The Wrasslin’ Essay: Making AJ Styles A WWE Superstar Before Payback

Heading into his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship match, WWE has less than three weeks to make AJ Styles a WWE Superstar.

Over the last few years, the Raw following WrestleMania has become a night of bread and circuses, designed partly to create memorable moments and mostly to keep WWE’s most irascible fans from revolting. Even with the show being booked with a “hardcore” audience in mind, it was impossible for any viewing fan to expect that by the end of the night, ROH/TNA/New Japan wrestling sensation AJ Styles would be named the number one contender to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.

When the smoke cleared and Styles stood victorious, however, the fundamental question immediately changed from “Will they ever do it?” to “Can they do it right?” While Styles is without doubt in the highest tier of professional wrestlers, he is still the new kid on the block to the overwhelming majority of Raw and SmackDown’s viewing audiences, and winning the acceptance of those people before WWE Payback on May 1 is a massive promotional and creative responsibility for Vince McMahon and his creative team. Styles is fully capable of getting himself over as a wrestler in the ring, but can WWE create an environment in which he can get himself over as a WWE Superstar whose words the fans hang on and whose matches they get lost in emotionally?

The simplest and most obvious thing that WWE needs to do to get Styles ready for his first major main event in the company is book him in television matches whose only goal is to make him look like the most deserving possible challenger for the title. Styles should only be in the ring with opponents who can make his moves look good and resist the temptation to get their own stuff in. When the time comes to get in the ring with Roman Reigns, Styles can bump and sell and make the champion look better than he ever has before, but until then, it’s important that his wins look strong. Big deal wrestlers don’t get beat up and eek out wins; they seal dominant victories with flourish.

A perfect example of what not to do occurred on last Thursday’s SmackDown, when The Phenomenal One attained the victory for his team in the main event tag match by rolling up Kevin Owens while his perennially wronged arch-nemesis, Sami Zayn, distracted him. It was as though Styles was “getting his win back” in some perverse way for his still very recent losses suffered while distracted by Chris Jericho rather than scoring a major victory that his supporters could be proud of.

Although making wrestlers whole again through reversal has been a major theme in Vince McMahon’s booking dating back to the early WrestleMania years, it isn’t what Styles needs to become a top contender for the most important title in wrestling. Jobbers win on distractions, rolling up much better wrestlers (especially heels) with hackneyed regularity. Big deal wrestlers win with their big deal moves in the middle of the ring. Even as WWE gave Styles the victory in SmackDown’s main event, the story that was shown rather than told was that he won in the way that someone who barely deserved to be there would.

This dovetails into what should be another top priority: to get over Styles’ finishing maneuver, whatever it may be.

Since arriving in the WWE at the 2016 Royal Rumble, Styles had teased many Styles Clashes while hitting few, won strong with the springboard flying forearm, made opponents submit with the Calf Crusher, and flashed his springboard 450 splash. What WWE needs to establish by Payback is which one of those moves is a threat to defeat Roman Reigns to capture the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.

While Styles’ variety of fresh, expertly executed moves is part of his appeal, if he is to become a true WWE Superstar for the profitable long run and not just the proverbial “good month,” Styles must tweak what he does in the ring to match the main-event formula of the WWE. For better or worse, the biggest matches at shows like WrestleMania generally boil down to protracted exchanges of finishing holds, reversals, and kickouts. For the crowd to follow the emotional beats with Styles during a match, it has to be clear which moves are primarily flashy and which ones are devastating. Whatever move the WWE braintrust believes makes AJ Styles his most Number One Contender-looking self needs to be consistently featured on Raw and SmackDown in the weeks between now and Payback.

The final and most important piece of AJ Styles becoming a true WWE main-event star may be the least exciting for many hardcore fans of Raw to consider, but it is a necessary evil that Styles be featured prominently in the lengthy in-ring dialogue exchanges that drive Raw. If Styles does not talk more on the microphone in the next month than he has in any single four-week period of his career to this point, then WWE is doing him and themselves as great disservice.

While the fans who drive the crowd know Styles well, television ratings suggest that only a quarter to a third of Raw’s audience ever watched Styles before the Royal Rumble. Aficionados and writers may both dislike character exposition because it feels like bricklaying rather than decorating, but as the Three Little Pigs taught everybody, building a sturdy house is more important than having fun. Big deal wrestlers stand in the ring on Raw and talk to the people about their storylines. Even if Styles isn’t delivering the material he’s best suited for, the most important thing at the moment is simply for people to get to know who he is and how he delivers material.

All in all, four weeks hardly seems like enough time to elevate any wrestler from losing a midcard match to challenging for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. If anybody’s up for the challenge, though, it’s AJ Styles. Payback will either be remembered as the time Vince McMahon gave a non-WWE-made star a half-hearted push or the night the greatest non-WWE-made wrestler of the last twenty years became a true WWE Superstar.

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David Gibb

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