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05th Apr 2018

The greatest Wrestlemania match of all time could happen this weekend

Wil Jones

If you’re the sort of occasional wrestling viewer who going to tune for Wrestlemania this Sunday night, there’s one match that needs to be on your radar: “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles versus the artist known as Shinsuke Nakamura, for the WWE Championship.

I’m partially stealing this analogy from The Attitude Era podcast, but I sometimes think there’s two types of wrestling fans. There are the ones who like the characters, the entrance music, the catchphrases and the finishing moves. To them, the actual ‘wrestling’ part is almost arbitrary. And then on the flip side, there are those for whom it’s all about what happens between bells – the athleticism and the storytelling that happens in the ring.

Wrestlemania is usually for the former. It’s all about spectacle. It’s about Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon’s head. It’s about Triple H dressing as Conan once a year to work through his midlife crisis. It’s about The Rock setting his own name on fire with a flamethrower. It’s not about mat classics and technical grapping. But a Southern boy with a soccer-mom haircut and a Japanese Michael Jackson superfan might be about to change all that.

Shinsuke Nakamura versus AJ Style is not a match that should be taking place at Wrestlemania. They fought once before, in 2016 at Wrestlekingdom, the biggest show of the Japanese wrestling calendar. Running nearly half an hour in length, it was everything you’d expect from Japanese ‘Strong Style’ wrestling – expertly paced, hard hitting and story driven. It transcended language barriers. It was a battle between two world warriors, that didn’t need sassy putdowns or backstage skits to draw you in. It’s so good, New Japan Pro Wrestling have even put the whole thing up for free on YouTube, with English commentary:

When that match took place, AJ Styles was the most acclaimed American wrestler never to appear in WWE. And Nakamura was a cult hero in Japan, basically an MMA fighter who’d strut around like Freddie Mercury before kicking people’s faces off. The two of them facing off was an international dream match, beloved by the hardcore fans that scoffed at Vince McMahon’s spandex soap opera. They never thought the two of them would ever sign for WWE, let alone be on the cusp of re-staging their bout at Wrestlemania.

We still don’t know if AJ and Shinsuke will be given the chance to truly shine on the biggest stage. Wrestlemania is notorious running long and cutting matches for time. They might get nine minutes to allow for more of Triple H cosplaying as Thanos and a 53 year old Undertaker to slowly stroll to the ring through endless clouds of smoke. But if they are allowed to truly tear it up, they could blow the precious little minds of the lapsed fans that tune in once a year for ‘Mania. Styles is total package, a high flying athlete in his prime. Right now, he is Lionel Messi, he is Michael Jordan, he is Rodger Federer. There’s an old cliché of the greatest pro wrestlers being able to have a great match wrestling a broom, and AJ seems to be more capable of that than anyone in the history of the sport at the moment. More than just providing the incredible moments and spots, he imbues every single one of his matches with a sense of pacing and drama, that truly get the best out his opponents no matter their skill level.

And as for Nakamura, you just need to see him move in the ring to get it. Unlike Styles, he can be lazy, and phone in performances. But when he steps it up, there is no more compelling performer in the world. He has the perfect combination of having the charisma and uniqueness that means you can’t take your eyes off him; and the viscous striking offence that causes every blow to make you wince.

Sure, there have been great examples of technical wrestling at ‘Mania. Randy Savage vs Ricky Steamboat. Kurt Angle vs Shawn Michaels. Daniel Bryan at Wrestlemania XXX.  But there’s been nothing like what AJ vs Nakamura could be. Make sure you catch it.

Wrestlemania will be available on Pay Per View and online on the WWE Network, this Sunday at 12am. All the info you need is here.