Winning the men's 2018 Royal Rumble match was merely Step 1 for Shinsuke Nakamura on his path to becoming a bona fide main event star in WWE. His biggest test will come when he clashes with WWE champion AJ Styles at WrestleMania 34.
It's a marquee match fans have clamored for since Nakamura's anticipated arrival on the main roster immediately following WrestleMania 33. Neither the Japanese nor Styles was remotely close to the world title picture at the time, but they were always destined to do battle at the spring spectacle.
Styles could have entered WWE Championship contention at any point and fans wouldn't have thought twice about it. After all, he had already held the prestigious prize once before and embarked on a four-month run with the title in the final few months of 2016.
It was more a matter of how Nakamura would fare against the elite athletes of SmackDown Live. He was positioned as a top star in NXT for the year he was there, but that type of success doesn't often translate to the main roster.
Sure enough, Nakamura was dropped down a number of notches upon his WWE debut, but that hasn't stopped him from fulfilling his potential as a player in the main event scene.
One might argue Nakamura first failed to prove his worth to the masses as a future world champ last summer. That was when he lost his back-to-back bouts with then-WWE champion Jinder Mahal and hardly looked strong in defeat.
His less-than-stellar showings at Survivor Series and Clash of Champions didn't help matters, either. Had he not won the Royal Rumble match in January, his immediate future on the blue brand would have been in doubt.
Although his WrestleMania match against Styles is set in stone, the real work with Nakamura is about to begin. His popularity with the fans and his in-ring ability cannot be questioned, but the WWE Universe still knows nothing about who he is and what drives him as a character.
Everyone is aware he hails from Japan and that was where he cut his teeth before signing with WWE at the onset of 2016, but what does he hope to achieve here? What was it that brought him to the dance? How much does this match with Styles mean to him?
Before WrestleMania 34, the WWE Universe needs to feel a sense of realism in regard to The Rockstar and that he is more than a cartoon character come to life. Only then would he solidify his spot atop the SmackDown Live pecking order.
Shinsuke Nakamura @ShinsukeN
Even the stone you trip on is part of your destiny. We’ve waited long since 東京ドーム; our return to the ring will be welcome. #WrestleMania https://t.co/6EsYro5ulX2018-1-31 06:14:07
Thankfully, the Styles vs. Nakamura program is already off to a strong start as a result of their history together. Before both men left New Japan Pro-Wrestling for WWE in January 2016, they contested one of the year's best bouts at Wrestle Kingdom 10 for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
In that outing, Nakamura barely managed to emerge victorious. Afterward, however, he showed respect to The Phenomenal One, hinting at a rematch down the road.
Needless to say, it's a WrestleMania-worthy matchup on paper that should steal the show if they are afforded the opportunity to go all out and not be held back by time constraints. Whether it goes on last is irrelevant, as everyone will realize once it's over it was the undisputed main event of the show.
It isn't imperative Nakamura goes over in that encounter, but it's unknown how he would be able to bounce back from such a high-profile loss. Styles will forever be considered a top-tier talent in WWE regardless of what happens, whereas The King of Strong Style would greatly benefit from walking away with the gold in his grasp.
Now more than ever, WWE could use a fresh face to build around on either brand, and an exceptional performance from Nakamura at WrestleMania would ensure the company will prominently feature him for years to come.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, is an Endicott College alumnus and aspiring journalist. Visit his website, Next Era Wrestling, and "like" his official Facebook page to continue the conversation on all things wrestling.