AJ Styles defeated Jinder Mahal on Sunday at Clash of Champions in Boston to retain the WWE Championship, and he is now trending toward entering WrestleMania 34 as the titleholder.
Mahal was unable to keep Styles down after hitting the Khallas. He then tried to hit a Styles Clash as the finishing touch, but Styles countered and locked in the Calf Crusher. Styles held on to the move despite repeated attempts by Mahal to break out of it, and Mahal eventually tapped out.
WWE showed Styles holding the WWE title:
Bleacher Report's Dave Schilling sees Sunday's defeat as the end of Mahal's time near the top of the SmackDown Live card:
While championship defenses at Royal Rumble and Fastlane likely still await The Phenomenal One, it is difficult to argue against the notion that he is far and away the best option to be SmackDown Live's top star heading toward The Showcase of Immortals.
With Mahal almost certainly dropping out of the main event scene after his loss, the opportunity is present for a new challenger to step up in the coming months.
As the road to WrestleMania approaches, here is a rundown of some of Styles' best possible opponents on The Grandest Stage of Them All.
Ever since Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura joined WWE in 2016, the WWE Universe has clamored for a match between them on the biggest stage in sports entertainment.
The only singles match between Styles and Nakamura occurred at New Japan's Wrestle Kingdom 10 in January 2016.
It was a fantastic bout and a strong match-of-the-year candidate that left wrestling fans across the globe wanting more.
Nakamura was a sensation in NXT, but his main roster run on SmackDown Live has left something to be desired thus far.
Although he boasts clean wins over John Cena and Randy Orton, he lost much of the momentum he had gained in a lackluster feud with Mahal.
Nakamura remains popular, though, and it wouldn't be difficult to build him back up. An ideal way to do so would be to have him win the Royal Rumble match, which would elicit a massive reaction from the crowd in Philadelphia.
If given enough time, Styles and Nakamura would tear the house down at WrestleMania, and they would have an opportunity to put on one of the best matches in recent memory.
It would also feature an interesting dynamic since both Superstars are such significant fan favorites, meaning the atmosphere would be unlike that of any other match.
Nakamura hasn't yet reached the level most expected out of him in WWE, but a match against Styles for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania is the perfect way to change that.
Should WWE decide that Nakamura isn't the right fit for a top spot at WrestleMania, Orton wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.
There is nothing particularly fresh about Orton, especially since he vied for the WWE Championship against Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania last year, but that could change between now and April.
The Viper has stagnated to some degree as a face. A heel turn would be a welcomed alteration, and he would stand to generate a great deal of heat as an evil foil to the popular Styles.
Styles and Orton had a singles match on SmackDown shortly before WrestleMania 33 for the right to face Wyatt for the WWE Championship, and they showed great chemistry, as well as the potential for bigger things between them down the road.
A WrestleMania match would be an entirely different animal, and the reversed dynamic with Orton as the heel and Styles as the face would likely be beneficial to the match as well.
Orton is used to being in big-time spots at WrestleMania, and while most of his matches are solid rather than spectacular, Styles is the type of performer capable of getting the most out of him.
Styles is widely considered to be the best in-ring worker in the entire world, and he has proved capable of working well with almost everyone placed in front of him.
Orton would be no exception, and beating The Apex Predator at WrestleMania would go a long way toward lending even more credibility to Styles and his title reign.
WrestleMania is generally a show on which fans like to see dream matchups for the first time ever, but going back to something that has worked well in the past can still be a recipe for success.
Styles' greatest opponent since joining WWE has arguably been Cena, as they put on memorable matches at Money in the Bank, SummerSlam and the Royal Rumble.
While Styles was victorious at both Money in the Bank and SummerSlam, Cena got one over on him in their most recent meeting at this year's Royal Rumble.
That victory tied Cena with Ric Flair for the most world title reigns in history at 16. Breaking that record would be a monumental moment, and having the opportunity to do so against Styles at WrestleMania is as big as it gets.
Cena has settled into a part-time role, but he still figures to be a major attraction at the biggest show of the year. He ought to be placed in a top spot.
Since SmackDown arguably has less top star power than Raw, having Cena return to the blue brand on the road to WrestleMania would provide SmackDown with a much-needed boost.
Also, Cena wouldn't need to win the Rumble in order to challenge Styles due to his laundry list of accomplishments, meaning the Rumble rub could be saved for a Raw Superstar.
Styles vs. Cena is virtually guaranteed to be a great match, and it would be a safe pick for WrestleMania if the creative team opts against looking outside the box for Styles' opponent.
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