WWE world champion AJ Styles has been on a whirlwind ride over the last 10 months. Since making his WWE debut at the Royal Rumble in January, he's had memorable showdowns with Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, John Cena and Dean Ambrose -- to say nothing of James Ellsworth.
The most shocking element is how quickly he's accumulated a massive following in the WWE, after decades in the wrestling industry working for every other major company in the world, and risen to the top of the ranks in the company.
With Tuesday's release of WWE 2K17, ESPN's Tim Fiorvanti had the chance to talk with the "face that runs the place" on SmackDown Live about his love of all things video games, his incredible run over the last year, dream opponents and much, much more.
ESPN: AJ, it's pretty well documented that you're a big gamer. I saw a video from about 10 years ago where you had a PlayStation 2, an Xbox, a GameCube and a SEGA Dreamcast with a video screen attached, among a great many other things in your game room at home. What's the setup like these days?
AJ Styles: If we're talking about my setup now we could talk about all the retro games that I have, like my collection of hand-held systems that most people have forgotten about, but I also still have systems that can play the old games like a RetroN 5 and other craziness. I also have my arcade machines, and then we can move on to the PS4, and the Xbox One, but I like to play my Xbox 360 as well. So I have pretty much everything, man -- I have an addiction, and I admit that.
ESPN: When you're on the road, how much of that do you end up taking with you? Is it more about the consoles or the handhelds when you're done wrestling for the night?
AJ: Well I actually take my Xbox 360 on the road. I still enjoy playing my 360 because the last game that they made for college football was 2014, so I have it just so I can play that game. There are also some games [for that system] that I never really got into, but now I really enjoy them, like this game called "Bullet Storm." I didn't realize how fantastic this game was at the time, but I'm rocking it right now and it's awesome. It's to a point where a lot the guys will go, "What game is that dude?" I'm like, "Dude it's actually kind of old." So yeah I still like rocking the 360.
ESPN: You have three kids -- are they as enthusiastic as you are when it comes to video games? Have you instilled that in them?
AJ: They're not as well rounded as I am. My oldest son likes Madden. That's the one he wants to play, or baseball on the PS4. My second-oldest son, he can't wait for me to get home and take him WWE 2K17. My third son, he's on the Wii U, enjoys "Mario Maker" and whatnot. So they're all involved, but they're all in different age groups.
ESPN: Let's talk about WWE 2K17 for a little bit. I think it's pretty cool, at least for somebody who's followed your career, that in 2016 in a WWE video game you can have AJ Styles face Samoa Joe. What is that like for you, considering all the different places both of your careers have been?
AJ: It's pretty neat. I remember Joe telling me when he signed with WWE, and how cool I thought it was that my buddy is going to come in and make a difference, and I knew he would. Then he makes it in time to be in the game this year, which was unbelievable. I don't know how many people made me in 2K16, but I've seen a lot of different AJ Styles, and the fact that they don't have to do it this year I'm sure is a relief to them. It's just really neat being a part of it all, man.
ESPN: In terms of some of the guys who you faced prior to signing with WWE, like a Joe, like a Nakamura, how much are you looking forward to the opportunity to showcasing those kinds of matches for a WWE audience in the future?
AJ: Absolutely, I am. I mean, the chemistry I have with both those guys, and other guys that are coming up through NXT or a part of NXT, it's kind of one of those things where you can't rush it. But all this stuff is gonna eventually happen. We just have to be patient.
ESPN: As the WWE World Champion, you are playing a pretty massive role in what's going on in Smackdown Live right now, where everything's been very well received. For you in particular, we have as our No. 1 in our Power Rankings and we're certainly not alone. What is it like to have your work recognized and your level of performance recognized to the degree it has since you joined WWE?
AJ: It's huge. That's what you work for, is to be recognized. It's nice to know that the hard work that you've put in all these years is finally getting the, I don't want to say praise, but you know. I busted my tail for so long, I'm just glad it's getting recognized now as part of the WWE. Because let's face it, the WWE is the biggest company out there when it comes to wrestling. I'm just happy that I'm being recognized as somebody who works hard, I guess.
ESPN: Ten or 15 years ago, maybe even further back, when you thought about having a career in the WWE, is this sort of what you imagined? How does it compare in terms of what your dreams were and how it's actually playing out?
AJ: I don't think you really can compare this to anything. Who would have thought that "Hey man, by the way, as soon as you get to the WWE, you're gonna get a rocket attached to you. It's gonna be unbelievable." The Royal Rumble being as crazy a night as it was for me, and then within nine months I'm the world champion. That's huge. I don't think anyone expected that, including myself. Time has everything to do with that. I don't think that would have happened years ago. The WWE has changed so much since then as well. Who knows -- if there had been no Daniel Bryan, would there have been no AJ Styles here in WWE? So there's a lot of factors that come into play when talking about the past and where I would see myself in this situation years ago.
ESPN: I'm curious, do you feel like there's a match or a series of matches that really helped you raise your game, raise your profile, and really put you over the top in terms of actually coming to the WWE?
AJ: I don't know. I don't know that they go out and look at other matches and go "That's a guy we need in the WWE." I don't know how that process happens. I think there are definitely guys I worked with before that now work here in the WWE, and they might go "This guy's great, let's give him a shot."
ESPN: What about from your side? Is there something you feel like you picked up while you were in Japan that's really kind of been key to your success that you've had here in the WWE?
AJ: I think that I made a lot of noise in my career, and with my work ethic when I was in Japan. I think a lot of people were noticing what was going on. Especially with Tanahashi and Nakamura, having so many amazing matches with those guys. Who's to say? Do I think Vince McMahon was looking at my matches in Japan going "We need him?" No. He wasn't, he's too busy. There's no way. But somebody may have been looking and going "all right, I like this guy. Let's give him a shot."
ESPN: For people who haven't watched New Japan or don't really know what it's like, what was your experience like being able to main event a Wrestle Kingdom show in front of a Tokyo Dome crowd?
AJ: I was also a fan of Japanese wrestling [before I went there]. I watched a lot of VHS tapes from Japan, and to be able to wrestle in the Tokyo Dome at one of the biggest shows of the year was really cool for me. It was my Wrestlemania moment before I had a Wrestlemania moment. And to be able to say that I did a WrestleKingdom and a Wrestlemania in the same year, I don't think there's too many people that can say they've done that. And I love that. I love being one of those guys that can say that I was on two of the biggest shows of the year.
ESPN: Given the chance, whether you have three or five or 10 Wrestlemanias ahead of you, is there a list you have, like a must-face guy or a dream opponent that you would like to face at some point?
AJ: I always say when it comes to dream matches that is not up to me, that's up to the WWE Universe. That's up to the fans. But there is a guy on SmackDown that I have yet to wrestle yet that's certainly gonna happen at some point, and that's Randy Orton.
ESPN: My very last question, I'll swing back to WWE 2K17. If you have to choose one of your greatest opponents to face in the game ...
ESPN: Okay, I'll make it harder -- one of your great opponents who has never been in a WWE video game to be in a future edition of WWE 2K, in an AJ Styles story mode or just to be able to use them in the game.
AJ: Oh man. That's never been in the WWE. Wow, that's tough, man. That may be the most difficult question I've ever had. I mean think about that, who would you love to see in there that hasn't been there at least in one of the games, because they've had so many legends in there before. Phew.
How about Jushin "Thunder" Liger. When you think about all the maneuvers and stuff that he's come up with and what he's done in the ring, that's a pretty big gap to fill. So that'd be pretty cool.