WWE: AJ Styles Has Become The New Shawn Michaels


Credit: WWE.com

During this year’s WWE Royal Rumble Pre-Show, Ric Flair stated that he felt AJ Styles could become the next Shawn Michaels. Given that Flair is widely-considered by many to be the greatest wrestler of all time, and that Flair, himself, considers Michaels the greatest, this was high praise for the Phenomenal One. There was just one slight inaccuracy with Flair’s prediction… AJ Styles has already reached that level.

When AJ Styles debuted in WWE over two years ago, many of his long time fans were justifiably tentative to revel in his arrival.

Would Vince McMahon, long-known to have a penchant for larger grapplers, be willing to use Styles, just shy of six feet, in a featured role? Would he be willing to look past his solid, but certainly not earth-shattering, microphone skills?

As was the case 20 years earlier with HBK, the answer was an emphatic yes.

In reality, McMahon’s hand was forced by Styles’ show-stealing performances, which seemed to occur every time he stepped foot in the ring. Maybe the WWE higher ups had not seen footage of Styles in Ring of Honor, New Japan, or TNA, but even if they had not, Styles quickly began adding to the “WWE” section on his resume of classic matches.

The arrival of Styles into the arena on that January night in Orlando garnered one of the loudest crowd reactions in years. Entering the 30-man match early allowed for the Royal Rumble to transform into the Styles Showcase. Styles wasted no time showing a worldwide audience what he was capable of, dazzling those in attendance and watching at home with a fast-paced fury of offensive maneuvers.

His eventual elimination (by mega heel Kevin Owens in a sharp piece of booking) elicited a chorus of loud and sustained heel heat from the thousands inside Amway Center. The boos, would subside, however, and turn into appreciative applauding of a debut well-done.

Much like Michaels in Rumbles past, AJ proved he could turn heads at the January battle royal, but the parallels between the Phenomenal One and the Icon do not end there.

Credit: WWE.com

Carrying a McMahon at WrestleMania

It was hard to feel anything but overwhelmed at the prospect of Shawn Michaels facing Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 22. By this point in his career, Shawn had deservedly earned himself the nickname “Mr. WrestleMania”. His efforts in an iron man match with Bret Hart, a ladder match against Razor Ramon, and a dream match opposite Kurt Angle were among the best professional wrestling matches of all time.

Undoubtedly, McMahon is one of the most entertaining performers to enter a wrestling ring, but (to state the obvious), he was no Kurt Angle in terms of wrestling ability. It seemed that 2006 would mark the end of a three year streak of incredible Mania matches from HBK. Given Vince’s awkward bumping, limited coordination skills, and general lack of athleticism, it seemed this match was destined to be a DUD.

But it wasn’t.

HBK proved that, on any given Sunday, with any given opponent, the Showstopper is able to do just what the nickname says. Using a myriad of clever booking tricks, and assists from Shane McMahon and the Spirit Squad, Shawn and Vince had a very entertaining bout. It wasn’t a Lou Thesz/Verne Gagne, catch-as-catch-can, technical classic. But it was a captivating match, filled with well-timed high spots that captivated the Chicago fans.

Towards the end of the match, Michaels leapt from a taller-than-usual ladder, delivering a flying elbow drop to a prone and…trashcan wrapped McMahon. It was an iconic moment, and one that joined the ranks of the countless others Michaels had produced on wrestling’s grandest stage. Michaels had exceed expectations, and had a great match against McMahon.

Sound familiar? It certainly does to AJ Styles. The Phenomenal One was set to face Vince’s son Shane at last year’s WrestleMania, and as the event loomed closer, expectations sank lower.

Like Shawn, however, AJ would have no part in succumbing to low expectations. He and Shane opened WrestleMania 34 with a show stealing classic, which featured aerial maneuvers, brawling, technical wrestling, and submission grappling. Styles rose to the challenge, and made the absolute most of what he was given.

In Case of Emergency, Revert To What Works

It’s 2007. You’re a top booker in WWE. Your long term plan for WrestleMania 23 has been John Cena vs Triple H, in a rematch from last year’s Wrestlemania. A year ago, the two had a match that made the fans in attendance at the All-State Arena become louder and more vocal than any Mania crowd in years. You’re sure the two can match, or even exceed their past efforts this time, when they face off in the gigantic and awe-inspiring Ford Field in Detroit.

Then, one half of your main event, in this case Triple H, goes down with a very serious quad injury, which will see him out of action for close to a year.

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But you don’t panic, worry, or despair. You know you have got a veteran of veterans on your roster who will more than be able to save the day.

And so Shawn Michaels did just that for WrestleMania 23, rescuing the main event of the show by putting on a thrilling, 30-minute main event with the-then Doctor of Thuganomics. This was Michaels’ first one-on-one WrestleMania main event in almost 10 years, and he made his return count. How intense was Michaels’ effort? Intense enough that he busted out his rarely-used, but ultra viscious, steel stairs piledriver.

Perhaps owing to the nostalgia of seeing Michaels competing for the WWE Title at Wrestlemania after all these years, the fans were solidly behind HBK, gasping at every near-fall and submission attempt. Alas, another HBK Mania title win was not to be on this night, as Michaels would come up short, tapping out to John Cena’s STF. He may have lost the match, but his heroics in saving the WrestleMania main event won him the respect of fans and fellow wrestlers alike.

AJ Styles also knows a thing or two about bailing the WWE out of a tough situation.

Credit: WWE.com

Jinder Mahal was the WWE Champion for the majority of 2017. The reasons for, and effects of, his reign warrant their own separate article, but suffice to say his box office numbers weren’t exactly comparable to Bruno Sammartino. Some speculate his reign was set up to engage a new fan base in India, but when Network subscriptions in that country failed to even come close to doing the level of business anticipated, the WWE could in no way justify the dreary attendances and low ratings that seemed entirely linked with the ascension of the Modern Day Maharajah.

Enter the Face that Runs the Place. On a Smackdown Live match from the UK, Styles stunned the world, defeating Mahal with the Phenomenal forearm to regain the WWE championship. Several weeks later in a rematch at Clash of Champions, Styles would double down on his efforts, retaining the title, but also carrying Mahal to undoubtedly the best match off his career.

With AJ back as champion, it seemed a sense of relief swept over SmackDown Live  The WWE began building towards a much smarter experiment, building towards a WrestleMania title match featuring Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura–two of the best wrestlers in the world.

Next: Styles vs. Nakamura Must Go On Last at WWE WrestleMania 34

Now two years removed from his Royal Rumble debut, AJ can stake a valid claim to making Ric Flair’s prediction a reality. He has, among many other accomplishments, had a classic rivalry with Chris Jericho, defeated John Cena cleanly, and entered WrestleMania as the WWE Champion.

You know who else has done that? Alright, I think you get the picture.