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.
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.'"
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.
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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."