Best WWE Champions of the Last Decade – AJ Styles by Jake Thomas

Not even five years ago, it would’ve been incredibly strange that I would be writing an article with this title. Even after AJ Styles debuted at the 2016 Royal Rumble, the thought of a homegrown TNA talent like Styles becoming one of the WWE’s most reliable top stars and the WWE Champion seemed like a pipe dream. However, here we all stand, having been able to witness one of the most respected wrestlers to never go to WWE, not only win the WWE Title but have one of the best reigns of the 2010’s.

After his debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble, Styles was immediately put into a feud with Chris Jericho. Not to say the feud itself wasn’t any good, it was a great way to start in the WWE, working with someone like Chris Jericho is never a bad thing. But a lot of people seemed to think that this would be the ceiling for Styles. Come Wrestlemania 32, after a loss to Chris Jericho in one of the opening matches on the card, many were concerned about his status as a “top-guy”. Jericho wasn’t at the same status he is today, more the veteran who comes in and puts guys over like Bray Wyatt and Fandango.

Clearly though, Styles impressed Vince McMahon with his hard work and attitude, and on the RAW after Wrestlemania 32, he won a Fatal 4 Way to become the number one contender to Roman Reigns and the WWE Championship. When you consider the fact that at this time, there was only one World Championship in WWE, it’s a pretty big deal that AJ Styles was chosen to be Reigns’ first feud after Wrestlemania. Whilst the results were never in doubt, Styles still worked two fantastic matches with Reigns in two PPV main events. A transition to a heel turn and feud with John Cena gave Styles a well-needed personality injection, allowing him to show off the charisma he had built traveling the world. After beating John Cena in what some consider a 5-star match at Summerslam 2016, it was time for Styles to ascend to championship contention again.

Styles was considered the top heel on Smackdown, having been split from The Club due to the 2016 brand split, was set to take on Dean Ambrose at Backlash in 2016. In a fantastic main event, Styles did the impossible and became the WWE Champion.

The fact that the man, formerly known as Mr. TNA, actually managed to win the WWE Title, still shocked internet wrestling fans everywhere. Whilst I’d argue Styles’s second reign as champ was better, the first reign as WWE Champion was very good and gave faith to the higher-ups that he was good enough to gain the title again. Not only did he put on “phenomenal” matches, but he also played to a variety of storylines. The Ambrose/Styles feud had many different aspects, both serious and comedy, shown by the introduction of jobber James Ellsworth. Ellsworth became a key part of the title feud, and whilst comedy in the WWE Title picture can usually be frustrating, both Ambrose and Styles made it work.

Styles just felt right as WWE Champion, with highlight matches like his TLC match against Ambrose and his triple threat against Ambrose and Cena at No Mercy 2016. In a time when Smackdown was going through a period of beating RAW in quality, many remarked it felt like the “wild west” where anything could happen at any time. To put it simply, it was a great time to be an AJ Styles fan.

Like all good things, Styles’ championship had to come to an end eventually. Styles would reignite his feud with a returning John Cena, leading up to a blockbuster match at the 2017 Royal Rumble. Many questions surrounded whether WWE would finally let Cena tie Flair’s record. In another 5 star match, Cena would beat Styles at the Royal Rumble, pinning him after two AA’s in a row. Although his title reign had ended, there was no better way to lose than to the face of the company.

Styles would go on to feud with the likes of Shane McMahon at Wrestlemania 33, leading to a face turn after beating McMahon at WrestleMania. This would be followed by a run with the US Title, including a long feud with Kevin Owens, before losing to Baron Corbin. While Styles would try and elevate the mid-card, the work he had done with the WWE Championship was being tarnished. Despite being off to a good start when Bray Wyatt won the belt, a weird Mania match with Orton would lead to Orton winning the title before losing it to Jinder Mahal of all people. Whilst Mahal isn’t nearly as bad as people make him out to be (Don’t Hinder Jinder), his title reign was a major shock and he wasn’t anywhere near built up at the time to be WWE Champion. After a match was scheduled between him and Universal Champion Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series didn’t exactly excite fans, WWE powerheads decided a change needed to be made.

After an interaction with Mahal on Smackdown seemed like the beginning for a post-Survivor Series feud, the decision was made to book Styles vs. Mahal on an episode of Smackdown emanating from the UK. In what would be the first recognised WWE Championship title change outside of North America, Styles beat Mahal to win the WWE Championship for the second time and would instead face Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series.

The match against Lesnar would end up being one of Lesnar’s best since coming back to WWE, resulting in high praise from fans and Paul Heyman. Many saw this as a reward for Styles helping Vince out when TLC 2017 fell apart due to illness to Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns, as Styles flew from an overseas tour to make it back to the US to face Finn Balor in what would be a dream match for many fans.

After facing off against Jinder Mahal in a rematch at Clash of Champions, getting what some considered a tough task of getting a decent match out of Mahal. Styles would later go on to feud with both Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. After Zayn/Owens had been feuding with Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan, the feud crossed into the WWE Championship picture, leading to a series of matches between the men, including a handicap match at the Rumble, in which Styles beat both men. Styles would later go on to defend against Owens, Zayn, Corbin, Ziggler and John Cena, who Styles had faced in a PPV quality TV match a week before.

Shinsuke Nakamura, the man Styles fought in NJPW in a 5 star match, won the Royal Rumble in 2018, providing the dream match that had been teased many times on TV since Nakamura’s debut, at Wrestlemania. High expectations were placed on the match to follow up on their five-star effort at Wrestle Kingdom 10. The match at Mania was good, but not at that level, and Styles retained the title. What became apparent after the match is that it was only the beginning of a long feud, as Nakamura low-blowed Styles and turned heel. Many assumed that Nakamura would win the title at Mania in a big coronation, but instead turned heel and entered into a long feud with Styles over the summer. The storyline itself became all about low-blows, and whilst the matches were decent, most had non-finishes. The final match at Money in the Bank 2018 was more the classic people expected, ending the feud with a Styles win.

Styles would go on to defend against Rusev, before entering a personal feud with Samoa Joe. The Samoa Joe feud was an excellent feud that resulted in many matches on PPV like Summerslam, with the storyline surrounding Styles’ wife Wendy, who Joe used to torment Styles. The feud would end at Crown Jewel in a blow-off match that replaced the Daniel Bryan title defence after deciding Bryan wouldn’t go to Crown Jewel.

Styles would go on to hold the title for a shock 365 days, something nobody could’ve imagined when he walked out in his debut at the Royal Rumble. After a rivalry with Daniel Bryan seemed to have come to an end and Lesnar/Styles 2 was booked for Survivor Series, a championship match was booked between Bryan and Styles a couple of days before the PPV. What would follow is a shock title change, with Bryan beating Styles and turning heel to go on and face Lesnar in his dream match. Styles lost the championship to end his reign at 371 days.

AJ Styles showed the world that despite being an outsider, it isn’t impossible to go on and become one of the best WWE Champions in modern memory. Styles’ title reign identified that it isn’t impossible to book a good babyface champion, and his incredible matches provided entertainment for up to a whole year.