NEW ORLEANS — AJ Styles survived WrestleMania 34 with his WWE Championship intact, so Shinsuke Nakamura promptly went and turned this “Dream Match” into a nightmare.

The King of Strong Style, who seemed to view his WWE Title clash against The Phenomenal One as a formality, had been living rent-free in Styles’ head since his Men’s Royal Rumble Match victory in January, drilling a three-word prediction into the champion’s head at every possible turn: Knee to face. He entered The Showcase of the Immortals with most of his eccentricities in check, opting to blister Styles with fists, kicks and the occasional knee, though not to the face.

Styles and Nakamara pull out all the stops in dream match: WrestleMania 34 (WWE Network Exclusive)

WWE Champion AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamara clash with WWE's biggest prize on the line: Courtesy of the award-winning WWE Network.

Styles was forced to fight from underneath, and he did so by slapping The Artist clean across the face and administering his own knee to the mush. Given Nakamura’s mental advantage and the shadow of their shared history (the only other time these two fought, it was in Japan and Styles lost), The Phenomenal One subsisted on a mixture of textbook skill and cold, hard pragmatism. He took away Nakamura’s knee to face by kicking said knee as hard as he could before tenderizing it with the Calf Crusher.

WWE’s Rockstar switched gears to his mat game, trapping Styles in a gnarly triangle hold that nearly put The Phenomenal One’s lights out, though it was difficult for him to go back to his original game plan once they squared up. Each knee he threw caused him an increasing amount of pain. Nakamura was still able to keep the match at an even keel, but a slap to Styles’ face revealed the frustration that was steadily building. When he finally had AJ lined up for the Kinshasa, the champion used Nakamura’s aggression to his advantage, rolling his opponent up mid-sprint into a picture-perfect Styles Clash that The King of Strong Style was unable to kick out of.

Regardless of who came out on top, however, the match seemed to validate the gambles both Superstars had made to pursue a WrestleMania moment — that they got there was victory enough for both. At least, that seemed to be the implication when Nakamura embraced the victor, then knelt on one knee to present Styles the title. But what seemed like a gesture of respect was simply a way to give Shinsuke a better opening to uppercut AJ where the sun don’t shine.

Nakamura changed before the WWE Universe’s eyes as Styles crumbled to the mat. Gone was the quirky Artist and in his place was a dead-eyed striker who recklessly booted AJ out of the ring while muttering rapid-fire trash talk in Japanese. As the final insult to injury, Nakamura delivered that promised Kinshasa, outside the ring, to leave Styles in a heap while he made his exit.

All of which seems unlikely to free Styles from Nakamura’s specter anytime soon. This will go as a win in the champion’s record book, but just as Nakamura promised, it’s the knee to the face that AJ Styles will be seeing in his dreams.

NEW ORLEANS — AJ Styles survived WrestleMania 34 with his WWE Championship intact, so Shinsuke Nakamura promptly went and turned this “Dream Match” into a nightmare.

The King of Strong Style, who seemed to view his WWE Title clash against The Phenomenal One as a formality, had been living rent-free in Styles’ head since his Men’s Royal Rumble Match victory in January, drilling a three-word prediction into the champion’s head at every possible turn: Knee to face. He entered The Showcase of the Immortals with most of his eccentricities in check, opting to blister Styles with fists, kicks and the occasional knee, though not to the face.

Styles and Nakamara pull out all the stops in dream match: WrestleMania 34 (WWE Network Exclusive)

WWE Champion AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamara clash with WWE's biggest prize on the line: Courtesy of the award-winning WWE Network.

Styles was forced to fight from underneath, and he did so by slapping The Artist clean across the face and administering his own knee to the mush. Given Nakamura’s mental advantage and the shadow of their shared history (the only other time these two fought, it was in Japan and Styles lost), The Phenomenal One subsisted on a mixture of textbook skill and cold, hard pragmatism. He took away Nakamura’s knee to face by kicking said knee as hard as he could before tenderizing it with the Calf Crusher.

WWE’s Rockstar switched gears to his mat game, trapping Styles in a gnarly triangle hold that nearly put The Phenomenal One’s lights out, though it was difficult for him to go back to his original game plan once they squared up. Each knee he threw caused him an increasing amount of pain. Nakamura was still able to keep the match at an even keel, but a slap to Styles’ face revealed the frustration that was steadily building. When he finally had AJ lined up for the Kinshasa, the champion used Nakamura’s aggression to his advantage, rolling his opponent up mid-sprint into a picture-perfect Styles Clash that The King of Strong Style was unable to kick out of.

Regardless of who came out on top, however, the match seemed to validate the gambles both Superstars had made to pursue a WrestleMania moment — that they got there was victory enough for both. At least, that seemed to be the implication when Nakamura embraced the victor, then knelt on one knee to present Styles the title. But what seemed like a gesture of respect was simply a way to give Shinsuke a better opening to uppercut AJ where the sun don’t shine.

Nakamura changed before the WWE Universe’s eyes as Styles crumbled to the mat. Gone was the quirky Artist and in his place was a dead-eyed striker who recklessly booted AJ out of the ring while muttering rapid-fire trash talk in Japanese. As the final insult to injury, Nakamura delivered that promised Kinshasa, outside the ring, to leave Styles in a heap while he made his exit.

All of which seems unlikely to free Styles from Nakamura’s specter anytime soon. This will go as a win in the champion’s record book, but just as Nakamura promised, it’s the knee to the face that AJ Styles will be seeing in his dreams.