AJ Styles’ first year in the WWE has been outstanding by any measure. He injected much-needed energy and world-class credibility at a time when the promotion’s main roster had fallen below its own minor league, NXT, in both departments. He stood toe to toe and flew move for move with future hall of famers from an organization many had feared he’d never join.
Let’s be honest, though: he’s been as involved in as many of WWE’s creative catastrophes as anybody. He has managed to survive, however, because he is a favorite of the fans who drive the crowd and social media buzz around wrestling, not to mention the best in-ring wrestler of his generation.
Here’s the problem: He’s the “model wrestler.” His success in spite of the obstacles placed in his way could be too easily interpreted by the people who placed those obstacles as a promotional victory on their part.
AJ Styles is undeniably excellent. He’s also confirmation bias fodder for one of the world’s most confirmation bias-hungry hive minds.
After a decade of hearing about how “You can’t just have the old stars beat the new guys and expect them to get over,” WWE was vindicated when AJ Styles shook off his ridiculous loss to Chris Jericho at WrestleMania 32. In spite of having beaten a rising star at a time when a rising star had no business being beaten, WWE could heartily pat themselves on the back when Styles survived because he was so many hundreds of times better at what he did than they expected him to be.
After two full WrestleMania cycles of not getting Roman Reigns over as a main event wrestler, WWE may have been tempted to finally listen to the chorus of voices from all directions saying he was not a strong choice for the top spot. Enter AJ Styles, who proves that Reigns can be in fantastic main event matches that even the most persnickety fan can’t sneeze at.
After more than thirty years of hearing that their characters were too cartoonish and that such behavior was unbefitting of top stars, AJ Styles met a man named James Ellsworth, and WWE finally had the example that they could print out to show to future students. Styles pulled off a Tully Blanchard level bump-and-stooge performance in the ring and played his ridiculous character with such unironic investment that he pulled off a multi-month world title feud with a job guy – another big one WWE set up and knocked down.
Now, as Styles re-engages with an old-new foe, he’s here to confirm to WWE that its fans want to see John Cena in world title matches. After an entire era of a disloyal basket of deplorables trying to turn the innocent, desired fanbase against their hero with ugly words, the smartest darn folks in the history of the wrestling business have won over those know-it-all schmucks, who are now lining up in droves to buy tickets to see John Cena.
AJ Styles has had a year for the record books, but not because of anything WWE’s done. His historic success, which WWE now touts on SmackDown each week, happened in spite of WWE creative, not because of it in any way.
What’s scary is now WWE has armed themselves with a gold standard to judge all other wrestlers against. If AJ Styles can indulge the ruling class in every one of their WWE Sports Entertainment peccadillos and still get over with the crowd like crazy, why can’t the other wrestlers?
The answer to that question is ridiculously simple, though: They’re not the most talented and likable star of their era.