WWE

One-on-one with AJ Styles

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A few weeks back when I had the chance to sit down with AJ Styles, I separated the interview into two different parts. The first half was about his road to the top of WWE, which can be found here. The second half of the interview was a rapid fire sequence of questions about a wide-ranging list of topics. 

Me: What’s the scariest moment you’ve had in the ring?

AJ: “There’s a match called the Ultimate X and I got kicked by Chris Saban where I turned inside out and fell from like 15 feet. I thought, oh my God I’m landing on the back of my head and then I landed perfect. It was then that I decided I would never, ever do something like that again. But that was the moment where I saw my life flash before my eyes because I thought I was either going to be knocked out or something worse was about to happen.”

“A lot of my stuff, super scary stuff, has been done it seems like somewhere else, whether it be a 450 through a table, a springboard 450 through a table on the outside, or the spiral tap. There’s some goofy stuff I’ve tried to do to make sure some stuff is entertaining. And trust me, I’m not done yet. My brain still works like that. I’ve got one gear and whatever happens, happens.”

If you were stuck on an island, what three video games would you bring with you?

“Oh God man that’s so hard. Do I have Internet?”

“I’ll allow it.”

“I think at this point, after playing Battlefield [1], the newest one. I think I’d have that one because it’s so good. The story is one of the best I’ve played. It’s so great!”

“…God… I want to say Uncharted, but which one do I pick? The collection only has one through three. So you know what, I’d do that because you can play it over and over and find all of the little collectables in it.”

“I think we have to go old school because it never really gets old. I think you could go with Mario All-Stars. That’s an old school game. Get my retro fix.”

“Sounds like you’re playing a lot of adventure games.”

“Yeah! A lot of guys like the sandbox stuff, I don’t. I don’t like going here to get that. More like a Metroid style, I don’t like that. The Grand Theft Auto games I like ‘em, but they’re so vulgar that I can’t play them at home. I keep it safe.”

“Orton sent me some stuff about Mafia III. There are Playboy models that you can pick up. He’s like dude check this out and I’m like oh my God that’s crazy. Some of those games are fun, but they’re not kid friendly, you know.”

What do you listen to on the road?

“I’m more of a…I like Christian hip hop. Or old school R&B.”

You’re theme has a gospel hip-hop flow.

“Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. I think they already had the music ready and available. They were just looking for the right guy to give it to.”

You’ve had some awesome themes throughout your career.

“I’ve had some pretty good ones.”

Is that by luck or did you have input along the way?

“There’s been times where there has been horrible music and I’m like listen bro we cannot come out with this. There’s been close calls for sure.”

What match would you like to go back in time and attend live?

“Oh man…I’d like to see Undertaker and Mick Foley in Hell in a Cell. I’d like to go watch that live. It’s the craziest thing right? Like to see that. Mick Foley falling from the top of the cage through a table. Just ridiculous.”

“I’d say another one is Shawn Michaels vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mike Tyson as the enforcer. Just a great freaking dynamic with everything that was going on. The build up to that was so good.”

Where did your logo come from?

“And friend and I sat down at a restaurant and we were just talking, talking, talking just shooting ideas, spitballing. I came up with the P1 and then I went to a buddy of mine that runs a T-shirt making place and uh, he put his brain to work. I kind of told him what I wanted and he came up with it and I bought it from him.”

If you could play a professional sport right now what would it be.

“Football, no doubt.”

What position?

“Uhh…either outside linebacker or running back. I’d go with safety too. This is going to sound cruel and stuff like that, but when I played football I never tackled somebody to tackle them, unless it was in desperation. I wanted to hurt you when I tackled you. I wanted to put a hit on this guy that he just doesn’t want to run back to my side anymore, or he’s going to do whatever he can to avoid me. It’s part of the intimidation process of the whole thing. I think it’s part of football, you know.”

“And then running back, getting the rock man.”

You were the face of the X-Division in its heyday, the cruiserweight division is back, but they’ve struggled to get real momentum. What do they need to do to get the crowd invested in their matches?

“I would say, don’t be in a hurry to be in a hurry. Take your time. Make it mean something, everything means something, you know. Take the time and let it sink in during the matches. Just because you’re a little bit smaller doesn’t mean that everything is faster. It doesn’t mean that at all psychology wise. Psychology plays a big part in what we do.”

Inside baseball question here; It seemed like you were struggling with nailing down the springboard DDT in a WWE ring.

“It’s me not knowing the ropes that well and you get more familiar with them and understanding how to use those ropes.”

“It looks like you have to stand on the rope and then put your weight on it.”

“Right. Usually it was just like boom, go springboard because of the cables. I immediately springboard. With the ropes you have to sit into it and then now go. Which you know I started doing it with Dean again because I figured it out, but you have to put it in the right spot so you just don’t do it willy nilly and make people go ohhhh…he did that move again.”

“I’ve got a lot of offensive moves and that is definitely a benefit [of working around the world]. And again just because you have them, doesn’t mean you use them all in one match. It’s always good to space your moves out and make people say ohhhh…I haven’t seen that in awhile.”

Your 2017 WWE Backlash primer

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In kayfabe, SmackDown is the land of opportunity. This is the show where guys who were floundering on Raw or on the mid-card have the chance to reinvent themselves with fresh personalities.

The idea of SmackDown being the best place for guys to move up the card was on full display during the build to a very, very interesting Backlash Pay-Per-View. Even though none of the feuds heading into the PPV have been built particularly well, it’s the fresh faces that have me intrigued.

Since his thunderous debut entrance, Shinsuke Nakamura has felt like the top babyface on Tuesday nights, but now he has to get in the ring against a veteran who the crowd hasn’t cared about for a long time. If you’ve followed Nakamura’s journey, you know how he can turn it on in big matches and this is a huge match for him. He needs to make a good first impression.

Then there’s the Fashion Police and Jinder Mahal. Two low-card jobber acts that have seen their stock rise since WrestleMania. As crazy as this is about to sound, it’s not unreasonable to think that the PoPo and Mahal could walk out of Chicago with gold around their waste.

Randy Orton (C) vs. Jinder Mahal (WWE Championship)

Whether or not you agree with the decision to give Jinder a world title match after he was positioned as a jobber since last summer, you have to admit that after Mahal shockingly went over in a six-pack challenge match to become the number one contender, he’s been booked extremely well.

The crowd is responding to Mahal as a heel, which as we know, is difficult to do in 2017. Getting over as a traditional heel is rather tough when the crowd wants to cheer for heels and boo the “good guys.” It’s just further proof that a sure fire way to get a heel over in America is to have them insult the country, especially when they’re a foreigner.

Orton on the other hand, has felt like just another guy on the card since winning the title at WrestleMania. When we look back at the end of the year, Randy’s feud with Bray Wyatt might very well be the worst of the year due to their lackluster match at Mania and the horrific House of Horrors match that needs to be locked away forever and never spoken about again.

When I was chatting with Easy Ed about the card this Sunday he made a great point about the current WWE champion.

“Orton never seems to elevate the guy he’s in the ring with,” Ed said.

I thought about the programs he’s had over the last few years and sure enough Ed was right. Orton has good matches and is a fantastic in-ring worker when he’s motivated, but his opponent doesn’t get a boost on the card after his feud with Orton is over. Randy stays in his spot, while the person he was working with usually stays in the same spot, or falls down the card.

Think about Mahal’s match against AJ Styles this week on SmackDown. It was Styles’ job to make Mahal look like he’s a credible threat to Orton’s championship and that’s exactly what AJ did.

With the inclusion of the Singh brothers in Mahal’s gimmick, it’s conceivable that he could walk out of Chicago with the WWE championship. In order for a heel to beat a babyface for a title in WWE, there has to be some sort of interference and that layer is already built into Jinder’s character.

I know I’m going to bite on a near fall after one of the Singh brothers wacks Orton and Jinder hits his finisher, but I think Orton is going to walk into SummerSlam as the champion.

I’m not saying that’s the right decision because I think this is the time to give Mahal the title. He feels fresh and the crowd is taking him serious (YES THIS IS REAL LIFE), but Orton vs. Styles at SummerSlam for the title is much more appealing than Jinder vs. whoever for the title.

Kevin Owens (C) vs. AJ Styles (United States Championship)

SmackDown Pay-Per-Views have started off with WWE title matches before, so I can totally picture the Orton vs. Mahal match going on at the mid-point of the show, or even possibly as the opener.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, Owens vs. Styles should main event in Chicago. They’re the two best in-ring workers in the company and it’s in Chicago, so you know the crowd is going be white hot.

I’ve written about Owens’ “New Face of America” character and why I think it’s a big step in the right direction for him, but he’s not the only one in this match who has had a character change recently.

During Styles’ heel run the crowd couldn’t hold back from cheering for him. He did everything he could to try and get the crowd to boo him, but it rarely worked, besides the time when he refused to put Ambrose through a table. Note to all heels, if you tease a table spot and refuse to give it to the crowd, you’re going to get easy heat.

On the first SmackDown after WrestleMania, Styles shook Shane McMahon’s hand as a sign of respect for their match in Orlando. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but that was in fact the official face turn for Styles. He’s playing to the cheers and has been positioned with babyfaces in six-man tag matches.

Styles is an excellent seller, which is going to be on display this Sunday because the WWE style requires a heel to work over the face for a prolonged period of time. Owens has the offense to make the heat segment of the match appear to be brutal, which will only fire up the “AJ Styles, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” chants in from the crowd.

I’d love for this match to turn into an ROH-NJPW style match, but it’s not in the realm of WWE to do that, so expect a ton of near-falls and big move after big move (a lot of power grapples if you’re familiar with WrestleMania 2000 or No Mercy for the N64).

This has the potential to be the best WWE match of 2017. I expect Owens to retain his title by hook or by crook.

Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Dolph Ziggler

If you skipped the actual build to Backlash and caught the commercials for PPV, you’d think Shinsuke Nakamura was wrestling in the main event for the championship. Every once in a while you’ll catch one featuring Mahal vs. Orton for the title, but Nakamura’s in-ring debut is getting a hard push and rightfully so.

Nakamura is a one of a kind performer. He’s unlike anything the world of professional wrestling has ever seen. If you watched him in NXT, you know that there’s more to him than his exhilarating entrance. He has the ability to put on captivating matches without having to sacrifice his body. He’s a smart worker with vicious looking strikes (Nakamura was a legit MMA fighter at one point in his career).

Has he been booked perfectly since his debut after WrestleMania?

The idea of having him cut promos in the ring with his mouthpiece in was a curious decision. Almost as curious as having him speak Japanese to Ziggler. When someone speaks a foreign language in front of a live crowd, the WHAT chants won’t be far behind.

Still, the fact that his in-ring debut is being saved for PPV and is getting this much attention is a big deal. Nakamura feels like a special attraction, which is something the WWE desperately needs right now. No one on the roster feels special outside of Brock Lesnar.

When Nakamura vs. Ziggler was announced I thought, it’s a perfect opponent for Nakamura’s introduction. Ziggler can make Nakamura look like a million bucks to the people who aren’t familiar with his work. But what I didn’t anticipate was how much Dolph would benefit from the build to this match.

The promo video pushing Ziggler’s accomplishments in the WWE was well done and it made him seem like a credible threat to Nakamura. Obviously working with Nakamura is a major upgrade over feuding with Apollo Crews and Kalisto. Even though it’s likely Dolph eats a Kinshazaaaaaaa and gets pinned on Sunday, at least this feud helped him a bit.

These two have worked with each other in dark matches for a few weeks now, so I’m expecting them to potentially tear the house down.

Charlotte/Naomi/Becky Lynch vs. Tamina/Carmella/Natalya w. James Ellsworth

Kudos to creative for coming up with something different than just another singles match for the women’s title, but I just can’t get excited for this one. I enjoyed the contract signing on Tuesday and thought Ellsworth crushed his promo (outside of one small botch), but this match just feels like filler. I expect Charlotte to turn on her team and cost them the match.

The Usos (C) vs. The Fashion Police

Who would have thought that Tyler effing Breeze and Fandango would be booked better than American Alpha?

The goofy but highly enjoyable Fashion Files segments have clearly done their job as the two got a great reaction when they came out for their match this past Tuesday. They’ve been given an opportunity to get their characters over and have hit a home run. The sudden success of Breeze and Fandango should be a reminder of how good the SmackDown (formerly the NXT) writing team is.

The Usos have also been on fire lately. They’ve clearly found their heel voice with these quick rapping/shouting promos. Every time they cut one, the crowd has no choice but to clap because they’re so damn good.

 

Even though this is as over as officer Breeze and deputy Dango have been on the main roster, I don’t expect them to win the tag titles. There’s no need to kill the Usos run right now when they’re just getting starting to hit their stride, especially with The New Day coming soon.

Sami Zayn vs. Baron Corbin

So is Zayn’s role to work with a big guy who the company has serious plans for in order to help them get better in the ring? If so, that’s exactly why Zayn is in this match with Corbin.

The “Lone Wolf” has a presence and a good look, but his matches always seem to leave me wanting more. Perhaps it’s because the crowd always seems to be dead for them. If Styles couldn’t get the crowd interested in a Corbin match, there might be a problem.

The story here is that no matter how hard Corbin tries, Zayn is not going to stay down, which makes me wonder if it’s going to lead Corbin to do something extreme to “try and put Zayn away for good.” If so, it might be exactly what Corbin needs to get the crowd to care about his programs. Right now, Corbin is just Braun Strowman-lite and there aren’t many people who like a bad light beer.

Because Corbin got pinned clean by Orton on SmackDown, I think he’ll get his win back in a big way.

Luke Harper vs. Erick Rowan

Even though this is totally a throwaway mid-card match, don’t be surprised if Harper and Rowan go out and blast each other with stiff shots. Harper has worked himself into excellent shape, while Rowan is playing a character that could be Mankind’s third cousin.

Harper should get the win here, but I would not be surprised if Rowan went over as a total surprise.

Tye Dillinger vs. Aiden English

Man, Dillinger is already working pre-show matches? That’s something a seven would do.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE: The three positives in a post-WrestleMania world

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had the ability to share my thoughts on WWE’s weekly television product. Despite a 13-hour time difference for two weeks, I watched Raw and SmackDown. I even squeezed in an episode of NXT, thanks jet lag!

Let’s just say, it wasn’t exactly easy to get through the last three episodes of both shows. There were bright spots here and there, but the amount of forgettable segments dwarfed the segments that kept me sports entertained.

It feels like we’re in an elongated holding pattern until the build for SummerSlam begins, which is strange considering we had a “Superstar-Skakeup.” Why did this need to happen so suddenly?

Wouldn’t a mix-up of the rosters work better after the Payback-Backlash PPV cycle?

It’s ridiculous to ask that question because as a viewer of the WWE, I shouldn’t be asking that question. I should be able to trust the people backstage to put on an entertaining product, but if you pay attention to the inner-workings of WWE, you know that big booking decisions get made on the day of the show far too often.

Not only did this Superstar-Shakeup come at a time when it didn’t need to due to an influx of talent that was called up from NXT (less so on Raw because of Dash Wilder’s broken jaw), it happened in the middle of the build for the first brand specific PPVs after WrestleMania. We had two crossover matchups on Payback, which brought Smackdown guys onto a Raw show…

No, B.J. Novak, it doesn’t matter.

You’re just supposed to enjoy your favorite characters’ entrances every week. You’re not supposed to care about what they actually say or do. Wins and losses don’t matter. Almost every promo or backstage segment is rooted in comedy (bookmark: Which can sometimes produce entertaining segment like “The Fashion Files”). Nothing is serious. Nothing matters.

Sorry! I didn’t want to make you cry. Look, there are still plenty of reasons to enjoy the WWE product right now. Here are the three things that I’ve enjoyed post-WrestleMania.

Elevation of Mid-Card titles: Now that Brock Lesnar has joined the list of celebrity departures from The Leftovers and Randy Orton is off working a mid-card feud with Jinder Mahal for the WWE championship, the Intercontinental and United States titles are actually being elevated.

Part of this is due to the sudden emphasis on the titles. Both number one contender matches main evented an episode of Raw and SmackDown and featured full-time main event talent in a pair of triple threat matches.

The other part of this is the Kevin Owens’ Face of America character. The whole “Prizefighter” gimmick never got off the ground on the main roster because outside of his opening feud with Cena. Owens rarely felt like the guy who quickly rose to prominence in NXT as an ass kicker.

Before winning the United States title from Jericho at WrestleMania, Owens has held the Intercontinental championship and the Universal title and in both instances, he wasn’t booked strongly enough to make the titles seem important.

That sounds like a slight on K.O. and it’s not. That’s just a product of the amount of comedy segments he was featured in. In NXT, he was “the guy” and booked appropriately. In kayfabe, Owens was a dangerous, unpredictable dude. For a while on the main roster he’s a full-time guy who is cracking jokes. (Bookmark: For the record, the jokes with Jericho were funny, but that’s not the point here.)

Now it feels like he’s capitalizing on the heel momentum his character gained during the build for his Mania match against Jericho. His beat down of Y2J on this past week’s episode of SmackDown came off really good. It reminded me of moments like this:

This “Face of America” gimmick is going to be perfect for Owens. It’s a different spin on the evil foreigner storyline, which means easy heat, especially when Owens starts speaking fluent French.

K.O. is being positioned as a focal point of SmackDown Live (Bookmark: Out of all of the superstars who changed shows, the #FOA will benefit from the change the most), but the triple threat match to determine the number one contender for featured three prominent names: Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn, and Styles.

The three tore the house down in what was my favorite WWE TV Match of the Year so far. Styles pinned Zayn to become the number one contender for the U.S. title, which in the moment seemed a bit strange considering that Styles, in kayfabe, should be going after Orton’s title, but now that some time has passed, it makes sense.

I can’t imagine Orton vs. Mahal for the title is going to main event Backlash. If it doesn’t, you would have to imagine that Styles vs. Owens for the U.S. title will close the show in Chicago. Deputy Dango and Breezy sure ain’t getting that spot.

Which means the mid-card title will main event a PPV with two of the company’s best workers wrestling for it. Sign me up. I’m curious to see what style of a match they put on. Will it feel more like ROH? Or will it still be a traditional style WWE match?

#FantasyBookingIdea: Owens holds the title for a few months and then John Cena answers K.O.’s open challenge.

Over on Raw, the Intercontinental champion is Dean Ambrose, which you wouldn’t know if you watched Payback this past Sunday. Dude just wasn’t on the show, but he was back on Monday to “call” Kurt Angle in the ring and book a triple threat (sound familiar?) match between Seth Rollins, The Miz, and Finn Balor.

Those three put on the best Raw main event in ages. Now even though the IC title is underneath the U.S. title on the WWE totem pole right now, it’s the most visible title on Raw as long as Lesnar holds the Universal title.

Seriously, if you’re a casual fan who started watching WWE again after WrestleMania, you would have no idea that the Universal title exists, or that Lesnar is the current champion. He’s never mentioned during the bajillion hits the announcers have to do on a weekly basis. It’s absurd.

Due to Lesnar’s absence, Ambrose finds himself in a position to move himself up the card and improve the Intercontinental championship, but we’ve seen Ambrose vs. Miz plenty of times last year and none of their encounters were memorable, but that’s not what’s important here.

Two main event level guys and an upper-mid card guy were positioned in a number one contender’s match for the title. This does appear to be a shift in philosophy around the role of the mid-card titles, which is a WELCOMED change.

Alexa Bliss: Even though last Sunday in Bayley’s hometown of San Jose wasn’t the right time to take the title off of Ms. Hug Life and give it to Bliss, Alexa hasn’t dropped the ball since it was given to her back in the fall.

Out of all of the women on the main roster, I would put her mic skills just slightly behind Charlotte’s. It’s one thing to be a cool heel in 2017 like Bliss is, it’s another to play a heel who actually gets booed, which is exactly what Charlotte achieved before her inexplicable face turn last week.

Bliss overshadowed Bayley in the talking segments they had together leading up to their match at Payback. The crowd just isn’t feeling Bayley right now on a week-to-week basis. Her dialogue has been pretty weak since her call-up (we get it, she’s a lifelong fan) to the main roster, but her delivery has been extremely awkward.

She’s not queuing up the crowd correctly and just seems to not understand the proper beat for her character to speak. I get that she’s supposed to play a fan that has the opportunity to live her dream, but I shouldn’t be cringing during her promos and when she’s in the ring by herself, the cringe meter starts going up in my apartment.

You could really see the difference level between the promos when Alexa and Bayley shared the ring leading up to the PPV. Bliss was able to successfully counter the crowd’s “what” chants that have swallowed up thousands of promos. There’s a reason why a pocket of the live crowd in San Jose cheered for her when she pinned Bayley, who was again, the hometown babyface.

Bliss speaks in a tone that no other woman on the main roster speaks in. Her character knows that she’s better than everyone else and she’s going to tell you about it in a smart way that the hardcore fan appreciates. It’s hard to think of anyone who has had a rise on the main roster quicker than Alexa has. Baron Corbin comes to mind because he never got to the main event level in NXT (Vince and Co. has big plans for him on the main roster) but he’s still in a holding pattern.

There’s nothing holding Alexa Bliss back.

Braun Strowman: The post-Mania episodes of Raw might as well be referred to as the Braun Strowman saga. His feud with Roman Reigns has been the focus of the show for weeks. There was an incredible beatdown angle that featured Strowman “throwing” Reigns off of a loading dock while Roman was tied down on a stretcher, but Braun wasn’t done there. He then “tipped” over the ambulance that Reigns was supposedly in.

He then bullied around the jobbers backstage, which included putting Kalisto in a dumpster, before the Big Show knocked him down and challenged him to a match. In the main event, Strowman suplexed Show and “broke the ring” (it’s the third time WWE has pulled off this stunt and once again the crowd went bananas).

The next week Kalisto “challenged” Strowman to a dumpster match. Even though Strowman “lost” (beyond dumb, but it’s WWE in 2017, wins and losses don’t matter) he pushed a dumpster off of the stage with Kalisto inside. The drop was about three feet, but still it’s been awhile since someone got pushed off of the stage while they were in a dumpster.

Vince knows how to push a big guy and Strowman is the equivalent of a wet dream for McMahon.

He’s a gigantic dude who can move around the ring like he’s 6 feet 1 inch tall. Strowman has greatly improved in the ring to a point where it’s totally conceivable to picture him as a world champion, but will he actually get pushed to that level?

We know how stingy Vince can be about giving someone too much too soon, especially with how successful The Rock, Brock Lesnar, Batista and now John Cena are doing with projects outside of WWE. Strowman isn’t going to fight in the UFC and who knows if he has any sort of acting chops.

Strowman is a professional wrestler and becoming a damn good one with every day that passes. Raw would have been significantly worse after WrestleMania if he wasn’t on the show. He’s earning a title run with every solid match and over-the-top backstage segment that he performs in.

The reason why we should all be worried about Strowman is; there have been instances where a person was given the title well after they earned it (RVD and Jeff Hardy come to mind). I’m not saying Strowman should be given a title reign tomorrow because he’s still a bit green, but with Lesnar vs. Reigns penciled in as the WrestleMania 34 main event according to Dave Meltzer, you begin to wonder what Strowman’s ceiling is.

When Lesnar vs. Strowman does happen, the crowd is going to explode and Vince will know how to clean it up.

Twitter: @ScottDargis

(Bookmark: If you’re wondering where the Hardy’s section is, don’t worry. It’s coming. Let’s see how this rumored legal situation with Anthem works out.)