Honorable Mentions: vs. Kazuchika Okada; King of Pro Wrestling 2015; vs. Karl Anderson G1 Climax 24; vs. Kota Ibushi Invasion Attack 2015
10. AJ Styles vs. Lance Archer – G1 Climax 8/3/14
I know what you’re thinking. A singles match involving Lance Archer, formerly known in TNA and WWE as Lance Hoyt and Vance Archer, can’t possibly be great. Coming into this match, I felt the same way. However, during the G1 Climax, he had some impressive matches. This one against AJ Styles was the best I’ve ever seen him have. Now that I’m done praising him, we can get back to AJ Styles, who is the focus of this list. Yea he won the IWGP Heavyweight Title in his first ever match, but something about him in New Japan didn’t instantly click. It wasn’t until the G1 Climax that everything fell into place. He showed off a versatility that we never saw from him during his time in TNA. Nearly every match in the tournament was great and they all felt very different. This one followed the classic big man/little man dynamic. AJ does a ton to make Archer look dominant, bumping like crazy for him. For the most part, Archer plays a basic bruising game until he busts out a moonsault. While he missed it, it showed how important a win over the IWGP Heavyweight Champion truly was. Styles tried chopping down the tree, always a smart strategy as the smaller man. It worked perfectly as Archer was too big to hit the Styles Clash on, so he moved to the Calf Killer submission and made Archer tap out.
9. AJ Styles vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax 8/10/14
In the last two years, the top four guys in NJPW have pretty much been Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles. On the final day of the G1 Climax 24, Nakamura and Okada were set to square off to determine the winner. However, Styles and Tanahashi would meet on the same night to determine the third place finish. Now, they had met in the past in TNA, but this was the biggest stage they’d wrestle on up to this point. Both men had great tournaments and I’d even consider Styles the MVP of the entire thing. This was incredibly back and forth throughout, really showcasing the fact that they were so evenly matched. Neither guy was put in a position to come out looking better than the other. I looked at this match as the new IWGP Heavyweight Champion still looking to fully prove himself by beating the “ace” of New Japan. That was evident when Styles sent the Bullet Club to the back so that it could be completely one on one. He showed that he was more than capable of hanging with Tanahashi and came close to winning on several occasions. In the end though, Tanahashi countered the Styles Clash into a cradle, scoring the win and setting up an IWGP Title match, which Tanahashi would also win.
8. AJ Styles vs. Tetsuya Naito – Wrestle Kingdom 9 1/4/15
Since my knowledge of New Japan Pro Wrestling wasn’t very high coming into Wrestle Kingdom, I wanted to see this match more than any because it involved AJ Styles. This was the second match between two (we’ll tackle the other later). Their first one was better, but man I still liked how different this was. Naito pinned Styles in that match, becoming just the second guy in the company to do so. Their first match was centered on Naito’s eye injury and a vicious AJ, but this was focused on the Styles Clash. AJ had broken Yoshi Tatsu’s neck with the move and there was an aura around it as something dangerous. Naito came prepared and had it well scouted, countering or blocking it at every single turn. The English commentary on the show really hammered home the fact that the move was something to fear. In the end, the one Styles Clash that Naito couldn’t counter was one from the second rope, which finished him off. Once the match ended, officials immediately ran in to check on Naito, further selling the Clash. Styles was able to pick up a win in his debut on the biggest stage in New Japan.
7. AJ Styles vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax 8/14/15
On this, the final “A” Block show of the G1 Climax, we were treated to rematch of the third place match a year earlier. AJ Styles and Hiroshi Tanahashi are possibly the two best wrestlers on the planet and met with higher stakes this time around. Tanahashi beat Styles twice in 2014, while Styles won the IWGP Title back from him in February of 2015. Both men were tied with 12 points here and the winner would win the block, heading to the finals. They wrestled a very smart match, with neither guy taking an early risk. They fought hard for every hold, with each and every single thing they did meaning something. There wasn’t just points where they did stuff for the sake of filling time. It all had a purpose. While that start was a bit slow, they worked the crowd into a frenzy when things started to pay off. During the tournament, Styles’ Calf Killer submission was established as a secondary finisher. When he applied it here, the fans totally bough it as a potential finish. AJ would hit a low blow, only for Tanahashi to do one back because that’s how much this win meant. Tanahashi used the Styles Clash, so AJ hit High Fly Flow (or a regular frog splash but still). The back and forth here was top notch. Tanahashi had to finally use multiple High Fly Flows to win the block.
6. AJ Styles vs. Katsuyori Shibata – G1 Climax 7/20/15
Coming into 2015, I had never seen Katsuyori Shibata, but had heard great things. After seeing him have a fantastic match at Dominion, I started to like him. Seeing him matched up against my personal favorite, AJ Styles, to kick off the G1 Climax, had me pretty stoked. When I first saw this, I thought it was good, but not great. Upon further review, I grew to love it. Shibata came in with a legit hand injury and I expected AJ to target it. I assume it was too hurt to really work, so they wisely found a way around it. Shibata kicked the shit out of AJ, forcing AJ to go after the leg, which also help establish his Calf Killer submission. Shibata took it to AJ with some stiff shots throughout, doing what he does best. In the most infamous moment of the match, AJ was close to breaking Shibata’s sleeper. With only one good hand, Shibata chose to bite down on his good hand to keep the hold. He would miss the PK and fall victim to the Styles Clash. I don’t know what it was the first time around, but maybe I was tired or something when I saw it. It is so very good and the fact that we may never get a rematch is one of the saddest things about AJ leaving New Japan. With that being said, I’d like to note that matches with Tomohiro Ishii and Tomoaki Honma are on the list of matches that I never got to see but really wanted to.
5. IWGP Heavyweight Championship: AJ Styles (c) vs. Kazuchika Okada – Dominion 7/5/15
Headlining a stacked Dominion show, the main event between IWGP Champion AJ Styles and Kazuchika Okada had to deliver. It did exactly that as, in my opinion, it was the best part of the card. A lot of Bullet Club matches feature an overabundance of interference. Early on, this seemed to be headed down that path, but Red Shoes ejected them and even hit them with a classic “SUCK IT!” Once they were booted, the match really started to click. Styles went from extremely cocky to seemingly vulnerable and worried, again showcasing how well he can play almost any role given to him. He knew that one on one with Okada, he was in trouble. The chemistry between them has become so great over time that their exchanges are effortless. There are some near falls in this that are incredibly close. Okada nails the Rainmaker, a very protected finish, and immediately goes for a second. AJ counters this one and it looks like Okada may have blown his chance, adding to the drama of this thing. They continued to counter each other, making for a tremendous closing stretch that came to an end after another Rainmaker, giving Okada his third IWGP Heavyweight Title. Styles and Okada are two of the greatest wrestlers alive and this was their best encounter together. It would be the end of the second and final IWGP Heavyweight Title reign of the “Phenomenal One.”
4. AJ Styles vs. Kota Ibushi – G1 Climax 7/26/15
One of the best guys in NJPW is Kota Ibushi. He had a great 2015, including an IWGP Heavyweight Title match earlier in the year at Invasion Attack, which was great. However, he and AJ Styles bested that with the rematch. Playing off of that one, both men were able to counter a lot of the things the other would do even more than in their first match. Kota Ibushi used his quickness and athleticism to overwhelm AJ Styles, who is not the same man he was ten years ago. Now, AJ is a much smarter worker and it showed in the way he turned things around. At one point, Ibushi hits a backflip kick only for AJ to respond with a Pele, showing he’s still got it. Everything done in this match made sense and they built to a fantastic finish. Ibushi continually avoided the Styles Clash, but AJ had an answer for a lot of the big spots Ibushi tried, like a top rope rana and deadlift German. Ibushi would survive Bloody Sunday and win with the Phoenix Splash that was countered in their first match. This made Ibushi only the fourth man in New Japan to pin Styles, joining Okada, Tanahashi and Naito.
3. AJ Styles vs. Tetsuya Naito – G1 Climax 7/26/14
Exactly one year to the day before the previous match on the list, AJ Styles had the one that stood out at the start of his New Japan run. He had a few matches with Kazuchika Okada, but neither wowed me and they wouldn’t have classics until later on down the line. During his time with TNA, AJ Styles was always miles better as the babyface. His heel runs alongside Christian and Kurt Angle, as well as the awful Ric Flair run, were some of the lesser work he’d ever done. It was here that I realized this older, more mature and polished version of AJ could be a great heel. On the previous G1 show, Tetsuya Naito got busted open against Toru Yano. Styles already had a loss on his record (to Okada), but this was a chance for a big win against the guy who won the tournament the year prior. Naito hit AJ’s trademark dropkick, complete with his signature pose. AJ retaliates by relentlessly attacking the head wound of Naito. It’s a vicious side of Styles that I had never seen before. AJ would go on to lose this match, falling victim to the Stardust Press, but it was something here that just clicked. This was the heel that could lead a stable and be at the top of the card. This was a new AJ Styles. This was the guy who, over the next year, would solidify his position as the best wrestler in the world.
2. AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura – Wrestle Kingdom 10 1/4/16
AJ Styles certainly made the most of his two Wrestle Kingdom opportunities. While his match at WK9 was the highest non-main event of the show, he got the co-main event spot this time around. Not only that, but since his arrival in New Japan, he was kept apart from Shinsuke Nakamura. While he’s had countless bouts with Tanahashi and Okada, this was the dream match. When it was announced, the hype was incredibly real and there was some worry that it couldn’t live up to that. Not because of their ability, but because of the high praise. That worry was for nothing as it lived up to the expectations. They worked a smart opening sequence, trying to feel each other out with no real prior knowledge of one another. Nakamura did a great job of targeting the back and AJ was even better at selling it throughout. It impacted several moves that Styles attempted. They messed up the backflip DDT spot which led to a weird moment and was probably the only time that the selling was up to par. They each kicked out of one finisher, with Nakamura hitting a big time Boma Ye after a Pele from out of nowhere. There were callbacks to previous WK matches like the Sakuraba knee that knocked out Nakamura at WK7 and a tease of a second rope Styles Clash. Outside of the aforementioned DDT spot, they executed everything nearly perfectly. Nakamura locked in his trademark armbar but AJ got out and hit the Styles Clash for two. I bought into a massive near fall when Nakamura hit a fucking top rope Michinoku Driver. Finally, Nakamura hit a Boma Ye to the back of the head and another to the front to retain. After the bell, the two men fist bumped each other in a show of respect. Even though he worked a tag match the next day, I’ll consider this AJ’s swan song.
1. AJ Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki – G1 Climax 8/1/14
I’ve already talked about how great and versatile AJ Styles was during his G1 Climax runs. This was the pinnacle of those runs and his entire time in New Japan. Minoru Suzuki is pretty much a master at professional wrestling and this made for one interesting matchup. Styles was the leader of the Bullet Club, while Suzuki captained Suzuki-Gun. Now, there were greater moments in other matches for sure, but this match isn’t about one moment. It’s a collection of great little things that make for a tremendous match. Yes, there is interference on both ends, but it makes perfect sense here since they lead two of the top heel stables in Japan. It also isn’t overdone. Suzuki attacked AJ’s arm relentlessly. He throws in some finger stretching to add to the brutality of the work he does. They ended up in a fantastic exchange of strikes and counters near the end, which is made even better by Styles only using his left hand because his right arm is too damaged. Again, it’s small, but it makes such a big difference. That’s the kind of selling I want to see and props to AJ for holding his own in the strike battle despite not using his dominant hand. AJ wins with a Styles Clash, capping the best match in the best tournament in wrestling history. Performances like this are going to be greatly missed with AJ gone.