It’s hard to imagine that professional wrestling was not AJ Styles’s calling.
Styles is, after all, the most decorated performer in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling history.
Consider his TNA achievements:
• a three-time NWA World Heavyweight champion;
• a two-time TNA World Heavyweight champ;
• the inaugural, and six-time, TNA X Division champ;
• a two-time Television champ;
• a six-time tag-team champ;
• TNA’s first TNA Triple Crown winner, a feat he would accomplish six times in his 11-year run with the company.
Now consider that wrestling wasn’t something Styles even paid much credence to during his early life.
“I remember watching it every now and then growing up, when it’d come on, on Saturday nights,” Styles said in a telephone interview, “but it wasn’t something that I was obsessed with. I’d rather go outside and play and stuff like that rather than sit in the living room and watch wrestling if it was on.”
Unlike many in the business in which he has dominated, Styles never aspired to be the heavyweight champion of the world, a la Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair.
In fact, it was because of his friends that he ended up in business at all.
“(During) the boom of professional wrestling (in the 1990s), when that happened, everybody was watching it. It definitely became more appealing at that point,” Styles said while promoting his coming appearance at Great North Wrestling’s Aug. 30th show in Hawkesbury, Ont. “It wasn’t something that I sought to do. I had some friends who were lifelong wrestling fans. They’ll watch wrestling till they die,” he said, adding that his friends planned to train to become pro wrestlers.
Even then, Styles took only a half-hearted approach to their plans.
“Jokingly, I said, ‘That’s cool, when you guys go, I’ll go with you,’ not thinking that they would find a place,” Styles said.
Lo and behold his friends followed through.
“They found one, about 20 minutes from my house,” Styles said with a chuckle. “That’s how it all started.”
Had his buddies not steered him toward wrestling, Styles, whose real name is Allen Neal Jones, has no idea where he’d be now.
“I probably would not have the most prestigious job in the world, that’s for sure,” he said with a laugh. “At the time, I was delivering bottled water. I can’t imagine I’d be doing some job that I’d be making a lot of money or something that my child would (be saying) ‘Hey, this is what my dad does for a living.’ I could be wrong, (but) who knows where I would’ve ended up.”
Once he was bitten by the pro wrestling bug, there was nowhere to go but up, Styles said.
“I have one gear,” he said. “I’m either all or nothing. So when it came to sports and athletics, I was all in. I put every ounce of energy into that. It was the same thing with wrestling once it started. I was all or nothing. Once I believe I can do something, not a lot of people are going to be able to tell me I can’t.”
Styles’s long list of accomplishments comes in spite of limited formal training. He was initially trained at National Championship Wrestling, which would become NWA Wildside.
“I wouldn’t say that I got a lot of training,” he admitted. “I believe that I got a lot of training from the guys that I wrestled with when I started. Literally, within a month of so-called training, I was wrestling. That’s where I learned the most.”
Like nearly every aspiring wrestler who comes up through the independent ranks, Styles got a taste of what it’s like to start at the bottom, make next to no money.
“When you’re first starting, there’s no money to be made,” he said. “Sometimes you maybe just get gas money. By the time you figure out you’re not going to make a lot of money, at least for me, I fell in love with what I was doing, so I was excited about working for gas money and getting the experience.”
Styles’s big break came during this time with NWA Wildside.
“I think that wrestling has a lot to do with being at the right place at the right time, and with the right person watching, really. And at the time, NWA Wildside was a developmental area for WCW. So when the higher-ups would come and watch their guys at NWA Wildside, they also saw me and Air Paris having great matches. That’s how it all started.”
Styles cut his teeth in World Championship Wrestling, but was not offered a contract when World Wrestling Entertainment bought WCW in 2001.
“The only contact I had was Johnny Ace telling me that they were not picking up my contract,” Styles said, admitting it was a huge blow to his confidence. “It was depressing there for a little bit, but it was one of those things where (I said) ‘Alright, I’m going to go back to the indies and I’m going to find a way to make a name for myself.’ ”
Enter TNA, the fledgling promotion started by Jeff and Jerry Jarrett in 2002 and later purchased by current owner Dixie Carter.
In 11 years with the company, Styles became a poster boy for success while becoming the face of the company, outlasting the likes of Eric Bischoff, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and others.
After winning 19 championships with TNA and becoming the first and only TNA wrestler to top the Pro Wrestling Illustrated 500 list (2010), Styles’s contract was not renewed by Carter and TNA in 2013.
Styles subsequently signed a deal with New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he won the company’s heavyweight title in his debut.
Looking back, Styles says there was a lot of reality coming through during in-ring exchanges with Carter in the months leading up to his abrupt departure.
“You know, sometimes there’s a lot of truth in what was said in the ring with Dixie and I,” Styles said. “She said TNA made AJ Styles. I would say that we made each other, to be honest with you. They gave me a platform so that I could get my name out there and I did some great things there. But at the same time, I think that I helped TNA, along with a lot of the other guys who busted their tails there. To look back, I did a lot there. I was there for 11 years. That’s a long time to be at any job. I’m grateful for that.”
At the same time, Styles is quick to dismiss any talk that he’s disgruntled about not having his contract renewed.
“At times I think people would say ‘ah, he’s bitter.’ That’s really not it,” he said. “There’s a fine line between bitter and disappointed. When you get disappointed, you get angry and some people might call that bitter. It is what it is. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to wrestle for TNA, I did a lot of great things there and what’s done is done and I’m happy where I’m at.”
Styles does point his finger squarely at Carter when asked about how his departure became so public.
“Ultimately, Dixie’s the head honcho there. If you’re the head honcho of any business, you’ve got to take responsibility for the good things and the bad things. You’ve got to hire the right people. If you’re not smart enough to make this decision, or make the right decision, then you hire someone who’s smarter than you to make that decision for you.”
The TNA chapter of his career closed, Styles said he was fortunate to work around a number of legends of the business, the likes of Sting, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and others, but one guy stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to having helped him early on.“The guy (who) helped me the most there, and now even as my career is getting into its later years, was Terry Taylor, who really (gave me) tons of information that I’m now really benefiting from. The stuff that he was teaching me and giving me advice about is helping me out so much now it’s unreal. I can’t thank him enough.”
Despite his somewhat public and bitter departure, Styles doesn’t hold any ill will toward his former employer, which has been rumoured to be in financial turmoil.
TNA’s TV deal with Spike TV appeared all but done when the network announced that it would not be renewing the deal. However, late last week, Spike announced it has a short-term deal in place that will see TNA move to Wednesdays. Nothing long term has been announced.
For someone who helped build the company, TNA’s woes are worrisome for Styles.
“You’ve got guys that are still busting there tails there and you’ve still got some great wrestlers there,” he said. “To be honest with you, I don’t want to see TNA going out of business. A lot of people would say ‘ah, I bet AJ is happy.’ I’m not. It’s sad. I hope that TNA does not go under because there are a lot of wrestlers that deserve to be there, that deserve to be doing well for themselves. After 11 years, you’d hate to see something like that go.”
Somewhat reflective, Styles likens TNA to early romance.
“Everybody has a first love. It’s one of those kind of girls that you’re glad you’re not with her anymore, but at the same time, you hope the best for them because deep down inside there’s always going to be a special place in your heart for them.”
With his new home with New Japan, it appears, at least for now, that WWE fans will not get to see Styles inside a WWE ring.
“It sure doesn’t seem like the right time to be going to WWE,” Styles said, referring to the company’s recent stock losses and major cuts. “I think the best place for me right now is New Japan. I’m happy with everything that’s going on there right now.”
In fact, Styles feels New Japan might be the last stop for him.
“At this point, I would be more than happy at some point in my career to just retire from New Japan. The respect that they have shown me … and I’m not talking about being the heavyweight champion … I’m talking about just overall treating me with respect and treating me like a star and trusting me to have great matches with guys I’ve never even been in the ring with. That means a lot to me. I hope that they see that ‘this guy’s going to help us out in the long run … he’s a team player.’ And I’d be more to, when my time comes to retire, to retire from New Japan Pro Wrestling.”
In the meantime, Styles takes indy bookings all over the world, the next of which brings him north of the border this weekend. Styles has nothing but respect for Canadian wrestling fans.“Some of the best wrestling fans are in Canada,” he declared. “There are lifelong wrestling fans up there and they’re some of the best. They appreciate what guys are doing and they’ve always been some of the best fans in the world. It’s always fun to go up to Canada to wrestle.”
Styles will face the man beast known as Hannibal, when Styles puts his New Japan title on the line against Hannibal’s GNW title.
For his part, Styles said he will prepare to face Hannibal in the same manner in which he prepares for any opponent.
“You never underestimate your opponent and I’ve been around a lot of them in my career. Whether they’re big or they’re small, they’re loud, or intense or just calm, cool and collected. Everybody’s different, but everybody can get in the ring and go at it. Just because somebody yells and screams doesn’t mean they’re the best. You prepare for everybody the same because you never know what you’re going to get.”
Styles promises fans they’ll get what they paid for when they come to see him live.
“The fact of the matter is, like I told you before, I’ve got one gear. It’s all or nothing with me. I get in there and these people have paid to see AJ Styles and they’re going to get the best of him.”
Great North Wrestling
When: Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Robert Hartley Arena, Hawkesbury, Ont.
Tickets: Available at the door or online at ticketweb.ca
HANNIBAL “The Animal”
New Japan Pro Wrestling IWGP World Champion
“The Phenomenal” AJ Styles
(2 out of 3 falls)
Jeremy Prophet and Sexy Eddy w/The Lovely Mileena
“The Rockmaster” Billy Lee (Billy Lee is Michael Leduc from Rockland) and Jimmmy “Jam” Lee
“The Lovely” Mileena w/Jeremy Prophet
6-MAN TAG TEAM CONTEST
Harley, Taylor and Jimmy Cash
Flex Rolins, Showtime and Troy
“The 7 Foot Tall”
Darko w/Dark Cash
Karnage and Pat Shenzy
20-man Over the Top Rope BATTLE ROYAL
Special Guest Enforcer Referee Hawkesbury’s Stephane Poirier
Jeremy Prophet, Sexy Eddy, Stunning” Steven Levac (From Hawkesbury), John “The Grape Crusher” Maloney, Genocide, “The Rockmaster” Billy Lee, “Jiving” Jimmy Lee, Harley Davison, Taylor, Jimmy Cash, Showtime Shaun Macmillin, Flex Rollins, Troy Walchuck, Tomas Leroy Cooter, Mike Lions, Commander Rick Sniper, Platinum Preston Perry, Darko, Pat Shenzy, Karnage, Payne, Mizery the Barbarian