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31 Days of Wrestling (12/25/16): AJ Styles vs. John Cena, SummerSlam

Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. It's that time of year again when we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match a day for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling this calendar year produced for us.

You didn't think we forgot about this beautiful gift from WWE, did you?


It's only fitting that we celebrate one of the best gifts the wrestling gods gave us this year on Christmas Day itself.

When AJ Styles debuted in WWE at the Royal Rumble, it was only a matter of time until he came face-to-face with the Face that Runs the Place. True enough, just a few weeks after WrestleMania, AJ had already turned heel (in what is still a very questionable booking move) and began feuding with John Cena. WWE billed their first bout at Money in the Bank as a dream matchup that was 14 years in the making, which is silly because neither man was the ace of their respective promotion in 2002. Hyperboles aside, this was a dream match nonetheless, and it was a big deal when Cena put AJ over as he did to Kevin Owens in the Prizefighter's first PPV match.

At the next PPV, Battleground, Cena got his win back, albeit with Enzo Amore and Big Cass by his side as they emerged victorious against The Club in a six-man tag team match. That's what made the SummerSlam match a big deal—it was the rubber match to finally settle the score between Cena, who had been WWE's standard-bearer for the last decade, and AJ, the ace of TNA before he left Tita Dixie and friends.

The match itself was the biggest highlight coming out of SummerSlam, and it was in large part because of how well Cena and AJ just meshed together in the ring. Both guys weren't there to just cash their checks in. They came to play, and we all won when it was all said and done. From Cena dusting off his Indy Cena suit to all those reversals, to the finish, it was just an amazing match that really brought the big fight feel to everyone watching it.


Here's why this match mattered in the bigger picture—aside from the fact that AJ went over cleanly on John freakin' Cena. AJ's win was a symbolic passing of the torch from Cena to AJ as the more active standard-bearer of the WWE. In case you missed it, Cena has become the exact thing he ripped the Rock on during their feud from 2011-12: a part-time wrestler, part-time mainstream celebrity. That, plus his nagging injuries, has required Cena to spend less time on WWE television. AJ Styles vs. John Cena was the true embodiment of fantasy warfare getting real.

In putting AJ Styles over, Cena has effectively passed the baton of "face of WWE"—or as AJ would put it, the face that runs the place—to the Phenomenal One, and Styles has flourished in that role, like we all knew he would. Just a month after that monumental victory over John Cena, he beat Dean Ambrose to become the WWE Champion, fulfilling his destiny as one of the greatest wrestlers of his generation. 

Through AJ Styles' ascent atop the WWE totem pole, we got the subtext that Vince McMahon was finally willing to take a chance on the guy who carried the banner for what used to be his biggest competition. AJ Styles used to be the symbol for finding success outside the four walls of the WWE. Now, he's finally broken through, shattered that glass ceiling, and grabbed that brass ring. AJ Styles' rise is a testament to 2016 being a phenomenal year for pro wrestling and all of its fans everywhere.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

*****

31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2016.

Read our previous entries:

#9: American Alpha vs. The Revival for the NXT Tag Team Championships, NXT TakeOver: Dallas

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