wrestling / Columns

Ask 411 Wrestling: Why Did AJ Styles Skip NXT?

May 31, 2020 | Posted by Ryan Byers
AJ Styles WWE Raw 3920

Welcome guys, gals, and gender non-binary pals, to Ask 411 Wrestling. I am your party host, Ryan Byers, and I am here to answer some of your burning inquiries about professional wrestling.

If you have one of those queries searing a hole in your brain, feel free to send it along to me at [email protected]. Don’t be shy about shooting those over – the more, the merrier.

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First, before we get into this week’s questions, I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this is the first edition of this column that I’m writing since we all learned about the passing of Larry Csonka on May 18. (There has likely been one edition of the column published between then and now, but it was written beforehand.) I participated in the tribute column for Larry, and I do not have much to add beyond what I wrote there, except to say that, on an Ask 411-specific note, Larry was the one who recruited me to write this column on a full-time basis a little over two years ago. I had not written for the site for some time and was probably more disengaged with wrestling than I had ever been at any point in my life, but he managed to talk me out of “retirement” as it were, and I’m grateful for that because I’ve enjoyed this run quite a bit, particularly getting to know some of the individuals who more regularly write into the column. So, I certainly owe him for that one, in addition to everything that I wrote in the larger tribute.

I also want to put another plug in for the GoFundMe campaign to support Csonka’s daughters. As of the time that I am writing this, it is sitting at roughly $32,000.00 of a $50,000.00 goal, and the donations are still coming in, though it’s at a slower rate than at the beginning.

This family deserves to have that goal exceeded, so, please, contribute whatever you can.

And with that, we move on to the questions . . .

Kristian, Kristian, at last you’re on your own . . .

When AJ Styles comes to mind, I also think of Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, Shinsuke Nakamura just to name a few talent who were already well recognized establishing themselves I ROH, TNA, NJPW and others. Yet, despite their recognition and past accolades, all but AJ Styles had to start in NXT before becoming part of the main roster.

Not that I don’t think AJ Styles didn’t deserve to be main roster material right away, but how come the rest of the aforementioned list had to work their way up from NXT first instead of going to the main roster?

The answer is that Styles was a pretty hot free agent at the time, and he and his agent Bill Behrens were able to utilize that in order to get him some concessions that other wrestlers do not get when signing with WWE these days, including bypassing developmental. According to the February 1, 2016 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, in late 2015 and early 2016 WWE, TNA, and New Japan/ROH were all in a bidding war for Styles’ services. In fact, a few days before Styles made his surprise Royal Rumble debut, TNA posted an article on their website in which they essentially called foul on the signing and claimed that they had reached an agreement with him to return to TNA, only for Styles to back out after having committed. That just goes to show you just how tight the bidding between the various companies was, and Styles was able to use it to his advantage in a big way.

Andron has a rocket strapped to his ass:

One time WWE was trying to push Ryback, but he bumped someone wrong, so they moved on to Daniel Bryan. Then he got injured, so they moved to Roman Reigns. In my mind WWE was too hasty to find a face to replace Cena and not giving it enough time. Is it possible WWE was trying to push these guys so fast that they were not giving them time to get into the position properly?

I disagree. Over the past several years, I feel like there has been this myth that has developed among fans (and possibly among those in the wrestling business as well) that a wrestler has to be around for several years and “pay his dues” in order for fans to accept him as a main eventer. Reality is that history doesn’t bear this out.

If you go back to the very origins of WWE, during the Bruno Sammartino era, when a wrestler came in to be a new contender to Bruno’s championship, he was really only built up for six or eight weeks before getting a run against the Italian strongman and likely even main eventing Madison Square Garden. Even more recently than that, a guy like Brock Lesnar was a legitimate WWE Champion less than a year after his main roster debut, and, to throw things back to the last question, AJ Styles was immediately accepted as a top guy by WWE fans even though, outside of a few matches in WCW, he previously had only wrestled for a promotion that had less than 25% of the E’s audience.

Granted, there is a difference between being a main eventer and being the face of the company like John Cena was for many years, but I believe that many fans misstate how much time and effort it really takes to make a wrestler into somebody who audiences will buy into as being part of the championship picture. As long as they’re consistently booked as though they belong at the top of the card, fans will generally accept them there in a short period of time.

Guys like Ryback, Bryan, and Reigns fell out of those spots for reasons other than being rushed into their positions. (Recklessness, injuries, and not being Daniel Bryan, respectively.)

James W. is an independent contractor:

On an episode of NXT, Blue Pants (Leva Bates) beat Carmella. How many other non-contracted wrestlers (i.e. not celebrities like Kevin Federline or Floyd Mayweather) have beaten a contracted wrestler on WWE programming? I’m pretty sure Kendrick was under contract, but I’m not sure about 123 Kid and Colin Delaney. Any ideas?

This is one where it will be difficult to do research to come up with a comprehensive list, but I can certainly give several examples. If there are others that you readers can think of, please feel free to drop them in the comments.

First, regarding the 1-2-3 Kid, he had signed on to become part of the WWF roster on a full-time basis before he upset Razor Ramon. He had a tryout match against Louie Spicolli (later Rad Radford) at a television taping shortly after Wrestlemania IX. A deal was made to bring him in after that, though he couldn’t debut immediately because he had already committed to be part of the Best of the Super Juniors tournament in New Japan Pro Wrestling. As part of the buildup to the Razor upset, the Kid was squashed by Doink the Clown and Mr. Hughes on two prior episodes of Raw, and then he managed to pin Razor with a moonsault.

So, he wouldn’t count as part of the answer to this question, because he was a regular, albeit a regular in the early part of his career.

However, part of the initial 1-2-3 Kid storyline did result in a non-contracted wrestler getting a win over a full-time member of the roster. Shortly after the Kid and Razor feuded, they mended fences and formed and alliance, feuding with Money, Incorporated. As part of that feud, Razor Ramon distracted Irwin R. Schyster during his match with P.J. Walker on the September 13, 1993 episode of Monday Night Raw, allowing Walker to upset IRS. The idea was that Schyster had been taunting Razor about losing to a nobody, so this made them even. Walker, who was a regular job guy on WWF shows around this time, eventually did get a contract and was repackaged as Aldo Montoya and then Justin Credible.

In a similar angle, in a match taped on December 17, 1996 for WWF Superstars, Steve Austin decided he wanted a little bit of extra competition, so he took on jobbers Eddie Jackie and Jason Ahrndt in a handicap match, which ended with Ahrndt pinning Austin after a run-in by the British Bulldog. Jackie was a Florida indy guy who was more familiar as a WCW enhancement talent, while Ahrndt would eventually sign and be turned into Joey Abs of the Mean Street Posse.

Interaction between the WWF/WWE and ECW over the years also lead to a variety of different inter-promotional matches, some with the non-WWF wrestlers winning. Rob Van Dam picked up two victories on episodes of Monday Night Raw in 1997, one against Jeff Hardy on May 12 and the next against Flash Funk on June 9. Though I am not entirely certain whether Hardy had signed a deal with the Fed at that point or whether he was just working as an enhancement talent, Funk almost certainly had signed and was a television regular.

Interestingly, in the buildup to and actual cards of the 2005 and 2006 ECW One Night Stand shows, which were promoted by WWE and in some respects billed as being inter-promotional, the wrestlers who were billed as “ECW” talent that won matches were all actually under WWE deals. There were non-WWE wrestlers on those shows, but none of them picked up a victory.

Speaking of ECW, James in asking his question mentioned Colin Delaney, who made his WWE debut as an enhancement talent on the December 18, 2007 episode of ECW on Sci Fi. Delaney, who up to that point was best known as Colin Olson in CHIKARA, was not under contract during his earliest appearances. It’s a bit ambiguous as to whether he signed a deal before getting his first win. The March 2, 2008 Figure Four Weekly newsletter reported that Delaney was signed to a three-year contract, and his first win occurred on February 26, 2008, when he and Tommy Dreamer teamed up to beat Mike the Miz and Johnny Nitro. It’s not clear whether the victory or the signing came first.

The same could be said of James Ellsworth, who had a very similar angle eight years later, initially appearing as a job guy but ultimately signing a deal to become a full-time part of the roster, picking up a victory against AJ Styles somewhere in the transition.

Night Wolf the Wise</b is the Doug Llewelyn to my Joseph Wapner:

I wanted to ask you a question about wrestler’s court. How far back in wrestling history does wrestler’s court go? I was curious because I only ever heard about it during the Attitude Era. Do they still do wrestlers’ court to this day and if so who would take over Undertaker’s role of judge and jury on it?

In his appearance on Steve Austin’s podcast, Dutch Mantel described wrestlers’ court as taking place during his first run with the WWF, which would have been between 1995 and 1996 – slightly predating what is commonly accepted to be the beginning of the Attitude Era.

Interestingly, there seems to be some conflicting information out there about whether wrestlers’ court still exists. In a 2016 interview with Atlanta radio station Rock 100.5, Seth Rollins claimed that the “court” has been permanently adjourned, whereas, in a 2018 episode of his UpUpDownDown web series, Xavier Woods talked about wrestlers’ court as though it was still very much in existence.

In recent editions of the column, I have been asked how certain wrestlers stack up in the pantheon of all-time greats. The first question of this nature was about Bret Hart, and the second was about Chris Jericho. Now we’ve got two readers asking me to follow up and rank other wrestlers in the framework that I established when answering those questions.

First is Tyler from Winnipeg:

Given your outline for ranking all time greats in tiers, where does Scott Hall/Razor Ramon slide in?

I go into more detail in the prior columns linked to above, but the short version is that in evaluating the all-time greats I established three tiers. The first is for wrestlers who became crossover icons like Hulk Hogan, El Santo, Antonio Inoki, and the like. The second is for guys who main evented during hot periods but didn’t quite make it into the mainstream consciousness as much as those in the first tier. Dusty Rhodes, Mitsuharu Misawa, and Randy Savage all fit here. Then there is a third tier for wrestlers who were incredible talents but do not have the credentials as draws that the guys in the first two tiers do. That’s where I put Bret, Jericho, Shawn Michaels, and a few others.

As far as Scott Hall goes, I don’t mean this to sound overly harsh, but it my ranking he doesn’t even get into one of those tiers. I have nothing against Hall and enjoyed him as a performer, but he was not an all-time great in-ring performer, and, with the exception of a couple of shows very early on in the nWo’s run, he was never put into the position to draw as a top guy. Plus, what should have been his peak years as a performer were cut short by his personal issues, meaning that he’s missing out on the longevity that several of his contemporaries can boast about. If I were given a ballot for a professional wrestling hall of fame and Scott Hall’s name was on it, I don’t think I’d check the box.

Again, that’s not meant to be a knock on Hall. I just feel he falls outside of the category of being one of the true elites.

And second is Rumi from India:

Bret Hart and Chris Jericho’s placement in the third tier of wrestling’s greatest . . . I agree with you. I wanted to know: Where do you place the Undertaker?

You might have noticed that, when I was writing my prior columns ranking the all-time greats, I never used the Undertaker as one of the examples of who fit into which tier. I didn’t do this because, honestly, I’m a bit conflicted about where to place him.

I am fairly confident that the Undertaker doesn’t get into the first tier with the absolute apex of wrestling stars. My internal debate is whether he goes into tier two or tier three.

Much of that debate stems from the fact that he has had such a long and varied career. He was on top of the WWF at the absolute height of his popularity and was in main events during that period as a major foil of Steve Austin, so you might compare him to Randy Savage, who I placed in the second tier in large part because of his being the most popular foil for Hulk Hogan in the boom period that Hogan inspired. However, Taker was also a player in the WWF during its absolute leanest years, being high on the card of shows that really fell flat from a business perspective like Wrestlemania IX. On one hand, Taker has put on some of the most memorable matches of the last fifteen years against men like Shawn Michaels and Triple H. On the other hand, he spent the first decade or so of his WWF career as a meandering stiff who choked and throat-chopped his way through the vast majority of his matches.

Ultimately, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to make a choice, I would probably place him in the second tier. I say this for a couple of different reasons. First, due in part to his sheer longevity and in part due to his unique gimmick, I do think that the Undertaker has probably crept into the popular consciousness more than most tier three wrestlers. I suspect that, if you stopped non-fans on the street and asked them to name pro wrestlers, they would get to the Undertaker well before they got to a guy like Bret Hart. Second, in my evaluations of other wrestlers, I’ve focused more on the best parts of their careers and haven’t downgraded them too much for the bad. For example, I never once questioned putting Hogan into tier one despite the fact that he also had a frankly embarrassing run in TNA where he frankly didn’t improve the business of the company all that much despite being a significantly bigger mainstream star than anybody who was in the promotion before him. If I don’t downgrade Hogan for that, then I probably shouldn’t downgrade the Undertaker for that year-plus where he was doing nothing but having unspectacular upper midcard matches with members of the Million Dollar Corporation.

Bryan J. was punched in the heart, and you’re to blame. You give his questions a bad name:

Is there any legitimate medical threat to doing the heart punch? I know Stan Stasiak used it and Taker used it In WCW, but could it actually stop a guy’s heart? I’m no cardiologist but blunt trauma sounds logical, but if it was, wouldn’t it be banned in boxing and MMA? What says you?

You pretty much hit the nail on the head. If the heart punch were a legitimate but non-lethal attack, we would see it used in boxing and MMA much more often. If it were a strike with an unusually high risk of being lethal, it would be outlawed in boxing and MMA. Neither is true. I suppose that it is technically possible that if you had the right combination of combatants under the right circumstances a blow to the heart could induce cardiac arrest, but it’s also technically possible that if you had the right combination of combatants under the right circumstances a punch to the face could break somebody’s neck. However, it would be a freak occurrence and not something that in any way approaches having a high probability.

For what it’s worth, a lot of the mythology around the heart punch comes from 1960s and 1970s star Ox Baker, who used the move as his finisher. When one of his opponents, Alberto Torres, died in 1971 just a few days after the two were in the ring together (due to issues unrelated to the match), the storyline built around the death was that Baker’s heart punch proved to be fatal. Then, oddly enough, in 1972 another Baker opponent, this time Ray Gunkel, died very shortly after a battle against Ox, which again was attributed in storylines to the heart punch. Baker’s heart punch was so feared that, when he repeatedly hit it on Ernie Ladd during a 1974 angle in Cleveland, it started off a legitimate fan riot, which you can see some footage of above.

That will do it for this week’s installment of the column. We’ll return in seven-ish days, and, as always, you can contribute your questions by emailing [email protected].

article topics :

AJ Styles, Ryan Byers