By Chuck Carroll
The walls of his home are likely covered in gold. Within a year of his first match in 1998, AJ Styles captured his first championship. It was the first of many he’d win over the next decade. Many were from wrestling’s most prestigious promotions, from Ring of Honor to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, from TNA Wrestling to halfway around the world with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Styles was an unstoppable force that truly became “the face that runs the place” wherever he went.
Indeed, he was phenomenal, and every promotion on earth wanted him. All, that is, except one.
For years Styles was overlooked by WWE, as Vince McMahon and Paul “Triple H” Levesque had no interest in his services. He only briefly worked for the organization in 2002 primarily as an enhancement talent, which is a nice way of saying “jobber.” The company reportedly offer him a developmental deal worth a paltry $26,000 a year at that point, but he turned it down due to family obligations. He knew he was worth more anyway.
Not long after that he began racking up gold for WWE’s chief competitor, TNA. At the time the Tennessee-based promotion was delivering substantial ratings and garnering well over a million viewers each week. The shows were built around Styles, and he became the man who put them on the map.
“AJ Styles has always been synonymous with TNA and TNA synonymous with AJ Styles,” TNA officials stated. “AJ helped build the foundation of IMPACT WRESTLING, and his phenomenal body of work lives in our rich history — something we are very proud of.”
But their relationship soured in 2013 and eventually ended in a bitter divorce. In hindsight, it was the best thing that ever happened to Styles. He returned to the independent circuit and spent two years tearing it up in Ring of Honor. At the same time, he became a domineering force 7,000 miles away in New Japan Pro Wrestling. His ascension there was rapid with the popularity of the Bullet Club taking his career to new heights. The ensuing two-year run with Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson made him a global commodity.
In 2015, he made the decision to exit NJPW and return to the United States full-time.
There were a number of options on the table, including a return to Ring of Honor. That may have indeed worked out if his relationship with Dixie Carter and TNA hadn’t thawed. With fences mended, Styles, along with Gallows and Anderson, seemed destined to go there despite the fact the organization was taking on serious water. It was not uncommon for TNA’s performers to be paid late as last-minute deals with outside investors were brokered just so the company had money to run shows. Morale reportedly had taken a serious dive as did television ratings and revenue. The company was floundering, but it didn’t seem to matter to Styles. Perhaps that’s because at this point WWE had still not expressed interest in him.
On December 14, 2015 the group met with Carter at her home in Nashville. But this is where things get a little murky. What happened next depends on who you ask.
According to TNA, “a handshake and written deal between AJ, Drew [Hankinson aka ‘Gallows’] and Chad [Allegra aka ‘Anderson’] was agreed upon and signed by all. Start dates were determined, creative decided, merchandise designed and plane tickets purchased.”
But within a short time, everything fell apart.
“Over the Christmas holiday, and after the lawyers finalized the long form agreement, all communication with TNA stopped,” TNA officials said in a statement. “AJ’s lawyer contacted TNA and stated the wrestlers had changed their mind and would not be honoring their commitment to TNA.”
Styles’ camp has a much different version of events. According to his agent, Bill Behrens, no contracts were ever signed, and he directly blames TNA for the tentative agreement falling apart. He says the company began dragging its feet, which forced them to look elsewhere. Behrens’ claims fit a pattern of mismanagement by TNA at the time.
“Unfortunately, contracts have to follow discussion and the contracts have to reflect the discussion,” Behrens told me. “If that process becomes mind-numbing and stupid, which in my opinion it did, it creates the opportunity for another door to open.”
As it turns out, the door would be in Stamford, Connecticut, home to WWE. It didn’t take long for Styles to walk through. Actually, it was more like a sprint, and a short time later the trio were signed.
“It ended up that WWE that had paid no attention to AJ at all when he left TNA the first time, and all of the sudden after two years of proving he’s a top star, Triple H got in touch and said, ‘hey, we’re interested,’” Behrens said.
Behrens says WWE made it easy to get the deal done. Unlike negotiations with TNA, WWE attorneys, he says, conducted themselves professionally, and the contracts offered didn’t include any one-sided “gotchas” that are commonplace in entertainment agreements.
A few weeks later Styles stepped through the curtain and into the WWE Universe at the Royal Rumble. The ovation at the Amway Center in Orlando was deafening. It confirmed what fans had known for years; he belongs in WWE. And for Levesque, it proved that his gamble paid off. It’s just a shame it took so long for the company to realize his worth.
In the year that has passed, TNA bottomed out following a public dispute with rock star investor Billy Corgan. The Smashing Pumpkins front man aired much of the TNA’s dirty laundry during a vicious court battle over control of the company.
Corgan had infused TNA with money on multiple occasions. His investments were in excess of $1,000,000 and often came as a last-minute Hail Mary for Carter to fund productions for that week. Without his investments the company would have folded.
He sued TNA claiming a breach of their agreement and that he was to assume majority ownership after they defaulted on their loan. He would lose the court case, but did ultimately get his money. However, it wasn’t from Dixie Carter. The seven-figure check came from Anthem Media, which purchased the company late last year. TNA could simply bail water no longer.
Perhaps if Styles stayed in Japan for another year things would have turned out differently. But timing is everything, and WWE is grateful for that.
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.