AJ Styles: Building Off His ‘Phenomenal’ Rookie Year in WWE

AJ Styles had one of the best years of any WWE superstar, and it was just his first in the company. What’s next for The Phenomenal One?

It was just about one year ago that AJ Styles made his WWE debut. A surprise third entrant in the 2016 Royal Rumble, Styles spent nearly thirty minutes entertaining the WWE Universe.

Over the course of the next year, Styles established himself as one of the top attractions in the company. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, as many felt his initial feud with Chris Jericho was a poor way to introduce The Phenomenal One to the WWE. But in the wake of WrestleMania 32, Styles began to solidify his place at the top of the card.

A highly regarded series of WWE Championship matches against Roman Reigns allowed Styles to show how good he was in the ring. For those who hadn’t followed AJ in TNA or New Japan, the matches at Extreme Rules and Payback were eye-opening. However, Styles was unable to defeat Reigns for the title.

Styles then turned his attention to a returning John Cena, and a reunion with The (Bullet) Club. With former NJPW stablemates Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows in his corner, a now villainous AJ Styles did what few in WWE had been able to do. He beat John Cena throughout the summer of 2016.

More importantly, Styles beat up John Cena. For someone who has been compared to a superhero, Cena taking that much punishment was unheard of. With Cena again out of the picture, Styles proclaimed himself the new “face that runs the place.”

Being drafted to SmackDown Live in the brand extension draft, AJ was in position to again challenge for the WWE Championship. This time, he dethroned Dean Ambrose at Backlash to win the most prestigious championship in WWE. And since September, Styles has been defending that championship against the best SmackDown has to offer.

But as we approach the Royal Rumble and the official one year anniversary of his debut, what’s next for AJ Styles? What can AJ do now to up the ante, since he’s already climbed to the highest peak in WWE?

Among the important things for Styles to do is continue the stellar in-ring work. AJ made his name on the independent circuit before heading to TNA and Japan. When he joined New Japan, Styles became regarded as one of the best wrestlers in the world. He consistently put on fantastic matches, regardless of opponent. Upon joining WWE, that trend continued. As one of the top workers in WWE, Styles has been a bright spot on every show he’s been a part of.

Continuing his run of dominance as WWE Champion can also build upon his early success. AJ has been WWE Champion for a little more than four months. While by no means a transitional type reign, it’s not exactly anything to brag about.

To truly establish himself as one of the greats, AJ Styles needs a title reign befitting a legend. Six months to a year as champion is a sign that you vanquish all challengers. What better way to prove your worth than to run roughshod over the company, holding the top prize the whole time?

If Styles is going to hold the title for much longer, he’s got a couple of major roadblocks in his way. Up first is a championship match at the Royal Rumble, where he’ll defend against John Cena. Sure, AJ has defeated Cena on numerous occasions. But let’s not forget: John Cena is at his best when titles are on the line. And with a chance to tie Ric Flair for most world title reigns, Cena will definitely bring his A game.

If Styles can get past Cena at the Royal Rumble, four weeks later he has another big obstacle. This past week on SmackDown, Shane McMahon announced an Elimination Chamber match for the WWE Championship. Should Styles be entered, he would be making his Elimination Chamber debut. Again, it’s a unique opportunity to distinguish himself from the rest of the roster.

Inside the Elimination Chamber, superstars have been known to get a little more crazy than usual. Pods destroyed, chokeslams through plexiglass, even superstars hanging from the roof of the structure itself – all normal. Imagine AJ Styles inside the Elimination Chamber. As if he’s not already among the top players in the game, picture a springboard 450 from out of a pod. Or a Phenomenal Forearm off the top of a pod.

But perhaps the most important thing for AJ Styles to build off a great rookie year in WWE? A true WrestleMania moment. All the greats have them, from Hogan bodyslamming Andre to Stone Cold’s bloody face. For every Seth Rollins cashing in, there’s a Shawn Michaels telling Ric Flair he loves him.

Last year, Styles had his first WrestleMania match against Chris Jericho. AJ wearing red-themed attire was the most notable part of that contest. Styles was still relatively new to WWE, yet he came up on the losing end of the match. Did Jericho really need another WrestleMania victory at the expense of a newcomer?

This year, AJ needs to have one of the featured WrestleMania matches. It’s the best way to build off all the great things he did in his first year in WWE. Obviously, the most high profile spot would be in the main event, as defending WWE Champion.

Short of being in the main event, there’s nothing readily apparent for Styles to do at WrestleMania this year. Depending on what happens at the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber, options may become clear. But for right now, it seems that the best thing for AJ Styles is main event or bust.

What about after WrestleMania? Styles has stated he “needs to be a better bad guy” because fans still want to cheer him. He’s carried SmackDown Live as the top heel for some time – maybe it’s time for him to be the top face? That’s one way to stop worrying about the fans cheering him, at least.

The potential for a reunion with The Club is always a possibility, despite the brand split putting them on different shows. Anderson and Gallows still back AJ up on co-branded shows, like Tribute to the Troops. So precedent is there.

Over the next year, it’s important for Styles to remain at the top of the card, potentially with new challengers. It’s the only guaranteed way to position him to build off a “phenomenal” rookie year.

What do you think is the key for Styles to keep advancing in WWE?

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