PHILADELPHIA — The day after WrestleMania 33, Shinsuke Nakamura debuted as a SmackDown Superstar. The day after WrestleMania 34, he may well walk out as WWE Champion.
The King of Strong Style outlasted 29 other Superstars to win the Men’s Royal Rumble Match, earning a World Title opportunity of his choosing at WrestleMania. And he already knows who he’s going to challenge.
Entering at No. 14, The Artist’s first moments in the match were scored by the WWE Universe serenading him with his theme song. He notched an elimination early on by tossing Sami Zayn, who stole Tye Dillinger’s No. 10 position after Zayn and Kevin Owens — still smarting over their WWE Title loss to AJ Styles earlier in the night — jumped The Perfect 10 backstage. For the majority of his 44:38 in the contest, WWE’s RockStar played it safe, avoiding elimination while the typical Rumble shenanigans raged around him.
And true to form, there were some epic shenanigans afoot. Heath Slater, entering at No. 5, was clotheslined during his entrance by Baron Corbin and was then jumped by every Superstar on their way to the ring. Sheamus finally threw him into the ring to pick the bones, only to be eliminated himself by The One-Man Band.
Elsewhere, Kofi Kingston was saved from elimination by his eliminated New Day compatriots, who broke Kingston’s fall with their own bodies (Xavier Woods) and a plate of pancakes (Big E). “Woken” Matt Hardy and Bray Wyatt joined forces to eliminate overwhelming sentimental favorite Rusev, only to eliminate each other moments later as their heated rivalry continued.
Surprise entrants included Rey Mysterio, who entered at No. 27 looking better than he did when he won the Rumble in 2006. The Hurricane entered at No. 21, but was quickly tossed by John Cena. (What’s up with that?!) NXT fielded two entrants, reigning NXT Champion Andrade “Cien” Almas and Undisputed ERA ringleader Adam Cole (BAY-BAY).
In the end, the bout came down to a battle of generations, with Nakamura, Reigns and iron man Finn Bálor against Cena, Randy Orton and Mysterio. Once again, Nakamura played defense, making himself scarce as Reigns eliminated Orton while Mysterio was tossed by Bálor after executing a double-619 to Reigns and Cena. Bálor was next out, sent packing by a somber-looking Cena, and Nakamura struck soon thereafter, sending the 16-time World Champion tumbling after a Kinshasa through the ropes.
With Reigns now the only thing standing between him and WrestleMania glory, Nakamura came alive, daring The Big Dog to fight before bombarding him with a savage array of knees and elbows. Nakamura flirted with disaster, locking Reigns in an armbar over the top rope. Meanwhile Reigns, returning to the site of his own Rumble Match win in 2015, played it far more conservatively, looking to flatten Nakamura with power maneuvers before tossing him over.
Reigns seemed to have the match in hand, for all intents and purposes, after launching himself into a Spear that pulverized The Artist, but Nakamura answered by cutting off a second Spear with the Kinshasa. Nakamura tossed a dazed Reigns moments later to earn his first Royal Rumble Match victory.
In a post-match interview, Nakamura — who had the right to choose which title he would pursue — made it clear who he wanted: WWE Champion AJ Styles. The dream match is set, and The Artist has truly arrived, but his true masterpiece may be yet to come.