For many wrestling fans, AJ Styles is their modern day hero. His billing as ‘the Phenomenal One’ has been proven time and time again over the past two decades. He has been called the Shawn Michaels of this generation, which is praise of the highest order. He has this uncanny ability to have tremendous matches with pretty much any opponent…including what many call his Japanese counterpart.
The match we’re looking at today is something of a genuine dream match. Even though these two men have wrestled each other before, this last match-up of theirs was said to be special, almost magical. It was a perfect example of the greatness both of them possessed, and how both of them were capable of pulling off great matches with seemingly minimal effort.
Today we look back at the match between AJ Styles and Hiroshi Tanahashi from the 2015 G1 Climax Tournament.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
This is only the sixth time in history that Styles and Tanahashi faced off in singles competition. Their first match was in TNA back in 2006 when both were still relatively new to wrestling, which Styles won. Two years later on a New Japan show, Tanahashi evened the score. They wouldn’t cross paths for another six years when Styles invaded New Japan as part of the Bullet Club. Tanahashi defeated Styles during the 2014 G1 and in earned a title shot since Styles was IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the time. Styles lost the title to Tanahashi at King of Pro-Wrestling 2014, but won it back from him four months later at The New Beginning 2015, only to lose the title to Kazuchika Okada a month before this tournament started.
Going into this match, the stakes for both men were incredibly high. Styles and Tanahashi were in the same tournament block and each man has 12 points in the end. Only one of them could advance to the finals to face the winner of the opposite block, which in this case was an in-his-prime Shinsuke Nakamura.
Styles needed to beat Tanahashi to avenge his previous losses to New Japan’s Ace, and if he won here he’d do that and earn a shot at Kazuchika Okada, the man that ended his second world title reign. But if Tanahashi won, he’d advance to the finals to face Nakamura, a man with whom he already had a long and storied rivalry. And if Tanahashi could somehow beat Nakamura, he’d be guaranteed a world title shot against Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 10. And as we’ve seen already, Tanahashi’s rivalry with Okada was so intense and so critical to New Japan that Tanahashi had to do whatever it took to get his hands on The Rainmaker.
But again, to get there, Tanahashi had to go through Nakamura; but to get to Nakamura, Tanahashi had to go through Styles. Tanahashi had already proven himself to be a masterful wrestler, but Styles an enormous threat in his own right. These were two of the best wrestlers in the world facing off in the semi-finals of the G1 Climax. Most people believed that Tanahashi could overcome this big threat to reach the finals. But Styles was as crafty as he was talented so he had his own fair share of supporters. That left people wondering: could Styles pull off a surprise win against the Ace of the Universe, or would he crumble in the face of Tanahashi’s unrelenting march forward?
This match originally took place on August 14th, 2015 during NJPW’s annual G1 Climax tournament. It was originally rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up now.
They lock-up and Styles gets a break in the corner and then pats Tanahashi’s face mockingly. Styles applies a headlock, Tanahashi tries to whip him off, but Styles quickly counters into an even deeper one. Tanahashi struggles and struggles until he counters into his own headlock but Styles escapes quickly. Styles goes for a dropkick but Tanahashi holds onto the ropes. Another exchange ends in a standoff and lots of applause.
They have a tense staredown and Tanahashi mocks Styles by patting him on the cheek. Tanahashi takes him down with an arm drag and starts working Styles’ arm over. Styles fights out and sends Tanahashi into the ropes but Tanahashi counters into a back body drop. He whips Styles hard into the corner and then ducks a kick, slides out of the ring and smashes Styles’ leg into the steel ring post. Tanahashi brutalizes that same leg and pins for a one-count, and then stops Styles’ attempt at a comeback with an uppercut. Styles tries to send him into the ropes but Tanahashi skins the cat. But Styles catches him and throws him out of the ring, which allows Styles to recover.
Styles follows Tanahashi ringside and smashes him chin-first into the barricade. After tossing him back into the ring, Styles hobbles around the ring and lands a corner splash followed by a standing one. Styles lands a dropkick and then charges at Tanahashi by the ropes. Tanahashi gets his foot up, but Styles counters with a leg smash and gets revenge for earlier by attacking Tanahashi’s leg with a bunch of different moves and holds. Styles lands some corner chops and goes for another corner splash, but this time Tanahashi dodges and begins his comeback with forearms and ax handles. He lands a standing splash/senton combo for two but misses his second-rope diving flip senton. Styles goes for the phenomenal forearm but Tanahashi knocks him off the rope and sends him tumbling to the floor. High Fly Flow from the top turnbuckle to the floor by Tanahashi. That man is just crazy.
Tanahashi returns to the ring and Styles barely makes it in at the count of nineteen. Tanahashi prepares to suplex Styles over the rope but Styles presses his head against the top rope. Double springboard phenomenal DDT by Styles. Fantastic move.
Styles goes for the phenomenal forearm but Tanahashi catches him on his shoulders. Styles escapes and the counters begin. Dragon suplex. Styles escapes. Tanahashi clasps both arms and lands the arm-trap German suplex. Styles escapes at two. Tanahashi looks to be in pain off his own bridge due to Styles attacking his neck. Tanahashi fights to main control and composure. Styles lands a jawbreaker and goes for a middle kick. Tanahashi counters with a dragon screw leg whip. That’s followed by a corner splash, except Styles uses the referee as a shield. Tanahashi checks on the ref, which allows Styles to land a low blow. Styles goes for the Styles Clash as the crowd boos. But Tanahashi counters with a low blow of his own. Poetic justice.
Both men get up after a time and trade forearms in the middle of the ring. Styles kicks Tanahashi’s weakened leg but Tanahashi still fights on. More stiff strikes. Styles lands the KENTA combination, but Tanahashi answers with a stiff slap before Styles can finish. Tanahashi hobbles over to the corner, but Styles rolls into the Calf Killer. Great counter by Styles. Styles wrenches the hold as hard and deep as he can. Tanahashi looks to be close to tapping. But with one huge burst of adrenaline, Tanahashi pulls himself to the ropes for safety.
Styles tries to pull Tanahashi away from the ropes but Tanahashi holds onto them for dear life. The ref tells him to let go so Styles pushes him away. Tanahashi attempts a comeback but Styles shuts him down with an enzuigiri. He goes for Bloody Sunday. Tanahashi counters into a twisting neckbreaker. Tanahashi charges for the slingblade. Styles counters into a wheelbarrow facebuster for another two-count. Phenomenal forearm. Tanahashi kicks out again. Tanahashi fights out of a Styles Clash and lands a slingblade. Tanahashi goes for a Styles Clash on AJ Styles. But Styles counters into an ankle lock. But then Tanahashi escapes by rolling forward sending Styles face-first into the corner. Tanahashi charges into the corner. Styles gets his feet up. Tanahashi catches both of them. Styles Clash by Tanahashi. One, two, NO, Styles kicks out at 2.9. High Fly – no, Styles gets his knees up. High Fly Flow by Styles onto Tanahashi. One, two, thr—no, Tanahashi kicks out. Bloody Sunday! Styles Clash attempt. Tanahashi counters with a dragon screw leg whip. Tanahashi lands some strikes. Styles goes for a Pélé kick. Tanahashi counters into another dragon screw. High Fly Flow to a standing Styles. Followed by a second one. One, two, three! Tanahashi advances to the finals of the G1!
Winner after 27:56: Hiroshi Tanahashi
Outstanding wrestling match. That was the definition of a dream match. Tanahashi and Styles delivered the goods here. It really was phenomenal (pardon the pun). It wasn’t just one of the best matches of the year, but arguably one of the best matches of the decade.
From the very beginning, Styles and Tanahashi were evenly matched. They had long chain-grappling sequences that ended in stalemates. They targeted and weakened each other’s legs to keep each other from moving around too much. Styles came close to ruining Tanahashi’s neck while Tanahashi did a great job targeting Styles’ arm. Both men had tremendous counters for each other and kept wresting control from one another, creating this truly tense atmosphere. And both men sold incredibly well. When Tanahashi was locked in the Calf Killer, he looked like he was really going to tap. He only managed to escape through sheer force of will, which the fans really appreciated.
Then came the closing sequence.
This is where Tanahashi has always shined and this match was no exception. He had answers for pretty much everything Styles threw at him and he persevered. He was so desperate to win that he both hit Styles with Styles’ own finisher and survived Styles hitting him with his finisher. That closing sequence was just awesome. And while both wrestlers tried the same strategy of keeping the other grounded by attacking the legs, Tanahashi’s approach won out in the end. He was able to keep Styles grounded long enough to land two High Fly Flows to win the match.
That said, this match did have one glaring flaw: Styles didn’t really stand a chance of winning beyond two sequences. He did a perfect job acting as a foil or a roadblock for Tanahashi. But even with all his great wrestling and high-impact bombs, there was never a moment where the story of the match so much as suggested that Styles could conceivably win. He never really had that strong, decisive moment of control where a win was within his reach. The closest he got was when he went for the Styles Clash following Bloody Sunday, but even then it was pretty obvious that Tanahashi was either going to counter the Clash or kick out of it if it landed. The other moment of closeness was when Styles locked in the Calf Killer. But the fact that Tanahashi survived for as long as he did and still had energy left to move around showed that Styles had overplayed his hand.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This really was a dream match. It might not have been perfect, but damn was it close. With a little more back-and-forth tension and more believability in Styles’ near-falls, this could’ve reached that higher echelon of historic greatness. I think a reason few people believed Styles could win was what lay ahead of either winner. If Styles won he’d face Nakamura in the finals. If either Nakamura or Styles won, they’d face Okada at Wrestle Kingdom 10, and while that’s definitely a candidate for a strong match, it wouldn’t be in the same atmosphere as an Okada match against Tanahashi.
And as luck would have it, the more logical and obvious choice won in the end. Tanahashi went on to have an absolute barn-burner of a match against Nakamura the following night to win the G1 Climax, and then went on to face Okada at WK10 in another excellent match. Meanwhile, Styles did end up getting his match with Nakamura, also at WK10. And if anyone won out of all of this, it was the fans who witnessed some of the greatest pro-wrestling matches of the entire decade.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.