Remember that moment at Money In The Bank 2017 when Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles came face to face, according to commentary, for the first time?
Well, this wasn’t the first time these two megastars met in the ring (but we all know how WWE likes to pretend that nothing outside of their world exists). In fact, only 18 months before, Styles and Nakamura faced off in another life, in another world – at New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom show at the Tokyo Dome, in a match which is widely considered to be one of the best matches of their respective careers.
Today, we’re going to take a look at what led to this match, as well as the interesting fallout which followed. However, before we get down to the sweaty details, let’s dig into the history of these two superstars.
First of all, AJ Styles. Perhaps the most decorated and proficient performer in the business today. Styles has wrestled for every major promotion and literally hundreds of indies the world over. He’s the most accomplished wrestler in TNA history, helping establish the X-Division scene when it first began and going on to break multiple records and put on countless world-class performances alongside Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, Kurt Angle, and hundreds of others.
TNA was where AJ Styles came to the attention of the mainstream, sticking with them from their humble beginnings, through their boom period and right through the TNA dark ages. Many fans were surprised, this author included, that Styles stuck with TNA for such an extended period of time, especially as his wrestling ability far surpassed almost everyone else on the roster.
However, Styles’ tenure in TNA allowed him advantages that a WWE contract wouldn’t, such as being able to wrestle indie dates and continue his work in Ring of Honor. Styles kept this up until 2014, when he signed a non-exclusive contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
He first appeared at the aptly-named Invasion Attack pay-per-view, attacking current IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada and revealing himself as the newest member of the Bullet Club. This led to Styles’s first match in the company, a match which, amazingly, saw him capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. This was an incredible accomplishment (achieved only once before by Brock Lesnar in 2005), especially given the protected and prominent status of the IWGP Heavyweight Title.
Cut to Shinsuke Nakamura, who by this point had been in NJPW for 12 years. Alongside Hiroshi Tanahashi, Nakamura was instrumental in establishing NJPW as one of the top wrestling companies in the world. For a long time, he was perhaps the most influential figure in the whole company. Not only is he a former three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, but Nakamura helped elevate the IWGP Intercontinental Title to the standard it’s held today. Before Nakamura captured the belt in 2012, the IC Title was barely considered the silver medal by fans and workers alike. The iconic white strap still in use today was Nakamura’s doing, as it was his idea to give the belt a unique look to distinguish it from other championships. At Wrestle Kingdom 8 in 2014, the IC Title headlined the show for the first and only time in NJPW history.
Nakamura captured the IWGP Intercontinental Title a total of 5 times between 2012 and 2015, and in November 2015, Styles laid down the challenge after Nakamura claimed there was no one else left for him to beat. This set the stage for their match at Wrestle Kingdom 10.
Over the prior 12 years, Nakamura and Styles had worked for many of the same companies. Nakamura took several excursions overseas where he competed in TNA, CMLL and multiple indie promotions. Likewise, alongside his work in TNA, Styles had also briefly competed in NJPW prior to signing with them (because of TNA’s working relationship with NJPW) and various indie promotions. It was by sheer chance that Nakamura and Styles had never met in singles competition despite having surely crossed paths at some point.
Fascinatingly, both Styles and Nakamura knew that this would be the first and last time they’d face each other, as both had already signed with WWE at the time of the match. It’s unclear whether each man knew that the other had signed with WWE too, as neither Styles nor Nakamura had informed NJPW management they were leaving at this point. Given Japan’s emphasis on courtesy and respect in professional environments, the most likely scenario is that neither Styles nor Nakamura knew of each other’s intentions once their match was over.
However, this didn’t stop the two men putting on a show-stopper.
The match was frenzied and hard-hitting from start to finish, gradually ramping up the intensity as the match elapsed its 25-minute duration. Nakamura’s striking, martial arts style gelled spectacularly well with Styles’ aerial assaults. Styles managed to maintain the upper-hand through the majority of the match, until it became anyone’s game in the final five minutes.
At the 22-minute mark, Nakamura countered Styles’s clothesline into his signature cross-armbreaker submission. However, Styles performed his own counter into a one-armed Styles Clash. Amazingly, Nakamura kicked out (the Styles Clash was a protected move before people started kicking out of it regularly in WWE). This led to an intense finishing sequence that saw Styles attempt a Styles Clash from the top rope, but Nakamura countered again. Two Bomayes followed (later the Kinshasa), the second of which nearly decapitating Styles, and Nakamura picked up the victory.
The match told a simple story and played to the strengths of both performers. Despite the outcome, Styles still looked great in the aftermath and no doubt the two would have gone on to have even better matches in the future.
That is, if they’d have both stayed in NJPW. Unfortunately, Styles and Nakamura both informed NJPW management the same night that they wouldn’t be re-signing with the company. Several weeks later, Styles debuted at the WWE’s Royal Rumble 2016 event. Three months later, Nakamura debuted in NXT.
Of course, WWE has been good to both Styles and Nakamura since their arrival. However, the magic which the two shared in NJPW was nowhere to be seen. The two began an intense feud in early 2018 which saw them face off in a hotly-anticipated match at Wrestlemania 34, but the match was overall disappointing. Over the next two months, Styles and Nakamura would compete in singles competition no less than five times, and by the final bout, fans were pleading for the feud to end.
Interestingly, Styles later claimed that he had to push WWE to give him and Nakamura some stage time together. Some WWE higher-ups didn’t think that the fans would be familiar with their history, so Styles pushed for the ‘moment’ that the two shared at Money In The Bank 2017 to test the waters. Of course, the huge pop it received spoke for itself, and in a rare case of WWE giving fans what they want, WWE pulled the trigger and began building the rivalry.
It’s not too late for WWE to redeem the mess they made of Styles and Nakamura’s 2018 program. Indeed, the two recently worked a triple threat match at the 2019 Survivor Series (alongside Roderick Strong) which was much more impressive than any of their singles matches under the WWE banner. Personally, I’m not holding out much hope, but I’ve been wrong about similar things in the past.
I just hope I’m wrong this time.