PHILADELPHIA -- As Shinsuke Nakamura walked to the back of the Wells Fargo Center after winning the Royal Rumble, he couldn't stop smiling and shaking his head before finally leaning against a stack of boxes at the arena's loading dock, away from the bright lights and the cameras.
"I believe this is the biggest thing to happen in my career so far," Nakamura told ESPN. "That's until WrestleMania this year which will be the biggest thing in my life."
Two years almost to the day since the WWE announced that Nakamura would be making his debut for the company at NXT TakeOver: Dallas before WrestleMania that year, Nakamura will be in one of the main events on the company's biggest show; fighting for a world championship.
Nakamura was the 14th entrant into the 30-man Royal Rumble match and lasted 44:25 before eliminating Roman Reigns for the biggest win in his WWE career. Nakamura was clearly the fan favorite. After his entrance music stopped playing, the sold out crowd at the Wells Fargo Center continued sing it for another 30 seconds while he was in the ring.
Nakamura said he understood the significance of the Royal Rumble as one of the company's four signature pay-per-view events of the year but admits he had never watched it before until actually being a part of it on Sunday.
"This was my first time being in a match with these kinds of rules," Nakamura said. "I've never watched a Royal Rumble match. This was my first time. I wanted to enjoy it for the first time being in it."
While Nakamura has become one of the more popular superstars since joining the company from IWGP Intercontinental Championship in 2016, he admits he had to adjust when he moved from NXT, the WWE's developmental division, to the main roster of WWE SmackDown after WrestleMania last year.
"When I came to NXT, I didn't need to adjust," Nakamura said. "NXT fans are hardcore wrestling fans. I just had to wrestle and they reacted but when I got called up to SmackDown it was different. There's just a difference in the live events. So last year I had to make an adjustment from NXT to SmackDown like others have done from NXT to Raw. It takes time to adjust but today I finally feel like I'm there. I feel at home. It's hard to choose the words even if I was speaking Japanese. It's hard to find the words."
As Nakamura tried to find the right words to express himself, WWE champion AJ Styles came over and congratulated his old friend and gave him a hug. They've faced each other before in the Tokyo Dome and if they have it their way, they will face each other again at the Superdome in New Orleans at WrestleMania.
"One of the reasons to come to the WWE was to wrestle at WrestleMania, but to main-event WrestleMania? Wow! I live for this," Nakamura said. "I have experience wrestling Brock (Lesnar) and AJ, but I really think the people and the audience around the world want to see AJ and me. That's the match everyone wants to see."