Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – A phenomenon…

Pro wrestling fans who value in-ring action over grandiose production and wacky characters appreciate a wrestler possessing the “total package”. Regarding actual wrestling (not mic skills or character development) the total package includes speed, agility, a well-developed move-set, believable strikes, holds, and throws, the ability to sell offense, an understanding of psychology, and ring generalship. One young star by the name of Allen Jones possesses all of the above and always delivers in the ring, and I’m sure you’ve seen his work but you know him by his professional handle: “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles.

TODAY’S ISSUE: ROH presents The Phenomenon Continues, The Best of AJ Styles, Volume 2.

I picked up this set of AJ Styles matches for next to nothing during one of the incredible sales at ROH’s online store. Why pay retail, right? While the set is no longer available there, you are likely to find it on eBay or other such sites for a song, and it’s well worth the money. Let’s take a look at this collection of phenomenal matches.

AJ Styles & Low Ki vs. Christopher Daniels & Xavier – No Holds Barred Match at Revenge on the Prophecy, 11 January 2003. Xavier was the reigning ROH champion (not “world” champion, yet) at this point, and Daniels was one half of the ROH tag team champions as well as the Frontier Wrestling Alliance British Heavyweight champ. It’s amazing how young everyone looked here; was this really only six years ago? This match had an unusual set of rules, as it was NOT a no-DQ match or a bunkhouse brawl, but it was literally no holds barred with every other rule still in effect.

Plenty of history between all four men led to this “grudge match”. The action was hot and heavy, the strikes were brutal, and bad intentions were in the air. The no holds barred stip came into play when AJ had Daniels trapped in the Muta Lock and Daniels reached the ropes, but it did not force Styles to break the hold. While the match went full-throttle most of the way, there was a heat segment in which Styles got to play Ricky Morton for a few minutes, showcasing his ability to sell and draw sympathy.

All four men brawled outside the ring in a most unusual fashion until AJ hit the Styles Clash on Daniels from the ring apron to the floor through a table – devastating! At the same time, Low Ki locked Xavier in the Dragon Clutch around the ropes for the submission victory. It was a highly energetic, entertaining match, but surprising as a kick-off to an AJ Styles collection since it didn’t necessarily focus on Styles all that much. Still it was a hell of a contest, and far better than anything you’ll see on TV today.

AJ Styles vs. Paul London – ROH Number One Contender’s Trophy Match at Night of the Grudges, 14 June 2003. London had the Kill Bill theme song as his ring entrance music. How cool is that? Styles was in the midst of one of his TNA-earned NWA world heavyweight title reigns and was also one half of the ROH tag team champions. Mickie “Alexis Laree” James accompanied Styles to the ring, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen her in ROH.

They started out with an exchange of mat wrestling, escapes and counters, but then they played a very physical game of “can you top this?” as their tempers slowly flared. London continually offered his hand in a mocking gesture between stiff exchanges, and AJ quickly realized London was being disingenuous and got fired up. The feeling-out process didn’t last very long, and they cranked up the intensity. Their professional rivalry boiled over into personal hatred as evidenced by the uncharacteristic nature of their violence. London displayed malice quite unlike his usual demeanor and AJ rose to the occasion.

Styles took London’s head off with the most devastatingly stiff discus lariat I’ve ever seen, and the battle raged on. Late in the match, AJ managed to hit the Styles Clash but London was able to raise his shoulder to avoid defeat. Shortly thereafter, Styles delivered a German suplex that resulted in all four shoulders down for the three count, and the referee called the contest a draw. As the crowd chanted a request for five more minutes, Laree and a second ref came into the ring and confusion reigned.

The commentary team correctly explained that unlike a time-limit draw, it wasn’t a question of five more minutes, since both men were pinned. While this match was supposed to settle the #1 contender question, it failed to accomplish that goal but it certainly entertained nonetheless. They shared a moment of mutual respect, and lived to fight another day. NOTE: As a result of having a higher placing in the Top Five, London was awarded the Number One Contender’s Trophy (but fear not, AJ Styles fans; the Phenomenal One would have his shots at the ROH world title in the future).

AJ Styles & Homicide vs. Christopher Daniels & Dan Maff – ROH Tag Team Title Match at Wrath of the Racket, 9 August 2003. The Prophecy took out AJ’s actual championship partner, Amazing Red, at intermission so Styles replaced his fallen comrade with the last man the Prophecy expected to face on that night – the Notorious 187. Styles and ‘Cide had Julius Smokes in their corner, and Jim Cornette and Allison Danger were alongside the Prophesy. The match was a ruthless brawl, but it also included some outstanding action such as stereo suicide dives by Styles and ‘Cide from the ring over the guardrail and into the crowd, crashing down onto the heels.

Of course the heels utilized dastardly tactics to take over the match and punish Homicide, cutting the ring in half and keeping AJ cooling his heels on the ring apron. Cornette and Danger each aided the Prophecy in keeping the advantage, in typical Memphis bad guy fashion. Cornette’s influence on Maff and Daniels came back to bite them, as they attempted the Midnight Express’ old rocket launcher maneuver, but ‘Cide evaded Daniels and made the hot tag to Styles. In accordance with the specifications of Tag Team Formula 101, AJ came in like a house on fire and dominated the heels until Daniels illegally entered the ring and delivered a Blue Thunder Bomb and his amazing STO, following up with the BME, and the NWA world heavyweight champion was in trouble.

This time the Prophecy did land the rocket launcher, and Homicide was forced to join the fray in order to prevent the titles from changing hands. Later, Daniels drilled ‘Cide with an absolutely wicked Angel’s Wings, and Styles had to rescue his ad hoc partner before the Prophecy absconded with the gold. In a rare move for ROH, they bumped the ref and Cornette tossed his racket to Daniels, but AJ countered and delivered the Styles Clash to the Fallen Angel on the racket for the pinfall victory, successfully defending the tag team titles. This was a fast-paced, exciting, entertaining match, and was the sort of contest that makes me thankful there are real wrestling alternatives to the “sportz entertainment” offered by the big 2.

AJ Styles vs. Bryan Danielson – ROH Number One Contender’s Trophy Match at Main Event Spectacles, 1 November 2003. Wow. Just the idea of these two working a match together is enough to excite this indy fan. Not surprisingly, they started out with mat wrestling as each man attempted to establish dominance over the other. They spilled out onto the floor and kept grappling and working to gain the advantage. Back in the ring, the intense atmosphere grew but they continued clean, fair competition without breaking down into a brawl. Two of the best performers of the time were putting on a technical wrestling demonstration and the crowd was with them every step of the way.

While the Phenomenal One tried to pick up the pace, the American Dragon slowed things to his methodical tempo. It was Danielson who took the first shortcuts, displaying heel tendencies to help the crowd figure out who to cheer for. Dragon punished Styles’ arm, likely with his Cattle Mutilation or crossface chicken-wing submission finishers in mind. AJ responded by working Danielson’s leg, being much more deliberate than his usual high-impact style. But Bryan Danielson is the wrong man to go hold-for-hold against, and AJ often found himself wrapped up and trapped in painful maneuvers. Surprisingly, the Phenomenal One was up to the task and he showed a side of his repertoire that isn’t usually on display. He ground down Danielson in a style reminiscent of American Dragon’s own approach, and the match became as much a contest of wills as a battle of skills.

Dragon locked in Cattle Mutilation but AJ wisely saved himself the torture and got his foot across the bottom rope immediately. Faithful to his game plan, Danielson simply dragged AJ out to the middle of the ring and reestablished the hold. AJ escaped, and continued battling against the “best in the world”. He delivered the same wicked discus lariat he used to level Paul London earlier in the DVD and went for the Styles Clash, but Dragon countered into a triangle choke, then chain-wrestled into a cross arm-breaker. Amazingly, AJ countered that and improvised a very cool modified version of the Styles Clash for two, then nailed the traditional version for the pinfall. Any victory over Bryan Danielson is a feather in the cap, and Styles earned this honor. It was an instant classic, and an outstanding contest that was a fine example of what the indy scene is all about.

AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe – ROH World Title Match at War of the Wire, 29 November 2003. As a direct result of his victory over Danielson in the previous match, Styles earned a shot against the dominant Samoa Joe, the longest reigning world champ in ROH history. CM Punk provided color commentary, adding a bit of flavor to the proceedings. Ironically, Joe and Styles teamed together the night prior in a losing effort against the Briscoes in a world tag team title match. Joe and Styles have that rare chemistry that guarantees a great match any time they’re in the ring together, and this match was no exception.

They gave 100 percent, risking life and limb to secure victory. AJ drilled Joe with an impressive power bomb, surprising Punk (and myself) with his leverage and power. Joe hit all his well-known stuff and made sure to give Styles a receipt with a brutal power bomb of his own that he chained into the STF submission hold, but AJ backed himself into the ropes to break the hold. Late in the match, they went toe to toe in the middle of the ring, delivering strikes by the dozens and knocking each other flat on their backs. When they slowly regained their footing to continue, AJ again caught me off guard with his strength by hitting the Styles Clash on the bigger man, but failed to keep Joe down for the three-count. Styles then got caught in the Island Driver for a long count of two, and Joe cranked it up a notch. The discus clothesline gave AJ the advantage one more time, but Joe countered a top-rope attempt into a devastating Muscle-Buster and locked in a camel clutch choke variation, putting Styles to sleep to retain his title. So far this collection hadn’t missed, as this match delivered another satisfying and enjoyable display of everything professional wrestling should be. Great stuff!

AJ Styles vs. Kaz HayashiFinal Battle ‘03, 27 December 2003. Billed as a first-time singles dream match with Hayashi representing All Japan Pro against ROH’s Styles, this contest was part of a four-match interpromotional series that spanned the show. Interesting note, the commentators mentioned that Kaz Hayashi was the very first person to ever take AJ’s Styles Clash finisher. Would he eat another one in this match? Time would tell…

They set a quick pace early on and kept it up, as each high-flyer took chances until they had a battle of the chops mid-ring, which ended with a stiff spin-kick to the mush by Styles. That was answered by Hayashi, who then delivered a swank brain-buster and slowed the pace for the first time with a headlock. AJ escaped and went for the Clash, but Hayashi had done his homework and kicked his way out of it. Shortly thereafter, Kaz delivered a devastating piledriver and Styles was in a bad way.

Later, Styles delivered a unique swinging backbreaker, wrapping Hayashi’s spine across his own back and taking control of the match. They went back and forth for several more minutes until a double clothesline sent both men to the canvas for a ten-count. When the action resumed, Kaz countered the Clash again, this time with a brilliant reversal into a rana for a near fall. Hayashi hit a vicious Dragon suplex and locked in a brutal crossface submission hold that AJ endured until he wriggled over to the bottom rope. Styles finally managed to plant Hayashi face-first with the Styles Clash for the victory over his Japanese foe. This was a sleeper; when the list of matches on this set included names like Samoa Joe, Bryan Danielson, CM Punk, and Christopher Daniels, I wasn’t expecting this match to steal the show but it was a fantastic contest and a great display of AJ’s speed, agility, and will to win, as well as Hayashi’s talent; an absolutely fabulous contest.

AJ Styles vs. Jimmy Rave РPure Wrestling Title Tournament First Round Match at Second Year Anniversary, 14 February 2004. Styles and Rave were still mentor and prot̩g̩ at this point, before their relationship fell apart and their feud began. Within kayfabe, AJ requested to face Rave in this tournament in order to help Rave find an aggressive streak, and Rave delivered. The student let it all hang out against his teacher, and found the focus and violence Styles wanted to draw out of him in the first place, and it almost cost AJ the Pure Wrestling Title.

AJ landed badly on a back-flip, and although Rave clearly saw his mentor was injured, he targeted the damaged leg with intensity and wicked intentions. But this fired AJ up, and he decapitated Rave with an unbelievable discus lariat for the win, knocking out Rave and advancing in the tournament. Styles moved on in the tourney, but it was painfully obvious his knee had become a liability that his crafty and shrewd opponent in the finals, CM Punk, would no doubt attempt to exploit.

AJ Styles vs. CM Punk – Pure Wrestling Title Tournament Finals at Second Year Anniversary, 14 February 2004. Punk was accompanied to the ring by Traci Brooks, whom he once dated in real life (I’m guessing they were an item at this time). History was made in this match, as the first Pure Wrestling Champion in Ring of Honor was crowned here. The three key unique rules in Pure Wrestling matches were as follows:

– A wrestler was only allowed to use the ropes to break a hold three times, and when those three rope breaks had been used up, his opponent was not required to relinquish a hold regardless of ring positioning. This also applied to attempted pinfalls, as contact with the ropes would not break up a pin cover once the victim’s three rope breaks had been used.

– No striking with closed fists to the face was allowed (forearms were still authorized).

– There were count-outs in Pure Wrestling matches (a 20-count), whereas in any other ROH match at that time, a wrestler could not be counted out of the match while outside the ring.

Styles went to work on Punk’s arm early and attempted to hit a Styles Clash in the first minute of the match, and the rope-break rule came into play right away. The psychology at work in the Pure environment added a storytelling layer that made things that might be trivial in standard matches seem far more important here. AJ got caught up in Traci’s web of distraction early, and paid for it when Punk took advantage and drilled him with a tope. They brawled on the outside for a while and then returned to the ring for more “pure” wrestling action, and Styles used his second rope break while caught in a Boston crab that wrenched at his damaged knee. Punk quickly gave up his second rope-break as well, and drove Styles’ head into the mat with a brain-buster. After surviving two earlier matches each, they quickly found themselves fatigued and desperate to finish their night’s work. When Styles gave up his third and final rope-break, Punk appeared to be in the driver’s seat but a unique submission hold by AJ forced Punk to give up his final rope break as well, and the playing field was leveled.

After getting waylaid by Styles’ discus lariat, Punk rolled outside the ring to avoid being pinned, but was forced to slide back in due to the count-out rule. Again, the unique rules played a big part in the layout of the match. Punk continued working on AJ’s knee, and although the ropes wouldn’t free him from a damaging leg-lock, he was able to innovate an escape of Punk’s hold by climbing up the ropes to counter the maneuver. AJ countered a Shining Wizard into the Styles Clash, but Punk was able to kick out before the three-count, and the match continued. By now, they were both extremely worn down and desperate to put their opponent away. Punk countered another attempt at the discus lariat with a vicious spike DDT, and the momentum shifted yet again.

After scoring with his gorgeous Pele kick, AJ found Punk hanging from the ropes, so he climbed up and smashed Punk into the canvas with a dramatic and devastating Super Styles Clash from the second rope for the pinfall. Although Punk’s foot was draped over the bottom rope during the cover, he had already used all three of his rope-breaks so the referee was correct in counting the pin and presenting Styles with the inaugural Pure Wrestling Championship belt. In a wonderful final image on the DVD and a perfect representation of the spirit of Ring of Honor, Punk shook Styles’ hand like a man, and all the other men who’d competed in the tournament entered the ring to show respect and support to the new Pure Wrestling Champion. Styles grabbed a mic mid-ring and publicly thanked his fellow wrestlers and the fans, in a true display of class and sportsmanship, as this phenomenal collection faded to black.

If you like AJ Styles from his work in TNA or even his brief stay in WCW, you’ll love this set. It’s like seeing his true essence unleashed; Styles is free to perform at his top capability without any silly storyline albatross around his neck or the burden of dragging a lesser competitor through a match. All his opponents in this set are skilled hands between the ropes, and they elevated their games when standing across the ring from the Phenomenal One. It’s certainly worth going out of your way to find such a solid collection of matches for hours of fun. All I can say after watching eight superb contests by such a talented, gifted performer is one word: phenomenal.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Spiritual energy flows in and produces effects in the phenomenal world.” – William James

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Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

Speaking of AJ Styles, here are Jon Bandit’s 10 Thoughts on TNA iMPACT! with a new, positive spin.

Charlie Reneke reviews the latest Triple H DVD set, The King of Kings.

Sadly, wrestling legend Mitsuharu Misawa passed away Friday night. My condolences to his friends and loved ones; rest in peace, Sir.

ROH Mania is coming your way now: Big Andy Mac was live in attendance for the Manassas, VA show on Friday night, and the Ace was in New York City the following night for Manhattan Mayhem 3. Big Andy Mac again, this time with his report on the latest episode of ROH on HDNet. John Wiswell throws some previews your way in this week’s Cult of ROH.

Finally this week, Michael Fitzgerald hits us with Smack YOU! – the finest SmackDown! review on the Internet today.

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