Shinsuke Nakamura: Wrestling as an art form

Shinsuke Nakamura's movements, appearance and in-ring approach are a hybrid of many elements that influence him, including Japanese strong style, pop music icons like Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury, classic ballet and a variety of martial arts. Nick Laham for ESPN

You're not supposed to remember where you were the first time you heard a wrestler's entrance theme. It's not supposed to be some seminal moment that causes you to take into account your surroundings a year later.

But it's hard for anyone who was watching "NXT TakeOver: Dallas" last year not to remember the moment Shinsuke Nakamura made his NXT debut as "The Rising Sun" blasted over the speakers at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas.

It was unlike anything fans had ever heard or experienced before. The piercing violin intro transitioned into frantic techno beats like a wave picking up steam before crashing down to a melodic chorus that fans voluntarily hummed in unison, further adding to the effect.

The final product was actually a team effort between CFO$, the duo of John Alicastro and Mike Lauri who are tasked with writing and producing the entrance music for WWE superstars, and Nakamura, who had an idea of what he wanted his song to sound like after he signed with the WWE.

"Before my debut, WWE sent me a sample of the music and I sent it back. I said, 'I don't want to use this, I don't want to use this,'" Nakamura told ESPN.com. "They tried to keep it and I said, 'No, no, no.' Finally, I asked them if they could listen to some samples, and we went back and forth and finally they sent me what you hear now, and I said, 'Yes, OK. I'll use this one.'"

The final product is one of the most popular entrance themes in the company's history. After his debut, "The Rising Sun" was the No. 1 song on the iTunes soundtrack chart, topping the likes of The Weekend, Eminem and even "Let it Go" from Disney's "Frozen." The WWE Music Group posts each wrestler's entrance theme on its YouTube page. "The Rising Sun" has almost 9 million views; the next most popular theme only recently cracked 5 million.

"That moment was the first step of my new journey," Nakamura said of his debut before WrestleMania last year. "For a long time, almost 14 years, I wrestled in Japan, so I didn't think I would leave New Japan Pro Wrestling, but I started changing my mind. I wanted to see the other world. I wanted to change something. I wanted to be bigger. I wanted to change my world so I felt it was my destiny to come here. At TakeOver Dallas I wrestled Sami Zayn. I never wrestled with him before. Everything was for the first time, but I already had experienced wrestling at huge venues so I wasn't nervous -- but that match was huge for me."

As memorable as his debut was, his entrance at "NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II" in August at the Barclays Center may have topped it; acclaimed violinist Lee England Jr. played "The Rising Sun" as he led Nakamura to the ring before the main event. Only 11 WWE superstars have cracked the 1 million views mark with their entrance theme music videos, and Nakamura is on the list twice; the original version is No. 1, and England's version from Brooklyn sits at No. 8 with over 1.1 million views.

"My friend told me later that after the match, on the street, on the subway, everyone was still singing the song," Nakamura said. "It was awesome."

Nakamura laughs when he is asked how important his entrance is to his character: "How important is it? Maybe 90 percent."

While that percentage may seem high, there's no question that his theme and entrance are the highlights of any card he is on. He seemingly channels his inner Michael Jackson, from his wardrobe to his mannerisms, as soon as his music hits.

"Michael had charisma," Nakamura said. "With Michael Jackson, when he moved, it looked like a martial artist to me. He was quicker than other dancers but he didn't have muscles; he was just quicker and looked more in control of gravity. He looked like a martial arts master so I tried to steal body movement from him; that's why I imitate Michael Jackson a little bit."

As soon as Nakamura's music hits, he appears to let it take over his body. He stands on the tips of his toes, stretches his arms out in front of his chest, points to nothing in particular and starts shaking his hands up and down as if he is a puppeteer. Nakamura said he is never quite sure what he will do when he walks to the ring but concedes it is authentic.

"Everything is from my real life, from the moving of the fingers and the body movement -- that's from classic ballet or martial arts," Nakamura said. "I trained in classic ballet and martial arts. Some things come from yoga, some things come from kobudo or kung fu, I just mixed them together. It's like hybrid martial arts style"

His entrance movements may be "martial arts style," but he is synonymous for his "strong style" in the ring. It's a style of wrestling popularized in Japan, where gimmicky moves you might normally see in the WWE -- such as John Cena's "Five Knuckle Shuffle" -- that don't necessarily look very damaging are replaced by the kind of kicks and strikes you would find in a normal mixed martial arts fight.

"Strong style is a philosophy for Japanese wrestling fans that was created by New Japan Pro Wrestling founder Antonio Inoki," Nakamura said. "He wanted you to show every motion and show real technique in the ring. It's important to use real techniques from real life and real martial arts. The detail is important."

As he inches toward his one-year anniversary in NXT, Nakamura smiles when he's asked about his eventual WWE debut and whether that debut could take place at WrestleMania on Sunday.

"I want to go to the biggest places like WrestleMania," Nakamura said. "We will see, but I want to give some inspiration for people all over the world. Wrestling is an art. Every culture has an art, like music and dancing and fighting. So that's my base. If I think about it like art, I can connect with everybody."