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.
“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!”
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