Skilled wrestling returned to kind in 2021. Restricted crowds and studio reveals have been changed by packed homes and even a stadium present for WWE’s SummerSlam, and the trade felt full with followers again in the stands.
There was quite a bit to love in 2021. Although the pandemic stays ongoing, indie wrestling regained an excessive amount of momentum. There have been standout performances throughout each stage of the trade, together with a seminal second when Sasha Banks helped make a star out of Bianca Belair at WrestleMania 37. In my eyes, the match of the yr was Walter–Ilja Dragunov in August at NXT TakeOver 36, and wrestling was additionally handled to its finest new announcer in over a decade with the emergence of Pat McAfee on SmackDown. As a complete, the wrestling trade produced a variety of memorable moments over the previous yr.
Like final yr, this listing options all the prime performers and isn’t damaged down by gender. An awesome wrestler is a good wrestler, which is why there is just one prime 10 from this creator. A glance again finally yr’s listing featured a career-year from Banks, who was the standout performer in 2020. That listing additionally included Eddie Kingston, who had a breakout yr, Roman Reigns (who solely labored half the yr), Kota Ibushi, Io Shirai, Bayley, Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, Drew McIntyre and Jon Moxley. This yr has loads of new faces that emerged as the prime performers.
Components concerned in deciding on the High 10 included a mix of the wrestler’s work in the ring, the consideration their work generated and their general impression on the enterprise over the previous yr. An integral a part of a wrestler’s brilliance is the means to make viewers imagine in the opponent standing throughout the ring, so a wrestler’s talent at persistently elevating their opponent was additionally emphasised.
Relevance to the wrestling world (i.e.; if Randy Orton is ranked forward of Hiroshi Tanahashi, it means he had the higher yr, not essentially that he’s the higher wrestler) additionally factored into the resolution. Stage and magnitude have been additionally vital, as was match high quality.
Listed here are my prime 10 singles wrestlers of 2021, starting with the notable omissions.
Notable Omissions: Sasha Banks; Edge; Seth Rollins; Thunder Rosa; Katsuhiko Nakajima; Deonna Purrazzo; Miro; Kazuchika Okada; “Hangman” Adam Web page; Bobby Lashley
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10. Jonathan Gresham
High three matches of 2021: ROH Anniversary Present vs. Dak Draper; PWG Thriller Vortex vs. Lee Moriarty; Last Battle vs. Jay Deadly
Jonathan Gresham loved a relentless rise in 2021, an plain trajectory that peaked in December with him successful the Ring of Honor title.
Working a wide range of opponents, like Aramís, Rhett Titus, Minoru Suzuki and Alex Shelley, this previous yr highlighted Gresham’s versatility. He additionally additional established his “Pure” model of wrestling, taking a significant danger in his try to showcase a extra technical style.
Standing 5′ 4″, Gresham has believed that his model and devotion to the craft would overcome any perceived top drawback. His matches are a tribute to the artwork of professional wrestling, and his persistence paid off—in 2021, he proved that his technical model of wrestling belongs amongst an elite class of the occupation.
9. Josh Alexander
High three matches of 2021: Rebel triple menace vs. Ace Austin and TJP; Slammiversary Final X match; Certain for Glory vs. Christian Cage
At the finish of 2020, Josh Alexander regarded like a wonderful tag staff wrestler.
Partnering with Ethan Web page, they made magic collectively as The North. Overshadowed by the charismatic Web page, it appeared Alexander would make a superb complementary piece to a staff, but not be the featured attraction.
This previous yr definitely modified that.
Alexander’s physique of labor from 2021 holds up in opposition to anybody’s. He stood out in Affect’s famed X division, then made the gargantuan climb to the world title image. The spotlight was when Alexander defeated TNA staple Christian Cage, who returned to Affect throughout his sensational yr, to begin his first reign as world champ. It didn’t final lengthy, with Moose beating him instantly after he received, persevering with his chase. However Alexander proved himself as world champion contender in 2021, making one in every of the most vital leaps this previous yr in wrestling.
8. Cody Rhodes
High three matches of 2021: Dynamite vs. Penta El Zero Miedo; Dynamite vs. Malakai Black; Dynamite vs. Andrade El Idolo
There is no such thing as a one in the trade like Cody Rhodes.
The son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, he has a definite lineage. And there’s a distinctive worth in his work for many who have watched Rhodes develop, mature and develop on a weekly foundation for the previous decade-and-a-half.
Rhodes can also be an amazing ambassador to professional wrestling, which he confirmed throughout the previous yr. He carried Shaquille O’Neal in a wildly entertaining combined tag match final March, which was an vital second for AEW.
Rhodes helped introduce Malakai Black to AEW, in addition to additional established Andrade as a top-tier expertise. Not all his packages have been successful (the one with Anthony Ogogo notably didn’t resonate) however Rhodes is the kind of performer continually taking dangers in pursuit of greatness. That was once more on show in his Atlanta Road Struggle final month in opposition to Andrade, the place he took the brunt of a flaming desk spot.
Ending the yr with one other TNT title win, Rhodes continues to raise himself to a better airplane in professional wrestling—and does every little thing he can to assist his big selection of opponents.
7. Dr. Britt Baker
High three matches of 2021: Dynamite Lights Out match vs. Thunder Rosa; Double or Nothing vs. Hikaru Shida; All Out vs. Kris Statlander
Greater than only a leap, Dr. Britt Baker made a outstanding leap in 2021.
Baker put herself on the map as a world champion, operating with the alternative to turn into the focus of the girls’s division in AEW. Her Lights Out match in opposition to Thunder Rosa was a turning level for AEW, additional highlighting the want for extra alternatives for the girls on the roster. She has additionally turn into stronger on the mike, proudly owning her position as one in every of the prime villains in the firm.
Certainly one of the most spectacular components of Baker’s title reign is the means she reveals off her vulnerability. Every match, whether or not it’s with Riho, or Tay Conti or Kris Statlander, she struggles just a bit extra along with her opponent. It’s a main element for a heel champion, and a nuance that Baker is executing to perfection. As champion, she loved her finest yr but in 2021.
6. Big E
High three matches of 2021: Cash in the Financial institution ladder match; Monday Evening Uncooked vs. Bobby Lashley; Survivor Sequence vs. Roman Reigns
Big E lastly broke into the promised land of WWE, successful the world title in September. He completed the yr as champion, and undeniably established himself as a main-eventer.
In the trendy age of professional wrestling, there isn’t any harder position than a pure babyface. That’s Big E’s place, and he performs it with realism and authenticity. His second successful the Cash in the Financial institution match again in entrance of a stay crowd in Fort Value was electrical, and the crowd in Boston at Uncooked was ecstatic to see him lastly win gold.
Big E was not booked as a dominant champ. He misplaced in a six-man tag match to Roman Reigns and The Usos one week after successful the belt, and he was defeated cleanly by Reigns at Survivor Sequence. However what Big E achieved in 2021 continues to be extraordinarily vital: He elevated himself to new heights, perpetually impacting his profession, by being so extremely compelling in the ring that Vince McMahon needed to make him WWE champion.
5. Bryan Danielson
High three matches of 2021: SmackDown vs. Roman Reigns; Dynamite “Grand Slam” vs. Kenny Omega; Dynamite “Winter is Coming” vs. “Hangman” Adam Web page
Bryan Danielson put collectively one in every of the most original years in wrestling historical past.
He began the yr in WWE, the place he shined in the Elimination Chamber match in February. There have been then glorious matches in opposition to Roman Reigns and Jey Uso main as much as WrestleMania, the place he was added to the Reigns-Edge match and introduced a complete new stage of pleasure to WWE’s greatest present of the yr. Danielson’s run in WWE got here to its conclusion in an excellent and emotional bout on SmackDown at the finish of April when he misplaced to Reigns.
The subsequent time we noticed Danielson in a match passed off greater than 4 months later in AEW in opposition to Kenny Omega at the “Grand Slam” version of Dynamite. Danielson then labored a slew of matches, bringing pleasure and pleasure in between the ropes in opposition to a wide range of opponents that included Nick Jackson, Minoru Suzuki, Eddie Kingston, Rocky Romero, Dustin Rhodes and Anthony Bowens. In a really quick period of time, Danielson helped place a vibrant highlight on AEW, including extra validity to the declare that it’s the firm that delivers the finest professional wrestling in the world.
Danielson completed the yr with a 60-minute basic in opposition to Hangman Adam Web page in December. In solely eight months of motion, he put forth a few of the finest wrestling matches in the world.
4. Shingo Takagi
High three matches of 2021: Wrestling Dontaku vs. Will Ospreay; Dominion vs. Kazuchika Okada; Energy Battle vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
Shingo Takagi helped carry New Japan Professional-Wrestling as its prime star in 2021.
Who ever may have imagined that? For longtime Shingo followers, it by no means felt like he would ever be pushed as the prime man in NJPW. And that notion was strengthened when he misplaced to reigning champ Will Ospreay in Might; the match was elegant, however Takagi was finally introduced as the opponent as a substitute of the attraction.
However then every little thing modified.
Ospreay was stripped of the belt, and a brand new champion for the vacated title was determined when Takagi defeated the nice Kazuchika Okada at Dominion in June. Takagi then completed out the yr as IWGP world heavyweight champion, making a convincing declare for himself as the finest wrestler in the world. His run in the G1 Climax match this fall was excellent, and his match in opposition to Zack Sabre Jr. in November was the single finest world title match of the yr.
3. Bianca Belair
High three matches of 2021: WrestleMania 37 vs. Sasha Banks; Hell in a Cell vs. Bayley; Crown Jewel triple-threat vs. Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch
Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks created an iconic second at WrestleMania 37.
That match meant considerably greater than combating for a title. It was two extremely proficient girls, on a present predominantly that includes males, wrestling on middle stage for an organization that has a poor historical past of various matchups in the important occasion. (It was additionally, notably, the first WrestleMania singles match that includes two Black girls.) And whereas Banks was already established as a megastar, Belair had by no means proved herself in that setting. But she delivered an all-time nice match with Banks, one which positioned her in a wholly new stratosphere in WWE.
Belair loved a profitable title reign, along with her work inside the Hell in a Cell cage wrestling Bayley the spotlight of her run. She was not helped by the short-term resolution to lose in a squash match to the returning Becky Lynch at SummerSlam, however she nonetheless delivered significant moments at Survivor Sequence and at Crown Jewel, the place she once more proved that her chemistry with Banks is plain.
Belair delivered a convincing efficiency as to why she belongs amongst the finest in the world in 2021.
2. Kenny Omega
High three matches of 2021: Exploding Barbed Wire Loss of life Match at Revolution vs. Jon Moxley; Dynamite “Grand Slam” vs. Bryan Danielson; Full Gear vs. “Hangman” Adam Web page
As soon as the bell rings, Kenny Omega’s brilliance inside the ring is unquestionable.
He spent the majority of the yr in 2021 as AEW champion, on prime of representing Affect and AAA as their prime champ. Along with excellent matches, Omega was targeted on making stars round him. He relishes that position, and he performed a pivotal position in showcasing “Hangman” Adam Web page as a official main-event expertise.
Omega made an especially legitimate declare for the best choice. His creativity and innovation in the ring make him must-see, and that was evident all through his whole title run. Omega took possibilities, bringing the semi-obscure Japanese idea of the exploding barbed wire dying match to an AEW pay-per-view. However his most spectacular feat was his work elevating Web page to the subsequent tier, placing AEW—and the wrestling world as a complete—in a greater place with one other breakout star.
1. Wrestler of the 12 months: Roman Reigns
High three matches of 2021: Royal Rumble vs. Kevin Owens; SmackDown vs. Daniel Bryan; SummerSlam vs. John Cena
In 2021, Roman Reigns had no peer.
With depth and swagger, Reigns linked with the viewers higher than every other wrestler over the previous yr. His work felt pure, by no means contrived or compelled. And when he stepped in the ring, all the means from January’s Royal Rumble match in opposition to Kevin Owens till the final WWE pay-per-view of the yr at Survivor Sequence in a match in opposition to Big E, he made these matches gripping, compelling and all the time price watching.
What would SmackDown have regarded like in 2021 with out Reigns? His Bloodline partnership with Paul Heyman and The Usos made each week price watching. Reigns’s position was to be the greatest star doable for the world’s largest promotion, and he achieved that in a fabulous method.
The prospect to see Reigns wrestle John Cena helped make SummerSlam—a stadium present happening throughout a pandemic—a real success. His presence introduced fixed relevance to WWE each time he appeared on tv. After what we witnessed this previous yr, it’s unfathomable to think about the WWE product with out Reigns.
Reigns was the finest in the world in 2021, making him the wrestler of the yr for Sports activities Illustrated.
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