It was almost exactly six years ago that I was exposed to Austin Aries for the first time on an episode of Impact Wrestling, where he won a match that earned him a spot on TNA's Destination X pay-per-view. Almost instantly, I was a fan, and in the year that followed, he continued to win me over even more with his amazing work as X-Division Champion. The rest, as they say, is history, and I've been honored to have been able to closely follow his career since then in TNA, NXT and WWE, as well as get the chance to meet him in September 2016 at an independent wrestling event.
Sometimes I feel Aries doesn't truly get the credit he deserves in being one of the best in the wrestling world today. His greatest work arguably came during his first few stints in Ring of Honor (which I regrettably wasn't around for), but he is still delivering quality matches every time he steps in the ring. Unfortunately, he recently announced he will be sitting on the sidelines for the foreseeable future to heal from a handful of nagging injuries, but here's hoping he's back sooner rather than later and joins the heavyweight division on either Raw or SmackDown Live, where he belongs.
In the meantime, let's look at my top seven favorite matches of The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (note: only matches that happened in the time I have been a wrestling fan for since 2008 have been included). Also, don't forget to pick up a copy of Aries' new autobiography, available here!
7. Austin Aries vs. AJ Styles: 2013 Bound for Glory series Semifinal Match (No Surrender 2013)
I've been very vocal in the past about my love for AJ Styles' match with Magnus in the finals of the Bound for Glory Series from No Surrender 2013 for everything it had to offer, but Styles' incredible affair with Austin Aries from earlier in the evening shouldn't be forgotten, either. It was pretty clear that The Phenomenal One was headed to the main event of Bound for Glory for the TNA World Heavyweight Championship, but Aries was out to prove he wasn't just another stepping stone for Styles.
It always blew my mind that we never received a real rivalry between Aries and Styles in TNA, but on the bright side, they were able to showcase their skills and have the matches they were capable of on two different occasions in 2013. Their first outing ended in an anticlimactic draw, so the storytelling in this anticipated rematch with both men trying to score that extremely important victory was excellent. They also knew each other fairly well, which is why they countered each other signature maneuvers multiple times throughout the bout.
Stiff blow after stiff blow, Aries and Styles beat the absolute living crap out of each other and held nothing back in their pursuit of re-entering the world title picture. Brainbuster? Styles kicked out. Last Chancery? Styles escaped. 450 Splash? Styles moved out of the way. None of Aries' greatest hits were working, and ultimately, the fantastic finish saw Styles connect with a Styles Clash off the top rope for the hard-fought victory. Here's hoping it isn't long before they clash again, this time in WWE.
6. Austin Aries vs. No Way Jose (NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn)
I remember the underwhelming response to the announcement of Austin Aries vs. No Way Jose happening at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn last year. "Aries vs. Jose? That sounds like it could be whatever," I saw some fans say. Well, regardless of how the bout looked on paper, they deserved credit for putting together a very enjoyable feud over the summer of 2016. It started with Aries feeling like a footnote coming off his loss to Shinsuke Nakamura at TakeOver: The End and Jose encouraging him to "be happy."
Of course, Aries didn't take too kindly to that advice, instead knocking out Jose with a nasty forearm on the commentary table (only after dancing with him around the arena). As soon as Jose was sent spiraling down to the floor, a grin came across the face of Aries and you could tell he was infinitely more comfortable as a heel. He had a solid stint in NXT up to that point, but that was where he truly turned the corner and began killing it on a weekly basis. How he and Jose would match up at TakeOver, however, remained unknown.
Perhaps being there in attendance has made me bias toward this matchup, but even while watching it back, I was super into Aries vs. Jose as an opening match. The crowd was behind both men and was engaged in the action from start to finish. Jose had yet to have a memorable match in NXT, but this was it, undoubtedly rising to the occasion on this evening. I figured it was virtually a guarantee Aries would do the honors for Jose, but he surprisingly picked up the victory in clean fashion. Hideo Itami resurfacing afterward and laying out Aries with a GTS was merely the icing on the cake.
5. Austin Aries vs. Chris Sabin vs. Manik: X-Division Championship Triple threat Match (Impact Wrestling - July 4, 2013)
I've gone in depth with my admiration for this match once before in my list of favorite Fourth of July matches, but I'm willing to repeat myself because the bout is just that damn good. Yes, it seems rather random at first glance, and it was when it happened, but let me attempt to work you through the confusion: "Suicide" won the X-Division Championship the week prior, but it wasn't actually Suicide, it was a masked Austin Aries. The Greatest Man That Ever Lived was determined to take the title to Destination X and cash it in for an opportunity at the TNA World Heavyweight Championship.
Before that could come to fruition, he had one last title defense against Suicide, who was now named Manik, and Chris Sabin, the former champion. Still following me? Even if you aren't, watch this match because that's all that matters. It was nothing short of sensational, especially down the stretch once Manik was taken out of the equation. Prior to this point, Aries and Sabin hadn't crossed paths too much, so it was so surreal to see the magic they were capable of creating as opponents.
Early on in 2013, TNA declared that X-Division Championship must always be defended in a Triple Threat match. Thus, it was such a breath of fresh air when Manik was removed from the match so it became Aries and Sabin one-on-one. Most importantly, it wasn't a foregone conclusion who would win, so fans were on the edge of their seats after every suspenseful nearfall. Sabin hitting Hail Sabin off the top rope was a wonderful way to cap off the captivating contest and propel him into the main event scene (temporarily, anyway). Aries had nothing to be ashamed of in defeat.
4. Austin Aries vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (NXT TakeOver: The End)
Few people were more pumped for Austin Aries' arrival in NXT than I was when the news broke in January 2016. The possibilities were endless with the people he could do battle with, but the one dream match I was most looking forward to was him vs. Shinsuke Nakamura. The King of Strong Style also made his in-ring debut for the black-and-yellow brand at TakeOver: Dallas, and while Aries had a decent match early in the night against Baron Corbin, it was Nakamura who stole the show in his instant classic with Sami Zayn.
In the months that followed, that bothered Aries, who felt he was flying under the radar in NXT. He proclaimed that you were only the best until someone else walked in the room, which is why he simply preferred to be "great." Taking exception to this, Nakamura then confronted Aries and challenged him to match at TakeOver: The End. It was crazy to think that for the decade-plus these two spent outside of WWE, they never once interacted, but that was about to change in this long-awaited collision.
It's hard to say that this was one in the best bouts of 2016 in WWE just because there was such a plethora of them, but it is indeed underrated considering it is commonly overshadowed by American Alpha vs. The Revival on that same show. Despite suffering an apparent rib injury coming into the contest, Aries lived up to his Greatest Man Who Ever Lived moniker by taking the fight to NXT's newest acquisition and winning over the audience with his offense. As noted, Nakamura's victory planted the seeds for Aries' heel turn later that summer.
3. Austin Aries vs. Alex Shelley: X-Division Championship Match (Against All odds 2012)
I was argue with anyone who says that WWE was in any way better than TNA in the summer of 2012. Aside from their early years, I firmly believe that was when TNA was at their peak. From going live every week to the star-studded roster they had at the time to their entertaining monthly pay-per-views, I was loving almost everything TNA was doing that year. But in my opinion, it all started with Against All Odds 2012, where close to every match on the card had a clean finish (a rarity for TNA back then).
There were several matches that caught my eye and piqued my interest, but Austin Aries vs. Alex Shelley was unquestionably the match of the night. I was already a full-fledged fan of Aries by this point, but it was this bout in particular that made me realize he was one of the best athletes on the roster. The same could be said for Shelley as well, who I hadn't seen a ton of in singles competition, but he had the chance to break out in his own in the absence of his tag team partner Chris Sabin and he did so successfully.
Interestingly enough, there wasn't this sensational story behind the bout; it had only started a few weeks prior to the pay-per-view. Rather, the in-ring action was so damn outstanding that it stands out in my mind as a forgotten gem from Aries' TNA tenure. Aries was closing in on record-setting territory as X-Division Champion, and a win here would get him closer to cementing his place in history. Some of the nearfalls from Shelley were pretty convincing I thought, but Aries managed to find a way to leave with this title intact, nevertheless.
2. Austin Aries vs. Neville: WWE Cruiserweight championship Match (WrestleMania 33)
Admittedly, this match might be higher than it would be on anyone else's list because I was there in person to see it live, but you can't deny how strong of a match this was (let alone how unreal it was to see Austin Aries and Neville clash on such a stage). There was backlash from fans going into WrestleMania 33 that it was a crime these guys were being relegated to the Kickoff show (and I wholeheartedly agreed), but Aries said himself that he saw it as a challenge and vowed to "elevate" the often-overlooked pre-show.
I was honestly more excited for this WWE Cruiserweight Championship clash than anything else on the entire card, which is saying something given it's WrestleMania. Thus, I was determined to not miss it, racing to find my seat in the giant Citrus Bowl stadium. I could hear the entrance music of Austin Aries and Neville as I made my way up the escalator, and I thankfully sat down just in time to see the contest get underway. Under the sweltering sun, these two did a terrific job of setting the tone for the remainder of the (long) night.
After starting off with some technical wrestling, they kicked it into the next gear in the second half and ripped it up in the middle of the ring. I appreciated how they were given an ample amount of time for a Kickoff match and they more than made the most of it. Aries closing in the Cruiserweight title only for Neville to target his injured eye and beat him with the Red Arrow (a move he only uses when desperate) was a superb touch. The other two matches they had this past spring were above-average as well, but this was the best of the bunch to me.
1. Austin Aries vs. Bobby Roode: TNA World Heavyweight Championship Match (Destination X 2012)
Like I said before, TNA was red-hot in the summer of 2012, and I especially dug Bobby Roode as TNA World Heavyweight Champion. From Mr. Anderson to Rob Van Dam to Sting, he had beaten virtually everyone during his time on top, but not Austin Aries. In fact, Aries had been equally dominant as X-Division Champion and needed a change. Thus, in mid-June, he asked Hulk Hogan to incorporate Option C, where the current holder of the X-Division title could cash in the belt for a shot at the world title at Destination X.
Hogan agreed to the stipulation, and in the weeks preceding the pay-per-view, Aries showed he was much more than just another X-Division wrestler; he was a world championship caliber competitor as well. It was unknown if he was going to fulfill his promise of becoming champion, especially with Roode apparently penciled in to face James Storm for the strap at Bound for Glory 2012, but it was going to be fun to see him try. Following a phenomenal undercard, Roode and Aries were ready to contest one of TNA's most buzzworthy main events in ages.
Say what you will about Aries being "too small," but that played into the underdog story he had going here extraordinarily well. Roode had become so cocky and complacent as champion that he didn't think anyone stood a chance of dethroning him, but he stood corrected when Aries refused to back down, putting the self-proclaimed "It" Factor in dire straits. It wouldn't be a TNA main event without a referee bump, but in this case, it led to a believable nearfall. Shortly thereafter, Aries connected with his signature brainbuster for the win and the TNA World Heavyweight Championship.