I conducted a phone interview Thursday with TNA world champion A.J. Styles, who will defend the title against Sting in the main event of the Bound for Glory pay-per-view Sunday.
You’ve held the NWA world title several times in the past in TNA, but does being world champion this time feel different to you since TNA has a higher profile now?
Yeah. Just like you said, I’ve held the NWA-TNA title before, but it was NWA. Now, it’s TNA. We’re standing alone, and for me that means a lot more. It’s more prestigious to me and it’s an honor to hold the world title. I’ve been with TNA for seven years and I take a little bit more pride in our product than someone who may have been from somewhere else. So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal for me to be the world champion.
Having been with TNA since the beginning, you’ve seen the company go from being on very shaky ground to where it is now – a company that has a cable TV deal and is growing. Were there ever times during the past seven years when you said, “You know, I just don’t think we’re going to make it?”
Well, when we first started, obviously it was super shaky. It seemed like every time I turned around I heard, “Oh, they’re not going to make it another month, they’re not going to make it another week.” I finally got tired of hearing it and just said screw it. If it goes under, I’ll go under with it and there’s no point in worrying about it because I can’t do anything to stop it. All I can do is make sure I go out in the ring and give the fans what they want to see – some wrestling that they’ve never seen before. Just make sure they’re entertained, because if they’re there, that means someone is watching, and who knows what can happen? Obviously, TNA grew from that. Not just me, but a lot of guys went out there and busted their butts to make sure we got to the next level, and I think we have.
You turned down a WWE developmental contract in 2002. Did you ever have second thoughts about that decision when times were tough in TNA? Have you ever wondered what would have happened if you had accepted that offer?
I definitely wondered what would have happened. I’ve got a pretty good idea what would have happened, because I would have went to Cincinnati [where WWE developmental territory Heartland Wrestling Association was based], and they stopped using Cincinnati not long after I was offered the contract. They moved all of their stuff down to Florida. I just don’t think I would have been one of the guys to have been picked up. When I turned them down, I didn’t tell them, “Hey, you guys are idiots. You’re not going to pay me enough money.” I didn’t say anything like that because it wasn’t about the money. It was about the fact that my wife was in college and I couldn’t leave her, or have her move in with her mother or whatever. But I definitely was like, “Oh God, I hope that was a good decision.” Because who knows when that may happen again, where I’ll have the opportunity. But luckily, not too long after that, TNA started up.
I was working for WCW Magazine when you and tag team partner Air Paris were signed in 2001. I think you guys were only there for about a month before the company was purchased by WWE. What was it like to get your big break at age 22 and then have it be gone in the blink of an eye?
I think I wrestled a grand total of five matches – two house shows and three TVs. I can’t tell you how exciting it was for me to be able to say that I made it and got in there with WCW, which I watched more than the other company. To make it and then not be picked up after WCW was bought out was heartbreaking. I got a little depressed, but that didn’t last long. I said, “It’s just a bump in the road,” and I went back to the independents, and here I am with TNA.
Whatever happened to Air Paris, by the way?
(laughs) I’m not sure. I think he does a little promoting, but I’m not sure exactly what he does. We don’t really keep in touch that much.
What does it mean to you to wrestle someone of Sting’s stature in the main event of TNA’s signature pay-per-view?
Sting and I are good friends, but I’m still kind of in awe of Sting. You just remember back when you were watching as a kid and going, “Man, Sting’s so cool,” and now I’m wrestling the guy. It’s breathtaking. I can only imagine how Bound for Glory’s going to be in his home state and how the crowd’s going to respond to him – as they do always, in an uproar.
Having grown up watching Sting, as you said, what is it like now to be accepted as a peer by him?
It just goes to show how cool of a guy he really is. We have a lot in common when it comes to our faith, so I’m sure that helps out a lot. Sting’s kind of quiet. He’s not like a Booker T., who will let everybody know that he has arrived. Sting’s the total opposite. He just walks in just as casual as he can be – just a really nice guy. It’s just one of those things where we kind of hit it off. I remember walking into a Christian bookstore and seeing his face on a magazine and thinking, “That’s so cool. Sting’s a Christian.” So to be his friend and to be his peer, it’s really neat to be able to sit and have a conversation about what we both believe in and just enjoy each other’s company.
Another thing that you and Sting have in common is that you both have been heralded as the face or heart and soul of a company – Sting in WCW, and you in TNA. What are your thoughts when you hear someone refer to you in that way? I’m sure it’s an honor, but do you also feel some pressure because of it?
Yeah, it is a little pressure. I feel like I need to go in there every time and be something bigger than who I am, and sometimes I don’t know if I’m capable of it. I just see myself as a normal guy, but apparently people see me as something different. So that’s a lot of pressure, just trying to figure out, “OK, what do these people like about A.J. Styles? Why am I so different?” In talking to people, I think it’s the fact that I’m real. I’m not trying to be something that I’m not, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. They want something that’s real and I think I give that to them.
Do you ever feel conflicted as far as being a Christian and being on a show that has its share of risqué content?
Well, I remember when we were doing pay-per-views in Tennessee and there was a part where [dancer] Lollipop got her shirt ripped off. I was like, “Oh, we didn’t need that.” There’s no way I can control things like that. It’s not up to me. When I get in the ring, I know that people are going to see it and they’re going to judge me regardless of whether I like it or not, so I have to make sure that what I say and do is positive. There are times when I have to be angry and I have to say stuff that’s – ugh. A borderline word for me is saying “pissed off.” I wonder if people will take that the wrong way. Some may, some may not, but they have to understand that if I were really mad, I may say “pissed off.” Even when I’m mad at home I don’t cuss, but I may say “pissed off.” It’s a fine line, man. It could be a lot worse, that’s for sure. At times I watch the other product and I go, “Well, at least we’re not doing that.”
Has there ever been an instance when TNA came to you with something and you said, “No, I’m not comfortable saying or doing that?”
Maybe once or twice they had a word in there that I wouldn’t really use. I don’t even ask them, I just change it. They don’t really care; it’s not that big of a deal. The only frustrating thing about being a good guy is that it’s changed and evolved over the years to where it’s almost like you have to say, “I kick some a-double-s” to sound cool. So I have to find ways of avoiding that. The good thing about being a bad guy was that I could say “butthole” and “jerk” and “turd,” and the fans thought, “Oh, he’s just stupid.” [laughs]
Despite the fact that you have a high-risk style, you haven’t suffered any major injuries that have required significant time off, correct?
Not yet, but it’s unavoidable. It’s one of those things where you do a leapfrog and there you go, you blow out your knee. You never know if it’s going to happen, but I’m not going to worry about it. If it happens, it happens. I’ll deal with it then. TNA will deal with it. We’ll all deal with it together and hopefully things will work out and I’ll be right back where I was. I’m not going to go out there and mail it in just so I won’t get hurt. I’m just going to do my thing and whatever happens, happens. If you don’t worry about, I think you have less of a chance of getting hurt. It’s when you do worry about it, you hesitate, and that’s when you get hurt.
Are you at a point where you are starting to think of – not mailing it in, as you said – but toning your style down a little and perhaps working a little smarter, as the saying goes?
Sure. It’s definitely about working smarter. Psychology has a lot to do with it. Before it was just move after move after move, and it didn’t make any sense. To build up to a move that everybody wants to see, that’s what it’s all about. That’s where I’m at in my career, and it’s something that I could have been doing from the get-go, but it’s what every young guy goes through. They just do everything in the book and that’s just the way it is.
When you were doing some of the comedic heel stuff a while back such as putting on turkey outfits and things like that, were you concerned that it was going to hurt your career?
You know, I went from a turkey to a reindeer. I think Kaz and I had an awesome match to see who would have to put on a reindeer outfit. Sometimes I’m like, “This is just dumb. This doesn’t make any sense.” But after a while, I was like, “If they want me to be this character, I’m going to be the best and I’m going to have fun with it.” And I did. When Christian and Tomko and I were doing that, I was having so much fun. We were making each other laugh so much. I knew the time would come when I’d go back to the old A.J. Styles that everybody seemed to love. At least they got to know another part of A.J. Styles. He’s not the same old babyface, super good guy; they know he can also be a jerk and an idiot. So I think it just added to the character.
Any final thoughts?
I’ll give you two. One: Although I am a Christian, I am not even close to perfect. If I gave this phone to my wife, she’d keep you on it all day long about how stupid I am. And the other thing is that I would be nothing without the fans, so I appreciate every one of them.