Pro wrestling championships are odd things, hybrids of real and unreal. Being scripted as champion grants wrestlers some measure of immortality, just like a statistical note in any straightforward sport. It might even mean more, since you only make real money in pro wrestling by patching into the cultural currents of whatever time you’re wrestling. You don’t really become a champion at all unless you mean something to the audience, and you certainly don’t have a long, successful run at the top unless you’re highly attuned to the swirls and eddies of culture.
But it is scripted, and that makes any longevity ephemeral. A long run can disappear from the record books in the blink of an eye if a given promoter or writing team cares enough to make it happen. Maybe someone in the now is a hotter hand than that grainy-filmed champion from the 70s he or she replaces. It might just be spite, because promoters and writing teams have always been notoriously spiteful.
One such spiteful promoter is Vince McMahon. It’s important to be particular about McMahon’s narrow range of spite. Existing alongside his willingness to rewrite the history books—books which he would undoubtedly tell you are his, anyway, because he owns them—is the ability to forgive what he sees as small transgressions. You can go somewhere else, make a million bucks, and if you come back to make money for him, you’re usually good. There’s something grudgingly admirable about the ability to set aside nearly anything in the pursuit of filthy lucre, an honesty about the American experiment which can only be expressed through the actions of this peculiarly American man.
But it’s only nearly anything which he can set aside. One thing McMahon seems to really hate is being sued, particularly if it’s labor related (it’s usually labor related). When The New Day became the longest reigning tag team champions in WWE history, it came hot on the heels of a concussion lawsuit by former WWE wrestlers. Late 80s/early 90s power and paint team, Demolition, were the prior record holders and were some of the most high profile plaintiffs in the suit.
That’s not definitive proof that The New Day beat Demolition’s record because of the trial, but it’s pretty compelling when paired with the fact that the latter had Hall-of-Fame careers yet still haven’t gotten a sniff at it. There are also wrestlers who have had clashes over money with McMahon who disappear from WWE’s presentation of its history, or don’t return to that discussion until decades pass. Jeff Jarrett was the most recent to return, but the line goes on through Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior, and Demolition. You may return, but you will certainly disappear from WWE no matter how big a name you are or, worse, be made an object of ridicule when you’re mentioned at all.
Which is why AJ Styles’s reign of 210-ish days and counting pairs neatly with CM Punk’s current lawsuit. The suit is simple enough: On Colt Cabana's podcast, Punk claimed that WWE was negligent in treating his medical ailments, including both a possible staph infection and a concussion during the 2014 Royal Rumble. In response, WWE’s doctor, Chris Amann, sued the two for defamation. Punk has claimed that WWE is bankrolling the trial. The actual lawyering and drama started last week, though little new information has been revealed.
Punk wasn’t just any wrestler. He held the WWE title for 434 days, the longest reign of the post-Hulk Hogan era. That may not be a firm number one claim, but title reigns for everyone in the United States work differently since the Hulkamania era ended. 434 days is, by modern standards, a staggeringly long reign.
WWE can’t have Punk’s name anywhere prominent, at least until and unless both sides make up 20 years from now. They need a new “longest reigning champion of the modern era,” just as they needed a new longest reigning tag team champions in The New Day and a new longest reigning Divas champion in Nikki Bella, who beat AJ Lee’s reign (Lee and Punk are married, and she stuck around for roughly a year after he left).
Neither can WWE just stick the title on one of their mediocre favorites from yesteryear, like Randy Orton. The promotion still gets CM Punk chants during boring segments, particularly in Chicago, though they’ve certainly died down over the past two years. Putting one of the stodgy stalwarts as Punk’s replacement threatens to uncork the vitriol all over again, at a time when nobody at WWE can figure out how to make their babyfaces on Raw work.
Styles offers a way out. Nobody hates Styles. He’s still an indie darling and the guy who rampaged through New Japan. At 41 he looks like he’s finally starting to slow just a bit, but he’s still the best pure wrestler on the main roster. He satisfies everyone, the knowing smark crowd, casual fans, and kids, alike. By extension, all complaints a Punk fan might have if his record falls are mitigated at least a little if it’s Styles who breaks it. Styles doesn’t suck, has cred, and was an afterthought when he first arrived in WWE, giving him a bit of Punk’s (and Daniel Bryan’s) underdog-in-the-big-city vibe.
This is not to say that it’s definitely going to happen. Seth Rollins had a WWE championship reign longer than Styles’ and he didn’t beat Punk’s record. Indeed, while it doesn’t seem like Styles is going to lose the title to Shinsuke Nakamura at Money in the Bank on June 17th, it’s not outside the realm of possibility—Nakamura may very well win as a heel and try to begin his own redemption arc after a year of bad booking.
It’s simply hard to ignore that Styles’s days as champion keep ticking up as Punk and Cabana keep talking in court. Regardless of the trial’s outcome, the McMahons will want a new long-serving champion to further dim the memories of Punk’s reign. Styles, maybe unwittingly, may be the perfect person to do it.