As rumors swirled about when and where AJ Styles would debut for the WWE, the words “I Am Phenomenal” lit up the big screen as the third entrant into the Royal Rumble was announced. The live crowd in Orlando exploded as the former TNA and IWGP champion made his way to the ring, and his follow up performances on WWE TV seem to indicate that this could be a game changer for the WWE landscape.
The native of Gainsville, George had an amateur wrestling background in college and debuted as a pro in the late 1990s. With less than two years experience, Allen Jones was offered to deal to compete as “Air Styles” for WCW during the dying days of the promotion. Still a rookie in the sport, Air Styles was wrestling on national television, but despite the young cruiser weight roster that had potential, the Turner organization folded and AJ Styles returned to the independent scene. Granted, the ratings would indicate that not many were watching WCW programming in 2001, but it speaks volumes to Styles’ athletic ability to be offered a deal so early in his pro career, especially considering that the cruiser weight division was supposed to be highlighted in an attempt to rebuilt the company if Eric Bischoff would’ve been given the opportunity to buy it.
AJ Styles went on to work for the Nashville based Total Nonstop Action promotion in 2002 and began building a career as one of the greatest athletes to ever step inside of the squared circle. Styles brought precision, intensity and innovation to the table that had many fans buzzing during the early days of TNA. Make no mistake about it, AJ Styles was the franchise of TNA and without him, it seems doubtful that the promotion would’ve gotten off the ground. Furthermore, AJ was without question the wrestler of the decade of the 2000s and he carried the promotion for most of his career. Keep in mind, the X Division put TNA on the map as an alternative and Styles was a major aspect of the revolutionary division. As his career continued, AJ was a featured star for the promotion, alternating between the TNA Heavyweight and X Division title picture. Regardless of the opponent, his matches received rave reviews, particularly bouts with Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels. While showcasing his skills at Universal Studios, where TNA had moved its tapings, Styles also competed regularly for Ring of Honor until 2006 when he concluded his initial run there. The turning point of Styles’ career and in TNA as a whole was when Hogan signed with the promotion in 2010. Hogan and Bischoff booked the company to look like a weekly WCW reunion and the lackluster attempt at recreating the Monday night war concluded after a few months. Impact returned to Thursdays and many of the aspects of the organization that made it an alternative were changed to seem like a WWE lite product. Even when AJ was the champion during the Hogan era, he dropped the title on free TV to Rob Van Dam, who recently said in a Kayfabe Commentaries Youshoot that he mailed in it during run in TNA. There was also the lame Claire Lynch angle that had Vince Russo’s finger prints all over it and it minimized one of the best athletes the company had on the roster. While all this was airing on Spike TV, Hogan was collecting major money from the clueless Dixie Carter and it had a major effect on the promotion after he jumped shipped to return to the WWE before being erased from history. The combination of Hogan’s contract and the lack of the draw for Impact tapings on the road led to budget cuts. Those budget cuts are ultimately led to AJ’s exit from TNA, as officials wanted him to take a pay cut, but he declined to resign. I said it at the time and I will say it now, TNA should’ve done what was necessary to resign AJ and it could be argue that the company hasn’t been the same since his departure in 2013.
After AJ left TNA, he returned to Ring Of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2014, which really rejuvenated his career in a sense after he floundered somewhat with some of the more ridiculous angles that were booked in TNA. For the two years that he wasn’t under an exclusive deal, Styles was arguably the most in demand free lancer in the business, as he wrestled literally around the globe as a main event star, which really helped solidify that he was still one of the best performers in the industry despite TNA’s fumbles. As rocky as Styles’ exit was from the impact zone, the run he had in Japan and on the independent scene in recent years seems to have really helped him evolve as a performer. When AJ worked in ROH, it was promoted as a “special event,” where as with TNA he wasn’t really emphasized. During international tours, Styles was featured, but in Orlando he was deemed stale.
After AJ made headlines as an participant in the Royal Rumble, TNA posted a statement that claimed that Styles, Doc Gallows, and Karl Anderson had signed some type of deal with the promotion, but then reconsidered. Styles’ management promptly responded and acknowledged that there were negotiations, but nothing was signed for Styles to return to TNA. First of all, IF anything was signed, it clearly had no legal power because the WWE wouldn’t sign anyone unless they are cleared to ink the deal. The WWE legal team is top notch and you can bet that all the legal stuff is clear before contracts are offered. Second, there were two possible motives for TNA to “leak” the talks of the trio to work there, either they wanted to save face to their fan base and say “hey, we tried” or it was a case of sour grapes, and they wanted to attempt to taint Styles for opting to sign with WWE. Finally, it makes TNA look completely bush league since it essentially proves that the top free agents would rather work for the WWE so why say that competitors would rather work elsewhere? It makes TNA look secondary, but then again TNA making themselves look secondary is nothing new. If a deal couldn’t be reached, Dixie Carter should keep it quiet because the whole situation only adds to the public perception that her company can’t compete with the WWE.
As for AJ Styles working for the WWE, the introduction in the Rumble was presented in a way that he didn’t get lost in the shuffle and it was no coincidence that he was put in the ring with Roman Reigns for his debut. I’ve read some fans criticize the booking of AJ vs. Chris Jericho on free TV the following night instead of a pay-per-view for his WWE TV debut, but in my opinion it was a smart move from WWE management as it put Styles over to the WWE TV audience and putting him over Jericho, a well established star, gives him instant credibility with the WWE viewers. Keep in mind, depending on the ratings, Raw has 3-4 times the viewers as the network has subscribers so to truly establish AJ as a star, it made more sense to put him over on TV. Plus, the rematch was booked for PPV and it seems like there will be another match booked for Wrestlemania. Generally speaking, AJ Styles on the WWE roster helps the company add depth and despite being 38, it’s still possible he gets a solid run.
Will AJ Styles get a main event title reign in the WWE? Time will tell, but I still have doubt that WWE brass would put the title on someone extensively associated with TNA. Keep in mind, AJ was making great money working in Japan and was able to dictate much of his own schedule on the independent scene so I would guess that he signed a very lucrative deal to trade that for the WWE schedule. If AJ gets a fair shot remains to be seen, but the bottom is from a business prospective, he’s presumably set to make the most money of career before he retires so it’s a win-win situation.
Until next week
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