Several readers have recommended this match to me; though considering it has Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles in it I’m not surprised.
Few wrestlers active today are as adored and praised as these two. They are widely considered two of the best in-ring competitors in modern times, both with extensive catalogues of great matches that have proved their biggest fans right.
Personally, though, I have yet to see something out of both of them together that’s truly in the conversation for one of the best matches ever. Excellent matches, yes, but nothing that has reached MOTY level or anything higher. Maybe this match will change that.
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.
A month earlier, Bryan ended Styles’ 371-day WWE title reign by using a low blow and then turned heel for the first time since 2012. Bryan’s justification for being this new person was that the fans, who once rallied behind him and carried him to the top of the mountain, didn’t show him the same passion and support as he returned to the ring after being retired for two years. He never thought he’d wrestle again, so when he was living his dream after overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, he felt alone and abandoned.
Determined to put his dreams above whatever the fans wanted, Bryan embraced a different approach to wrestling than the one most people were used to; in other words, heel Daniel Bryan. And to prove that this new Bryan was here to stay, he vowed to retain his title against the former champion at TLC. But instead of being pigeonholed into a gimmick match to fit with the ‘themed PPV concept’, Bryan vowed to beat Styles at his own game and win in a standard wrestling match.
That seemed like a tall order, especially since Styles was still living up to his “phenomenal” billing and putting on some of the best matches of his career. As a result, this match was a bit hard to predict, and fans expected the world from two men widely considered the best in-ring performers WWE had to offer at the time.
This match originally took place on December 16, 2018. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and ****1/4 by TJR’s John Canton.
This is for Bryan’s WWE Championship. Bryan spends the first minute stalling and bailing to the floor. He has no reason to be concerned; as Cory Graves notes, Styles has to beat him and not vice-versa. Styles powers Bryan into all four corners and hits stiff chops in each one. Bryan tries countering a corner whip by flipping out and over but Styles is ready for him and does fall for the trap. Bryan single-legs Styles but Styles counters that with a headscissor takedown and lands some shoulder checks in another corner. Styles lands a snapmare/spine kick combo and sends Bryan into the ropes but Bryan kicks him to block a back body drop. Styles leapfrogs over Bryan and goes for a dropkick but Bryan holds onto the ropes. Bryan charges around him but then he runs into a successful dropkick. Styles clotheslines Bryan to the floor and goes for a plancha but Bryan kicks him as he comes down.
Bryan drives Styles ribs-first into the barricade and then tosses him back into the ring. He kicks Styles’ ribs some more and then lands a kneelift and then starts working Styles over on the mat. Bryan drives his knees into Styles’ ribs and locks in a bow-and-arrow hold until Styles gets a ropebreak. Bryan trash-talks Styles as he chops him in a corner, and when Styles tries turning the tables with his own chops, Bryan hits back even harder. Bryan ties Styles in the tree of woe and stretches his back and ribs from the floor.
Bryan returns to the ring and spends a long time kicking Styles’ midsection and Styles falls to the floor to recover. He returns and hammers Bryan with punches to the head but Bryan shuts him down with another gut kick. Styles reverses a corner whip and Bryan flips over and behind him. Bryan charges to the ropes, blocks a full nelson, and then both men exchange roll-ups for a one-count for each. Bryan drop toeholds Styles face-first into a turnbuckle and hits two running corner dropkicks. He goes for a third…and runs into a big lariat. Both men collapse.
Styles fires back with a strike barrage that takes him all around the ring. He gets so into it that the ref has to get him off of Bryan to avoid getting disqualified. Styles lands a KENTA rush, Bryan ducks one clothesline, but can’t dodge a second one. One, two, Bryan kicks out. Bryan avoids a Styles Clash so Styles smashes him into a ringpost. Back in the ring, Bryan begs off and tries stalling for time but then charges…only to run into an ushigorishi for a two-count.
Bryan blocks a vertical suplex and charges into a corner. Styles blocks and tries his backflip DDT. Bryan bocks it and locks in a cravate hold with kneelifts. A cravate suplex gets Bryan a two-count. Bryan lands his chest kicks and ends with a roundhouse kick to the side of Styles’ head for another two-count. Bryan goes for a back suplex but Styles lands behind him and lands a jumping enzuigiri. Bryan blocks a corner charge and sends Styles onto the apron but Styles hits back and goes for a springboard Phenomenal Forearm. Bryan goes to block with another gut kick, but this time Styles catches Bryan’s leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Styles goes after that now-weakened leg with a kick and by smashing it into a ringpost. Styles follows with a chop block and takes the leg again but Bryan lands an enzuigiri of his own to create some separation.
Bryan chops Styles into a corner and some weak stomps with his healthy right leg. Undeterred, Bryan goes for a super Frankensteiner but Styles counters the pin with his own for a two-count. Styles goes for his Clash but Bryan literally kicks out. Styles wrestles into a single leg crab. Bryan reaches for the ropes but Styles pulls him back to the middle of the ring. The crowd finally wakes up as Bryan looks like he’s about to tap. Styles pulls him back again but this time that motion gives Bryan the wiggle room he needs to counter into his LeBell Lock. Styles floats over into a jackknife cover for a one-count. Bryan flips him over into another cover for a one-count of his own. Roundhouse kick by Bryan. Pélé kick by Styles. Both men collapse again.
Both men make it to their feet and start a yay/boo punch exchange. Bryan wins with some kicks to Styles’ ribs and goes for a charge across the ring but Styles hits first with a dropkick. Styles follows with a springboard 450 splash, injured ribs and all. The referee counts one, two, and Bryan kicks out. Styles tries the Clash again but Bryan powers him into a corner, only for Styles to counter with a Calf Crusher. Bryan flails around as Styles keeps repositioning himself to stop Bryan from reaching the ropes. Bryan does manage a ropebreak and escapes to ringside, and when Styles throws him into the ring for a cover Bryan wisely rolls back out. Styles goes after Bryan at ringside again but Bryan kicks his ribs again. Bryan tries sending Styles into the barricade but Styles jumps over it and hits a Phenomenal Forearm using the barricade. Styles tries that same move in the ring. Bryan dodges it and Styles dodges a running knee strike. Styles gets a two-count off an inside cradle but Bryan reverses into an inside cradle that gets a three-count. Bryan retains the title just like that!
Winner and STILL WWE Champion after 23:55: Daniel Bryan
For two men with Hall of Fame-worthy careers, this didn’t live up to the hype. It had all the right moving parts: psychology, storytelling, solid selling, tension, a sense of unpredictability, and a sense of believability that anything could happen. But for whatever reason the final product didn’t come together as masterfully as many people have said. It was great but not excellent. It was one of those matches that had so much hype and should’ve sold itself on the two names involved alone, but the end result made one think “that’s it?” A few simple tweaks and minor adjustments would’ve made this into something much more satisfying than it really was.
Story-wise most of this made sense. Bryan was being intentionally slow because he was playing a new character and Styles was frustrated with this new gimmick. Bryan’s stalling slowed the pace down but then he began wrestling quickly with the same fast-paced and high-action style that made him a babyface. I’ve seen Bryan wrestle as a heel – or at least as an IDGAF ‘tweener’ – before and he knows how to make the distinction between face and heel. He bounces off the ropes and spammed big moves like he was still trying to get positive reactions. So for him to be a heel but not wrestle that way made this match seem inconsistent in the kind of story he was trying to tell. He had a direction he wanted to go in but didn’t use the most effective tools at his disposal.
It’s not like these two didn’t try to make the match more compelling; they did, yet both men’s performances came across as too unrealistic and a tad robotic. Bryan got his leg worked over badly yet didn’t collapse, scream in pain, or slow down enough to make it seem like he was truly bothered. Styles had his midsection worked over throughout the match yet didn’t make retching noises, slow down like he was out of breath, or otherwise look like he was truly in trouble aside from a single delayed pin off a 450 splash. The work both men put into limb targeting was solid but the other half of the formula needed to make that stuff look convincing, i.e. the selling, wasn’t up to par.
But that lack of selling wasn’t just in response to moves; it was also in response to the story itself. Styles just stood there, somewhat expressionless, as Bryan stalled during the opening minute. This was the man who stole his title in cheap manner and ended his record-breaking reign prematurely. Where was Styles’ fury? Why wasn’t he going after Bryan early to keep Bryan from abusing his position as champion to stall or possibly take a count-out victory? If Styles was so frustrated with Bryan’s actions, why didn’t he just dive to the floor and take the fight to the champion? It’s not like there’s an inherent rule that the wrestlers MUST spend the first minute in the ring; many matches have started with brawling and then resumed in the ring. It was as if the environment these two wrestlers found themselves in was imposing undue limitation on them and thus hampering their abilities to have the best match they could and thus tell their story most effectively.
Of course, part of this match’s weakness came from the other key party: the audience. WWE’s wrestling product is one that is far more dependent on getting immediate reactions than other promotions and styles, so Styles and Bryan adjusted their wrestling as much as they could to fit those parameters. And yet, the fans really didn’t do their job to sell this as a big match and they especially didn’t sell the idea that Bryan was supposed to be the heel. The fans reacted generically and in some cases in Pavlovian manner: chops got the same ‘WOOO’ reaction regardless of who did them, most of Bryan’s best efforts at being an overt heel were met with indifference, and the only time the crowd woke up was towards the end to chant “this is awesome” like they’ve been doing regularly for years to the point that said chant means nothing.
I know it might not be fair to blame an audience for not reacting in the way the company might want them to, but sometimes the live crowd plays a critical role in getting a story, character, or narrative over. Bryan was trying so hard to get this crowd to boo him, to the point that he even stuck his fingers up Styles’ nose on a bow-and-arrow hold. It was as if he had the words “I’m an a**hole” painted in big bold letters on his body and tried to get this crowd to hate him yet they weren’t buying what he was selling. That, of course, could’ve changed had he perhaps done a bit more to sell that he was someone else. Had he eliminated his “babyface moves” and done things more in line with a villain, then maybe the crowd wouldn’t’ve been so dead for the majority of this contest.
Final Rating: ****1/4
If I had to pick between this match and the one from June 2020 I think that latter one is better. It’s ironic because that one took place under COVID restrictions and therefore had a largely nonexistent live audience, yet maybe because of that these two appeared to put more effort into what they were doing in the ring. This match was solid yet the chemistry between Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles didn’t produce the greatness I expected. They tried but all their efforts meant little when the live crowd didn’t put Bryan’s villainy over and put relatively little energy into cheering anyone beyond the final five minutes of the match.
By no means is this a bad match, just one that doesn’t live up to its hype as something world class. If I had to pinpoint one reason why then I would probably blame the environment these two wrestled in. for years WWE’s product has been more about style over substance, and in this match the substance got little reaction while the sizzle towards the end is what actually made people wake up. Had this match happened in Ring of Honor or New Japan, it probably would’ve gotten much more consistent reactions. Not necessarily louder ones but there wouldn’t’ve been such a lull in the atmosphere as there was here.
It’s really too bad: the in-ring wrestling was largely on point and most of the action made sense from a story and psychological perspective. And yet when all the ingredients were mixed together the end result failed to reach the same high heights these two have reached before this match and afterwards.