Everyone who is a wrestling fan loves surprises. Many of the best surprises take place at the Royal Rumble. But this year’s Rumble didn’t feature many of these surprise participants, as past years featured the shocking returns of legends, the likes of a Kevin Nash or a Mr. Perfect. Perhaps this is a sign of the times and of the changes taking place within WWE. Because although there weren’t many surprises in the 2016 Royal Rumble, there was one that stood out, and in a very unique way.
That, of course, was the debut of A.J. Styles. Having traveled the world as an indie and internet darling for nearly two decades, as well as being a major part of TNA, ROH, and most recently, NJPW, Styles is more experienced than almost anyone on the WWE roster. In year’s past, the WWE powers that be would never give such a big opportunity to a guy who’s never been on a WWE product, nevermind a guy who has never even been mentioned or referenced by WWE in any way. This is due to the company’s mentality that the WWE fans won’t know who someone is if they haven’t been promoted by WWE (for instance, Vince McMahon reportedly thought the success of the ECW: One Night Stand payperviews was due to WWE promoting it well). The company has to make something seem important so the fans will think it’s important, or at least that had been the longstanding perception.
It’s not necessarily a stupid idea either. During the Monday Night Wars, WWE very rarely even acknowledged the existence of the rival WCW, even when WCW was pummeling them in the ratings. WCW accidentally put WWE on a pedestal by mocking their product, which was edgy at the time, but also made them seem like a jealous, bitter, ex-boyfriend. It wouldn’t be until WWE bought out WCW and their entire library, inevitably profiting off of their history with the WWE Network, that they would give them the time of day. WWE was also notorious for not exactly giving acquired WCW talent a fair shake, since it would lend credibility to their already defeated rival. Consider it a message being sent to future rival organizations.
One of the biggest legends that WCW created, Sting, even got this treatment. He was promoted by WWE as such, a legend, but when it came down to Sting’s first match on the grandest stage of them all, Wrestlemania, he was decisively beaten by Triple H. Another little fistfull of dirt being thrown on the grave of WCW.
So why promote all of these indie wrestlers now? There has been a huge influx of stars who made their bones outside of WWE from TNA, Ring of Honor, and New Japan the likes of Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Asuka, Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami, and Samoa Joe who are being pushed, rightfully, through the ranks of NXT and prepped for Monday Nights. Austin Aries and Shinsuke Nakamura have also been announced, on WWE’s own website no less, as having debuted on NXT tapings.
First of all, it was odd for WWE to announce the signing of some of these athletes ahead of time, since a surprise debut can be priceless. But we could just give them a pass for that in an age where everyone live tweets every moment of every event with picture and video evidence to boot. Presumably, they’re trying to get ahead of it while hopefully creating some social media buzz.
But, as stated above, these indie and international megastars were mostly brought in through NXT...so WWE could train them to do it their way...and so WWE could own them...andt hus owning the credit for their talent. Yes, the farm systems of Ohio Valley Wrestling and Florida Championship Wrestling have come a long way, and now NXT is less of a farm system and more of a grittier version of, and rival to, its own parent company. NXT is essentially the perfect excuse to put over accomplished, world renowned talent under the guise of developmental. Good old, homegrown, globally famous talent. And I’m fine with that. I’ll take a little snake oil in my chicken caesar salad.
But what makes A.J. Styles special enough to debut on a major WWE event like the Royal Rumble? I like to think it was an experiment to see if a WWE Universe foreigner could make a powerful debut. It was a low risk, high potential reward situation to put Styles in as the #3 entrant in the Royal Rumble. If the crowd doesn’t react, he’s just another new guy trying to make it in the big time. But boy oh boy...did they ever react. It was one of the loudest crowd reactions to a debut in recent history, I recon.
Of course, it was Florida, where TNA Impact is filmed; and Styles was so successful as the face of TNA for so many years. Clearly, that wasn’t an accident. And I give WWE a lot of credit for embracing outside talent as of late. It gives you a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling. Maybe we’re entering a more diplomatic era in our humanity, offering amnesty to outsiders with different backgrounds and ideologies. Maybe the world isn’t so cruel and cutthroat as to blacklist a backer of a competing horse. Because after “down the stretch they come,” no matter who wins by a nose, I’d like to think those horses shake hooves, and go out for drinks after.
For his first match on Raw, A.J. Styles wrestled Chris Jericho as a sort of passing of the torch, from one wrestling world traveler to another. The match was...okay. It could’ve been better. Jericho seemed a bit rusty and maybe it wasn’t the television debut The Phenomenal One had hoped for. Styles also seemed a tad nervous. Wrestling in WWE was something that he, or most people, might have thought would never happen, afterall. It was cute. But he’s sure to impress, and it makes me excited for next week’s Raw in a different kind of way. I’ll be cheering on a guy who could set an example that may influence company policy for generations to come.
As The Phenomenal One walked down the ramp on Monday Night Raw, in unfamiliar territory, to an unfamiliar audience, he could be heard shouting, “This is where I belong! This is where I should’ve been the whole time!,” and I couldn’t agree more. It would’ve been nice a decade ago, but I’ll gladly accept an older, wiser, Phenomenal A.J. Styles.
Nathan Burke is a standup comedian based in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @IamNathanBurke and listen to his comedy podcast, "So Now I'm the Asshole" at Fans.FM.