AJ Styles’ long road to the top of WWE
“THE PHENOMENAL” AJ Styles is widely considered to be the best professional wrestler on the planet, but a part of the world is just catching up to the fact.
Some say that until you make it as a star in the global juggernaut that is World Wrestling Entertainment you haven’t really made it — and despite Styles’ success, an asterisk always lived next to his name, as it wasn’t in the WWE.
The Georgia native got his big break aged 23 in the dying days of World Championship Wrestling.
The company was purchased by the WWE in 2001 and the sale gave the Vince McMahon-led promotion the option to choose which wrestlers it would assume the contracts of.
Styles was offered a try out, but ultimately wasn’t signed. The door to the big stage was firmly slammed shut in his face.
Standing under six foot in the land of giants like Hulk Hogan, The Rock and The Undertaker, Styles was considered too short to ever be a top draw. One of the company’s biggest names.
But unperturbed, Styles went about proving everyone wrong, even if it meant taking the long road to the top.
He made his name in the fledgling Total Nonstop Action (TNA), a promotion the star carried on his back for over 10 years.
Styles lit up the independent scene, garnering praise for his matches for promotions such as Ring of Honour and New Japan Pro Wrestling as he undoubtedly became the biggest name outside the WWE.
In 2010 he topped the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Top 500 list — and he remains the only man to do so while outside the WWE in the past 20 years. But still, Vince McMahon and co were not interested.
The professional wrestling industry has gone through a metamorphosis in recent years, shifting from the body builder types that dominated through the boom period of the 1990s and shifting to a focus on athleticism and entertainment — an area Styles is unmatched.
Styles was a gun for hire, freelancing across a number of promotions, but having his most success overseas with New Japan, where he performed in front of over 60,000 in the Tokyo Dome.
His match with Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10 was widely acclaimed and with his contract up in Japan, the WWE finally came calling.
At 38, Styles made his debut in WWE’s Royal Rumble in January 2016 and everything he has touched since has been a smash hit.
He starred in the next 11 pay-per-view events, wrestling for the WWE title just three months into his stay. Styles was named WWE champion in September — an unprecedented rise to the top.
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His match against John Cena at SummerSlam was voted the match of 2016, narrowly edging out his showdown with Nakamura.
Another clash with Cena at last month’s Royal Rumble is also considered one of the best of all-time. Now everyone knows who AJ Styles is — in all corners of the globe.
“WWE has definitely opened the door to performing, not just in front of a few people, but literally all around the world,” Styles says. “The great thing is if you want to get your name out, this is the place to do it.”
One thing missing from Styles’ resume was a WrestleMania appearance, an itch the star got to scratch last April in front of 100,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
It was a lifelong dream come true for Styles. WrestleMania is the culmination of the professional wrestling calendar, the event which launched the professional wrestling company into pop culture.
Styles says walking through the curtain to perform on the biggest stage of them all is very different.
He’s performed in front of big crowds, but this is WrestleMania — the reason Styles and his colleagues push themselves night after night. The card for the year’s biggest show only fits so many.
The rush of the crowd as Styles’ entrance music hits and 100,000 people rise to their feet suddenly makes every bump, every injury, worthwhile.
“It’s hard to explain. There’s a reason why so many other superstars have done this for so long, because of that feeling you get when you walk through that curtain,” Styles says.
“It’s unexplainable. It’s the reason so many athletes play past their prime. It’s hard to get over having 100,000 people cheering and booing you. They’re both great in our business.
“When you’re walking down (to the ring) and they expect to see something great from you and you have the opportunity to showcase what you got — there’s nothing better.”
Styles currently portrays a heel (bad guy), a wrestler fans are encouraged to hate. But the WWE audience can’t help themselves but applaud the entertainment he brings.
The high-flying style, high risk moves and smoothness in the ring has won him acclaim but also an admiration of a new generation of wresting fans.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work how we want it to because sometimes the fans decide to cheer for you. It’s flattering. No matter what I say or do I can’t get them to boo me,” Styles says.
Styles’ climb to the top has been about one thing. Not only is he skilled in the ring and entertaining out of it, but he’s unique.
“My thing is always to do my own thing — don’t be like anybody else,” Styles says.
“I don’t want to be like Shawn Michaels or some of these other superstars. I want to be the first AJ Styles and be as different as I want to be.
“When you see me do a move you’re not thinking of anyone else, you’re thinking of AJ Styles.”
John Cena is considered the WWE’s biggest name. He moves the most merchandise and he’s entered the realm of pop culture. The star looks to be making a shift to Hollywood, taking long breaks from the company to film movies and other projects — similar to other wrestling stars like The Rock and Hulk Hogan.
That opens the door for the WWE to have a new top star and Styles is ready to stake his claim. Match after match, night after night, Styles wants to entertain.
“The thing that worries me the most is that someone won’t be entertained by what I do,” Styles says. “The main thing is that when these people pay their hard-earned money to see AJ Styles, they get there money’s worth.”