It was November 7th, 2017 when WWE and the world witnessed a piece of history. It was a magical night in Manchester, England and AJ Styles dethroned Jinder Mahal to become a 2-time WWE Champion, also becoming the first superstar in history to win the WWE Championship outside of North America.
It was a feat that was never achieved before and it would kickstart a historic title reign for AJ Styles. While multiple superstars have had long reigns with the title, modern-day WWE hasn’t featured too many 200+ day championship reigns, let alone a year-long one. But AJ Styles became the third person since 2000 and the eighth person overall to have a WWE title reign that lasted a full calendar year.
In doing so, he joined the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Pedro Morales, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, John Cena, and CM Punk. Quite some elite company to be in and deservedly so. But what was it that made AJ Styles’ second title win so special? To understand that, we need to go back to the early part of the year. The WWE Championship was in limbo and Styles was the one who walked into the year as the reigning champion.
However, he was defeated by arch-nemesis John Cena in an all-time classic at the Royal Rumble, but Cena’s record 16th World title reign was cut short in just two weeks by Bray Wyatt. While many thought that Wyatt would hold the title for a long time, his reign ended abruptly in an underwhelming WrestleMania 33 match against Randy Orton.
It seemed as though it was at this period where WWE decided to go all-in on the Indian market – one which has the largest WWE TV viewership in the world. To do that, they needed an Indian superstar and they went to the Canadian-Indian Jinder Mahal. He had returned to the company after a few years away and until WrestleMania 33, was treated as the same enhancement talent that he was when he got fired.
However, WWE decided to go from 0 to 100 after WrestleMania when he was drafted to SmackDown as he suddenly received a main event push. The mistake in this was instantly spotted because many fans pointed out that WWE should have taken their time building Mahal as a legitimate threat before making him a main eventer. But in a rush, not only did they make an enhancement talent the #1 contender to the WWE title, but just over a month later, he defeated Orton to become WWE Champion.
This naturally came as a big shock to fans, none of whom viewed Mahal was World Championship material. To Mahal’s credit, he did carry himself like a champion and knew how to present himself. However, his reign was problematic because the matches were very similar and he wasn’t on par with the opponents that he faced.
The positive was that he was the most hated heel champion that WWE had in a long time, but many criticized it as being “go away” heat rather than actual heel heat. Regardless, the reality is that Mahal did the best he could to his ability, but WWE should have taken a year or two before pushing him as a main eventer.
Around October at the TLC PPV (a RAW exclusive), Finn Balor was scheduled to face Bray Wyatt, but Wyatt contracting a disease forced him to pull out of the bout (as did multiple other WWE superstars). WWE needed the most reliable replacement and they called up AJ Styles, who was all the way down in South America as a part of SmackDown’s Live Event tours. Like a true professional, he took the plane and flew for a long time (reportedly with a slight illness as well) to perform at TLC and he was the perfect replacement to face Balor.
They never faced before (as AJ Styles’ first night in NJPW was Balor’s last) and Styles made it on time. When the two men stood across the ring from each other, the crowd echoed “This is awesome” chants before the bell had even rung. Through all the obstacles, AJ Styles did what he does best and had an instant classic with Balor where he fell short. However, this would earn him the respect of everyone backstage and he would be rewarded shortly thereafter.
Once Mahal was done with his second feud, he began a new one with AJ Styles, who faced him on SmackDown in Manchester. It would be the best match of Mahal’s career and a great piece of storytelling that culminated with a babyface AJ Styles winning the Championship. The joy and excitement in the arena was palpable. He was the best person to dethrone Mahal and 2 years later, the victory and the match seems fresh and better than ever!