"Gee, those Ring of Honour Guys seem to be having a whale of a time with AJ. I wonder why..."
I have alluded to the fact that sometimes in wrestling companies there is a '1a' to the #1 franchise player. Randy Savage played 1a to Hulk Hogan. CM Punk played 1a to John Cena. What is interesting about much of the career of AJ Styles in Total Nonstop Action Wrestling is that he was playing 1a...to nobody in particular.
2002 saw Styles signed up by TNA as one of their founding members. He was 24 at the time and seen by many as one of the prodigies that could lead TNA to the promised land- the land of being a true alternative to the goliath that was World Wrestling Entertainment. In his first year the the company he won both the Cruiserweight and the Tag Team Titles. The next year he won the NWA World Heavyweight Title and thus became the very first TNA Triple Crown winner.
And yet a decade later in 2013, it still didn't feel like AJ had truly arrived as the face of wrestling. He was part of Christian's Coalition, married to Karen Angle, then became part of the TNA Frontline (also known as the TNA Originals) before being anointed by Sting as the person to carry the torch after him. Then, if that wasn't enough, he was then in Fortune with Ric Flair, who claimed that he would make Styles the next Nature Boy before being mistaken for the father of a drug-addled woman. While many would complain that John Cena's character barely changed in that period, Styles seems to have had the opposite problem- with TNA creative not getting him a chance just to breathe with a top level spot.
In February 2013, Styles returned to Impact after a 3 month hiatus where he saved James Storm from Bad Influence before attacking Storm himself. Styles would continue to display similar behaviour throughout the next couple of months- portraying himself as a 'lone wolf' who was only out for himself. This, combined with his brutal new Calf Killer submission finisher meant that many thought that finally, FINALLY AJ would be able to show just how good he could be .
So why was it such a damp squib?
Ok, usually when I write these I start with the smaller problems before moving on to the major elephants in the room. However, this angle is pretty hard to talk about without addressing one massive pachyderm.
Let's face it; although the Lone Wolf angle wasn't exactly the same as the Summer of Punk, there were more than enough similarities for people to compare the two angles.
On the face of it, I can understand why TNA would have thought this angle would have worked with the whole 'angry veteran worker shooting his mouth off because he isn't getting his due by the establishment/authority and getting the fans behind him by airing his grievances about the company which parallel the fans' own issues'. But the thing is that there was a hell of lot of stars that aligned for the Summer of Punk to take off (at least before WWE fucked it up). You had a company that was in good financial shape that for all intents and purposes was doing well, but was screaming for some freshness to challenge the status quo.
I have racked my brains about what sort of time and place would a Summer of Punk-ish angle work and the one answer I come back to is 1999 WCW with Chris Jericho replacing CM Punk. Both were coming to the end of their contracts and both had been seen as talented wrestlers who were being held back by the powers-that-be because they were not seen as face of the company material.
However, TNA in 2013 wasn't like WWE in 2011 or WCW in 1999. TNA in 2013 was a financial basket case that was cutting costs left and right when they introduced this angle and so the notion of keeping Styles on a contract seemed more difficult because they were haemorrhaging cash they did not have.
Secondly...there's the two workers themselves.
Look, I know that Styles' mic work have improved out of sight since he moved out of TNA, but his August 29th promo where he explained his motives is really, really flat. By the time he actually yells down the camera "Hey Dixie, I deserve better!" the crowd is essentially dead in the water and soon is mocking AJ at a time when he should be getting the crowd over. At the end of the promo when he decleares he is going to be the new TNA World Heavyweight Champion the crowd is so bored that they barely cheer- making Styles look awfully amateur.
Some may say that there's little difference between Punk's promo and Styles- that both were talking about how they were being screwed over by a corrupt establishment- but there were a couple of subtle but important differences between the Pipe Bomb and the August 29 promo.
- Punk did not go out there and attempt to get the fans' empathy, nor did he try and get them to 'relate' to his plight- even going so far as to rage at some of the fans in the audience. Punk essentially just illustrated the injustices that were in the company and how they affected him. By doing this, Punk didn't make this about a 'employee dispute' like Styles did. Instead he positioned it as the hypocrisy and stupidity of the WWE.
- The content of the promos. Punk was leaving and decided to get everything off his chest about why Vince was a shitty person to work for. AJ Styles complained about being held back...and then declared he liked being the 'go-to guy' and vowed to win the Bound for Glory tournament. So essentially he complained about being shafted and then vowed to win the Bound for Glory tournament in order to please Dixie and co?
- As soon as Punk sat on the stage it was clear that his words were his. Sure it may not have been all that he believed but there was enough anger there to make people know that he wanted to say this for a while. After all, in the first 2 minutes he called Hulk Hogan and the Rock 'ass kissers'. The same cannot be said for Styles' promo which unfortunately looks all too obviously like someone wrote it for him. There's no spark or spontaneity. Heck, when the audience begins their own chants (including a Yes chant) Styles simply ploughs along.
The InVasion Saga
Article One: Shane has a surprise for Daddy
Article Two: Booker T vs Buff Bagwell and the Temple of Boos
Article Three: Daddy's little Girl Gets in on the Action