(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 (2016), by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 (2016), by Alex Podgorski

When WWE built up the WrestleMania 34 match between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura as a ‘dream match’, I laughed. I couldn’t possibly take them seriously. Sure, Nakamura had won the Royal Rumble and Styles was the best wrestler in WWE at the time. But the simple truth was that nothing WWE could do would lead to their version being better than the original.

Sure enough, the WrestleMania match between them was a spectacular disappointment. It was only okay by both wrestlers’ standards, but definitely not worthy of being a ‘dream match’. Maybe that was intentional, to make one of them into a villain for not delivering at WrestleMania. Regardless, that match was a flop, and several of Nakamura’s former NJPW comrades – who flew all the way from Japan to see him wrestle at WrestleMania – left as soon as it ended. They knew it wasn’t as good as what NJPW put on, which is why we’re going to revisit that match today.

Styles and Nakamura had their original big singles match two years earlier at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 10 event. It was a match that nearly stole the show, which is what Nakamura managed to do the year prior. This was the very reason why people brought up the idea of Styles and Nakamura having a dream match in WWE in the first place. They thought those two could put on an equally-awesome match in WWE, only for those dreams to be dashed.

So with that, let’s look back at one of the best matches of the past five-year period, Nakamura vs. Styles from Wrestle Kingdom 10.

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.

The story

This match is centered on a dream singles match for Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Up to that point, Nakamura had been more synonymous with that title than anyone else in New Japan, and had done the most to make that title mean something. By November of 2015, Nakamura was still champion and issued an open challenge, which was answered by Styles. This was seen as a dream match because the two of them had never faced off in singles competition. They had faced off three times in tag team matches between 2008 and 2015, with Nakamura being on the winning side in two of them.

For Nakamura, this was the chance to prove that he was still on the same level, if not higher than, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Styles was arguably the most legit challenger possible for him, having come to NJPW on fire and having put on amazing wrestling matches from the moment he debuted. At the time, it wasn’t known that both men were leaving New Japan, so there was this idea that Styles could potentially take Nakamura’s cherished title away and into Bullet Club’s hands, which would’ve elevated that stable even further.

The question was, could Styles do it?

The match

This match took place on January 4th, 2016 at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in the Tokyo Dome. It was originally rated ****3/4 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. I get the feeling the only reason it wasn’t rated any higher was that he already gave another match on the same show the perfect 5-star rating, and, at the time, had only ever given more than one match on the same show 5-stars once, back in 1993.

The bell rings and the crowd is already loud. Styles has a back injury going into this match. After a minute of teasing, they finally lock up and do some amateur chain wrestling that ends in a standoff and loud applause. Styles breaks free of an armlock using the ropes and they lock up again. Styles ducks a clothesline and a kick from Nakamura, goes for a backslide, Nakamura escapes and Styles teases the Styles Clash. Nakamura dodges and goes for Boma Ye. Styles dodges. Another standoff. Loud applause from the crowd.

They lock up again and Nakamura gets a clean break on the ropes, then taunts Styles. Styles does the Bullet Club gunpoint gesture, but Nakamura pretends to eat the bullet, which causes Styles to charge at him. Styles leapfrogs over a charging Nakamura and lands a gorgeous dropkick. Nakamura reverses an Irish whip and goes for a hiptoss but Styles resists, so Nakamura snapmares him and lands some stiff kicks. Snapmare/knee drop combo followed by some more posing by Nakamura as the five-minute mark passes.

Nakamura whips Styles into a corner but Styles kicks him away, but then Nakamura drags Styles off the top turnbuckle by his leg. Styles lands hard and seems to hurt his back, forcing the ref to keep Nakamura back. But Styles was playing possum, as he attacks from behind as soon as Nakamura turns his back. Styles slams Nakamura then lands a Nakamura-style knee drop to add insult to injury and applies a Muta Lock. Nakamura reaches the corner quickly and fights back with forearms, but Styles knocks him back down. Styles lands a stinger splash in the corner and lands more forearms, but Nakamura fights back and counters a scoop slam into a sleeper. But Styles counters that and goes for a clothesline, but Nakamura counters that into a Sheamus-style Irish Curse backbreaker. Great counter.

Styles escapes to the ringside area, but Nakamura catches him and spears him into the steel barricade. Back in the ring, Nakamura hits brutal kicks to Styles’ midsection. Styles grabs Nakamura’s leg on the third one but Nakamura counters into an enzuigiri with the free leg. Nakamura lands Good Vibrations in the corner, followed by stiff knee strikes to the collar and a gourdbuster. He charges for the Boma Ye but Styles dodges him. But not for long as Nakamura places him on the top turnbuckle and lands a STIFF knee to the back. I like how Nakamura’s following up on earlier stuff by placing Styles face-up instead of face-down. He usually lands that move to an opponent’s stomach, but this time goes for the back to capitalize on earlier work. Small details like that really matter in big matches like this one.

Styles kicks out of two pins at the count of one, so Nakamura lands hare forearms to the small of Styles’ back.  He goes for another running corner knee lift but Styles escapes and lands his Phenomenal Forearm. Styles gets up first but slowly and goes for a suplex, but he can’t at first because of the back pain. Nakamura tries to counter into a suplex of his own, but Styles counters him into a snap suplex into the corner.  Styles teases the Styles Clash again but Nakamura resists, so Styles rolls into the Calf Killer but Nakamura grabs the ropes almost instantly. Styles tries to start working Nakamura’s leg but Nakamura escapes with another hard kick to the head. Nakamura tries to land his inverted Exploder suplex but Styles resists, so Nakamura lands more forearms to the back followed by a Backstabber. Inverted Exploder by Nakamura. Nakamura fires up and so does the crowd. He goes for Boma Ye, Styles dodges and rolls into the Calf Killer. Phenomenal counter. Right in the middle of the ring. But suddenly, Nakamura counters into a cross armbreaker. But Styles counters that with a forearm to the face. Styles goes for a backflip from the top rope, but seems to miss Nakamura completely. Rack Bomb by Styles for a two-count.

Fifteen minutes have passed as Styles goes for the Styles Clash again. Nakamura powers out, Styles counters into a sunset flip. But Nakamura escapes. Boma Y—no, Styles dodges. Styles escapes a German suplex but walks into a kick. Jumping Boma Ye. Both men go down.

Both men are down to one knee as they trade stiff forearms. They go back and forth on this until Styles ducks a big forearm. Wheelbarrow facebuster by Styles for a two-count.  They both get back up and Styles lands a KENTA rush. More stiff strikes from each man. Styles dodges a stiff ax kick and lands the Pélé kick. BOMA YE! Styles kicks out! Wow, how did he survive that?

Nakamura goes for the Landslide but Styles counters into a crucifix pin for two. Nakamura charges again but walks into a brutal kick to the face. 450 Splash by Styles. Nakamura kicks out. Styles goes for a Brainbuster but Nakamura fights back. Big backfist by Styles. He goes for another, but Nakamura counters. Flying Armbreaker. Awesome move. Styles resists. Nakamura transitions into a triangle choke. Styles starts fading. Wait, no, Styles counters. Styles Clash! He lands it perfectly. One, two, NO, Styles kicks out at 2.9. Amazing sequence.

Styles gets a sudden second wind and charges at Nakamura. BLOODY SUNDAY!  Shades of Prince Devitt! Styles announces the end. He tries another Styles Clash but Nakamura resists. He tries again, but then decides against it. Then he drags a nearly-unconscious Nakamura to the corner. Oh, no, he’s going for the diving Styles Clash. He tries and tries for that move, but Nakamura fights back. Avalanche Landslide! Wow, another great move by Nakamura. He pins, but Styles kicks out. BOMA YE! Styles is still moving. Another Boma Ye! One, two, three! That’s it, there’s the match!

Winner and STILL IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 24:18: Shinsuke Nakamura

Post-match, they brofist in a display of mutual respect.

You can watch it below with English commentary.

Review

This was a great match. Both Nakamura and Styles delivered by showing why they kept getting so much praise at the time. Their timing was almost flawless, the sequences they delivered were spectacular, and they had the crowd on the palms of their hands. It was truly deserving of the moniker of a dream match, and was MUCH better than their WWE match that would take place two years later.

They told a very simple story here. Styles kept going for the Styles Clash, which was super-over as a terrifying finisher in New Japan. A few people had suffered legitimate injuries taking the move (not Styles’ fault), including at least one wrestler suffering a serious neck injury. But New Japan doesn’t infantilize its audience by pretending such things don’t happen. Instead, they incorporated those very real injuries into Styles’ storylines. Anytime he went for the Styles Clash, it was teased as a serious threat. And when he went for a diving version of the move, it was treated as a potential career-ender. That gave Styles something simple to work with. By teasing that move over and over, he kept people on the edge of their seats. And when he landed it by countering a triangle choke, he nearly had the match won.  Styles also tried to weaken Nakamura by working over his legs, and that strategy nearly worked but still wasn’t enough to stop Nakamura. All it did was that it required Nakamura to land not one but two closing Boma Ye knee strikes to win.

As for Nakamura, his approach here was to take advantage of Styles’ back injury whenever possible. He targeted Styles’ back on several occasions, which not only slowed Styles down, but made it harder for Styles to do most of his bigger moves. And once Nakamura kicked out of the Styles Clash, all Nakamura had to do was wait for an opening to drop Styles with a hard knee strike. And he did. Once Styles got too cocky and went for the diving Styles Clash, Nakamura found his chance. The avalanche Landslide exposed Styles to being hit in the face, and Nakamura worked through the pain to land enough knee strikes to keep Styles down long enough for the three-count.

On the flip side, there was some spotty selling from both wrestlers in this match. Styles worked Nakamura’s legs over quite a bit, yet that damage wasn’t incorporated well into the finish. After he landed Bloody Sunday, he seemed to ignore how much damage was done to his back. I wish he remained consistent in that selling because it would’ve made his offensive feel like more of a struggle.

There was also a lot of unnecessary stalling in the opening five minutes, which was coupled with a lack of inner story. Yes, this was a dream match and both wrestlers wanted this contest to be built on mutual respect and clean wrestling. But there’s something about Nakamura that almost demands he show off his personality in his matches. I can’t help but compare this match to Nakamura’s match with Kota Ibushi from the previous year’s Wrestle Kingdom. In that match, Nakamura displayed way more personality than here. He openly mocked Ibushi and his wild displays of cockiness not only fit into that match perfectly, but made it better. In that match, Nakamura did such an awesome job of portraying a wacky-but-overconfident bully that you wanted to see Ibushi beat time. But instead, Nakamura successfully baited Ibushi into getting too angry, which allowed Nakamura to win. Here, there was none of that personality. Instead, it was closer to a pure athletic contest. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it causes the first half of the match to feel a bit empty. Had Nakamura done the same sort of ‘character work’ in this match as he did in his match with Ibushi, then this contest would be much better because the opening moments wouldn’t be so uninspiring.

Final Rating: ****3/4

As much as I don’t like parroting an existing rating, I think ****3/4 is the right call for this match. It was awesome in virtually every way, and yet it has some minor flaws that prevent it from being a true, marvelous epic. Styles has always done a great job of playing a serious wrestler, whether as a face or as a heel. But Nakamura, ironically, is at his best when he shows off his wacky gimmick and incorporates at least a bit of that into his interactions with other wrestlers. And in his quest to make this into a pure dream match, Nakamura abandoned his typical colorful personality for the most part, which led to a less exciting opening stretch.

And yet for all its flaws, this match was more than deserving of its moniker of being a dream match. It isn’t either wrestler’s best-ever match, but it’s still up there. They went into Wrestle Kingdom hoping to steal the show. And while they didn’t, their attempts to do so led to this awesome match. It’s definitely a must-watch for any fan of either wrestler.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.