AJ Styles has had a distinct edge over Kevin Owens as the two villains have reigned over WWE SmackDown and Raw, respectively—superior booking.
The amount of electricity surrounding their upcoming title bouts speaks to that. Styles is poised to face John Cena for the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view on Jan. 29. Owens will defend the Universal Championship against Roman Reigns the same night.
SmackDown's championship bout is more appealing—a collision of titans belonging to the blue brand's top tier.
Owens vs. Reigns is harder to get psyched about. It's the latest chapter in KO's underwhelming time as champ.
That's not his cross to bear, either. A plot hole, a so-so record in the ring and a shortage of lasting, violent images have hurt him. PWTorch columnist Tom Colohue wrote of Owens, "His reign as universal champion has been plain embarrassing."
Styles' reign hasn't been stellar at every step, but his time on top has been handled better than that of Owens, beginning with how he won the gold.
Styles stepped over Cena to move into title contention.
The Phenomenal One challenged the longtime top dog, looking to prove that he belonged among the elite on the WWE stage. He did just that by besting Cena at Money in the Bank in June and then at SummerSlam in August.
The wins pushed Styles into the WWE Championship picture.
At Backlash, he knocked off Dean Ambrose after kicking him in the onions. The win was cheap but emphatic.
Styles had taken over SmackDown and WWE by force, going from new arrival in January to top champion nine months later.
Owens' rise was more hurried—an impromptu move into the throne.
On the same night Finn Balor became the inaugural universal champion, he tore up his shoulder. He had to vacate the title, leaving WWE scrambling.
KO beat Neville to enter a No. 1 Contender's Fatal 4-Way match against Seth Rollins, Reigns and Big Cass. The powerhouse didn't win via powerbomb but by divine intervention. Triple H attacked both Reigns and Rollins, gifting the title to Owens in the process.
Had WWE built on that story and spotlighted an alliance between Owens and Triple H, that moment would have been a catalyst for KO's reign. Instead, The Game's interference has gone unexplained for months, leaving a gaping pothole in Owens' tale.
Styles appeared more dastardly and powerful in his championship win. He decided his own fate by way of skill, guts and a swift kick to the nether regions.
Owens came off like a goon lucky to step into the right situation.
Wins and Losses
The common perception is that Owens is losing in non-title action at an alarming rate a la Rollins in 2015.
That's an exaggeration, but KO's record as champ, per CageMatch.net, isn't exactly impressive. In December, for example, he went 2-4, with one of those wins coming courtesy of his best friend, Chris Jericho, hitting him with a Codebreaker to get Reigns disqualified.
And surprisingly, Styles' record isn't much better.
|AJ Styles' and Kevin Owens' Win-Loss Records as Champions|
|Wrestler||Date of Title Win||Overall Record||PPV Record|
|Kevin Owens||Aug. 29||9-9||3-1|
|AJ Styles||Sept. 11||7-5-1||3-0|
At least Owens has lost to top WWE talent. He's dropped bouts to Reigns, Rollins and The New Day, WWE's longest-reigning tag team champions of all time.
Styles, on the other hand, fell to the lowly James Ellsworth three times.
An asterisk accompanies each of those defeats, as Ambrose greatly assisted the jobber, but it's still a bad look for SmackDown's No. 1 villain to fall to someone built like a pizza delivery guy.
WWE has a bad habit of having its champions lose in general.
It has overused the "contender earns a title shot by beating the champ in a non-title match" trope. That kind of booking leaves the titleholder seeming less worthy of the gold.
Cheating to get out of harm's way and evading tough challenges are classic heel tendencies that work. Making rule-breakers overly vulnerable, though, is counterproductive.
And WWE has done that with both Styles and Owens, with KO getting the worst of it.
As champion, Styles has faced both WWE's alpha male and bottom feeder.
During his feud with Ambrose, his story took a strange turn. Styles found himself fighting off a pestering gnat in Ellsworth. The Lunatic Fringe used the enhancement talent to fluster Styles.
Ambrose's biased refereeing and blatant interference helped Ellsworth take down Styles three times.
The champ did get a chance at redemption in December, though.
Styles knocked out Ellsworth with a forearm early in their title match. The champ then laid a beatdown on the man who had longed bugged him. This was one of the rare instances where we saw Styles act on his rage.
His words, though, have been finely sharpened.
Styles has been a megalomaniac in his promos. His cockiness has grown as his reign has gone on, and so has his callousness. He's had plenty of opportunity to showcase these traits on the mic.
Against Cena in the continuation of their rivalry, Styles has barked at Cena, proclaiming that the latter is done and not on his level. "When it comes to this ring, you will never be as good as AJ Styles," he told his Royal Rumble challenger during their contract signing.
Going up against a megastar like Cena has elevated Styles, painting him as a top-tier star.
Owens has faced less established names. Instead, his battles have been with two rising figures in the New Era, Rollins and Reigns.
During these clashes, we have seen flashes of Owens the snarling grizzly.
Before the Hell in a Cell PPV, KO powerbombed Rollins onto the apron. He attacked The Architect with a coldness that had been missing from his character.
And more recently, he sent Reigns crashing through the announcers' table:
WWE has not scripted nearly enough of this kind of image, especially for Owens. KO's story has instead been heavy on comedy.
Much of Owens' airtime has been devoted to his friendship with Jericho. Their chemistry and comic timing has been excellent. Whether they are goofing around in the ring together or bullying announcers, they have been plenty entertaining.
There's been a lack of balance, however.
While Owens has rarely been allowed to be serious and growl into the mic, Styles has had ample chance to do so. Even with the absurdity of Ellsworth surrounding him, The Phenomenal One has snarled and spat fire more than Owens.
In general, Styles has been the beneficiary of better storytelling. That's not surprising, given how much better the blue brand has been on the narrative side of things since the brand split.
WWE hasn't been perfect with its presentation of Styles, but SmackDown's top heel has far more momentum in the early part of 2017 than his Raw counterpart.