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Styles and Substance: How WWE Finally Realized There’s Life Outside of WWE

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When AJ Styles debuted at the Royal Rumble in January, it was a minor Hail Mary for a promotion in need of a spark. WWE was locked in a death march toward a singularly unexciting WrestleMania main event — Roman Reigns, the unconvincing "underdog" and clearly the front-office favorite, was finally getting his big shot. The Rumble was for the WWE championship — Reigns held the belt going in — but everybody knew that vile COO Triple H would win, setting up a match against Reigns at Mania. WWE needed something to spice up the Rumble, and Styles — recently signed away from New Japan Pro Wrestling — was their only real option.

The stakes were low — all he really needed to do was pop the crowd. But there was one element of uncertainty: How would the crowd respond to one of the only "big name" wrestlers to never work (functionally) for WWE?

Well before Vincent K. McMahon bought the WWF from his father and turned the Northeastern promotion into a nationally televised cartoon deathmatch, Vince was a power player in his father’s company. In 1979, the McMahon wrestling company renamed itself from the World Wide Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Federation. In 1983, after he bought out his dad’s interest in the company, the younger McMahon went to a National Wrestling Alliance meeting and withdrew from the consortium, setting the stage for a protracted cold war with the rest of the wrestling establishment. But if you asked Vince, he would tell you he didn’t see other wrestling companies as competition at all — he was, as he famously told Ted Turner, "in the entertainment business," not the rasslin’ business.

Sure, in a practical way, Vince always knew that he had competition — he was doing business with them, he was hiring away their talent, he was jockeying for their TV time slots. But Vince’s isolationist mind-set is what has characterized the WWF (and WWE, as it came to be known in 2002) in the years that followed. Ever since that moment in 1979 when the company took the second "W" out of its name, the course was set: The new WWF wouldn’t just span the world, it would be the world.

In the ’90s, the WWF’s war with WCW seemed to leave McMahon and his cohorts with PTSD — they couldn’t leave the battle behind, despite having won it, but they would have liked to pretend it never happened. In the years that followed, the company basked in the legend of having won the biggest bout in wrestling history, but the powers that be were so determined not to repeat it that they sealed themselves off to the outside wrestling world like never before. WWE never mentioned other wrestling concerns, and most of the time, when the company brought in the occasional indie standout, it changed his name and pretended his life began in the WWE weight room.

With WWE’s longstanding insistence on airbrushing away the competition, would fans even know AJ Styles? Thankfully, his inaugural match was in front of a savvy pro wrestling audience — WWE even let Styles keep his name, his look, and his move set. The three-man announce team took turns running down his résumé: "The hottest free agent in sports entertainment"; "former IWGP champion, same as Brock Lesnar"; "an 18-year veteran"; and "a star around the world." It was a bizarre thing for fans to hear come out of a WWE commentator’s mouth: the truth.

But again, the stakes were low. Styles could have debuted and then been demoted to NXT, where he could serve out his contract helping build the next generation of stars, including Finn Bálor. But a funny thing happened in the Royal Rumble: Fans never stopped rooting for Styles. Against the backdrop of Reigns’s predetermined ascent, Styles was all fans could talk about. Would he feud with Kevin Owens? With Chris Jericho? With Reigns himself? So eager to ignore the main event, fans were fantasy-booking the midcard as if it were all that mattered.

Fans didn’t stop cheering when the Rumble was over, either. Around the country, at televised cards in front of diehards and at house shows in front of kids and their parents, Styles was one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster — if not the most popular. WWE locked him into a rivalry with Chris Jericho, which is a sort of arch purgatory; Jericho can make any wrestler look great, but his years-long track record of doing only that renders most of his feuds blasé. And yet Styles thrived.

The night after a loss to Jericho at WrestleMania, WWE test-marketed AJ on the main event scene by having him win a no. 1 contender’s match. Again, it was a safe move: Vince granted his son Shane power to make matches that night, so the outcome could have been reversed by Vince the week after. But thanks to a characteristically incomprehensible story line, Shane stayed in power and Styles kept his spot. The connection there isn’t circumstantial: Shane represents the voice of the fans, and his prolonged grasp on power was an awkward acknowledgement by WWE that the change rowdy fans were demanding — personified by AJ Styles getting a shot at the belt — was best for business.

In the weeks since, AJ has been joined by his old New Japan running buddies Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows, who also got to keep their names — and their shared history with Styles. (Gallows had previously wrestled under the name in WWE, but even that doesn’t mean the name was a given.) Of course, Styles, Anderson, and Gallows aren’t the only outsiders making good in WWE — Owens, Cesaro, Becky Lynch, and Sami Zayn are just a few of the indie wrestlers who are making noise on the big stage, but they all came through WWE developmental, and they were all repackaged and renamed. Part of the legend of CM Punk was that WWE officials didn’t even care enough about him to demand a name change when he entered the company. They let Styles keep his name because, for the first time in years, they knew it would help. Because his work before WWE mattered. Because pro wrestling is bigger than WWE.

The addition of Gallows and Anderson is in some ways more meaningful than that of Styles. It’s a signal that the way WWE brought Styles in wasn’t a one-off; and it’s proof, more than anything, that the company is ready to acknowledge the world outside of itself. On Sunday, at WWE Payback, when Styles goes up against Reigns for the title, it’s unclear whether Gallows and Anderson will be acting on Styles’s behalf or if they’ll be free agents. It’s the warmest hug WWE could give them on their arrival — to insert them right into a silly story line and make them feel at home.

This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on April 29, 2016.