Climbing inside the ropes of professional wrestling’s biggest stage wasn’t a linear move for 37-year-old Gainesville native AJ Styles. Although he wrestled briefly for World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002, it took 14 years and countless bumps and bruises elsewhere before he returned to the WWE spotlight.
“I know I took the long route to get here, but it was worth it,” said Styles, nicknamed “the Phenomenal One” for his high-flying in-ring artistry. “The timing was perfect when it came to my career. And I’m ready to be that WWE superstar.”
Having spent a majority of his career working for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, WWE’s struggling rival, Styles also chalked up countless mat hours with other wrestling companies, most recently New Japan Pro Wrestling, based in Tokyo. Yet, it was his long-awaited arrival in WWE in January at its Royal Rumble pay-per-view event that’s arguably made the most noise on his rasslin’ resume thus far.
Since then, Styles already has sparked a feud with popular grappler Chris Jericho, appeared regularly on WWE broadcasts, and will make his homecoming March 1 at Philips Arena for a taping of WWE’s “SmackDown” program, which airs 8 p.m. Thursdays on USA Network.
Taking time in between body slams, Styles recently chatted about his arrival in WWE, the reaction in the locker room, and the road to WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of pro wrestling.
On how it felt walking to the ring at WWE’s Royal Rumble in January:
“I had never really experienced something like that before. You never know what reaction you may get. This is the WWE universe. While I’ve wrestled all over the world, you’re not sure how many people actually got to see that. To walk out and hear that explosion of people, I could have just turned around and walked back through the curtain. That was all I needed. But it was great stepping into the ring against one of the biggest superstars in WWE, Roman Reigns.”
On his reception in the WWE locker room:
“I didn’t expect (the wrestlers) to be so open to me coming in. These guys bust their tails and made a lot of sacrifices to be here. And here comes this guy out of nowhere. Sometimes you’ll walk into a locker room and you’ll get, ‘What’s that guy doing here?’ In WWE, it’s not like that at all. They literally welcomed me with open arms. I can’t describe how great the locker room is. This is why the WWE is successful, because they have a locker room that gets it done. These guys get it and understand, and they’re ready to get out there and work. They know we’re in the entertainment business, and they respect what I’ve done. You don’t see that everywhere.”
On his bucket list of WWE experiences:
“Everyone wants that WrestleMania moment. That’s another big one for me. I’m hoping I can be a part of that. I’ve already done some amazing things in WWE, wrestling on ‘Raw’ and ‘SmackDown.’ I got the opportunity to do my first WWE pay-per-view with Royal Rumble, but to appear at WrestleMania would be unbelievable.”
On what he looks forward to when coming off the road:
“I have four kids and a wife, and I love them. The first thing I want to do when I come back into town is get home, and hug them and squeeze them. I have a 1-year-old daughter, and she’s amazing. So I just want to get home, take them out to dinner and have that family atmosphere. … There’s nothing like spending time with your family at home. That’s the life that I live. To me, there’s only one thing more important than my family and that’s God. The rest is all them.”
WWE “SmackDown.” 7 p.m. March 1. $24-$109 plus fees. Philips Arena, 1 Philips Drive, Atlanta. 1-800-653-8000, ticketmaster.com.