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.”

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque on the future of NXT and his match with Jinder Mahal

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For the first time ever, USA will air a special one-hour NXT special tonight at 7 p.m. ET and the head honcho of NXT, Paul “Triple H” Levesque, took some time to talk with me about how some of the brand’s biggest stars have upped their game in 2017, the three-to-five year plan for NXT and his match with Jinder Mahal in New Delhi.  

Let’s keep this first one simple, is this the most important night in the history of NXT?

“It’s one of them. I think it’s a pretty cool opportunity when you think about the original concept of what it was. This small developmental thing in Florida that has grown and evolved over the last few years to where NBC Universal, one of the largest television and entertainment companies in the world is willing to give up a primetime slot on a Wednesday night to air an hour of NXT programming. That’s pretty cool to me.

I’m really proud of everything that it has accomplished. No matter how it does, I see it as an opportunity to expose a lot of people to NXT who haven’t seen it yet because as much as people talk about it, or you hear about it on Raw like ‘this person was an NXT champion or this person came from there,’ there’s a lot of people who have never seen it because it just airs on the network. Hopefully this is their chance to sample it.”

How did this special airing of NXT on USA come about? Was this an idea that NBCU came to you about, or was this something that you pitched to them?

“They approached us with it as far as I know, I wasn’t there when it happened. Every year we do ‘WWE week’ on the USA Network and with Raw being on Monday, SmackDown now being live on Tuesdays and now there’s the content that they can fill the rest of the week with. Tribute to the Troops on Thursday is the signature event of the week.

Wednesday was the perfect opportunity for us. They presented it to us this year as an opportunity and I was asked if I would be interested in creating a show for that and I was like absolutely. Is that a trick question?

I’m really excited about the show. Coming out of the last TakeOver that we did, there’s a new champion, but there was also an injury to Drew McIntyre and it forced us to reboot a little bit and come up with a new number one contender, but it allowed us to put on an excellent show for USA, which includes the NXT champion Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas against Fabian Aichner, who some fans saw in the Cruiserweight Classic. He’s just a phenomenal performer.

The Authors of Pain will be on there as well and then in the main event Aleister Black vs. Adam Cole in a match that will help determine the eventual number one contender to the NXT champion. It’s a really strong show.”

It’s fair to say that Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas’ first few months in NXT were rough to say the least and now I feel like with Zelina Vega, he’s really starting to find his stride. What have you seen from him in the past few months that gave you the confidence to put the title on him?

“I’ve seen the same thing you have.

There’s a curve to doing what we do when you walk in the door for the first time, no matter where you’ve been. People talk about other promotions around the globe, but I haven’t seen anyone who doesn’t come in the door that doesn’t feel a difference when they walk in. That can lead to a lot of things. Intimidation, loss of confidence. You can take a step back.

It’s also a different style for him. There’s a lot of factors and I think when he first came in … and I’ve seen this with a lot of talent, whether that be Hideo Itami, Ember Moon, really, really talented people walk in the door and it takes them awhile to get their feet under them. It takes them awhile to get used to the style change. It takes them awhile to get used to how we shoot television. To have that confidence is really what it comes down to.

If you look back to where he started to where he is right now with us, it’s a completely different performer. As I saw that taking place over time I thought, now he’s starting to get it, how do I give him the platform to regroup?

It’s hard to have a guy all of a sudden go from being not good to being really good. So what’s that shift? What’s that platform that allows him to grow even more?

That was Zelina Vega. With the way we presented it, she came in, gave him the confidence and put him back on track. It all led him to changing who he is as a performer. I think you see that now. The swagger that he has. He comes off like the cocky, arrogant guy who knows he’s that good and he is.”

Well yeah and it gave him essentially the mouthpiece he needed because obviously English is still a challenge for him, but having her there and having her express his confidence gives him the ability to just focus on being a standout in-ring performer.

“My goal … and I try to combat this with NXT all of the time, as we’re putting performers out there people will come to me and say like ‘well we shouldn’t have Andrade do this promo because it’s not his strong suit’ and it’s like well he has to learn to do it right?

You have to put them out there and you have to give them the ball. Sometimes you have to throw the guy the ball, while understanding that he might fumble it, or he might fall down, but he has to get used to catching it and then eventually he’s going to run for a touchdown.

We run that fine line of what their performances are. Putting the spotlight on their strengths, but not hiding the weaknesses to a point where they’re covered up. They’ll never grow that way.

I want to make him a well-rounded performer. I want him to continue to get better at English. I want him to continue to grow as a performer to a point where he doesn’t need those other things, but that’s not where he’s at yet, so we try to do the best we can with him right now.

To your point, she brings a totally different dynamic to him that allows him to just be that cocky, arrogant champion.”

So NXT has gone through a lot of changes since you created it. What’s your vision for what’s next? Is it a weekly spot in primetime on USA? Is it presenting the brand as a legitimate alternative to Raw and SmackDown, where it doesn’t act as developmental for those brands? Where do you see this product going in the next three-to-five years?

“It’s funny the terms people put on things. Like a ‘legitimate alternative.’ Well if you don’t like one and you watch the other it’s an alternative right?”

Sure.

It’s an alternative now. I think that the more variety you can give the better. Raw is presented a certain way. SmackDown is presented a certain way. NXT is presented a certain way and there are markets for all of those products.

Do I see it not being developmental? Look in some ways the brands are just the brands and as talent improve and move up, where they end up, whether that’s Raw, whether that’s Smackdown, or if that’s NXT at some point in time, they’re all just going to be part of a brand.

I think there’s going to be a learning curve where NXT will always sort of be developmental for some, but I think we’re going to reach a point where we’ll say, ‘Well clearly this guy or girl isn’t developmental, he or she has been on the main roster. They’ve done this or this on the main roster and now they’re back down doing this in NXT.’

I think there’s going to be that shift back and forth. I think you’ll see, as you said earlier, a more legitimate alternative brand, although, I think on the lower and middle end of the roster, you’re going to have talent who have only been in the business for two years. The first time you’ll see them perform anywhere will be on NXT.

As talent come in from other places who have not yet had that experience to be on Raw or SmackDown, I don’t care where they’ve been, they’ll need the learning curve.

In some sense it will continue to be developmental, but it’ll be different from where it is today because I think you’re going to see talent move up and move down. I don’t think it should be seen as a demotion when they go to NXT. I think it should be seen as they’re competing in a different environment.”

Outside of Braun Strowman, I don’t know if there’s anyone who has impressed me more this year than Johnny Gargano. His performances stick with me every time I watch him. When I think about the five best matches I’ve seen this year, his name pops up multiple times. What has he done to up his game this year?

“I think he’s become a storyteller. There’s a lot of emotion in Johnny Gargano’s matches.

He knows his role. He’s the underdog who will never quit. You’re not going to beat him easily and he can always pull it out. He’s willing to tell a phenomenal story.

It’s the hardest thing sometimes … we have this conversation in the Performance Center a lot, Shawn [Michaels] will have it with guys, Matt [Bloom] will have it with guys, it’s about storytelling and that’s truly is what we do. The spots are the spots, but the storytelling is key.

When guys learn that and then they get in the ring with guys who are in the process of learning it, the difficult part is to try and get them to do what you’ve learned and not reverting back to doing what they do.

Johnny is one of those guys who has begun to learn that process really well and then brings everybody up with him and that’s a really impressive thing. He just gets it, but he’s also one of those guys that is 24/7. There are a lot of people who are that way, but it’s different with him.

You can be having a conversation with somebody else about their angle, or their match and you see him two feet away listening to the conversation trying to help figure it out, or give his point of view. He’s in the pocket all of the time. Those are the type of guys you love to work with because it’s passion. He’s passionate about the business, which is why he’s successful and will continue to be successful.”

I have to ask about the match with Jinder Mahal in New Delhi. Were you surprised at all by the reaction you got there? From what I read and watched on YouTube you got the biggest reaction of the night.

“It’s funny, you see a lot of comments to the reaction of the fans there. India is totally different market and WWE is huge there. One thing that people forget is the first time I went to India to perform was in 1996. I’ve been on their TV for a really long period of time.

There are certain guys there, in that market, who transcend the business for them. When we were talking to our television partners there about the marketing for the event, it was one of the things that kept coming up. It’s why I was put on the card.

I haven’t been there in a long time. I was excited and really happy to hear the reaction. It’s sort of what we expected. We know what resonates in markets and we can see it in our numbers and see it in the research that are partners have done as well as on social media.”

I think a lot of people were just assuming and this is a short-sighted thought that Jinder was going to get the biggest reaction. The fact that you’ve been on television for so long, combined with the attraction of seeing you for the first time created the reaction. Those fans have a longer emotional investment with you.

“I often think it’s funny to me that people in America, who have never been to India, put their thoughts and their beliefs onto other people, ‘like clearly that’s the truth.’ (Laughs). It’s totally different there!

The way they see things and react to things is very different. There are certain guys that once they reach a level there, it’s a whole different ballgame; Undertaker, [John] Cena. It’s just a different level of stardom.

When we were over there a few months ago having business meetings, to hear the people who are running television studios or Internet companies say to me ‘I watched you when I was a teenager. You were like the biggest guy in the world.’

I met a massive Bollywood star the other day who told me that I was his entire childhood. He got suspended from school for telling someone to ‘suck it.’ At a time in ’96 when there were like three channels there, we were on one of them all of the time.

It’s not to say Jinder wasn’t ‘over’ there. He was! You have to understand the market. It’s not like everyone just went, ‘Oh my God he’s Indian! He looks like us so we love him.’ They are a savvy market. They understand that he’s [playing] a bad guy [on television].

Even though he got a massive reaction, he still needs to earn their respect. He’s still growing and still new. You know what I mean?”

Well back to the storytelling point from earlier, that’s the emotional attachment right?

“Yeah.”

Jinder still new in many ways, especially in this role. The audience has to grow with him in order for him to reach that level of stardom you mentioned.

“Absolutely. Just even being on this tour will help him. The reaction he got at the beginning of the night was much different than the reaction he got at the end of the night. It just grew. Their appreciation of him grew. It was all handled in the right way and done in the right manner.

Over time he’s going to grow and become a cultural icon for them.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Dolph Ziggler Isn’t Going to Stop Pushing Himself

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Before WWE’s most patriotic show of the year, Tribute to the Troops, airs on Thursday, December 14th on USA at 8 p.m. ET, Dolph Ziggler chatted with me about the state of his career, if there’s anything about it he would change and why he thinks Naomi has the best “comeback” in the business.  

Give me one word to describe your career this year?

“Wow one word? OK you tell me how your career has been this year in one word.”

Ummm …. That’s a good question (laughs)

“See it’s not that easy.”

I would say winding. Where I’m at now as opposed to where I was in January is drastically different.

“OK that’s fair. I would say solid. I’m pretty reliable no matter what situation I’m in at work and also solid in that I’ve been pretty busy doing things beyond wrestling.”

On Edge and Christian’s podcast you opened up about your unhappiness with the placement of your character right now ….

“That was a sentence in an hour and a half discussion. I know it makes for a great click-bait article where I’m like ‘yeah it sucks!’ But they left out the part where I talk about how I want to be better and here’s why everyone should be working to be better. That’s the part people leave out, which is fine.

If you’re … you’re at NBC Sports right?

Yeah.

“OK if you’re doing great work for the last 10 years and you want to be in the top position at your job and you’re scratching and clawing, wouldn’t you be unhappy if there was no movement? You would go ‘Sure, yeah I want to be on top!’ But not everyone gets to be on top at once. Of course I hate not being the champion and not having the show revolve around me, but I love it. That chip on my shoulder drives me to keep going and keep proving how good I am, until somebody somehow shows me some instance where I wasn’t great at my job.”

What I was going to ask was, is there a certain point in time that you can point to where you say “this is where the downward turn started” or was it a gradual process?

“It was very gradual. It went from ‘Wow, we have something special here with Dolph. The crowd is feeding off of him whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.’ But after a while, a really good match here and there or a special moment here and there is not enough to create a star. So after a big match and then just going back to being Dolph, it’s hard to not be Dolph.

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to make the most out of those situations. Anytime people see me or the character, you can kind of see how they mesh together and I’m pretty sure there’s nobody who blends that gray area with the character better than me. And that’s a fact.”

I was going to ask this a bit later on, but it fits perfectly here. A few months ago when your entrance gimmick started I thought it was a bit odd, but then I started to realize that a meta-type character who understands his placement on the card and understands what the crowd pops for is perfect for this era. What are some things you’re looking to explore with this character in the coming weeks?

“We’ve opened the fourth wall a lot with this business and we’ve let reality become a huge part of it, which is awesome. Being able to interact with fans every single day gives them the ability to know what’s going on behind the scenes a little bit and you can actually use that as part of your character.

It would be stupid to let them in on all of these different aspects of the show and then pretend that I win every night because then we’re basically calling them stupid for believing that. But if I go ‘Hey I don’t win all of the time, but I’m really good and you know this and I know this’ and one of the nights could be the time that we go with it and that’s very realistic in this world.

It’s one thing to joke around with fans, but to disregard huge aspects of a career would be a mistake.”

Is there something that you would change about your character right now?

“Yeah I’d be about three inches taller, so I could be a 10-time world champion (laughs).

I’m a big 80s hair metal guy, like a David Lee Roth or someone like Nikki Sixx or Vince Neil to where I could put on a big show and be awesome at wrestling, but in this character right now where I focus on throwing that all away because I see the transparency in characters and my character hates on them.

It’s a special place that I get to go and I walk to the ring with disdain for the fans knowing that they sit there and bury everything that we do, but then they cheer for who their supposed to because their such hypocrites it’s so great.”

If I could give you a time machine to go back and change any part of your career, what moment would you go back to?

“Ummm … you have anything in particular off of the top of your head?”

Well I was thinking about the period of time after you cashed in Money in the Bank the night after WrestleMania 29 against [Alberto] Del Rio and it felt like you had so much potential, then the double turn happened at Payback. It felt like the right move in the moment, but in hindsight I wonder if that decision was a mistake.

“Hmm.”

And you’ve talked about this before. The curse of the start-stop push. Every time it looked like you finally had momentum, it was killed. I just think that moment specifically began the downward spiral that I asked about earlier.

“I could see how you would think that, but what was I going to do? It’s pretty clear that there wasn’t long-term plans with me as champion.

I’m so proud of that match with Del Rio because it was … if I was an artist, that was a masterpiece I painted. I always enjoyed being in the ring with him because he brought it every time and we beat the hell out of each other and we got to do something special that night by switching things around.

When everyone says how much better the attitude era was just because more teenagers watched it then and I say well we did something special here, when I was someone who wasn’t in the championship picture until basically a couple weeks before that. I was always in the middle of the card … losing and all of a sudden it changed in one night.

It’s hard because you either go with it or you don’t and sometimes you deal with the cards your dealt and you go ‘OK, well if they’re not going with me as the champion, this top guy, how do I make another opportunity down the line?’

You can switch around any one day and it really doesn’t change 12 years.”

What do you “pop” for now that you’ve been in the industry for this long?

“Let’s see … I like watching Naomi work. She’s one of my favorites to watch.

Ahh … there’s a million things … what do you like?

Oh man …. This is going to sound generic, but watching AJ Styles work is one of the reasons why I still look forward to tuning into WWE programming every week.

“That’s great!”

It’s just the little intricacies of how he sells and his offense, which always stands out. I’m curious as to why you said Naomi.

“I remember a couple years ago, she was just a smiling athletic performer and she became a member of [Team] B.A.D and I was like there’s no way in hell she’s going to pull this off.

And then I saw her first day and I was like I don’t know how she’s doing this. Her offense is amazing and she has the best comeback in the business. I’d even rival hers to your boy AJ.”

I would agree with that.

“She has such a cool, fun, unique, explosive comeback that no one else can do.”

She also has one of the best hot tags in the business.

“Oh yeah.”

Going back to the Del Rio discussion for a minute, who are some people that you felt amazing in-ring chemistry with?

“I used to give this other answer all of the time, but it’s been years. Kofi and I for about four years wrestled every SmackDown, every Raw, and every live event. We had a best-of-500 series that I love 497-to-3.

We were wrestling so much that we were trying to think of counters to counters of counters to make it interesting and different every time. We had so much fun.

My favorite part is, the Dudleys came in and were like ‘we know you and Kofi do all of the high-flying stuff’ and I was like no! Kofi does the high-flying stuff.

I love when people throw a little amateur wrestling background into their stuff. Just modifying the most basic of all moves is really fun for me to see. Gable and Jordan will throw in a little stutter step or fake that no one else is doing and I’m like oh that’s nice.

Have you worked with Gable yet?

“A little bit during a live event in a triple threat, but we haven’t gotten in there to do anything big yet.”

Let’s talk a bit about visiting the troops in San Diego, I imagine that has to be one of your favorite events of the year.

“Yeah it’s great. We love doing it. It’s a long day for us, but we love it. We get to give this tiny percent back to these brave men and women are doing for us every single day. Anything we can do, we’ll bring in singers, comedians, we’ll shake hands, we’ll talk about wrestling, we’ll talk about high school football, we’ll talk about anything they want just to take a few minutes to thank them.

It is so rewarding to us and it means the world to us to put on our most patriotic show of the year. When we get to perform for them in person, nothing is better than that.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis