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Never say never: So UFC and TNA guys walked into Survivor Series as WWE Champions...

Not all dream matches are created equal. Some are obvious, matches that reach across the generations or across company lines to draw natural opponents together, the likes of CM Punk vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. John Cena, Daniel Bryan vs. Shawn Michaels, or Timothy Thatcher vs. Yuki Ishikawa.

But some dream matches need to be teased out of hiding, less obvious combinations that nonetheless, once they’re on the table, are clear and obvious dream matches as pure as any other. The kind of match that you see the graphic for and you think “Holy hell, this is happening!”

AJ Styles vs. Brock Lesnar is one such match.

It took place at Survivor Series 2017, but it wasn’t that long ago that it seemed impossible. Let’s head back into the past for a moment and take a look at some of the reasons why, folks.

Strangers in the night

For most of his career, AJ Styles has been so closely identified with the promotion now known solely as Impact Wrestling that he’s been called Mr. TNA. It’s not that WWE never had interest— AJ famously turned down a developmental deal when WCW was bought out because he didn’t want to derail his wife’s college education with a move— but for years and years he seemed content to be Impact’s main man.

And so the idea of Styles/Lesnar during Brock’s first WWE run is a total non-starter, and the Beast Incarnate’s brief affiliation with New Japan Pro Wrestling came at a time when there was no working relationship between the Japanese giant and America’s second most prominent cable television wrestling promotion.

Then Lesnar went to UFC, won the UFC Heavyweight Championship, and became one of MMA’s biggest stars. And so the prospects of Brock fighting anyone in a squared circle as opposed to the octagon went to nil...

...except he came back. After repeated bouts with diverticulitis and the loss of his title, the siren song of WWE offering him a sweet part-time gig couldn’t be denied any more, and the Beast made his WWE return in the spring of 2012.

But AJ was still, for the time, locked down with TNA. Despite being arguably the man most identified with Impact, TNA management spent the better part of a decade treating him like an up-and-comer, a man who had all the tools but darn it, he just wasn’t there yet. Perhaps no angle shows this more blatantly than one TNA ran in the spring of 2010 where the legendary “Nature Boy” Ric Flair took then-TNA World Heavyweight Champion Styles under his wing.

This was no Evolution-style alliance of near-equals spread across a generation gap, however. This was Ric taking AJ and remaking the at the time twelve-year veteran and multiple-time world champion in his image, all the way down to the extravagant entrance robes. Soon enough the “New Nature Boy” stuff was de-emphasized and the angle shifted to the creation of a new riff on the Four Horsemen out of AJ, Kazarian, Desmond “Nigel McGuinness” Wolfe, Bobby Roode, and James Storm, but it’s an instructive example as to how TNA used Styles month after month and year after year.

And so eventually, AJ got fed up, he bet on himself, and on December 5, 2013, he wrestled his last match for Impact. Almost immediately there was talk that maybe WWE would be interested in him, but at the time it seemed impossible. He was 37 years old and while WWE hiring practices had opened up and we were starting to get an influx of indie and international talent to feed NXT, it wasn’t like it is now.

So Styles went to NJPW and immediately won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Kazuchika Okada and kicked off arguably the greatest run of his career. His stock rose higher and higher through an alliance with Bullet Club and two reigns with that title and finally, towards the end of 2015, the rumors started swirling, and at Royal Rumble 2016, we all learned it finally was a done deal. AJ Styles was a WWE superstar.

...but Styles/Lesnar still wasn’t anywhere close to happening. Brock was (and is) a part-timer at the top of the card, and while AJ managed to leapfrog NXT and come straight to the main roster, there was no guarantee that he’d climb to the top of WWE’s Mount Olympus and share in Lesnar’s rarefied air. Indeed, TNA’s own treatment of Phenomenal One gave us all the reason in the world to doubt that he’d finally be getting a main event push commensurate with his talent.

But lo, after an initial back-and-forth feud with Chris Jericho, Styles was set to feuding with WWE Champion Roman Reigns before moving on to no less than 13-time world champion John Cena. AJ had not just made it to WWE, but he made it to the top in the blink of an eye, and that meant that he might one day look down the call sheet and see his name opposite Brock Lesnar’s.

That is, he might, if it weren’t for the renewed brand split that saw he and Brock drafted to opposite sides of the aisle. It seemed like the match would just have to wait until they inevitably end up on the same brand, except, almost like a ray of sunlight through parted clouds, the new concept for Survivor Series was announced— champion vs. champion, brand vs. brand.

There was still just one tiny problem, however— Yes, Brock Lesnar was Universal Champion, having won it from his old nemesis Goldberg at WrestleMania 33, but AJ Styles was several months removed from his time as WWE Champion. All promotion pointed to Modern-Day Day Maharaja Jinder Mahal walking into Survivor Series with the WWE Championship around his waist to face the Beast, but in Manchester, England, a miracle happened, and AJ won the title back.

A match that had been pure fantasy a few years before became the firmest of realities.

And oh, what a match it was!

Lesnar dominated the early goings, hammering Styles with strikes at first before tossing around with aplomb on his way to Suplex City. But AJ refused to give up, repeatedly attempting to get to his feet, and after the Universal Champion got cocky and started playing games, bouncing on his feet and asking him to come and get it, Styles landed his first meaningful shots of the match.

He dodged an F-5 and sidestepped a knee, incurring an injury that would let him snap off a DDT. Smelling blood in the water, the WWE Champion hammered the knee with kicks and looked to disorient Brock with strikes to the head. Even that assault couldn’t keep Lesnar down, but it did slow him to the point where Styles was able to assume control.

Continuing to press the knee and head, putting Brock into the steel steps knee-first, AJ began feeling frisky enough to go high-risk with a quebrada and his trademark springboard 450 splash, weakening the Beast enough that he could counter an F-5 into the Calf Crusher, forcing Brock to slam his head into the mat repeatedly for the break.

Again the F-5 blocked, Styles got the Phenomenal Forearm off for his tightest nearfall yet and Lesnar truly seemed defeatable for the first time, but when he went for it again with the elbow pad removed, Lesnar caught him and at last got the F-5 for the victory. But he left the ring red-faced, glistening with sweat, and with a noticeable limp, visible proof that AJ had taken him to his limit.

They say that history repeats itself...

There has been no rematch to date, and after SummerSlam it seemed like Brock was gone for good, well and truly packed back off to UFC, and it may never happen again.

Except at the end of Hell in a Cell, the Beast Incarnate came back, and once again, the match is hypothetically on the table for Survivor Series, should Lesnar regain his throne and Styles hold onto his.

But a hypothetical round two is hardly guaranteed to go the same way the first one did. Consider the position both men held going into last year’s match and intervening year of their careers.

Brock came in assured of himself in the seventh month of his Universal Championship reign, having fended off challenges from Samoa Joe, Roman Reigns, and Braun Strowman, with the momentum well on his side even if his conditioning couldn’t live up to AJ’s. Styles, meanwhile, had literally just won the WWE Championship back from Jinder Mahal mere weeks beforehand after several shaky months in and out of the United States Championship scene that ended with him dropping the title to Baron Corbin. There’s no shame in losing to a man as physically imposing as the Lone Wolf, but Corbin is hardly in Lesnar’s league.

So it’s no shock that momentum carried the day for Brock even as perhaps his physicality was flagging, but in the span of a year, a lot has changed.

The Beast has finally been toppled, dethroned by Roman Reigns at SummerSlam after a series of matches where Lesnar’s grasp on his title became increasingly tenuous, retaining at WrestleMania 34 through sheer bloody-minded stubbornness and at Greatest Royal Rumble by chance after being speared through the wall of a steel cage. Meanwhile, the Phenomenal One’s reign has continued soaring higher as he’s fended off challenge after challenge from top superstars from Kevin Owens to Shinsuke Nakamura to Rusev and Samoa Joe.

Both men are 41 years of age, theoretically and traditionally in the prime of their wrestling career. AJ lives up to this notion, running as well as he ever has, his wrestling skill— on the mat, in the air, and striking— sharpened to as fine a razor’s edge as possible, but Brock is a different story. Ever since he first visited Suplex City alongside John Cena at SummerSlam 2014, what was first a show of brutal, physical dominance, a statement that he didn’t need fancy tricks or grappling acumen to beat one of the biggest, most accomplished stars in WWE history, just a humble German suplex repeated as needed, has become a crutch as Lesnar leans increasingly on his sheer stamina and ability to absorb punishment to outlast his opponents.

Those that can outpace Brock’s own mad bum rush for the pinfall have secured victory over the Beast, both easy, in the case of Bill Goldberg, who absolutely destroyed Lesnar in less than five minutes at Survivor Series 2016, and hard, in the case of Roman Reigns. Styles has the speed, and he has that farmer strength, but perhaps most importantly he’s weathered Brock’s storm once and left him limping at the end of it.

Even at his best, a lot of Lesnar’s dominance came down to his aura, his presence as this nigh-invulnerable shootfighting badass slinging dudes around with impunity. You can see that in the way his opponents tend to last longer and fight back stronger in rematches— even after getting decimated at SummerSlam, John Cena stood his ground in the three-way rematch at Night of Champions that also featured Seth Rollins, to say nothing of the parade of finishers that was the Roman Reigns match at WrestleMania 34.

That aura is still there, of course, his music hits and a chill goes down your spine because you know some dudes are about to get wrecked, but it’s not as vibrant nor as intense as it once was. Meanwhile, any aura Styles has is built on the back of his argument to being the best, most versatile wrestler of his generation, equally at home in the air, on the mat, or in a slugfest, and that argument is as strong as ever.

So now, at this point in their careers? If the Beast Incarnate were to again meet the Phenomenal One, I’m putting my CageCoins down on Mr. TNA.

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