Shawn Michaels was the Showstopper, and it was more than just a nickname. The Heartbreak Kid was the best big match performer of his generation, and he always added a dazzling dose of graceful athleticism and dramatic intrigue to every show. After Michaels retired, WWE has been sorely missing that electrifying showcase athlete that combines high-flying moves with psychology and gravitas. This year, we finally have gotten that showstopping wrestler whose matches are must-see events, AJ Styles. Here are five reasons why the Phenomenal One is the best WWE wrestler since Michaels.
1. Styles is a graceful, world-class athlete.
One of the reasons HBK was the Showstopper was because of his spectacular athleticism. Not only could he fly with a wide arsenal of moves, he had tremendous body control and timing, which made his style look much smoother than guys like Jeff Hardy. Styles has taken Michaels’ style to a new level of unparalleled grace and breathtaking movement. When I first saw Styles in TNA over a decade ago, his outrageous moves looked straight out of a video game. It is amazing that he has sustained that level into his late thirties, and I am thrilled that the world has been exposed to his immense talents.
2. He combines psychology with his raw athleticism.
What made HBK so special was not only his athletic style, but the fact that he understood when to implement his moves within the psychology of a match. That is something Rob Van Dam never truly had mastered despite his unbelievable moveset. Styles is a master of timing and psychology and knowing when to unleash his arsenal at the perfect moment within the context of an athletic contest instead of just aiming at the “This is awesome” crowd.
3. His confidence.
Although he was difficult to deal with, HBK’s confidence is what separated him from other wrestlers his size with similar skills, like his fellow Rocker Marty Jannetty. One of my favorite AJ Styles moments since he arrived in WWE was his interview with Steve Austin. It was, in many ways, the opposite of the Dean Ambrose interview. Styles’ confidence in himself was on full display and it was obvious that he would overcome any doubts about his size and not being the typical Vince McMahon superstar. When he said he “could not be denied” we knew that he realized his incomparable talent would overcome any obstacles.
4. His experience from all over the world.
Before Michaels became a superstar in WWF, he had multiple years of experience in the territories, especially as a tag team star in AWA. One of the problems in WWE programming in recent years is that without real competition, too many wrestlers have been pure products of the company’s system. It is no coincidence that so many stars that have shined in recent years have been products of years of independent experience. Daniel Bryan, C.M. Punk, Kevin Owens, Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins are all wrestlers that have benefited from their journeys across the world. Styles’ experience in TNA, ROH and New Japan have helped develop his versatile style and ability to work seamlessly with all types of opponents. His matches against John Cena, Roman Reigns and others have been wrestling clinics. Interestingly, he did not have the “benefit” of years of NXT experience that Triple H often states is so important to learn about camera angles and WWE television techniques.
5. He has improved his promos and become a stronger character.
HBK’s legendary matches meant so much more because he was able to build feuds, and he had a well-defined character. It added the gravitas to his battles that made them feel like monumental events. If Styles had one major question mark throughout his career, it has been his microphone skills and character definition. TNA inexcusably placed him in numerous ill-fitted roles that made for years of awkward television.
Styles has finally hit his stride in WWE both as a face and a heel. I would prefer to see him as the ultimate athletic hero, but he has been terrific as a bad guy without having to tone down his peerless showmanship. It is because he has embraced his arrogant, villainous role that his matches have had so much more meaning.
In my opinion, Shawn Michaels was the greatest all-around wrestler of all time, but fans around the globe are fortunate to see A.J. Styles enter the WWE in his prime. The Phenomenal One is the best performer since the Showstopper.
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