On the 05/30 edition of RAW, dueling chants of “let’s go Cena”/”AJ Styles” underscored a stare down between John Cena, the face of the WWE for the past ten years, and AJ Styles, the face of everywhere outside of WWE’s exclusive universe for the past ten years.
Magical moments that transcend time are what wrestling is about: this was one of those moments and what’s more it was impossible conceive just one year ago. John Cena and AJ Styles have defined themselves among the mythology of those that proceeded them in different pantheons seemingly never set to collide: this stare down was ten years in the making.
Outside of this remarkable, previously unthinkable moment, John Cena and AJ Styles had undertaken vastly different paths to reach this juncture.
John Cena has defined WWE programming since 2005. A fifteen time world champion, Cena has been an ace like no other in modern US pro wrestling history: Cena has comeback from numerous serious injuries before his scheduled return, appeared as an international spokesman for WWE, fronted countless charity campaigns all whilst consistently selling the most merchandise. Like it or not, Cena is the measuring stick in WWE.
Over the past ten years, certain sections of fans have been resistant to Cena’s position as the face of WWE. Due to the perceived “burials” of certain talent, Cena is seldom greeted with any response other than the chants of “John Cena sucks” to the tune of his iconic entrance music. Admittedly, a lot of the animosity directed towards Cena has evaporated and the chants have been reconstructed as partially a chant of endearment due to his ever growing stature in WWE history.
Since Cena’s debut against Kurt Angle that is now etched in WWE folklore, Cena has been the gatekeeper of the WWE. Feuds against the likes of JBL, Randy Orton, HHH, Shawn Michaels, Batista, CM Punk, The Rock and Daniel Bryan have produced an incomparable legacy in the modern era as he became the definitive WWE superstar of the era. WWE has revolved around his presence and, for the most part, he has delivered despite the sometimes valid criticism of his in ring work. Rarely have WWE possessed a man that, given any opportunity, will knock the ball out of the park more times than not.
John Cena’s ascent to the top of WWE is a stark contrast to AJ Styles’ journey to the top of WWE.
Since AJ Styles debuted at the Royal Rumble in January, the former TNA and IWGP Heavyweight Champion has been presented as a star equal WWE’s finest. Following a competitive Rumble performance, Styles entered an ultimately unsuccessful feud with Chris Jericho, which culminated in his first WrestleMania match as he became the fifth man to compete at Wrestle Kingdom (or the 01/04 NJPW show) and WrestleMania in the same year.
The following night on RAW, Styles emerged victorious from a number one contenders match for the WWE Championship. Styles challenged Roman Reigns for the WWE title at Payback then Extreme Rules a month later to headline two of his first four singles PPV matches.
Although Styles would, again, be unsuccessful, a star in a new universe was made.
Hitherto 2016, Styles’ success had been in spite of WWE: Styles won championships all over the world and has been a regular feature a top of any promotion he called home for the majority of his career.
Despite a couple of appearances early in his career on WCW and WWF in which he was used as enhancement talent, Styles’ rise to prominence in the biggest wrestling company in the world was a lifelong journey that exemplified a rare instance of someone achieving wrestling success in the US without the sponsorship of the WWE machine.
Styles began his career in the humble origins of NWA Wildside before he gained traction in APW’s King of the Indies in 2001, a precursor to ROH. Although Styles would not emerge victorious from the tournament, he, like many others in the tournament, used the King of the Indies as a catapult to the bright lights of televised weekly wrestling.
But not the WWE.
Styles, ROH original, too, would join Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, better known as TNA, from the promotion’s inception. In the early TNA days, Styles would help define the X Division as one of the most exciting divisions in the wrestling world. Most notably, Styles featured in not only perhaps the best TNA match of all time but perhaps the best triple threat match of all time with Samoa Joe and Christopher Daniels, two pioneers of the do it yourself mentality in their own right.
Styles, the ace of TNA, would accrue numerous TNA World Heavyweight Championship reigns, the last of which was ended by Magnus. Despite TNA at certain moments in their history offering a viable alternative to WWE, the wheels fell off and Styles fell out with TNA. Over the years, Styles’ relationship weakened with TNA to culminate in an acrimonious departure in 2014.
Following Styles’ departure from TNA, he sought pastures new. Fortunately, an infamous club in Japan had an opening. Styles, with the assistance of Bullet Club, gained the IWGP Heavyweight Championship on debut: a testament to NJPW’s faith in Styles as a performer, something that has evidently been a theme throughout his career and translated into his WWE tenure thus far.
Styles continued to deliver match of the year candidates at every opportunity: whether it be against the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada and Shinsuke Nakamura in NJPW, or guys like Jay Lethal in ROH or Will Ospreay in RevPro. Styles’ slew of outstanding performances earned him the WON Wrestler of the Year for the first time in 2015.
Moments after the incumbent Bullet Club leader bumped fists with Shinsuke Nakamura in front of 25,000+ fans at the Tokyo Dome, news broke that AJ Styles hadn’t re-signed with NJPW. As the story developed, it became clear that AJ Styles it was finally the right time to accept the call from the showcase of the immortals, the WWE.
The truth is, AJ Styles had already immortalized himself outside of the WWE as a bastion of independence from the corporate mechanisms of WWE’s monopoly.
Styles’ singing to the WWE further illustrated the changes in their recruitment policy over the past year. Styles has been regularly acknowledged by commentary as gaining prominence outside of the WWE, something of an aberration in WWE. Such is the extent of his achievements, Styles was able to keep the name that has permeated the wrestling zeitgeist for the past fifteen years outside of John Cena’s realm.
John Cena and AJ Styles have defined their legacies and created their own mythos in wildly different universes to hurtle toward their fateful meeting at Money in the Bank. As the fans chanted “AJ Styles/let’s go Cena”, this singular moment was the sound of two worlds colliding for the very first time.