With seven hours of entertainment at WrestleMania 34 on tap for Sunday in New Orleans, there's something intriguing for every fan. For some casual viewers, and those who pay attention only to the WWE, there's a certain buzz for the WWE championship match between AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura because of their personalities and clash of in-ring styles.
At the same time, even though there have been vague allusions to a previous match between Styles and Nakamura in Japan that drove them to fight for a rematch on a WWE stage, the details of that story are hazy and unclear for WWE fans, making it a little bit harder to get invested.
During certain moments along the way in the build-up to WrestleMania, like at last year's Money in the Bank pay-per-view, the excitement of die-hard fans who know the story between Styles and Nakamura caught on with the rest of the crowd -- even if they didn't know why it was such a big deal for them to fight.
For those in search of more context or a few very good reasons why Styles vs. Nakamura should be the match to beat on the WrestleMania card, this is your lucky day. Here's a look back at everything leading up to (and including) their first big match in January 2016, and how that path twisted and turned until it reached New Orleans, on the biggest stage WWE has to offer, with the WWE championship on the line.
Along the way, Styles and Nakamura check in with their memories and insights about their careers, their first match, their respective roads to the WWE and everything they had to do to make this particular moment happen.
Though they are each just a few years into their respective careers in WWE, both Styles, 40 and Nakamura, 38, have been wrestling for a long time. Styles' debut came 20 years ago, while Nakamura's was 16 years ago. That's where their careers start to diverge, with Styles having honed his craft on the independents before getting a brief chance in the dying days of WCW in 2001. He flirted with WWE a couple of times in his career, but Styles would ultimately be one of the cornerstones of an era in Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling that made the names of guys like Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode and Eric Young, among many others.
Nakamura, on the other hand, was put on the fast track after starting with New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2002. He took part in a series of real MMA fights run on New Japan shows, and then at the close of his second year with the company, became the youngest IWGP heavyweight champion at 23. He was not the polished performer he is today, though, and so he spent the next few years of his career traveling and honing his character -- ultimately working toward becoming an early version of what would become the "King of Strong Style."
Though he used devastating and realistic-looking strikes and knees, Nakamura looks at the concept of "Strong Style" differently than most.
"A lot of people misunderstand what is Strong Style," Nakamura said in a short documentary released by the WWE on Thursday. "Hard hits? Stiff? I don't think so. Strong Style is a kind of philosophy. Expression of emotion. I say something by wrestling. I express my emotion -- what I think, what I feel -- by wrestling using real technique."
Styles was one of the innovators of the revolutionary "X-Division" in TNA, which showcased a high-flying, high-energy style of performing that was well-suited to Styles' skill set. He spent over 12 years with the company and won a triple crown (the company's three biggest titles) five times over. At the end of 2013, Styles departed to work for companies like NJPW and Ring of Honor. He became a two-time IWGP heavyweight champion, and Styles served as the leader of the Bullet Club during a critical stretch after Finn Balor had left for WWE.
Nakamura grew into his role as one of the icons of New Japan, winning three IWGP heavyweight championships, five Intercontinental championships and the 2011 G1 Climax tournament. But outside of a random one-off tag team match in 2008, when Nakamura and Kurt Angle defeated Styles and Hiroshi Tanahashi, the paths of two great competitors had never really crossed in a significant way.
That changed in November 2015, when Styles laid down a challenge for Nakamura's Intercontinental championship. Nakamura's "CHAOS" faction and Styles' Bullet Club then battled in a pair of tag team matches. The first, a 10-man tag, went to CHAOS, while Styles and Yujiro Takahashi beat Nakamura and Tomohiro Ishii in a World Tag League showdown. Despite dealing with some back pain at the time, Styles pushed through and the stage was set for Wrestle Kingdom 10.
The first match
By the time they stepped into the ring on Jan. 4, 2016, each man knew that they were heading to the WWE.
"It was the first time that Shinsuke Nakamura and myself had the opportunity to work with each other one-on-one," said Styles. "It was an exciting thing that was gonna happen, but it's hard to think that was gonna happen, too, 'cause I knew that I was about to leave. But, I thought it was a great match. I think it was what most people expected, and I would think that now in WWE, this is a match that people expect to be great, and I think we're gonna deliver."
It was a special moment for fans, but it was also an especially memorable moment in Nakamura's career from the opening bell.
"At Tokyo Dome, the biggest arena in Japan, [it was my] first-time singles match with AJ," said Nakamura. "First contact, I felt AJ. Soon I understand what a great wrestler he is. I don't know why -- maybe wrestlers know the, kind of, body feeling."
Despite the fact that both of them were leaving for WWE in the near future, neither man held anything back. The action was fierce, violent and emotional, and pushed all of the buttons it had to in order to bring the Japanese crowd into a frenzy.
Both felt it was the least they could do for a promotion that had done so much for each of them.
"Even if I weren't going to WWE, or whatever, I would have had the same match," said Styles. "I think it's my job to go out there and do my best; knowing that I was going somewhere else, that doesn't make any difference. These guys gave me a job, hired me, were great to me, and I'm not gonna let off the gas just because I'm going somewhere else. That isn't right; that's not what I represent. I'm always gonna give 110 percent, more than I can give, to make sure that every match that I have is great, and that one was no different."
Making the jump
There's some debate as to who knew what on Jan. 4, but in the lead-up to their Intercontinental championship match, Styles claims that he knew Nakamura, NJPW's longtime star, likely was to be North America-bound before he even knew he was going to the WWE for sure.
"Well, when the match finally happened, Shinsuke knew that I was leaving, but little did he know, I knew he was going a long time [before that]," said Styles. "I knew long before even I had signed, or at least, I had an idea."
The day after Wrestle Kingdom, Styles and Kenny Omega beat Nakamura and Yoshi-Hashi in a tag team match at New Year's Dash. Omega turned on Styles to take over the mantle of Bullet Club's leader, and after fulfilling a few more independent dates, he was free and clear to go to the WWE. Styles debuted in the Royal Rumble in Orlando and got a tremendous reaction, and from there he went on to have career-defining matches and rivalries with Roman Reigns, John Cena and Chris Jericho. He's won two WWE championships and a United States championship in just over two years with the company.
It was a far greater risk for Nakamura, with little track record of high-level success for Japanese wrestlers in the WWE. Nakamura stuck around for a few more weeks, competing exclusively in tag team matches, and then set the wheels in motion for his NXT debuted. He officially joined NXT two months later, and had a tremendous debut match against Sami Zayn.
"Right before the debut match, I was so excited -- but still calm, but excited ... kinda, like a real balance," said Nakamura. "Now with WrestleMania, same like right before Dallas."
He became a two-time NXT champion, and two nights after WrestleMania 33, Nakamura officially joined the SmackDown roster.
After a year and a half apart, Nakamura was once again in a position to cross paths with Styles.
The first tease
"I think that it's definitely one that I kept in the back of my mind, and hoped for the opportunity to make this match happen in the WWE," said Styles of the possibility of a rematch "As soon as he made it to the [SmackDown] roster, I'm like, "OK, here's the time. Let's see how, if we can get there."
Styles and Nakamura teamed up a few times, and then when Money in the Bank came around, their chance to show the world a glimpse of what they could do together presented itself.
Ladder goes to the side...@AJStylesOrg and @ShinsukeN are going to FIGHT IT OUT! #MITB pic.twitter.com/pFE39BlcWl
- WWE (@WWE) June 19, 2017
In the middle of the match, they each stood on the opposite side of a ladder, looked up at one another, set the ladder down and started wailing on each other. The crowd went nuts.
"Money in the Bank, I wanted people to see that," said Styles. "I wanted the guys in the back, the office to see how much people wanted to see it ... how much the WWE viewers wanted to see Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles go at it. That was the idea that I had. Because I knew what we did in the first match and people wanted to see again.
"It was very, very cool. I'll remember that till the day I die," said Styles. "Just because I was hoping this was what they wanted, and then when we finally gave it to them [and I was right], I was like, 'You know, I've been wrong about a lot of things. This wasn't one of them.'"
The inevitable rematch
While the prospect of a Styles vs. Nakamura match under any circumstances was clearly something fans wanted, the stakes were raised over the course of the months that followed. In November, Styles won his second WWE championship in England, and as he fought his way through match after match, contender after contender, he wouldn't be dethroned on the way to WrestleMania.
Nakamura enjoyed the biggest moment of his career to date when he won the 2018 men's Royal Rumble. After waiting for Styles to fight for his title as late as March's Fastlane pay-per-view, the rematch was made in the highest-stakes fashion imaginable.
After playing nice for a few weeks in tag team matches, they began to play mind games with one another in the final weeks leading up to WrestleMania by feinting their finishers and patting their opponents on their head.
So what are Nakamura's expectations for the rematch more than two years in the making?
"This match ... gonna be ... definitely not only good match, greatest match, I believe, 'cause [it's] our destiny."
AJ Styles on what fans can expect from his WWE championship match against Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania 34.
Styles agrees wholeheartedly.
"We're gonna take it to another level. I feel like we can do things in that ring when we get in there together that most people aren't able to pull off," said Styles. "And I'm not saying it's all crazy and stuff, it's just the story that we're able to tell just being in that ring together. It's exciting knowing that you have an opportunity to do it on the biggest stage in your professional career."
For Nakamura, who risked everything he had built to join the WWE and live his dream, a WrestleMania match against his dream opponent with the WWE championship on the line is the greatest payoff imaginable. It's a full-circle moment as well, with the chance to rise to an occasion and opportunity he's earned at this point in his career.
"First time I [was] IWGP champ, I was the youngest IWGP champion," said Nakamura. "That time, I hold the belt, I felt, 'Oh, this belt's too heavy.' So heavy, 'cause I didn't have experience. I felt just a responsibility. Maybe if I have the WWE championship at WrestleMania, maybe I can enjoy the moment."