AJ Styles: An Irreplaceable Outlier

Almost five years removed from his WWE debut, AJ Styles represents a rather idealistic possibility. Along the lane he’s lived in for two decades, there’s simply no greater success story. Styles entered WWE with one question to answer and he’s since passed every test with flying colours. What was once a mystery quickly become a formality, as Styles not only succeeded in WWE but thrived, sustaining his excellence across an already famed run. On the world stage, Styles has done it all, ticking every box a wrestling career could conceivably muster.

He’s been WWE Champion, top babyface, top heel and everything in-between. Styles has even stole the show at WrestleMania, sharing the honour with Shane McMahon of all people. After years as a headline act, Styles received the ultimate seal of approval this year, standing opposite The Undertaker in his final match. For those that had followed along, Styles’ storybook career had just received another extension. The recognition that once eluded Styles now surrounded him, a revered and respected titan, standing almost alone among his generation.

Match Ratings For 2/26/2021 WWE Smackdown From Sean Ross Sapp

Those chapters can’t last forever though and as Styles found himself literally buried at WrestleMania's close, it seemed as though his career was set for a transition. An established act within a promotion of potential, Styles now seemed best suited to assist in others’ ascension. In truth, that had started months prior, as Styles took a relative backseat to some of RAW’s rising stars. Clearly, Styles still had an immense amount to offer but his value was versatility, maintaining a purpose regardless of on-screen protection.

That versatility wasn’t always there either, but it’s been the defining trait of Styles’ 2020. He was a spiteful, vile villain against The Undertaker, though somehow always just a step away from comedy. Simply put, Styles was and is entertaining, only continuing on that path since returning from his aforementioned burial. Styles has the credibility to extend his range further than ever, even embodying more antics than aggression as of late. He can afford that risk though, as Styles always has the audience’s attention and best of all, he’s good enough to make it work too.

In his current form, Styles is a reliable choice, both in-ring and out. Physically, he’s probably not what he was in his unparalleled prime but that doesn’t make his weekly output any less appealing, especially with this ongoing evolution. Styles’ persona is an irritating, deluded antagonist, infuriating first and formidable second. On paper, it’s the perfect performance for that prior role, positioning Styles as an obvious option to elevate others. In reality, other factors have shaped that in a somewhat skewed fashion, even if it remains prevalent.

On SmackDown, Styles quickly added the Intercontinental Title to his collection, effectively becoming a priceless supporting act. Styles gave SmackDown marquee main events, working lengthy matches with a range of foes and enhancing some along the way. Since returning to RAW though, Styles has been re-established in the tier above, winning at every turn and having his act solidified by Omos’ towering presence. That suggested that bigger things were on the horizon and they’ve swiftly become clear, as Styles now challenges Drew McIntyre for his WWE Title.

With the promotion’s greatest prize back in his sights, Styles finds himself in a familiar position, becoming a key PPV attraction once more. Right now at least, this doesn’t feel like anything more than an individual match, a chance for Styles to roll back the years in this role. That could be quickly proven false on Sunday of course, but it’s certainly the assumption for now. At this juncture, Styles doesn’t need that title or any other, though his presence in this position feels telling in its own way.

If the last two months have proven one thing, it’s that RAW needs Styles and more specifically, this title needs him too. Not as champion though, those days have come and gone but yet still, Styles is the ideal option for a moment such as this. The WWE landscape isn’t lacking talent, but its puzzle pieces demand a certain positioning, key talent needs protecting, others require rebuilding. Styles is different though, as he’s ready made, always one win away from credibly taking the champion to his absolute limits.

The value of that can’t be overstated and while Styles’ peak feels behind him, his relevance seems unlikely to diminish. Even surrounded by a roster stacked with in-ring talent, Styles is still the outlier, adaptable enough to adjust. That makes him an incredibly effective element of WWE television, allowing McIntyre to continue on his current trajectory while in response, Styles shifts gears accordingly. Opposite McIntyre’s rage, Styles can be the cowardly, almost foolish foil but in the blink of an eye, he’s still capable of being that vicious, ruthless ‘pitbull’ that so rapidly climbed WWE’s ranks.

In Styles’ case, that’s just another sentence on his résumé but a glance at the WWE product suggests that it’s actually rather special. Styles lasting legacy feels set in stone by now and his glossiest triumphs likely concluded with The Undertaker. There was nothing to add after that, the most emphatic acknowledgement of Styles’ greatness. This latest effort isn’t worth dismissing though, as Styles comfortably reminds the world that he’s not replaceable, or not yet anyway. Styles is still special and at this point, it doesn’t feel as though any direction or dynamic can change that.

In the grand scheme of things, this seems as though it should be Styles’ appreciation tour. The roster’s constant, a beloved babyface that still delivers when circumstances demand. Those years are likely still ahead of Styles too but for now, he’s having far too much fun entertaining himself as a villain. Styles hasn’t settled, still adding detail to his career masterpiece, displaying versatility and variety while remaining one of RAW’s most captivating characters. Sunday may be Styles’ last match for the WWE Title but if so, that’ll be more indicative of creative than the man himself.

If they need him, he’ll be there. Whether he’s yesterday’s champion looking to reclaim glory or as he is Sunday, the ultimate thorn in a hero’s side, Styles is cemented among the stars. Eventually, those days will be behind Styles too but only in retirement. Until then, AJ Styles will remain an outlier as after two decades, that’s simply who he is and what he does. He’s phenomenal, on paper plans can’t change that, only father time can.

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