It was 2005, I was 15 and had just picked up TNA Wrestling: Phenomenal - The Best of AJ Styles DVD off of a whim while shopping at Best Buy. I had heard of Styles and TNA was just starting to gain some buzz, so like any other longtime wrestling fan has done at one point, I gave it a blind chance.
I looked at the match listing and saw a familiar name in Jerry Lynn, so I jumped ahead to a Triple Ladder Match with Styles, Lynn and Low-Ki from 2002. The production value left a lot to be desired, TNA's first asylum reminded me of a Midwestern town's local armory, but Styles had me absolutely hooked.
When he turned a moonsault off the ropes into a reverse DDT I -- ugh -- marked out of my mind.
Flash-forward 14 years from this match to last night, and AJ Styles is WWE Champion after beating Dean Ambrose at WWE Backlash.
It's not that he's had this long journey from the Indies to low-key appearances in WCW to TNA to Japan to Ring of Honor and so-forth, but it's the utter unlikelihood it truly was in seeing AJ Styles walk out of Richmond, Virginia with WWE's most illustrious title on his shoulder.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
He seemed destined to go into the WWE history books as a Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat type rather than a Shawn Michaels type.
Even though he was the face of TNA, and has held world titles across the globe, everyone will tell you that this wasn't supposed to happen.
AJ is not the 25-year-old kid trying to get noticed in TNA anymore, he's a 39-year-old veteran who has completely changed his look, moniker and -- seriously -- improved his mic skills. He's been around the world and back, been hot, been overlooked, but here he is, in the late stages of his career sitting alone at the top.
He and Roman Reigns put on a series of underrated matches following WrestleMania. Then he and John Cena put on a potential match of the year at SummerSlam, which very well could save that card from being considered one of the worst.
AJ Styles made me care about TNA. He kept me coming back week-in and week-out. His matches with Abyss are a must-watch for pro-wrestling fans, his foray into the Ultimate X matches are breath-taking, but these don't even touch the night he had with Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels.
The date was Sept. 11, 2005, that's right, 11 years to the date of The Phenomenal One winning WWE's greatest prize at Backlash. It was at TNA's Unbreakable pay-per-view where the three battled for the company's X Division Championship in front of an estimated crowd of 800 people.
This bout remains one of the most impressive achievements in pro wrestling history for its mix of high-flying, strong style, submission and double-team wrestling. Triple Threat Matches are one of those things that always sound great on paper, but typically fall flat.
That was not the case on this night.
The match was 22 minutes and 50 seconds of professional wrestling gold. In fact, it received the ultra-rare distinction of being awarded Dave Meltzer's Five-Star rating. Styles, Joe, Daniels, Abyss, Sting, among others, built TNA into a perceived potential challenger of the WWE, but that notion had faded away almost as quickly as it had started popping up in message boards.
Styles, Samoa Joe, a now former NXT Champion, and Daniels were connected at the hip. They were fan favorites with casual and IWC Smark Worthy fans. When people who are only familiar with WWE AJ ask me what is so special about him, this is the match I point to.
AJ can make a match with anyone come out as the best of the night.
He's had violent matches with Jeff Jarrett, passing of the torch send-offs with Sting, used Ric Flair as his manager for a bit and had a series of hardcore classics with another oft-overlooked performer, in Abyss.
Whether he is flying off the top rope with a forearm, finding a new way to escape the Koji Clutch or acting as the despicable heel, he is the center of attention.
After finally leaving TNA, the place he made worth watching, in 2013, Styles returned to Ring of Honor and New Japan instead of the WWE, which all but signaled the end of any remaining hope he could finally sign with the mecca of professional wrestling.
Then something weird happened. It started with NXT bringing in the likes of Tyler Black, Kevin Steen, Claudio Castagnoli, Jon Moxley, Prince Devitt and El Generico. You might know these guys as Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor and Sami Zayn.
WWE's tone had changed, as it was starting to not only pay more attention to the indies but recognize its existence kayfabe and non-kayfabe.
All things considered, it still felt too late for AJ Styles. It felt like one of those things that fans would look back on and have nothing but "What if WWE actually signed AJ?" He was doing well for himself across the world with The Bullet Club and getting solid bookings with ROH.
For as long as I had been watching AJ Styles, I had asked the question of "How does WWE not have this guy?" "What are they either seeing and/or missing?" and so on and so forth.
Then the Royal Rumble happened in January, and there he was. Walking down the ramp while WWE cameras focused on Roman Reigns instead of one of the biggest gets the company has had in years.
It didn't matter, AJ was in the WWE and I felt like I was with him for the entire journey. This was a win for his fans, the people that suffered through TNA just to watch one of the most impressive performers in the world do his job.
So last night, when AJ punted Dean right in his dick and hit the Styles Clash for the 1-2-3, it was an unfamiliar feeling. It was like a crusade lasting through my most formative years was complete. That's where there is such a disconnect between pro wrestling fans and non-pro wrestling fans.
I know it's "fake," I know it's scripted, I know it's entertainment.
None of that has anything to do with the feelings that sunk in watching the show fade to black with AJ Styles holding the WWE Championship was like watching your favorite TV show's character finally get the girl.
It's like watching the underdog persevere in your favorite movie, it's like your favorite superhero burst through the glass-ceiling into the homes of millions of people to enjoy.
Outside of the puke-worthy three-man SmackDown announce team, the moment was perfect. AJ and Dean Ambrose, another "holy crap he's in WWE," guy, got ample time to tell a story worth telling.
WWE changed its tone on these "Indie Darlings," as they have loved to say in the past, just in the nick of time. As weird as this is to say, it was guys that AJ paved the way for that ended up paving the ultimate road for him.
Kevin Steen (Owens) proved himself worthy to carry a brand as WWE's Universal Champion, the same can be said about Finn Balor. This new-era showed WWE that it doesn't have to stick to a blueprint when it comes to creating a "superstar."
Sometimes the answer is solid wrestling, because those who understand the in-ring work at Styles' level are most likely to understand the work outside of the actual action just as much.
No matter what happens moving forward, AJ and his fans will be able to share this night where they can look at all the naysayers and say, "I told you so."