2017 was a weird year for the WWE Championship. It was the year of "finally" when Bray Wyatt, one of the most criminally underrated and mishandled wrestlers in recent memory, ascended to the top to win the WWE Championship in convincing fashion (let’s just forget everything that happened after). It was also the year of "what the…" when Jinder Mahal skyrocketed out of obscurity to defeat first-ballot Hall of Famer Randy Orton to win — and hold — the title for six months.
But there was always a rock, a contingency plan, a fallback if and when WWE felt the need to set the course straight. One man both opened and closed 2017 with the top prize in all of sports entertainment around his waist, and as such served as SmackDown Live‘s anchor: AJ Styles.
AJ Styles was never meant to be in the spot he’s in now. Even when he joined WWE in early 2016, not many expected him to reach the top of the card, let alone stay there. According to Dave Meltzer, Vince McMahon brought him in to be a good hand, someone who could elevate the Roman Reigns and Braun Strowmans of the world and make Vince’s creations look good. Immediately, however, The Phenomenal One endeared himself to the WWE Universe and quickly became one of the most popular acts in the company, catapulting him to the main event scene, where he’s pretty much been ever since.
Though AJ didn’t close the show as often as he arguably should have in 2017, every match he was involved in was the must-see match of the night. The Champ Who Runs the Camp kicked the year off by having arguably WWE’s match of the year against John Cena at the Royal Rumble. And since AJ’s the type of guy who can have a 3 star match with a mop, it should come as no surprise that he stole the show at WrestleMania 33 against an executive pushing 50 who moonlights as a stunt man.
Styles spent most of the summer vying for, retaining, and elevating the United States Championship in a program with Kevin Owens. Even though the resulting series of matches was oddly unsatisfying for two of the best workers in the company, the story was compelling and is actually still going on as the main event angle on SmackDown Live, now involving not only AJ, Shane and Kevin, but Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan as well.
In a year with long stretches of bland writing and uninspired matchups, AJ Styles’ consistent excellent kept SmackDown Live must-watch. Nearly everything he touched turned to gold, not to mention the two pieces of gold he wore around his waist at various points throughout the year. What 2018 holds for him remains to be seen, but what’s undeniable is that AJ Styles is exactly what he says he is: phenomenal.