In 2018, it’s very hard to say anything particularly new about AJ Styles. For well over a decade, Styles has been one of the most revered grapplers in the world, steadily rounding out his skill-set more and more with each passing year. At the start of 2016, AJ was a celebrated wrestler but now with an almost startling WWE run under his belt, Styles has established himself as a true industry great. None of this is anything novel of course but as AJ enters SummerSlam in the midst of a 9 month title reign, his current status is certainly to be admired.
Now don’t get me wrong, not all of this run deserves critical acclaim. Far from it in fact. There was some multi-man fodder early, and the highly anticipated Shinsuke Nakamura programme certainly took some time to deliver. I’d argue that they got there in the end, especially at Money in the Bank, but it’d definitely be fair to say that overall, their feud likely underwhelmed in the grand scheme of things. Since then, Styles made some somewhat underrated magic opposite Rusev and now shifts his focus to Samoa Joe, his latest title challenger.
This feud’s format has been unique and frankly, the approach is a credit to AJ’s personal progression. The idea of Styles so capably building a programme with nothing but promo work is rather indicative of his improvement in that area. It’s all felt quite refreshing honestly, a heroic champion having to fend off verbal cheap shots from his contender. Joe’s showings on the microphone always impress but the effectiveness of this angle thus far is an absolute testament to how truly special Styles is on the current landscape and roster.
Over the last couple of weeks, AJ has stood in center ring with a microphone in his hand. His character has been a simple one, a good guy with morals. He’s just a babyface fighting the good fight, a throwback to a different time. In this particular programme, Styles has found himself offended by Joe’s comments, openly talking about how important it is to him that he’s a good father and husband. Now, consider everything that I just wrote and then ponder the modern wrestling fan culture.
Now look, I’m not going to say that Styles is the only WWE wrestler that could ever deliver such promos whilst still getting cheered but at the very least, he’s on an extremely shortlist. Many understandably suggest that nowadays, the white-meat babyface presentation is passé and tired. They are probably right too, but AJ is apparently playing by his own set of rules at this point. His in-ring performance so immaculate that he’s built up a level of respect that’s seemingly irreversible regardless of what he says.
In a world of cool guys and naive, bland good guys, AJ is just an old-fashioned babyface centerpiece. He’s not overtly dumb or silly (KAMI aside) but instead an elite athlete that believes in right and wrong. He’s got morality and pride, almost a modern Bret Hart but with a little extra flash. In many ways, it makes him the perfect champion too. His character is extremely pliable in that regard, easily shaped by his opponent’s approach. It can be a match built in respect or a conflict drenched in hate, either works fine.
For 9 months, AJ Styles has been WWE champion and his only ‘edge’ is some in-ring aggression. He’s not particularly cocky or cool but instead fills the role of a babyface main eventer that on-paper, would seemingly be better suited to a different time all-together. It quite evidently works though, and regardless of the online perception surrounding that Nakamura series or this reign in general, every single week the live crowd responds with sheer admiration, chanting “AJ Styles” with proud passion time and time again.
Samoa Joe is a great villain. He looks like a villain, talks like a villain and most importantly, he acts like one too. However, his counterpart here shouldn't be ignored or underplayed. Though Joe’s on-screen actions are that of a natural antagonist, he often finds himself as the fan favorite. That’s just the reality of his feel unfortunately, it comes with a confidence that can’t be shaken and is generally endearing to the modern fan. That isn’t really the case this time around though, because the audience doesn't seem to have any interest in doing anything but cheer AJ, a babyface that somehow seemingly appeals to the whole fan-base.
Styles’ background and skill make him the ‘hardcore fan’s ideal champion but it’s his ability to talk and act with authenticity that help make him a great champion. At this point in time, many talents on the WWE roster can produce in-ring brilliance. However, it’s a far shorter list of those that can also connect with the rest of the main roster audience. After 9 months as title-holder, it’s undeniable that Styles is well and truly that guy. Young and old, they all at the very least respect AJ and that’s provided SmackDown Live with a trusty champion that they can build their brand around.
There are many compliments suited to AJ Styles’ level talent. He’s a very special performer and as his career slowly winds down, it’s important that we recognize that. For everything he’s done though, his ability to play a traditional babyface in 2018 is arguably his most underrated feat yet. A likable family man has now been champion for 9 months, and the generally cynical crowds couldn't be happier. Why? Well I guess that’s part of what makes him phenomenal, it’s just a certain unexplainable magic.