Matt Davis is back with another edition of the Chairshot Brainbuster, and this time he is looking at the impact of a single decision: AJ Styles deciding to leave TNA Impact Wrestling in 2013.
Welcome back ladies and gentlemen! Apologies for not writing last week, but here I am back once again to make your head hurt! This week, is not going to be so much about statistics but a narrative I’ve been exploring. I am going to evaluate one of the biggest decisions in wrestling history, and how it changed everything we see today!
Who remembers December 2013? It was around that time that the wrestling world had the biggest news swirling since 1994, when Hulk Hogan signed with WCW. In December 2013, the biggest free agent in wrestling, the current TNA World Heavyweight Champion, had informed the company that he would not be renewing his contract. “The Phenomenal” AJ Styles was walking away from the company, and it sent shock waves through the wrestling world. Companies were clamoring for bookings, he was wanted everywhere. And he went everywhere. He went back to Ring of Honor, he wrestled in PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles, Combat Zone Wrestling, and he traveled abroad to England, among other promotions which I will touch on later. But how did we reach this point? Why did one of the best wrestlers in the world decide to leave the company which he brought to prominence himself?
Many speculate that it had to do with the direction of the company. In late 2009, TNA had reached a relationship with Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan and the first official show run by them was March 8th, 2010, opposite Monday Night RAW, which many fans dubbed “The Second Monday Night War“. This new approach was negatively received by fans and less than two months later, TNA reversed course and moved back to Thursday’s, but many people, including AJ Styles became lost in the shuffle. Even though Styles found himself in the midst of a then record breaking World Championship reign, Styles would drop the title to former ECW and WWE World Champion, Rob Van Dam. Over the next year, AJ Styles would align himself with three other veterans of the company including Kazarian and Beer Money Inc (James Storm and Bobby Roode) and dub themselves “Fortune”, a heel group managed by Ric Flair. They were dragged into feuds with a group of ECW wrestlers throughout most of 2010, but turned face after Immortal (a group of Hulk Hogan, Abyss, Jeff Hardy, and others) debuted in the company, feuding with that group for a while. But AJ Styles would never find himself as the main guy in the company again, even as he was given a main event push in the summer of 2012, winning the TNA Championship again at Bound for Glory. But it was too little too late, and the company was focused on promoting other talent like Bully Ray, Nick Aldis, Bobby Roode, EC3, and Jeff Hardy; and AJ gave notice to the company in October. He was stripped of the championship. He sat at home for several months, debating his future in wrestling.
How TNA handled what amounts to the single biggest star they’ve ever had, who’s mere presence and global recognition gave them the notoriety to get a weekly television deal is simply mind boggling! It’s like they didn’t even know what they had in him, after 19 different championship reigns, and becoming the company’s first Grand Slam Champion in 2009. [But the same creative team let Chris Jericho walk from WCW, too, so a lot can be said about that.]
As I mentioned earlier, the first shock wave felt was when AJ Styles debuted in New Japan Pro Wrestling on April 6th, 2014. In his very first match on May 3rd at Wrestling Dontaku, he would win the IWGP Championship against Kazuchika Okada surrounded by the Bullet Club, whom he was a co-leader of. His relationship with both NJPW and ROH led to the first ever NJPW/ROH event in the United States, headlining “War of the Worlds” in New York City on May 19th, 2014. He became the first person to defend the IWGP Championship in the US (until Jay White did so five years later). This relationship between the companies, and the show in general, would have never been possible without the name brand recognition and influence of AJ Styles. He brought brand name exposure to two companies who for a long time, if ever, had someone of his brand name caliber to their rosters. Many fans regard this as the best year Ring of Honor ever had and ticket sales and DVD sales backed up those claims. It was this relationship that changed wrestling forever.
Even though the Bullet Club had existed since May 2013, it was AJ Styles’ involvement in May 2014 with the group that brought to the group to unseen levels of exposure on two continents in front of hundreds of thousands of cross promotional fans. The “Bullet Club” t-shirt became the hottest selling tshirt on ProWrestlingTees, and remains one of the top sellers to this day. The group held two distinctive storylines, one in Japan in NJPW and one in the US in ROH. In the later, in Ring of Honor, the group would begin to parody other popular groups such as the nWo and DX, with crotch chops and the “too sweet” hand gesture in their matches and segments in front of American audiences who recognized these subtle nods. They group would actually receive cease and desist letters from the WWE for emulating the nWo and saying “Too Sweet” too much, as it started to become more recognized with the Bullet Club and it’s merchandise. The group became almost bigger than wrestling itself, completely revolutionizing the international and independent wrestling scene. AJ Styles would main event WrestleKingdom against Tetsuya Naito in January 2015, and then Shinsuke Nakamura in January 2016, having won the IWGP Championship twice in his tenure. He would also co-main event ROH’s 12th Anniversary and Final Battle 2015, some of the companies biggest shows. Even though he would never win the ROH Championship, he had established himself as one of the best wrestlers in the world, finishing in the top 5 of PWI’s Top 500 in 2014 and 2015. His involvement and draw power made WK9 and WK10 the most watched WrestleKingdom ever in the companys’ history to that point. Even though Shinsuke Nakamura was regarded as one of the best wrestlers by insiders, it was his match with AJ Styles that brought casual eye balls to the Japanese legend and the product itself. Nakamura would leave Japan with AJ Styles, as both headed for the WWE. They would main event Wrestlemania 34 and wrestle for the WWE Championship. That wouldn’t have been possible had AJ Styles himself not brought attention to NJPW two years prior.
NJPW would continue to grow its global audience, launching the streaming app “NJPW World” in December 2014, and promoted its first English commentated event on the service in October 2015 main evented by Kazuchika Okada vs AJ Styles (I’ll certainly mark that up as a coincidence.) The app now has 100,000 subscribers, with half of that being international subscriptions, up 4x where they were in only 2017. The company has run successful tours of the United States in 2017, debuting the IWGP US Championship, but the company’s biggest success was yet to come. Even though AJ Styles had left NJPW courtesy of being kicked out of Bullet Club in January 2016 by the usurper Kenny Omega, NJPW and ROH co-promoted another show in New York City in 2019; except this was bigger than “War of the Worlds”. It was titled “G1 Supercard”, and was held in Madison Square Garden, the first non-WWE wrestling event held in the world famous arena in 59 years. NJPW’s draw in the United States had become so influential that they were able to sell out in 16 minutes!
Additionally, NJPW and ROH had begun pushing a branch of the Bullet Club called “The Elite” (Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, the Young Bucks, Marty Scurll, and Adam Page). It eventually resulted in faction warfare, as original members Tama Tonga and Bad Luck Fale would split the group in half. Rhodes and Omega would main event ROH’s Supercard of Honor in 2017, but it was Kenny Omega who would launch “The Elite” to global prominence, after his feud with Kazuchika Okada in 2018, winning the IWGP Championship in a match many regard as the best wrestling match ever. Omega would go on to follow in AJs footsteps, leading The Bullet Club, and finding himself in familiar shoes “Will he, won’t he” as a free agent. Why is this relevant to AJ Styles? Because none of this would be possible without AJ Styles involvement in NJPW in 2014 and 2015. He elevated New Japan Pro, Wrestling, The Bullet Club, and therefor Kenny Omega and The Elite into global prominence. Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and the Young Bucks would leave New Japan in January 2019, to found the company All Elite Wrestling, which is arguably in only it’s infancy, the second biggest American wrestling promotion as it goes head to head with the WWE on Wednesday Night’s.
AJ Styles finds himself in familiar territory once again, except on the other side of the war he started in March 2010. His influence led to a national emergence of TNA, which attracted Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff, which would lead to the destruction of TNA as we knew it then, the emergence of ROH and NJPW as global powers, the elevation of The Bullet Club, and the creation of All Elite Wrestling. He either directly or indirectly led to everything we see today. And that is why his decision to leave TNA in December 2013 changed wrestling as we know it. He surely is “Phenomenal”, but little did we know how much so.
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