As John Cena regained his equilibrium, he stood tall, then shook hands and saluted his victorious opponent in the final moments of Tuesday's SmackDown Live. It became immediately clear the decision to have Shinsuke Nakamura put into the SummerSlam spotlight on the back of a win over Cena was the right one.
Anytime Cena is involved in a storyline, in-ring or otherwise, there are notable consequences. Nakamura, while hugely popular, is still rather new to the WWE universe, but after some inconsistent moments in the early days of his main-roster run, the Japanese star received the push he needed as he and Cena put on a terrific performance to close out the show.
Nakamura overcame two Attitude Adjustments, countering midway through Cena's attempt at a third (a la his Royal Rumble-winning sequence against AJ Styles) with a devastating inverted suplex that resulted in Cena landing directly on his head and neck, before connecting with a match-ending Kinshasa knee strike.
- WWE (@WWE) August 2, 2017
Nakamura now solidifies his spot as the No. 1 contender for the WWE championship, and he'll duke it out with current title-holder Jinder Mahal in 18 days at SummerSlam. Whether Nakamura is ready to take the reins, though, is an entirely different story. We have a few weeks of build, twists and turns before this major pay-per-view event, but there's no time like the present to deliberate whether this is the right time for Nakamura to walk out of the Barclays Center with the belt in tow. With that, here are a few reasons he should and should not prevail:
Why Nakamura should win
Yes, he's new to the WWE big leagues, but Nakamura is an established veteran who notably starred on the New Japan Pro Wrestling stage before heading to NXT, where he was a two-time champ. So, he's earned the respect of wrestling fans. A win against Mahal would seem like a natural progression for someone how has put in the time.
He is a fantastic performer. His match against Cena on Tuesday was probably as good as it could have been, given the short television window and the crazy hype it had to live up to for the past week. Nakamura's showmanship, gamesmanship, striking ability and all-around athletic prowess make him a must-see attraction. There is a certain energy he produces from the moment his music hits that very few other performers generate. If intangibles mean anything (and they do), Nakamura has a unique ability to engage fans for an extended period of time.
Wrestling has increasingly become a business without borders. The international presence is robust and growing. And when you consider how popular Nakamura is with the U.S. audience -- his endearing personality, goofy wit and in-ring execution are just some of the factors -- you can only imagine what he means to his home fan base and supporters around the world.
Why Mahal should win
The same international argument for Nakamura can be made for Mahal, an Indo-Canadian whose shtick is largely based on his anti-American fighting words. During the broadcast, the WWE flashed a note saying, "Since Sony launched its new program WWE Sunday Dhamaal in India less than two months ago, the show has been viewed by over 100 million people." They've probably only begun to tap into the star Mahal has become in that region in a very short time.
It doesn't feel like the time is right for Mahal to drop his title. He posted an Instagram message earlier Tuesday, reminding everyone that it was one year ago to the day he made his return to the WWE, and now look where he is -- two months into his reign as the WWE champ. Mahal has had only one serious beef, with Randy Orton, and the Punjabi Prison match aside, the "Modern Day Maharaja" has improved quite a bit since being thrust to the pinnacle of the company's hierarchy. He needs more time to establish himself as a bona fide star in the business.
Nakamura-Mahal doesn't feel like a one-off kind of feud. Nakamura is an athletic, spirited performer who can make Mahal, still a work in progress, look strong in the ring as a result. There's no reason a rematch wouldn't be in the offing soon after SummerSlam with Nakamura still searching for that prized possession. The wait will only make the eventual celebration that much more spectacular.
The bottom line is that we, of course, have little idea how this will turn out, but good sense seems to suggest Nakamura, while deserving, would be better served by waiting a little while longer before holding the WWE title. Assuming he's booked correctly, Nakamura won't lose any momentum by failing to come out on top at SummerSlam. Mahal, a longtime enhancement talent in WWE, has far more to lose if he is to falter this early into his regime.
Of course, we can't ignore the potential for further histrionics at SummerSlam, notably if Money in the Bank winner Baron Corbin were to somehow cash in and steal the title from Nakamura or Mahal. Corbin's window to rule SmackDown seems like it's now as well. But we're going to venture a guess that he will be preoccupied with Cena at SummerSlam, and the free shot for the belt will come at a later date when we're expecting it less.
- WWE (@WWE) August 2, 2017
Shane O'Mac swerve in the near future?
And while the execution was stellar, and the contempt for each other remained intense, it was difficult to imagine what twists and turns could keep this rivalry fresh and, more importantly, keep it spinning forward.
As the match concluded, Owens became the victim of a bad call by the official, who moments earlier had been clocked clean (unintentionally) by KO. Still dazed, the ref, Mike Chioda, made the three count on Owens after Styles countered a pop-up powerbomb, sunset-flip combo.
One problem: Owens' shoulders were not on the mat, and afterward he went ballistic. Short story short, Owens continued to protest belligerently backstage when Daniel Bryan announced KO would have his rematch against Styles at SummerSlam ... with the added stipulation that Shane McMahon would be the guest referee.
So that adds a certain machination we didn't see coming. Now the question becomes whether McMahon's presence is merely about adding a big name to the bout, or whether this is part of a larger plot.
McMahon already feuded with Styles in a high-flying matchup this past April at WrestleMania, so any speculation of the commissioner channeling his inner Triple H and helping Owens win the title (thereby renewing a conflict with Styles) seems unlikely.
So, will McMahon do anything remotely nefarious to provoke Owens and start something that will culminate at, say, Survivor Series?
It wouldn't be the worst idea.
Hits and misses
- WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) August 2, 2017
Sandwiched in between Styles-Owens and Cena-Nakamura was the match of the night. Rusev and Chad Gable put on a fantastic show, with the former American Alpha member stringing together numerous "wow" moments. A massive belly-to-belly, followed by a crushing suplex and moonsault, were just a few of his highlights. Gable almost finished off Rusev with another moonsault and ankle lock (and Jason Jordan is Kurt Angle's kid?) before the Bulgarian brute countered with a superkick and his trademark Accolade for the win. Awesome stuff. Next up for Rusev...
... Orton. Yes, this pairing comes out of nowhere, and came together after Rusev growled to the audience that no one could beat him, only to see the Viper make his way to the ring and deliver an RKO. The lack of build doesn't really matter when you consider the underwhelming feuds Orton has been involved in since late last year (Bray Wyatt, Mahal). This beef seems like a win by comparison, especially if the storyline is played more straightforward, with no "House of Horrors" or Punjabi Prisons, and both parties are able to showcase their in-ring skills ... in the ring.
Fashion Files, er, Fashion Peaks this week, was amusing as ever with Tyler Breeze speaking into a recorder about how his partner, Fandango. Extraterrestrials, perhaps? It was as nonsensical as it was funny, leaning heavily on references to the recently revived show "Twin Peaks," but we're getting to the point where Breezango needs to re-establish themselves as a formidable tag team on SmackDown, especially with the split of American Alpha. It's a complete waste not to have Breezengo capitalize on their immense popularity. A rivalry against The Usos doesn't sound half bad.
For the second straight night, we're left disappointed by the direction the women's division is headed, especially given the untapped potential to groom some meaningful feuds between the top names on the roster. Naomi and Becky Lynch beat Carmella and Natalya in a quick tag-team bout that did little to advance their storylines. Worse, the match seemed like nothing but filler time.
The Usos can do a pretty mean New Day impression, huh?