In just over a week, Wrestlemania will take place in Orlando, Florida and AJ Styles, almost undoubtedly the best in-ring performer on the roster, is booked for a match with Shane McMahon. This match-up was thrown together rather quickly in the past few weeks and was the subject of much criticism among fans, as the general thought is that AJ deserves a more polished competitor to work with at the biggest show of the year.
When AJ Styles started wrestling in his hometown in 1998, he quickly made a name for himself for his pure athleticism and less than two years later, he signed a WCW contract just months before the promotion folded. He maintained his profile on the independent scene through his work in NWA Wild Side and the short-lived World Wrestling All-Stars promotion, prompting an offer from NWA-TNA when the company launched in 2002.
For the next 11 years, AJ Styles was the franchise of TNA and the athlete that most defined the organization. While the group has never truly made it main stream, the cable and pay-per-view outlets gave him a platform to showcase his unbelievable athletic skills. Styles is considered by many to be the wrestler of the decade of the 2000s, as he did things in the ring that most hadn't seen before. He also brought an intensity and crispness to his work that consistently put him among the best wrestlers in the world at any given time.
After Hulk Hogan gutted TNA's budget when he worked Dixie Carter for major money, the company asked many of those that built the group to take a pay cut for their next contract. Styles, who carried the company on his back, was among those that opted to work elsewhere. It didn't take long for AJ to find another full-time schedule, which consisted of working for New Japan, Ring of Honor, and even a few independent appearances. Japan was a very successful venture for the native of Gainsville, GA that saw him win the IWGP Heavyweight championship, making him one of the few foreigners in the company's 40-year history to win the belt. During his two year run in NJPW, AJ was the leader of the Bullet Club, the most popular stable in the world at the time.
From his early days in TNA, fans always wondered, "what would happen if AJ Styles goes to WWE?" More than anything, it was just hypothetical because the thought was that AJ either wouldn't be offered a deal as a result of his high-risk move set or his talents would be squandered by the WWE machine. Unquestionably, the talent was always there, but timing can really be everything. If AJ showed up in 2008, he would've been lost in the shuffle of WWE. When AJ finally debuted in 2016, the circumstances were right for his introduction to the company and it allowed him to be properly featured. At a time when WWE is expanding, there's a demand for quality talent in a variety of styles. Is Enzo as solid in the ring as AJ? No, but Enzo is extremely entertaining in his own way, which is why he's successful. With the exit of CM Punk, Rey Mysterio, and others in recent years, there was an opportunity for premiere talent to excel, and it provided a platform for AJ Styles. AJ is one of the wrestlers that can have a good match with almost anyone, similar to those mentioned above, and that ability is an extremely valuable asset.
After he appeared in the Royal Rumble, AJ worked a feud with Chris Jericho, an angle that garnered some complains since Styles was the new star in the company and Jericho didn't need the win, but it's very possible that management put Styles in a program with Y2J to see if he could adapt to the WWE playbook. Since that time, Styles won the WWE title and had some of the best matches in the company, including tremendous matches with John Cena. In many ways, AJ took the "HBK role" so to speak because he became one of the most over performers on the roster simply with his ability to have consistently great matches. Plus, Styles had considerably better promos in the past year than at any other point in his career so even at 39, the argument could be made that Styles is a better overall competitor now than he was in TNA.
After such a stellar 2016, you would think that AJ would be a major factor in WM, but for whatever reason, WWE brass decided to book Bray/Orton for the top spot on Smackdown, which is fine if it ultimately elevates Wyatt to the next level. But, it seems like all the momentum Styles had was halted when he didn't have an opponent just weeks before the show. Shane McMahon, the member of the family that quietly left the organization in 2009 after it became apparent that Stephanie and Triple H would eventually take over, returned to an enthusiastic response last year. There's no doubt that Shane provided a spark to the product and he deserves major credit for all the risks he took in his previous tenure. When WM 32 lacked hype, he was paired with The Undertaker for a cell match, generating a buzz simply because fans expected Shane to dive off the cage. Ultimately, the angle surrounding the contest was pointless as Shane became an authority figure anyway so nothing was on the line for the bout.
As I said, Shane earned his stripes, and went above expectations when he started on TV almost two decades ago to prove that he brought more to the table than just his last name. However, the 47-year-old isn't necessarily the same character that he was when he plunged from the video screen in 2000. Shane has gray hair and a family, is 2017 really a time when he should participate in stunts to camouflaged his novice in-ring skills? Aside from that, it's unfair to expect him to give the same performance now that he did almost twenty years ago.
So, why did the writing team decide to book AJ vs. Shane at Wrestlemania?
Basically, it's an ego playing a role in the decision making process. That's not to say that Shane has some malicious intent behind it either. Clearly, he takes the risks he does because he wants to give the fans a great show. But, considering that Styles was the most praised in-ring athlete on the roster in 2016, I would guess that it was as simple as Shane wanted to have a match with Styles so it was booked. This isn't intended to sound disrespectful to Shane, but considering his age and experience level, it's doubtful that WM 33 will be some type of repeat of the match he had with Kurt Angle at the King of the Ring. The bottom line is, AJ Styles deserves a solid in-ring opponent at the biggest show of the year. At 39, how many WM matches will Styles get the chance to have? He worked a risky style for years, and it seems like his appearances at the showcase event should be maximized, especially because he has the skills to deliver classic matches.
But, why is ego allowed to dictate business?
As repetitive as this sounds, it's another example of the ripple effect of the lack of competition in the industry. WWE is so far ahead of its "competition" that management could book their own choices without nearly as many consequences as if there was an alternative. If the fans want to watch wrestling, they will watch WWE. Are there technically other options? Sure, but management assembled some of the best talent in the world on the roster and then get to decide what role they have on a particular show. Fans can watch WM 33 for $10 on the network, what other wrestling pay-per-view is the general public going to order this month? Realistically, WWE doesn't have to "compete" for buyrates so there's not an outside factor that pushes the product to the next level. The decision to book AJ vs. Shane McMahon is an example of why competition is the key for any business.
Until next week
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