Who Are the Best Feuds for AJ Styles as IC Champion on WWE SmackDown
AJ Styles is just...better on SmackDown.
The face of the blue brand since his arrival in 2016, short and uneventful stints on Raw have typically given way to huge bounceback runs on SmackDown that have culminated in sustained main event stretches.
Now the Intercontinental Champion after defeating Daniel Bryan in a legitimate classic, The Phenomenal One embarks on yet another journey to the top of Friday nights.
But what are the best rivalries for him now that he returns to a SmackDown plagued by some of its worst creative in recent memory? Is it a series of wars with Bryan? Might it be a rivalry renewed with Jeff Hardy? How about a star-making storyline with the criminally underrated Chad Gable?
The potential feuds are plentiful, but the best, most effective ones are these five.
The best match of the year in WWE took place on the June 12 episode of SmackDown when AJ Styles defeated Daniel Bryan to capture the Intercontinental Championship.
That match, a clinic on the sport of professional wrestling, was so incredibly different from the style of match typically worked in WWE that it served as a revelation of sorts.
The acclaim garnered by Bryan and Styles for their televised classic was evidence that there is an audience for that gritty, ground-based match full of hard strikes and counter-wrestling—that the paint-by-numbers style typically incorporated by wrestling's greatest empire is passe and boring.
What better way to help restore the legacy of the IC title as the worker's championship than by having Styles and Bryan work a few matches to really put over the significance of wrestling as an athletic event?
WWE would have to be careful as not to overexpose the match because it is likely an audience that had been force-fed sports-entertainment would grow tired of it if beaten over the head with it continuously, but that particular style definitely has its place in today's landscape, as evidenced by their classic from a few weeks back.
Ditto Drew Gulak.
The Philadelphia native earned his greatest exposure on SmackDown earlier this year via his grueling Elimination Chamber match with Bryan and built some momentum for himself via his on-screen pairing with the leader of the YES Movement.
We have even seen Gulak defeat Styles this summer, earning himself a substantial victory as he looks to continue his rise up the SmackDown ranks.
If WWE wants to hold on booking the immediate rematch between Styles and Bryan, there are far worse options than Gulak.
The mat-based technician would negate Styles' flashier offense while still being able to tell the physical stories that Styles specializes in.
The matches alone would be fantastic, and Gulak's quest to prove himself as Styles' equal is a story fans can buy into.
More importantly, Gulak would gain the credibility of having worked with The Phenomenal One and could use that to, hopefully, catapult himself to that next level in WWE.
For Chad Gable (no, you can hold on to that Shorty G nonsense), a potential rivalry with Styles would require WWE to play the long game.
Heel AJ, at least in WWE, has always relied on some sort of backup. Whether it was Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson or James Ellsworth, he has always worked well when he has had some sort of insurance policy he could utilize to get himself out of trouble.
Imagine if Styles used Gable in that role, "taking him under his wing" and "carrying him to the top" while manipulating the former Olympian's desire to be the best?
After months of leaning on Gable, the former tag team specialist strikes back at Styles and seeks to prove he can be every bit as good as the IC champion in a series of back-and-forth classics?
It would give the fans a long-term storyline to look for while simultaneously propelling Gable to a level of legitimacy most have expected he was capable of but never really believed he would achieve, thanks to uneven booking.
At this point in his career, Styles can make new stars. Why not start with a guy who probably should have been one a long time ago?
Styles and Jeff Hardy are no strangers to each other.
The Phenomenal One and Charismatic Enigma worked against each other many, many times during their days in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, helping establish that promotion as a legitimate No. 2 long before anyone was "elite."
Hardy had issues with substance abuse during his time in TNA, some of which are currently being exploited every week on SmackDown, so it's possible he and Styles were never able to put on their best possible matches together. The idea of an older, wiser Hardy working with one of the best workers of all time is incredibly appealing.
Even if they only get one match out of a feud, Hardy and Styles have the credentials and legacies needed to help prop up the IC title and help restore some of its luster. Given the less-than-stellar run of Braun Strowman as universal champion to this point, a feud between those two stars could well push the IC title ahead of the big blue belt as the top prize on the SmackDown brand.
Hardy working a smarter, more methodical and cerebral match rather than throwing caution to the wind and sacrificing his well-being could also net the two the quality of contest they never really got to have during their days in TNA, making the prospects even more appealing.
The lone match between AJ Styles and Sheamus in a WWE ring occurred on the April 25, 2016, episode of Raw.
Given how many times WWE tends to repeat the same matches over and over again, the fact that The Phenomenal One and The Celtic Warrior have not crossed paths in some form or fashion since then is almost astonishing.
Now, some of you might question the potential match seeing as how both are currently heels, but we know Styles is one good promo or top-notch match away from being a babyface again. He is one of those rare Superstars who can adjust his character according to the needs of the company's creative plans.
Styles battling against the bullying Sheamus, looking to retain his title in the face of the onslaught at the hands of The Celtic Warrior is an easy enough story to tell.
That their styles would likely mesh extremely well makes that particular encounter that much more appealing. Even more so when you consider it has not been beaten into the ground or shoved down the audience's throat ad nauseam.
Styles is such a great babyface, when he wants to be, that he would do more to establish Sheamus as a heel than any of the "junkie" talk the Irishman has been spewing during this recent storyline with Hardy, thus benefiting him and SmackDown as a whole.