The Historical Significance of AJ Styles vs Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania

WWE likes to throw around it’s historically significant stats and figures, but one thing they probably won’t mention is that the match up featuring WWE Champion AJ Styles vsĀ Shinsuke Nakamura at WrestleMania 34 marks only the second time in WWE history that the two competitors in a WWE Championship match at WrestleMania has featured two wrestlers who were not characters that were “homegrown” in the WWE/F. In fact, in thirty four WrestleManias, AJ Styles is only the sixth non-WWE/F homegrown Superstar to walk into WrestleMania as WWE Champion. While there are many who may be deemed stars built elsewhere (Hulk Hogan‘s run in AWA prior to returning in 1983 for example), in nearly every case, the wrestler’s character was given it’s true birth (or pushed to their true potential) in the WWE. But as seen below, there have been only seven other instances where non-WWE built Superstars have been in a WWE Championship match at WrestleMania.

RIC FLAIR, WrestleMania VIII, April 5, 1992

Photo: WWE

It would only seem fitting that the first to do it was “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, following his jump to the WWF from the NWA/WCW in the early 1990s. By the time Flair joined the WWF, his character had been established for nearly 20 years. There was no changing the Nature Boy. And although he walked into WrestleMania VIII as WWF World Heavyweight Champion (having won it that year in the Royal Rumble), he would lose it to “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

SID VICIOUS, WrestleMania XIII, March 23, 1997

Photo: WWE

In a classic case of Vince renaming other stars to control their IP for merchandising, Psycho Sid was the behemoth Sid Vicious who had been terrorizing the NWA and WCW for years prior. He’d also had a prior run in the WWF as Sid Justice. But despite the name changes, Sid was still the same Sid character that had been a raging force of brutality for Vince McMahon’s competition. Much like Ric Flair before him, though, Sid lost his WWF World Championship to Vince’s greatest creation, The Undertaker.

THE BIG SHOW, WrestleMania 2000 (XVI), April 2, 2000

Photo: WWE

Despite being renamed “The Big Show” upon his WWE debut in 1999, The Big Show was in every aspect the same monstrosity of a man from his WCW run as The Giant. As in many cases during the Monday Night War, wrestlers who changed sides were usually kept in the same character as their previous employer, although a few had name alterations due to merchandising potential for Vince McMahon and the WWE. Big Show’s first WrestleMania challenge for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship came in a Fatal 4-Way match at WrestleMania 2000, where he faced The Rock, Mick Foley and reigning Champion Triple H. Although Big Show would go on to become a 4x World Champion in the WWE (twice winning the WWE Championship, twice the World Heavyweight Championship), this WrestleMania moment was not one of them, as Triple H successfully defended his title.

CHRIS JERICHO, WrestleMania X8, March 17, 2002

Photo: WWE

Chris Jericho has had many characters throughout his WWE career, but for his first few years in the WWE Universe, he was still portraying a form of his WCW character, the brash loud mouth juvenile with the samurai ponytail. He entered WrestleMania XVIII in Toronto, Ontario as the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, but like Flair and Sid before him, he lost to a WWE character in Triple H.

EDDIE GUERRERO, WrestleMania XX, March 14, 2004

Photo: WWE

Another one who came over during the Monday Night War, Eddie Guerrero was still very much the same character who had been seen in ECW and WCW previously. A sly, manipulative technician and aerialist, he was the ultimate opportunist long before Edge claimed that title. At WrestleMania XX in Madison Square Garden in New York City, Guerrero became the first non-WWE created Superstar to defend his WWE World title at a WrestleMania, when he defeated the challenge from Kurt Angle.

CM PUNK, WrestleMania XXVIII, April 1, 2012

Photo: WWE

CM Punk not only kept his name but his entire anti-authority persona that he’d groomed in the indies prior to joining the WWE Universe in 2005. He’d had a hugely successful run in Ring of Honor previous, as well as other indies like IWA Mid South. CM Punk was the first true indie star to walk into WrestleMania as a WWE Champion and not only did he defend it, he defended it against Chris Jericho, making it the first time (and only time until WrestleMania 34) that two non-WWE created Superstars competed for the company’s top prize at a WrestleMania.

DANIEL BRYAN, WrestleMania XXX, April 6, 2014

Photo: WWE

The last time a WrestleMania was held in New Orleans, another indie superstar in Daniel Bryan (formerly Bryan Danielson throughout his career in Ring of Honor, Dragon Gate, and other indie promotions) fought his way into the WWE Championship match and defeated two other men, a returning Batista and WWE Champion Randy Orton, becoming the first non-WWE creation to actually win the WWE title at a WrestleMania.

AJ STYLES vs SHINSUKE NAKAMURA, WrestleMania 34, April 8, 2018

Photo: WWE

This year’s WWE Championship match is only the second time that two non-WWE creations will enter the ring to fight for the company’s most storied championship at a WrestleMania since the event was created in 1985. AJ Styles as we know it was practically born in Ring of Honor and groomed for over a decade with Impact Wrestling (with a NJPW stint just prior) and Shinsuke Nakamura was a homegrown NJPW star for 14 years before jumping to the WWE Universe (and NXT in particular) in 2016. It’s also a rematch from 2016’s Wrestle Kingdom 10, where AJ Styles and Nakamura fought over Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship before both departed the company for WWE.


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