“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”…I think you know where I’m going with this.
In 1916, legendary American poet Robert Frost penned his famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In the poem, Frost remarks that at the beginning of his journey he has two paths to choose from, two roads diverged in this yellow wood. At the end, Frost says he took the “one less traveled by.”
While it would be hard to say that either United States Champion Shinsuke Nakamura or Intercontinental Champion Seth Rollins took a road less traveled than the other, both certainly did take different paths through different companies to find themselves in the same place, the WWE. And as both have come to realize, much as Frost penned, for them as individuals, the path they chose has “made all the difference.”
Seth Rollins: The Path of Honor
In 2005, at 19 years old, Seth Rollins, working under the name “Tyler Black” made his professional wrestling debut for Scott County Wrestling in his home city of Davenport, Iowa. From there, Rollins worked the local Midwest scene, wrestling for well-known promotions in AAW: Professional Wrestling Redefined and IWA: Mid South, both of which he was a staple at in his early days. It was through IWA: MS that Seth Rollins wrestled several NWA matches as well, alongside or against the likes of Chris Hero (WWE’s Kassius Ohno), Claudio Castagnoli (WWE’s Cesaro), Jimmy Jacobs, Silas Young and Marek Brave. Alongside Brave, Rollins won the NWA Midwest Tag Team Championship and AAW Tag Team Championship.
Rollins’ first singles title came in 2006 as he won the IWA: MS Light Heavyweight Championship and just a few months later, he’d win his first heavyweight title, by claiming AAW’s top belt, which he held for 245 days. The same year, Rollins made his national television debut as he took part in MTV’s Wrestling Society X where he teamed with Jacobs for the first, but certainly not last time. In 2006, Seth Rollins also wrestled his lone career match with TNA/IMPACT Wrestling and made his Pro Wrestling Guerrilla debut.
By 2008, Seth Rollins had started to become a name to watch on the indie scene thanks to his appearance in the 2007 Battle of Los Angeles tournament and more importantly, his Ring of Honor debut alongside Jacobs and Necro Butcher in the Age of the Fall. Initially billed as Project 161, Age of the Fall made its debut at Man Up, ROH’s 161st show, by attacking the Briscoes and hanging Jay Briscoe upside down from rigging that had been used earlier in the night for a ladder match. Jacobs allowed Briscoe’s blood to drip down his shirt and in his mouth in what was one of the most controversial moments in ROH history. Alongside Jacobs, Rollins enjoyed great success, as the two won the ROH tag titles twice and the PWG tag titles once as well. But as Seth Rollins continued to pick up singles gold elsewhere (Absolute Intense Wrestling, AAW, Full Impact Pro), it was clear that his breakout moment in ROH wasn’t going to be far behind. In 2010, a little over one year after Jacobs had turned on his partner and ousted him from the stable, Rollins won the Survival of the Fittest tournament and went on to win his first and only ROH world title, defeating Austin Aries for the belt.
Rollins’ title reign lasted 210 days and included successful defenses against Aries, Roderick Strong, Kenny King, Hero, Davey Richards and Kevin Steen (WWE’s Kevin Owens). The reign ended in October 2010, but it may have gone longer had Rollins not signed on the dotted line to join WWE’s developmental system. Seth Rollins had his ROH farewell with an event named after him, ROH Fade to Black, in which he battled Christopher Daniels to a 30-minute time limit draw, before making his final appearance for the company at Glory By Honor IX where he lost the title to Strong.
And then came Florida Championship Wrestling, which would soon become known as NXT, and the official debut of Seth Rollins.
Shinsuke Nakamura: The Path of a Lion
In 2002, at New Japan Pro Wrestling‘s Cross Road event, a 22-year-old Shinsuke Nakamura made his pro wrestling debut in a loss against Tadao Yasuda. But as anyone will tell you, wins and losses “don’t matter” in a scripted sport such as wrestling and even though he took the pin, Nakamura was said to have impressed NJPW officials. Dubbed, the “Super Rookie,” Nakamura was part of the promotion’s new “Three Musketeers” alongside Katsuyori Shibata and Hiroshi Tanahashi. To flash forward in time for a moment, these three were well deserving of the title as they helped rebuild NJPW into the top global brand it is today. But more on that later.
Following up a victory in the Teisen Hall Cup Six Man Tag Team Tournament alongside Hiro Saito and Tatsutoshi Goto, the Super Rookie was entered into the G1 Climax in just his first full year with the company. It was his first of 12 appearances in the prestigious tournament as he missed just one that he was eligible for in his career. In 2004, Shinsuke Nakamura tasted his first real success both in wrestling and in NJPW, when he became the youngest wrestler in history, and the so far only Young Lion still in training, to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, a title he was forced to vacate due to injury less than two months into his reign.
Shortly after returning from injury, Shinsuke Nakamura, as all Young Lions are required to do, took part in his international excursion, where he wrestled for Consejo Mundial De Lucha Libre for one month alongside Tanahashi, who was also on his own Young Lion excursion. The two were IWGP tag team champions at the time, a reign that lasted 323 days. Following the brief excursion, Nakamura and Tanahashi returned to Japan where they continued to successfully defend their tag titles until October 2005, when the team of Black New Japan (Hiroyoshi Tenzan and Masahiro Chono) defeated the champs. The two didn’t challenge for the titles again as both had gone their separate ways following 2005’s Touken Series. When it came time for 2006’s G1 Tag League, which was won by Nakamura and Chono, the two former partners met as rivals with Nakamura once again emerging victorious over Tanahashi.
Having joined Black New Japan, Nakamura and Tanahashi’s rivalry only intensified. In 2006, at one of the final shows of the year, Tanahashi successfully defended his IWGP heavyweight title against Nakamura. Though the next time they met with the belt on the line, it was Shisnuke Nakamura who came out on top. Nakamura’s rivalry with Tanahashi, which put the heavyweight and intercontinental titles on the line more than once, helped define NJPW in the mid-late 2000s and both men became bonafide stars as a result. Together, the two recorded three Dave Meltzer rated 4.5 and one five star match and overall have held 28 NJPW titles between them.
While Tanahashi became known for his world title reigns, Nakamura established himself as the most successful IWGP Intercontinental Champion in company history. Shinsuke Nakamura won that title five times. No one else has won it more than twice.
Nakamura’s highlights in the ring are numerous and in addition to the title wins mentioned above, he also won the G1 Climax in 2011 and the New Japan Cup in 2014. But when it comes to the King of Strong Style’s legacy with the promotion, one would be remiss to not mention perhaps his biggest impact on the current product, that being the formation of Chaos. NJPW is well known for its stables these days but Chaos was really the one that started the trend. Before Bullet Club, before Los Ingobernables de Japon, before Suzuki-gun, Chaos was running wild in NJPW under Nakamura’s leadership. In all, nearly 40 men have wrestled under the Chaos banner, which is more than that of any other stable in the promotion’s history.
Alongside his Chaos teammates, Kazuchika Okada and Tomohiro Ishii, Shinsuke Nakamura wrestled his last match in NJPW, fittingly against the team of Hirooki Goto and two men he came into the company with, Shibata and of course, his all-time rival, Tanahashi. After that, Nakamura was NXT bound.
Two Roads Converged in NXT…
Shinsuke Nakamura and Seth Rollins never shared the ring in NXT, but in many ways, the different paths both men took to WWE converged in the developmental territory. So not a yellow wood as Frost wrote, but rather a black and yellow brand.
In 2010, Seth Rollins made his FCW debut at a live event defeating Brad Maddox. FCW was known for its 15-minute iron man matches which they referred to as Jack Brisco Classics. The first such match Rollins took part in and won was against Jinder Mahal. With the iron man matches such an important part of FCW’s focus, the promotion introduced the FCW 15 Championship a year later and it was Rollins who became its first champion. Rollins held the title for 252 days, defending against guys like Richie Steamboat and Dean Ambrose. Rollins went on to win the FCW tag titles with Steamboat and his feud with Ambrose, which ended in two time-limit draws, led to FCW’s first-ever 30-minute iron man match in which the soon-to-be Architect retained his title.
By 2012, Seth Rollins had ascended from holding the FCW 15 title to holding the FCW Heavyweight Championship. In February of that year, just a month after the first Shield triple threat happened, Rollins defeated Leo Kruger (WWE’s Adam Rose) to win the championship, which he held for 114 days. Rollins worked his last FCW match in August but returned to the re-branded NXT where he took part in the Gold Rush tournament to crown the company’s first champion. In the final, Rollins defeated Mahal and went on to hold the championship for 133 days. Rollins lost the title to Big E in December, at which point he had already made his main roster debut, wreaking havoc as one/third of the Hounds of Justice.
While Seth Rollins was starting to emerge as “The Man,” having won his first WWE Championship, Shinsuke Nakamura was just beginning to impart on his own WWE journey.
After an emotional goodbye to NJPW, Nakamura arrived in NXT in April 2016, where he made his in-ring debut in a stellar match with Sami Zayn at NXT TakeOver: Dallas. The match received 4.5 stars, making it NXT’s highest-rated men’s match in the promotion’s brief history. Nakamura had unprecedented early success out of the gate as he went undefeated for three months, including live events, dark matches and TV tapings. He lost his first TakeOver match seven months into his tenure and never lost a match taped for NXT TV. In fact, with a record of 109-2-8 according to the Internet Wrestling Database, Shinsuke Nakamura had the most prolific NXT career of all-time in terms of winning percentage.
In August 2016, Shinsuke Nakamura won the NXT Championship for the first time, defeating Samoa Joe at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II. It was a short reign as just a few months later, Joe gave Nakamura his first NXT loss (not counting live events or dark matches) and regained the championship, making him the first two-time champ in the promotion’s history. Nakamura became the second when he defeated Joe in Japan. He was also the first and so far only superstar to win the NXT title outside of North America.
Shinsuke Nakamura held the title until NXT TakeOver: San Antonio in January 2017. It came as a surprise to many that Nakamura wasn’t involved in the Royal Rumble a few days later. Fans, however, didn’t have to wait much longer to see the King of Strong Style make his main roster debut as that happened on the Smackdown after Wrestlemania 33.
Kingslayer vs King of Strong Style
— Shinsuke Nakamura (@ShinsukeN) November 14, 2018
“He has amazing abilities, he can do everything, I don’t do everything, I always choose like one or two things, three things, in the ring, but he can do everything. So I love to wrestle like a high-ability guy, so maybe we can make huge chemistry in the ring, I think. I look for that.”
Shinsuke Nakamura on Seth Rollins
The roads of the Intercontinental and United States champions would diverge once again. Both men were now on the main roster but since the first draft of the new brand split in 2016, Seth Rollins has always bled red whereas Shinsuke Nakamura has always proudly represented team blue. Save for taking part in the same Royal Rumble in 2018, Rollins and Nakamura never had occasion to meet, until now.
As a member of the Monday Night Raw roster, Seth Rollins has had incredible success and just a few months ago, became the third and final member of the Shield to earn his career grand slam. In all, Rollins is a former Money in the Bank winner, two-time world champion, four-time tag team champion, one-time United States champion (where he was the first person to hold the U.S. and world title at the same time) and two-time Intercontinental champion.
Shinsuke Nakamura has only been part of the main roster for a little over 1.5 years and in that time, he’s had his ups and downs. Perhaps held down by a language barrier, it wasn’t until winning the Royal Rumble in 2018, where he was the first Japanese winner ever, that Nakamura began to get pushed. He challenged AJ Styles at Wrestlemania 34 in what was a dream match for WWE fans and highly anticipated rematch for those who saw the two wrestle in the Tokyo Dome for WrestleKingdom 10. Shinsuke Nakamura turned to the dark side after the loss and shortly after that, won his first main roster title, the United States Championship, which he still holds to this day.
Looking very much forward to this one. https://t.co/Ynvo5xucpu
— Seth Rollins (@WWERollins) November 3, 2018
“Shinsuke’s great, man. He’s a generational talent. They don’t come along like him very often and he’s a special cat, just a crazy guy to be around. (He’s) just got so much charisma and so much going on for him…I see only great things in his future. I’m happy he’s here in the States and working for us and hopefully sometime in the not-too-distant future we can see a Seth Rollins/Shinsuke Nakamura one-on-one match.”
Seth Rollins on Shinsuke Nakamura
Seth Rollins and Shinsuke Nakamura are two of the absolute best in the company and expectations are already ridiculously high for this first-time singles match. As it turns out, it will be one of three champion vs champion bouts scheduled for this year’s Survivor Series that will pit first-time opponents against each other. The thought however, is that this one will definitely be the show stealer and match of the night. That is of course if Dean Ambrose doesn’t see fit to get involved to continue his feud with Rollins. Even so though, give Seth Rollins and Shinsuke Nakamura 20+ minutes to put on a showcase (before inevitable interference) and this could easily end up as one of WWE’s best matches of 2018 no matter the outcome.
These two are certainly ready for this showdown as both have immense respect for the other. Over the summer, before either man was in possession of the championship they have today, the two superstars were serendipitously asked about the possibility of wrestling each other. Both were excited for the chance to meet one-on-one, a chance they’ll finally have this Sunday.