2016 was an overall fantastic year for the WWE product. WrestleMania 32 was undoubtedly the most underwhelming ones in recent years, but one night after, it felt as though WWE truly had a fresh start and took an entirely new direction altogether. This direction involved pushing younger, fresher and newer superstars and though AJ Styles couldn’t be classified as “young” at that point, he was still very new in his WWE run.
He debuted in January of 2016 and was unsuccessful in his WrestleMania debut. Despite this, he found himself as the #1 contender to Roman Reigns‘ newly-won WWE Championship just one night after. While fans were surprised that Styles was given a PPV main event so early on, there was a general sense of positivity, despite knowing that Reigns wouldn’t lose his title so early.
As it turned out, the feud with Roman Reigns would span over two PPVs, with Reigns decisively winning both matches. Even in defeat, Styles looked great and he made Roman Reigns look fantastic as well. However, he was a feud to establish Reigns as champion and he did a good job of it. It was perhaps this that WWE used as a litmus test for Styles, as bigger things would await him.
Around early June 2016, AJ Styles was forced to accept his defeat like a man and after failing to qualify for the Money in the Bank ladder match, everybody wondered what was next for him. The following week, John Cena made his return for the first time in months. He had missed WrestleMania 32 due to an injury and was slowly picking up the pace in terms of his Hollywood career. However, he wouldn’t take extended breaks like he does now. During his WWE runs, it would last for a few months at a stretch before he fully returned.
AJ Styles targetted John Cena right away and despite a friendly handshake to introduce themselves, Styles used Gallows & Anderson to attack Cena, turning heel for the first time in his WWE career in the process. It turned out to be a career-changing move for AJ Styles in WWE and nobody expected to see a dream rivalry so early on. It was the face of TNA vs the face of WWE for the ten prior years. Naturally, it was viewed as a huge match and at Money in the Bank, it delivered in a huge way, as they told an incredible story of how Styles could wrestle circles around Cena, yet still needed assistance from Gallows & Anderson to win.
Cena would get a little assistance from Enzo & Cass following that and at Battleground, he got a measure of revenge on Styles as he pinned him in a six-man tag team match. However, that wasn’t enough. The brand split saw Styles get separated from Gallows & Anderson, while Cena followed Styles to SmackDown Live.
This obviously meant that they needed to conclude their rivalry and with nobody to interfere, the contract was signed for a dream rematch at SummerSlam. The excitement was visible and nobody would have expected what happened. Surprisingly, it went on second in the night and WWE probably regretted that later on, because no match on the card managed to live up to the standard and quality of this.
Sometimes, you can visibly see when two superstars have incredible chemistry together. We’ve seen it with many of the all-time greats, but with Cena and Styles, their chemistry was so natural that it bewildered fans watching. Their in-ring styles suited each other perfectly and it felt as though neither competitor wasted a single move or a single second.
It was a far closer contest this time around, with AJ Styles even having the rare distinction of kicking out of a Super AA (An attitude adjustment performed from the second or top turnbuckle). When Styles did kick out, the entire arena erupted in “Yes!” chants and there wasn’t a soul who was sitting.
AJ Styles and John Cena had what can best be described as an in-ring masterpiece. From the story to the pacing to the psychology of it, the match was executed to absolute perfection, topped off by the fact that AJ Styles got a clean victory over John Cena. It was truly a landmark moment in AJ Styles’ career and bigger things awaited him, as he won the WWE Championship from Dean Ambrose just a few weeks later.
Who would have thought that AJ Styles would be WWE Champion in less than 9 months into his tenure with the company? Whatever litmus tests that were given to AJ Styles, he passed it with flying colors. While the cream will always rise to the top, Styles undoubtedly has Cena to thank for putting him over the way he did.
Cena’s selflessness as a top guy is really one to admire.
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