2016: The year of AJ Styles in WWE


There have been times throughout my few short years in this industry where I have settled at the computer and said to myself, “I cannot believe I am typing this.” However, I don’t think that I have ever typed anything more unbelievable to me personally than the headline you see above, which also includes anything I needed to construct regarding the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years — 2016 was the year of AJ Styles in WWE.

Anyone who’s been a professional wrestling fan for the better part of the last decade will surely admit that seeing “The Phenomenal One” in WWE at any point was the equivalent of walking outside your front door to wave to the pigs flying over the residence; it was basically the definition of something that would never happen. The reasonings were varying and generally coupled together: He can’t talk. He’s too small to appeal to the vision of Vince McMahon as a top guy. He’s too old at this point. He stands very little chance of being the face of the company. And, of course, there was the nail in the coffin for everyone — he was the face of the much-maligned TNA Wrestling for far too long to be given the proper opportunity in the “big leagues.”

Yet, little did we know that towards the end of 2015, conversations were being had that would eventually send all the naysayers of Styles into a complete tailspin and give us one of the best individual years that we have ever seen from anyone in the illustrious of the company.

Pre-WWE debut

Before you can even begin to start with the amazing 2016 that Styles had in WWE, it must be discussed what took place as the calendar year began. While he knew that he was on his way to finally prove to everyone that he can make it on the big stage, he still had one last bit of business to take care of for New Japan Pro Wrestling. And it just so happened that Styles would take care of this business with something who was heading to the states along with him –and another man who currently is silencing detractors– in Shinsuke Nakamura.

At Wrestle Kingdom 10 in January, New Japan’s annual WrestleMania-type event inside Tokyo Dome, Styles stepped into the ring with the “King of Strong Style” to battle over the promotion’s Intercontinental Championship, a bout that was won by the latter. It was one of the better performances in the storied career of Styles, and the match earned a prestigious 4.75 stars from longtime professional wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. That showing by Styles not only served as a fitting way to leave a promotion in New Japan that helped him kick the stigma of being just a “TNA guy” for so long, but looking back now it was also a sign of things to come.

3 … 2 … 1 … POP!

By the time the WWE Royal Rumble made its way to Orlando in late January, we knew by this point that the unfathomable was happening and Styles was eventually making his way to the company. Not only that, but he was reportedly skipping the NXT portion of the WWE orientation and heading straight to the main roster. Of course, this brought out some of the detractors in droves. They were ready for the ultimate I-told-you-so moment when The Phenomenal One would walk out in front of a sold out WWE crowd to be greeted with mostly crickets and maybe a few “smarks” chanting his name.

Yeah, well, about that …

AJ Styles walked out through the WWE curtain … at one of the biggest events of the year … to greet the unofficial chosen one himself, then-WWE World Heavyweight Champion Roman Reigns. The roof of the Amway Center nearly shot into orbit when the word “Phenomenal” graced the titantron with its presence. They didn’t even need to see his name — they knew who he was.

From that January night forward, we –and most importantly, Styles– were off and running.

The instant dream feud

Styles coming into WWE had all of us wrestling fans dreaming of the potential matchups we could be treated to, and the company did one hell of a job of satisfying our appetite for that by immediately pairing him with the one and only Chris Jericho.

It was great storytelling with these two, as they went a more traditional route of forming a tag team –although not for all that long– and then breaking up. Hell, the company even went so far as to print up “Y2AJ” t-shirts for the duo, trying to give fans the impression that this combination was in things for the long haul. However, that turned out not to be the case, as Jericho went full Jericho, heeling it up all over the newcomer to the company as he turned on him.

Of course, now we knew that given the time of year that it was, who AJ Styles would face during his first-ever WrestleMania experience.

Man, again, it all starts to settle in. AJ Styles is going to wrestle on the grandest stage of ’em all, and not only that, but he’ll be doing it in front of 100,000 people inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX — against Chris Jericho. BANANAS!

It truly was a sight to behold, seeing one of the most underutilized talents in the history of the professional wrestling world step onto the stage that he had deserved to be on so many times before. However, at least on that night, the outcome left a lot to be desired for many.

Okay, we’ll just be honest here: people were royally pissed off. Fans were convinced that Styles would be earning a win during his first ‘Mania appearance, but that’s not what took place, though. He was defeated, and not only did he eat the loss, but he was forced to put Jericho over clean in front of the raucous crowd who would bet their lives on him walking out victorious.

So from that point on we were forced to accept the fact that the projected burial of Styles within WWE was about to come to fruition. We were being trolled by Vince in the sense of,  “Ha ha ha, I teased you into thinking I actually cared about him for a bit but now I’ll show you what we really think of him here.”

Oh, we were shown alright.

Roman Reigns

The night after WrestleMania on RAW is a reset of sorts for the company. It’s the time when old feuds are put to bed for good and new storylines are brought to the forefront. Coming off a win in the main event over Triple H the night prior inside Cowboys Stadium, Roman Reigns was the WWE World Heavyweight Champion once again, and as is customary, needed to find out who his first challenger would be post-‘Mania. So, in the main event, a Fatal 4-Way match was held between Chris Jericho, Kevin Owens, a returning-from-injury Cesaro and Styles himself.

Now we hardcore wrestling fans adore Styles and his immense talents, but even we were not gullible enough to believe that Vince McMahon would, just a mere three months into a run with his company that was never supposed to happen, propel Styles to main-event, world title-contending status.

Yeah … Styles won the match and the internet wrestling community nearly broke cyberspace with their glee. AJ Styles –yes, again, just three months into his run with WWE– was going to be headlining a pay-per-view for the top prize. And not only that, but the company was smart enough to pair the internet darling against the man who the majority of the internet would love to see fall into the abyss if they had their way, the “chosen one” himself, Roman Reigns.

The worst fear for many was that although it was well-deserved that Styles was getting an opportunity of this ilk, there is not a chance in this galaxy that he is taking that title off of someone the stature of Reigns. Vince may have turned a corner in regards to how he perceives Styles within his business, but he didn’t sharp-turn that corner hard enough to put Styles over.

That way of thinking was correct, but if anything, despite not claiming WWE gold (yet), Styles came out of the brief feud looking like a million bucks, thoroughly proving to a worldwide audience now that he is undoubtedly the best professional wrestler on the planet. AJ Styles and Roman Reigns had two main-event bouts at Payback and Extreme Rules, and in both instances Styles guided the face of the company in Reigns to critically acclaimed matches that both passed the 20-minute mark. This is not to say at all that Roman Reigns is sub-par in the ring, because I happened to be one of the few that considers him to actually be a pretty solid in-ring worker. But, it was crystal clear that just being in the presence of Styles within that 20 x 20 ring brought out the very best in the former Shield muscle man.

These things, folks — these are things that Vince McMahon loves. He craves competition, and at this point he can see his newest superstar inside that ring amid the bright lights emphatically telling everyone with his work, “There is NO ONE better than me, not even in this company.”

Are those two really standing face-to-face with one another?

We touched upon dream matchups earlier when discussing Styles’ first big-time feud with Chris Jericho. But when it comes down to AJ Styles and dream matches, throughout the last decade at some time or another, every wrestling fan has pondered hearing the bell ring and seeing The Phenomenal One put on a performance with one of the most polarizing superstars of all time, John Cena. It’s the Face of TNA vs. The Face of WWE, in a sense.

In summation, the thought process was: if Cena could have spectacular bouts with the likes of CM Punk or Daniel Bryan, what could possibly be brought to the table if he were to go toe-to-toe with Styles?

We were about to given that answer, and it also even came with quite the intriguing twist as well. Cena made his return to the company after an injury hiatus on the Memorial Day edition of RAW. He was confronted by Styles, which captivated the attention of audiences both in the building and watching on television. Raucous, dueling roars of “LET’S GO CENA!” and “AJ STYLES!” echoed throughout the building. We were about to be gifted with the ultimate babyface vs. babyface matchup.

Except … no we weren’t.

The swerve was perfectly executed where a raging Styles, along with help from The Club (Lord, that name was stupid) members Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows, viciously obliterated the returning Cena in the middle of the ring. Few “swerves” are shocking in WWE anymore, but this one legitimately had folks grasping the top of their heads with both hands in sheer amazement.

We were getting heel AJ Styles in WWE now, and not only that, but we were kind of, sort of getting a version of Bullet Club, a grouping fans drooled over when it was common knowledge Styles, Anderson and Gallows were coming over from Japan to join the group’s patriarch, Finn Balor. No, there was no Balor on the main roster yet, but we were getting a small version with two originals and the most recent leader of the infamous stable. Good enough — well, again, aside from the replacement name the geniuses in the creative room came up with.

But the main point here is that we were set to see literally the personification of a dream match between Styles and Cena, with the first one taking place at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. As we all had expected, Styles brought the absolute best out of “The Face That Runs The Place,” as these two put on an incredible contest. In the end, Styles did go over Cena, but with help from The Club. Despite it making complete and utter sense seeing as Styles was a heel now –and, you know, that’s what heels do, they cheat to win– die-hard fans of The Phenomenal One wanted the ultimate gratification of Styles cleanly going over the face of WWE for the last decade. They wanted verification, in a kayfabe sense, that AJ Styles was better than John Cena, period.

Well, then SummerSlam was the PPV for you.

These two professional wrestling stalwarts of this generation locked horns again, this time at one of the biggest shows of the year in SummerSlam. As we had seen previously with the one-for-me-one-for-you booking of Cena, it was a near certainty that the 15-time world champ was getting his win back here. After all, we still had the bad taste in our mouths from the Kevin Owens feud of 2015.

What happened, though, was yet another jaw-dropping moment in WWE involving The Phenomenal One. In a match that lasted 23:10, these two put on a bonafide Match of the Year candidate, but it was Styles who came out on top once again. This time, though, he had earned the win clean as a whistle. It was a bout that featured incredible storytelling, including moments where Cena expressed a look on his face that screamed to the masses, “Oh my god, I can’t beat this guy.” And by the time the story was done being told in Brooklyn, John Cena was right..

This also served as the moment that it finally clicked in fans’ minds: Vince McMahon surprisingly does see top value in Styles. Where can we possibly go from here now?

The champ that runs the camp

Natural evolution in the pro wrestling world would tell you that following AJ Styles defeating John Cena on the SummerSlam stage, we’d soon be staring directly at yet another moment that seemed virtually inconceivable: AJ Styles, WWE Champion.

On the night of September 11, 2016 at the Smackdown-exclusive show Backlash, to simply put it — it happened. Albeit through some shenanigans, The Phenomenal One reached the mountaintop of the pro wrestling world when he became the WWE Champion by defeating Dean Ambrose in the main event.

That evening and win over Ambrose was truly the ultimate validation for some fans. To this point there was no question that Styles was proving himself to be worthy of the Vince McMahon stage. But for some, they would not be truly convinced Styles was a full-on mainstay within the promotion until he was given the proverbial ball to run with. And we know by now, that proverbial ball when it comes to WWE is the storied WWE Championship. Seeing AJ Styles hold that title up in victory brought out a joy in fans they probably never knew they had before.

It was one of the few times that the best professional wrestler on the planet was recognized as the crowned best by carrying around the top title.

It’s a title that Styles still possesses as we head into 2017, and his reign thus far has been wildly successful. He’s had some more excellent matches with Dean Ambrose following Backlash, was the leader of Team Smackdown for an amazing Survivor Series match, and most recently put on quite the spectacle to close out the year on an episode of SmackDown where he defeated Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin in a triple threat contest.

And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that throughout all of this as the champion, he managed to make a star out of a guy with no chin named James Ellsworth. Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels may be able to have excellent matches with a broomstick, but AJ Styles was able to make some magic with a James Ellsworth. That might be more impressive, in some respects.

When it comes down to it in history, some may proclaim that AJ Styles had the most impressive first year in WWE, while others might point to Kurt Angle.

That argument could go either way, but you can’t ignore that WWE in 2016 was truly phenomenal, and that’s largely due to The Phenomenal One himself, WWE Champion AJ Styles.