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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

Kurt Angle to be inducted into WWE Hall of Fame

ORANGE, CA - MAY 08:  Wrestler Kurt Angle arrives at the Lions Gate Premiere of "See No Evil" at the Century Stadium Promenade 25 on May 8, 2006 in Orange, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
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Oh it’s true, it’s true.

WWE announced today that Kurt Angle will be going into their Hall of Fame on March 31st at the Amway Center in Orlando as part of WrestleMania week.

The 1996 Olympic gold medalist is a five-time WWE world champion and regarded as one of the best in-ring talents to ever grace the squared circle. Angle last appeared in a WWE ring way back in August of 2006.

In a press release, WWE’s Executive Vice President Paul “HHH” Levesque said, “Kurt Angle’s accomplishments both in the Olympics and WWE were extraordinary. He was one of the most gifted athletes to ever enter the ring, and we are honored to welcome him into the WWE Hall of Fame.”

WrestleMania 33 will be held Sunday, April 2nd from the Orlando Citrus Bowl live on WWE Network.

WWE Weekly Recap: 2017 Royal Rumble Odds

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For the first time in many years, the favorite to win the Royal Rumble isn’t obvious. In fact, this feels like one of the more unpredictable Rumble matches in WWE history.

Five guys who would be considered a favorite to win the match (Seth Rollins, The Undertaker, Braun Strowman, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar) are rumored to have their WrestleMania programs locked in and none are scheduled to be for either of the company’s main championships.

Instead of being a device that’s used to give an established star a main event spot at Mania, the Rumble might actually be used as a launching pad for a future world champion.

trampoline

With that in mind, here’s how I would rank the field:

Baron Corbin 6/1 (+600)

The odds may surprise you, but Corbin has been booked very strong ever since his better-than-expected chairs match with Kalisto at the TLC Pay-Per-View. He was given a lot of offense in the triple threat match for the WWE title on the “Wild Card Finals” episode of SmackDown and “controlled” 80 percent of his match against John Cena this past Tuesday.

Corbin is ascending into the world title picture and it’s totally logical to picture “The Lone Wolf” ending the first PPV of WrestleMania season by pointing at the giant WM sign.

With Goldberg-Lesnar, Undertaker-Strowman, and HHH-Rollins penciled in for Mania, Corbin vs. Styles, Cena or both, is a perfectly fine match (with entrances) to fill 20-25 minutes of the show. Corbin has shown enough in the ring lately for me to buy that he’s ready for a high level match.

Finn Balor 8/1 (+800)

If either Owens or Reigns walk out of the Universal Championship match in San Antonio with the red strap, Balor has a built-in story with either guy.

Balor beat Reigns clean in the middle of the ring during his first night on Raw and after the match Roman said he would love another crack at Balor.

Owens was handed the championship by Triple H, but HHH also has a connection with Balor that could easily be worked up with one or two backstage interactions if creative wanted to go that route.

If not, Balor and Owens could hearken back to their feud in NXT, which produced a set of extremely good matches in the Summer of 2015. Their NXT title match at “Beast in the East” was one of my favorites that year and 30 percent of that was thanks to the streamers that were thrown at the end of Balor’s entrance.

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No matter who Balor works with, he’s going to put on a great performance and if WWE wants to have a NJPW style match at Mania, the Demon King would be the perfect person to insert into it.

Samoa Joe or Shinsuke Nakamura 9/1 (+900)

A debuting superstar has never won the Royal Rumble, but if there was ever a time to do it, this is it.

Joe is the more likely option out of the two, considering that he just dropped the NXT title to Nakamura and failed to beat him in the rematch, but if Nakamura loses the title to Bobby Roode at Takeover: San Antonio (unlikely, but you never know), he instantly becomes a favorite.

If either guy won, it would make sense for them to face Styles for the world title at the company’s biggest show of the year. Joe is one of Styles’ best friends in the business. They’ve made magic in the ring together and understand how to put on a clinic in front of a massive crowd.

Nakamura wrestled Styles in the second to last match at Wrestle Kingdom 10, which is New Japan Pro Wrestling’s version of WrestleMania. It was predictably awesome and if you haven’t seen it yet, set aside a half hour and watch it:

Chris Jericho 10/1 (+1000)

As much as I want to see Team Chris and Kevin face off for the Universal title in Orlando. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. If Owens does somehow hold onto the title at the Alamodome, Jericho would instantly become one of the three favorites to win the Rumble.

Owens and Jericho are the hottest act on the company’s flagship show. Roman Reigns may get a bigger reaction in some cities, but he’s still not ready to be a main event promo, which is exactly what Y2KO have been since September, which is why I’m still holding out hope that this match will be for the title.

If Chris and Kevin are going to feud with each other, someone is going to have to turn and it makes sense for K.O. to beat the crap out of Y2J.

Imagine the verbal jabs between a heel Owens and a sympathetic babyface version Jericho who keeps the same character tone, but plays into the cheers.

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Now imagine Reigns cutting a 5-10 minute promo about defending the title.

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Randy Orton/Bray Wyatt 12/1 (+1200)

It’s easy to see a scenario in which Orton and Wyatt square off at Mania, but what if creative actually has long-term plans for the group?

If Wyatt or Orton were to win the Rumble and wrestle for the world title at WrestleMania, it could set up a title program between the two for the May-July period.

The Miz 14/1 (+1400)

Even though he’s currently in a feud with Dean Ambrose for the Intercontinental Title, Miz has been one of the best acts on SmackDown since the draft and deserves a main event run.

He and AJ teased a feud during a Miz TV segment a few weeks back, but I think the pair should be saved for a SmackDown exclusive PPV later on in the year.

Miz will eventually climb up the card, but sadly, he’s going to be left out of a high profile match at WrestleMania.

John Cena, Roman Reigns, AJ Styles, Kevin Owens 17/1 (+1700)

I’m expecting the losers of both title matches to enter the Rumble later on in the night. If I had to rank the four in terms of most likely winners I’d go: Styles, Cena, Reigns, Owens. It would be an interesting swerve to the Cena-Styles storyline if Cena won the title from AJ earlier in the night and then Styles responded by winning the rumble.

Owens is likely locked for a Mania match with Jericho and it would be a major letdown if Reigns won the most unpredictable Rumble in years.

Sami Zayn 25/1 (+2500)

If the Owens-Zayn storyline had any heat left, Zayn would be a logical choice. It would be a genuinely shocking moment and Zayn could use a boost after doing the job for Strowman.

With Owens likely taking on Jericho at Mania and Zayn’s current placement on the card, I don’t expect the taxi driver to make any real impact in the Rumble.

Rusev 25/1 (+2500)

The Bulgarian George Clooney deserves a featured spot in WrestleMania season because he’s one of the most entertaining full-time performers on the roster, but there are only so many spots to go around.

rusev

Big Cass 25/1 (+2500)

I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Big Cass ends up as one of the “Final Four” participants in the Rumble match. Either that or he’s going to have a spot midway through where he runs through a couple dudes before going out quickly.

Any member of The New Day 28/1 (+2800)

Big E is the only legitimate option here. This would be an ideal moment to begin the inevitable breakup between the three, but it needs to be a slow burn.

Dean Ambrose 40/1 (+4000)

He’s headed for another multi-man match for the IC title at WrestleMania.

Seth Rollins 50/1 (+5000)

Rollins is obviously penciled in to face Triple H in Orlando, so there’s no need for him to be near the title picture until after Mania.

Braun Strowman 50/1 (+5000)

He’s most likely facing The Undertaker. While it may seem like Strowman isn’t ready for the level of a match, if the company is serious about pushing him, he needs to be in this spot.

The split rosters have created a need for new stars, which means a clean win for Strowman over the Undertaker could be in the cards.

The Undertaker 50/1 (+5000)

As noted above, Taker most likely has a date with Adam from Tinder at Mania.

Yes, I know I used that line last week, but why not bring it back for round two?

Goldberg and Brock Lesnar 50/1 (+5000)

I’d love to see Brock and Goldberg “draw” the first two numbers and beat the hell out of guys until Braun Strowman eventually comes out.

Kane 70/1 (+7000)

Kane has shockingly been protected since the draft, so don’t be surprised if he has a strong showing in the Rumble. Who knows, maybe he makes it all of the way to the “Final Four.”

Shelton Benjamin 75/1 (+7500)

Benjamin was scheduled to return to the SmackDown brand after the draft, but needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. He had a six-month recovery time frame and the Rumble falls perfectly in line with his rehab, so don’t be surprised if “ain’t no stoppin me now” blares over the speakers in San Antonio.

American Alpha 75/1 (+7500)

Enjoy the SmackDown tag team titles. Jordan has a chance to win this in a few years.

Apollo Crews 100/1 (+10000)

He should still be in NXT.

Any cruiserweight 100/1 (+10000)

Nope.

Dolph Ziggler 100/1 (+10000)

The guy’s gimmick is that he loses, so there’s no way he’s going to win.

James Ellsworth 1000/1 (+100000)

Any man with two fists has a chance to be eliminated.

Holy Schnikes moment of the week:

Take it away Becky Lynch.

If you don’t know what see you next Tuesday means, Google it.

Time to “Go Home”

– Stephanie was harder to listen to than Otunga this week. Was it necessary for her to talk down to Sasha and Bayley like that? As a fan, how am I supposed to cheer either of the babyfaces if they don’t have a snarky retort ready to counter Steph’s heelish lines.

– So Nia Jax pins Bayley essentially clean in the middle of the ring just two weeks before Bayley faces Charlotte for the women’s title. Makes sense.

– Has anyone else noticed that Karl Anderson’s pants say #BC on them? I find it a bit strange that no one backstage has said anything to him about this.

– Everything about Neville’s heel turn is great, including the variety of moves he’s displaying in the ring. This week he worked a mat wrestling/submission style that resulted in him using the Rings of Saturn to get the victory over Lince Dorado.

– I like the fire Rich Swann showed when he attacked Neville after the match.

– I thought Natalya and Nikki Bella had an excellent brawl on SmackDown. Nattie caught Nikki with a kick right to the face.

So Seth Rollins is supposedly getting new music after all. Once I heard this version by Downstrait, I got bummed out every time I heard Rollins’ actual music:

– Please WWE, no more Big Cass vs. Jinder Mahal matches.

– I like that Ziggler’s heel turn accelerated this week. The worst thing for his character would have been to come out this week and apologize for his actions. Instead, he beat the crap out of Kalisto after their match and then waffled Apollo Crews with a chair when AC came out to help his “friend” Kalisto.

– This was American Alpha’s best showing since their call-up to the main roster. Gable used his hot tag effectively and Jordan had a very nice amateur wrestling sequence with Bray to begin the match.

– I LOVED Cena’s backstage promo this week. It felt a bit like a Doctor of Thuganomics promo, just all grown up.

The Twitter Machine: @ScottDargis