(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kurt Angle vs. AJ Styles – TNA Hard Justice 2008
Kurt Angle vs. AJ Styles. On paper that looks like a bona fide dream match between two of the best wrestlers from the past twenty years. Many fans wish such a match took place in WWE, especially since there was a narrow window of time when both of them were on the active roster.
That said, these two did face off several times in TNA, which was either good or bad depending on one’s opinion of TNA. On one hand, TNA matches were pretty good from time to time and wrestlers got to wrestle with more freedom. On the other hand, TNA started getting way too gimmicky by the late 2000s. A certain Vince came to the company and starts messing things up by diluting TNA’s wrestling product with the same Crash TV-style nonsense that he championed during the Attitude Era. But did this new injection help TNA or did it harm the company and its wrestlers? 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.
Angle and Styles were allies turned enemies. Styles helped Angle form the Angle Alliance in late 2007 but friction between them emerged when Angle’s real-life wife Karen became involved. Styles interrupted a wedding ceremony between the Angles and soon after Kurt and Karen “separated”. Kurt’s attempts to reconcile with Karen failed and so he attacked Styles after Karen started warming up to Styles. Styles beat Angle at Slammiversary 2008 after Karen interfered on his behalf and then Angle won a Lumberjack match a few weeks later. Then Angle won both a tag match against Styles at Victory Road and an elimination tag match on Impact a few weeks after that. Still determined to end this rivalry once and for all, Styles attacked Angle and challenged him to a Last Man Standing match at Hard Justice and Angle accepted.
And so this match-up between two of the best in-ring competitors turned into a personal grudge match. Months of trading wins and losses and plenty of personal barbs was finally going to come to a head.
This match originally took place August 10th, 2008. It was rated ****1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
This is a Last Man Standing Falls Count Anywhere Match, but in typical TNA fashion they tried to reinvent the wheel here and thus added some unnecessary complications. For the referee to begin the ten-count, one wrestler must either be pinned for a three-count or tap out to a submission hold. So it’s Last Man Standing, Texas Death style. Let’s see if that “new twist on an old classic” works here.
The match begins and Angle spends the first minute bailing to the floor whenever Styles gets too close. Styles runs out of patience and chases Angle around the ring until Angle attacks him upon re-entering. Angle lands some strikes and a snap suplex for a one-count but then Styles fights out of a headlock. Styles hits some corner strikes but then Angle rakes his eyes and charges but Styles ducks down and dropkicks Angle. Styles clotheslines Angle to the floor and hits a suicide dive to gain control of the match.
Back in the ring, Styles slams Angle and gets a two-count off a knee drop. Angle begs off and then surprises Styles by dumping him to the floor. Angle smashes Styles into the barricade and goes to toss him into it on another side. But Styles jumps over it and goes for a springboard, only for Angle to catch him and suplex him into the barricade. Nasty landing for Styles. Angle pins but only gets a two-count.
Angle smashes Styles’ face into the ringsteps but then Styles hits back with punches that send the bandage on Angle’s forehead flying off. Angle tries escaping up the entrance ramp but Styles chases him. Angle goes for a suplex on the ramp (just like in his famous match with Shane) but Styles reverses it and lands a suplex of his own. Styles covers but only manages a 2.5-count. The two wrestlers brawl up onto the stage. Styles lands some punches that make Angle start teetering. But he goes for one punch too many as Angle suplexes him to the floor below then dives onto Styles with a somersault senton. Another cover and another kick-out.
Angle drags Styles back into the ring and lands a rib breaker for more two-counts. He puts Styles in a chinlock but Styles powers him into a corner and lands an enzuigiri. Angle reverses a corner whip but Styles escapes out and hits more hard chops. But Angle reverses Styles again and hits an overhead belly-to-belly suplex so perfectly he doesn’t even leave his feet while Styles goes flying. Another big slam yields Angle a two-count so he applies a grounded headlock. Styles fights out and hammers Angle with a barrage of strikes. He sends Angle into the ropes but Angle ducks and both men double crossbody each other.
Styles begins his second wind with some quick clotheslines. Angle sends him into the apron but Styles blocks a follow-up attack and hits a springboard shoulderblock. Styles lifts Angle into the torture rack and then spins him into the Rack Bomb for another two-count. Styles teases the Clash. Angle counters into an ankle lock. Styles kicks out and hits a spinebuster. Styles goes to the top rope and knocks Angle down as Angle tries cutting him off. Styles dives…into a powerbomb from Angle. One, two, Styles kicks out. But Angle lifts Styles up for the Clash. Styles escapes and locks in an ankle lock on Angle. Angle has nowhere to go as Styles grapevines his leg. Angle taps out to his own hold. Styles gets a fall.
The referee begins his count. Angle starts rolling towards the ropes and gets up at the count of nine by hopping on one foot.
Angle sends Styles onto the apron and hits a low blow as Styles tries a quebrada and lands on his feet. Angle hobbles around as he struggles to land his German suplexes. But despite the pain in his ankle he lands four of them, including one that sends Styles flipping over onto his face. Angle only manages another two-count so he goes for the Olympic Slam. Styles escapes, ducks, and lands a Pélé kick for a two-count. Angle cuts Styles off on the top rope again but Styles elbows him down. Styles prepares for a dive but Angle hits a top-rope German suplex. One, two, three! Angle gets a fall.
Styles gets up at seven so Angle connects with the Olympic Slam for another three-count. Angle boasts thinking he’s won when Styles makes it up at the count of nine. Angle tries another Olympic Slam. Styles counters with a sunset flip into a Style Clash. Styles connects with his finisher and gets Styles another three count. The ref reaches eight and Angle hasn’t moved. Then at nine he miraculously makes it up. Styles rushes Angle and puts him on the top turnbuckle. Angle tries countering and teases a belly-to-belly to the floor. But Styles hits first with a head-butt and then lands a diving DDT from the top rope. Styles rolls over for a cover and gets the three-count. The ref starts counting. He makes it to seven…eight…nine…and ten! The bell rings. There’s the match.
Winner after 25:00: AJ Styles
Post-match, Styles celebrates for a bit until doctors rush Angle in the ring as he hasn’t moved at all. They bring in a stretcher and a neck brace to sell the seriousness of the damage Angle has taken. Styles decides to add more injury to injury by hitting Angle with a Brainbuster. Styles yells in Angle’s face as Angle sells like he’s out cold. Styles leaves again when suddenly the lights go out. It’s Sting! Sting hits Styles with a Scorpion Death Drop on the entrance ramp.
That match was solid though a bit disappointing. The match was crippled by its stipulation from the very beginning. It created special parameters that the wrestlers didn’t really follow. It was supposed to be a special match but it didn’t come across that way. It was a fine effort to be sure, but nowhere near epic level as some fans have suggested.
Let’s start with the obvious: technically this was a Texas Death match and not a Last Man Standing match. TNA tried to reinvent the wheel here but ended up mixing up their supposed new creation with something that already exists. But since TNA built this up as LMS match, that’s what we got. Which begs the question, why were there rest-holds in a LMS match? Those chinlocks and headlocks didn’t make sense in this context. They didn’t lead to falls, they didn’t add to the drama, and they didn’t do much to build heat for Styles’ comeback. If the point of that hold was to rest, then wouldn’t it have been smarter to just do a fall? If Angle got an early advantage by scoring a quick pin or a sudden tap-out, Styles would have to fight from underneath while also getting his much-needed recovery time. That in turn would’ve made Styles comeback more exciting since he’d have much more of a challenge ahead of him.
And even though the match had a lot of great bumps and counters, it just didn’t reach that upper level. Something was missing here. The match had the right sense of progression towards the end with the falls coming faster and both wrestlers coming closer with each big move. But still, it felt like both wrestlers could’ve gone not farther, but deeper, with their actions. Styles was great as usual and Angle fought well but was a bit crazy here. Angle took two insane risks with his dive off the stage and with the avalanche DDT. This was a man whose neck was being held together by scotch tape and prayers putting himself in situations in which he was an inch away from catastrophe. It may have been cool seeing Angle busting out moves like that, but some of the things he did here were wholly unnecessary, especially since Styles overcame some of those riskier bumps relatively easily.
And yet, the stipulation also had some benefits to it, in spite of the fact that neither wrestler make FULL use of it. Styles making Angle tap out to his own hold was a nice surprise and a dig at Angle from the underdog. Angle fought back with two three-counts in short order to regain control, and after that Styles had to work extra hard to land the Styles Clash to even the score. The way the match went during those final minutes left viewers guessing how the match would end. It added a much-needed sense of unpredictability to the fight. The finish came out of nowhere yet made total sense given how beat up both guys were and how Styles needed something extra strong to keep Angle down after Angle survived the Clash.
Final Rating: ***3/4
This match could’ve been so much better. Everything before Angle’s suplex into the barricade was pretty boring and insignificant. And while it was cool seeing Angle show off what he could (still) do, he took some risks that had little reward save for some cheap pops. The match only got really exciting once Angle and Styles started trading near-falls. It’s unfortunate but over half of the match was pretty bland and forgettable. These were two of the best wrestlers TNA had to offer, but it seems like even they were unable to really excel in this match environment.
TNA shouldn’t’ve complicated this match; they should’ve picked one match type and stuck with it instead of either convoluting or falsely advertising what this actually was. Had Angle and Styles gotten clearer direction of what was expected of them, then it’s likely they’d have had a better first half. Instead, about 40-50% of this match ended up being pretty average.
There are better Styles matches and Angle matches out there that are more worth watching, and it’s unfortunate that these tow just couldn’t live up to the hype here.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.