A little under a week ago at long last the powers that be in the WWE came to the sudden realisation that their current WWE Champion Jinder Mahal’s reign was failing and his much hyped battle with Universal Champion Brock Lesnar was at risk of falling flat. Fans had gone from being angry with the Modern Day Maharajah’s run to just flat out apathetic so the WWE made the unprecedented move to switch champions mid week on TV for the first time in years and save their supposed biggest draw the embarrassment of people switching off and walking out on his match.
For the last ten years the go to guys for this sort of sudden corrective move to steady the ship would have been the tried and tested hands of main event stalwarts John Cena or Randy Orton. Prior to the title switch there were even rumors of Cena's involvement as guest referee of the proposed Mahal v Brock match. This time though despite both men being ready and in a roster position to pick up the belt the WWE chose someone else to save the day.
Instead the veterans the WWE picked the man who has been saving them on the regular for over a year now, the Phenomenal One, AJ Styles. He has been given the ball as a result of two years of taking matches, feuds and even brands from skippable content and building them to must see TV. Even if he loses to Brock at Survivor series then drops the belt immediately afterwards this title win is proof that AJ Styles has become a made man in the WWE.
It is easy to forget just how much amazing work Styles has been able to cram into his time with the WWE. After his initial debut and solid warm up feud with Chris Jericho he was immediately thrown into a main event program with the most controversial superstar in the company Roman Reigns. After an absolute stinker of a match with Triple H the feud with the directionless Reigns could have been an anchor around the neck of Styles, an intentional ploy to sink the former TNA and NJPW champ and stick ‘the veteran’ with the blame when the feud fizzled out. Where The Game failed though The Phenomenal One flourished, putting on two fantastic matches that had the fans believing, against all hope and better judgement, that AJ might just get the win over the new ‘chosen one’.
Styles followed up getting people interested in Reigns with two match of the year candidates against John Cena and then pulled off his greatest feat, the building of Smackdown from the clear b-show to the hottest wrestling product on TV post the 2016 draft.
While there were many who helped push Smackdown to its unprecedented success: Cena gave it an early boost, The Miz and Ziggler did fantastic mid card work and Dean Ambrose started out as champ and did his part in the ongoing championship feud with Style, at the forefront, leading by example and setting the tone was The Champ that ran The Camp. While there were other subcontractors on the job it is not hyperbole to say that the Smackdown that took down Raw in the ratings was the house the AJ Styles built.
That kind of work, leading, helping build up co-workers and building the popularity of an entire brand just doesn't go unnoticed in any successful business in any industry. While 2017 was undoubtedly a quieter year for Styles, who did they get to give Cena his 16th title win in yet another MOTY Candidate? Who did they trust to give glorified backyard wrestler Shane McMahon a straight ‘wrestling match’ at Mania? Who was given the honour of reinstating the US Title Open Challenge as created by John Cena? Who got to pull Baron Corbin out of the worst week any superstar has had in WWE history and who did they call to save the Raw’s TLC card and put together a feature match at the drop of a hat while beat up from a tour and jet lagged?
Hell there was even those rumors around Money In The Bank time that Vince gave him a shot to pull down the suitcase while hanging from it and they’d work out the booking later. Not everyone gets the chance to ‘just pull off’ a stunt like that.
Two weeks ago fellow Lords of Pain columnist Tito predicted nothing but doom and gloom for AJ Styles future after the Too Sweet incident at TLC. Now I love a good conspiracy as much as the next guy but this is just not the resume of a man who is about to get thrown to the wolves, this a man that has clearly earned the trust of Vince McMahon and the rest of the WWE backstage. He has made himself the go to guy in any situation.
As I said earlier I am firmly of the belief that even if AJ quickly loses the title and it was all just a ploy to save Brock’s Survivor Series match he will not be any weaker for the run. The hype generated from the switch and sudden peak of excitement is yet another reminder that AJ is a guy the fans love and proof the WWE see him as, at worst, a go to main eventer in the mould of Shawn Michaels in the 00s. A wrestler who may not hold the title for long periods but is someone who can be thrown into high profile feuds and matches that get plenty of run time. That is a pretty damn good worst case scenario!
What does the immediate future hold for Styles though? Obviously the match with Brock Lesnar is the first test and it will be interesting indeed to see how his unique breed of athleticism blends with Brock’s Suplex City style. When you look at a list of people Lesnar has faced you really have to go back to 2015 at Seth Rollins to see someone who isn’t a muscle bound monster. Since 2015 Lesnar has refined his matches to an almost boringly predictable hard hitting formula of German Suplexes and F5s however AJ’s in ring gifts will hopefully allow the two to craft something that is at least different to every other match Lesnar has had this year. Even for me it is a bit much to hope Styles will get the pin on Lesnar but a spirited, entertaining battle seems to be a realistic option.
If he can hold onto the belt for the predictable Jinder Mahal rematch after Survivor Series then it is hard to see him not running as Champion through the Royal Rumble and up until Wrestlemania 34. Given his last 2 years, a headline spot at the show of shows would be a deserving reward for his supreme body of work. At Mania there are really two opponents that would make sense and another that could be thrown in too, the last man to beat him for his title John Cena, his old NJPW rival Shinsuke Nakamura and the man who first welcomed him to the WWE by eliminating him from the Royal Rumble Kevin Owens.
The IWC has been married to the Nakamura v Styles matchup at Wrestlemania since both men moved over to the WWE in 2016 and for good reason, their chemistry in the ring is palpable and the rivalry that crosses borders and promotions is a natural springboard for the feud. Much will depend on how Nakamura recovers from his disastrous feud with Mahal where he looks a long way from the eccentric killer he debuted in the WWE as. If he can have a strong finish to 2017 that dream Wrestlemania match could beckon for the King of Strong Style.
A match with Owens is also a possibility, the two locked horns throughout the Northern Hemisphere summer with mixed results but they are two of the biggest names on the Smackdown roster from the current generation and both are peaking character wise. That said my guess would be that Mr Owens has a date with another former indy sparring partner in Sami Zayn come Wrestlemania time.
That leaves John Cena as a potential Mania opponent for Styles. I will argue until the cows come home about Cena staying equal with Ric Flair on 16 World Title wins but missing an opportunity to beat an NWA and WCW record simply wouldn’t be the WWE way. Wrestlemania, against Styles, the man who has given him three of the most critically acclaimed matches of his career could be the perfect place to crown Cena as champion for the 17th time. To add to the feud the pairing have unfinished business with Styles still 2-1 up on their one on one rivalry.
My personal preference would be the Nakamura match but as Cena’s time at the top is coming to an end that 17th title win will probably have to happen sooner rather than later and Wrestlemania would be a fitting time to do it.
All that is in the future though but one thing that is certain now is that we can all rest easy in knowing that whether he wins or loses against Brock Lesnar and even if he has to lose the WWE title on the first Tuesday after Survivor Series AJ Styles is now and forever will be a made man in the WWE.
But over to you Lords of Pain what do you think the future holds for the Phenomenal One?