Let’s face it, as WWE fans we spend a significant amount of time criticizing the product. Whether it’s booking, storytelling, character development, commentary or even the running time of Raw, there is always plenty of room for complaints. One part of WWE programming that isn’t leaving much daylight for displeasure is the handling of AJ Styles. Has everything WWE has done with Styles been perfect in everyone’s eyes? Of course not, but nothing is going to be perfect for everyone. No matter what nitpicks you can find with AJ Styles’ character or match results, there is no arguing that he has been built and is being treated like a top star for the company.
In less than half a year in WWE Styles has lasted almost 30 minutes in the Royal Rumble Match, engaged in an epic feud with Chris Jericho, including a high profile WrestleMania match, became the No. 1 Contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, had two great PPV main event matches with “The Guy” Roman Reigns and is now embroiled in a headlining program with John Cena with a win already in his pocket. He’s already been both a babyface and a heel and he was even the most recent guest on the WWE Network presentation of the Stone Cold Podcast. It took him until age 37 to reach WWE, but he’s already accomplished more than half the roster in just five months.
I wrote in early February about how happy I was with AJ’s introduction to WWE. I lauded the company for bringing him in like a star and compared his debut to Chris Jericho’s. I also had concerns that the hot start would fizzle out, much like it did with Jericho soon after his arrival. Now as we celebrate the Fourth Of July here in the United States it’s clear those concerns were unfounded. Not only has his star not burnt out but it seems to still be growing and WWE seems to be getting behind him even more. Over the last three PPV’s he’s had matches with the two biggest names in the company and later this month it’s likely to be four straight. In addition to the lofty positions he’s been put in on the biggest cards every month, there are a few other reasons for encouragement.
For a while it seemed Styles didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk. His interviews and promos always got interrupted which made me feel the company didn’t believe in that aspect of his game. With WWE always claiming to be so character-driven I thought that was reason for concern, although they did allow him to do his talking in the ring by putting on incredible match after incredible match. Now that he’s turned heel with The Club he has flourished outside the ring as well. His promos with Cena have been great and he is bringing a lot of irritating humor to his backstage interviews. The ability in the ring he has been allowed to showcase backs up every boast and claim he has made to John Cena in recent weeks.
During his feud with Roman, AJ started to develop a little more edge and employed a little more violence in his matches. During his match with Cena he kept that edge while also being arguably the first guy that’s had Cena’s number, “running circles around him” at times. Not everyone was pleased with the manner in which he won the match, but that’s how heels win and he was portrayed as Cena’s equal, much like he was portrayed as pushing Roman to his absolute limit. When he first started, Vince told him his character was supposed to be a pit bull who will fight for everything, which is sort of a perfect starting point for his evolution into the new “by any means necessary” approach he’s started to take.
While the past five months have been very productive for Styles, it’s possible the coming brand split will lead to an even brighter future. As prominently as he’s been featured, WWE has had an influx of top level talent returning from injuries. Instead of competing with everyone for a top spot, the roster is being split in half. With the way he’s been used you have to think that AJ will be a very high draft pick for whatever brand he’s going to. Once he’s there he will arguably be that brand’s top heel and may get his first World Title in WWE.
Styles’ prominent matches are definitely a huge sign of his success, but I also think his appearance on the Stone Cold Podcast was huge for him. These shows are special attractions. There’s only been 11 episodes over 18 months and AJ Styles was deemed important enough to warrant a spot. In addition to being tapped for the interview, Styles performed incredibly well and got to introduce himself as a person to the WWE audience which can only help fans invest even more in him.
AJ came across as incredibly appreciative for the situation he’s in. He shows a lot of humility in where his skill level was at certain key points in his career but also exudes the confidence that he is among the best in the business today. One of the most impressive things he said was that he tries to be original or put his own spin on everything he does. While some talents are satisfied to just imitate stars of the past, he says whenever another guy does a move he wants people thinking of AJ Styles. As great as he’s been he promises he has a lot still in the bag that he hasn’t shown yet, which can only mean he’s still ascending.
Styles lost at WrestleMania 32 in Dallas to Chris Jericho. He also lost his next two PPV matches to Roman Reigns, giving him a three-match losing streak. While it was understandable for some fans to reach the conclusion that he was being buried, each match made him a more viable star in WWE. Sometimes we are too impatient to watch a story play out in front of us. I kept waiting for AJ to take a backseat back in February and March and heading toward SummerSlam his name is still toward the top of the marquee. Despite a few disappointing match finishes, Styles has been handled wonderfully through the first five months in WWE and heading into the brand split it looks like AJ will make whichever show he’s drafted to Phenomenal.