AJ Styles has built an incredible portfolio in pro wrestling.
WWE’s reigning Intercontinental champ, Styles is a two-time WWE champion as well as a two-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Among others, he has had standout feuds with John Cena, Sting, and Kurt Angle, and his match against Daniel Bryan on last week’s SmackDown left no doubt that Styles remains among the top wrestlers in the world. But, until this past WrestleMania, missing from his career was a match with The Undertaker.
Styles and The Undertaker met at WrestleMania 36 in a Boneyard match, adding a cinematic feel to the opening night of this year’s two-night show. The match will be a central focus of the Last Ride documentary, which airs its finale this Sunday night on the WWE Network. And although it did not take place in the ring as Styles initially envisioned, the match made a strong impression on the wrestling audience, presenting The Undertaker in a throwback manner that captured all his glory.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Styles discussed the Boneyard match, sharing some behind-the-scenes moments from the cinematic match, as well as exploring the potential of a rematch against The Undertaker at next year’s WrestleMania.
Justin Barrasso: When did you find out you would be working with The Undertaker at WrestleMania 36, and what was your initial reaction?
AJ Styles: I found out I was going to be working The Undertaker right before the Saudi show [in February]. I was like, ‘Finally, I get an opportunity to learn from a guy like The Undertaker.’ I was super excited about it. I was so jealous of guys that got to work him. For me, to be able to learn from the best, it was a blessing.
JB: The Boneyard match was special, highlighting The Undertaker in a way that hadn’t happened in years. What was your goal entering the match, and did you feel like you met or exceeded your expectations?
AS: My goal was to give The Undertaker something he could be proud of. My expectations were so different because I didn’t know what the WWE universe would think of a match like this. There’s been stuff like this before, like with New Day and the Wyatt Family [on Raw in July of 2016], and I loved that. But I didn’t know how if people would love this, so it definitely exceeded my expectations.
JB: The Bray Wyatt-Randy Orton “House of Horrors” match from 2017 is another example of a cinematic match that aired in front of a crowd, but was met with mixed reviews. Prior cinematic matches in WWE have struggled with a live audience at the venue watching the match on-screen, but that was not the case at this past WrestleMania. In fact, with all of the other matches already taking place at an empty-arena Performance Center, your match with The Undertaker was so welcomed because it was unique and different.
AS: 100 percent. We were given the perfect way to have a very entertaining match, though I don’t even know if I’d call it a match. But it was different from everything else we were doing. There were no fans in the Performance Center, so everyone that wrestled there had it a little bit harder than myself and Undertaker. Doing what we did, it was the perfect time to do it.
JB: With the aura and mystique built into The Undertaker’s character, I’m not sure your match would have worked nearly as well at the Performance Center.
AS: Everything we did, from top to bottom, was perfect for that match.
JB: Take us behind the curtain. What don’t we know about the filming of the match?
AS: There were definitely some crazy moments. Undertaker had to get stitches after he busted his arm open. That just added to the match, to be honest with you. Just being there and doing that particular match was awesome.
And I don’t know if everyone knows how long it actually took. We started around eight o’clock, and we didn’t get finished ‘til about 4:30 in the morning. It was basically a movie, so we needed to get cameras in the right spot and walk through some stuff that was going to happen. I have a lot more respect for actors after working on those fight scenes.
JB: Did you know the filming was going to last throughout the night?
AS: I didn’t know I was going to be up all night. Nobody really knew how long this was going to take, so how do you prepare for something you don’t know? But it all worked out. It was difficult to stay up that late, but we pumped each other before the fight scenes. Undertaker and myself, we did our fight scenes in one take. That’s all it took. But at one point, Undertaker had his scene with the minions, so we were waiting for our spot to come up. The waiting, that part was long, but it was still good. The way it all turned out was unbelievable.
JB: You have made a career out of this, so it’s likely second nature but is preparing for a match with The Undertaker at all similar to preparing for a match with Daniel Bryan? Or, given the differences between the Boneyard match and last Friday’s SmackDown, is it too difficult to compare the two?
AS: It’s really difficult to compare the two. They’re totally different, but I do prepare for everybody, so that’s the same.
JB: You’ve had an incredible career, including two runs with the WWE Championship and two with the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, as well as career-defining moments in the ring with Sting, Kurt Angle, and John Cena. Where does your match with The Undertaker rank on list of accomplishments?
AS: It’s an accomplishment just to be able to work an angle with him. I didn’t think that was ever going to happen. I heard in last week’s episode [of Last Ride] that Undertaker thought he was done and ready to move away from wrestling. I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that was going on. So it’s such an honor that he would trust me enough to work me, even though he had decided he was done.
JB: It’s so hard to compare matches from your career, especially with the Boneyard match, but this has to rank high as a career highlight.
AS: For sure, it’s a highlight. My friends go, ‘Hey, you main-evented WrestleMania with The Undertaker.’ I guess I did, the first night anyway, and it definitely was one of the better matches of WrestleMania.
JB: Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson played such an integral role in the success of the match. Were you able to watch the match with them when it aired? And was there a particular moment when you thought they were at their best?
AS: We didn’t get to watch the match together, we were all at home. But we called each other right after we watched and we were all so happy with the match. They can say that they, too, main-evented WrestleMania with The Undertaker and AJ Styles. I was super happy to have those guys be part of the match.
JB: You never know until the program starts running, but there was really strong chemistry with The Undertaker on one side and you, Gallows, and Anderson on the other.
AS: I agree. Obviously Gallows, Anderson, and myself have chemistry, and that’s easy to see, but it was perfect with The Undertaker. We all worked really well together, we all put in our two cents of what we thought may look good, and we were all very happy with it.
JB: The program with The Undertaker, which extended into last month’s Money in the Bank pay per view, has allowed you to show off even more versatility in your personality. How much fun is that for you, especially when working with The Undertaker?
AS: First of all, you need some layers when it comes to your character. If not, you’re going to get stale at some point, so you’ve got to be able to switch it up, make it entertaining, and show another side of you. Not only was I trying to show some versatility, so was The Undertaker, too.
We didn’t know who we were going to get at WrestleMania. Was it the American Badass or The Undertaker? I think people were happy to see that they got both in the Boneyard match. It was even a combination of himself, The Undertaker, and the American Badass.
JB: The Boneyard match was universally praised and offered some creativity during the pandemic, which forced WrestleMania onto a closed set. But for all its brilliance, it was not a traditional wrestling match in the ring, which is your domain. It’s easy to imagine a Phenomenal Forearm being countered into a Tombstone Piledriver. Are wrestling matches always running through your mind? And is that match specifically one you are already creating in your mind?
AS: I know that everything changed when we were told we were doing a Boneyard match. All the ideas we had were thrown out the window, they just weren’t going to work. People got to see a Tombstone and maybe a chokeslam, but those were all the wrestling moves we did. You don’t really notice it because the fight was entertaining enough, but those other moves didn’t really fit in the Boneyard match. That was a fight.
There is still hope The Undertaker is going to have one more match. You can’t blame him if he decides that this is it. I don’t know how he feels about it. I still have ideas of what we’d do in the ring. I’m going to keep them, I’m going to save them if he ever wants us to have that opportunity together in the ring. It’s all up to Taker, but I’m holding onto those spots.
JB: If you have it your way, is that the end goal? Finish the story with The Undertaker in the ring at WrestleMania 37?
AS: It would be ideal. But we need to figure out if Taker wants to do one more. Does he have one more ‘Last Ride’ in him? I don’t know. If he does, absolutely, I’d take that ride with him.