WWE

AJ Styles’ phenomenal road

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For the last 18 years, AJ Styles’ moniker has been “The Phenomenal One,” but at this point, it’s no longer a nickname.

Styles has had top shelf success in every company he’s worked for. He’s a three-time National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight champion, a two-time Total Nonstop Action (TNA) World Heavyweight champion, and a two-time International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) Heavyweight champion.

But working for World Wrestling Entertainment is a completely different animal. Styles’ past success didn’t mean that he was going to get special treatment. That’s not how WWE works. He was going to have to reintroduce himself to a new audience of fans and hopefully work his way up the card.

No one could have predicted just how phenomenal 2016 would be for AJ.

Back in April, Styles was locked in a program with Chris Jericho. Their feud culminated in a match that went on second at WrestleMania 32.

Since that match, he’s rocketed up the totem pole. He’s currently walking around with the WWE World Heavyweight championship and will lead Team SmackDown Live into battle when they face Team Raw this Sunday at Survivor Series (LIVE at 7 p.m. ET on the WWE Network).

“I don’t think anybody could fathom, nor did I, that I would be the world champion in nine months of coming to the WWE,” Styles told NBC Sports. “That’s huge and it’s a great opportunity for me and it’s a blessing all in the same.”

“I think it really took more than a week to set in, like wow, I’m the WWE world champion.”

When rumors began to swirl that Styles was going to leave New Japan Pro Wrestling and finally sign with WWE, many wondered if AJ would get lost in the land of giants and extended promos that run the biggest wrestling promotion in the world.

But what many, including myself, underestimated was Styles’ ability to apply all of the lessons he’s learned from working around the world for almost two decades.

“I think [traveling around the world] gave me the opportunity to listen to the fans, listen to the crowd and see what they want and to see what works and what doesn’t work,” Styles said.

“It gave me the opportunity to wrestle a lot of different guys, which is a good thing. You want to be able to adapt to anyone you get in the ring with. Whether it be lucha style or strong style or whatever, you want to be able to adapt.”

But what about transitioning to the WWE style?

“It’s been easy,” Styles said.

Oh?

“Every guy that I’ve worked here in the WWE has been great. I think they understand that it’s not about them, it’s not about me, it’s about the match and about making sure that people enjoy what they’re seeing because if we work together and put on a good product, we’ll keep those fans.”

Styles has made his way through a gauntlet of WWE’s top stars and has been able to put on a great match with all of them; from Jericho, to Roman Reigns, to Dean Ambrose, to the face of the company for the last 11 years, John Cena.

Back on May 30th, Cena returned to the ring after a five month hiatus in order to recover from shoulder surgery. In his return promo, Cena mentioned the “new era” of talent and said “the future damn sure must go through me.”

After Cena tossed the microphone, Styles’ music hit and the crowd immediately became giddy with anticipation. They couldn’t control themselves as the two icons stood face-to-face in the ring for the first time.

“Let’s go Cena!”

“AJ Styles!”

For minutes, the fans showered both men with praise that is rare in this day-and-age of professional wrestling.

This was a historic moment for wrestling fans after all. Cena has been Mr. WWE since his rise in 2005, but while Cena was becoming the face that runs the place, Styles was Mr. TNA. (Total Nonstop Action wrestling was the second biggest promotion in the U.S. at the time.) He was leading the charge for a new generation of professional wrestlers.

Styles made it clear that he wanted to “welcome” Cena back to WWE and offered his hand for a friendly shake. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, two men who also left NJPW to come to the WWE, “interrupted” the moment.

Gallows and Anderson had been connected to Styles in storyline for weeks due to their association together as members of the Bullet Club in Japan, but Styles wanted the group known as the “The Club” to go their separate ways after they “cost” him the title at Extreme Rules.

In a shocking swerve, Styles attacked Cena and reunited with Gallows and Anderson, thus turning heel for the first time in his WWE tenure. In the coming weeks, WWE fans saw a different side of him. Styles was cocky, arrogant, and brash.

But most importantly, he was entertaining. It’s incredibly hard to be a clean, smiling babyface in 2016. Unless you hug everybody, the crowd is going to see through the performance and not take it seriously.

During the first four months of his WWE run, the crowd was connecting with Styles in the ring, which isn’t a surprise because from bell-to-bell he’s one of the best in the world, but they weren’t gravitating towards his character when he spoke on the microphone. He was coming off as a generic babyface that lacked substance.

The version of Styles’ that we got after his heel turn was a complete 180. He was confident on the microphone, so much so that the crowd began to cheer for him when he went on extended rants about beating up Cena.

It seemed obvious that Styles felt more comfortable as a heel and when asked if this was indeed the case, he was quick to answer.

“Absolutely,” Styles said. “Regardless of whether John Cena gets booed, or whatever it is, he’s still the ultimate babyface. He’s still a huge piece in this giant puzzle that is the WWE. So for me to be the heel against John Cena was perfect for AJ Styles.”

“It was perfect for what I needed to do,” Styles continued. “It was easier because I think everyone that’s been a great babyface, aside from John Cena, has been a heel at one point. I think being a better heel, a better bad guy, makes you a better babyface in the long run.”

During his current run as a heel, Styles has been so entertaining that the crowd isn’t booing him. They’re still chanting his name despite his dastardly tactics to win matches.

However, this isn’t a new development. A wrestling crowd in 2016 is going to cheer and boo at will because their responses are not dictated by current storylines.

“I think that when the crowd realizes that something is entertaining, they can’t help themselves,” Styles said. “They know what this is. This is the entertainment [industry] and when they seek entertainment, they have to cheer for it, despite this guy being a total jerk, you know? In a movie, you’re into it while it’s going on, but after the movie you go, ‘wow, that guy was great’ and it may have been the bad guy.”

Part of Styles’ charm that made him such a “cool” bad guy was his ability to bounce off of Anderson and Gallows during promos. The three had been connected since Styles made the leap to NJPW in 2014 and became the leader of the Bullet Club. Anderson was a founding member of the group and Gallows joined shortly after as Anderson’s tag team partner.

The three outsiders from NJPW were gelling as a group on television when the 2016 WWE Draft rolled around in July. After Styles was drafted to SmackDown Live, it seemed like only a matter of time until Gallows and Anderson’s name would be called by Daniel Bryan or Shane McMahon.

Then a swerve that was even more surprising than Styles’ heel turn took place:

“I was … ah … I was shocked,” Styles said when asked about the moment in the clip above. “Um, I knew that we were coming out with Club shirts and stuff like that, so I just assumed that we were going to be together.”

“We’re more than friends. Those guys are more like my family. I spent two years with them in Japan and we came together to the WWE, so it was a big shocker that we got broke up. You know, it’s just ah … really hard to explain, you know? These are the guys I ride with when we’re on the road. So, for the first time in I guess two years, we’re not on the same shows anymore. In fact, I don’t see them at all. Honestly, I literally just got done talking to them on the phone, that’s how close we still are.”

Even though the time away from each other has been very difficult, Styles acknowledges that it’s been a learning experience for all three members of “The Club.”

“It was something that happened that we’ve grown from. I mean they’re doing great on Raw. I’m doing great on SmackDown,” Styles beamed. “Now we look forward to those four Pay-Per-Views a year that we get to hang out and act like goofballs together.”

Acting like a goofball with Gallows and Anderson is exactly what got Styles’ heel run over with the crowd, “That’s what we do on a daily basis when I’m around them, you know? We’re having fun and when you have fun, people see that and that’s entertainment.”

Perhaps we’ll see some of their antics at Survivor Series because all three members of “The Club” will be in the same building for the first time since SummerSlam.

But what happens when the cameras turn off and Styles no longer needs to be entertaining to fulfill his duties as a husband and a father of four? For 17 years, Styles didn’t have a WWE spotlight following him wherever he went. After his work day or night ended he could go out with his family and relax. Now, that isn’t as easy as it used to be.

“When you’re working for a machine like the WWE, everything changes. It makes it hard to go to things that you used to enjoy,” Styles said. “You know there are going to be tons of kids there and you might want to avoid it because you’re going to be hounded, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m glad I have those fans, but sometimes when I’m home I just want to be able to chill out.”

Chilling out isn’t exactly something that’s easy to do when you’re a full-time performer in the WWE. Styles will be on the road for close to 300 days this year, but the increased amount of time away from his family hasn’t been difficult for him to deal with.

“It’s not a very hard schedule for me to adapt to. I mean this is the life that I’ve known for the past 17, going on 18 years. My wife and I, we get it now. This is what we do and it’s not hard at all,” Styles said. “My wife and I know that this is temporary because this isn’t going to last forever. Let’s enjoy it while we can and reap the benefits of hard work.”

Follow me on Twitter @ScottDargis

WWE: Let’s analyze that odd LaVar Ball segment from Raw

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We finally got to see what LaVar Ball’s gigantic personality would look and sound like in a professional wrestling ring and it was … something. The phrase train wreck comes to mind, but I’m not sure that accurately describes what took place at the Staples Center.

You see, professional wrestling isn’t easy. Whether it’s with worked punches or words, you have to be able to bounce off of the other person you’re in the ring with and that’s something Ball proved he could not do despite being in the ring with one of WWE’s best talkers.

Here’s the full segment:

Now there’s a lot to unpack here, but I’m going to do my best.

Let’s start with LaVar’s entrance. He’s being accompanied by his youngest son LaMelo, who will play a much bigger role later on, but for now, let’s just focus on how LaVar “runs” to the ring.

LaVar is immediately booed by a majority of the crowd, but as soon as he mentions the Lakers and Lonzo Ball, the crowd roars with approval.

Lonzo gets his own entrance, as he should, but for some reason he’s rocking a sock-sandle combo that doesn’t translate well to WWE programming.

The Miz is a true pro and proved it after he gave Lonzo the opportunity to speak to the Staples Center crowd for the first time. Ball’s eldest son is a very quiet person, so he was understandably brief, but Miz wasn’t going to let this moment pass. He hyped up Lonzo and the crowd did respond positively.

After the Miz declared that he and LaVar should be business partners (I want a triple Bs and M shirt), the segment began to crumble. When LaVar told Miz that he wasn’t on the same level as himself, the Staples Center immediately began to cheer The Miz as a babyface who fired up and asked LaVar and Lonzo how many championships they’ve won.

After Lonzo said three, Miz delivered the line of the segment:

“Did UCLA win this year?”

Here are LaVar’s next set of lines:

“Now we know what The Miz stands for! Misinterpreted Zone” (Which doesn’t make sense it’s only two words.)

“Or it stands for A Million Zippers!” (That’s even worse!)

When Miz refers to LaVar’s comments about how he would beat Michael Jordan one-on-one, the crowd has had enough of Ball. He got booed louder than Roman Reigns, which is an achievement.

Ball’s retort: “Like I said before, there’s only two dudes better than me and I’m both of them!”

Miz then refers to himself as the Michael Jordan of WWE (……) and then LaVar tells LaMelo to “handle his lightweight.”

Miz responds with another great line: “Oh what you’re going to unleash all of the balls on me?”

When Miz tells LaVar he wants him to backup his mouth, Ball responds with his signature catchphrase “stay in yo lane,” which is just mind-numbing if you know where the phrase originated.

(Yes LaMelo wore a “Stay in yo lane” shirt that LaVar’s brand is selling.)

When the Miz gets “serious” and says “or what LaVar,” Ball responds “or the hunt is on and you’re the prey.” But instead of delivering it in a serious tone, Ball has a huge grin on his face and is about to start cracking up.

I can’t even describe what happened next:

Then Dean Ambrose’s music hits and then the segment somehow managed to get even weirder.

As Ambrose walked out onto the stage, LaMelo suddenly realized he had a live microphone with the opportunity to say whatever he wanted and this happened (NSFW, NSFW):

I would pay 10 dollars to see what Vince McMahon’s reaction was backstage. If you know anything about how strict Vince is with segments, you know that he had to be absolutely fuming and what happened next probably made him break something.

After Ambrose stops smiling because he heard what LaMelo said and begins his promo, Ball CUTS HIM OFF. But what LaVar didn’t realize was, he actually stopped Ambrose right as he was about to talk up Big Baller Brand for giving him a free shirt.

However, because Ambrose does this for a living he was able to get through his promo and the segment quickly ended after that.

We’ve seen LaVar Ball cut promo after promo leading up to and during the 2017 NBA Draft, but when he was placed in world of pro wrestling, we found out that he was out of his league.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE: One-on-One with Daniel Bryan

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Before Daniel Bryan makes his return to SmackDown Live this Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on USA, I had the chance to chat with him about #DadLife, why WWE needs to change how they’re presenting their stars, the independent guys who have the best chance of making it and the one guy he’d love to wrestle in New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Hey Daniel, so everyone who I told about this interview wanted me to wish you a happy Father’s Day …

“Oh, well thank you!”

… So let’s start there. Is there one word that you can use to describe how yesterday felt?

“Gosh … I suppose just blessed? I feel like I live a very blessed life right now.”

Has there been anything in the month since your daughter has been born that has caught you off guard, or have you been pretty much prepared for everything that’s come?

“I mean I don’t think you can ever be fully prepared for parenthood when your first child comes. I mean, maybe some people can. I had never changed a diaper before our baby was born [laughs]. I’m really learning on the job you know?

I thought I was the world’s most patient man. Brie sometimes gets frustrated with my patience [laughs], but what I’ve realized through having a child is, man I really need to work on my patience. I’d be changing a diaper and I have a real aversion to poop and pee, so I’m slow in doing just about everything. I take it off, I clean her and I’m like OK I’m doing really good. Then she pees and I’m like oh no, now I have to clean her again. Then she starts pooping again and now I have poop all over me. So now I start to get frustrated [laughs].

You have to constantly work on yourself and understand the things that you need to get better at.”

And this is the stage where all they do is poop or pee, just wait until she starts moving around.

“[Laughs] It was really hard for me because every time I would hold her or interact with her, in the first few weeks especially, she was crying. She was either sleeping, which was awesome because I would be holding her and she looked so peaceful and happy, but when she was awake, she looks at me and the only thing she wants from me is to change her diaper, but when I’m changing her diaper, she’s very unhappy. When I’m changing her clothes, she’s very unhappy and the only time she stops being unhappy is when I hand her to Brie and Brie starts feeding her [laughs]. When do I get to do the stuff that makes her happy!?”

Switching gears a bit, now that you’ve been in the role of SmackDown GM for almost a year, how would you assess your performance on-screen?

“Um … I don’t know. I would say a solid B-plus [laughs]. I always feel like there’s things that I can do better. I always strive to be the best that I can in any given role that I’m given. I always think that I can do better on things like Talking Smack and when I’m doing interviews and that sort of thing. How do we best make our fans excited for SmackDown Live? What is the best things that we can do to help the fans relate to the superstars?

We’ve had our hits and our misses, but I’d like to think over the last year that we’ve had more hits than misses.”

It seems like it didn’t take you long to get comfortable in the role. Was it easy to pick it up and run with it?

“Yeah … it’s just a natural extension of wrestling in the WWE. If you would have had me do this when I started with WWE seven years ago, I would have been horrible at it. But during my time with WWE I got more and more talking experience and now all I do is talk, so I’ve been able to get more comfortable with it.”

Scale of 1-10, how much fun is it to let loose on Talking Smack?

“I don’t really view it in a scale of 1-10. Sometimes when I’m talking about things that I know I shouldn’t be talking about [laughs] it raises those parts in your brain that excites you and makes you happy. For example, when I refer to James Ellsworth as “The Big Hog” I don’t think anyone really appreciates that other than me and some of the viewers. It makes me chuckle.

I consider a 10 as the happiest or the most fun that I have. A 10 would be doing something really fun with my wife and daughter. Just yesterday we went to a place to eat and Birdie was cooing and smiling and Brie and I were having a great time. That’s just the best. Talking Smack on its best day can get to like a six or a seven. Once you have this idea of where your true happiness lies, it changes your perspective.”

So as I got ready for this year’s Money in the Bank I went back and watched some of the older shows and the level of talent that is on the entire roster now in comparison to five to seven years ago is pretty astounding, but I feel like the product as a whole in its current state is very stale. What tweaks do you think need to be made in order to give the WWE a spark of excitement?

“I think a change of presentation is absolutely necessary. I think the way that we present our superstars probably needs to change. Years ago, [WWE] went through with this idea of having as much live stuff as possible on the shows, but I think when you watch say UFC for example, some of the things that are the most endearing, that make you care the most about the fighters are these backstage vignettes that show their real personality. You’ll see great fights that people will cheer maybe because they’re great fights, but the fights that have the most impact are the ones with fighters who people actually care about.

I think one of the things that really endeared me to people was that people got to view more aspects of my personality than most because of the different things that I did within WWE. Seeing performers frustrated and being able to show that on TV and being able to show their experiences, their reactions to what’s happening to them on the show and doing backstage vignettes. There was a great one on NXT about Roderick Strong recently about being a new dad and all of that kind of stuff.

Since I’ve been gone, they’ve been doing some really fun stuff with the Fashion Police. Not that there needs to be more of that exact kind of stuff, but it helps people get to know their personalities.

I think one of our failings on SmackDown Live was American Alpha. They’re great and on NXT they did all of these fun little interview segments with the two of them that got to show the people behind American Alpha. (They saw) who Chad Gable is, who Jason Jordan is. I’d like to do more of that kind of stuff.

In combat sports, personalities are what draw. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao was one of the worst boxing matches I’ve ever seen, but millions of people watched it because of the personalities involved.

I think changing that dynamic and highlighting the personalities is something we really need to do. Now, I don’t know how we do it. I think if anybody has a magic answer of what the best way is to present personalities in this modern day of television, they’d make millions of dollars, so I may not have the answer.”

Time for the speed round

Best WWE match you’ve seen this year?

“Oh gosh that’s hard … so I was watching the NXT Takeover from Chicago and I really loved the Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne match. That’s my style of wrestling. Pete Dunne working over the wrists and manipulating finger joints is kind of attention to detail I really enjoy.

It’s hard because we get so many matches all of the time that are awesome. I really liked the AJ Styles-John Cena match from the Royal Rumble. Watching AJ Styles on a weekly basis is a constant pleasure.”

Best non-WWE match you’ve seen this year?

“There was a Minoru Suzuki-Kazuchika Okada match from New Japan (Pro Wrestling) that was my style of wrestling. Forty minutes, lots of submission stuff, it was really cool. I think a lot of modern fans in the United States would have a hard time with it, especially if you’re used to WWE style, but I really enjoyed it.

Even though the matches are totally different I would put it right there in terms of match quality with Will Ospreay-KUSHIDA match from the Best of the Super Juniors final.

“So that was really good. I really enjoy KUSHIDA’s work. He’s one of the guys that I would love to have a chance to wrestle because he does so many awesome technical things.”

Who is the one “indie” guy who has the best chance of becoming a star in WWE?

“It’s hard to define any of these guys as ‘indie’ guys anymore because they all have contracts [laughs].

I have really enjoyed watching Matt Riddle. I think he has a ton of personality and a ton of charisma and he’s got that look that WWE really likes and the has history in UFC. I think if he were to get an opportunity in WWE, he would do really well.

I also think Kenny Omega if he were given an opportunity would absolutely kill it.”

Coolest move you’ve ever seen?

“So I define cool as different than most people [laughs]. My favorite thing in wrestling that I’ve tried to do a million times and can’t do it, is when Jerry Lawler punches somebody in the face. It’s the best! He does it better than just about anybody. He punches dudes right in the nose and I don’t know how he does it without breaking them. It’s magic!

How you view wrestling evolves as you become a bigger fan. When I was in high school, I saw Juventud Guerrera do a 450 splash and I was like that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen! And then now it’s like watching Jerry Lawler punching someone in the face is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Is there one bump* you wish you could take off of your bump card? 

“There’s not a specific one. I feel like there wasn’t one big bump that caused any of my major problems. My neck problems came from years of wrestling a very hard style and my concussion stuff came from, hey I have a lot of concussions [laughs].

I think the one … actually I will say one. OK, in 2000 I did this ladder match and at this point I’d been wrestling for about six months. There was a 12-foot ladder and I jumped off of the top of the ladder that was in the ring and did a flip dive onto a guy that was on the floor, but I didn’t realize that I needed someone to hold the ladder, so the guy tried to catch me, but I just fell shoulder first onto my right shoulder and I’ve had right shoulder problems off and on since then. I also got a concussion in that match as well, so that match might have been the start of shoulder problems, which would then lead to other issues. If I could take that one away I would.

I honestly did a lot of stuff because for my size you have to do different stuff to get recognized. It’s different for someone like Randy Orton. When you’re tall and you’re good looking and your dad is a former WWE superstar, it’s a lot easier to get in the door. When you’re five-foot eight, don’t have really any natural charisma and you look like a normal guy who works out at the gym, you have to do some things to get noticed.”

*A bump is when a wrestler takes a move or does a big … dive, during a match.

Twitter: @ScottDargis