AJ Styles might have been the last man on fans' short lists to take John Cena's spot in WWE, if his name was even there at all. But now that Cena seems to be taking a step back from his full-time duties, Styles has to be in the discussion.
The fact is, he's the best option.
Styles has it all. He has worldwide name recognition, he has a career's worth of experience to draw from and he has the mental toughness it takes to lead the charge. He has everything a newcomer doesn't have, and no one is better suited for the job.
Styles is ready now.
Fans knew this day was coming. Cena has been WWE's top guy for over a decade, and during that time, he's done it all. He's won every major title, including 15 world championships. He's carried the load like no one before him, and he's done it all while being WWE's best ambassador to the outside world.
But he hasn't always been the most popular guy on the roster.
Being the top star has not always meant being the most loved. Cena's domination at the top has never been received the way WWE wanted. Everything he's said and done should have built his reputation as the company's primary protagonist, but instead he's drawn the ire of fans who are just sick of him.
At some point, WWE would have to move on to the next chapter.
There's no time like the present, as the WWE draft is right around the corner, and that event is leading directly to the second brand split. Superstars will be exclusive to either Monday Night Raw or SmackDown Live, which means a new day is dawning in WWE.
What better way to embrace that new day than with the New Era?
The company's next generation is the focus now, and rightfully so. Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Enzo Amore and Big Colin Cassady are just four of the names that have come up from NXT and made an impact. More names like Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura and Samoa Joe are still in WWE's developmental brand, and all will likely make the jump to the main roster eventually.
Former Shield teammates Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns are leading the way at the very top of the company. The New Day is still together at the moment, The Wyatt Family has never looked better, and The Club of Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson is great backup for Styles.
WWE has newer faces, younger talents and definitely many more options for the future than ever before. If Cena is to begin stepping back, then WWE must be ready for it to happen. That time seems to be now, and the company is lucky Styles is ready to go.
Battleground will see Styles with The Club against Cena with Big Cass and Enzo in a six-man tag team match, and Cena should get the pin on Styles. This would set up a match between the two at SummerSlam, in which Styles wins again.
The key is not to send Cena to the locker room on a bad note, but to shine a positive spotlight on Styles.
If Cena is indeed stepping back, then he must do so after putting Styles over. This will set the tone for Styles' rise in WWE, and that rise will see him assume the spot Cena is leaving behind. It's not an overnight process, of course, and nothing should be done to dismiss Cena as if he's no longer needed at all.
But if WWE is indeed serious about moving ahead, then the steps must be taken now in order to make it happen.
Styles is the best fit. He doesn't need any work to get himself ready, and he doesn't need any time to prepare. Fans love him for his talent and hate him for being a heel. The same will apply when he turns babyface again, and Styles can make it work as he's making his current run work.
Styles is capable of doing it all and doing it better than anyone else. All he needs is the chance to make it happen, and he will rise to the challenge. Cena's time may be up, but Styles' time is now.
Tom Clark can regularly be seen on Bleacher Report. His podcast, Tom Clark's Main Event, is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Android, Windows Phone and online here.