The complicated legacy of AJ Styles' WWE championship run

AJ Styles' WWE championship reign ended at 371 days Dave Moser for ESPN

In a year that's already been filled with countless crazy, unbelievable moments in the world of wrestling, Tuesday night offered another contender for the most shocking entry of the year as Daniel Bryan defeated AJ Styles to become the new WWE champion.

That moment, and that match, which closed out the final edition of SmackDown before Survivor Series, saw AJ Styles' second WWE championship reign come to an end at 371 days. While Styles' first stretch of 140 days as WWE champion will inevitably be linked to his series of matches with John Cena, this run is a little harder to define.

First and foremost, Styles joined an exclusive fraternity by carrying the title for more than a year. In the history of the WWE's namesake top title, only Bruno Sammartino (twice), Hulk Hogan, Bob Backlund, Pedro Morales, John Cena, Randy Savage and CM Punk had ever done so (with Hogan missing a second such stretch by a day and Diesel falling short by just a week). As he closes out his third full year with the WWE, Styles is just a couple weeks shy of the top 10 for most total days spent as WWE champion in the company's history.

Then there were the rivalries that most fans couldn't have ever dreamed would happen in a WWE ring, as Styles engaged in extended conflicts with Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe and, finally, Bryan. There was last year's Survivor Series champion-versus-champion match against Brock Lesnar, that was quite possibly Lesnar's best match of his second run, Styles' dispatching of previous champion Jinder Mahal, and a couple of multiway matches along the way.

Styles became so synonymous with the WWE and its namesake championship that he ended up as the cover star of WWE 2K19.

But it wasn't always sunshine and rainbows.

The highly anticipated return match between Styles and Nakamura at WrestleMania, with the WWE championship on the line, didn't quite live up to the impossible expectations as it played out in service of launching a story between the two men instead of deciding their rivalry once and for all. The postmatch low blow by Nakamura was the starting point to a conflict that would feature several tremendous matches -- the best of which came at Money in the Bank in June, in a 30-plus minute Last Man Standing match -- but will be best remember for Nakamura's strange affinity for low blows. It was somehow fitting, then, that Bryan used similar tactics to wrest the title from Styles in the end.

At a moment in which Nakamura may have benefited from winning the championship and the prestige Styles had helped build around it, Styles walked away the clear victor. Samoa Joe then came charging into the picture, reigniting a rivalry well over a decade in the making, and fans once again bought into the hope and potential of what could be in the world of WWE.

Though the story would ultimately devolve into Samoa Joe's personal attacks on Styles and his family, the matches were once again strong efforts all around. A DQ finish at SummerSlam fed directly into a closing moment at Hell in a Cell in which Styles actually tapped out to Samoa Joe's efforts (only for the ref to miss it as he counted Joe's shoulders to the mat). Once again, Styles' rival seemed poised to take the title and benefit greatly from the exchange, but through Super Show-Down and Crown Jewel, Styles persevered.

Where straightforward villains failed, Bryan ultimately lulled Styles into a false sense of security by waiting until the closing moments of their third one-on-one match in WWE to drop the hammer. Bryan betrayed Styles' trust and cash in on everything Styles had done in 371 days as champion to take a shocking heel turn and give it the maximum thrust it deserved.

In looking back on these three rivalries, as well as one-off challenges throughout the year, one particularly surprising trend emerged. Though Styles had taken over the mantle as one of WWE's undisputed top performers, he never fully seemed to realize recognition among the top echelon of talent in terms of being a draw.

Styles headlined the last two SmackDown-exclusive pay-per-views, in a WWE championship defense against Mahal at Clash of Champions in December 2017, and then in a six-way title defense against John Cena, Kevin Owens, Dolph Ziggler, Sami Zayn and Baron Corbin. But from that moment on, as Raw and SmackDown combined forces for every pay-per-view, Styles never headlined a pay-per-view for the rest of his title reign.

That made a certain amount of sense at WrestleMania 34, when Brock Lesnar-Roman Reigns was seemingly years in the making, and at Greatest Royal Rumble that followed a similar pattern a few weeks later. But as the months rolled along and Styles continued to carry the WWE championship, Styles' lack of a pay-per-view main event got more and more puzzling.

  • Backlash, which didn't feature a Universal championship match, was a natural spot for Styles and Nakamura to blow off their rivalry or ramp things up with a main event title change. Instead, that 21-minute match ended in a draw and a no-frills one-on-one match between Reigns and Samoa Joe closed the show.

  • The 31-minute Last Man Standing match that actually closed out the Styles-Nakamura conflict at Money in the Bank also happened midway through the card, with the men's MITB match closing the show.

  • Extreme Rules featured Styles in the co-main event in a title defense against Rusev, ceding the final spot to a 30-minute Iron Man match for the Intercontinental championhip between Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler.

  • The SummerSlam dream match between Joe and Styles ended in yet another non-finish (a DQ), likely pushing it back in the match order, and the best match in their series at Hell in a Cell was the fifth match on an eight-match card, too.

In Styles' last two pay-per-view title defenses (also against Samoa Joe), the WWE championship was fifth on a 10-match card at Super Show-Down and ninth on a 12-match show at Crown Jewel.

All in all, the treatment and placement of the WWE championship on WWE's major shows from April on was eerily reminiscent of how the WWE title was handled during the 434-day title reign of CM Punk. It felt like the second-most important championship in the company, but also felt as though it was being used in a similar vein to the Intercontinental championship of old -- featuring two of the best in-ring workers putting on a dazzling in-ring performance that often dwarfed what was on display in the actual main events that followed.

Despite the lack of main event exposure for Styles, as well as some highly questionable storytelling tactics that seemed outside of his control, Styles used this run as WWE champion to remove any doubt as to his value to the company and abilities in the ring. The title rivalries will get the most attention, but many of Styles' best efforts came on otherwise inconsequential edition of SmackDown -- his pair of non-title matches against Andrade "Cien" Almas among the most memorable.

There's little doubting Styles' effectiveness in getting the very best out of an opponent on any given night, and whether it's a house show or the grand stage of WrestleMania, there's no real half-speed for Styles either. There's no telling what the future holds for Styles, but if the storytelling can be a little more in line with the latest turn in his battle with Bryan and a lot less of what we got outside the ring with Nakamura and Samoa Joe, the next three years of AJ Styles will be a lot more enjoyable.