Is AJ Styles the greatest in ring performer in wrestling history?
“If you’re not a fan of AJ Styles, you shouldn’t be watching the WWE.”
Those were the words of wrestling legend Paul Heyman just moments after his client defeated the Phenomenal One at Survivor Series. It’s a pretty glowing endorsement from a guy who has seen it all in the wrestling industry, but it was the line later in his backstage interview that really stuck with me. It has me asking the question; “Is the current WWE Champion, The Phenomenal AJ Styles the best wrestler in the history of the industry?” Brock Lesnar’s Advocate uttered these words later in the interview, “He is truly the single greatest in-ring performer that I have had the pleasure of watching up close… and no one compares to what I witnessed in there tonight.” So let’s take a deeper look at the growing legend that is AJ Styles, and his place in not only WWE, but wrestling history.
His early TNA days
Styles debuted in TNA in 2002 after the closing of WCW (and of WWF/E failing to pick up his contract). He shined immediately in the X-Division, TNA’s answer to WCW’s cruiserweight division, and slowly people started to realize just how good he could be. TNA began to grow, and even got a TV deal with Spike TV. With that, the reputation of Styles grew, but it wasn’t until Unbreakable 2005 that the world started to stand up and take notice. He came out victorious in TNA’s only 5-Star match over Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels in what is widely considered the best Triple Threat in wrestling history. Styles went on to become TNA’s first Grand Slam Champion, and like Smackdown Live is today, the best days of Total Nonstop Action were donned The House that AJ Styles built. But unfortunately the company went in a poor direction that they are still trying to recover from, and Styles moved on to bigger and better things, namely, New Japan Pro Wrestling.
New Japan Pro Wrestling
In 2014, Styles took the departing Prince Devitt’s (Finn Balor) spot as the head of Bullet Club. In Japan Styles had some fantastic matches with everyone in the company, namely Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, who collectively became known as “The Big 4.” His match with Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10 is regarded as his best singles match to date (which is saying a lot), but it would be his final match in New Japan. Finally, 18 years after making his debut for WCW, he would join Vince McMahon’s company and debut in the Royal Rumble match in 2016.
Styles made his debut in the Royal Rumble and was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Ever since that point, he has been the hottest and most valuable performer in the company. Styles has had amazing matches with everyone, namely John Cena, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, James Ellsworth, Finn Balor and of course, The Beast, Brock Lesnar. Although he is aging, he has adapted his style, and two years into his WWE run, Styles has claimed the spot of best wrestler in the entire company. With nothing looking to slow him down in the near future, it is almost inevitable he keeps that title for as long as he wants. So with a plethora of amazing matches and jaw dropping moves under his belt, it’s time to ask the question; “Is AJ Styles the best wrestler in wrestling history?”
First of all, no one is claiming that Styles is a bigger draw than the likes of Hulk Hogan, The Rock, Stone Cold or even John Cena. That would be a silly conclusion to come to, as they all helped wrestling become what it is today. But we are arguing about wrestling ability, and for that title, Styles has some different competition. This is obviously based on the opinions of experts and fans alike, as ‘best’ is always a subjective term, but Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart have always been the favorites for this title for as long as we can remember, but maybe it’s time to put Styles on that pedestal too.
During this same interview, Heyman claimed that Styles is to this generation what those three men were to theirs. They evolved the wrestling style and excelled above and beyond what others were capable of, and when considering the talent of this generation, it’s clear that Styles has been the leader and stands out from an in-ring perspective. But Heyman’s comment went beyond that as he said that Styles had evolved and updated the style that those three perfected, and at this point, it’s a perfectly legitimate argument to have.
Styles can wrestle any type of match with any opponent, and the endorsement from many fans, fellow performers and experts alike is that Styles can carry anyone to a good match is the perfect summation of his skill set. Although he isn’t performing moves today that he made commonplace in TNA 10 years ago, he still drops the jaws of anyone watching around the world. He is smooth as silk and can do everything inside a ring, and even if you don’t engage with the Styles character (we’ll get to that), you can’t deny that every time he steps foot in a wrestling ring, you wouldn’t dare change the channel. Like Flair, Michaels and Hart before him, Styles accomplished something that’s hard to do in wrestling these days. He stood out and performed moves that no one had seen before in the squared circle. But even the moves he borrowed from stars before him, he added a flair all to himself, and that’s what has kept him going at the highest level for the past two decades, and is still evident in his matches today.
Like the three men we are comparing Styles to, he wasn’t the biggest performer, but that has never hindered him. He has risen to the top of all three major wrestling companies he has spent a long time in and won over every single fan in whatever audience he has wrestled in front of. So like those three, he has turned that negative into a positive.
The only real complaint we can justify surrounding The Phenomenal One is the lack of an exciting character. It is a problem that has hurt many over their careers, and it is most likely the reason that Styles finds himself on this list, rather than one compared to The Rock, Hogan and Austin as the best all around performers. His promos in TNA were average, but with the help from a heel turn in Bullet Club, he showed more personality afterwards. He has been more than acceptable on the microphone during his WWE run, so again, he has managed to improve on his greatest weakness which is a testament to his drive and work ethic.
When it’s all said and done, AJ Styles will no doubt be remembered long after he is gone for his incredible matches. That would land him on most people’s Top 10 of All-Time list, but for this very conversation, what do I think? With all due respect to every wrestler that’s stepped foot in a ring anywhere around the world, Styles has just been a notch ahead for his entire career. After he wrestles the likes of Nakamura, Cesaro, Seth Rollins, Samoa Joe, Bray Wyatt, Adam Cole, Johnny Gargano and others; you’ll find it quite hard to disagree that he is the best of all time.
On the other hand, I do understand childhood memories last a lifetime, so if you’ve got your attachments to Flair, Hart, Savage, Benoit, Guerrero, Michaels or anyone else; I completely understand and find it hard to argue. But from my vantage point, after growing up with Styles as one of my favorite wrestlers, I see him to be the greatest in-ring performer this business has ever seen, and I’m thankful that I’ve been lucky enough to see his entire Phenomenal career.
So what do you fans think? Is Styles the greatest of all time? Is he even in the conversation? Who would you specifically place above him in this conversation? Whether you agree or disagree, the beauty of wrestling is that the fans all have their opinions. We can all happily share them which creates great dialogue between people who all enjoy wrestling. So comment and tell us your opinions below.