Though Shinsuke Nakamura has connected with fans and had good -- sometimes great -- matches from the time he left NXT for SmackDown Live, it has felt like something was missing: a defining match, or a defining moment.
On Sunday night, Nakamura landed both of those things in one moment by winning the 2018 men's Royal Rumble match. After entering the match at the Wells Fargo Center midway through, Nakamura last eliminated Roman Reigns to secure the prestigious honor of a Rumble victory. But more importantly, he laid down the path for what should be a WrestleMania WWE championship rivalry for the ages.
When Renee Young entered the ring after the match and asked Nakamura whom he would challenge in New Orleans, it was a no-brainer.
"AJ Styles," an exhausted Nakamura emphasized.
It was a memorable, well-paced Rumble, and though Reigns' being involved in the final two gave the partisan Philadelphia crowd pause, Nakamura came through in definitive fashion. Instead, Reigns will have to settle for a record of second, first, third, second and second in his first five Rumbles.
Aiden English kicked off the 2018 Rumble with a celebration of Rusev Day, and Rusev entered the Wells Fargo Center to a massive reaction from the crowd, who all chanted, "Rusev Day" like crazy for 30 seconds and then throughout the match. They exploded even further into applause when Finn Balor joined him in the ring as the No. 2 entrant.
With two of the most crowd-friendly guys in the company in the ring to kick the match off, the crowd immediately broke into a, "This is awesome" chant. They continued to battle as Rhyno, a legendary figure in Philadelphia and ECW, made his way to the ring. An "E-C-Dub" chant soon rang down from the rafters as Rhyno got in some licks on both Rusev and Balor.
Baron Corbin came out at No. 4 to a chorus of boos, and to say that he might be the second-least popular entrant in this Rumble for this particular crowd wouldn't be overstating it. Corbin thwarted a gore attempt into a Deep Six and tossed Rhyno out of the ring, but the first major shock of the night came when Balor almost instantly eliminated him. Corbin, incensed, attacked both Balor and Rusev, pulling them out the ring and hit them with multiple attacks. For good measure, Corbin hit No. 5 entry Heath Slater with a clothesline while officials dragged him to the back.
Everyone stayed down until the clock ran all the way down for the No. 6 entrant, and appropriately enough, that gave Elias enough time to serenade the Philadelphia crowd. He multitasked, stomping on Slater while playing the guitar and walking down the ramp, and while Philadelphia clearly wanted to walk with Elias, they got even more excited by the first surprise entrant of the night at No. 7 -- NXT champion Andrade "Cien" Almas, one night after he successfully defended that title against Johnny Gargano.
Bray Wyatt was No. 8, and Balor and Rusev finally recovered, rolling back into the ring. The ring started to fill up as Big E came in at No. 9, and though he tried to help Heath Slater with one of his patented pocket pancakes, it was to no avail.
They burned time until the No. 10 entry, and for the second time in as many years, the Perfect 10 Tye Dillinger was poised to come in at No. 10 (or so it seemed). When Dillinger didn't come out to his music, we cut to backstage as Owens and Sami Zayn attacked him, allowing Zayn to steal his entry number.
Sheamus, with a tag team title challenge still to come, rolled Heath Slater in the ring, and by instinct, Slater almost immediately clotheslined Sheamus out. He wouldn't last long, though, as Bray Wyatt tossed a still woozy Slater out.
Big E got some backup as Xavier Woods came out at No. 12, and they took turns doling out some tag team offense until they unsuccessfully tried to eliminate Elias. With eight guys in the ring, it was starting to get crowded, and the thought of someone coming in and cleaning house started to creep up as Apollo Crews rolled in at No. 13. But that kind of moment, absent a monster such as Braun Strowman, never came.
The crowd absolutely exploded and broke into song as Shinsuke Nakamura rolled into the ring and they continued to sing while he wreaked havoc on everyone who got in his way. Once the singing died down, "Nakamura" chants replaced them as he took Zayn to the corner and picked up the elimination on his former NXT rival.
Cesaro closed out the first half of the men's Rumble by going straight after the New Day and Finn Balor, but the action drifted back to stasis with 10 guys in the ring. To fill the lull, the crowd broke into "Rusev Day" chants -- and Rusev acknowledged them in kind. The strength in numbers for The New Day grew as Kofi Kingston came in 16th, but he instantly ate an uppercut from Cesaro to temporarily quell any of that. Cesaro then went to battle with Crews, ultimately landing a low uppercut to drive Crews off the apron and eliminate him.
Jinder Mahal challenged for second-least popular status in the eyes of Philadelphians as he entered at No. 17. He didn't improve upon that status as he tossed Woods out of the ring and followed that by dragging Big E out in kind. Seth Rollins ran to the ring at full speed at No. 18, dolling out blockbusters, but quickly ran aground of his tag team title challenger-to-be, Cesaro. In one of the most impressive spots to that point, Rollins catapulted Cesaro head over heels over the top rope and out using only his feet.
Mahal attempted to go for the New Day trifecta, but Kingston took advantage of both feet having to hit the ground by first stepping on Woods, and then a plate of pancakes before Big E and Woods catapulted Kingston over Mahal's head, which set him up to hit the trouble in paradise to send Mahal out. It was all for naught, as Almas hit a hammerlock DDT and tossed Kingston out on the other side.
The crowd once again lost its mind as Matt Hardy entered 19th. He, Rusev and Wyatt went back and forth in the middle of the ring, before Hardy and Wyatt combined to end Rusev Day to the crowd's sincere disappointment. Hardy and Wyatt couldn't get over their aggression against each other and quickly eliminated each other simultaneously.
John Cena made his presence felt in a big way, coming in at No. 20, but the entrants all felt it as much as the crowd and teamed up on him. It didn't last long, though, as Cena recovered and sent Elias out of the ring via an Attitude Adjustment. The first "legend" of the night was The Hurricane, who entered at No. 21, and even Cena couldn't hold in his surprise. As Hurricane attempted a chokeslam, Cena helped Hurricane fly with an attitude adjustment to the outside. English returned, sans his Bulgarian compatriot, at No. 22, and the crowd still acknowledged Rusev Day one last time.
A second NXT entry on the evening popped the crowd again in a big way as Adam Cole, taped ribs and all, made his Royal Rumble debut. Balor deposited English out of the ring, and the Rumble entered its home stretch. Defending Rumble winner Randy Orton made his way out at No. 24, and after a pit stop against Cole and Cena, Almas attempted a springboard attack and Orton finished him off with a scintillating RKO -- which he followed by tossing Almas out of the ring.
Titus O'Neil completed Titus Worldide's entries into the Royal Rumble at No. 25, leaving just five more men to enter the match. The Miz followed at No. 26, and immediately mixed it up with Rollins, and then Cena. He then hit rotating "it" kicks on Rollins and Cena, missed the last one on both but nailed a skull-crushing finale on Cena.
The other surprise legend drew an even bigger pop at No. 27, as Rey Mysterio came out to a massively different reaction than his 2014 debacle. He eliminated Cole with a head scissors, and then landed a 619 on The Miz.
As expected, Roman Reigns' entry at No. 28 drew massive boos for one of the presumptive favorites. Reigns hit uppercuts on everyone and cleared the ring -- and then he stared down The Miz, who was fresh off beating Reigns for the Intercontinental championship.
Reigns' first elimination sent O'Neil flying out of the ring like a much smaller man, and then Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas got a double superman punch for trying to help their boss. Rollins hit a blackout on Miz, and then he and Reigns combined to hit a Shield powerbomb that sent Miz out as he landed on Axel and Dallas.
There are no friends in Rumbles, though, and Reigns quickly blindsided his friend and tossed Rollins out like he was nothing to him. Goldust came out at No. 29, leaving just one more person to enter the 2018 Royal Rumble. That spot was filled by Dolph Ziggler, a man who had been out of the picture since mysteriously giving up the United States championship on SmackDown. He immediately hit superkicks on both Orton and Cena, but Goldust got him for a running powerslam before Ziggler hit a third superkick and eliminated him.
But his return was even more puzzling than his title abdication. Nakamura and Balor combined to knock out Ziggler, leaving six men in the ring and no further insight into where Ziggler's future lays.
The final six took in the moment, split into eras; Cena, Orton and Mysterio on one side, and Reigns, Balor and Nakamura staring them down.
Mysterio landed a 619, while Orton floored Nakamura with an RKO in the middle of the ring. Reigns caught Orton with a Superman punch to knock out the defending champion. After Mysterio hit a double 619 on Cena and Reigns, and dropped the dime on Cena, Balor barged in and tossed Mysterio out.
And then there were four.
Each sat, exhausted, in a corner by themselves, gearing up for the match's final moments. They went back and forth, with Nakamura and Balor going to war and Cena and Reigns battling. When Balor went after Cena, Reigns and Nakamura with a trio of slingblades, and lined Nakamura up to hit a grounded Coup de Grace -- it all turned out poorly as Cena blindsided him and tossed Balor out.
The crowd loudly chanted, "Nakamura," and as Reigns and Cena double-teamed him, the boos became louder than at any other time in the match. With Nakamura out, Cena and Reigns traded a five knuckle shuffle and Superman punch, but as Reigns lined up a spear, Nakamura held Reigns' leg just long enough to allow Cena to come back and hit an Attitude Adjustment on Reigns.
Through a series of unfortunate events, Cena found himself draped over the middle rope with his head sticking out -- a perfect recipe for a Kinshasa knee strike that ended Cena's run in third. The Nakamura chants rained down from the crowd, as Nakamura and Reigns went face-to-face with a WrestleMania title shot on the line.
Reigns got Nakamura up on the wrong side of the ring, but Nakamura used it as an opportunity to lock on a hanging armbar while draped over the top rope. Reigns countered with a powerbomb, and both men laid, prone, in the middle of the ring. Reigns rose first and sized Nakamura up for a spear but ran head-first into a Nakamura knee. Nakamura hit a second knee flying from the second rope, but his Kinshasa attempt ran straight into a Reigns spear.
He slowly made his way up and slung Nakamura over his shoulder, but Nakamura fought off as both men went into a full-blown sprint. Reigns went for his spear but got nailed flush by Nakamura's Kinshasa. Nakamura used his last bit of strength to run Reigns to the edge and toss him over the top rope -- securing the defining moment of his WWE career thus far.