A few short years ago, A.J. Styles was toiling in TNA, still one of the best wrestlers in the world but facing increasingly Sting-like questions about his legacy. Would the Phenomenal One ever stand in a WWE ring? He was in his late 30s, too small for of Vince McMahon's liking and emblematized a rival company. That's not exactly a recipe for success.
But then, Styles left the Impact Zone and put together an incredible late-career renaissance, thrilling audiences in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Eventually, WWE couldn't ignore him any longer, and at this year's Royal Rumble, Styles debuted on the main roster – with a big fanbase (and an even bigger contract) in tow.
Last Sunday, Styles participated in his second-ever WWE main event at Extreme Rules, once again challenging Roman Reigns for the Heavyweight title. It was a great match, not to mention a continuation of one of the most surreal sagas in modern pro wrestling history. Here was A.J. Styles, the guy we watched cut promos with Dixie Carter a few years earlier, getting near falls on Roman freaking Reigns while 16,000 folks chanted his name. Never say never.
In the midst of his impressive run, Rolling Stone spoke with Styles about the the latest chapter of his storied career, working with Roman Reigns and why you'll never see him go Seth Rollins with his hair.
Are you surprised at how quickly you were moved into WWE's main event scene? Did you think it would take a little longer to get to this point?
I think it's a surprise to everyone, to be honest with you. I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't surprised. I was hopeful – I thought eventually I'd be in the main event because I have that kind of drive, but to be here so quickly, you don't expect that. But at the end of the day you have to give the people what they want, and they seem to like what I'm doing out here in WWE. You can't write a better way to put yourself over, and it makes me want to work hard and maintain where I'm at.
Tell me about the Monday after 'WrestleMania,' when you learned you were being booked to win that Number One Contender match. How did it feel to get that news?
Well first off, my kids know dad's wrestled his whole life, but they were very saddened to see my loss at WrestleMania, and it was kinda shocking to me that they were sad because they know what's up. However, I knew what was happening on Monday so I was excited about them getting to see that. I guess that's the first thing that jumped in my mind, "I can't wait to see the look on my kids' faces."
What does it mean to you to be working WWE main events at this stage of your career?
I mean, there's plenty of people who've never gotten the opportunity to wrestle at WrestleMania. To perform there and do that, I never thought it would ever happen. I had learned to live with it. So to say I did that is a big notch in my belt. Now I can say I've worked a WWE main event, but it keeps on going. There's a lot of goals I've set in the WWE that I want to accomplish. I'm always setting goals for myself, and someday I want to be in the Hall of Fame.
I'd say you've wrestled longer than a lot of guys in WWE, but at the same time, you're pretty new to the company. Do you feel like a new guy in the locker room?
I've never really felt like a veteran. I've never felt like the guy who's like, "OK, everyone needs to look up to me and respect me." I've always just been one of the guys that people are excited to get in the ring with. That's all I want. I want people to see me as an equal and treat me as one of their own. I was a little worried that the guys would treat me differently when I got here, but there were a lot of people that showed me a lot of respect as soon as I showed up.
You and Roman have put together a series of really great matches over the last couple months. He's a divisive star, to say the least, but do you think a lot of fans underestimate him?
Absolutely. I think he's a better athlete than a lot of people realize. He should get a lot more credit for his athleticism. He's unbelievable, he can do a lot of stuff. I think he's been able to showcase that with me. We're doing something right – I don't think people gave Roman a chance; in fact. I think a lot of fans jumped on the bandwagon when someone started booing, instead of taking the chance to see what he could do in the ring.
You're 38 – have you given any thought to retirement?
No. I know that retirement will be in a couple years. I don't know how many a couple is at this point, but the ultimate goal is the opportunity to retire [and then] do something else you're interested in. There's a lot of guys who have retired and went into podcasts or TV shows, so there's other things out there. But also you want to spend time with your family, because when you're in WWE you're gonna work for your money, and I expect to do that. But that means you'll be on the road a little more and might miss some things at home, but you get to make that up by retiring and being with them 24/7 – which might annoy them to a certain degree [laughs].
Do you see yourself staying involved with the WWE once your in-ring career is over?
I was pleasantly surprised at how everything works here. Everything is so professional and I want to be part of something like that, whether it'd be training or being an agent. I think that's right up my alley. That's one of the things I thought about when I came here – the future outside of the ring. I would be excited to do something like that.
One final, very important question: A lot of WWE superstars prefer to come out with wet hair, but you go for the dry look. Is there any particular reason why?
This is 100 percent the reason why: because everyone else does it. A lot of times when someone else is doing something I'll stay as far away possible from that. Everything I do I want to be A.J. Styles. When you see a guy come out with dry, long hair, I want you to be like, "Hey, that reminds me of A.J. Styles." That's what I want.