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The Spinning Lariat: The Dark Side of Phenomenal

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Every Friday, The Spinning Lariat brings you Trent Zuberi’s rundown of the latest developments in America’s other major pro wrestling company, TNA.

Whether you like professional wrestling or not, there’s no denying the captivating athletic ability that many wrestlers possess. One of the most common things I hear from non-wrestling fans (after they give me the whole “you know it’s fake, right?” bit) is that even though they’re not fans of the industry, they admire the work that the wrestlers do. It’s not easy. It’s a grueling thing to perform. Just the amount of psychology that goes into each match would blow the mind of the casual fan. Combine that with the sheer athleticism required to get from point A to point B, and you have one of the most complicated productions this side of a Hollywood set, all taking place within a 20×20 foot ring.

One of the most gifted and captivating performers today is AJ Styles. He’s TNA’s crown jewel, having been there since the first show they ever aired. I remember watching that show in June 2002 and seeing him for the first time. He was part of the first match, and I was instantly blown away by what I was seeing. My friend and I turned to each other and said, “Who the hell is this guy and where did he come from?” Needless to say, we were fans from the start. There was no surprise when after several breathtaking performances, the announcers began referring to him as “Phenomenal.

His star only continued to rise as the company grew. He won every single championship the company had to offer, including four World Heavyweight Championships. He went through a slew of storylines and character alterations, everything from the goofiest redneck to the most sadistic heel, but one thing always remained: he always outdid his last performance and made you jump out of your seat.

Last year was a very different year for AJ Styles, though. He was put into a storyline where he was turned on by his friend Christopher Daniels, who later accused him of having an affair with the owner of TNA Wrestling, Dixie Carter. (Google her when you have a chance, she is hands down the most attractive wrestling promoter of all time). This was followed by the reveal that he and Dixie were sponsoring a heroin addict who then revealed that she drugged AJ, forced him to sleep with her and was pregnant with his child. Everyone turned on AJ, no one believed him and formed opinions about him, only to ultimately learn that the junkie was lying the entire time, put up to the blackmail by Daniels in an attempt to ruin his life and career. He later tried moving on, but was too disillusioned by everything that had happened. He lost matches, cost his teams matches, and then just as he was on the rebuild, he lost a match with the stipulation that he could not receive a World Heavyweight Title shot until the annual Bound for Glory PPV in October 2013. Distraught, he took the mic a few weeks later and told the audience that he was tired of doing the right thing, and instead he was going to do his own thing.

You catch all that? It sounds crazy even to me, and I watched it unfold week by week. I’ll admit that in the early stages of this story I was less than enthusiastic, because hey, I just wanted Styles to go out and steal the show. Toward the end of it, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to see how it unfolded and ultimately ended. This is a testament to the truly fantastic performances of those involved, namely Daniels and Frankie Kazarian as the antagonists and AJ as the protagonist.

So AJ took his ball and went home for a few months. We got small updates from his family and friends saying how he’s changed, how he barely speaks, how he’s detached from society, etc. He was the good guy all along and we didn’t believe him, we weren’t there for him, and now he doesn’t need any of us. He hesitantly returned at the Chicago airing of Impact Wrestling as a hardened, dark character who doesn’t care about anything. General Manager Hulk Hogan tried getting him to join the good side, saying how they needed him to fight off the evil Aces & Eights (see last week’s article for info about them), and even his friend James Storm tried talking sense into him, but he didn’t want anything to do with anybody. He stands with a newly grown beard, longer hair, dark clothing, expressionless, rejecting everyone around him (usually with stiff punches to the face) and walks off. Hell, even the Aces & Eights offered him a spot, which he rejected but not without teasing interest.

The initial reaction everyone is having to this storyline is that it’s similar to the Dark Sting storyline from WCW. News flash to anyone bringing up that comparison: that was 15 years ago. I don’t care if Sting did something similar in 1996-97, this is AJ Styles and this is a new era. The story is progressing excellently. It is a slow build to the point where, if done correctly, could be at a fever pitch once it hits its peak. They want AJ to join the fight against the Aces & Eights to help save the company from a gang that’s trying to destroy it, but remember, he doesn’t care. Why should he? He didn’t have any support when his world was crashing down, and now he’s supposed to help them? He turns his head when he sees wrongdoing. He walks away from alliances and defies authority. He’s no longer the hero.

Here’s how you make this story work: you keep the Aces & Eights strong until Bound for Glory, to the point where they plow through everyone in the company, leaving TNA desperately in need of that hero. No one can dethrone the evildoers until AJ Styles has that emotional turn, sets his sights on them and goes for the gold. However, he should make it clear that it’s not for anyone but himself. He hasn’t forgiven or forgotten the hurt he endured, and this battle is being fought for him. If they keep him strong and engaging throughout this buildup, the AJ Styles character has all the elements to become a Phoenix that rises and gives TNA that franchise player that becomes the true head of the company. He’s always been the one person that’s instantly identified with TNA, and now his character is in the most important place it has ever been in, as he’s on the cusp of being the head of it all during the company’s biggest boom period. This one storyline can define a huge era of the company’s history and set the tone for the years to come. No matter what, the ride will be phenomenal.

(Questions, comments, feedback? Please feel free to contact me at trentzuberi@gmail.com)