A soap opera for men, ballet for blokes; whatever you want to call it, pro wrestling is unique as a storytelling medium. It blends performance, sport and narrative in a way that no other form of entertainment manages, telling ongoing, sometimes multi-year stories involving multiple characters across a number of weekly shows.
The year is drawing to a close and as it winds up I want to revisit and reflect on the five in ring-stories that I feel defined pro wrestling in 2018. It was a roller coaster year of some great highs and low lows but I have chosen to focus on the five wrestling stories that I believe define the year in a positive light.
After two pieces looking elsewhere we are back to the main roster for the final two entries in the series, today looking at AJ Styles year at the top of SmackDown Live.
Sometimes in pro wrestling it is the simplest stories that are the most effective but sometimes it is also the simple stories that get overlooked: a man triumphs over unreasonable odds, a warrior defeats a spectre from his past, a father fights for his family and finally a champion proud of his legacy cracks when it is torn down in front of him.
When talking about AJ Styles with fellow fans in 2018 it is almost impossible to avoid peaking behind the curtain and debating his lack of main event matches, the supposed failures to live up to expectations and endless rotation of the similar matches. These supposed slights and failures on AJ’s part have very much overshadowed his overarching narrative arc. However when looked at as a whole over 2018 the WWE has penned a story that is quite compelling when reviewed. So today as we look at the stories of 2018 I want to put that backstage bickering and speculation to the side and focus in on the in ring story of AJ Styles in 2018.
The constant theme for AJ Styles in 2018 was pressure. He entered the year as SmackDown’s World Champion and when you are at the top of a division pressure is a given. As the saying goes ‘heavy lies the crown’ and the weight Styles was placed under in 2018 was more like gravity than the kind of spikes in tension most champions feel when it come time to defend their title. This pressure was just constantly there everywhere he went, constantly pushing downwards, constantly threatening to leave him collapsing in ruins, constantly forcing him to push back even when his legs were weakest, constant, unyielding, pressure.
The pressure came from all kinds of sources, from management overreach using him to get back at other wrestlers, to pretenders to his throne who saw Styles’ legs starting to buckle as the sky came down on him and sought to take advantage of it.
It wasn’t the kind of thing a veteran like Styles was not prepared for but through 2018 he would have to dig into reserves he had built up over nearly 20 years in the ring as he faced threats both new and old. Simple stories strung together to create a set of waves that would pound Styles all year.
From the word go Styles had his back to the wall: a two on one handicap match at the Royal Rumble and a 6 Pack Challenge at Fastlane. Pushed into these matches by management overreach Styles would deal it with typical assuredness, calmly going about his business, maintaining a facade of composure despite the unfair odds. The Face That Runs The Place, The Champ Who Runs The Camp.
Styles would not emerge from his next excursion in such a pristine manner.
It is impossible to chronicle the first six months of 2018 for AJ Styles without telling the story of Shinsuke Nakamura. The King of Strong Style arrived in the WWE in 2016 to much critical acclaim, fresh off a winning performance against Styles at Wrestle Kingdom, New Japan’s version of Wrestlemania. In the highly praised match the pair played a high stakes game of wrestling chess that Nakamura ended up on top of. Nakamura’s initial run in NXT would receive similar praise however when he graduated to the main roster in 2017 he would not find the kind of groove he seemed to have effortlessly slipped into wrestling down at Full Sail.
By the time he won the 2018 Royal Rumble he was a man in desperate need of a big win and it was curious to see how quickly he chose to face AJ when he won a Wrestlemania title opportunity, calling Styles out within minutes of winning the chance. The other option of course was for Nakamura to face the Universal Champion Brock Lesnar, a man that Nakamura also shared a Wrestle Kingdom match with in 2006, one he came out on the losing side of. The fact he chose what he perceived to be the easier option would play into the ending of their match where this time it was AJ that was able to keep a step ahead of an over confident Nakamura.
At the pressure cooker of the SmackDown Main Event of Wrestlemania the facade of an eccentric but ultimately civil competitor would begin to crack when Nakamura saw his title opportunity fall away. Nakamura attempted to compete in the kind of equal footing chess match he had previously won but he could no longer keep up with Styles. Exposed as the clear second best for all the world to see, Nakamura would try to bring Styles down the only way he had left – a cheap shot, the first of oh so many that Nakamura would dish out to the WWE Champion.
Slowly Styles’ facade would also slip and when officials refused to intervene he would be forced to take matters into his own hands. Jeopardising the championship match at Greatest Royal Rumble to finally seek some pay back. Seeing cracks starting to develop in his opponents exterior Nakamura would push even harder, doubling down on the foul play but he would not be able to completely crack Styles.
As a veteran Styles had plenty of history dealing with and even dealing out these kind of tactics. For a minute in TNA he was the protege of ‘The Dirtiest Player In The Game’ and his time in NJPW was at the helm of the Bullet Club, a faction that never missed a moment to bring things to the gutter. While Styles has largely left those tactics behind him since coming to the WWE he was ready and able to return fire even while keeping his head about him. Styles held onto his title as he comprehensively proved he had evolved into the superior of the pair of legends.
The fault lines where there for all to see though. As a champion Styles held himself to a high standard and Nakamura was able to put a chink in his armour so as Styles valiantly pushed back against The King of Strong Style, one man who noticed AJ’s legs starting to buckle was the cerebral destroyer Samoa Joe. Unlike Nakamura Joe knew AJ not just as an opponent but as a person and one time friend. Joe knew that as much as AJ was proud of his legacy in the ring it was his family where his heart truly lay and so it was his family and role as a father that Joe would target.
Whereas Nakamura pushed AJ with out and out in ring aggression, Joe would play mind games with AJ, specifically targeting Styles’ wife and youngest daughter. AJ has the date of birth of all his kids tattooed on his ribs but it is only his daughter who gets a bow to signify which one she is. For a Father a daughter occupies a special place in your heart and rightly or wrongly carries an increased level of vulnerability.
Joe’s mind games worked to pile the pressure further on Styles but perhaps they even worked a little too well at putting Styles in a distracted mindset. In their first match at Summer Slam, Styles would walk out of their match after Joe pushed him too far, losing but keeping the championship through the champs advantage. At Super Show-Down Styles would come out and symbolically toss the title to the side before entering the ring to give Joe a hellacious beating on the way to a victory for himself and his family.
Once again the pressure had mounted on Styles but he had found an answer when it came time to step in the ring. Styles would keep pushing back as attacks rained down on him and his title reign would go past the one year mark. The former face of TNA world even stretch his reign out so far that it would become one of the top 10 longest WWE Title reigns of all time. Styles mastery of his craft had allowed him to overcome his opponents even while his mind was elsewhere, at least for now.
The sky would finally fall on AJ Styles when he faced Daniel Bryan for the third time of the year on SmackDown. He had beaten the overmatched Nakamura and held Samoa Joe at bay but when faced with Bryan, an equal in terms of pure in ring skill but also someone who was in their final match willing to go to those nasty depths, the pressure that had been mounting and threatening to bring him undone all year finally overwhelmed him.
The two equals went move for move over a pair of matches, but when Bryan hit the now all too familiar low blow in the second match, he was able to topple the champ. After a year of overcoming these exact situations there was a frustrating irony at play but also a sense of storyline symmetry. Just as it was a low blow by Nakamura that had initially revealed the cracks in Styles facade, it was a low blow that would send the sky crushing down on a man who had pushed it away for so long.
In their rematch Styles would fail to regain his title and the frustration he felt would bubble over two weeks later when he was confronted by Vince McMahon. This was too much for a man who was proud of the brand he had built, and proud of an unprecedented championship reign he had managed to forge but a man who was also broken from the pressure he was under. The CEO of the company would question Styles’ ability after he had carried his own company’s championship for over a year and Styles would let that pent up aggression out, attacking McMahon and leaving the Chairman of the company lying on the floor. Where this heads for the former WWE Champion it is not clear but once again it is a simple story shining through and taking advantage of the narrative that has built up to this point.
Five years ago you could have got some crazy betting odds that AJ Styles would have a year long run as WWE Champion and the fact he reigns for so long is a huge accomplishment in itself. However when history records Styles’ 2018 I hope it becomes about more than that 371 day number. Through a series of small stories that all link up narratively he has managed to paint a picture of a man, a champion and a father bearing up for so long as he attempted to defy the gravity of being a champion before finally falling apart. How he puts himself back together in 2019 will hopefully be another chapter in his story to relish.
Thanks for reading LOP, what did you think of AJ Styles Championship run through 2018 and what does 2019 have in store for him? Let me know in the comments below, on twitter @Sir_Samuel or you could even write about it yourself in the LOP Columns Forum where we are always looking for new writers. If you want to register just let me know so I can make sure your registration goes through smoothly (we are currently under siege from Russian bots). You can sign up here.
Also make sure you keep an eye out for Part 5 of the series where I will take a peak at what may be the last remaining hero in the WWE’s main event scene Seth Rollins.