AJ Styles made his WWE debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble, entering at number three in a legendary confrontation with Roman Reigns to kick off his iconic career in the company.
However, before that he had already made a name for himself as one of the greatest workers of all time. He signed for WCW at the very end of their existence, but it was in the upstart promotion Total Nonstop Action where he made his name. He was an original in the promotion, appearing from the very beginning to become the top star in the promotion filled with legends like Sting, Kurt Angle and many more.
He wrestled in the promotion for twelve years, between 2002 and 2014. He became a five-time world champion during this time, winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship that was held by legends like Harley Race, Ric Flair and Tyrus (well…). His star grew quickly but the offer from WWE never came.
They did lowball him to sign for their NXT brand in 2014 when he left TNA to sign for NJPW, which led to him travelling over to Japan to become the new leader of the legendary Bullet Club. In his first match in the company he defeated Kazuchika Okada to win the IWGP Heavyweight Champion, one of the most prestigious championships in wrestling history.
He spent two years in Japan before being courted by Vince McMahon. He signed for WWE after wrestling one of the greatest matches of all time against Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 10. It was an incredible bout which earned both men WWE contracts in January 2016. However, Nakamura would spend some time in NXT while AJ Styles debuted in the 2016 Royal Rumble in one of the best debuts of all time.
AJ Styles WWE Debut
AJ Styles made his WWE debut at the 2016 Royal Rumble, entering at number three in the Royal Rumble match. His debut was a secret, although there had been some rumblings that he would be signing for the WWE after Wrestle Kingdom 10. WWE.com even reported “rumours” that AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson would be signing for the WWE, the night after the January 4th show at the Tokyo Dome. The fact it was on the website meant that the deal was done, but WWE wanted to keep the mystery whilst also telling you “we’ve got these guys”.
Numerous media outlets reported Monday that AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke “Doc” Gallows — most recently of New Japan Pro Wrestling — are in negotiations to compete under the WWE banner.
Three of the men would take weeks or months to debut, but not AJ Styles. The Phenomenal One was thrown right in at the deep end, wrestling his first match in the Royal Rumble match on January 24, 2016.
The first two entrants in the match were Roman Reigns and Rusev. Reigns won the match the year prior, but was defending his WWE Championship in the Royal Rumble match – only the second time the title had been on the line in the match type. He quickly tossed Rusev over the top rope and waited for number three to enter. An unfamiliar song played and then the crowd erupted as the three words appeared on the screen.
I. AM. PHENOMENAL.
He had an impressive WWE debut, lasting 28 minutes in his first match in the WWE. He eliminated two men, tossing out Tyler Breeze and Curtis Axel as they interupted his battle with Roman Reigns. He was eventually thrown out of the match by Kevin Owens, a man who he would later have a rivalry with years later over one of his two WWE Championship reigns.
He impressed in the match so much that Vince McMahon began to push him immediately. Fans had long thought that he was too small and not the “WWE style” of wrestler. However, he soon became a favourite of fans and management alike, immediately feuding with big stars like Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns and John Cena to start of his WWE career with a bang
He Didn’t Know He Was Debuting In The Rumble
AJ Styles has spoken in the past about his legendary Royal Rumble debut. He spoke in the WWE Untold documentary about the 2016 Royal Rumble that he did not know that he was going to debut in the Royal Rumble when he signed on with the WWE. He knew he was leaving NJPW for WWE when he wrestled Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom, but the details surrounding his debut were murky.
“I knew that I was WWE-bound when I had that last match in Japan. I knew I was on my way. Did I know that I was in the Rumble? Nope. It seemed like until the very last minute that I was even going to be in the Royal Rumble.
“I was told zero things. Nobody kept me in the loop, so I was waiting around thinking, ‘I hope I can get into the Royal Rumble. That’d be cool, but I’d understand if I’m not.'”
“I didn’t really tell anybody because it was one of things where I didn’t really know. Was I actually going to be in the Rumble, or was I going to be doing something in the Rumble? I didn’t know, so yeah, I didn’t tell a soul, as crazy as that sounds.”