AJ Styles Shoots on WWE Royal Rumble Debut, Bullet Club, Retirement and More

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2021

AJ Styles Shoots on WWE Royal Rumble Debut, Bullet Club, Retirement and More

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    AJ Styles' 2016 Royal Rumble debut kicked off what has been a phenomenal run for him in WWE.
    AJ Styles' 2016 Royal Rumble debut kicked off what has been a phenomenal run for him in WWE.Credit: WWE.com

    Five years ago, AJ Styles made his shocking WWE debut in the men's Royal Rumble match and left a lasting impression on everyone watching worldwide.

    Longtime fans of the former face of TNA Wrestling were elated to finally see him in the one company that had always eluded him for one reason or another. Other members of the WWE Universe who weren't previously familiar with him learned what he was all about that night and why he was worth the hype.

    It was nothing short of a surreal moment, including for Styles himself. At that point, he had been wrestling for 17 years but had never stepped into a WWE ring as a contracted competitor. There were always doubts as to how he would fare in the so-called land of the giants, but he wasted no time in proving it was where he belonged.

    The reaction alone he received upon making his entrance was enough of an indicator that big things were in store for him from that point forward. Sure enough, he has gone on to hold multiple titles, headline WrestleMania and contest countless classics, with the best potentially yet to come.

    The latest episode of WWE Untold, dropping Sunday on WWE Network, will go behind the scenes of Styles' Royal Rumble arrival and detail everything that led up to that point.

    Bleacher Report had a chance to chat with The Phenomenal One about the documentary, the success he's had, whether retirement is on the horizon and much more.

    Check out the complete audio of the interview on the next slide and stick around for the highlights.

2016 Royal Rumble Debut

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    The past five years have been a whirlwind for Styles, and it's hard for him to believe that's how long he has been in WWE.

    The upcoming WWE Untold documentary will look at how his Royal Rumble debut came to be and how much the moment meant to him. He also explains when he knew he was headed to WWE, which was right after his loss to then-IWGP intercontinental champion Shinsuke Nakamura at New Japan Pro-Wrestling's Wrestle Kingdom 10 event.

    "I knew that I was WWE-bound when I had that last match in Japan," Styles said. "I knew I was on my way. Did I know that I was in the Rumble? Nope. It seemed like until the very last minute that I was even going to be in the Royal Rumble."

    At the onset of 2016, WWE teased that Styles and Nakamura (along with Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows) were coming to the company. Fans felt the men's Royal Rumble match was the perfect place for Styles to debut, but he had no idea that was what WWE had in mind for his grand entrance.

    Not even its WrestleMania plans for him that year were disclosed until later on. He simply went along for the ride and attempted to make everything work to the best of his ability.

    "I was told zero things," he said. "Nobody kept me in the loop, so I was waiting around thinking, 'I hope I can get into the Royal Rumble. That'd be cool, but I'd understand if I'm not.'"

    It's revealed in the documentary that Samoa Joe picked up Styles from the airport on the morning of the Rumble and drove him to the building. Other than his longtime friend from his TNA days, virtually no one else knew he was about to debut.

    "I didn't really tell anybody because it was one of things where I didn't really know," he said. "Was I actually going to be in the Rumble, or was I going to be doing something in the Rumble? I didn't know, so yeah, I didn't tell a soul, as crazy as that sounds."

A Rare Success Story and Almost Going to NXT First

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    Not only did most fans never think they would see Styles in WWE, but he was also never expected to get beyond a certain level to fulfill his potential as a main event player. Needless to say, he shattered that glass ceiling pretty quickly.

    It was almost unheard of for anyone to come from TNA, Ring of Honor or New Japan Pro-Wrestling and cement themselves as a star from the get-go.

    However, Styles had no trouble doing just that and believes there were a ton of factors that have resulted in his run being such a success.

    "Talent, timing, circumstances, being able to adapt and learn," he said. "The thing is, when I got to WWE, I still had a lot to learn with the way things are done there because it is done differently. Trust me when I say this.

    "You have to be told one time. That's it. And you have to get it right. You don't want to make the big man mad, so you want to be able to listen, understand and get it right the first time. I was able to do that.

    "Don't get me wrong, there are things I still screw up like everyone else. I'm not perfect, but that's what it was about. And humbling yourself, too, by the way. There have been some humbling experiences I went through in WWE that I appreciate to this day."

    Styles' evolution from when he started out in TNA to his New Japan Pro-Wrestling stint was sensational. The time he spent in Japan was what got him noticed by WWE and helped him to grow exponentially as a performer, both in the ring and on the mic.

    When he was negotiating with WWE, there was no guarantee he would be able to retain his brand, image or even his name. Triple H told him outright not to get his hopes up, yet he arrived with everything intact anyway.

    "I remember Triple H and I talking, and he said, 'I don't know if we're going to be able to keep your name,'" Styles recalled. "I said, 'That's fine. I have no problem. Just so you know, I have this huge tattoo on my side that says AJ. It's not my name—it's my kids' initials and birthdays, but just throwing that out there.' Luckily, I was able to keep the whole name AJ Styles, and it worked out for the best."

    Most wrestlers have to report to NXT first upon signing with WWE regardless of their fame or experience level. Although he would have been fine with a run on the black-and-gold brand before transitioning to the main roster, Styles felt going to the main roster right away was the smarter choice at the age of 38 to ensure he wasn't wasting any time.

    "I would have, I think, gone to NXT for a couple of months to get familiar with what's going on and how it's done there, but I felt like as far as my career is concerned, I didn't really have the time to spend in NXT," he said. "I knew it had to be on the main roster so that, somehow, some way, I could make myself a bigger star. In the end, this is a job, and I'd like to make more money—as much as I can before I retire."

How Time in TNA and Japan Prepared Him for WWE

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    Styles arguably wouldn't be the big deal he is today in WWE had it not been for the many years he spent in TNA.

    In many ways, The Phenomenal One was the face of that franchise in its infancy and beyond. He captured all of its championships, had excellent matches and was the one constant for more than a decade. That's why his departure in December 2013, which he openly discusses on WWE Untold, was so shocking for fans.

    Fortunately, WWE was able to incorporate some footage of Styles in Impact into the documentary, which would have been blasphemous before 2018. He was happy to hear WWE and Impact were able to work together to make that happen and hopes to see it occur more in the future.

    "I think that's cool they were able to work with them because a lot of my career was done there, a majority of my career was done in TNA," he said.

    "I was able to learn from a lot of different people. You talk about guys that used to be in WWE: Booker T and Kurt Angle, who I had fantastic matches with. I wrestled Kevin Nash, a ton of different guys who were in WWE at one time, and I was able to learn from them as well. I wouldn't be the man, the wrestler that I am today had I not been in the ring with guys like that."

    After Styles left TNA, it was a good two years before WWE finally made a play for him. No one knew for sure why the company passed on him years earlier, but The Phenomenal One does have his theories as to why he was brought in when he was.

    "Maybe it was just proving that I definitely can work in Japan and have great matches over there," he said. "Granted, I was able to have great matches with great talent, so that made it easy.

    "Also, it's that some of the talent they have gotten previously from TNA at that time didn't pan out, so maybe WWE was a little gun shy. Plus, I think Samoa Joe was a big help going to NXT first, being a great talent, being very professional. I think that helped tremendously."

    On the subject of Impact, Styles commented on Hornswoggle coming out to his old entrance music recently and being announced as The Weenomenal One: "I didn't see it, but I saw pictures. Hilarious. Good for him. The Weenomenal One is hilarious to me, so if he's able to make a little money off The Weenomenal One, then go for it."

Was He Close to Leaving WWE in 2019 and Reuniting Bullet Club in AEW?

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    After Styles signed with WWE in January 2016, it was heavily reported that his contract was set to expire in 2019, along with Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows' deals.

    It was all but confirmed that the latter two were on their way out because of how they were booked in WWE, but The Phenomenal One leaving didn't seem likely for that same reason.

    Gallows and Anderson were released from WWE in April 2020 and acknowledged they made a mistake by not departing when they had the chance.

    Although there was talk of the three men debuting on the first episode of All Elite Wrestling's Dynamite, Styles wasn't as close to the exit door as some may have thought.

    "Like I said, this is a business," he said. "I'm going to go where business is best for AJ Styles. I like WWE. I like everything about it. And I know it. I'm used to it. I don't want to leave. This is a business, though. This is what we do for a living. Was it close? I wouldn't say it was close for me. Like I said, I want to be in WWE.

    "The situation with Gallows and Anderson, you know, with everything that's going on, they should have went ahead and went that route when their second contracts came around. But hindsight is 20/20. You've read the dirt sheets and whatnot, and you know how pissed I was about the whole situation. Not at them, but at the situation. I think they're happier doing what they're doing now. If that's the case, then I'm happy for them and, like I said, everything happens for a reason."

    Bullet Club ultimately reunited—sans Styles, of course—with Kenny Omega, Gallows, Anderson and The Young Bucks on the first episode of Dynamite in 2021. Styles joined the faction upon debuting in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and it immediately changed his career for the better by taking him to the next level.

    "It's one of those things where it's like, 'How did this get over so well?' Styles said. "It's because you had guys that genuinely wanted to hang out together. We weren't just together when it came to wrestling. We were together outside of the wrestling ring, too.

    "We were actually hanging out, and I think that's why it worked so well for us at that time. We all hang out together, so seeing those guys, I'm happy for them. It's cool they're able to continue what they started, whenever it was."

Facing Shinsuke Nakamura and Undertaker at WrestleMania

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    Following his Royal Rumble debut in 2016, Styles has gone on to have many memorable matches in WWE against the likes of Roman Reigns, Shane McMahon, Chris Jericho and John Cena.

    One of his biggest contests came at WrestleMania 34 in April 2018, when he successfully defended the WWE Championship against Shinsuke Nakamura in a marquee contest. It was a rematch from NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 10 two years prior, which was widely regarded by fans as one of the best in 2016.

    Despite all of the hype, Styles vs. Nakamura at 'Mania was met with mixed reviews from fans expecting more. It was an entertaining championship clash, though not one that was remotely close to their previous encounter.

    At this point, the two-time WWE champion considers his Boneyard match with The Undertaker at WrestleMania 36 to be the best of his WWE career.

    "The expectations for me and Nakamura were so high that I don't think anybody could have reached them," Styles said. "It was a great match, it really was, and it even continued into another story with him and I.

    "Has it been surpassed? Yeah. I think the match with The Undertaker, even though it was cinematic and the way it was. Would he and I have preferred to be in a ring? I think so, in front of thousands and thousands of people.

    "That would've been great, but things happen the way they do, and we were able to have a fantastic cinematic match that worked. It really, really worked and during the process of filming you're going, 'This could be really good. This is really different.'

    "We were excited to see...and for me, I was a little worried, too, because you never know how people are going to take these matches. But we thought we had something great, and when you see it back, you're like, 'Wow, that was really great.'"

    The Boneyard bout between Styles and Undertaker ended up winning the 2020 Slammy Award for WWE's Match of the Year.

Favorite Matches and Entrance Theme

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    The Boneyard match Styles had with The Undertaker at WrestleMania 36 is easily one of his best in WWE, along with his many encounters with John Cena and Roman Reigns.

    However, considering he's competed almost everywhere over the course of his career, it's difficult for The Phenomenal One to narrow his favorite bouts down to just a few.

    Styles took the time to reflect not only on his iconic clashes with Cena but also some of the outings that hold a special place in his heart from his days spent in NJPW and TNA.

    "I've had so many that I'm proud of," he said. "Whether it be with John Cena at the Royal Rumble, so many matches like that where you go, 'Wow.' We didn't go outside the ring. We didn't hit the floor. We stayed in the ring.

    "There was a match [Hiroshi] Tanahashi and myself had to see who would go into the finals, and it was so great. There was something about it with him being so great at what he does.

    "Even the Triple Threat I had with Christopher Daniels and Samoa Joe in TNA. There's so many matches like that throughout my career like, 'Woah, that was big.' But we're not done yet. There's still some matches that can be done that I'm excited to have as well."

    As far as entrance themes go, Styles has been lucky in the many promotions he's performed for. "Get Ready to Fly" in TNA was always awesome, but his intro song in WWE leads the list.

    "I've had some good ones throughout, but I'd say WWE being unique to me," he said. "I know it was written for James Storm, but it was mine. It suits me to a tee. It suits me perfectly. It was meant to be, so therefore it's probably my favorite for sure. It was so different than everybody else's. Even at the Royal Rumble, nobody was hating on my entrance music."

How Much Time Does He Have Left in the Ring?

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    Even at the age of 43, Styles still has several in-ring years left in him. He made that known when he re-upped with WWE in 2019 and told Newsweek it would be the final contract he signed as a wrestler.

    What's unknown is whether the deal was good for three years, five years or perhaps somewhere in between, meaning he could retire as early as 2022.

    But Styles will hang up the boots when he thinks it's appropriate to do so.

    "It's really whenever it feels right," he said. "Some days, I feel like I can go five, six more years. And then some years I'm like, 'Oh, man, I can be done this year.' As you get older, it's just changing. You have to listen to your body and figure out what it can do next.

    "With my style, it's a bit different, so I like to push it still to this day. I'm going to go as long as I can, as long as I can stay healthy and see what happens and where it takes us."

    The possibilities are endless as far as Styles' opponent for his retirement match goes, whenever that day arrives. It could be someone he has history with such as Samoa Joe, or it might be someone new whom he could put over on his way out.

    When asked who his ideal dance partner would be if he were heading into his last WrestleMania, he made a valid point about The Undertaker and how he likely didn't know his bout with Styles would be his last ahead of time.

    The WWE landscape is constantly changing, but regardless of who Styles' final opponent will be, you can be certain it will be a classic only he is capable of having.

    "I wonder if this question was posed to The Undertaker if he would've said AJ Styles. Probably not," he said. "I probably wasn't even on his list, but you never know who will be. I don't know who that person will be, that I'll have my last match with. I don't know who it will be with, but that's OK. There are plenty of wrestlers out there who could have fantastic matches with me to end my career."


    Catch WWE Untold: AJ Styles' Royal Rumble Debut when it hits WWE Network on Sunday.


    Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.