I might not be alone in saying that I have found the build towards what many consider to be the must see match of WrestleMania 34 – AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the WWE Championship – to be somewhat tepid. Just like in past instances when WWE chose to throw their Royal Rumble weight behind a first time winner, their creative follow-up has been found wanting.
But let’s all be honest here: Styles vs. Nakamura was not a match people wanted to see because of their incredibly engaging characters in WWE. Indeed, it could be argued their characters over the last twelve months have been found to be as wanting as the build to their pending clash this coming Sunday. No, the reason people wanted to see Styles vs. Nakamura was because its status as a dream match has not waned one iota since their first encounter in the Tokyo Dome on January 4th, 2016. And the reason to be excited for Styles vs. Nakamura is because of the equality and fiercely competitive spirit of both individuals. It is because of their respective egos, their respective insecurities and their respective desire to prove themselves to be, quite simply, better than the other.
For this was the theme that became most apparent the first time the two of them met. Theirs was a tale of two men starting out with a respect for the ability of the other man and ending with a respect for the man himself, and every second of their clash bled with that narrative.
“How do you beat a man with no flaws?” is the question that English language commentators Kevin Kelly and Matt Striker relate as that on the mind of the challenger, Styles – a man with clear respect for the capability of the enigmatic IWGP Intercontinental Champion Nakamura. This being their first ever encounter, that respect might not just come from Styles’ scouting, but from the fear of the unknown too; the unknown, of course, being the fastest path toward anxiety in a man, no matter how uncharacteristic.
The gravity is clear, then, even for a relatively unfamiliar viewer like myself: if the Phenomenal One respects a man’s talent and is, perhaps, driven to a place of anxiety heading in to compete with him, you know the stakes are high, the situation serious. That Styles, in spite of proclamations of his body’s vitality, enters with a recent back injury to his name only furthers the dread of dire consequence to boot.
Anxiety, dread – words that come to shape the contest. Make no mistake, despite Styles being an offensive mastermind and Nakamura a ferocious competitor with little remorse between the ropes, both wrestle with a demonstrably defensive cadence, especially in the earliest stages of their bout. This is the story of giving inches and taking miles. Both carry themselves with the measured restraint of men refusing to facilitate the former, transitioning into fervent and zealous life whenever they detect a chance at the latter, and in every instance of either they are proven to be complete equals, inseparable in their ability and tactical mindset.
It is quite possibly this inseparable nature of their ring games that sees the previously simmering tension begin to boil over as the competitive drive of both men begins to take control of their actions. Nakamura eggs Styles on, perhaps probing for a mistake to be made, and Styles responds defiantly with the Bullet Club’s famous hand gesture; only for Nakamura, in fashion typical of the King of Strong Style, to eat the bullet! Even in the realm of the inconsequential and braggadocious, they continue trying to counter like a pair of grandmasters.
Everything about their first, and for the next few days at least their only encounter in life thus far, screams of a chess match, both individuals trying to think not just one move ahead of their opponent but many. With their offensive capabilities and defensive sensibilities so evenly matched early on, it is their respective tactical approaches that come to define the swinging momentum.
In a move that reveals how low Styles is prepared to stoop to save his ego so dangerously threatened by the Nakamura charisma machine, the Phenomenal One seeks an underhanded advantage by playing to his back’s recent history. He appeals to the humanity of his opponent, buying distance and creating that one moment to end their unbreakable stalemate: he jumps an empathetic Nakamura from behind. But as can so often be the case with desperate moves in any battle of strategy, it is in Styles’ method of gaining the advantage that he admits his own defeat: he knows he cannot better Nakamura in a straight contest and so reverts to bent type in order to do it.
It proves his undoing. With the warrior spirit of competition taking over completely, Nakamura shreds his final vestiges of sportsmanship and immediately takes to the very idea Styles himself, in his vainglorious haste to get the upper hand, suggested: target the back. It is arguably the key moment in their encounter, that reminds of the underlying theme. In playing on his back injury himself, Styles gives an inch and the champion Nakamura proves himself more than willing to take the mile, and in doing so makes it all feel that much more personal.
What unfolds as a result makes for fascinating viewing. Nakamura targets Styles’ back, forcing Styles to adjust on the fly, altering his ring game as he begins to discover the physical limits enforced upon him by his recent, now freshly aggravated injury. He does so better than most might, and with greater speed, but it lumbers him with an improvised strategy against an opponent of such equal measure that improvisation is simply a bad idea; thus, the challenger is only ever able to gain fleeting advantages before the fickle pendulum of momentum returns to favour the defending champion once more.
This all seems to paint quite the grim picture for Styles this week, then. The only other time he competed against Nakamura, he got, to put it bluntly, outsmarted and out-wrestled in equal degree. His lowly manipulation of sympathy in the name of a short term advantage, being a desperate move bred from impatient anxiety, led to his ultimate defeat. If that same sensation gets the better of him again this week, it’s going to cost him considerably more.
It is important, however, to recognise that their WrestleKingdom encounter was no one-sided affair. As foolish as Styles was to play his hand too early, and too heavy-handedly, Nakamura demonstrably never takes the Phenomenal One lightly. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that the utterly unflappable Nakamura is on a slow path to inevitable victory against a Styles uncharacteristically letting the situation get the better of him, the King of Strong Style never takes anything for granted.
The pace remains steady, his own ring game equally as defensive and reactive as that of his opponent, but most importantly of all Nakamura obsesses over nailing his patented knee strike, the then-named Bomaye. It proves itself quite the refrain, the King going for it time after time to such an obsessive degree that he threatens to become predictable. The longer the match goes, the more Styles is able to predict Nakamura’s next move, because the more likely it becomes that the next move attempted will be the Bomaye. Had the match gone on longer and lady luck allowed Styles more opportunities to avoid Nakamura’s feared finish, it might have been a different ending.
This perhaps demonstrates the one discernable difference that could define who emerges victorious every time they come to clash: Styles’ impatience threatened to be his own undoing at WrestleKingdom, while Nakamura’s patience threatened to be his. It is inside that differential that the inch given is liable to become the mile taken, that in turn propels one of these two men to an immortal victory at WrestleMania on Sunday.
But there remains that extra intangible this second time around too, that elephant in the room. Much like the Roman Reigns about to challenge Brock Lesnar is a different Roman Reigns challenging the same old Brock Lesnar, the AJ Styles about to defend against Shinsuke Nakamura could be a different AJ Styles defending against the same Shinsuke Nakamura.
Consider how familiar Styles became with Nakamura’s ring game in their one match together; so much so, by the end of it he was almost reading Nakamura like a book. Consider how Styles allowed his own impatient anxiety to get the better of him, bred perhaps from his inexperience of his competitor’s ability. Now consider that Styles enters their fray with the handicap of knowing what to expect already, and of knowing that, if he remains patient enough, this time it might be Nakamura who inadvertently surrenders that all important inch.
In short, this time Styles defends the title and does so having already all but conquered the learning curve.
We have already seen, in their interactions with one another on Smackdown Live (SDL), that not only is this already threatening to become personal once more – promising the same escalating competition we saw last time in Japan – but that Nakamura has carried himself with a certain sense of arrogant presumption, as if the result of their first encounter makes the result of their second a given. Whether this is a true sentiment or a mind-game to throw Styles off the scent, it nonetheless speaks to a clear truth: if Nakamura hasn’t learned from his first match with Styles, then this Sunday might prove disappointing for him. There is, after all, a difference between patience and sloth, and taking the defending WWE Champion for granted, especially because of a prior loss, flirts much too dangerously with the latter.
Many fans are expecting the ‘dream match’ between Styles and Nakamura this Sunday to be the best match of the night. I’m not sure whether I can quite get on board with that sentiment myself, being somebody who enjoyed their first match without ever truly loving it, but there is little denying that, at the heart of this year’s WWE Championship Match, there lies a fascinating tactical intrigue. That intrigue is one of inseparable similarity in physical capability and endurance, but of proven difference in mental capability and endurance.
I fully expect, now that both men have an in-ring history with one another and a greater sense of personal familiarity with the other’s best weapons – many of which, it is worth pointing out, were withstood to a false finish in their first tango – that they will wrestle one another with the same defensive posture on Sunday as they did in 2016, probing the other cautiously and with distance for a mistake that provides them their opening to seize advantage of. It’s going to be a chess match augmented with growing animosity, fragile egos and thin skins. It’s going to be a game of searching for a given inch in order to take the mile needed to walk out as the WWE Champion.
Great build or no, dream match or no, that’s a story I can get into.