In this day and age, two wrestlers facing off ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ is damn near impossible. Pro-wrestling has fallen into an era of repetition and retreads, where rivalries and match-ups are repeated ad nauseam. Sometimes a once-ever match-up becomes so successful that the powers-that-be demand more of it to make more money. Other times, complacency and a lack of creativity force wrestlers to restart a feud, even though there might not be a logical reason for it. The match we’re looking at today, thankfully, fits neither of those situations as is, instead, a refreshing change of pace. That’s because it’s an actual once-ever encounter that lived up to that billing.
Today we revisit the singles match between AJ Styles and Minoru Suzuki from NJPW’s 2014 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.
NJPW’s annual G1 Climax tournament brings a refreshing change of pace to that company’s regular touring schedule. Most NJPW shows outside major PPVs and title matches are composed of six-, eight- and sometimes ten-man tag matches. These multi-man matches are part of a larger concept of ‘stable warfare’ between New Japan’s many warring factions. These stables are interlocked in a never-ending conflict on all sides, with no stable ever really taking complete control over the company. So if you’re wondering where AEW got the idea to create so many groups, now you know that they got it from New Japan.
But the G1 brings a much-needed pause to that direction. During the G1, wrestlers are placed in one of two blocks randomly, without concern for stable affiliation. Because of this, stablemates can end up facing each other, which is important because outside of the G1, stablemates wouldn’t do so, even if a challenger for a title and that champion were in the same stable.
Another thing that can happen is that wrestlers from stables that would otherwise not bother each other are forced to do so. That’s the case here. Going into this match, Styles is the leader of Bullet Club (having dethroned Prince Devitt) and Suzuki is the leader of Suzuki-gun (because, duh). On their own, both men are the closest New Japan has to outright ‘heels’, or villains. Heels in NJPW were still a foreign concept (literally) because that more Americanized storytelling concept hadn’t been something that had historically worked in the ‘pure sports’ approach that NJPW championed.
But both of them managed to tap into niches that made them into successful villains. Suzuki was someone that had made his career outside New Japan and his group was largely seen as ‘outside invaders’ that were in New Japan to cause trouble à la New World Order. Styles, meanwhile, led the Bullet Club, whose more American-style booking and tactics made them even bigger villains because the New Japan faithful disliked them for bringing foreign concepts into the company.
So this match was going to be interesting, to say the least. It featured two people that were largely disliked by New Japan’s fans facing off one-on-one. But who would be the victor? Would it be Suzuki, the dangerous submission master that was trained by the literal God of catch wrestling Karl Gotch? Or would it be Styles, the jack-of-all-trades superstar that was taking the whole wrestling world by storm at the time?
This match originally took place on August 1st, 2014 during that year’s G1 Climax tournament. It was originally rated ****3/4 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, and the newsletter’s fans voted it the Match of the Year for 2014. Looking back now, let’s see how good it holds up.
After a tense staredown, Suzuki lands a savage chop to Styles’ chest. Styles counters an Irish whip, Suzuki ducks a dropkick but can’t avoid a second one. Suzuki escapes to ringside and avoids a baseball slide dropkick. He tries to ram Styles into the barricade but Styles jumps over it and lands a springboard phenomenal forearm. Back in the ring, Styles lands some forearms but Suzuki no-sells them and stares daggers at Styles. Styles slams him and lands a kneedrop and follows with a delayed vertical suplex for a one-count. He follows with a backbreaker and charges into a corner, but Suzuki dodges. Styles lands on the apron and goes for another springboard move, but Suzuki stops him and applies a rope-hung cross armbreaker. Styles escapes the ring and Suzuki lands a running penalty kick to Styles’ arm from the apron.
Suzuki rams Styles injured shoulder-first into the barricade and then wraps Styles’ arm through it to deal even more damage. He distracts the referee and drags Styles out into the stands. Audience members scramble as Suzuki mauls Styles and even bites his fingers. Both guys eventually return to the ring, where Suzuki goes back to work dismantling Styles’ right arm. The fans chant for Suzuki as he puts on an absolute clinic in limbwork and psychology here. Suzuki attacks that arm some more until Styles lands some quick counters and suplexes Suzuki into a corner turnbuckle.
Styles lands a corner flying forearm, using the bad arm as a weapon. He stomps Suzuki and prepares for a big running attack. Styles charges into the corner, but Suzuki pulls the referee into Styles’ path. The referee goes down. Here comes TAKA Michinoku, Styles’ Bullet Club buddy, to attack Suzuki. But here comes the cavalry. Gallows & Anderson take out TAKA. But now more Suzuki-gun guys come in. Lance Archer & Davey Boy Smith Jr. brawl with Gallows & Anderson. All the stablemates leave as Styles and Suzuki both make it to their feet. They trade strikes, with Styles using his weaker left arm in place of his demolished right one. Styles gains the upper hand and goes for a KENTA-style strike rush. Suzuki ducks a chop and fires back. Styles tanks some hits and lands a Pélé kick. Both men hit each other hard and go down.
Both men trade strikes and Styles counters an Irish whip with a thrust kick. Styles does the bullet club gun gesture but Suzuki traps Styles’ finger. Styles sells like his finger has been ripped out of its socket. Suzuki charges at him but Styles boots him and lands on the apron. Styles soars with a phenomenal forearm…but it’s countered into an armbar. Suzuki applies even more pressure by pulling Styles’ fingers in the opposite direction. The referee doesn’t see this. Styles struggles but makes it to the ropes. They brawl some more until Suzuki applies a sleeper hold. Styles tries and fails to escape. Suzuki transitions to the piledriver. Styles fights out and counters into a Styles Clash. But Suzuki counters before Styles can land it. Suzuki counters into an ankle lock. Styles counters that into an ankle lock of his own. Suzuki counters back. Styles tries to counter again. But this time, Suzuki counters into a cross armbreaker. Styles tries to fight out but Suzuki out-powers him and wrenches the hold with all his might. Yet somehow, Styles manages to counter into an incomplete Styles Clash.
Both men get up and Suzuki spits on Styles. They go back to trading strikes and then slaps to the face. Styles goes for one forearm but his right arm is too weak. Suzuki lands a straight right hand. Styles answers with another Pélé kick. Styles Clash connects. One, two, three! That’s it. There’s the match.
Winner after 16:20: AJ Styles
I don’t understand why this match was voted Match of the Year in 2014. Point blank, it wasn’t that great of a match. It was definitely solid, but not a historic or legendary wrestling match by any stretch of the imagination.
The main story of the match was Suzuki being his typical beast-like self against the then-IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Suzuki was the superior grappler and he proved that here. Started off with his typical brutal strikes and no-sold Styles’ attacks in a way that made Styles second guess himself. And once Suzuki found an opening courtesy of a running kick to Styles’ shoulder, he obliterated that body part like a masterclass athlete. Suzuki demonstrated pro-wrestling psychology 101 here. He kept going back to Styles’ weakened arm over and over again, and did everything possible to get Styles to tap out. But Styles refused to give up. He fought through incredible pain and was forced to use his free hand to land his own strikes and only relied on his right arm to do that in moments of desperation. And when Styles realized he couldn’t beat Suzuki with pure power, he had to come up with one of his trademark clever counters to win. And that’s exactly what he did. Styles and Suzuki concluded their match with an excellent counter sequence that ended with Styles shaking Suzuki to his core with one Styles Clash. And once he had Suzuki dazes off a kick he was able to land a second one to secure the victory. It was a strong story with some great moments of pure tension.
And yet, it also had some moments that fell flat as well. The interference from Bullet Club and Suzuki-gun served absolutely no purpose whatsoever. TAKA got a few minor hits in and all the other extras just brawled senselessly in a way that added absolutely nothing to the match. And in terms of atmosphere, the match direction was at odds with the audience. This crowd was firmly behind Suzuki yet Styles wrestled like the underdog making a heroic comeback. As the match progressed, it seemed to evolve into one of those heel-vs.-heel matches in which the crowd only picks one guy to cheer for out of necessity. The commentators themselves pointed this out, that Suzuki-gun wasn’t as despised as Bullet Club, and so the fans cheered for Suzuki. To make matters worse, the match made Suzuki out to look like a glass cannon. He dished out a ton of punishment onto Styles but barely took anything from Styles. It took Styles all of fives moves to beat Suzuki whereas Suzuki spent 75% of the match on offense. For Suzuki to be felled so easily did more harm to him than it made Styles look strong.
Final Rating: ****1/4
This match has some novelty to it in that it’s a once-ever singles match, which makes it quite rare. Many of the matches I’ve reviewed so far were part of long, multi-match feuds that spanned years, whereas this was a one-and-done situation. And even though this was their first and only singles encounter, Styles and Suzuki showed great chemistry and put on an impressive match.
But by no means was it so great as to be worthy of being called the best match of the year. Despite having a lot of great moving pieces, the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts. Personally, I found this match to be solid but underwhelming. Maybe Styles was still trying to figure things out and carve out his identity in his post-TNA career and he wasn’t fully sure of himself here.
Overall, I think that any die-hard fan of AJ Styles should watch this match. He does a great job playing the underdog against a seemingly-unassailable Suzuki and somehow gets the job done. It’s just too bad that he was miscast in this contest. He wrestled like an underdog hero in front of a strongly anti-Bullet Club crowd. They couldn’t possibly give less of a s**t about Styles if they tried, and they showed that when they cheered (loudly) for Suzuki.
Maybe Styles should’ve called an audible à la Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 and changed things up to play to the crowd more. Who knows; had he done so, maybe this match would’ve ended with a bang instead of a whimper.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.