When it comes to making an imprint on the minds of professional wrestling fans during a performer's first calendar year in a promotion, few can rival the success, popularity and critical respect earned by AJ Styles with WWE in 2016
There has been no shortage of impressive rookie campaigns in WWE history, including Ric Flair (1992), Yokozuna (1993), Kurt Angle (1999), Brock Angle (2002) and The Shield (2012). But there's a strong case to be made that Styles, who entered WWE as a largely finished product at the age of 39, had the best year of them all.
Styles captured the WWE championship just eight months into his first year and produced one four-star match after another in memorable feuds with top superstars Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, John Cena and Dean Ambrose.
The runaway success of Styles' first year likely wouldn't have occurred so easily, however, had the first impression of his surprise debut at the Royal Rumble in Orlando, Florida, not been so perfectly executed.
In honor of Styles' memorable first day on Jan. 24, 2016, WWE has partnered with Boom Studios, creators of the WWE "Then. Now. Forever." comic book series, to go behind the scenes and illustrate the real-life journey of "The Phenomenal One."
Styles joined forces with Michael Kingston, who created the pro wrestling comic book "Headlocked," to co-write "The Debut of AJ Styles." The story will be part of the Boom Studios' WWE Royal Rumble 2018 Special series that goes on sale Jan. 10.
Arriving just three weeks out from the 2018 Royal Rumble in Philadelphia, the comic book profiles great moments in the unique match's history, including Flair's 1992 victory and Shawn Michaels going the distance in 1995.
"This was such an important night in my career. I think you can get what I kind of went through during that day and what took place and how I felt,". "It was pretty unbelievable that day. Not many people have a debut like I had in WWE, so we are just going to take them down that road and it's an emotional, very cool and exciting road."
The connection between fans of comics and WWE is a strong one, said Kingston, who referenced how many wrestling T-shirts can be found at any Comic Con and vice versa at WWE events. Although Styles, a self-described gaming addict, doesn't have much history as a comic fan, he has enjoyed the characters he has been introduced to through spin-off movies and video games.
The project also offered a reunion of sorts for Kingston, who collaborated with Styles on "Headlocked: The Last Territory Volume 2" in 2014.
"First and foremost, AJ is a friend," Kingston said. "For me, working with AJ is a breeze. I think we have pretty similar mindsets about a lot of things and the two times we've done stories together has been some of the easiest writing I've done. Honestly, I wish I could write for him in WWE, kind of like Brian Gewirtz did for The Rock. I think we make a pretty good team."
Doing justice to the WWE storyline was the most important aspect of the project for Boom Studios. Editor Eric Harburn, who credited the thunderous reaction Styles received at the 2016 Royal Rumble with reinvigorating his own "lapsed" pro wrestling fandom, summed up their vision succinctly.
"In a word: authenticity," Harburn said.
Styles' path to WWE was a meandering one that took him all around the globe, becoming the face of rival organizations like TNA, Ring of Honor and New-Japan Pro Wrestling. The exposure helped fuel an incredible pop from the Orlando crowd, something Styles admitted he wasn't sure would happen when he landed in Florida that morning.
"We went in through Tampa rather than Orlando so that nobody knew i was coming, which I thought was pretty cool," Styles said. "The hours before [the match], I'm driving up in a car that WWE got for me so they could keep it secret. I literally get out of the car and into a trailer where nobody can see me. I didn't know it was going to be that big of a deal."
An early moment of truth for Styles came when he emerged from seclusion and walked into a Royal Rumble meeting. His anxiety was calmed to a degree when he saw so many familiar faces he had worked with before who would be performing with him in the match.
"[WWE] wasn't a home yet. To go into someone else's home, it's intimidating after so many years I had spent in the business," Styles said. "To go to the WWE, this monster of entertainment, as a new guy was very strange and very exciting. It was great."
While finding camaraderie with the boys backstage was one thing, winning over the WWE Universe is an entirely different animal. Had Styles come out to crickets upon his surprise reveal at No. 3 in the 30-man match, it could've set an ominous tone in regards to his future.
A key part of his acceptance would come from his theme song "Phenomenal," created for WWE by the songwriting duo CFO$. Styles heard it for the first time one week before his debut but wasn't quite sure how well it would be received.
"I didn't know what to think of it, to be honest with you," Styles said. "I liked it but at the same time I was like, 'Will the WWE Universe love it?' You are seeing it from a different view than everyone else because you think it's talking about you and you specifically.
"'Is it a bad thing that they are calling me a 'redneck?' I don't mind being called a redneck. I am a redneck. Is that a bad thing? Can people relate to someone being called a redneck?' All this stuff came out. But it fit me like a glove, there's no question about that."
Once the music hit for the first time and Styles entered the Amway Center, the rest was history.
"The roar from the WWE Universe as AJ walked to the ring showed the respect fans have for what he's accomplished around the world," said Boom Studios editor Chris Rosa, who saw that as the perfect moment to spotlight Styles' journey to the top of WWE.
Styles entered the ring to find Reigns, arguably WWE's biggest star, standing alone across from him. The moment was a powerful one and a tease of what was to come in a short few months. From Reigns' perspective, the two were a natural pairing.
"I thought our chemistry was incredible from Day 1 in the Rumble,". "We had no clue of each other as far as being in that ring and dancing together and from there on it was magic.
"If you didn't know AJ before his coming to the WWE, there's a reason why he's in the WWE, there's a reason why he's used the way he's used. It was an absolute pleasure to be in the ring with him."
While the Royal Rumble is typically referenced as Styles' WWE debut, the truth is he had a small handful of matches with the company in 2002 as an enhancement talent. One thing the 16-year gap didn't do was properly prepare him for the feel of the ring ropes entering that night in Orlando.
WWE uses actual ropes that are taped compared to the cables found in rings elsewhere around the world. And with his debut needing to be kept a secret, Styles never had the chance to try out his moves in a WWE ring. Yet here he was, in the midst of the Royal Rumble, when Chris Jericho whispered the next spot into his ear.
"Jericho said, 'Hey, do that springboard forearm,'" Styes said. "And I hadn't even hit the ropes, so I didn't even know if I was going to be able to do it. But you know, duck to water, I was able to pull it off and all of the things that needed to happen happened. There are a lot more things that go into a Royal Rumble than people realized."
Styles lasted nearly 30 minutes in the match before being eliminated by Kevin Owens, whom he would go on to feud with one year later. But he didn't quite realize at first just how well-received his appearance had been to WWE fans.
Never one to go back and watch his matches due to his tendency to analyze and dissect what he did wrong, Styles admits he has ruined the memory of too many great matches by "just destroying myself because I want perfection." But word began to spread his way months later about a flurry of fan reaction videos on YouTube to his Royal Rumble appearance.
"It was so cool. For me, I got to relive my debut through all of the fans' reaction," Styles said. "I can't put it into words how awesome it was, not only to walk down that aisle to a WWE ring but then to watch it through other people's eyes on YouTube is amazing."
Styles went on to take part in four memorable feuds during his first 12 months with WWE with none having a bigger impact than his rivalry with Cena. But first, Styles was forced to test himself with Reigns in a short and underrated program -- featuring just a pair of PPV matches -- that produced candidates for the best feud and match of 2016.
"I look back at stepping stones and that was one of them wrestling Roman because he was definitely a big name here at WWE and still is," Styles said. "I wanted to show that we could have a great match but little did I know how great Roman was -- a lot better than most people think. He was outstanding.
"He's a lot more athletic than people ever knew. He's on another level and I was glad to be in the ring with him to show everybody that he is and that this guy can hang with AJ Styles. To me, it was a great feud."
Reigns defended his WWE championship over Styles at both Payback and Extreme Rules in matches that "The Big Dog" said he still cherishes to this day.
"I think just AJ and I know what we had going on out there. We could both say it was special,". "I'll wrestle AJ for the rest of my life. I'll go out on a limb and say that. If they say, 'That's the only person you are going to wrestle,' I would say, 'Well, thank you!' That's easy because it really is."
It was the Cena feud, however, when Styles officially reached superstardom. The two squared off in a trio of pay-per-view singles matches, which began with Styles' memorable heel turn and attack on Cena in late May on Raw. Three months later, the two turned in an instant classic at SummerSlam in Brooklyn, New York, when Styles went over clean.
"John Cena and I, despite being two different professionals in every way, just knock it out of the park," Styles said. "Opposites attract, and certainly John and I do that in the ring and make magic."
After Styles won the WWE championship from Ambrose in October, he and Cena closed out their feud with quite possibly the best match of Styles' WWE run and a frontrunner for 2017 match of the year. Ironically, it came at the one-year anniversary of his debut.
In January, at the Royal Rumble inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, Cena pinned Styles to regain the WWE championship and equal Ric Flair's company record of 16 reigns.
"To me, John Cena has been AJ's best rival," Kingston said. "I think they had amazing chemistry together both in the ring and on the mic. The idea that they had this [Robert] Deniro-[Al] Pacino in 'Heat' style meeting before they ever stepped in the ring together is super fun on its own but also ties all of AJ's motivations from his debut at the Rumble to the point that he turns heel on Cena."
The final Cena-Styles match marked the perfect coda on what was a rookie year that will be difficult for any WWE superstar to equal in the future.