By Graham "GSM" Matthews
AJ Styles sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling world on Sunday night when he made his long awaited WWE debut in the 2016 Royal Rumble match. While it had been rumored for weeks, I couldn't believe my eyes seeing The Phenomenal One enter the Amway Center to an incredible reaction with his own name (not CJ Myles or something else WWE pulled out of an online name generator), attire and character. It has been days since the monumental moment and I still find myself watching it back on YouTube and getting goosebumps every time. At long last, Styles has arrived!
When I started watching TNA in August 2008, the main event of the very first show I saw was AJ Styles against Kurt Angle in a Ladder match for Angle's Olympic gold medals. Right then and there, I instantly became an AJ Styles fan, rallying behind him in the years that followed as he led the TNA Frontline, turned heel and formed Fortune, and even engaged in one of the worst angles I've ever seen in my time as a wrestling fan (a.k.a. Claire Lynch). Through it all I remained loyal to the former multi-time world champion, so much so that when he left TNA in January 2014, I continued to follow his career. In fact, it was because of him that I checked out Ring of Honor for the first time in the summer of 2014 and now I watch weekly. He also introduced me to New Japan Pro Wrestling, where I have seen him compete at the last two Wrestle Kingdom shows.
As we prepare to embark on the likely exciting journey of The Phenomenal One in WWE, I'll give you my list of my seven favorite matches of his (along with videos so you can watch them for yourself and appreciate their awesomeness).
7. AJ Styles vs. Douglas Williams for the TNA Television Championship (Final Resolution 2010)
There was a weird time where from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010, I was barely watching TNA. I tried to keep up with what was going on as much as I could, but I could usually only tune in live to the first hour of the show every Thursday night and not catch the rest because I didn't have DVR in the house I was living in at the time. I got back into the product when I moved to a new house in July 2010 and one of the first things that intrigued me about TNA was the Fortune faction.
Led by Ric Flair, Fortune consisted of AJ Styles, Kazarian and Beer Money. Desmond Wolfe was loosely associated with the group and Christopher Daniels would later join, but they were the core of it. When they joined forces with the debuting Immortal immediately after Bound for Glory, they accumulated all the gold, which included Styles winning the Television Championship (formerly known as the Legends and Global Championship). Mr. Anderson was set to be the next big babyface, but he got hurt, so they rushed into splitting Douglas Williams away from the group and paired him in a program with Styles over the title.
I don't remember much about the rivalry because it was relatively short-lived (didn't Styles get hurt?), but what I do remember is their stellar of series of matches in December 2010, specifically their first outing at the Final Resolution pay-per-view. It was one of the best pure wrestling matches I had seen in some time in the promotion that made a Williams fan out of me. Despite Fortune's best efforts, Williams captured the championship following an enjoyable mat classic.
6. AJ Styles vs. Bully Ray in a Last Man Standing Match (Slammiversary 2011)
I liked Fortune as heels, but I didn't become a huge fan of theirs until they went babyface in February 2011. The original plan was to reform the Main Event Mafia so they could feud with Immortal, but because Booker T and Kevin Nash returned to WWE at the Royal Rumble, those plans were nixed. Instead, Fortune broke away on their own and became the hottest act in the entire company for a solid few months in 2011.
Styles had a random assortment of rivalries in the first half of the year with Matt Hardy, his mentor Ric Flair, Tommy Dreamer and eventually Bully Ray. This was only months removed from when the former Brother Ray turned on Brother Devon and became a singles competitor. I was highly skeptical of the split because I figured they would flop as singles stars, but as Bully Ray, he truly shined on his own, and he was able to showcase his skills both in the ring and on the mic during his rivalry with Styles.
If my memory serves me correctly, Bully Ray was the one who took Styles out of action to begin with in March of that year, which was what set up their Last Man Standing match at Slammiversary. Those type of matches tend to drag depending on who is involved, but Styles and Ray had such exceptional chemistry that they made it work and had an extremely entertaining match. Ray won only after Styles failed to reach his feet, giving the former tag champ a major win to establish his credibility. It was another two and a half years before Styles got his victory back over his adversary at Bound for Glory 2013.
5. AJ Styles vs. Matt Sydal vs. Matt Taven in a Triple Threat Match for the NEW Championship (Northeast Wrestling - November 14, 2014)
Unless you were there like John Napolitano and I were, odds are you never knew this match existed... until now. John and I have been attending Northeast Wrestling shows since my dad introduced us to the independent wrestling organization in May 2009, where at our first show we met Jerry Lawler. From there, we attended the events whenever we were available and they were in town, and not only would be witness a fun night of great wrestling, but also be allotted the opportunity to meet some of the biggest names in wrestling we watched growing up including Booker T, Daniel Bryan, Mr. Kennedy and many more.
Thus, when I received an email in the fall of 2014 saying that both AJ Styles and Kurt Angle, two of our favorite wrestlers of all-time, would be appearing at Northeast Wrestling on Friday, November 14 in Danbury, CT, we wasted no time in buying our tickets. It took some time for me to get back to my old stomping grounds (having traveled from Massachusetts), but it was worth the wait. We arrived at the arena in time to meet Styles and all the stars and he couldn't have been cooler.
VIDEO: Meeting AJ Styles
What made the night so special was the main event pitting AJ Styles, Matt Sydal (formerly known as Evan Bourne in WWE) and Matt Taven against each other in a Triple Threat match for Taven's NEW Championship. I don't know if you would consider that a "dream" match, but if not, it came pretty damn close. It was three of the best wrestlers in the world clashing in one match, and it was easily one of the best bouts I have ever seen live. The three aerial artists took the action all around the ring, culminating in Taven hitting a Frog Splash after Sydal previously connecting with a Shooting Star Press. If there was any match that deserved the overdone "This is wrestling!" chant, it was this one. Luckily for WWE, NEW just uploaded it in full to their YouTube channel to capitalize off all the buzz surrounding Styles right now.
PHOTOS: Northeast Wrestling - Danbury, CT - November 14, 2014
4. AJ Styles and Kurt Angle vs. Christopher Daniels and Kazarian for the TNA World Tag Team Championship (Slammiversary 2012)
In storyline, 2012 might have been the worst year in the career of AJ Styles simply because of this involvement with the Claire Lynch debacle, but from an in-ring standpoint, he had an absolutely amazing year. It seemed as if he was topping himself every month on pay-per-view, going from a fun match with Kazarian at Against All Odds to a solid tag team match against Kazarian and Christopher Daniels at Victory Road to a loaded Lockdown match in April.
Needless to say, Styles and Kurt Angle have always been the best of rivals, and they rekindled their rivalry at Sacrifice 2012 with Angle scoring the victory thanks to an aid from Daniels and Kazarian. Angle didn't appreciate the help, however, and agreed to team with Styles if it meant dethroning the dynamic duo of their World Tag Team Championship at Slammiversary, TNA's second biggest pay-per-view of the year. In a year filled with fantastic matches in TNA, this contest comes close to leading the list.
Pardon the pun, but it was simply total nonstop action from bell to bell, living up to the name of the promotion on such a historic evening. Who knew Angle and Styles would make a tremendous team? After several counters and suspenseful nearfalls, the two former world champs wrestled away the twin titles from Kaz and Daniels to the surprise and delight of the audience. Tag team wrestling at its finest.
3. AJ Styles vs. Jay Lethal for the ROH World Championship (Final Battle 2015)
As noted, AJ Styles was really the one who turned me on to Ring of Honor in the summer of 2014. For years, there were people that implored me to check out the promotion, but I never did. Not because I didn't want to, but rather I never had the time to in high school or in college. However, after my freshman year of college was over and done with and I finally had some free time on my hands, I sat down for a few hours one sunny May afternoon and watched my very first ROH event: War of the Worlds.
Styles had a great match that night, I believe against Okada, but what I remember most was his entrance at the beginning of the show and him coming out to "Demi-Gods" by Lab Ratz. I wasted no time in downloading that stellar song to my iPod. Anyway, I watched regularly for the remainder of the summer, fell out of it, but got back into it at the start of the summer of 2015, mostly for Styles. That said, words can't begin to explain how happy I was when he became the new No. 1 Contender to the ROH World Championship at September's All Star Extravaganza pay-per-view.
The Phenomenal One cashed in on his title opportunity at December's Final Battle show, an absolutely stacked card from top to bottom. Prior to that night, I never recalled him facing off against Jay Lethal during their time in TNA (I later discovered they had a match at Slammiversary 2010 among other matches), so I was very much looking forward to it. As it turned out, it didn't disappoint as the two of the greatest wrestlers in the world battled for the prestigious prize, trading finishers and forcing fans to buy into every nearfall. What amazed me the most was that Styles wrestled with an injured back, and even in defeat, he looked phenomenal. No better way to cap off a great return run in Ring of Honor before heading to WWE shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, this is the only match I couldn't find footage of on YouTube because it is too recent. The hype video is good too, though.
SEE ALSO: "ROH Final Battle Review - December 18, 2015"
2. AJ Styles vs. Magnus in the Finals of the 2013 Bound for Glory Series (TNA Impact Wrestling - September 12, 2013)
Perhaps it's just me, but I found AJ Styles' final year in TNA to be fairly underrated. He likely knew he was on his way out, so he didn't care toward the end, but if so, it showed through his character's mannerisms and it was perfect. Yes, his shtick was very reminiscent of what WCW did with Sting in the late 1990s, but I enjoyed it, regardless. The anti-hero AJ was a breath of fresh air and it made for a fun string of matches with the likes of Kurt Angle, Austin Aries and Samoa Joe.
It was fairly obvious he was winning the 2013 Bound for Glory Series to set up his TNA World Heavyweight Championship match with Bully Ray at Bound for Glory, but that didn't take away from the tournament at all. Besides, Magnus was catching fire at that time as a breakout babyface on the rise, so there was a slight chance he could have pulled out the upset victory and advance to the grand stage of BFG. Styles and Magnus had one or two matches against each other in the past, but when it came down to them in the BFG Series Finals at No Surrender 2013, there was excitement in the air, which is honestly rare for a TNA crowd, especially nowadays.
LISTEN: Magnus Talks Match with AJ Styles on WrestleRant Radio
In terms of quality, this match is inferior to every other bout on this list, but remember, the title of this article includes the word "favorite" and not "best," so I can put whatever matches in any order I wish! At any rate, this particular match finds a place on this list because of the emotional attachment I have to it. I still remember where I was (my dorm dorm), what I was doing (talking to my roommate), hell, what I was drinking (hot chocolate for some strange reason) while watching this match. It was raining outside and the cable kept going in and out, but I was determined to not miss the match. There was so much at stake! E.G.O. interfering early on was unnecessary, but that aside, Styles and Magnus had one of the best television matches I had seen in ages, culminating with Styles hitting the Spinal Tap (which we hadn't seen from him in a long while) to secure the victory. As he celebrated, Magnus sat on the ring apron staring off into the abyss with a dejected look on his face, unable to come to terms with the loss. Excellent wrestling with sensational storytelling.
SEE ALSO: "TNA No Surrender Review - September 12, 2013 Review"
1. AJ Styles vs. Christopher Daniels in a Last Man Standing Match (Destination X 2012)
I was this close to giving AJ Styles' match with Magnus from 2013 the top spot, but I'd be remiss not to award it to this magical match from 2012's Destination X pay-per-view event. As I previously mentioned, 2012 was an extraordinary year through and through for Styles wrestling-wise, and only one month following their terrific tag team match at Slammiversary, they managed to top it with a Last Man Standing match at Destination X, the one night of the year that is all about the X-Division.
And anyone who has closely followed the careers of either man would know that Styles and Daniels were the pioneers of said division in the early years of TNA. At the 2011 installment of the event, they decided to do battle with each other, despite being Fortunate stablemates at that time. Styles won that match in clean fashion, but Daniels later grew jealous of his longtime friend, which served as the catalyst for their year-long rivalry that would culminate at the same show one year later. If the rivalry was designed to go that long to begin with was anyone's guess, but the fact that it did made the blow-off so beautiful.
Although they were both competing in the 2012 Bound for Glory Series, no points were on the line here. Neither were any championships. This match was all about Styles and Daniels settling their score, and that's exactly what they did. Back and forth they went, going to the extreme and clobbering each other with steel chairs. As expected, Daniels received assistance from his pal Kaz, but even he was soon taken out of the equation when Styles pushed Daniels into him, off to the side of the stage. The Phenomenal One then capitalized on the opportunity by setting up Daniels for the Styles Clash and proceeding to connect with it... off the ramp and through a table! Both were battered, bruised and bloodied, but through all the anarchy, Styles stood tall with his hand held high as the last man standing, effectively putting an end to one of TNA's greatest and most storied rivalries.
SEE ALSO: "John's Jargon - Phenomenal Fantasy Feuds: My Top 3 Most Must-See AJ Styles Rivalries in WWE"