On SmackDown two weeks ago, in as impassioned a promo as you will hear from the soft-spoken Gainesville, Georgia, native, AJ Styles gave the WWE universe a glimpse into his life before WWE. Before he held the WWE championship for 283 consecutive days (and counting). Before he debuted in the 2016 Royal Rumble match and set in motion one of the most impressive rookie years in WWE history. Before he proved he doesn't need the backing of any one company to become a worldwide star.
"That's what pisses me off the most, Joe," Styles, the character, said in a speech directed at longtime rival Samoa Joe in front of the Amway Center crowd in Orlando, Florida. "Because you know my wife, you know my kids, and long before this was the House that AJ Styles Built, we both shared the cockroach-infested apartment complex and shared stale pizza together."
Styles wasn't referring to a "cockroach-infested apartment complex" in a literal sense. Rather, Styles was alluding to what he and Joe have been through to get to this point -- their match Sunday for the WWE championship at SummerSlam.
"When I say 'cockroach-infested' that means, 'Listen dude, we went through a lot of crap, we've worked in a lot of places to get to where we're at, mainly with TNA,'" Styles told ESPN. "The guys that TNA didn't want to push to the absolute tippity-top are also the guys in one of the biggest matches in SummerSlam for the WWE championship."
The marquee match is the latest chapter of a much larger story that's been told over the past 17 years. This is the story of how we got to AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe inside a WWE ring -- a match that in many ways was never supposed to happen.
Chapter 1: AJ Styles meets Samoa Joe
Styles still remembers the first time he met the wrestler whose career his would forever be linked to, even if it was so far back that Joe can't.
"It was a while ago," Joe laughed during an interview with ESPN.
That first encounter took place in 2001 at All Pro Wrestling's second annual "King of the Indies" tournament in Vallejo, California. The two-day, 16-man tournament featured some of the top names in independent wrestling at the time, including Bryan Danielson (WWE's Daniel Bryan, the tournament's eventual winner); Low Ki (briefly Kaval, the winner of the second season of WWE's NXT reality show); and Christopher Daniels (the inaugural tournament winner, and another key figure in this story), along with Styles and Joe.
The future rivals didn't face each other in that tournament, as they both lost in the second round, but even in their brief encounter that weekend, Styles saw something special in this "big Samoan guy."
"[I] didn't really get to talk to him, but my first impressions were, 'Wow, OK, this guy, he's a big guy,'" Styles recalled. "Didn't really think much about it, just a bunch of guys doing the indies, but literally after that show I saw him everywhere I went and became really good friends with him."
Two years passed before they'd ultimately face off in their first singles match, as they each went down their own divergent paths for the first of several times during their respective careers.
Styles, who had a brief run at the very end of WCW's existence, was one of the first signees of a brand-new wrestling company, Total Nonstop Action (TNA, now known as Impact Wrestling). Jeff Jarrett, who along with his father founded TNA in 2002, started scouting talent for the new promotion as soon as WCW closed its doors in March 2001. From that time until TNA's first show on June 19, 2002, there was a name Jarrett kept hearing over and over again and could no longer ignore.
"I literally heard the name AJ Styles every step of the way," Jarrett told ESPN. "I knew here [was] a guy I want to, not just give a shot, have a real opportunity to grow. We're launching a new company, and when you're launching a new company, you have to have a core of talent that you're gonna launch, and AJ was at the top of that list."
When Jarrett had the chance to see Styles perform firsthand in the opening match of TNA's first weekly pay-per-view, he realized how perfectly the burgeoning athlete would fit into his vision for the company. Styles was crowned as TNA's first X-Division champion the following week, a division that promoted the fast-paced, athletic brand of wrestling Styles "personifies," as Jarrett puts it.
"AJ was a guy that struck me literally from the very beginning. His athletic ability alone set him apart from Day 1," Jarrett said. "He was one of the main guys we gave the ball to. A lot of eggs in his basket. He was very instrumental in the success and growth and shaping of the X-Division, which was a big part of what made TNA different, specifically in the early days."
Meanwhile, Joe was also starting to make a name for himself at the upstart "super indy" promotion Ring of Honor, in its formative days. ROH head booker Gabe Sapolsky saw film of Joe's work and decided to bring him in. Joe's debut match at ROH, against Low Ki at Glory by Honor in October 2002, was more or less an audition for the unique newcomer -- one Joe passed with flying colors.
"They basically tore the house down," remembered Christopher Daniels, who trained with Joe at Rick Bassman's Ultimate Pro Wrestling in Southern California. "I was happily surprised he got that opportunity at ROH, but once that [match] happened I think everybody knew. It wasn't just me -- everybody knew that Joe was somebody."
Joe won the ROH championship just seven months later, beginning a historic reign that would last a record 645 days. On Nov. 29, 2003, at ROH War of the Wire in Framingham, Massachusetts, Joe defended his title against Styles, who via a talent exchange between TNA and ROH regularly competed for both brands. You won't find that match from 15 years ago in grainy quality on YouTube, or hidden deep inside the archives of HonorClub, but Styles doesn't need to rewatch the match to be brought back to the moment.
"The first time I stepped into the ring with Samoa Joe, there was something special there," Styles said. "There were two guys that wanted to get after it, will do a little bit of everything just to make sure that it's as hard-hitting as it should be. Two guys who are not afraid to get in there and slug it out."
After experiencing for himself what Joe was capable of, Styles wanted more. He wasn't alone.
Chapter 2: The triple threat that changed everything
You can't tell the story of Styles and Joe without Christopher Daniels. In Styles' case, Daniels is practically his brother; the pair instantly clicked when they first met and worked with one another at the NWA 53rd anniversary show in October 2001.
"The promoters knew he and I would jell very well," Daniels recalled. "It was one of the matches that AJ feels put him on the map".
Styles and Daniels started traveling together across the Northeast independents, even though Styles lived in Atlanta and Daniels was based in Los Angeles. Their bond grew even stronger in TNA -- so much so that in May 2005 Styles named his first son Ajay Covell, his middle name paying homage to the real-life last name of Daniels. In October of that same year, Daniels named his first son Joshua Allen after Styles' initials.
"As often as we wrestled each other, you basically put your health and life in another person's hands," Daniels said. "It forms a bond, forms a friendship that becomes very strong."
Dusty Rhodes, a member of TNA's creative team at the time, noticed their chemistry and suggested a feud between the two, with Daniels acting as Styles' antagonist. Their rivalry would elevate the X-Division, and culminated with their showstopping, 30-minute Ironman match at TNA Against All Odds in February 2005. Styles and Daniels were creatively satisfied, no doubt, but they knew there was a way to elevate the X-Division to even greater heights.
"AJ and I had been pushing for Joe for a long time to come into TNA," Daniels said.
"We literally, we begged them," Styles said. "I couldn't for the life of me understand why they wouldn't want a guy like this. Chris and I worked on him profusely, every week it seemed like, to bring this guy in."
"It wasn't about Joe, it was about the amount of people being pitched to us daily," said Jarrett, who along with being an in-ring talent was the "go-to guy" backstage in terms of signing and booking talent. "I was getting pitched new talent literally every day. Persistence on AJ and persistence on Daniels and a few others that they stuck with, 'We need to get Joe, we need to get Joe, we need to get Joe.'"
There was only so much talent Jarrett could book for a one-hour show at the time, but a breakfast meeting with wrestling legend Mick Foley made Jarrett realize he had to make room for Joe.
"I can remember saying, 'OK, now Mick is a guy that has no dog in this hunt whatsoever,'" Jarrett said. "Mick really, really sold me on Joe."
"Joe had sort of been dancing around the edges of TNA, whether or not they're gonna bring him in or not," Daniels added. "At first there was pushback, 'Oh, we don't know, we're not sure. Maybe this guy would be great, maybe not, we don't know,' and finally they took a chance on him and he blew up."
"He's unbelievable," Styles said. "Literally, he comes in and goes straight to the top, of course."
Joe made his TNA debut in June 2005 at Slammiversary, in a match against diminutive high flyer Sonjay Dutt. The doubts TNA officials had about Joe's ability to succeed quickly evaporated as he solidified himself as TNA's next big thing.
"There's these tentpole matches in the culture of what we do that oftentimes has a very big, defining effect on matches years afterwards. You look at Savage-Steamboat, obviously that had repercussions from an industry standpoint. The style evolved and changed, they defined a certain way of going out there and performing. People talk about that match in very much in the same light. There were things that were different. I hear that from a lot of people, they say that it generated some interest and it was inspiring to them." Samoa Joe
"They looked at him and they judged him and then he came out there and moved like he was 80 pounds lighter," Daniels remembered. "[He] had all these different martial arts-style techniques, all these throws and suplexes. They were just blown away."
Joe rode an impressive undefeated streak into the Super X Cup, an eight-man tournament to determine the No. 1 contender to face Daniels for the X-Division title. The "Fallen Angel" had won the title at March's Destination X pay-per-view in an Ultimate X match against Ron Killings, Elix Skipper and Styles, who entered as champion. Styles and Joe sat on opposite sides of the bracket, and after winning their first two matches along the way, they were set for their first singles match in TNA at August's Sacrifice pay-per-view in the Super X Cup finals.
Joe and Styles displayed their palpable chemistry in a physical affair that left Styles with a busted lip. Joe came away with the victory after outside interference from Daniels, and for that reason, another wrestling legend serving as a TNA authority figure, Larry Zbyszko, added Styles to the title match despite the loss -- setting the stage for Styles vs. Joe vs. Daniels for the X-Division title in a triple-threat match at September's Unbreakable pay-per-view.
Daniels, whom Jarrett calls a "go-to-guy," took a leadership role when the three sat down to try to come up with a plan for the match. Triple-threat matches can often be tricky to lay out, but Daniels was confident all three participants could shine after he took part in a memorable three-way bout three years earlier against Low Ki and Bryan Danielson at ROH's first show ever.
"Triple-threat matches are very difficult, but I felt like I'd done enough of them at that point that I had a pretty good knack of putting together matches with three guys where it wasn't just one guy going away and selling for an extended period of time and two guys working. I felt like I had a good knack to figure out ways to make all three guys active at the same time," Daniels said. "As we were putting this one together, I realized Joe and AJ sort of did the same thing."
"At the core of those two guys, and in a broader sense the guys who are long-term main-eventers, you take for granted their intelligence, the thinking part of things," Jarrett said. "Going into the match, during the match, the process it takes to get you where you're at. Both of them got a high IQ in the professional wrestling industry from bell to bell."
An unforeseen last-minute change added one final flourish to all of the stars that aligned that night. On the day of the show, TNA officials decided the triple-threat match would be the Unbreakable main event over the NWA world heavyweight title match between Raven and Rhyno.
"We had no idea until we got there that we were the main event," Daniels said. "That in and of itself was a signal to the fans that were watching that this was could quite possibly be something."
"Me being a performer, growing up in this business and growing up around promotions and growing up around promoters, it was really not that hard of a decision," Jarrett said. "Who in the heck at that time, with the momentum Joe had, with the momentum AJ had, that Chris had, how are you gonna follow that?"
It wasn't long into the match before the fans packed inside the TNA Impact Zone, a soundstage at Universal Studios Orlando where TNA filmed its shows, knew they were witnessing something special. Just as the trio had laid it out, there weren't any breaks in the action during the match. Not one false step. Not a second to breathe. No wasted movements. Just three performers in total sync with one another at every moment, in what was proving to be an industry-shifting match.
"I really can't explain to you why it was," Styles said.
"It's hard to describe the chemistry that the three of us had," Daniels said. "I think maybe about 10 minutes in I realized this is lightning in a bottle. We had no idea it was gonna get this reaction, but good for us and let's continue."
After over 20 minutes of stiff strikes, heartstopping outside dives and near-telepathic chemistry, Styles reversed Daniels' Angel's Wings finishing move into a bridging pinfall to come away with the victory, ending what is widely considered the greatest match in TNA history.
"I remember once the bell rang and the match finished I started crying a little bit because I was really overwhelmed by how well received that match had been," Daniels said. "That sealed the deal for me."
"I think it was three guys that wanted to tear it up," Styles said. "It was just three guys who enjoyed being in the ring together and at the same time took a lot of pride in what we did in that ring."
"As a promoter, as a creative guy, as a booker, I had the feeling that's exactly what I expected," Jarrett said. "They always over-delivered."
The instant classic is still the only match in TNA history to receive a five-star rating from Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer, in a year where only two matches were recognized as such (Joe was in the other one, too, in Ring of Honor against Kenta Kobashi). More important, the match helped usher in the more up-tempo, athletic style of wrestling that would soon come into style.
"There's these tentpole matches in the culture of what we do that oftentimes has a very big, defining effect on matches years afterwards," Joe said. "You look at Savage-Steamboat, obviously that had repercussions from an industry standpoint. The style evolved and changed, they defined a certain way of going out there and performing. People talk about that match in very much in the same light. There were things that were different. I hear that from a lot of people, they say that it generated some interest and it was inspiring to them."
Chapter 3: Fresh starts
A decade after the match that would alter the careers of all three participants, each of their paths crossed on occasion, though not as much as you might imagine after such a huge moment. They revisited the same triple threat a handful of times, including an Ultimate X match in 2006 and another very well received triple threat for the TNA world title in 2009, while Styles was champion.
Styles and Joe would face each other for what they didn't know then would be the final time in TNA, on an episode of Impact in June 2013. The match came and went with little fanfare, as no one involved realized what was to come. For so many years, Styles and Joe were the exceptions -- the diamonds in the rough surrounded by TNA's eras of dysfunction, and the two talents the company could rely upon even when times were bleak.
That stopped in December 2013, when Styles left the company he helped put on the map and ended a nearly 12-year run. Styles and Joe shared the ring for more memorable encounters after the Unbreakable 2005 masterpiece, but they never had the big-money, main-event title feud you'd expect from the company's brightest and most loyal stars. For Styles, it was time to move on, and 14 months later, Joe would do the same. Their departures marked the end of an era for TNA, and in the process sent the longtime rivals in different directions for the first time in a decade.
Styles quickly proved he didn't need the backing of TNA to be a star, as he won New Japan Pro Wrestling's IWGP heavyweight title in May 2014 and paved the way for even greater things for the Bullet Club, which he led, and other imports to the Japanese company that followed the same path.
Joe returned to ROH and appeared there on and off until, to the amazement of the wrestling world, he showed up at NXT Takeover: Unstoppable in May 2015 -- creating a surreal visual of Samoa Joe inside a WWE ring. At that moment, though, Joe wasn't locked into the WWE.
"When Joe went to NXT, he wasn't signed," Styles said. "He was still able to do indies. It was Ring of Honor who now got on TV, which made NXT go, 'Wait a minute, we need this guy. We gotta sign him up.' During that time Joe and I were talking. We're just laughing about how this guy, he's like a cat, he always lands on his feet no matter where he goes. Just laughing about, 'Oh my God, can you believe this is happening?' It was exciting for both of us. I'm in Japan, he's now in WWE. It was very, very cool."
Joe would eventually sign a full-time contract with WWE and started in earnest in NXT. Styles was watching proudly as Joe did something other ex-TNA talent before him couldn't by making it within the walls of WWE.
"I think Joe was the first guy to come from TNA and be successful," Styles said. "He went to NXT and showed that, 'Hey listen, yeah we're from a different company, but we're professional. We can do this. This is what we do.' I feel like Joe opened up that door. There were a lot of people that came who did not. In fact, they were the ones who helped close that door to guys like me and Joe."
WWE allowed Joe to honor his remaining indie dates, which gave him the opportunity to compete alongside Styles against familiar foes in Daniels and Frankie Kazarian in Joe's ROH send-off match in June 2015.
Styles would join him in WWE half a year later, but not before enduring a tumultuous free agency.
Impact Wrestling, formerly TNA, claimed to have had a "handshake and written deal" for Styles to return to the company in December 2015. However, Styles also talked to Paul "Triple H" Levesque, WWE's executive VP of talent, and instead chose to sign with WWE. His debut in the Royal Rumble, in Orlando, the site of so many of his biggest TNA moments, brought Styles to the pinnacle of the pro wrestling world.
At that moment, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles -- two talents who will forever be identified with TNA -- had done what many thought was impossible at a number of different points. In the start of a growing trend, they even got to keep their names, and more important, everything that makes them so special.
"When Triple H and I were talking, he said, 'I don't know if we'll be able to keep your name.' I said, 'That's fine, I'll be any name you want me to be called, except I do have this huge AJ tattoo on my side so that might be a problem,'" Styles said. "I think it worked out for the best because we weren't taken and being changed into something else. We were the same characters that they saw from different companies and that they were familiar with and people were already invested in. I think that was a good move by WWE."
Despite spending the majority of their careers under TNA's banner, Joe and Styles instantly caught on with WWE fans.
"I truly believe, I don't want to give it 100 percent credit, but the night AJ Styles walked out in Orlando, Florida, for the Royal Rumble and they chanted his name ... when you have a sold-out building in Orlando, Florida, chanting AJ Styles' name, I think that broke through a lot of stereotypes, a lot of what-ifs," Jarrett said.
"AJ Styles made AJ Styles. Samoa Joe made Samoa Joe."
Chapter 4: A rivalry renewed
On Sunday, Styles will defend his WWE championship against Joe at SummerSlam in a match fans have begged for from the moment Styles walked through the door. It will be the first televised singles match between the formidable foes in five years. On paper, Samoa Joe vs. AJ Styles reads like David vs. Goliath, or as Styles puts it, "this big Samoan guy and this other smaller guy." But in reality, it's Joe and Styles who are underdogs, a fact that has not been lost on either performer throughout their crazy journey.
"You have to understand, both myself and AJ, to a certain extent, there's always been the naysayers and people who said we're not gonna be this, we're not gonna be that," Joe said. "Early in his career I'm sure there were people saying, 'He's a small guy, he'll never be on a heavyweight stage.' Myself, there's people saying, 'He'll never find himself in the halls of WWE.' It's a narrative that's fueled more by secondhand fan myth than what people feel.
"To find ourselves here, to find ourselves in the main event of SummerSlam -- there's come to be the understanding anywhere we've ever gone, we've never shown up and just kind of blended in," Joe continued. "We've shown up and we've been at the top of the card. We've always been confident in our abilities. Maybe it goes against a lot of the mythology that people have spun about us never being here, but for us this was not unexpected whatsoever."
"Just knowing what we've been through together, just knowing the stuff that has happened in our careers, and now we're going for the WWE championship at SummerSlam in New York at Barclays -- that's huge," Styles said. "SummerSlam being one of the biggest pay-per-views of the year and now I'm doing it with a guy I've known for what, 17 years. It's crazy".
Once that bell rings, there's likely to be a buzz. Even a decade later, some of the same magic that wowed fewer than 800 fans inside the Impact Zone in Orlando over a decade ago will be in the air in front of over 15,000 fans at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
"I feel like this is another moment where they can catch lightning in a bottle," Daniels said. "You give them this stage, and the fact that it's SummerSlam and the fact that it's one of the big shows that WWE puts on, and the fact that it's a WWE title match, you're basically daring them to go out there and put on a classic. If that's what you're gonna do, you know that's what they're gonna do."
"Everything these guys have attained, they've earned," Jarrett said. "As performers, they've got their work cut out for them Sunday. It's for the WWE title, a lot's riding on them, they're carrying the weight of the promotion, and I think once again they'll over-deliver Sunday. "
It's another chapter in their ever-evolving story, and with any luck it'll be only the beginning of what they do together in the WWE.
"Me and AJ have been throwing down for a lot of years now," Joe said. "The rivalry hasn't cooled. The matches have only intensified. People were calling for it the minute we were back in a company together. We knew it was inevitable. It always is."