Last night was a strange night for myself, both as a grown-ass-man and a fan of such an oddity as Japanese pro wrestling (which I call pro wres, because that’s what they call it, not “puro” or “pure-o-ree-sue”). Last night I got to watch what will most likely be Shinsuke Nakamura’s final match within a New Japan Pro Wrestling ring, alongside some of the names that he came up with, or that he competed against for years. I was tired while watching the opening matches, found myself doing the dishes to stay awake during the intermission, but still fixated on the video reel that they threw together of his farewell press conference and career retrospective.
In a way, it’s kinda crazy. I got to watch Shinsuke Nakamura throughout his entire career with New Japan Pro Wrestling, with all of the bumps along the way. That means from the rushed young lion phase of his career right into the “Supernova” phase that saw him, a young wrestling prodigy, tasked with carrying not only the struggling company on his shoulders, but the struggling world of pro wres as well. At the time Shinsuke was an awkward young guy, there was supposed to be a chip on his shoulder, but instead it seemed like he was just some young kid thrust into a position that he clearly wasn’t ready for and everything that came with it.
They wanted him to fit a mold, to become the living embodiment of stars from years past like Nobuhiko Takada and the legendary Shin’ya Hashimoto. They didn’t want him to be himself, and perhaps, he wasn’t quite sure who he was at that time, either. I got to watch him grow from that awkward kid with an entire culture and history of pro wres on his back to a confident, self-fulfilled performer who was so incredibly sure of himself that it was hard to believe that he was ever anything else but the King of Strong Style.
I’ve been following his career since the beginning, watching while he journeyed from that awkwardness to not only accepting it, but being proud of it and turning it into a vehicle to express himself to the world and be proud of who he was. All of that happened while I, myself, grew up and had to deal with similar issues. We all grapple with these growing pains and becoming the person that we really should be, which sometimes is a stark contrast from what we envisioned for ourselves.
For Shinsuke Nakamura he wanted to be what New Japan and the fans wanted him to be. He wanted to be that bad ass, that saviour of Antonio Inoki’s vaunted Strong Style pro wrestling, but it didn’t fit. Nakamura wasn’t that bad ass by nature, he was a kooky, eccentric guy that absolutely could be an asskicker if he wanted to be, but never seemed comfortable in that role. So he spent years in the black, Lion-mark trunks trying to embody the perfect Inoki warrior without anything ever fitting.
Similarly, for years I tried to fit into a mold that I felt I should at least attempt to squeeze into. I wanted my father to be proud of me, I wanted to prove that I could do these things that no one thought I could ever do. I, that eccentric kid growing up whose self image was that of a quiet, conscientious kid who could follow rules and make everyone else happy, wasn’t really that kid. The shock on my face in fourth grade when my teacher singled me out as one of the class’s biggest troublemakers and loudmouths was palpable. That was a joke, wasn’t it? When my desk was moved to the center of the room alongside other kids that I had always turned my nose up at and believed that I was somehow better than was a strange wake-up call.
Yet that quiet, nice kid was still what I strived for. Climbing a corporate ladder, taking advantage of these “born leadership abilities” that I had and “making something of myself” felt important. In fact, while I was doing that my father was so incredibly proud of me, to the point where it broke my heart at times. After years of being disappointing to both myself and to my family (or at least perceiving that disappointment), I was finally doing the right thing. Of course, it wasn’t actually the right thing for me. Creatively I had died a slow death, watching as all of those ideas that once filled my mind became less and less tangible or exciting, instead setting it aside to take life “seriously.”
When people think of intellectual pursuits or viable forms of entertainment I’m sure that professional wrestling is at the very end of the list, if not barred from that list entirely, yet it’s something that I’ve always been drawn to. As a bigger kid growing up who wasn’t exactly great at traditional sports I saw pro wrestling as such a natural fit for myself. I could do that, I thought. People liked me, and if they didn’t like me, they at least listened to me when I spoke, even if I never saw myself as deserving of that attention. Literature was always my main hook, but pro wrestling never quite went away, instead I searched for something that I could assign more meaning and value to, which led me to watching stuff beyond the traditional, southern-style wrestling in the US.
When I first saw Shinsuke’s new attitude I wasn’t sure that it worked. That awkward, vanilla, boring guy was gyrating, dressing in tight leather pants and acting like a mix of an 80’s rockstar and a traditional martial arts bad ass a la Hashimoto. That guy and the new guy in the ring were such disparate characters that connecting the dots seemed nearly impossible. A mohawk that he didn’t even bother to spike? The “YeaOh!” call after his matches and the weird peace sign-finger gyrations. What?
I was absolutely skeptical, yet I had to keep watching. Something about him was magnetic. Not only had he finally gotten more comfortable within his own skin, but he was one hell of a performer. In fact, he was probably one of the best that I had ever seen in the ring, which was saying a lot. But all of this happened while I myself was grappling with who and what I really was and where I was heading. I was watching someone that I had given up on entirely remake himself and find his true, inner self in a strange embodiment of self-actualization, and he was absolutely stellar.
Right now I’m in a different place than where I was when I first saw Nakamura back in 2002. A lot has changed. Some of the bad, some for the good, some for the great. I have a lot of incredible things to look forward to and for that I’m eternally thankful. Last night I thought that I wasn’t going to make it, but talking to my wife after she woke up kept me up long enough to tune in to watch the match. A lot of that was strange, looking back. I was laying in bed, watching a live New Japan event on my phone while my wife sat next to me reading something that I had wrote on her Kindle. The difference between that kid locked up in his bedroom with his latest giant box of VHS tapes from Lynch sitting on that ugly, green shag carpet upstairs in my parents’ old house and that 33 year old man in bed was that of night and day.
This entire week I had been reflecting on my work, past and present, and was coming to certain conclusions about where I needed to head next. Some of that reflection was that my work has improved so much that I almost don’t recognize my past work as my own anymore. The novel that I’m currently in the midst of revising was worked on as a sort of fun, relaxing break from what I considered my “serious” projects, but now I’m finding that the writing, the style, the narrative and the characters are simply much more striking and interesting than anything else that I’ve ever done. That meant coming to the tough decision to shelve the science fiction book that I was looking to release next to give it more time to sit before I return to it and give it a full rewrite to get it to exactly where I want it to be.
Sometimes self-realization requires accepting of one’s self and to strive for exactly what you want yourself to be, as opposed to trying to fit into a mold that seemed like an okay fit at the time, but the further you got the more of a pain in the ass and restrictive it grew to be. I’ve had a lot of influences in my life and I’m not about to pretend that Shinsuke Nakamura was the main one, but it would be crass to ignore the impact that his work and journey has had on me.
So last night I got to witness the send off for one of the greatest in-ring performers of this generation, of a guy that I got to watch grow while I, too, grew alongside him. The tearful, emotional send off from some of the most hardcore fans in Japan, his friends and rivals had a profound impact on me. That was a man who impacted lives across the world, and this wasn’t his funeral, nor was it his retirement, simply a send off while he prepared for a new chapter in his life in America under the WWE banner.
Will I enjoy his work in WWE the same as I did in New Japan? Who really knows. WWE is essentially the popcorn movie to pro wres’s action-drama style, the summer comic book movie featuring the big stars, the big special effects, sometimes a profound story but mostly a bunch of bullshit with talented people involved uniformly, while pro wres can be a lot of things, overlapping a lot of different genres. But I’ll still be watching while I, myself, evolve and grow into the man that I’m comfortable and happy being, in hopes of one day being able to be as happy with myself and my work as the King of Strong Style was with himself.
(If you’ve never seen him… just watch)