The Story Of AJ Styles Vs. Dean Ambrose - A Forgotten WWE Championship Classic
It's almost five years since one of WWE's most under-appreciated Championship bouts
Is Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles from the 2016 Backlash the best "overlooked" WWE Title match of the last decade?
Now that's quite a sweeping statement, and it calls into account a lot of candidates, over a pretty vast scope of time. With just a few minutes of thought, you may be able to come up with a counter-choice that's hard to poke any substantial holes in.
But Ambrose vs. Styles is still a pretty strong pick, nonetheless. It's a relatively-forgotten match, but it was an excellent match.
And ,for other reasons, it's a pretty weird match as well.
For one thing, there wasn't much of a storyline reason for Ambrose and Styles to be brought together.
Ambrose had been WWE champion since June 19, while Styles was coming off a convincing win over John Cena at SummerSlam. The latter is a good enough bargaining chip to warrant a championship match, though it didn't do much for any sort of Ambrose-Styles storyline.
With only three weeks separating SummerSlam and Backlash, there wasn't much time to really build any sort of malleable tension between the two popular stars. The TV leading up to Backlash mostly consisted of Styles preventing Dolph Ziggler from shouldering his way back into the title picture, and Styles attacking Ambrose during a match pitting the champion against Baron Corbin.
Mostly elementary stuff in play here.
Ambrose vs. Styles headlined Backlash, the first "split brand" pay-per-view of the second brand extension. It was the first time in over seven years that WWE had dusted off the Backlash name, and while there is an undeniable sentimentality attached to the name, some of us didn't really know how to feel about the timing.
For those of us with "event OCD", the very idea of holding Backlash in September was at least slightly irksome. After all, everybody knows that Backlash belongs after WrestleMania, so that we can get "the backlash" from the biggest matches of the year.
Backlash in September? Have you lost your mind?
Now granted, WWE had done this before (2012 No Way Out, in June! The name Vengeance being used in four different months!), and it's happened since (2021 Hell in a Cell, four months earlier than you expected!), and it will continue to happen (the 2022 Royal Rumble might be in February, to go along with the NFL's schedule expansion), but still - it's weird when it happens.
The leaves are changing colour; why is Backlash happening now...
A strange show it was as well, between the oddball duo of Heath Slater and Rhyno becoming SmackDown's first Tag Team champions, Randy Orton ceding a forfeit loss to Bray Wyatt, and Becky Lynch becoming the first SmackDown Women's champion by winning a six-way elimination match in which all the eliminations are crammed together at the finish line.
Given all of the "rebooting" for a SmackDown on its own again, this felt a bit like Spring Stampede 2000 (minus the sense of impending doom from a Russo production gone berserk, anyway).
And when you have a reboot of sorts, you usually feel inclined to have a changing of the guard at World champion.
Not that that was necessarily a bad thing in this instance.
One could make the argument that Ambrose may have been the most popular WWE star over the previous year or two, at least in terms of crowd response. Previously a beloved member of The Shield, Ambrose grew even more popular for his Punisher-like pursuit of treacherous Seth Rollins in the fallout of the Shield split.
A dirty brawler with a reasonably-defined moral compass, as well as a natural physical charisma that resonated beyond scripted promos, it's understandable why a significant portion of the audience latched onto Ambrose as a hero of choice.
Unfortunately for Ambrose, very little of what makes him a unique performer was visible in his sub-three month reign as WWE champion.
After winning the belt at Money in the Bank that June (completing the rare Shield-to-Shield-to-Shield handoff), Ambrose remained overshadowed, despite being the champion. Brock Lesnar's UFC return, the intrigue of the impending brand split, and simply the suddenness with which Ambrose abruptly became the champion (contrasted to the well-crafted week-by-week build of Jon Moxley dethroning AEW World champion Chris Jericho in 2020), each of them relegated Ambrose to a level below "undisputed top guy." And that's not even factoring in the fact that Ambrose was "wacky", which contrasts poorly to Moxley's brand of nihilism.
Then there was the curious SummerSlam rivalry with Dolph Ziggler.
Like Ambrose's match with Styles, the Ambrose-Ziggler match didn't have much of a story either. "The Show Off" earned his title shot through a rather random six pack challenge, and the two later became "wacky mismatched tag team partners" for some reason.
Mind you, both Ambrose and Ziggler were babyfaces that the audience liked to some considerable degree, and there wasn't any prior acrimony between them to exploit for storyline fuel.
The SummerSlam match was fine from a technical standpoint, though it was heatless and forgettable. Ambrose retained, Ziggler went back down to the secondary title picture, and that was that.
Safe to say that Ambrose's first two months as WWE champion weren't anything special. It was a bummer, because fans had clamoured for Ambrose to hold the big belt for more than two years. Now they had it, and for many simple reasons, it underwhelmed.
One person who wasn't underwhelming WWE audiences in 2016 was AJ Styles.
When the ball dropped on New Year's Day, wrestling fans had no clue that Styles would go on to hold the WWE championship during the 2016 calendar year. In fact, hardly anybody realized that him even being in WWE at all was an option.
As Wrestle Kingdom 10 played out, we all learned that Styles, Doc Gallows, Karl Anderson, and Shinsuke Nakamura were leaving New Japan, each bound for New York. It was a shocking exodus that came with many questions.
Chiefly, what would AJ Styles even be like in WWE?
Between 2002 and 2013, it's no exaggeration to say that Styles was the MVP of Total Nonstop Action. Whenever the company was in creative freefall, whenever they were squandering the momentum of the latest incoming ex-WWE name, and whenever there was tumult of any sort in TNA, there was Styles to pick up the pieces and save the show to some degree.
Eleven years with an underachieving, sometimes brilliant, sometimes laugh-inducing TNA is a long time for a wrestler of Styles' rarefied caliber. The fact that "The Phenomenal One" didn't bolt for WWE sooner is quite surprising to look back upon in hindsight. No doubt he was talented enough to make a splash in 2006 or 2009 or 2012, and he'd come equipped with enough cred and popularity to have that splash be immediate.
Instead, Styles added two years of New Japan to his resume (as well as a couple Heavyweight titles) before making the move to WWE. And the response he earned upon his debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble was indicative of a star arrival.
What turned out to be the best match of a rather middling, unspectacular Backlash saw Styles thwart Ambrose after a 25-minute battle, capturing his first WWE championship at age 39.
A gritty, dramatic slugfest led to Styles having to live up to his heel alignment (despite clearly earning more cheers than designated hero Ambrose). After briefly incapacitating referee Mike Chioda off of a corner bump, Styles struck Ambrose with a low blow, before finishing him off with The Styles Clash.
With the win, Styles became the first (and so far only) man in wrestling history to hold the WWE, NWA, TNA/Impact, and IWGP Heavyweight titles, a feat that is unlikely to ever be duplicated, unless noted belt collector Kenny Omega's feeling especially ambitious, or Kurt Angle decides to throw down with new NWA champion Trevor Murdoch (that is, depending on how you view Angle's IWGP "Third Belt" reign).
Raves came pouring in for the match. Dave Meltzer called it "excellent", and awarded it a rating of four and a quarter stars.
174 fans on Cagematch's wrestling database awarded the match an average rating of 8.28 out of 10, the clear match of the night in the eyes of most.
But instead of settling into the history books as a classic battle in an interesting period in WWE history, Ambrose vs. Styles became backburner material before long.
Ambrose remained a challenger, failing to recapture the gold at two other pay-per-views, sometimes playing second fiddle to the hapless James Ellsworth, whom new champion Styles just couldn't summon the ability to defeat.
Otherwise, life moved on pretty quickly in WWE, as it does. With the modern emphasis on making every match as "great" as possible, great matches sometimes fall through the cracks, getting lost in the shuffle instead of acutely landmarking a point in time.
Ambrose vs. Styles is hardly the only top-shelf-calibre World title match that has earned something akin to "lost classic" status, but as we come up on five years since that match, it's a case worth mentioning.
Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles from the 2016 Backlash is hardly Match of the Century, but it was one of WWE's best matches in all of 2016. And yet, recalling its greatness tends to begin with a needed reminder.