#AJStylesWeek: Essential Viewing

It’s the Day Two of #AJStylesWeek, a celebration of all things Phenomenal and the sixth installment in our patent-pending Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. Yesterday, we started with A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better, today we give you the finer points of the Mr. Olympia oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. We march through Wednesday with a GIF parade, and then after Hump Day, we’ll fulfill our destiny as Amazon.com on steroids with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…“. before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Pele Kick-fueled civil war.) 

With his inconsistent pushes, presentation, and personalities AJ Styles embodies the never-boring, often-frustrating creative flow. A.J. is now and always has been the man to watch in the company. From Jarrett to Raven to Angle, Styles has had strong matches with every significant star in TNA’s history.

But, if you want to see any great junior heavyweight of the last twenty years in a really good match, watch him wrestling Jerry Lynn. While Lynn never rose to mainstream superstardom, he was one of the business’ best pure workers for a long time — far better than his more successful rival Rob Van Dam. In the second half of his career, Lynn was the master of elevating young, athletic wrestlers. He knew how to make what some call “spotfests” into coherent, well-told stories that left the crowd jumping up and down, salivating like wild dogs. A.J. Styles had the good fortune of wrestling Lynn with great frequency in the early months of TNA’s existence, wrestling ladder matches, Ultimate X matches, and tag team matches, producing a catalogue of very good to great gimmick matches that could stand on its own as a two-disc DVD set.

Their best match, however, is a straight-up one-on-one affair. It demonstrates everything that was right with the original idea of the X Division: superior speed, athleticism, strikes, seasoned liberally with traditional wrestling moves and a spectacularly crisp piledriver sequence that makes Owen Hart look, well, dangerous.

After Lynn elevated Styles to main event status, TNA founder Jeff Jarrett made him a true top star, even if it came at the strange time in TNA’s history when Double J was playing “hometown hero” at the Nashville Fairgrounds each week instead of the chickenshit heel role that made him famous.

The middle-aged Jarrett and young Styles might have been miscast in their roles, but both were capable of putting on great matches. A.J. was the most gifted all-around athlete in North American wrestling at a time when size and strength were put at a premium, creating legendary stars like Mark Jindrak and Nathan Jones. Jarrett was the master of Monday-Night-War-holdover main events — overcoming impossible odds, effortlessly shrugging off each obstacle before bumping at least one ref and ultimately winning “cleanly” in the center of the ring — a formula that carried wrestling to the biggest boom period in its history, and one that the industry, or at least certain segments of it, wasn’t ready to let go of.

In this match, beyond bumping and flying around for him, Jarrett also forced A.J. to put main event meaning into the down time between each spot. Jarrett stays on the mat or in the corner, as if to tell an over-eager Styles, “Slow down!” The match isn’t perfect: two ref bumps, one of the worst brawls in a schmozz I’ve ever seen (brought to you by Vader and one of the Harris Brothers), around a hundred heroic near-falls, and other tricks from the “NWA World’s Champion Jeff Jarrett” playbook stop it from being the best work from either of them. But it’s still a fantastic main event of the Attitude Era style, highlighting the best and worst aspects of the TNA Asylum era.

I don’t have to tell you about Unbreakable 2005, right? The only Meltzer-certified Five Star Match in TNA history? The first Five Star Match in mainstream American wrestling (sorry, ROH) since 1997? The greatest moment in X Division history? One of the few times at which TNA stood up and made fans everywhere respect them? You’ve never seen it?! I’ll let it speak for itself:

Whether it’s working highspot-laden X-Division gimmick matches or honest-to-goodness World Heavyweight Title affairs, A.J. Styles can deliver in any situation. In the ring, anyways. A large question mark throughout his career has been his ability to cut promos, but while he may not be Dusty Rhodes or Billy Graham, he has a unique, ultra-personal promo style all of his own. For the most part, The Phenomenal One lets his in-ring skill do the talking, but when the time is right, he knows how to dig down deep and deliver a rip-your-guts-out emotional promo.

Of course, Turning Point 2006 is (rightfully) known for being the night Kurt Angle put over Samoa Joe, but A.J. Styles also appeared on the card in a match against Rhyno. In a backstage interview with TNA play-by-play man and Fraggle Rock resident Mike Tenay — which we can’t embed because TNA is the worst — Styles bears his soul, describing growing up in poverty and his general dissatisfaction with the direction of his career. In spite of Tenay’s deplorable acting, Styles actually masterfully turns what should be a babyface sob story into a selfish heel promo. While A.J. does destroy the kayfabe of backstage encounters with the too-brilliant line, “You were just walking by? How convenient was that?” he successfully gets across that Rhyno has just stepped into the wrong place at precisely the wrong time.

When the book is ultimately written on A.J. Styles’ career, it will be impossible to talk about him without mentioning his (In Your House:) good friend/better enemy “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels. Both men helped define the X Division, have held multiple titles, and ooze that hard-to-nail-down uniquely TNA feel. In fact, for all the Kurt Angles and Samoa Joes and Jeff Jarretts, the signature rivalry that has permeated all of TNA history has been Styles vs. Daniels.  Much like A.J.’s matches with Jerry Lynn, any contest between Styles and Daniels promises to deliver well-worked, high-intensity action.

This particular Last Man Standing match from the notorious Claire Lynch story line demonstrates one of A.J.’s signature strengths: his ability to have a spectacular match in spite of the spectacularly bad angle that got him there. Styles and Daniels pull off a fitting, physical match truly worthy of the “blood feud” label. This match builds masterfully at a constant rate, with each spot escalating in brutality before ultimately culminating in a very, very good finish. Too often Last Man Standing affairs end with a finish that’s either over-gimmicked (i.e. someone going through the stage and disappearing) or anti-climactic (“Those first 20 finishers did nothing, but he stayed down after that one!”), but that’s not the case here, as A.J. and Daniels execute a finish that looks devastating, is relatively safe, and provides a satisfying babyface win on a big spot.

Since his leather-jacket-with-zipout-hoodie return, A.J. Styles has been doing what he’s been forced to do best: take lemons and make wrestle-ade. In spite of the scattershot direction of his character and the awkward position he’s been put it where “It’s gotta seem like a shoot, Brother,” Styles has come back with a very good match against Kurt Angle at Slammiversary as well as several strong Bound For Glory Series performances.

Styles’ tweaked character had more than a few fans wondering if they were supposed to cheer or boo him, but (in a return to the good-sense booking displayed at the very beginning of his career) TNA set up Styles to do the most babyface thing possible: set a lofty goal and achieve it against all odds. Styles wanted to win the BFG Series for himself. He wanted to return to greatness and do it on his own terms. He did those things, and that’s why he’s a great babyface — the best babyface in TNA history.

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