One of the biggest World Wrestling Entertainment matches of 2017 takes place this week and it’s happening on Tuesday night’s edition of Smackdown Live. It features John Cena taking on Shinsuke Nakamura for the first time ever. The winner of that dream match gets to face Jinder Mahal for the WWE Championship at SummerSlam on August 20.
You may notice I used the term “dream match.” That’s because that’s what Cena vs. Nakamura is. It was called that by John Bradshaw Layfield on Smackdown last week and it’s the term they are using on WWE.com as well. It’s a match that deserves the term because of what each man done in their careers.
Prior to 2016, I don’t think most wrestling fans thought it was possible. Nakamura was one of the biggest names in Japanese wrestling that was in his mid-30s. Nakamura is a three-time IWGP (New Japan) Heavyweight Champion and five-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion. The thought of him going to WWE didn’t seem likely, but he signed in January 2016 along with AJ Styles, Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson. Nakamura spent just over a year in NXT (too long, in my opinion) and debuted on the first Smackdown Live after WrestleMania. Nakamura hasn’t lost a singles match since he started on the main roster nearly four months ago.
John Cena has won the most major championships in WWE history with 16 WWE World Titles in his career. Cena has shown a willingness and a desire to work with the “new” act in WWE. In 2015, when Kevin Owens was gaining a lot of steam in NXT, it was Cena who went to Vince McMahon and said I want to work with him. Triple H said so on the recent Kevin Owens DVD (which was great, by the way). Cena put Owens over the first time they had a match, but then Cena won the next two times to win the feud.
Last summer, after Cena returned from shoulder surgery, his first rivalry was against AJ Styles, who debuted in WWE in January 2016. Styles feuded with Chris Jericho and Roman Reigns (for the WWE Title) before having a special moment when he stood in the ring with Cena for the first time. Styles attacked Cena to officially turn heel and they had a few great matches culminating in a classic at SummerSlam 2016 that Styles won clean. I thought it was the best WWE feud of 2016 and they topped that SummerSlam match at the Royal Rumble earlier this year. I think it’s fair to say Styles is one of Cena’s three best opponents ever. (I’d put CM Punk and Edge in the conversation too.)
I’m not sure if Cena went to Vince McMahon or anybody else in WWE to say he wanted to face Nakamura, but it’s easy to see why he would want to. Nakamura gets some of the loudest crowd reactions out of anybody in the company right now.
The question becomes this: If Cena vs. Nakamura is a dream match, which it clearly is, then why is it happening on Smackdown in Cleveland instead of at a major pay-per-view event? It’s a tough question that has plenty of answers.
Is it a bad thing that WWE is doing this match on Smackdown? No, not at all. I’m not complaining about doing the match. I just think it would be better if they did Cena vs. Nakamura for the first time ever at a pay-per-view event because those are the shows where big matches feel more special.
The reality is that WWE fans don’t remember big matches on TV as much as the ones on PPV. It’s how we grew up as WWE fans. Want an example from this year? Look at Bayley.
Bayley’s first WWE Raw Women’s Championship win should have happened at WrestleMania. The story should have been about how she couldn’t beat Charlotte at any WWE event prior to that, but it would be her last shot to do it. Doing the 4-Way match that they did was fine too, although a singles match would have been better. It’s the biggest show of the year, so having the girl that was a diehard WWE fan accomplish her biggest goal on the grandest stage would have been the right story.
Did WWE do that? Of course not. Instead, Bayley won her first Raw Women’s Championship on the February 13 edition of Raw. I had to look up the date because I didn’t remember when it was. I assure you that if it happened at WrestleMania, I would have remembered it and I’m sure that a lot of you would too.
I can also recall a very famous episode of WCW Monday Nitro on July 6, 1998 when Bill Goldberg, the biggest rising star in the history of that company, won his first WCW World Title on Nitro instead of on PPV. His opponent was a guy named Hollywood Hulk Hogan, arguably the biggest name in the history of wrestling. Back in those days, a pay-per-view would have cost around $30 for consumers and any PPV headlined by Goldberg vs. Hogan would have drawn a big number. It makes sense to do it on PPV to try to maximize the value of it.
Last November, Hulk Hogan appeared on Eric Bischoff’s podcast to reveal that it was his idea to put Goldberg over on that July 1998 edition of Nitro and even admitted it was a mistake.
“I remember it was my hare-brained idea. Everybody always says, “Oh, well, it should have been a PPV. It should have been this. It should have been that.” It was a situation where I was caught in the “Good Hulk” on one shoulder and the “Evil Hulk” on the other shoulder. Good Hulk was saying, “Oh my God, all the Goldberg chants are starting to mount up. Just let him get on his feet and then be a bigger heel than ever.” I was doing the Bobby Heenan holding my ears and running around. Then on the other shoulder I was thinking, “Let’s get this belt on him right away.” I had just been dragging this belt around. We needed to get it on a babyface and this guy is so over. I thought, “Oh my God, let’s build ourselves a superhero and get this on a babyface right away so I can start chasing it and draw some serious money.
“That was a not thought through decision at all. I just called you in panic and thought I had this great idea. We should have thought it through. Everybody says we should have built it up more. We shouldn’t have had it happen at the Georgia Dome. Who knows? I was just twisted up because I was panicking because I heard all the Goldberg chants and I realized how easy it was to run around with the belt and act like the chants are driving me crazy. I was also worried that this was the time to make the pivot. The transition. I was panicking because I was afraid we’d miss that moment, you know? I knew the Georgia Dome would be his home. It would be electric.”
It was electric and it was a great moment that I marvel at every time I watch it because the ovation for Goldberg’s win was massive.
It also produced huge numbers for WCW, including 36,506 paid fans at the Georgia Dome for a gate of $906,338 (thanks to Mike Mooneyham’s 1998 article for the info). WCW won the Monday ratings battles against Raw that night 4.85-4.00 for the first time in a few weeks with Goldberg vs. Hogan doing a monstrous 6.91 rating in the main event. It popped a huge rating, but then what? If it was on pay-per-view, they could have made potentially $7 million in PPV buys, according to that Mooneyham article. It’s worth pointing out that shortly after the Goldberg/Hogan match, WWE passed WCW in the ratings battle and never looked back while WCW died less than three years after this match took place.
Judging by Hogan’s comments on the Bischoff podcast last year, he clearly saw that he was in the wrong in 1998. In his defense, that Raw vs. Nitro rivalry was so hot at the time that it’s easy to see why people wouldn’t be thinking the right way.
You may be wondering what Goldberg vs. Hogan from 19 years ago has to do with Cena vs. Nakamura. I can explain it in one word: Anticipation.
By only announcing Cena vs. Nakamura one week early, that’s WWE shortening the anticipation factor so much so that we only have to wait a week for it. If it was happening at SummerSlam, we would have one month to get excited for it. Instead, it’s only one week.
Predicting The Cena vs. Nakamura Winner
— WWE (@WWE) July 31, 2017
Let’s go back to the question I posed earlier: Why is Cena vs. Nakamura happening at a Smackdown in Cleveland rather than a pay-per-view event?
I think it’s being done because there will be a screwjob finish that could lead to a triple threat match against Jinder Mahal for the WWE Title at SummerSlam. It wasn’t my initial prediction until I saw this interesting bit of info. My prediction is there will be no winner.
Check out this poster that was released by WWE in the last week. It’s a legitimate poster advertising the WWE Universal Title match between Brock Lesnar, Samoa Joe, Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns. It also features the Raw Women’s Title match between Alexa Bliss vs. Bayley and Naomi vs. Natalya for the Smackdown Women’s Title. Meanwhile, the WWE Champion Jinder Mahal is on there with John Cena and Shinsuke Nakamura on the poster. Here it is below.
If it was up to me, I wouldn’t even do the Cena vs. Nakamura match if a no-contest is going to be the end result. It’s similar to what they did on Raw when Samoa Joe vs. Roman Reigns ended because Braun Strowman interfered, leading to the 4-Way match at SummerSlam. Let’s say Jinder Mahal attacks both men leading to the triple threat at SummerSlam. Does WWE management realize how lazy that kind of booking is? I really hope that’s not the direction the creative team goes in.
The Smackdown viewing audience is usually around the 2.5 million viewer number in the United States. If it goes up a few hundred thousand viewers, then you can credit the hype that surrounds this Cena vs. Nakamura match. It’s not going to do Goldberg vs. Hogan numbers, but it should provide a boost WWE is hoping for with their Smackdown TV numbers.
I was hoping the first Cena vs. Nakamura match at a SummerSlam, Survivor Series, Royal Rumble or WrestleMania. Doing it on a Smackdown just doesn’t seem right, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it just as much as I would on any other night because of the quality of the performers.
In the end, putting on the best show possible week after week is what WWE is supposed to do and we shouldn’t complain about getting matches this good.
This entire column wasn’t a complaint, I assure you. It was more about wanting WWE to save the big matches and build them up because it will mean that much more when they finally happen.
I’ll be back on Tuesday and Wednesday with my reviews of Raw and Smackdown this week. Enjoy.