There are certain venues that hold a special place in the hearts of wrestling fans. One of mine is the MEN Arena in Manchester. I’ve been to a number of RAW and SmackDown tapings there. I saw my first ever title change live when on the same night Jeff Hardy defeated Johnny Nitro for the Intercontinental Championship, and Rated RKO defeated Roddy Piper and Ric Flair for the tag titles as well. In November 2017 I headed off to the Arena for a taping of SmackDown, knowing that I was being treated to a WWE Championship match later that evening as it was announced Jinder Mahal was defending his title against AJ Styles.
As I reached the arena I was tinged with sadness, however, as less than six months earlier the Arena had been the site of a tragic bombing following an Ariana Grande concert. The usual entrance to the Arena was not open and the temporary entrance was through the back of the car park. I remember standing just behind a British wrestler who is currently working in Japan in the queue and being too nervous to say hello to them. When inside the building there was a touching tribute to those who had lost their lives and I shed a tear, in particular for a former colleague at the company I work for.
Jinder Mahal was a surprising choice as WWE Champion. The former 3 Man Band member had not previously been positioned as a serious contender for the title, but was clearly important to gaining increased interest in India. When he beat Randy Orton to become the 50th WWE Champion, it seemed only a matter of time before he would lose it. Rematches with Randy were successfully navigated before it was announced he would defend against Shinsuke Nakamura at SummerSlam.
As one of the big pay-per-views, SummerSlam seemed the perfect time for a title change with the number one contender having won the NXT Championship in the same arena to a rapturous ovation years prior. In the build up to the SummerSlam match I gained a lot of admiration for Jinder, he way he handled media appearances and autograph signings with the presence of a true World Champion. Jinder vanquished Shinsuke at SummerSlam and again at Hell in a Cell, his reign more fruitful than many believed it would be and leading to questions around who would defeat him.
As a regular watcher of TNA, I was a big fan of AJ Styles and fondly remember his matches with Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, Jerry Lynn, Kurt Angle, and Abyss. After the success he had in New Japan, when he debuted at the Royal Rumble I jumped up and down with excitement at the prospect of so many dream matches. By the point of this title opportunity his star had somewhat waned, adding to the doubt that a title change could happen.
The card for the episode of SmackDown was featured around the build to Survivor Series. At the time it wasn’t anything memorable, but looking back it had some intriguing matches: Sami Zayn versus Kofi Kingston, Randy Orton versus Rusev, and The Usos versus Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin. Becky Lynch also continued to beat up James Ellsworth.
The main event arrived with little fanfare. It was always going to be a decent match with AJ Styles involved, but it was bound to end in a disqualification, count-out, or The Singh Brothers helping Jinder get the pinfall.
With certain matches there are always moments that you recall even years later, this was one of those. After the match I replayed the key moments over in my head repeatedly; Jinder slamming AJ onto the announce table that refused to break, the way the crowd came to life with YES chants during AJ’s comeback and the constant chirping of the entertaining Samir and Sunil Singh at ringside.
At different points I thought the match was over as the Singh Brothers pulled Jinder out of the ring to tease a count-out and Jinder hit the Khallas, but AJ got his foot on the rope to stay alive. When AJ finally hit the Phenomenal Forearm for the pin, I paused slightly as if I was waiting for a VAR check in a football match. Perhaps I had missed a Dusty style finish? I must have missed something. As AJ held the belt aloft my delayed celebrations commenced in earnest with the rest of the screaming Manchester crowd.
The match ended up being the best of Jinder’s title reign and led to AJ being inserted into the champion versus champion match with Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series. Walking back to my hotel after the show I knew that I had witnessed a moment in history, the first time the WWE Championship had changed hands outside of North America. That didn’t really happen – did it?