Watching the AJ Styles heel turn on Raw Memorial Day, I was struck, again, by the idea that the WWE, and Vince in particular, just doesn’t care what we want.
AJ Styles, probably much to Vince’s confusion and chagrin, has been over with the crowd since he debuted in the Rumble this past January. Incidentally, he entered at number 3, when the only other guy in the ring was Roman Reigns. It still boggles my mind that they never pushed the narrative of him “challenging” Reigns in that spot, when later he was actually “CHALLENGING” Reigns for the Title at Payback and Extreme Rules.
But anyway, AJ Styles found himself as that rare commodity in WWE: a babyface who is over with the two most important demographics in the audience. The smarks will always love him for his time in TNA, on the indie circuit, or when he was running shit in Japan. But somehow, he was equally over with the kids. They loved him too. Now, it’s nearly impossible to get the IWC to agree with the ten year olds on ANYTHING in WWE, but they seemed to agree on this: AJ was A-OK.
That right there is a license to PRINT MONEY. Hell, both his shirt and his ridiculous gloves both sold out at various times in the WWE shop.
If merch sales are truly an indication of popularity, as WWE seems to think, you can’t do much better than that.
And when AJ came out on Monday to represent the New Era in welcoming back John Cena, the cheeseheads in Green Bay went absolutely MENTAL. With deafening, dueling chants of “AJ STYLES” and “LET’S GO CENA” that seemed to go on forever, you could tell that the WWE universe was ready for a “mutual respect” type of feud between these two living legends, two titans of the industry who had never had the chance to face each other before. This was a program that could last until Summerslam, or even beyond, if it seemed to have legs.
And when Styles put over Cena in front of that crowd, offered a “welcome back” handshake that was (tentatively) accepted by Cena, it appeared that WWE might have been giving the audience what they wanted for a change.
Even when “The Club” (ugh, that name) came out and seemed to be picking a fight with Cena and Styles, that’s fine said the crowd, we’ll watch our boys team against the big bald baddies for a couple weeks. We’ll accept that, it’s cool to just see Styles and Cena in the ring together, and maybe we’ll get a “may the best man win” match at Battleground or something.
No, instead they turned AJ heel. Had him beat down Cena with the help of The Club, run back in to beat him down again, and then run BACK in A THIRD TIME to beat him down AGAIN. By this point, Styles wasn’t beating Cena, he was beating a dead horse.
We get it. You’re turning AJ heel.
But we didn’t want that.
(Wait, is that the thing in AJ’s theme song that we don’t want none of? Suddenly, it all makes sense.)
No, we actually wanted a different heel turn. We wanted the guy who enters to thunderous boos to be turned heel, because we all hate him.
I mean, I don’t personally hate him. And I’m definitely not one of the guys who says Roman “can’t wrestle”, because, well, because I watch his matches and I have EYES. He’s a pretty great worker, actually. I don’t like his (perceived) preferential treatment from the boss and I think he’s been booked so terribly that a babyface title run isn’t salvageable at this point. You can make him an antihero, I don’t care, but him coming out and repeating the whole “good guy/bad guy/the guy” rigmarole just ain’t making it. I think Reigns has improved a lot this past year and I think booing him is just foolhardy at this point, but I’m just saying that the guy who gets a 70% negative reaction from the crowd no matter what arena he’s in, that’s the guy you turn heel, not a readymade babyface who’s already getting crazy huge ovations from 4th graders and their jaded-as-hell, 28 year old uncles as well.
You know who else you don’t turn heel? The rightful champ who never lost his belt, returning from injury four months early like a goddamn conquering hero. That’s who.
Here’s the story WWE thinks they’re telling with the return of Seth Rollins:
Chickenshit heel champion went out to injury, had to vacate the title, so the “real” heir apparent could get his rightful shot at it. Because, of course, the chickenshit heel champion didn’t “deserve” to have the title in the first place. Months go by, the heir apparent “overcomes all the odds” to win his title at Wrestlemania, and stake his claim at the top of the mountain, because “he’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy, he’s THE guy” and “no matter how you feel about him, you’re very passionate about him.”
After a two month feud with “The Club” (rejected names include: “The Guild,” “The Fellowship” and “The Turkey Ham and Bacon Sandwich”), the real champ “overcomes all the odds” yet again, only to be impolitely attacked by the returning chickenshit heel champ. How rude! Certainly this cowardly roustabout will get his well deserved comeuppance at the hands of the real champion and the one true son of God on high, blessings be upon him.
What the WWE didn’t seem to realize is that Roman Reigns is so hated by 70% of their audience, and that Seth Rollins is so admired for his amazing abilities in the ring, and he’s going to get the return pop no matter what. Guys returning from injury unexpectedly will always get a huge pop from the crowd. Because we are happy to see them. And it’s as simple as that. John Cena, as polarizing as he is, got an epic return ovation at the 2008 Royal Rumble in Madison Square Garden.
Hell, in 2001, when HHH got his quads torn off the bone by a Walls of Jericho “GOOD GOD NO NOT ON THE ANNOUNCE TABLE” he was universally reviled as the most hated heel in the business. When he came back eight months later, the pop he received basically ripped the building apart.
AND IT LASTED FIVE FULL MINUTES.
Of course Seth Rollins would get a similar reaction. I mean, OF COURSE he would.
But the WWE couldn’t let us cheer for him. They couldn’t just give us what we want.
It’s simply not in Vince’s nature.
So they had Rollins come out the following night on Raw and give a heel promo, teasing the crowd with “did you miss me’s” and “it’s great to be back’s” before twisting the knife with the ol’ “I took all of your Get Well fan mail and I threw it in a garbage can and set it on fire”. Admittedly, it was a great promo, delivered impeccably by Rollins, but it wasn’t what we wanted.
We wanted him to come out and be that conquering hero, the one who would save us from the reign of Reigns. There were even signs at the most recent tapings that read “Save Us Rollins.” And this is AFTER he told us he burnt our fan mail. It almost doesn’t make sense.
But the biggest head scratcher is that immediately following an episode of Raw where Rollins faked getting in the ring to fight Reigns, picked up a mic only to say nothing at all, cackled like a maniac and basically stumbled through one of the worst segments in the history of Raw, all to prove what a cowardly chickenshit, undeserving douchebag he is, and how much we don’t really want him to win that match at Money in the Bank—after all that, they premiered a documentary on the WWE Network about Rollins hard road back from a nearly catastrophic knee injury.
They profile his younger days as a backyard wrestler and his disappointment as he was unable to perform at April’s Wrestlemania. This WWE produced documentary, shown on their own network, was the biggest argument ever for why we should CHEER this man. He has a tiny dog who loves to drink coffee, for god’s sake, and when he was a child, he used to wrestle a stuffed Ultimate Warrior so hard he needed to go to the chiropractor.
They show us this, then tell us we are wrong to root for him.
We want to.
But we are not allowed.
Because we just can’t get what we want.