2005 was a great year for wrestling. WWE was reviving ECW and booking hot feuds involving John Cena, Batista, and Eddie Guerrero. Kenta Kobashi was helping popularize Japanese wrestling in Pro Wrestling NOAH, and TNA was on fire from every angle.
Today, we’re talking about the match that helped establish the latter company as a legitimate major promotion. AJ Styles vs Christopher Daniels vs Samoa Joe in a three-way match at TNA Unbreakable 2005.
Right from TNA’s early days, the company was forging the next generation of main eventers and showcasing some of the most exciting matchups in pro wrestling. While the top stars in the promotion were mostly ex-WWE/WCW, it was the lesser-known mid-card wrestlers who were grabbing people’s attention with creative spots, great ring psychology and immersive character work.
TNA’s X-Division, a secondary division akin to the Cruiserweight / Junior Heavyweight title picture in other promotions, was characterized by fast-paced, high-flying action and was made a staple of TNA by two performers in particular: AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels. Although the X-Division had no restrictions regarding weight or style, it was mostly contested by high-flyers with a handful of exceptions (namely Abyss, Samoa Joe, and Kurt Angle). To add further appeal to the X-Division scene, many of the matches involved unique stipulations or structures. The most notable match type was the Ultimate X match, which saw a huge X made of steel cables suspended above the ring, with the title hanging in the middle.
Even by 2005, Styles and Daniels had undergone an extensive rivalry that spanned both TNA and Ring of Honor, not to mention their matches across various indie promotions. Their matches became a key attraction of TNA shows, eventually awarding them main event positions over more high-profile names like Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Jeff Jarrett.
Before we look at this ground-breaking match which cemented the legacies of all three men involved, let’s look at how the match came to be.
AJ Styles had become the inaugural X-Division Champion when the division was first introduced back in June 2002. By the start of 2005, he captured the belt another 3 times before losing it to Christopher Daniels in March of that year. Naturally, Styles was looking to reclaim the belt to become a record 5-time X-Division Champion.
But despite their ongoing rivalry, both men had a dislike for newcomer Samoa Joe. Joe and Christopher Daniels had a history going back to their time together in ROH and so was aware of his capabilities. Samoa Joe was also the first real ‘heavyweight’ to insert himself into the X-Division scene, immediately giving him an advantage over both Daniels and Styles.
This led to a bout between all three men at Unbreakable 2005. It marked the first time that the X-Division Title main-evented over the TNA Heavyweight Championship.
AJ Styles was the babyface going into the match, with Christopher Daniels the pesky heel and Samoa Joe the impenetrable monster. Daniels was the current champion desperate to retain, Styles was the underdog who had the cards stacked against him and Joe was the hungry newcomer who was prepared to steamroll his way through his lighter opponents.
Regarding in-ring ability, Daniels was at his peak here. Likewise, Samoa Joe was a superbeast who could move around like someone half his size. Styles was classic Styles but was a few years away from his peak.
Now, onto the match itself. Triple threat matches (or three-way dances if you grew up with WCW) are hard to pull off. The majority of a three-way usually involving two guys wrestling while one sells an injury. Maybe two of the guys do a double team move before turning on each other. And when it comes to finishes, triple threats are notorious for shenanigans. If there’s a champion involved, the match usually ends with a non-champion pinning the other non-champion, or the champion pinning the weaker wrestler for the win. There have been very few triple threats over the years which have really stood out as exceptional matches.
But the one at Unbreakable 2005 was a different story altogether. It’s twenty-three minutes of non-stop action (sorry). There are no long rest holds and no indie-style horseplay. It’s just move after move, interspersed with creative reversals and high-risk spots. The crowd was on fire and the commentators were marking out at every move. All-in-all, it made for the most electrifying bout in TNA history.
It’s difficult to put the excellence of this match into words, much less describe it minute-by-minute. Daniels begins shit-talking from the off, establishing himself as the cocky champion, before getting laid into by Joe and Styles. Daniels rolls away and Styles and Joe go at it. The three men trade hard-hitting shots before Joe displays his incredible power by taking Styles out.
Joe’s charge is interrupted by Daniels, who then hits a picture-perfect sitting moonsault to Joe on the outside. Styles, desperate to outdo his real-life best friend Daniels, hits a springboard shooting star press to both men on the outside. At this point, we’re only five minutes in.
Back in the ring, Styles is leaning against the turnbuckle. Joe whips Daniels into him. Daniels hits a monkeyflip into Styles, and by some freakish physics-defying athleticism, Styles lands on Joe and turns it into a hurricanrana.
After some recovery, Joe locks a grounded sleeper hold on Daniels, but Styles breaks up the submission by hitting a brutal Spiral Tap (a move he hasn’t ever used in WWE at all). Styles misses a near-fall on Daniels, after which Joe reinvigorates and clears house. Styles and Daniels fall to the outside and hit an amazing sequence, but Joe flies over the top rope with a corkscrew dive, taking both men out again. Back in the ring, Joe hits a back body drop from the top rope on both opponents at the same time; he hits a devastating Muscle Buster on Styles, but Daniels runs in with the X-Division belt. Joe catches him and hits a snap bodyslam.
At this point in the match, it’s anyone’s guess who might win. Joe might be the new guy on the scene, but he’s spent the first half of the match as the most dominant performer. Daniels hits Joe with an enziguri. Joe tries to block it with the X-Division belt but Daniels sends it smashing into Joe’s face. Daniels hits a springboard moonsault on Styles but Joe breaks up the count.
We’re fifteen minutes in and things are showing no signs of slowing down. Styles hits a perfect moonsault-DDT on Daniels but it’s not enough to put him away. The finishing sequence finally comes around the 20-minute mark when Styles lands a Styles Clash on Daniels, but again Joe stops the three count.
Daniels incapacitates Joe on the outside, then he attempts an Angel’s Wings on Styles, but Styles reverses it with a back body drop straight into a pinfall. Daniels struggles to break free but he can’t. Styles get the three to become a five-time X-Division Champion.
This might have been the quickest twenty-three minutes in pro wrestling history. There was no clutter and no downtime. Under other circumstances, or with other performers, the same match could have been an indie-style spot fest with lots of awkward stalling and setting up spots. But these three men were able to transition seamlessly between sequences in matters of seconds.
Some people thought that the finish of the match was a little abrupt, but this match was only the beginning of an extensive program involving all three performers. Therefore, the quick finish kept Daniels and Joe looking like a legit threat to Styles’ record-breaking reign.
This match no doubt had a great influence on the wrestling world. In the years which followed, many indie performers attempted to copy this fast-paced style (and still do to this day) but few have the charisma and in-ring ability which these three men did. Quite often (I love AEW but they’re guilty of this as much as anyone), we see the moves but not the substance. Personally, I find spot-fests highly enjoyable, but when there’s a logical flow and a reason behind the maneuvers, it makes for a much more immersive match.
In interviews that followed, Samoa Joe revealed that he accidentally began the go-home sequence in this match eight minutes early, then Styles and Daniels just ran with it.
As of 2020, this is the only TNA match to ever get awarded 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer. Interestingly, Samoa Joe went on to have another 5-star match three weeks after this with Kenta Kobashi in ROH. The triple threat match remains Styles’ only 5-star match of his career.