Before he takes a step into the future, AJ Styles is reflecting on his past.
Styles’s debut in the 2016 Royal Rumble match is the subject of the latest installment of WWE Untold, which airs Sunday on the WWE Network. The story extends well beyond that moment, though, looking in-depth at Styles’s brief run with WCW and WWE near the turn of the century and painting a compelling picture of Allen Jones, the man who brings the character to life.
The 30-minute special traces Styles’s passion for pro wrestling to his Saturday nights as a child spent watching Georgia Championship Wrestling. Throughout the next decade, his affinity for the squared circle never subsided. After a brief but unsuccessful stint in college, he eventually found his calling when he enrolled in a pro wrestling school.
“My first bump just felt right,” Styles says. “It’s not that it wasn’t challenging. It was just a feeling, like a lightning bolt went off in my head at that very moment and made me say, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ That’s exactly the way I felt. No one could tell me any different. I just knew.”
The special gives Styles the opportunity to share pieces from his life before wrestling, such as meeting his wife and the way their love has blossomed since high school.
“My wife is brilliant, though I like to say she made a mistake in marrying me,” Styles says. “She worked so hard to get to college and earn a scholarship, and her dream was becoming a teacher.”
It also includes more somber notes, like his memories of a bittersweet relationship with his late father, who was an alcoholic.
“It was what it was,” Styles says. “It’s part of my life, part of the testimony of who I am. I am who I am because of certain situations I was put in.”
Styles enjoyed a cup of coffee with World Championship Wrestling in 2001, just before WWE purchased the company’s assets. He wrestled for Vince McMahon’s global juggernaut in a dark match that July, and his work was impressive enough for him to be offered a developmental deal. But that offer was contingent upon moving to Ohio, and Styles did not want to disrupt his wife’s teaching career.
“I wanted to make sure that she was able to go after her dream,” Styles says. “That was very important to me. Mine could come second, so I didn’t take the developmental with WWE in Cincinnati. Years later, it ended up leading me back to WWE at the perfect time.”
Before Styles made his WWE return in 2016, he helped establish TNA with an outstanding 11-year run in the company. But after he was asked to take a pay cut, Styles opted to leave the company at the end of 2013. That decision led to his magical run in New Japan Pro Wrestling, where Styles became a two-time IWGP heavyweight champion and delivered matches against the likes of Kazuchika Okada, Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi that elevated him to a new level of stardom.
“That was a defining moment in my career,” Styles says. “It showed everybody I was so much more than just TNA. I had a chip on my shoulder; I had something to prove. That run in New Japan is the reason I’m in WWE. Someone, and I don’t know who it was—and I’m not saying it was Vince, because he’s not watching New Japan—but someone knew what I was doing in Japan. I don’t know who it was, but that’s why I’m here.”
Styles’s final singles match in New Japan was Jan. 4, 2016, against Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10. Only 20 days later, after being picked up at the airport by old friend Samoa Joe, he stood behind the curtain waiting to come out third in the famed Royal Rumble match.
“If nobody cheered, I was in big trouble,” Styles says, noting that there was no guarantee he would instantly be accepted by the WWE audience. “Lucky for me, the last place I’d wrestled a lot in the United States was Orlando. So having the Royal Rumble there was the perfect place for me.”
Styles had standout moments in that Rumble against Roman Reigns, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, which led to their bout at WrestleMania 32 a few months later. This year’s Rumble is also circled on Styles’s calendar. Winning the match would add to the 43-year-old’s long and distinguished list of accolades in pro wrestling, but there is another reason he is eagerly anticipating the event.
Styles holds a massive amount of respect for longtime pro wrestler Adam Pearce, who is a backstage presence and the current on-air WWE authority figure. The story on SmackDown has seen Pearce thrown into a universal championship match against Roman Reigns. And though their careers have been very different, Styles knows Pearce’s intensity and passion inside the ring, where he carved out a reputation for nearly two decades as a well-respected, hard-working professional.
“I have a different appreciation for guys who took the long way,” Styles says. “I definitely took the long route to WWE. I know what it’s like to be there on the independents. You’re always trying to make new fans and make it to the WWE. For me, the best part of my career was going through the independent scene.
“People who aren’t familiar with the independent scene may not know this, but Adam can get after it. It will be interesting to see if he’ll get to do some stuff in that match. I am as curious as anyone is as to what is going to happen.”
Styles is coming off a championship match of his own. He wrestled a highly entertaining bout at TLC last month in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match against WWE champion Drew McIntyre and the Miz.
“I’m always going to think my matches could be better, but I was happy with it,” Styles says. “There’s always a challenge without a crowd, but I thought we had a story like no one else. Everyone fit in so well and played an important role to that storyline. Miz getting involved worked perfectly for that story, and Omos got involved, too.”
The chance to work with Omos, who is 7' 3" Jordan Omogbehin, has brought a new dynamic to Styles’s character. And the pair have had strong chemistry together, both on and off camera.
“I love working with Omos, and I can’t wait to see what he does next,” Styles says. “All he wants to do is learn. He continues to be a sponge, and there is no limit to what he can accomplish. I want to help him get there.
“Think about a guy like Kurt Angle. People forget that Kurt wasn’t even in WWE that long; he was in TNA longer than he was in WWE. He was one of the best and he got to learn from guys like Undertaker and Shawn Michaels. With Omos, I hope I can give him a little bit of what he needs.”
Styles has filled multiple roles during his time in WWE. While he would relish another opportunity atop the company as its champion, his next goal runs even deeper than winning the Royal Rumble or headlining WrestleMania.
“My plan is to finish my career without having a major surgery,” Styles says. “That’s what I would like. Whatever else needs to be done in terms of entertainment, that’s not up to me. I am happy having a job, doing what I do for a living. I’m happy doing that, and I always say, I want to be wherever I’m needed.”