Fighting the Phenomenal One: Inside Look at Wrestling WWE Star AJ Styles

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterApril 2, 2018

Credit: WWE.com

To step into the ring with AJ Styles is akin to sharing the stage with Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis. One can't help but be elevated by the experience.

The WWE champion is a swift and smooth in-ring performer, a man who took the reins as the company's top Superstar within his first year there. Styles captivates as he slides from hold to hold, as he glides off the top rope and as he churns out barnburner after barnburner. 

And he's been doing all that for years dating back to his days at TNA (now Impact Wrestling).

The audience can't help but appreciate Styles' greatness, but those who have wrestled against him have a deeper understanding of it. They have seen the master painter's brushstrokes up close.

NWA world champion Nick Aldis, who faced Styles when both men worked for TNA, is in that group. When looking back at his encounters with The Phenomenal One, he didn't hesitate to crown Styles the world's top bell-to-bell wrestler. 

"He's the best in-ring performer in the business," Aldis told Bleacher Report. "He carried TNA on his back, and now he's the franchise player on SmackDown. It's no accident."

Styles' longtime TNA rival Abyss didn't hold back when applauding him, either. 

"I think he's got an opportunity to be looked at in the same light as Shawn Michaels," Abyss said. "He's got a chance to go down in history as one of the best in-ring performers of all time."

Hall of Famer Kurt Angle told Title Match Wrestling in 2016: "AJ is a special wrestler, one of a kind. And anybody who wrestles him will tell you that."

Last September, in an appearance on the In This Corner podcast, Roman Reigns said: "I think both AJ and I know what we had going on and we can both say that it was special. And I'll wrestle AJ for the rest of my life."

At WrestleMania 34, it will be Shinsuke Nakamura who gets to try to create something special with Styles. The two tore it up at New Japan Pro Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom event in 2016.

They have both since signed with WWE, where Styles has proved himself to be an MVP-level star. Nakamura, meanwhile, hasn't been able to transfer the magic he had in Japan to his new home. He'll get a chance to do just that at the company's marquee pay-per-view with the WWE title on the line.

History says facing Styles will lead to a career highlight for Nakamura. That's been the case for many a former foe.

         

Styles vs. Abyss

Few wrestlers are as qualified to speak about Styles' skills as Abyss.

CageMatch.net lists 61 matches where the masked powerhouse monster and The Phenomenal One were either opponents or tag team partners.

The two men first met while working for the Georgia-based NWA Wildside promotion, and both signed with TNA in the early 2000s, where they soon fought again and again.

TNA, still in its infancy then, put on a series of shows at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville. Styles and Abyss clashed on those cards in a ladder match, a tables match and a Falls Count Anywhere contest.

"A lot of people didn't see them, but we had some knock-down, drag-out matches there," Abyss recalled.

TNA recognized and capitalized on their chemistry. In 2005, for its first Lockdown PPV event, the company booked Styles and Abyss in the main event, a Six Sides of Steel bout to crown the No. 1 contender for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

It remains a favorite of Abyss'.

"It was the first time either one of us had main-evented a live PPV for them," Abyss said. "In my opinion, it's the best match I ever had. It was an excellent match, and we definitely carried a strong main event. There was so much electricity. We had unbelievable chemistry together. I know he would say the same thing."

The wild battle began outside the cage before moving closer to the steel.

Abyss bloodied Styles' brow. The Phenomenal One sent his foe face-first onto a pile of thumbtacks. It felt like something one might see in the Thunderdome from Mad Max.

Like many of Styles' opponents, Abyss was in top form that night. The big man credits the WWE champ for helping lead him there.

"That's an indicator of greatness," Abyss said. "You look at any sport. Look at Peyton Manning. Look at Tom Brady. Those guys elevate everyone around them. The same thing goes for AJ. He did bring out my best and brought out the best in a lot of people over the years."

Styles' breathtaking skills no doubt played a part in that. But his mental game has been key to his success, as well.

Abyss saw that firsthand several times over.

"He has the total package thing going on," he explained. "He's very intelligent. He's very ring-savvy. He knows the business inside out. He has ideas for everything and nothing stands as a roadblock when it comes to putting it together and executing it."

        

Styles vs. Magnus

When he signed with TNA in 2008 and wrestled as Magnus, Aldis was a green, promising athlete looking to soak up everything he could from the company's talented roster. He relished shots to work with guys like Samoa Joe, Doug Williams and Styles, a process that felt like a paid education.

Styles stood out. Aldis knew he would be in for a master class with The Phenomenal One.

"I remember, even from the beginning, recognizing just what a different level AJ was in the ring," he said. "So I was always eager to get to work with him."

He did, but at first in tag team matches of various sizes rather than one on one. That meant less pressure for the young star.

"It was just a thrill to be in there," Aldis remembered. "It was a nice way to sort of ease into it. Let me see if I can hang with him for a couple of minutes."

Styles aided the Englishman when the cameras were off, as well. Aldis said the TNA original often helped him by watching and critiquing his matches. 

At Bound for Glory 2013, Aldis received more direct instruction when the two met in the tournament finals. "When I got to work with him in singles, I looked at it as a graduation," he said.

In St. Louis, the young lion took on the alpha. Aldis' power advantage helped balance out Styles' edge in experience. 

The crowd buzzed as both men seemed ready to seize victory.

Styles won. Aldis, though, was well aware of the value of his defeat. This was his coming-out party as a singles star, as he put it.

"It's the favorite story I've ever told in the ring," Aldis said. "It represented when that company and everyone in it was firing on all cylinders. That was about as good as it got. I remember coming away from that and people coming to me and being like, 'That was a moment that made you.' I'll always be grateful to AJ for that."

Like Abyss, the reigning NWA champ recognizes Styles' ability to accentuate his foes' strengths, to coax great performances out of them.

That's in part because of Styles' unselfishness, as he puts clear effort into making the guy across from him look good. But it's also about timing and the nuances of the medium.

"There are guys who can do high-flying maneuvers and great technical maneuvers and all that sort of stuff, but he does it with aggression and emotion and feeling," Aldis said. 

And it's that ability that has Aldis seeing parallels between Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels and The Phenomenal One. With both The Heartbreak Kid and Styles, the way moves are used is more important than the moves themselves.

"They did it at the right time with the right body language and the right emotion," Aldis explained. "He's not only a brilliant physical performer, he's a brilliant storyteller. And that's the difference."

        

Styles vs. Nakamura 

In 2016, two of the world's best met in the ring inside the Tokyo Dome.

Styles had left TNA and was in the midst of a red-hot run with New Japan Pro Wrestling. At Wrestle Kingdom 10, he challenged Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, and fans were treated to a work of art.

It's a bout Nakamura holds in high regard. "That was definitely one of my favorite moments in my career," The King of Strong Style said.

Styles and Nakamura cracked each other with hard strikes. They slipped out of each other's submission holds. They revved up the crowd through all of it.

Nakamura could feel a buzz in the air from the initial lock-up. And it didn't take long to recognize Styles' excellence as they did battle.

"It was the first time we had fought in the ring," Nakamura recalled. "Quickly, I understood. 'What the hell? He's great,' I said.'"

Their thriller ended with Nakamura twice smashing his knee into Styles' head.

The rematch would have to wait. Styles ventured to WWE, debuting in that year's Royal Rumble match. Nakamura, meanwhile, headed to WWE's developmental brand NXT.

Their paths are poised to converge again at Sunday's WrestleMania. 

Nakamura doesn't know Styles nearly as well as some of The Phenomenal One's longtime rivals, but he has a definite appreciation for what makes the WWE champ special.

"He is also different and original," Nakamura said. "He's creative. Most wrestlers have athleticism. But AJ is great, especially his creativity. He creates a lot of moves."

        

Styles vs. Ellsworth

All-but-unknown James Ellsworth became a key figure on SmackDown in the fall of 2016. 

The Baltimore native began his WWE tenure as fish food fed to the monstrous Braun Strowman earlier that year. In the most unlikely of developments, the skinny, scrapper Superstar found himself in the middle of a feud between Dean Ambrose and Styles over the WWE title months later.

The underdog faced the champ in October—a highlight of his career.

"As an aspiring wrestler growing up, that was always the dream to be in a WWE title match," Ellsworth said.

The match may not have unfolded how he dreamed it up years ago, as it leaned heavily toward the comedic side. The announcers bashed Ellsworth's appearance. Ambrose and Styles took turns tossing the former jobber in and out of the ring.

But champion and challenger made the story a success.

The Denver crowd chanted and cheered. And when Ellsworth superkicked the champ and scored a mighty-close near-fall, and the audience ate it up.

"When I gave him the No-Chin Music and got a two-and-a-half count, I just remember how energetic the crowd was," Ellsworth said.

AJ Styles puts a hurting on James Ellsworth.
AJ Styles puts a hurting on James Ellsworth.Credit: WWE.com

The bouts against AJ were no classics but memorable nonetheless. Ellsworth appreciates the impact they had on his career.

"If you're fortunate enough to be in the ring with the best wrestler in the world, you're at the top of the game at that point," Ellsworth said. "That's because he's the man. He definitely helped me out a lot. I don't think people will ever forget the James Ellsworth-AJ Styles rivalry."

Ellsworth saw Styles' in-ring arsenal up close, including when he was on the wrong end of a Styles Clash. In spite of the pain involved, he appreciated the artistry of every move. 

"He's just so fluid, so crisp," Ellsworth explained. "Everything he does looks good. Every little thing. Not just the high-flying stuff, but every single thing he does in a ring."

It's been a joy to watch Styles do all of it, for both his opponents and those cheering in the stands.

         

Ryan Dilbert is Bleacher Report's Lead WWE Writer. 

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