PHENOMENAL: AJ STYLES

We are now in a period that has seen WWE finally cave on the stubborn mentality that drove its hiring decisions for years and years. They’ve accepted that there is such a vast array of talent in the wrestling world that narrowcasting their vision of what a star can be was only spiting themselves. Let’s not kid ourselves, WWE still have their prejudices and perspectives, but they’ve brought in more outside talent, often with their outside names, than they have since the days of the Monday Night Wars.

But while it’s amazing to see, there is always that biting question that lingers in the back of the brain. There is always a caveat, a “Yeah, but…” that justifies why those particular guys, the unconventional “superstars”, are getting what they have. We’ve been fans too long, and can spot the reasons why fairly easily. Yes, they brought in Shinsuke Nakamura with that name, but he’s in NXT, where (tough as it may be for some to admit) it doesn’t really matter. Ditto Samoa Joe and Bobby Roode. Yes, Kevin Owens and Finn Balor have won the Universal Title, but they are WWE names and products in many ways, and they only got the chance when their chosen one, Roman Reigns, failed a drug test and forced their hand. The Cruiserweight Classic is a revelation, but we all have our questions about how it’ll play out on Raw.

When AJ Styles walked out at the Royal Rumble, and was actually called ‘The Phenomenal’ AJ Styles, this writer’s jaw hit the ground. No tweaks, no changes. Nothing. Regardless, his treatment in the match itself, eliminated fairly unceremoniously, served as a cold reminder that WWE has a tendency to slot its talent for life, regardless of potential.

Fans that had seen AJ plying his trade in TNA for years knew that he was among the best wrestlers in the world. And as is the nature of modern fans, the fantasy becomes what they can do where it matters the most – WWE. History hasn’t always been kind to smaller, excellent workers who move to the very unique, neurotic, idiosyncratic environment of World Wrestling Entertainment. Their self-fulfilling prophecies for how far certain wrestlers can or can’t go has left fans feeling deflated more often than satisfied when a favourite from the outside finally makes it to McMahonville. In many instances, it causes many to re-analyse their judgement of the wrestler in the first place. Were they really as good as they always thought if they failed when it mattered?

When AJ Styles left TNA, WWE never even made a concrete offer to get him, such was their laissez-faire attitude to talent that didn’t tick their boxes. So he went to New Japan as the new leader of the Bullet Club. While the Club gained a lot of notoriety overseas, to regular viewers of New Japan, the Bullet Club was an albatross on the product, and the falling attendance numbers in Japan proved it. But AJ was on a mission. After being pushed immediately to the top, winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Title in his first match against Kazuchika Okada, Styles went on a flurry of breathtaking matches. His efforts in the 2014 G-1 Climax were incredible, where he not only hung with the best, he excelled. His matches with Okada, Minoru Suzuki and Hiroshi Tanahashi on the final night was a definitive slap in the face to viewers.

In the later years of TNA, Styles’ immense talent was taken for granted by the company and fans alike. He’d done everything there was to do, and there was nowhere else to go. His move to New Japan was a revelation. He went in with high expectations, and surpassed them with World Title runs, main events and classic matches. He was once again in the discussion for wrestlers on the shortlist of the best guys in the entire business.

At the same time, WWE’s shortage of talent was becoming a real issue, and somewhere along the way, the directive was made just to go after the best, no matter what. After starting 2016 wrestling Shinsuke Nakamura in a blinding match at the Tokyo Dome, AJ got the offer that made signing with WWE the move to make. But as mentioned, he came in with high expectations and more than a hint of trepidation.

After a decent start and a good series with Chris Jericho, fans were content with the Styles WWE were offering, but not blown away. His merchandise was selling very well, and he was frequently getting the loudest reactions on house shows, but on TV, the Jericho association felt isolated due to the part-time aura of Y2J’s status. It was tough to gauge what level of success AJ was going to be. Jericho winning at WrestleMania felt like a complete waste, even more so the following night when a relatively cold AJ won the right to challenge Roman Reigns for the WWE Title.

On paper, it’s amazing the match was ever made. WWE had yet to throw in the towel on Roman as a true babyface, and here they were putting him against a guy guaranteed to earn the cheers of the more die-hard fans that attend the Pay-Per-Views. As predicted, Styles was the clear favourite on the night. But over the course of the next two months, something very interesting started to happen.

When working with Roman, Styles was unbelieveable. His ability to deliver in a big match in the WWE environment was so similar to Shawn Michaels, a Vince McMahon personal favourite, that it couldn’t be denied. What was generally believed to be his weakness, his promos, were better in WWE than anywhere else. Suddenly, the outsider with the flashy moves was looking like the most complete worker in the company. He got more out of the underrated Reigns than anybody else, and his heel turn and feud with John Cena was the first example since CM Punk where somebody working with Cena came out on the other side genuinely elevated.

The atmosphere of the first Cena confrontation was electric, but we’re in a period of time where one-night audience reactions have never meant less, thanks to crowds insisting that any main event is “Awesome” if we get a dive or decent near fall. Consistency was going to be key for Styles.

Again, his verbal jousts with Cena were better than anybody could hope for, and the match at Money In The Bank was superb. Despite the company narrative, it was becoming more and more obvious that AJ Styles is everything that WWE wanted Seth Rollins to be. Though engaging in the usual 50-50 booking by dropping a fall to Cena in a Six-Man Tag at Battleground and being pinned by an ice cold Dolph Ziggler on Smackdown Live, Styles still felt on the cusp. The rematch was made – Cena Vs. Styles at Summerslam. And everybody knew this was the one that counted.

Though it’s been said by so many of late, it’s so poignant it bears repeating here. When the clock struck midnight on 31st December 2015, that this would be happening was unfathomable. That Styles would convincingly win clean, even more so. Though the focus of the show was scattered between World and Universal Title matches and a Brock Lesnar slaughter of Randy Orton, nothing on the show got half the heat of Styles and Cena. I’d written that Styles was destined to be the backbone of SmackDown in the draft in much the same way Kurt Angle was in 2002, and when SummerSlam ended, he was the hottest guy on the brand.

Though the brand extension and hotshot title changes on Raw somewhat devalued the World Titles rather quickly, AJ Styles lifting the WWE World Championship at Backlash can be considered nothing but an unmitigated success. That he won with the Styles Clash captures the very essence of AJ. He came in as himself, and with his act, untouched, he changed every opinion, exceeded every expectation (whether high or low), and proved that his career isn’t to be judged with the asterisk of being in TNA too long. New Japan was a hotshot, but his success over the course of 18 months, etching his name in a top four with legendary talents like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, and a superb worker building his legacy in Kazuchika Okada, says it all. In WWE, he wasn’t brought in to be the top guy. Truth be told, I’m not sure that WWE truly knew what he was being brought in for. But he got all the way to the WWE World Title, and did it in less than a year.

WWE has done too good a job in recent times proving that talent doesn’t always rise to the top. Sometimes, the talent isn’t what people think it is and falls short due to overinflated expectations. Finn Balor is the forced indy darling, riding the good will of NXT, but Styles is the real deal. Seth Rollins is promoted as the all-around best, but Styles took that crown with ease. Company favourites Roman Reigns and John Cena had the best brought out in them by Styles. Ultimately, AJ Styles has had a year that erased any doubt that he’s one the absolute best performers of this generation.

And the most enthralling thing of all is that the best might still be to come.