AJ Styles is the current WWE Champion. He began his second reign last week, after pinning Jinder Mahal on the November 7 episode of Smackdown.
Championship belts are signifiers of good faith by wrestling promotions. Because this is all predetermined, no one “wins” a title, technically speaking. It would be more accurate to say that a champion is “entrusted” with the title. The company implicitly relies on that individual to uphold and model a standard of quality for the rest of the locker room to follow. There are formal obligations that come with being champion; one has to do more interviews, photo-ops, and “show up and smile” types of public appearances. Being champion is an all-encompassing job; the person is implicitly representing the brand whenever he or she is in view of the public.
From this perspective, AJ Styles is an ideal WWE champion. In fact, it would be entirely reasonable to put it this way: It is always the right time for AJ Styles to be WWE champion. He succeeds and is proficient in every way that is important to being a professional wrestler. He has a deep moveset, which fans see a fraction of on any given day. He can mat wrestle. He can fly high, despite being 40 years old. He can sell like a street corner fruit vendor; he takes finishers and makes them look painful better than any of his contemporaries (Dolph Ziggler, to be fair, is incredible at this too). Just check out how Styles lands at an angle on this Khallas, rather than taking a flat back bump:
And most importantly, Styles can work with anyone on the roster. In a match, whenever there’s a significant discrepancy in skill between two competitors, wrestling fans refer to this as “carrying,” as in, “That guy carried his opponent to a great match.” And AJ Styles always makes his opponent look great, even if he has to carry him. He made Shane McMahon, a glorified stunt performer, look like a legitimate contender at WrestleMania 33. Heck, he had a legitimate, month-long feud with James Ellsworth, and he didn’t lose his pride in the process.
And the funniest part? Going into his title match against Jinder Mahal, Styles was actually the underdog. Mahal is not as talented as Styles, but he had a few real world factors that worked in his favor. First, the show was overseas in Manchester, England, and title belts rarely change hands overseas as a matter of precedence. Second, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon has always had a preference for big men; Styles is 5’11 and weighs a little under 220 pounds, whereas Mahal looks like he mainlines creatine by the jar. And third, Mahal is Indo-Canadian. Although this might have been an obstacle in a different time period, WWE is seeking to expand its global audience, particularly in Asia. Since WWE will be touring India in December, many fans assumed that Mahal would be holding the belt at least until then.
But that is no longer the case, which is either a ringing endorsement of Styles, an embarrassing putdown of Mahal, or both. The recent low SmackDown ratings were reportedly a factor; perhaps WWE decided that placing the belt on a more established talent was the best way to garner consistent viewership.
So where does the storyline go from here?
First, it’s important to remember that originally, Mahal was rumored to hold the title until WrestleMania, where he would face John Cena. WWE might still want to have Cena versus Mahal in the main event, and they still might want Mahal to to be champion when the company tours India in December. Could Styles’ latest reign be a stopgap measure–to boost the ratings in the short-term–while the long-term plans remain unchanged? If so, Styles could be dropping the title back to Mahal and sooner rather than later, which would be awful.
But for argument’s sake, let’s go the more optimistic route. Let’s say that the company has shifted its priorities and will allow Styles to carry the title into WrestleMania. Who should his opponent be?
The obvious choice would be John Cena. Styles and Cena thrive on competition; their confrontation at SummerSlam was one for the books. And feuding with Cena pushed Styles to be better on the mic–his sole weak point. He cut fantastic promo after promo during their feud, and Cena, who’s always been incredible on the mic, pushed himself even further than he usually does.
But the dream route to take? Is to put AJ Styles in a WrestleMania angle with Shinsuke Nakamura. These two have tangled overseas in the past; their showdown at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in New Japan Pro Wrestling is considered a modern classic.
The two men teased a feud at several key moments this year, most memorably at Money in the Bank, where they shared an intense staredown on opposite sides of the ladder. Nakamura is a talent with charisma to spare–an internationally known superstar who can represent WWE’s interests in Asia and beyond. And AJ Styles is the perfect man to feud with him, highlight his best qualities, and give the King of Strong Style his first WWE title reign on the biggest stage possible.