A few months ago, when I heard the rumors that AJ Styles was going to enter New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), like a lot of other wrestling fans I had my doubts. He was too old, the general consensus was, at 36 to keep up with the Japanese style. When he challenged Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, no one thought he had a shot. We all thought it was just an effort on NJPW’s side to gain more western interest in their product after Prince Devitt left. When he actually won the title (with the help of outside interference, notable for its EXTREME rarity in NJPW), we still didn’t think that it would last long. “He’s just a transitional champ,” everyone was saying, “he just won the belt to make sure Okada doesn’t break any number of defenses or days held records.” It’s worth pointing out that NJPW keeps its records a little more sacred than most other wrestling promotions. As an aside, no one thinks it is a coincidence that the current ace of the company, Hiroshi Tanahashi, dropped the title to Okada one day shy of tying The Great Muta’s combined days reigning champion. As another aside, Styles’ finishing maneuver, the Styles Clash was “borrowed” by the perennial fan favorite Tanahashi. Tanahashi has since stopped using the move, but can you imagine a guy coming in from another country and “stealing” the finishing move of your longest reigning champion in recent memory? Wait, don’t think about that too hard…
Three months into his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship reign, AJ Styles has since proven everyone wrong.
Even if you were a fan of Styles, there’s no way you could have imagined his success overseas to be this great. Sure, once upon a time Styles was widely regarded as an indie darling, helping to carry Ring of Honor (ROH) into the spotlight. However, wrestling is a “what have you done for me lately” type of business, and he had been most recently floundering as a big fish in the little pond that is TNA. Part of this is due that it seemed like he could only consistently pull exceptional matches out of his ex-ROH contemporaries like Samoa Joe and all time greats like Kurt Angle. Part of this is due to the questionable angles he was thrust into, like the bizarre Claire Lynch love affair. That storyline was only (barely) saved by the fact that it put Styles in the ring with former ROH foe Christopher Daniels, and Daniels had been doing the mic work in TNA at the time. This exposed another issue with Styles – he had never really been a great promo.
Fast forward to his time in Japan. After winning the IWGP title under dubious pretenses, he has become a world beater. In the ongoing G1 Climax tournament alone, he has put on three different match of the year candidates (against Kazuchika Okada, Tetsuya Naito and Minoru Suzuki). He has won over the respect of the hard to please Japanese fans to the point where he is getting face pops in his matches, despite being the de facto leader of the heelish Bullet Club stable. What’s the difference between his work in TNA and his work in NJPW?
First, his competition is better in Japan. Sure, the very best wrestlers in the world can put on a good match with anyone (or even a broom), but it is a lot easier to put on a great match with Kazuchika Okada than say… Garett Bischoff.
Second, in Japan, he only has to cut short and simple promos since the crowd doesn’t necessarily have the best grasp of English. Saying something like “AJ Styles is the best. AJ Styles is the IWGP heavyweight champion” might sound a little cheesey to an Anglophone audience, but that’s all he needs to get over in Japan.
Third, and probably most importantly, he has changed up his style subtly. Japan is known for their stiffer blows and more dangerous throws. Japanese fans tend to view “Sports Entertainment” style wrestle with general disdain, unless it is presented in a tongue and cheek manner (a la the Dramatic Dream Team promotion). AJ added some new moves into his arsenal: a “rush” style combination of strikes, a cool spot where he jumps over the barricade and a slew of new lucha inspired offense. AJ Styles knew he would have to change up his style a little bit to get over with the fans, and it is really his hard working, high flying style that is just a little bit different from everyone else in Japan, but just as impressive, that is making him the star he is now.
Don’t take my word for it though. Sit back and relax, and check out this amazing match between AJ Styles and Minoru Suzuki.