When it was announced last week that AJ Styles had been traded from Raw to SmackDown in exchange for “wrestlers to be named later,” the timing couldn’t have been more ideal for both parties. In need of the proverbial, “change of scenery,” following the releases of his Club running mates, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson, Styles’ return to SmackDown marks a return to the brand where he once dominated for a period of nearly three years. A brand that upon going live for the first time in its history, looked to Styles to be the one to put it on the map. In his tenure with the blue brand, the Phenomenal One did just that. Well, history tends to repeat itself and once again SmackDown needs an ace to help it find success. So, who better to take on that role than Styles, a man returning home, to the house that he built?
A Phenomenal Debut
On January 24th, 2016, longtime wrestling veteran and champion the world over, AJ Styles, made his long-awaited, much-anticipated, and shocking debut for WWE when he was entrant #3 in the Royal Rumble. While some had seen it coming given Styles had just ended his contract and departed New Japan Pro Wrestling and WWE had even announced his signing a few days before the PPV, the rumble appearance still served as a huge crowd-popping moment, one of the biggest such debuts in a long time. Styles lasted nearly 29 minutes in his first WWE match and picked up two eliminations. It was a successful debut that showed the world the Phenomenal One had arrived.
The brand split not yet in effect, Styles spent the first half of the year wrestling on both SmackDown and Raw, where he engaged in feuds with Chris Jericho, Miz, and most notably, Roman Reigns. It was in the Reigns feud where Styles reunited with Gallows and Anderson for the first time since the trio had joined WWE a few months prior. This led to some of Styles’ best matches in WWE as he and Reigns battled over the world title in a series of above-average PPV bouts at that year’s Payback and Extreme Rules. Styles then targeted the returning John Cena, resulting in a match between the two at Money in the Bank which Styles won thanks to help from the Club. This set the scene for what would happen next.
Drafting an Ace
On July 19th, the WWE Draft returned for the first time since 2011, and with it, the brand split. SmackDown, which was going live for the first time, would have a separate roster than Raw, as well as brand-exclusive PPVs. Holder of the WWE Championship, Dean Ambrose was SmackDown’s first overall selection. AJ Styles’, pick number four overall, was the blue brand’s second.
Upon going live for the first time and after having previously been little more than a Raw recap show, SmackDown needed a roster that would draw fans in. And they did just that, stacking the blue brand with guys like WWE Champion Dean Ambrose, John Cena, Randy Orton, the Miz, the Usos, Becky Lynch, and more. But the man who emerged as the brand’s biggest star was AJ Styles.
The Face the Runs the Place
It didn’t take long for Styles to stake his claim as almost immediately, he resumed his feud with Cena, who styled himself as “The Face That Runs the Place.” This time, with Gallows and Anderson having been drafted to Raw, Styles was alone to face one of the all-time greats. He was out to prove something, that Cena didn’t belong in WWE anymore, that this was now Styles’ company.
It was the first major non-title feud on SmackDown but it received more attention than that of the belt due to the two competitors involved. Styles and Cena met at SummerSlam in what is considered one of the top matches in the history of the PPV, and one of the best matches of the year for WWE. It had everything, and in the end, as Cena left his armband in the ring – an armband Styles mockingly wore for weeks after, it was clear that there was a changing of the guard. Cena had put over Styles as the new face that runs the place.
The Champ that Runs the Camp
Styles had become the “Face that Runs the Place,” but he was the face without the title. So next for Styles was his claim to the championship, one he believed he held over the nature of defeating Cena. He received that opportunity at Backlash in September against then-champion Dean Ambrose. Returning as a PPV for the first time since 2009, Backlash marked the first brand split PPV and it was headlined by Styles vs Ambrose. The two had an absolutely stellar match that had a big PPV main event feel. Styles and Ambrose threw everything at each other over the course of a nearly 25-minute match that featured some huge spots. In the end, Styles took advantage of a ref distraction to low blow Ambrose and win his first championship since arriving in WWE just eight months prior.
Now the “Champ that Runs the Camp,” AJ Styles continued to feud with Ambrose and his ally James Ellsworth, for several months. Ellsworth even picked up three victories over the champ thanks to Ambrose’s assistance, something that infuriated Styles to no end. Ambrose received his guaranteed rematch on the September 27th edition of SmackDown but lost when John Cena returned and interfered. This led to a triple threat at No Mercy where Styles retained his title, once again pinning Cena. Having not been pinned in the outcome, Ambrose felt he deserved another shot and he continued to be a thorn in Styles’ side.
It all came to a head at Survivor Series where Ambrose refused to co-exist with Styles as part of Team SmackDown and instead joined his former Shield brothers to eliminate his adversary, ultimately leading to SmackDown losing the match and Ambrose getting one last opportunity at regaining the world title at Tables, Ladders, and Chairs in December. In a TLC match that received 4.5 stars from the Wrestling Observer, Ambrose and Styles wrestled a fantastic affair that lasted over 30 minutes and showcased both men in the best light. In the end, Styles retained his title when Ellsworth shockingly turned on Ambrose. Styles then bested Ellsworth in a 45-second squash a few weeks later putting an end to his first major title establishing feud on the blue brand.
Here Comes the ‘Mania Money!
Finishing up with Ambrose, Styles once again found himself in Cena’s orbit and the two met to complete their trilogy at Royal Rumble 2017. This time, Cena emerged victorious, ending Styles’ 140-day championship reign. Styles wouldn’t have the chance to get his belt back from his old rival as Cena subsequently lost the title to Bray Wyatt inside the Elimination Chamber of which Styles also participated. This began a string of title match losses for Styles as he struggled to regain the championship over months of trying. The former champ began blaming people, namely SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon.
The thought of taking one of the hottest talents in AJ Styles and giving him a WrestleMania match with McMahon and not another wrestler, definitely didn’t sit well with fans. But such was the case as WWE built a story where Styles blamed McMahon for his shortcomings and went as far as to brutally attack him by throwing him through his car window. The stage was set for their WrestleMania match which received four stars from the Observer, the most of any match at ‘Mania that year. What was expected to be a total flop by many turned into the match of the night as both McMahon and Styles delivered in ways that majorly impressed. The following night, McMahon and Styles shook hands marking a face turn for Styles, his first since joining the blue brand a little under a year prior.
United States Championship Run
A newly minted babyface, AJ Styles transitioned from the world title picture to the US title picture, quickly gaining #1 contendership. At Backlash 2017, he took on by failed to dethrone Kevin Owens, due to a count-out. Styles worked his way back to being the top contender for the championship and was set to receive another shot at Battleground. But unexpectedly, with WWE having returned to Madison Square Garden for a house show, Styles won the title off of Owens prior to their PPV showdown.
The two briefly traded the title back and forth with AJ Styles being the last to win after beating both Owens and Jericho in a triple threat on the July 25th edition of SmackDown. After two more successful defenses against Owens, the two wrapped up their feud in August. Styles held the title for a few months more, losing it in a triple threat at October’s Hell in a Cell.
History-Making Title Reign
AJ Styles was unsuccessful in regaining the US title but he did recapture a bigger prize when on the November 7th edition of SmackDown, the Phenomenal One defeated Jinder Mahal to win back the WWE Championship. The episode, which aired from Manchester, England marked the first time the championship had changed hands in Europe and just the second time since 2003, that the title changed hands on SmackDown.
Back in the championship spotlight, Styles’ win booked him a trip to Survivor Series to take on Brock Lesnar, in a champion vs champion showdown, where once again, he brought the house down with the match of the night. It was one of Lesnar’s best matches in years as the two blended well together stylistically. While Styles lost, back on the blue brand, he returned to dominance defeating Mahal in a rematch at Starrcade, Owens and Zayn in a handicap match at Royal Rumble 2018, and Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler, Cena, Owens and Sami Zayn in a six-pack challenge at Fastlane.
Looking back, Styles’ second world title reign was one of what could have beens and there was none more obvious than the next feud he entered into, with Shinsuke Nakamura. Fans of NJPW were waiting with anticipation for the moment these two would lock up again given how well-acclaimed their WrestleKingdom 10 bout had been. And given the match was at WrestleMania, it being on the biggest stage of them all, left many with high hopes. But the opposite happened. Styles and Nakamura’s feud fell flat as Nakamura was prone to low-blowing the champ more often than not. The two feuded through Money in the Bank, which was their best match, a last man standing affair that negated the DQ stipulations that had caused their prior two matches to end without an in-ring finish.
Styles moved on to feud with Rusev, before heading into another anticipated clash, this time with former TNA/IMPACT Wrestling rival, Samoa Joe. Joe targeted Styles family leading up to the two meeting for the first time in WWE at SummerSlam 2018. Joe won by DQ but continued his feud with Styles through Crown Jewel in November. Shortly before that, Styles had begun a feud with a returning Daniel Bryan that was put on hold due to Bryan’s reluctance to travel to Saudi Arabia for Crown Jewel. But back in the states, the two resumed their battle, with Bryan ending the 371-day title reign of Styles on the November 13th episode of SmackDown, turning heel in the process. The “new” Daniel Bryan had arrived and finally champion again, he was ready to make the blue brand his domain. Styles lost in his attempt to regain the title at TLC, effectively ending his championship pursuit.
A New SmackDown, A New AJ Styles
— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) May 23, 2020
In April 2019, many were surprised when as part of the Superstar Shakeup, Styles was moved back to the Raw brand for the first time in three years. Many believed AJ Styles was to SmackDown what Seth Rollins was to Raw, only instead of “Monday Night Rollins,” it was the “House that AJ Styles Built.” But moving Styles to Raw allowed for new matchups, fresh storylines, and a reunion with Gallows and Anderson. But on a crowded roster that was top-heavy with main event stars, Styles never really was the guy on Raw the way he had been on SmackDown. His run on the blue brand defined his career and helped establish him as one of the top stars in the company.
A return to SmackDown always felt like the right move for AJ Styles but even more so when Gallows and Anderson were released on Black Wednesday. Still reeling from the loss, Styles went on After the Bell where he admitted to feeling guilty and blaming himself over what happened.
“I brought their names to WWE and, when they got released, I immediately felt responsible for them because I helped them get here and I wanted them to stay,” he told host Corey Graves. “I thought if I hadn’t encouraged them to stay, maybe they wouldn’t be behind right now. A lot of it fell on me and I felt like I let them down. I talked to them about this and I was just crushed. I’m the oldest and I didn’t take care of them. That really bothered me. And it still does.”
Styles also mentioned how he needed to get away from Raw, to “change the atmosphere” and “do something different” to help him get over the loss. In sports, athletes often benefit from a change of scenery as sometimes you just need a fresh start. Returning to SmackDown, AJ Styles will get just that. Not to mention, fresh matchups. Styles vs Cesaro, Styles vs Jeff Hardy, Styles vs John Morrison, Styles vs Mustafa Ali. Those are just some of the matches waiting for the Phenomenal One as he returns home. And then there is the thought of reliving one of his best feuds, Styles vs Reigns, or even Styles vs Bryan, which was a great two-match series but certainly left people, including Lance Storm apparently, wanting more.
— Lance Storm (@LanceStorm) May 23, 2020
The truth is, SmackDown hasn’t really been the same since AJ Styles was moved to Raw and Styles hasn’t been the same since he left either. A reunion between the two, now at a time when both have nothing to lose, could lead to the return of some blue brand magic, much the kind that was there when Styles first declared SmackDown as his house.
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