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

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque’s quest to change WWE as we know it

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Paul Levesque, aka “Triple H”, has evolved from one of the top performers of his generation, to a prominent role behind the scenes as the Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative for WWE. I had the chance to chat with “HHH” about what he specifically looks for when he’s recruiting new talent, why this past year has been so challenging for NXT and how he presents new talent to Vince McMahon. 

(Don’t miss NXT Takeover: Orlando on Saturday, April 1 at 8 p.m. ET Live on WWE Network)

Me: You’ve had an incredible in-ring career; a 14-time world champion. As I look up and down the WrestleMania 33 card I see so many NXT alums and I wonder, what did you learn from your time as a performer that has helped you as an evaluator of talent?

Paul “HHH” Levesque: “Oh man … everything that I’ve learned since I’ve walked through the door. The funny thing for me is that I’ve been in a unique position during my career. I was fascinated early with the behind the scenes and production aspects of the business.

So, shortly after I came to WWE I was in creative conversations with Vince that led to me to being offered to come to production meetings, which I didn’t have to go to. I would get up early on TV days and go to these production meetings that I didn’t need to be a part of. People thought I was crazy, but I wasn’t trying to do anything more than learn. I wanted to learn what they were looking for.

The vision of what the talent thinks they want and what the office thinks they want are sometimes two different things.

I have the unique perspective of having both sides and that allows me to I think look at talent a different way, but to also to be able to say here’s what you need to be able to do. Here’s the way you need to be able to work at it. Here’s the way you need to perceive cameras and how cameras see you. How you put your character out there and how you put your brand out there.

At the end of the day for us, characters are all about charisma. So that’s the thing you’re looking for the most. I see a lot of unbelievable athletes come through the Performance Center; sometimes they have charisma, sometimes they don’t.

I’ve hired a lot [of people] that have charisma, but aren’t necessarily the greatest athletes we saw that week because you just can’t take your eyes off of them.

For example, there’s a guy that I hired in China that everybody on the team who was over there didn’t put this kid on the list and when we went through the list at the end of the day of who we’re going to offer an opportunity to come and train with the WWE I was like, ‘Where’s this kid?’ and everyone was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’

I was like, ‘No, where is he?’ He was heavy and a Mongolian wrestler, so he’s athletic but he’s heavier and in some ways he’s not anything we would look for, but he worked his butt off. He was always last, but he never quit man. He just went. Some guys would pull up with an injury and they’d go sit out. You could clearly tell that they were just gasping for air and needed to sit for a second. They’d be back ten minutes later.

He gutted through everything and you couldn’t take your eyes off of this guy. He did stuff that was funny, even though he didn’t mean for it to be that way. He was always the center of attention, even when he wasn’t doing anything!

Everyone was against him and I said ‘Is there anybody in this room who didn’t watch this guy the entire day? I’ve heard everyone talk about this guy. Why? He’s the sleeper money in this group.’

So we brought him [to the Performance Center] and there’s not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t send me a clip or a photo of him doing something where there’s 10 or 15 people around him watching. He’s just one of those naturally charismatic people that you can’t put your finger on why.

I look for that more than I look for anything else.

Is he ever going to do a moonsault? Probably not. Is he ever going to be a Shawn Michaels in the ring? I guarantee you he won’t. But, if he loves it, if he works hard and keeps himself straight, he’s probably going to make it and he’s probably going to be good.

That’s the biggest thing to me, the charisma factor.”

You kind of answered my next question, but I’ll ask it anyway. When you’re scouting someone, what do you specifically look for?

“Look, I mean there are other factors as well. I don’t want to make it sound like ‘Oh, look at this guy he has a big personality and forget all of the rest of it.’ Obviously athleticism, the willingness to do this, the desire to work hard, but then there’s leadership qualities that we really look for.

When guys go to a camp, sometimes people watch them and go, ‘You’re just making these people throw-up in garbage can because you’re working them so hard.’ I want to push them to where they’re really outside of their comfort range and then see what they do with it.

It’s really easy to be nice and be the perfect professional when you feel great, but when you’re on the verge of puking in barrel and you’re exhausted and there’s someone barking at you to do more and the guy next to you just fell on you because he’s at the same place you are, do you help pick him up or do you curse at him and go about your own business?

There are differences in how people react to things. I’m looking for leaders. I’m looking for someone that can be a professional. I’m looking for the consummate athlete on all aspects.

It’s not just one thing, but if you ask me the one thing I look for, charisma is king.”

Going back for a second to the guy that you were talking about in China; it seemed as though there was and still is a certain look that a talent needs in order to reach a certain level of success in WWE. Now, obviously there have been exceptions to the rule, but it seems like over the past few years you’ve bucked that trend. How did that transition happen?

“So, I’m a big believer in talent is talent. It comes in all shapes, sizes, looks, feels, everything. I think sometimes there’s been a bad rap of like take this as the thing that’s most successful, so that’s what we’re going to give.

I think that’s happen here in the past. People can say whatever about WWE and look, is there a particular style of athlete [we look for]? Sure, it’s like that in anything.

If you’re shown steak all of the time, it’s no surprise that you’re going to eat steak. So when everybody coming to you with the same look and feel, a certain pattern begins to develop because that’s what being put in front of you and that’s what you have to select from.

My selection process is different. Yes, I understand what Vince likes and what Vince sees in an ideal archetype performer, but I also know him well enough to know that he likes a lot of different archetypes, so I’m not going to give him one; I’m going to give him a little bit of everything.

He’s going to see a Bray Wyatt and go (Vince voice) ‘That’s great!’ He’s going to see a Braun Strowman and go ‘Ah yeah, that’s my wheelhouse right there. I love that.’ He’s going to see Finn Balor and hear the girls going nuts and then see the paint and go ‘Geez look at that, I love that!’ That’s something that I don’t think would have been put in front of him eight years ago.

I sometimes wonder if Bray Wyatt would have been put in front of him 10 years ago. I don’t know that he would of. That doesn’t mean that Vince wouldn’t have loved him back then.

I want there to be so much diversity on every level. I want it to be international diversity. I want there to be something for everybody within WWE so you can gravitate towards characters that you can relate to. That’s still a work in progress.

It’s a work in progress when you look at the Performance Center and you look at the talent there and see that 40 percent of the talent is international now, there’s 17 countries represented. A quarter of the talent there is women. The diversity level is at an all-time high and that’s on purpose. We’ve done that for desired effect.

Is it showing right now on the main roster? Nah, not necessarily because it’s going to take a little bit of time to percolate up, but it’s there.

I want that diversity. When you talk about the women, I want there to be a Sasha Banks; the smaller, run her mouth, cocky, arrogant, little athlete. I want there to be a bigger, dominant athlete like a Charlotte. I want there to be a Nia Jax that brings a whole different danger component. I want there to be a Bayley that is this naïve, fan-friendly, little girl centric character that everybody loves.

Then you still want there to be the Bellas, who are like the Kardashians of the women’s division. You want that variety.

It’s the same with the guys. I want there to be a Cena, I want there to be a Randy Orton. But I also want there to be a Bray Wyatt. I want there to be a Braun Strowman. I want there to be a Finn Balor. I want there to be a Samoa Joe or a Kevin Owens. Big Cass and then a little guy like Enzo that can run his mouth nonstop.

I want that diversity.”

As I looked at the WrestleMania card and noticed all of the former NXT stars, I thought about how much the roster has changed over the last year. There have been so many guys and girls that have gotten the call-up to the main roster, how challenging has it been to deal with such a major transition to NXT?

“So that’s been the most challenging thing for me in the last year. When we had the draft, 16 talents got called up. I started over with the women’s division. Thank God I kept Asuka because she’s been the anchor. My male division was pretty much stripped down. I lost a lot of it.

Behind the scenes, the same thing happened. My executive producer that works with me on the show got called up. I got a new one; he made it two weeks before he got called up.

I lost my edit team that helped me get the feel and the look of the brand because they got called up. I was thrilled for them. They were so good that the office said, ‘Look we’re expanding, we’re going to do 205, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. We need these people.’

I’m very hands on with the writing of NXT and the team that was writing NXT with me got called up. When we split the brands, we needed a different writing team and they got called up.

So I started over with this whole new team and they needed to get their feet on the ground. It was really a brand new start over point for us. That’s challenging, but that’s also to me part of the strength of NXT. It’ll change, but it’ll be fresh and it’ll be different than it was a year ago. I’m not saying it’s always going to be better, but it’ll be different.

I just got a whole new behind the scenes team and it’s taken me since SummerSlam to get them, but I just got them and I’m really excited about it. I feel like for the first time since the draft, NXT is back in business and we’re going to rock and roll.

I’m looking forward to NXT constantly keeping us on our toes and the demand for more and more on the main roster, the demand for more and more shows, whether that is localized content in the UK, or the cruiserweight division or the women’s tournament that we’ll have coming up sometime this year.

All of those things are exciting opportunities and make NXT an exciting opportunity.”

Can you describe what it feels like to see a talent that has had success in NXT, but struggles to find their footing on the main roster?

“It’s hard for me. It’s hard for them. It’s a difficult situation. I say this to talent all of the time, careers are marathons, they are not sprints.

Even though we say it’s a third brand, it really is and you might never make it out of NXT and you’ll do really well in your career, but if you do get the chance to go to Raw or SmackDown, it’s like starting over. You’re starting over with new management and new everything. The job is the same, but you’re starting over and you have to re-earn your stripes. It’s a slightly different product.

It used to be that way in the territory days. You might be over in one territory and take the gamble to go to another territory and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

It can be frustrating for them. They ask a lot of questions and we try to give them as much guidance as we can.

The other thing though that everybody has to remember is that in today’s world if you’re not “The Guy or The Girl” at the very top, the number one draw, you can still be a talent on Raw or SmackDown and working all of the time and be doing very, very well for yourself.

Do you always want more? Yes. Will that come over time? Maybe.

You reinvent yourself, you work hard. You continue to do the things you’re doing.

Back to the career being a marathon and not a sprint; when you’re a few years in, being on Raw or SmackDown and you’ve only been in the business for four years or whatever, it’s not a bad place to be.

If two years down the line you get that ride up to a much higher level, it’s a pretty good run.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE’s Bayley: Facing Stephanie McMahon would be a ‘dream’ match

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Even though Bayley made her main roster debut back in late-August, she’s quickly become one of the biggest fan-favorites on the main roster. Before she defends her Raw Women’s Championship at WrestleMania, Sunday, April 2 at 7pm ET live on WWE Network, I had the chance to chat with Ms. Hug Life about her extra time in NXT, if she asked for any advice from The Rock and her dream opponent. 

Me: While three of the “Four Horsewomen” were called up to the main roster, you stayed down in NXT. Do you think you needed the extra time in developmental?

Bayley: “Yeah, now looking back I definitely did. At the time obviously I was like what about me? I’m ready, let’s go! I wanted to do everything that they did. Now looking back, I think that has been the most important year of my career. I look back and think I wasn’t ready. I was so dependent on them throughout my years in NXT. If something went wrong, I always had them, but the year without them was all on me.

The whole division relied on me, everybody came to me for advice. If something went wrong, it was my fault. I really needed that leadership to build confidence in myself. In the future if I’m the leader for the locker room in WWE, I know that I can handle it. I was able to work with girls that have never been in a wrestling ring with before, girls who were just getting started, and girls who have been doing it forever like Asuka.

It was the most important year and maybe one of the most fun years I’ve had.”

You’ve been on the road with the main roster for seven months now; do you find yourself still adjusting to what life is like on the main roster?

“A little bit … the actual backstage and being in WWE was easy because in NXT the coaches and Triple H had prepared us for what to expect. That’s what the Performance Center is for, from doing promo class, to being in the ring for hours, to watching your matches back.

It’s the traveling and not being able to see my dog every day when I get home (laughs) that’s a little bit harder to deal with. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, but it’s all worth it though.

The brands are split right now; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do two TV [tapings] every week.”

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about winning the Raw Women’s Championship?

“Oh man … just unbelievable. I just didn’t expect all of that to happen so fast.”

Obviously you’re a lifelong fan and I’m sure you envisioned that moment happening, so what went through your mind as you stood there with the title, in the ring, in front of thousands of people?

“I wish my family was there. That was the first thing that I thought about. My mom always says, you have a title match, should I be there? She was at every single NXT title match because she never knew if that was going to be the night. I just knew that she was going to be so mad that she wasn’t there.I knew they were watching.

I was in the Cow Palace when Eddie Guerrero won his first [world] title. I felt like I knew him and was so happy for him. I remember him jumping into the crowd and the crowd being so happy and then I did that and I just had that vision in my mind. It was weird! The crowd just made it more special considering my family wasn’t there. It was just amazing.

Did The Rock give you any advice when you met him?

“He told me that he watches and said you’re the champion so you must be doing something right. I was like, yeah I guess so. I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. He said that he really enjoys watching. I hope he wasn’t just saying that to be nice though.”

Recently you’ve been paired on television with Stephanie McMahon quite a bit and she plays a character that rarely gets one-upped by a babyface. Have you thought about Bayley-Steph in the same way that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had Vince McMahon?

“I’ve thought about that so many times. Even when I was a kid (laughs). When she was having matches with Lita, I was like I want to have matches with Stephanie one day. That’s one of my dream matches to be honest.

If it could continue on, like you said with Austin and Vince, that would be so much fun, but I’m sure it’s a little much to ask for right now.”

Do you find yourself putting extra pressure on your shoulders because you’re the champ going into WrestleMania?

“Yeah totally. I’m probably doing way too much. Leading up to it I’m just stressing myself out. Do I need to get into the gym three times a day and try to still make everyone happy by doing all of these things that I need to do? I don’t even really know how to prepare for Mania, so I’m just doing what I think I need to do and I might be doing too much.

I think once I get to Orlando and I can digest what’s actually happening and appreciate it and know like holy crap dude, you’re here, then I’ll be able to calm down a bit. Right now, I have to be over-prepared.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis