Styles vs. Cena: who will win?

SO, WHAT HAPPENS on Sunday at Royal Rumble in the match between WWE World heavyweight champion A.J. Styles and John Cena?

People looked on with a mixture of astonishment and glee when Styles cleanly pinned Cena at SummerSlam on August 21, 2016. The result was viewed as a watershed moment, a match in which Cena finally elevated a fellow performer to his level. No ifs, buts or excuses: this was Styles’ night.

Three weeks later at Backlash, Styles’ success story continued when he dethroned Dean Ambrose to become WWE World champion. At No Mercy on October 9, Styles retained the title against Cena and Ambrose when he pinned Cena again.

There was the confirmation: the Cena character had become a star-maker. No doubt about it.

However, alarm bells sounded when Styles repeatedly referred to himself as the ‘Face That Runs The Place’ and the ‘Champ That Runs The Camp’, in a homage to the man he had purportedly vanquished and supplanted, after Cena went on hiatus from WWE to film season two of American Grit. Evidently, the feud hadn’t reached its conclusion; Styles vs. Cena would resume once Cena made his comeback.

Sure enough, it did when Cena made his return to SmackDown Live on December 27. Though Cena had been pinned by Styles twice on pay-per-view, he was, without explanation, named the number one contender to Styles’ World title and his challenger at the forthcoming Royal Rumble in San Antonio, Texas.

Indignant, Styles objected to this preferential treatment in a segment on the January 3, 2017 SmackDown Live. He logically argued that it was unfair that Cena has swanned back into the title picture after suffering two high-profile losses to him and being absent from television for 10 weeks.

Styles accused Cena’s brother-in-law Daniel Bryan of gifting him the title match. Cena, with trademark shamelessness, was not only unapologetic, he refused to give Styles any credit for the SummerSlam and No Mercy wins and declared that he had lost all respect for Styles and described him as a “little punk”.

In just a few minutes, Cena — as instructed by WWE’s writing team — demolished everything that had been achieved on August 21 and October 9, 2016, and rendered the outcome of matches meaningless. Indeed. After knocking down what had been built, Cena, again acting on orders from WWE, targeted the very foundations of the industry. “Quite frankly”, what is the point of wrestling, if wins and losses are irrelevant?

On the January 18 SmackDown Live, Cena, on commentary, was presented as the star of the match between A.J. Styles and The Miz. Inevitably, Cena became physically involved in the action and bulldozed through Styles and Miz, as if they were The Vaudevillains.

That takes us to this week’s SmackDown.

On the January 24 programme. Styles noted that he had been inserted on the back row of the assembly of wrestlers pictured on the Royal Rumble poster. WWE helpfully placed an image of the poster on the big screen, and emphasised that World champion Styles was on the back row and challenger Cena was on the front. Cena joined Styles in the ring, laughing and joking and even winking at the crowd. A cynic might surmise that he wasn’t taking any of this seriously.

Next, WWE screened a clip of Cena’s appearance on NBC’s Today in which Styles — the World champion, remember, and Cena’s opponent on Sunday — was described as a “guy from Atlanta”. The mood was carefree: Cena and the hosts giggled their way through the segment, and made light of Cena’s nameless opponent and the probable outcome of their match. This was another layer to the story line WWE had created to disparage its own World champion.

“What does A.J. Styles have to do to get respect around here?” Styles asked Cena. “What does the ‘guy from Atlanta’ have to do to get respect around here?”

Said Styles to Cena: “Will I get your respect when I beat you at the Royal Rumble? Will I get it then?”

Then Cena, as scripted by WWE, dropped an anvil on Styles: “Regardless of how good you think you are, you’re not on my level; you’re not even on the level below me.

“I get more done in a day than you do in a career.

“You’re not a guy from Atlanta; you’re just a guy. You’re just a guy holding onto that championship because I let you.”

Cena walked off, as Styles stood in the ring, slack-jawed, humiliated.

So, what happens in their match tomorrow at the Alamo Dome? Surely, after this vintage Cena burial, Styles has to defeat Cena once more to attempt to salvage some dignity. And, surely, after Cena contemptuously disregarded the outcome of their matches last year and denigrated Styles as a champion/star, Cena has to present Styles with the World title belt after their match and publicly endorse him as the better man.

If that or something like it doesn’t happen, then what has been the purpose of all this? Should he lose to Cena at the Alamodome, Styles’ reputation which Cena has been instructed to belittle in recent weeks will be in ruins.

A glimmer of hope at time of writing was that Randy Orton was the bookies’ favourite to win the Royal Rumble match. Perhaps it will be Styles vs. Orton at WrestleMania, and Styles will be the recipient of a genuine star-making moment tomorrow night.

UPDATE, JANUARY 31, 2017: Cena pinned Styles at the Rumble on January 29.

On SmackDown two nights later, Cena said: “A.J. Styles, I’m sorry. I was wrong about you. You are not just a guy from Atlanta. A.J. Styles is an elite-level WWE superstar that brings out the absolute best in me.”

That provoked a golf clap for the wrestler whom Cena had spent the previous month mocking, and whom Cena had decisively beaten two nights earlier.

Cena added: “A.J. Styles’ performance in the Royal Rumble is what this championship is all about.”  Styles was backstage when Cena said this.

Cena then quickly moved on to the task of promoting the Elimination Chamber.