Kevin Eck is a former member of the WWE creative team and now blogs about pro wrestling for PressBox.
While sports entertainment admittedly is more entertainment than sport, the scripted genre does share some traits with "legitimate" sports. For example, both entities have big-name free agents who fail to live up to expectations, as well as mid-level prospects who end up becoming stars.
In WWE, Shinsuke Nakamura falls into the category of the former, while Baron Corbin typifies the latter. Their respective statuses were never more evident than at the "Hell in a Cell" pay-per-view Oct. 8 and on "SmackDown Live" two days later.
Nakamura failed in his second attempt to defeat WWE Champion Jinder Mahal at "Hell in a Cell," as he was pinned by Mahal -- again -- in a lackluster match. Corbin, conversely, won the United States Title from AJ Styles on that show in a triple threat match that also included Tye Dillinger.
Corbin went on to score a clean pinfall over Styles -- regarded by many as the best wrestler in the industry today -- to successfully defend his championship in the main event on "SmackDown Live." Nakamura, on the other hand, was inserted into a rather meaningless tag-team match pitting him and Randy Orton against Rusev and Aiden English that, from a storyline standpoint, he had no reason to be in.
When Nakamura left New Japan Pro Wrestling for WWE in January 2016, I was one of many fans and pundits who believed it was nearly a sure thing that the super-talented, charismatic Japanese wrestler would become a big-time main-eventer in WWE. (I say "nearly" because we all knew there was a possibility WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon wouldn't know what to do with a performer as unique as Nakamura.)
I thought WWE took the correct approach in having Nakamura spend a year in NXT instead of starting him on the main roster. Despite Nakamura being a world-class performer who has been wrestling since 2002, he needed time to adjust to a new country, new company and new in-ring style.
After his successful stint in NXT, Nakamura made his highly anticipated debut on the main roster this past April. His first televised match -- against Dolph Ziggler -- was one of the main attractions on the "Backlash" pay-per-view May 21.
Just before Nakamura made his entrance at "Backlash," the crowd at the Allstate Arena began chanting his name. Then, as he made his way to the ring, the fans erupted and sang along with his entrance music. It was an electric atmosphere.
And then the bell rang.
While the match wasn't bad by any means, it wasn't the home run everyone was expecting. Nakamura scoring the victory was a foregone conclusion, but the match was a lot more competitive than it should've been.
No disrespect to Ziggler -- a great performer in his own right -- but he's long been booked as a mid-carder, and Nakamura shouldn't have needed 16 minutes to beat him, much less spending the majority of the match on defense. Nakamura seemed less special after the match than he did before it.
In the ensuing months, Nakamura has been portrayed as "a guy" in the mix of top stars on "SmackDown Live," but not "the guy." Not even gaining clean pinfall victories against John Cena and Randy Orton on television in a six-week span -- something few, if any, performers have done -- has been able to change that perception of Nakamura. That's because those big wins were largely negated by Nakamura's deflating losses to Mahal at "SummerSlam" and "Hell in a Cell."
The loss at "Hell in a Cell" was especially damaging for Nakamura, who couldn't beat the lightly regarded champion even after Mahal's cohorts, the Singh brothers, were ejected from ringside. Making matters worse, after weeks of Nakamura being the punch line of Mahal's racially charged jokes, he was unable to give Mahal his comeuppance.
While it's easy to blame Nakamura's disappointing WWE stint thus far on bad booking -- and that's undoubtedly a large part of it -- Nakamura bears some of the responsibility as well. For whatever reason, he just hasn't looked like the same performer he was in NJPW.
The good news is that it's not a lost cause. Nakamura has only been on the main roster for six months, so it would be premature to deem his WWE run a failure. However, it'll take a concerted effort to undo the damage that has been done.
Unlike Nakamura, Corbin did not make his WWE main roster debut saddled with exceedingly high expectations. During his three years in NXT (2013-2016), Corbin -- a former NFL training camp and practice squad player with no prior pro wrestling experience -- clearly was a work in progress whose main attributes were his size and look.
It's certainly no secret that size does matter to McMahon, so it wasn't a surprise that the 6-foot-6, 317-pound Corbin was given a push right from the start after getting called up from NXT. In his first match -- which took place on the grand stage of WrestleMania 32 before nearly 100,000 fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in April 2016 -- Corbin won The Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal.
Coincidentally, Corbin's first program on the main roster was with Ziggler. Corbin repeatedly got the better of Ziggler -- with the exception of Ziggler recording one fluke win -- and scored a decisive victory in their blowoff match.
From there, WWE gradually moved Corbin up the card. He was inserted into the WWE Title picture early in 2017 and won the Money in the Bank ladder match in June (a match Nakamura also participated in).
Corbin's progress came to a halt shortly thereafter, however. Amid reports WWE management was unhappy with his behavior on social media and his attitude backstage, Corbin joined the short list of MITB winners to unsuccessfully cash in the contract, and then was soundly defeated by Cena at "SummerSlam." On the Oct. 3 episode of "SmackDown Live," Corbin suffered an embarrassing loss to Dillinger.
But Corbin is trending upward again thanks to his big wins on "Hell in a Cell" and "SmackDown Live."
Corbin's initial push in WWE may have been because of his size and look, but he deserves credit for making the most of the opportunity. Corbin still has his detractors, but he's developed into a solid in-ring performer, and while his promo skills still need work, he has improved in that area. Moreover, Corbin carries himself like a star.
As unfathomable as it once seemed, Baron Corbin just might be a more compelling performer than Shinsuke Nakamura -- at least for the moment.