The question of who should be included on the “Mount Rushmore of Professional Wrestling” is one that has served as entertaining fodder for online wrestling forums and bar stools alike. Each and every contributor to this timeless conversation has their own set criteria as to whom should be included, ranging from overall impact in the business, in-ring ability, most polarizing personality and everything in between.
This conversation is and always will be inherently subjective, but the result of Backlash main event threw a whole new monkey wrench into it. After winning the WWE Championship from Dean Ambrose, joining the conversation with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino, (excuse me while I grab my parka) John Cena, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Ric Flair, among others, is none other than “The Phenomenal One” AJ Styles.
Before attempting to unload on what might be an unpopular opinion, one must look at the route Styles took to get to this point, one that provided obstacles that have been insurmountable for most ever since Vince McMahon bought out the regional territories.
Wrestling veterans such as Austin, Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, among others have endlessly mentioned the handicap that the current crop of professional wrestlers have by having WWE be so dominant within the industry. These competitors earned their stripes by traveling to places like England, Japan and Mexico, and then to different American territories such as the American Wrestling Association (AWA), National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in its many forms, World Class Championship Wrestling, among others. Not only were these wrestlers able to travel the world, they were able to study and analyze a plethora of wrestling styles, allowing them to insert more “tools into their toolbox” so that bigger companies had a reason to take notice.
By the time Styles debuted in World Championship Wrestling as one half of Air Raid, the option of learning from multiple territories had all but ceased. Wrestlers were still able to go to Mexico and Japan, but it was clear by this time that the WWF(E) and WCW were running the show. This left Styles to try his luck in smaller companies such as Ring of Honor and the upstart NWA: Total Nonstop Action Wresting.
Styles’ incendiary in-ring ability allowed him to quickly become a main-eventer in ROH. He was the first ROH Pure Wrestling Champion, but it was Styles that TNA was seemingly named after. His wrestling ability was put on full display on a nightly basis, allowing him to capture the NWA and TNA World Heavyweight Championships a combined five times.
However, it was not his relatively small size that makes this feat most impressive, but the fact that he could have been put into the ring with anyone, including Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle and Sting, and the predictions could have been placed based on a coin flip. For 11 years, Styles was the heart and soul of Total Nonstop Action wrestling, and the company’s state since his departure alone could be used as an indicator of his value.
Prior to debuting for the WWE at the 2016 Royal Rumble, Styles spent two years on the independent wrestling scene and in Japan. Not only did he reclaim his title as “King of the Indies”, but he went to New Japan Pro Wrestling, currently the second-biggest wrestling company in the world, and captured the IWGP twice en route to being the leader of the now infamous Bullet Club, a faction that is still the hottest one in professional wrestling today.
He also put on nightly clinics in Japan, including one against Minoru Suzuki that Dave Meltzer named the Match of the Year in 2014. He became the headlining act in a company that predominantly featured Japanese superstars.
However, it was his debut at the Rumble that would begin the path to becoming a new inductee into the conversation of the “Mount Rushmore of Wrestling”.
Over the years, there have been plenty of debuts and surprise entries into WWE’s Royal Rumble. However, Styles’ debut was a Rumble entry that comes second to no one. That night, he accomplished something that Edge, John Cena, Shawn Michaels and others never did. After not spending one second in a WWE ring in his entire career (besides a couple dark matches in the early 2000s), Styles’ entrance blew the roof off of the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
When Edge and Cena were surprised entries into the Rumble, they had already been over with the fans due to their work in the same company. Styles’ reaction that night proved that he has singlehandedly transcended the wrestling industry by eviscerating the notion that one cannot make a name for themselves outside of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment. From the second his theme music proclaimed that the listener “don’t want none”, Styles became the darling of WWE.
With apologies to Finn Balor, Styles’ win over Dean Ambrose for the WWE Championship was the “Coup de Grace” that allowed Styles to join the aforementioned conversation. Forget the fact that he is the only man in the history of professional wrestling to have held the TNA, NWA, IWGP and WWE world championships. Forget the fact that there is not a single soul in wrestling that can hold a candle to him in the ring. Styles made a name for himself everywhere, and absolutely owned WWE since the second he arrived.
Hulk Hogan started in AWA, but was not immediately a star in WWE. Steve Austin wrestled all over the world, but still debuted as “The Ringmaster” in WWE. Styles debuted as Styles, owned the crowd as Styles, and captured the last piece needed to capture the ultimate professional wrestling “Grand Slam.”
Nobody in the history of professional wrestling has dominated so much ground. That’s why Styles has earned a spot in the conversation for a spot on “The Mount Rushmore of Professional Wrestling.”