To say that that AJ Styles was the heart and soul of TNA seems a tad trite at this stage but it is true. For 12 years he was front and centre as the face of the company. Even as dozens of names from the past and elsewhere came and went, it was always Styles that TNA fell back on.
Styles was the essence of the company, the embodiment of its spirit. Nobody was more dependable to deliver quality performances than he was; nobody saved more PPV shows or consistently delivered the goods as often as he did. Which made it quite the shame that the last TNA home media release covering Styles’ TNA career only featured matches up as far as 2006. With TNA’s on demand service no longer in operation many of Styles best and most diverse TNA matches may have gone the way of the dodo. Thankfully that is not the case as, two years after he left the company, TNA has released The Essential AJ Styles Collection – a four disc DVD (unfortunately no Blu-ray) set covering 35 of Styles’ best matches in TNA.
The DVD opens at the beginning, a fine place for an essential collection to start, with not only AJ Styles’ first TNA match but also the first ever match in TNA history. Styles, Jerry Lynn and Low Ki vs. Jimmy Yang, Jorge Estrada and Sonny Siaki (***1/4) was the perfect high energy opener for TNA’s first ever Weekly PPV and equally a great high energy opener to this DVD. A particular highlight was Don West, calling his first ever match, going absolutely bonkers for every single move. He had an innocent earnestness to him that infected much of TNA’s early days with a joyous energy. It was peculiar that Styles of all people took the fall in this match but baffling booking decisions have been a hallmark of TNA since the very beginning. We then moved on to the Styles vs. Low Ki vs. Jerry Lynn vs. Psicosis (****3/4) double elimination match to crown the first ever X-Division champion. This match was basically an illustration of what the X-Division would contribute to TNA over the next few years. It broke the monotony of mediocre heavyweight matches, garbage brawling and occasional misogyny with swiftly paced, dynamic athletic matches that set TNA apart from everybody else at the time. It was TNA’s unique selling point; it was their major contribution to wrestling at the time.
AJ Styles and D’Lo Brown vs. CM Punk and Jason Cross (**1/2) is included solely so CM Punk could be mentioned in the advertising. It was a perfectly fine, by the numbers tag team match that holds no historical relevance other than being the only time Styles and Punk were in a TNA ring together. Styles vs. Jeff Jarrett vs. Raven (***1/4) and Styles vs. Jarrett (***) are both worthwhile and notable matches as both feature Styles capturing the NWA World title from Jarrett. It was clear during this period that Styles wasn’t the all-round wrestler he would soon become. He was undeniably talented and athletically gifted, his potential was plain as day to see, but he was raw. He was still wasn’t quite the finished article. It was during the period between these matches (Styles vs. Jeff Hardy (**1/4) in Hardy’s uneventful TNA debut and Styles vs. Kid Kash (***1/2) in an extremely enjoyable Street Fight is also included from the Nashville days) in 2003 and 2004 that Styles went from a wrestler with great promise to legitimately one of the best wrestlers in the world.
2005 was the year AJ Styles broke through as an elite level worker. Each and every PPV match he featured in that year was stellar (not to mention a bunch of excellent TV matches). I’d put AJ Styles’ 2005 up against any year of any wrestler. He had matured as a wrestler and showed layers and nuance to his performances that weren’t present in the past. Styles vs. Chris Sabin vs. Petey Williams (****3/4) set a benchmark that the Ultimate X stipulation has yet to exceed. It rose the stakes in sheer spectacle like never before to deliver something truly special. There was a time when the term Ultimate X meant something. This match was the reason why. Rounding out disc one is Styles vs. Abyss (****1/2) which featured a totally different performance from Styles. Here he was an underdog fighting for his life. Abyss was tremendous in the role of unstoppable monster and Styles fought for every single inch he could gain against The Monster. It was the best match of Abyss’ career and one of the most interesting of Styles’.
The journey through 2005 continued with Styles vs. Jeff Jarrett (***1/4), with Styles defeating Jarrett for the NWA title for a third time, followed by Styles vs. a resurgent Sean Waltman (***3/4). It’s a real shame Waltman burned his bridge during this period of TNA because he was doing some excellent work. And then we reach Unbreakable. Styles vs. Daniels vs. Joe (*****) has gone down as the greatest match in TNA history and for good reason. Instead of leaning on the tired three way format of two in, one out these three had a true three way match. Full of tremendous action, inventive spots, and little character moments – this was a display of TNA at its very best. They were what made the X-Division special. They were what made TNA special. The tour through AJ Styles’ 2005 ends with Styles vs. Daniels (****1/2) in a 30 minute Iron Man match. AJ’s 2005 was so good they could have justifiably included all 12 of his PPV matches that year on this DVD. For variety’s sake they didn’t but Styles vs. Daniels from Against All Odds, vs. Killings, Daniels and Skipper from Destination X, the King of the Mountain match from Slammiversary, vs. Joe at Sacrifice vs. Petey at Genesis, and vs. Joe at Turning Point all range from very good to being amongst the best matches in TNA history (the Joe match at Turning Point is the most egregious exclusion from this DVD considering how essential the match truly is). AJ Styles in 2005 was special; delivering a wide variety of varied performances against a bunch of different wrestlers. From superb underdog performances against Samoa Joe and Abyss to the role of naïve babyface against Sean Waltman he did so many different things so well that year. And by no coincidence it was also the best in ring year in TNA history.
The DVD shifts towards AJ’s tag team exploits for a while with Styles and Daniels vs. AMW (***3/4) where Styles captured tag team gold in a very entertaining match (though I do prefer the match the same two teams had the month prior), Styles and Daniels vs. LAX (****1/4) in the last time the Ultimate X stipulation really meant something is an all action highspot match that includes a nutty leap by Daniels from the truss to the middle of the cables (Styles and Daniels and LAX would also deliver a thrilling cage match a month later at Bound For Glory 2006) as well as Styles and Tomko vs. Team Pacman (***1/4) which was an enjoyable match (which features Xavier “Consequences Creed” Woods in the place of the much maligned Adam “Pacman” Jones) but brings back horrible memories of a football player who was barred from being physically involved winning the tag team titles. The match did take place in Atlanta, GA though and AJ was clearly having a whale of a time in front of a hometown crowd. We return to Styles’ tag team exploits once more a little later in the set with Styles and Angle vs. Kaz and Daniels (****1/2) from Slammiversary 2012 which is a tremendous tag match where every single thing they did clicked. Styles won tag team gold with five different partners in TNA and each time got to display a different side of himself. With Lynn he was the inexperienced rookie, with Abyss he was the partner who couldn’t get along, with Daniels they were the well-oiled machine, with Tomko he was the lovable goofball and with Angle he was one half of an all-star dream team. Even as a tag team wrestler he had considerable range.
Styles vs. Tiger Mask IV (**) is one of the oddest inclusions on this set. It wasn’t necessarily a bad match, it was fine, but I don’t think anybody was clamouring the relive the time AJ Styles wrestled Tiger Mask. If they wanted to include an AJ vs. Japanese guy novelty match, Styles vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi from Final Resolution 2006 would have been a much better choice to relive with 2016 eyes, even if it wasn’t a particularly great match either. We then enter Main Event Mafia era TNA with Styles vs. Angle (***1/4) which was decent but disappointing followed by Styles vs. Angle (****1/4) in a Last Man Standing match two months later that more than made up for the disappointment with an extremely physical match, Styles vs. Booker T (***1/2) which was an enjoyable little match (which they would better two months later in an I Quit match even in spite of a poor finish), Styles vs. Sting vs. Morgan vs. Angle vs. Hernandez (***) notable only for Styles capturing a World title in TNA for a fourth time, and finally Styles vs. Sting (**3/4) where Styles main evented Bound For Glory for the first time, ending Sting’s three year winning streak at that event (Styles and Sting also had a superior match to the one included in this set, their Turning Point 2008 match was really good fun). Also included from this period were Styles vs. Chris Sabin (***1/2) and Styles vs. Doug Williams (***1/4) which on the surface seem like odd inclusions because both were five minute TV matches but both were dynamite TV sprints, particularly the Sabin match which was incredible fun for how long the match was (and featured a very entertaining Alex Shelley on commentary). Styles and Doug Williams’ long form encounter at Final Resolution 2010 (sadly not included on this set) was a fleshed out version of their TV sprint and a joy to watch.
Styles vs. Daniels vs. Joe (****1/2) was a rematch of one of TNA’s all-time great matches, this time for the World title rather than the X-Division title, and had the tall task of doing that original match justice. The Styles/Daniels/Joe matches from 2006 aren’t talked about all that often for a reason; while they all ranged from good to great none of them were even close to the original match. This however, was the rematch that came closest to that fateful night in 2005. Four years later all three went out there, in the main event once more, and delivered a spectacular match that built on and called back to the their old matches in really neat smart ways. This lived up to its reputation.
Styles as mini-Naitch is a period I think we’d all like to forget, as Hulk Hogan and co.’s big idea for TNA was to turn Styles into a faux-Ric Flair and Abyss into a faux-Hulk Hogan. Styles vs. Pope (***1/4) was a solid match and brought back memories of when the former Elijah Burke nearly became a thing in TNA. Styles vs. Dreamer (****) was one of the best carry jobs of Styles career, taking a washed up Tommy Dreamer to an extremely compelling I Quit match in 2010. Dreamer hasn’t come even close to replicating this kind of performance since and for good reason, he hasn’t been wrestling AJ Styles. Styles vs. Sabu (**1/4) is another odd inclusion, the novelty of a Styles/Sabu ladder match isn’t worth it considering how uninspired that match happened to be. It’s interesting to look back on how often TNA tried to “fix” AJ Styles. Whether it was as Mortimer Plumtree or Vince Russo’s lackey, Christian’s goofball sidekick, Angle’s Prince buddy, a Ric Flair facsimile, or a brooding emo – none of them felt like Styles’ own character. It always felt like somebody else’s transposed on top of him. When he succeeded best in TNA was when he was simply being an extension of himself.
From July 2011 to December 2012, Styles and Daniels were basically at odds the whole time. That’s seventeen months of pretty much Styles and Daniels constantly wrestling each other in various forms with only occasional interludes. They tried to kill each other with a screwdriver, Styles got decked by Dixie Carter’s husband, and Daniels accused Styles of being the father of Claire Lynch’s unborn child. It was a long year and a half. Styles and RVD vs. Daniels and Lynn (**) was a mediocre TV match and a strange one to place on a best of set. The Styles vs. Daniels vs. Lynn vs. RVD match from a few months before it is a considerably better match featuring the same competitors. Styles vs. Daniels (*3/4) is an even worse inclusion because it’s pretty much their only match bad match in 15 singles matches in TNA. Styles vs. Daniels from Destination X 2012 would have been a much better inclusion, a Last Man Standing match that displayed just how good Styles was in a hardcore/bitter blood feud setting. Styles vs. Daniels vs. Joe vs. Angle (***3/4) was a very good ladder match but you can’t but feel all four would have been better off sans stipulation (just look at the talent in the ring, it was TNA’s most famous match plus Kurt Angle). This Styles/Daniels feud also included Styles losing his confidence and becoming bad at wrestling, memorable for just how convincing Styles was at being a bad pro wrestler. He’s even good at being bad.
The home stretch includes Styles vs. Jeff Hardy (***1/2), Styles vs. Austin Aries (***1/2), and Styles vs. Bully Ray (***1/4). This was during Styles’ boo-boo face lone wolf character which at least did produce a really good mash-up theme song (of Evil Ways and his usual I Am theme) and is, in many ways, the version of Styles we still see today (with a few tweaks here and there and an even sillier haircut). Tracking Styles across his time in TNA, he basically had three stages. There was 2002-2004: where he was an incredibly gifted natural athlete but nowhere near a complete pro wrestler, he was raw and in many ways untapped. From 2005-2012 he channelled that raw potential into truly becoming one of the best wrestlers on earth. He brought a dynamic element to his matches where he focused more on trying to make the audience believe every element of his performance. And then from 2013 to today, he began to adapt a little more. Getting up there in years he grounded himself a little more, and tried to make the flashier, more spectacular elements of his arsenal more meaningful. He could still keep up with and fly with the best of them but he realised he didn’t always need to and adjusted accordingly, he began wrestling smarter. In many ways that’s what this DVD encapsulates best – how AJ Styles developed from promising prodigy to one of the best wrestlers in the world.
When all is said and done and AJ Styles retires as an all-time great (a category he overwhelmingly belongs in), his body of work in TNA will be TNA’s largest contribution to wrestling as a whole. The fact that TNA can release a four disc, 12 hour set with 35 matches and that I can say a good 10-20 more matches would warrant inclusion speaks volumes for just how much Styles achieved in his 12 years in TNA. To cover all of Styles’ time in TNA would require something like an eight disc set and that’s probably not all that feasible. Bar an odd inclusion and exclusion or two, The Essential AJ Styles Collection does a tremendous job of capturing Styles as a performer and his contributions to TNA. Whether it was an all-out classic or a thrilling TV sprint. A brilliantly structured tag team match or a violent bitter blood feud. Styles could do it all, and he did. AJ Styles gave TNA absolutely everything he had to offer and this DVD set is a tremendous way to relive that.
The Essential AJ Styles Collection is available to purchase here at ShopTNA.com.