One of the featured matches at this Sunday’s WrestleMania sees AJ Styles – darling of mid-2000s TNA and everywhere else in the world by the 2010s – wrestle Shane McMahon – a 47-year-old silver-haired businessman who is the son of the boss Vince McMahon. The short version of the story they’re telling is that AJ Styles thinks he should’ve been wrestling in a championship match and is angry at the authority figure he sees as responsible for that not happening.
There are some in the real-world audience who have real-world sympathies with his position. In the later part of 2016 on SmackDown, AJ Styles was WWE Champion and putting on the best matches on the show, only to have the belt transitioned away from him to set up the WrestleMania program between Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton (and chalk up a record-equaling moment for John Cena in the process). Now he’s in a match with a non-wrestling on-screen commissioner, a few rows back in the WrestleMania poster group shot and not fighting for a championship. Boo.
We need to accept this isn’t a terrible thing, or even that much of a demotion. What we have to understand more than anything is that, through the eyes of the WWE’s decision-makers, Shane McMahon is a big deal (obviously; he’s a McMahon). He’s the guy they turned to last year when they needed someone to fight The Undertaker. This has two huge, positive implications. Firstly, the match will be given all the time and big spots it needs; there’s every chance AJ Styles will wrestle more on WWE’s annual showpiece than Brock Lesnar and John Cena combined. Secondly, it’s clear WWE view Styles as a key player. Although turning 40 this year means he can’t be categorised as a spring chicken with as many years of his prime ahead as some NXT graduates, now that he’s finally here in WWE there’s every reason to believe he’ll be looked after on the cards of all the WrestleManias he gets. However you feel about his match this year, that surely has to be a reason for happiness.
There’s another reason why we shouldn’t be quick to rush to judgement on this match, and that’s because we already know that it’s possible to turn Shane McMahon’s base metals into gold. We’ve seen it done before. And we can learn those lessons from a man who goes into WWE’s Hall of Fame tonight.
Kurt Angle’s transition from the amateur wrestling elite to the scripted profession was a massive success, and he fully deserves his place alongside WWE’s immortals when he is inducted this evening. Blessed with all the natural wrestling talent a man could need, the key to his quick success in sports entertainment was his ability to grasp the storytelling part of the job with ease and fans took to his work accordingly. At the King of the Ring pay-per-view in 2001, Angle wrestled Shane McMahon in a street fight. It’s a match that fans look back on fondly, and one which – this weekend’s events in mind – I went back and watched again. How did we cope before you could watch everything on the WWE Network?
The match starts off with six or so minutes of in-ring wrestling which sees Angle clearly on top and besting his less-seasoned opponent, with the street fight stipulation not required. Shane occasionally surprises him with a plucky combination or hamfisted submission attempt, but generally Angle has him measured until the fight spills to the outside and the weapons come in. After that, a more haphazard brawl breaks out (over which Angle is unable to exercise the same amount of control) which culminates in Shane famously being suplexed through glass screens up on the stage. All the time, Jim Ross and Paul Heyman on commentary are putting over how Shane is somehow staying in the match against all odds, against the raw talent of the American ‘superhero’ and Olympic gold medallist. Angle ultimately, logically, triumphs after 26 minutes thanks to an Angle Slam from the top rope.
Angle was (and still is) a special talent. Laughably, it’s an incidental note that his match with Shane McMahon was his third of the night, having already spent 20 minutes wrestling Christian and Edge earlier on the same card. Fortunately, the man who wrestles Shane on pay-per-view this weekend is also a special talent, and he has all the tools to put on a match every bit as good.
A handicap this time around is that Sunday’s match is not a street fight. That means there’s no trash cans or kendo sticks, no glass panels to be thrown through and no good reason for Shane to be jumping off bits of the set (not that reason had ever had anything to do with it). So the crutch of ‘hit each other with weapons and bleed’ has been removed and the challenge of creating a spectacle, this time on the grandest stage of them all, remains.
Much like looking back at the Attitude Era as a whole, it’s not fair to criticise the match between Kurt Angle and Shane McMahon as having needed the weapons and blood to have succeeded. Yes, sometimes the subtleties got lost behind the TV-14 mask (often a crimson mask), but there was always a lot more going on and the performers we were seeing were executing matches and stories in a way that shouldn’t be lost in translation to a family-friendly audience. Watching that match back again, it seems there are a lot of reasons why even 16 years later there’s reason for hope.
Here are the three main lessons we can learn from King of the Ring 2001 if we’re looking to be optimistic about AJ Styles vs Shane McMahon this Sunday.
Shane McMahon is a great punchbag. In the match with Angle, he soaks up a huge amount of abuse. Being put through the glass panels on the stage is the moment everyone remembers, but the three belly-to-belly suplexes that didn’t break the glass and dumped him on his head are rarely replayed. He’s a bit older now, but he’s still a glutton for punishment; see him agreeing to take the mid-air spear from Roman Reigns at Survivor Series. Say what you will about the realism of a non-wrestler kicking out of The Undertaker’s finishers last year, but the concept of AJ Styles emptying his locker on Shane, getting gradually more frustrated at not being able to put him away and having to bust out the Spiral Tap would be rapturously received. Not to mention how wise an idea keeping AJ Styles on offense for most of the match would be.
The opponent brings good in-ring storytelling. This is one of the areas where Kurt Angle excelled – not just in his match with Shane, but in his career generally (which isn’t always acknowledged as much as it should be in the dazzling light of his wrestling ability). By definition, pretty much anyone who makes it in WWE is capable of portraying a character, but the very best work their character into every little in-ring moment. It’s too simple to say that character doesn’t stop when the wrestling starts; it’s how you sell the physicality in little moments and carry yourself through the twists and turns of a wrestling bout. There are a couple of moments early on in the 2001 King of the Ring match where Angle invites Shane to put a hold on him, like he’s hosting an amateur wrestling training session, only to show the non-wrestler up. It’s a gloriously cocky move. Styles, like Angle, isn’t just about the technique and his character should be to the fore here, treating Shane McMahon (who he knows isn’t on his level) with the same contempt he was showing James Ellsworth. That frames the story where Shane won’t stay down, and arguably gives AJ more scenery to chew than he was given in his match with Chris Jericho at last year’s show.
Shane McMahon still has a few moves. No, he doesn’t have too many but he’s capable of pulling out a few when the occasion demands it. There are a few moves he may not do now that he was willing to try against Kurt Angle 16 years ago (a shooting star press!), and rarely are they going to be things of beauty, but if we assume Styles could spend the majority of the match on offense he doesn’t need too many – just enough to stitch the match together. In terms of bigger spots, he still has the Coast to Coast (sans trash can) and Leap of Faith elbow through the announce table, both of which are solid and popular and that he can probably pull out in this environment. The other key point here is that Styles, like Angle did before him, can and will adapt to make Shane’s stuff look amazing in a way that a lanky 51-year-old was never going to be able to do last year.
So I hope everyone can tune out the nagging doubts that some have expressed about AJ Styles’ place on this Sunday’s card, and the potential quality of the match, and enjoy the prospect of seeing Styles on a WrestleMania stage – something that 18 months ago we thought we may never see – adding to his reputation by following in a Hall of Famer’s footsteps and bringing a solid spectacle out of the boss’s son. This match could be one of the surprises of the night.