It began with a piece of music WWE fans had never heard before. From the look on Roman Reigns’ face, no WWE Superstar was familiar with it either. In short order that piece of music would be heard by many, skyrocketing up the iTunes charts at the end of January. Reigns stood puzzled and the crowd sat silent as a church organ played over the sounds of a Southern Baptist choir. That silent crowd erupted into arguably the loudest pop of the night as “The Phenomenal One” was revealed. AJ Styles stepped out of the back and into the void left by a shocking number of high profile injuries to the WWE roster. Shockingly, Styles was immediately put over by the commentary team more than just about anyone outside of Reigns or John Cena in recent memory.
“Is it? Can it be? It is!” exclaimed Michael Cole. JBL added,”Former IWGP Champion, just like Brock Lesnar!” Not too bad to be compared to the Beast Incarnate within your first 30 seconds on WWE programming. Even Byron Saxton added, “An 18-year veteran! A mastermind of offensive innovation!” While Roman’s, the fans and commentary’s reactions helped paint a beautiful picture, it was Styles himself that added the most color. He didn’t look like a man nervous to be there. He didn’t appear to be a man out of place. He wasn’t even in a rush to get to the ring. Styles savored his first walk down the ramp, making the champion wait for his arrival. It took over a minute for Styles to step through the ropes. When he did he spent another minute face to face with WWE’s current top dog before Tyler Breeze briefly interrupted. It says a lot for Styles that the dramatic size difference between the two was almost imperceptible at first. If looking like you belong in the ring with Roman Reigns is WWE’s litmus test, AJ Styles passed.
As far as first impressions go, I was impressed. He got to keep his name, his appearance, his gear and the name of his key moves. His accomplishments prior to his start in WWE were actually acknowledged to help build his character for a new audience. He was even bestowed the honor of eliminating Curtis Axel after nearly a full calendar year in the Royal Rumble match. When he got face to face with Jericho I got a little concerned, as Jericho, not a big guy by any stretch, was noticeably bigger. My mind began to flood with Vince McMahon’s infatuation with giants and his propensity to hold down anything or anyone that isn’t his own creation. Even as an “AJ Styles” chant broke out in the Amway Center in Orlando, I wondered if Vince would take this as a slight against his homegrown talent. Chris Jericho, after all, had arguably the most memorable debut in WWE history. What immediately followed that debut was less memorable. I worried it could be downhill from here.
Speaking of Chris Jericho, he and Styles would engage in an instant classic match the following night on Raw. While AJ lasted over 28 minutes in the Rumble match, his match with Jericho exceeded it. They paced themselves, told a great story and did a good job of using Jericho’s significant accomplishments to put AJ over. He showed tremendous guts getting to the ropes from the middle of the ring after the Walls of Jericho was applied and great ring savvy by getting the roll-up on a veteran like Jericho. While barely uttering a word, AJ Styles announced his arrival at the biggest game in town. He followed that up with a win on SmackDown! over Axel via his Styles Clash finisher. On Raw last week he appeared on Miz TV. Miz sarcastically put over all of the characteristics that make AJ great. When Miz continued to keep him from talking, it ended with Styles putting a beating on him, setting up a match for SmackDown! later in the week. My initial feeling was concern for the fact that they really aren’t letting AJ speak, and we all know Vince values the character more than what happens inside the ring. Then I heard Styles’ appearance on Talk Is Jericho.
Styles said that he had actually discussed his character with Vince. Vince told him that because he isn’t the biggest or tallest guy, he has to be a pit bull, he has to fight for everything. The very fact that Vince acknowledged that part of his character is about overcoming his lack of size should be encouraging to all of us that want to see big things from AJ. Then I listened to the lyrics of his “Phenomenal” entrance music. The whole song is about being tough and blue collar, about being someone who should be feared and difficult to overcome. This shows that WWE and Vince specifically have bought into AJ as a talent and have invested in the character that is being presented. It shows even in the fact that they are getting him over based on what he is doing with his actions in the ring as opposed to his words. In a rare occurrence WWE is actually giving the hardcore fans exactly what they want.
In addition to his words about Vince and his character, I was encouraged by his attitude about the company. This is a guy who has accomplished a ton, who is not only respected but revered around the world and he sounds thrilled to have made the jump. There have been plenty of rumors and reports over recent years about poor morale on the main roster and maybe someone like AJ Styles, who has been around the block a few times, is just what they need. I think guys can feed off his energy and I think everyone in that locker room knows if they get paired up with him they will have an incredible match. He could have easily gone there just for the pay day, but it seems he is there to make a mark. Luckily, so far, it feels like WWE is equally as invested in him. I have even really enjoyed that his opponents keep referring to him as a rookie. It gives him a chip on his shoulder, a purpose and something to prove every time he steps in the ring. Better yet, he is consistently delivering on that purpose.
More important than Styles himself having a sense of purpose, it seems creative has a sense of purpose for him as well. There is a reason why people see Roman Reigns as the future of the company, there is potential there. Unfortunately his character is consistently written into a corner. So far Styles hasn’t faced that problem. His first program is with a 6-time World Champion and 9-time Intercontinental Champion. That champion, Jericho, isn’t just having matches with Styles, he’s interrupting his interviews, he’s talking about him when he’s not there, he’s making it a point to be on commentary to watch his matches up close he’s telling him that he’s been waiting for his arrival for years. During the match, Jericho was putting over what it was like to be in the ring with him and mentioned that he is a “lone wolf” in WWE with no one watching his back. Is it possible they are teasing some backup for AJ in the near future?
He managed to win the match, this time by submission. He’s won his first three matches in three different ways, adding layers to his character. Afterwards, Jericho challenged him to a match on the upcoming SmackDown! this Thursday. Everyone thinks WWE is hinting at a Jericho hell turn, which wouldn’t surprise me, but it could be the other way around. When Styles was on The Ross Report last year, he said he would never call himself Phenomenal unless he was a heel. When Jericho asked if he was great, he said, “I’m better than great. I’m phenomenal, Chris. And you’ll find out again.” I’m not predicting a heel turn for Styles, but it’s something to keep in mind. Either way, he’s engaged in a meaningful feud with a WWE legend two weeks into his WWE career with an actual story being told and commentary actually pushing the story ahead.
While there is obviously a lot of time for numerous plot twists to unfold, even the most critical WWE viewer has to admit that there hasn’t been a misstep with AJ Styles yet. Aside from what’s happening with his creative, he got the biggest ovation during the Rumble match, the crowd has chanted his name during every show since he got there, his t-shirt sold out the first night it was available and his entrance music hit the top 50 on iTunes. If things continue at this pace for AJ Styles, his run in WWE will be a Phenomenal One.