Only one word best describes the world of wrestling in 2021, and that word is “weird.” Pretty much nothing went as it should or as people predicted: the pandemic continued to disrupt independent and international promotions; WWE shut down its network in America after striking a huge deal with Peacock; AEW added some of the biggest stars of the last decade, including CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, and started to outsell WWE events in some markets; WWE fired about two whole rosters worth of talent, including a number of top NXT stars who were shuffled out after that show resoundingly lost the ratings battle with AEW; NXT subsequently saw a complete change in philosophy to be more in line with Vince McMahon’s tastes; Japanese women’s promotion Stardom was one of the biggest success stories of the year, with a large growth in profits and attention; AEW, Impact, and New Japan all cooperated in different ways, with AEW and Impact also working with AAA; CMLL, the oldest active wrestling promotion in the world, continued its prolonged downward slide; and Ring of Honor, the standard-bearer for American independent wrestling since 2002, shockingly released all of its talent late in the year and went on an extended break in December that may or may not mark the end of the beloved company. Probably the only predictable thing in wrestling this year is that Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar are the only two people WWE pushes as true main event stars. So yes, it was a weird year for wrestling, but a very entertaining one, especially if you watched all the wrestlers below throughout the year. Here are our picks for the best wrestlers of 2021 from around the world.
Josh Alexander might be the most underrated wrestler active today. The Impact star’s body of work in 2021 stands up next to anybody else on this list, only it happened in a smaller promotion that didn’t get much buzz in 2021 outside of its crossovers with AEW. Purely from a work standpoint, Alexander is one of the best in the world, able to perform at a high level against opponents from a variety of different styles. And Impact has taken notice of how great Alexander is, effectively positioning him as one of its top stars, and capitalizing on the audience’s desire to see him win their top title. He should have a huge 2022, whether he stays with Impact, or moves on to a higher profile promotion when his contract expires.
Every Jonathan Gresham match is a clinic. The Atlanta native and technical genius was a cornerstone for Ring of Honor in 2021, holding its Pure title for most of the year and then winning its World title at Final Battle in 2021. (Given the questionable future of Ring of Honor, it’s possible Gresham will go down as its final World champion.) He’s also one of the busiest men on the circuit today, appearing regularly for the revived PWG, New Japan Strong, and Game Changer Wrestling, where he had a dream match against Minoru Suzuki. Gresham’s profile should continue to rise as he enters 2022 as Ring of Honor World champ and preps to launch his own promotion in Atlanta; that company, Terminus, has its first show in Atlanta and on Fite TV on Jan. 16.
Here’s how much Okada has spoiled us over the last decade: 2021 felt a bit like a down year for him, despite having a list of amazing matches against Shingo Takagi, Will Ospreay, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Jeff Cobb, among others. It has nothing to do with the man’s performances, as he’s as reliably great in-ring as ever. It’s partially a result of New Japan being limited by the pandemic, and also simply a by-product of New Japan’s booking in 2021. Although he was absolutely a top guy throughout the year, Okada wasn’t in New Japan’s main title picture until the end of the year, and didn’t hold a title at all in 2021. Don’t expect that to happen again in 2022. Okada is still New Japan’s ace, even if 2021 was focused more on elevating other wrestlers and making new stars.
AEW’s first truly homemade superstar capped off one of the best and most thoughtful storylines in wrestling with an exciting World title win over Kenny Omega in November. It was a great match, and Page followed it up with an even better match a month later as he went to an hour-long draw with Bryan Danielson. Page’s greatness isn’t necessarily defined by his in-ring work, though; by making his emotional turmoil and mental health issues part of his character, Page has connected with the audience in a unique and uniquely personal way. Beating Omega wasn’t just a victory over a hated rival and former friend, but a triumph over Page’s own anxiety and self-doubt. Of course it helps that he’s a tremendous wrestler and a believable badass who didn’t have a lackluster match all year. Hopefully Page continues to resonate with the fans in 2022 and doesn’t get overshadowed by new AEW stars like Danielson, CM Punk, and Adam Cole.
Okay, yes, it might be a cheat to give one spot to two people. Then again, very few tag teams in wrestling history have been as unfailingly on the same page with each other as the Young Bucks, so are we sure they actually are two distinct individuals and not some kind of collective consciousness? They’re still weirdly controversial among a certain strand of regressive wrestling fans, but nobody in wrestling is more consistent at putting on great matches than the Bucks. Their average TV match is better than anybody else in the business, and they’re always able to hit a new gear on pay-per-views or major title matches. Their cage match against the Lucha Bros. at All Out was the tag match of the year, an epic of absurd athletic feats and fantastic storytelling that played off of the teams’ years-long rivalry. And once they fully embraced their heel turn as part of the Elite, they became almost as entertaining outside the ring as inside, with the most gloriously obnoxious fashion sense since Jesse “The Body” Ventura at his peak. The Jacksons aren’t just a world class tag team; they’re also the best trolls in the business.
Despite struggling with some of the same Covid-related restrictions as New Japan, Stardom was one of 2021’s true wrestling success stories. The top women’s promotion in Japan continued to grow its international fanbase, while putting on the best women’s wrestling you’ll find anywhere in the world. A huge part of that success is due to Syuri, who faced Utami Hayashishita in two of the best matches of the year. Their June match is an instant classic, and perhaps the best match any two people wrestled anywhere in the world in 2021. A rematch the last week of the year was almost as great. When Syuri wasn’t wowing the world with Hayashishita, she was putting on similarly great matches with Momo Watanabe, Takumi Iroha, and others. And she didn’t just excel at singles matches; her tag team with Giulia, Donna del Mundo, dominated Stardom’s tag division. Joshi is still something of an acquired taste to American wrestling fans, but Syuri can win over any true wrestling fan with her excellent performances.
As great as Syuri’s 2021 was, Utami Hayashishita’s was just a little bit better. If you haven’t seen these two square off against each other yet, you should stop reading this right now and go track down any of their Stardom matches; the one from June is the best, but it’s also almost an hour long, and although it is absolutely worth that commitment, I understand that it’s a tall ask. Still, Utami had the best year of any woman in wrestling, and one that stacks up against any man on this list. She’s become the new face of Stardom, which was a true success story during a year in which the wrestling business as a whole struggled, and much of that success is due to her. Hopefully Hayashishita will be able to travel more in 2022 and thrill Western fans in person.
New Japan continues to be hit hard by the Covid pandemic, with audience limitations and travel restrictions hurting their ability to produce the kind of exciting shows they’re known for. Shingo Takagi has been a rock for the promotion, though, holding its top title for most of 2021 while putting on some of the greatest matches in the world against stars like Will Ospreay, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, and Zack Sabre Jr. His G1 match against Tomohiro Ishii might be the best match of the year—although any one of his three matches against Ospreay could easily lay claim to that title, too. Takagi has established himself as one of New Japan’s top stars and one of the greatest pro wrestlers on the planet today.
For most of 2021, Kenny Omega was the odds on favorite to top our list. He reeled off a string of fantastic matches as AEW World champion, while also establishing an entertaining and highly hateable new persona as a douchebag heel. Omega’s “belt collector” gimmick saw him venture outside AEW and claim the top singles titles in Impact and AAA, with the kind of interpromotional cooperation wrestling hasn’t seen much of since the death of the territorial days. His year culminated with the one-two punch of an amazing TV match with Bryan Danielson, and then a World title loss against Hangman Adam Page, his former friend and tag team partner whose relationship with Omega has been one of the longest running and most satisfying stories in wrestling. As late as September it would be unthinkable to see anybody other than Omega at Number One on this list, but that was before a certain American Dragon debuted in AEW with a series of tremendous matches. Omega still had one hell of a 2021, and could have an even better 2022 after he heals up from a litany of injuries.
Bryan Danielson had an unpredictable year. He started 2021 in WWE, as an underdog face in the mix for the Universal title that Roman Reigns has held since August 2020; as part of that feud, Danielson main evented WrestleMania for the second time. He ended 2021 as an arrogant killer heel wrestling Hangman Adam Page to a 60 minute time limit draw for the AEW World title, in the process giving viewers one of the greatest wrestling matches to ever air on regular TV. In the months between, Danielson wrapped up his 12-year WWE career to jump to the upstart AEW, putting on a series of excellent matches against the likes of Kenny Omega, Minoru Suzuki, Nick Jackson, and Miro. Danielson is once again the brutal, no-nonsense technician he established himself as in the ‘00s in Ring of Honor and on the independent circuit, and the wrestling world is better off for it.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.