It’s the First Day of #StylesWeek, a celebration of all things Phenomenal and the sixth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start by making AJ a Wrestler You (Should) Probably Know Better. Tomorrow, we give you the finer points of the Allen Jones oeuvre with some Essential Viewing then march through Wednesday with a GIF Parade. After Hump Day we’ll make our Amazon.com-on-steroids dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…” before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Styles Clash-fueled civil war.)
Throughout its history, TNA has been pounded by fans, wrestling media, and even wrestlers for what would charitably be described as “incoherent booking”. Which is why the company’s initial presentation of A.J. Styles stands out as well thought out and unimaginably big league. Styles became the first-ever X Division Champion at TNA’s second weekly pay per view, defeating Low Ki, Jerry Lynn, and Psicosis. Jerry Jarrett originally envisioned the X Division as the ultimate showcase of what made TNA special, and A.J. Styles certainly lived up to that billing. The very next week, Styles and Lynn won the NWA Tag Team Titles. A.J. was booked to represent the bridge between the old-school NWA lineage (as embodied by the tag team titles) and twenty-first century wrestling (as embodied by the X Title). This was a well-cast role, and the Jarretts had put a great deal of thought into their portrayal of A.J. ahead of time.
With both World and Extreme Championship Wrestling dead for over a year, Jerry Jarrett — the only promoter to escape the crumbling territory scene of the mid-80s unscathed — had a vision. He wanted to present professional wrestling in a way that WWE, the industry’s bloated hegemon, refused to: athletic, in-your-face, and deeply personal. It would be, to coin a phrase, Total Nonstop Action.
With his vision for a new wrestling company in mind, Jarrett began scouring the rapidly shrinking non-WWE wrestling world in search of a standard bearer. His son, Jeff Jarrett, was a readily available (and eager) option to anchor TNA, but the elder Jarrett understood his fledgling federation needed a centerpiece star who hadn’t already been defined by the failed WCW or big brother WWE. The man Jarrett finally found who fit the bill was A.J. Styles, a wrestler who’d had a cup of coffee in the dying WCW and was quickly becoming a top star on the briefly global indy circuit of the early 2000s.
A.J. Styles in 2002 was truly something to behold. Capable of working the highspot-ridden style of the day, he bumped and sold with a crispness rarely seen outside of the WWE main event. In short, he was a (sigh) phenomenal worker. The most promising aspect of Styles at TNA’s inception was his age. At 25, he was young enough to play “exciting young man” without it seeming forced, but also physically and psychologically mature enough to actually push and trust with carrying important matches.
And most importantly to the Jarretts, they could control A.J., whose size kept him off WWE’s radar. This gave them a tremendous amount of time to build, package and present him. Jeff Jarrett, Scott Hall, Ken Shamrock, and other holdovers from the Monday Night War era were there to establish TNA in fans’ minds, but when interest in those stars petered out, Jerry Jarrett reasoned, there would be A.J. Styles, well-established to their fans and ready to step into the role of “the man.” Even if it took five years before the torch was passed to him, he would only be 30 and have a decade of strong matches in his title-winning prime ahead of him. Perhaps the entire history of TNA (or at least the history worth telling) is the story of how that didn’t happen.
By the beginning of 2003, TNA felt ready to push Styles, who had already become one of their signature stars, into the main event. Unfortunately, the TNA braintrust decided that the best person to give on-screen rub to A.J. Styles was none other than former WWF/WCW booker Vince Russo. Russo had already lost the majority of his “I started the Attitude Era” credibility during his horrifically bad stint in WCW, but he had secured a top job in TNA because he had always creatively taken care of Jeff Jarrett. The idea was for the famously controversial Russo to make the mostly white meat babyface Styles edgier, but the result was fans being forced to close the eye that was focused on Russo’s side of the screen in order to watch Styles through the other.
Pairing A.J. with Russo was one of the first in a long line of booking miscues involving both of them, but the payoff was a series of very good matches with Jeff Jarrett, who consistently put out a star-making effort in his bouts with A.J., passing the legendary NWA World Heavyweight Championship to him on two occasions. This would become a recurring theme in Styles’ career: he was the guy who everybody else believed in. Fans stayed behind him no matter how badly he was booked and opponents made him look good no matter how ludicrous the supposed reason for their match was. For those who operated outside what is now called the WWE Universe, A.J. Styles was collectively recognized as “our guy.”
Around the time TNA started recruiting serious WWE wrestlers like Christian Cage, Kurt Angle, and Booker T, TNA lost their way with A.J. Styles. The man who had been carefully molded and protected as the definitive TNA star was suddenly portrayed as a second class citizen when compared to “Superstars” from another company. In a truly “writing on the wall” moment, A.J., a top TNA main event star, became the simpleton lackey of Christian Cage, a European Title-level WWE wrestler. Through all these indignities, however, Styles and his fans soldiered on.
When the Hogan/Bischoff era of TNA began in the fall of 2010, there was deep suspicion from fans that A.J. Styles, the anti-Hulk Hogan, would be one of the first casualties of the new regime’s mission to reshape the company in their own image. However, in spite of the moronic booking decision to turn A.J. into the reborn 1985 Ric Flair (during which time A.J. famously caught heat for refusing to bleach his hair in Nature Boy fashion), Styles overcame. He was buried, pushed into moronic angle after moronic angle, but somehow stayed afloat, not just professionally, but also in the minds of fans. The true magic of A.J. Styles is his beautiful, faithful, honest connection to the fans: they accept him for what he is, don’t hold the dreadful situations into which he has been thrust against him, and he returns the favor by putting his out his best effort in the ring every time.
A.J.’s legacy currently stands at a crossroads. He is a three-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion, but has just one reign in the TNA World Heavyweight Title era. As TNA nears Bound For Glory, the overwhelming question hanging in the air is this: will A.J. Styles finally complete his eleven-plus year journey to become the figurehead of TNA, or will he and his faithful fans be jerked around once more? For better or worse, the story of A.J. Styles and the story of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling are inextricably tied together. He is the TNA wrestler. Even if TNA fails, folds, or otherwise disappears, those who watched and went along for the ride will always have the phenomenal memory of A.J. Styles.