m not sure I will. The desire just isn’t there. I don’t want to chase the glory and awe I felt all those years ago, because that’s not who I am anymore.
And yet, underneath that, there’s still this burn. I want to feel that again.
Shinsuke Nakamura made me a fan again, but he is not the only wrestler in the world. There are thousands of men and women who could make me feel, like he did once. It won’t be the exact feeling — a lightning bolt is never the same shape each time it strikes. But I had lumped my love of professional wrestling onto one incredible performer, and when my interest in him waned, it did for everything.
This was wrong. I know that now. My goal, when it comes to wrestling, is to find stuff that makes me feel again. Wrestling that sets a fire deep inside my belly, and causes me to howl names at live events. Wrestling that makes me excited to tell my partner what I’ve seen, and wrestling I’m proud to call myself a fan of.
Shinsuke Nakamura is a name forever engraved in my personal hall of fame. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am still the person that I hated, and I am still the person that I loved. I don’t need to kill all of who I was to be happy. Wrestling can still be a part of my life. I can be as confident as the King of Strong Style, even if I’m not connected to him anymore.
I’m glad the fire keeps burning. And I’ll always remember the man who stoked the flames.