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31 Days of Wrestling (12/8/16): AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, IWGP Intercontinental Championship, Wrestle Kingdom 10

Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. It's that time of year again when we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match a day for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling this calendar year produced for us.

Four days into 2016, two foes faced off in Japan for the first time, and—at least for the moment—the last time.
 

Shinsuke Nakamura defended his IWGP Intercontinental Championship against Bullet Club leader AJ Styles at New Japan Pro Wrestling's annual extravaganza, Wrestle Kingdom 10.

Thanks to the power of Lance Ong's NJPW World account, we were able to watch this monumental matchup and the rest of WK 10.


We've known AJ Styles from his TNA years. He's athletic as hell. He's a daredevil. His tremendous skills gave us multiple 5-star matches. The AJ Styles we saw at WK 10 was all that... and more. As the heel boss of the Bullet Club, he was more hard-hitting, more methodical.

Shinsuke, however, is a different beast altogether. His eccentricity and mind games are truly electrifying. Jump to 13:10 on the video above to see how Shinsuke responded to AJ's gun-sign taunt.

This clash of strong styles (pun intended) was apparent in this match. It should be noted, too, that Styles' back injury reared its ugly head throughout the bout. Shinsuke targetted AJ's back that it would make you wonder if he'd ever make it out alive.

Of course, Styles wouldn't let this break him. He responded with deadly kicks and wicked counter-attacks to neutralize the King of Strong Style. But it wasn't enough, and a Boma Ye sealed the deal for Shinsuke to retain his title.

Their match was longer than most of what's being offered in the WWE, but it never felt exhausting. It has that literal #FightForever feel.

Like the match immediately before it (Shibata vs. Ishii) and the main event that followed (Okada vs. Tanahashi), the spectacle of Japanese wrestling matches like AJ vs Shinsuke is that it gets you hooked until the end. Lots of false finishes, and you'll never know which one is for real until the final bell.

The respect that Japanese fans pay to the in-ring combatants is also amazing, like how they watch the action with utmost attention and discipline. No heckling, no nonsense chants, no indiscriminate shouting... well, except for that lady who was shouting "Shinsuke!" over and over again.

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Their match mattered in 2016 because it was a preview of what they can still bring to the table, after years of building (and in AJ's case, continuing) their careers in Japan and becoming top stars, outside the limelight of the mainstream US pro wrestling scene.

Shortly after WK 10, both men left NJPW for WWE. AJ Styles debuted strongly at the Royal Rumble match later in January, while Shinsuke Nakamura arrived in style at NXT three months later.

In April, AJ joined an elite few who have competed at Wrestle Kingdom and WrestleMania in the same calendar year. Shinsuke, meanwhile, made his debut on the eve of WrestleMania, at NXT TakeOver: Dallas against Sami Zayn.

They rode that momentum en route to championship reigns, with Nakamura winning the NXT Title from Samoa Joe in August, and Styles capturing no less than the WWE World Championship from Dean Ambrose a month later.

Back in Japan, their departures led to the rise of Kenny Omega, who captured the IWGP Intercontinental Championship a month after Shinsuke vacated the title.

It remains to be seen whether these two will go head to head once again. You know what they say in wrestling: Anything can freakin' happen.

Read our previous entries on 31 Days of Wrestling:
#1: The Final Deletion
#2: Finn Balor vs. Seth Rollins for the WWE Universal Championship, SummerSlam
#3: Kazuchika Okada vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Wrestle Kingdom 10
#4: Sami Zayn vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, NXT Takeover: Dallas
#5: Main Maxx vs. Crystal for the PHX Championship, PWR Renaissance
#6: Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte for the RAW Women's Championship, Hell in a Cell
#7: Prince Puma vs. Rey Mysterio, Ultima Lucha Dos

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