Several people have recommended this match to me. It’s held in very high regard as one of the best matches from the COVID/no-fans era. And to many, it’s a veritable dream match.
Which, to me, is strange, given what happened the last time these two faced off.
Before this one, the last time I saw Styles and Bryan one-on-one in a WWE ring was at the 2019 Royal Rumble event and it was considered a monumental disappointment. Not by me; I liked it because the wrestling was great. But almost everyone else thought it underwhelming. Both Dave Meltzer and John Canton gave that one mediocre ratings, as did many other fans online. Much of the blame came from the match’s bad placing (a long technical match after a 72-minute Rumble match) and a completely exhausted – and therefore silent – crowd.
But life is full of these funny little ironies. If Styles and Bryan disappointed in front of a big crowd that had no energy, how would they do in front of a ‘COVID crowd’ composed of other wrestlers pretending to be excited as they’re surrounded by Plexiglas walls? Read on to find out.
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 Intercontinental Title was vacated in May 2020 because champion Sami Zayn didn’t want to compete during the COVID pandemic. WWE gave wrestlers the choice on whether or not to compete during that period and Zayn chose not to and so his title was taken from him.
Then, a tournament was created to crown a new champion. Styles defeated Shinsuke Nakamura in the first round and Bryan defeated Drew Gulak. Styles was supposed to face Elias but he got involved in a storyline car accident so Styles got a bye in the tournament. That same accident also involved Bryan’s scheduled opponent Jeff Hardy, but Bryan opted to face someone else instead of accepting a bye. Bryan beat Sheamus to advance to the finals, bringing us to this match.
The match begins with some chain grappling and technical exchanges. Bryan breaks free of an armlock and dropkicks Styles into a corner. Styles cheap-shots Bryan on a knuckle lock attempt and when Bryan resists a suplex attempt Styles hits him with a cross chop to the throat. He charges at Bryan but Bryan sidesteps and Styles falls to ringside. Bryan follows with a suicide dive, leading to a commercial.
We come back to find Bryan working over Styles’ left arm in the ring. He already has one of Styles’ arms trapped and then starts stretching the other one with one of those wacky holds he used before on the indies which turns into a pin for a one-count. Styles escapes Bryan’s control and lands a big standing dropkick. Styles tries taking control with some strikes but Bryan hits back with uppercuts. Bryan goes for a chinlock but Styles counters into a modified armbar. Styles drops Bryan onto the mar shoulder-first and then continues attacking Bryan’s left arm but then Bryan simply manages to shoot Styles off the ropes and hit a kneelift.
Bryan regains feeling in his arm and starts working over Styles’ legs with a leglock and then tries a surfboard but his arm’s still bothering him so he stomps on the backs of Styles’ knees. Bryan follows with a Regal Stretch and some deathlock stretches. Then Bryan pulls off some kind of inverted deathlock pin thing that shows just how creative Bryan is in the ring.
Styles kicks out at two so Bryan lands more strikes in a corner. Bryan charges from the opposite corner but Styles runs at him and flips over for a sunset flip for a two-count. Then we get a classic Danielson-style quick pin exchange and a quick technical exchange. Styles floats over into another two-count and Bryan bridges out and into a backslide attempt. Styles escape and both men collide in the middle of the ring, which leads to another commercial.
We come back to find Bryan landing some over-the-shoulder armbreakers. Bryan goes for a third one when Styles counters into a schoolboy pin for a two-count. But Bryan counters that into a crossface attempt but Styles resists. Bryan tries a few other different grounded holds but Styles blocks them all and then catapults Bryan over the top rope and to the floor. Styles goes for a plancha to the floor but Bryan dodges so Styles lands on his feet. He resists a German suplex attempt so Bryan drives him shoulder-first into a ringpost. Bryan follows with a stomp to the elbow on that now-badly-weakened arm.
Back in the ring, Bryan works over that same arm but Styles fights back with punches. Bryan retaliates with an arm wringer into another armbreaker to the mat and then does another stomp to the elbow. Bryan follows with a side armbar and then goes for a double-arm pin but Styles rolls out and back out to the apron. Bryan sends Styles into a corner and charges but takes too long, allowing Styles to sidestep. Bryan hits the turnbuckles hard and both men go down.
Styles gets up first and kicks at Bryan’s calf. He hits a dragon screw leg whip over the apron followed by a leg breaker in the middle of the ring. Then Styles wraps Bryan’s leg through two ropes and kicks at it as Bryan screams “my knee”. Styles lifts Bryan up by that leg but Bryan uses his free leg to land an enzuigiri. After some recovery time, Bryan charges into a corner but Styles gets a boot up. Styles goes for a springboard attack but Bryan cuts him off and drops him on the top rope. Bryan follows with kicks using his healthy right leg and then lands a super Frankensteiner. Bryan starts firing up while fighting through the pain in his leg. He lands more chest kicks and winds up for a big one. Styles ducks it and lands a martial arts rush. But before Styles can hit his discus clothesline Bryan lands a kick to the ribs. Both guys charge but Styles hits first with a clothesline. Both men collapse as we head to yet another commercial.
We come back to find both wrestlers trading strikes in the middle of the ring. Styles cuts Bryan’s comeback short with a kick to the left calf and then he charges. But Bryan ducks and sends Styles falling to the floor. Bryan charges for a suicide dive but Styles hits first with a kick to Bryan’s bad arm. Styles goes for his Phenomenal Forearm. Bryan blocks it and lands his Danielson Special butterfly suplex/cross armbreaker combo. Styles can’t clasp his hands together so instead he rolls into a Calf Crusher. Bryan can’t reach the ropes so he rolls back into a cross armbreaker and then into a triangle choke. Styles tries deadlifting Bryan out to escape the hold. Bryan slips out and kicks Styles’ bad arm and then his head. One, two, Styles kicks out.
Bryan lands another shoulder armbreaker and then sets Styles up for his super back suplex. Styles elbows out but Bryan rushes him once again. Styles knocks Bryan back again but Bryan just keeps coming. He pummels Styles with forearm clubs and then after a long struggle Bryan finally lands the super back suplex as we go to yet another commercial.
We come back and Bryan’s kicking Styles some more. Styles reverses a sudden corner whip but Bryan flips out, only to land badly on his weakened leg. Styles takes advantage with a corner Phenomenal backflip DDT for a close two-count. Styles tries lifting Bryan onto his shoulders but Bryan elbows out. Styles ducks a clothesline and hits a Pélé kick followed by a snap Brainbuster. One, two, Bryan kicks out.
Styles teases his Clash but Bryan counters with a jackknife cover for a two-count. Styles ducks another clothesline and goes for another Pélé but this time Bryan catches his leg. Bryan applies an ankle lock and then switches to a bridging German suplex for a two-count. Bryan maintains waist control until Styles reverses and lands a German of his own for another two-count. Bryan escapes and gets another German for yet another two-count. Bryan follows with elbows to Styles’ collar and rolls into the crossface but Styles gets a ropebreak with is foot. Bryan traps both of Styles’ arms and stomps on his face. Bryan signals the end and teases his running knee. Bryan charges…but Styles catches him and plants him with the Styles Clash. But Styles can’t cover. Both guys collapse again but Styles makes it to the ropes. Phenomenal Forearm connects. One, two, three! Styles wins the IC title!
Winner and NEW WWE Intercontinental Champion after 26:36/37:58 (with commercials): AJ Styles
As expected, Bryan and Styles put on an excellent match. This was similar to the Royal Rumble 2019 match that I mentioned earlier in terms of structure, logic, and psychology. Except as I said, most people found that one bland yet this one was hailed for being almost the same and actually taking place in front of a smaller and quieter crowd. But despite all of that nonsense, this is still a great match…though not as special or mind-blowing as their earlier matches.
This match came across as a subdued version of the stuff I’ve seen from these guyselsewhere. For some reason, both guys moved and wrestled as though they were performing and not struggling. Even though the action itself was solid, the space between the notes made the match come across as a bit too choreographed. And considering what we’ve seen from Bryan and Styles before their WWE tenures, the spontaneity and grit found in their pre-WWE matches was and is replaced with a sense of polish and sterility that makes their matches less emotionally-engaging.
I was expecting more here. I’ve seen matches from Bryan in his prime in which he actually has to work to regain control of the match. Here, for example, he simply sent Styles off the ropes for a kneelift and freed himself from Styles’ control without much effort. Even though these two are tremendous wrestlers that’ve earned respect, something in this match made them look like they were playing the hits instead of really making this into the titanic struggle it was meant to be.
Also a similar issue from Bryan’s past ROH matches was seen here: he spends so much time working the leg and then his opponent goes right to using those weakened legs in illogical ways. In this case, it was Styles running and leaping over Bryan for a sunset flip mere seconds after being punished by Bryan’s legwork. But Bryan was equally guilty with the same problem. There was no sense of slowness as he made his comeback. One minute he was wrapped up in the ropes screaming in pain, and the next he was charging at more or less full speed. He didn’t sell like he was overcoming anything; it was as if lying on the mat for about twenty seconds completely negated minutes of deep and painful limb targeting. That approach made this match a bit unrealistic, especially since Bryan’s earlier ROH matches featured almost the exact same spots as this one and had the added benefit of relatively better selling.
Then of course, there were the multiple commercial breaks that completely killed the flow of the match. I don’t know why, but WWE didn’t show replays of what happened during those breaks (as they had done in the past, such as with the Angle/Lesnar Ironman match, for example), nor did either of the commentators provide even a brief summary of what happened. It was as if there were intentional blank pages left between the chapters of this story, which in turn made the match come across as disjointed and lacking in cohesion.
But despite all of those flaws, this was still a great match by WWE standards. What action we did see was smooth and mostly logical. Both guys made the most out of their circumstances and made the match into a dramatic back-and-forth contest. The near-falls were believable towards the end and both guys did a great job of selling their exhaustion. And the selling, while inconsistent, improved towards the end. It was refreshing to see earlier limbwork actually play a role in the finishing stretch. All in all, this was one of the better lockdown-era matches that doesn’t really drag or get boring. That alone is worth noting because of how hard it is to keep viewers engaged. A match without a crowd is far more likely to fail than it is to succeed. And yet this one succeeded thanks to some solid action. Though to be fair, we have to take the audience’s reaction with a grain of salt since those were paid WWE employees and not actual fans in attendance.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match had a lot of good stuff going for it but it failed to reach those highest notes. Watching this match was like listening to a musical performance, only for the lead singer to get feedback in the microphone a few times too many and for one of the instruments to be a bit off-key for a while. These things don’t tarnish the overall experience but they do create blotches that can be ignored but only if you focus hard to pretend they’re not there.
Ultimately, this was a great match from the no-fans era. It’s solid on its own but by no means is it the best match from this strange period. If you want to see some truly outstanding COVID matches, I’d recommend thesetwo instead. Both of them succeed where this match failed, and at least one of them has an even more muted crowd, yet that doesn’t affect it in the slightest.