Despite a global pandemic, the world of pro wrestling continued to operate in 2020.
Even when it was not necessary, WWE and AEW pressed on, seeking to find a way to present the art form in as realistic and believable a manner as possible. That proved difficult to do without a live, in-person audience, a necessary ingredient in creating wrestling magic. Looking back at the shows early in the spring, particularly WrestleMania, there is a vast difference in presentation. WWE now uses its elaborate “ThunderDome” set, while AEW, which had taped ahead during the spring, including a no-holds barred match pitting Jake Hager against Jon Moxley, also found new ways to infuse life into its weekly broadcasts. New Japan Pro Wrestling halted live shows for three-and-a-half months until returning in June, but now again faces the possibility of empty arena shows with cases on the rise in Japan.
Unlike past years, this list features all the top performers and is not broken down by gender. A great wrestler is a great wrestler, so moving forward, there will only be one top 10 from this author.
While pro wrestling remains a different entity in its current crowd-less form, there were still a number of performers who stood out throughout the past 12 months. While compiling a list of the year’s top 10, certain guidelines applied. A performer did not need to wrestle the entire 12 months of 2020 to make the top 10, but it certainly helped. And though it is important to highlight the independent circuit on this list—one spot is normally exclusively reserved for an indie talent—the pandemic has simply wreaked havoc on independent wrestling. Fortunately, there were projects like The Masked Wrestler on IWTV, and there is GCW’s upcoming 24-hour Fight Forever show, but no spot on this year’s list was saved solely for an indie talent.
Factors involved in selecting the Top 10 included a combination of the wrestler’s work in the ring, the attention their work garnered, and their overall impact on the business over the past year. An integral part of a wrestler’s brilliance is the ability to make viewers believe in the opponent standing across the ring, so a wrestler’s skill at consistently elevating the opponent was also emphasized.
Relevance to the wrestling world (i.e.: if Eddie Kingston is ranked ahead of Tomohiro Ishii, it means he had the better year, not necessarily that he is the better wrestler) also factored into the decision. Stage and magnitude were also important, as was match quality.
Here are my top 10 singles wrestlers of 2020, beginning with the notable omissions.
Notable Omissions: Cody Rhodes; Asuka; Finn Balor; MJF; Keith Lee; Asuka; Adam Cole; Shingo Takagi; Minoru Suzuki; Thunder Rosa; Go Shiozaki; Mayu Iwatani; Hiromu Takahashi; Jay White; Kazuchika Okada
10. Eddie Kingston
Top three matches of 2020: RevPro High Stakes vs. L.A. Park; Dynamite vs. Cody Rhodes; Full Gear “I Quit” match vs. Jon Moxley
Eddie Kingston toiled for 18 years, and the end result was a breakout year in 2020.
One of wrestling’s proudest journeymen, Kingston had worked practically everywhere entering the past year. Though his work was solid and believable, and despite his ability to cut some of the most biting promos in all of the industry, Kingston never found his home. But his career forever changed on the Fourth of July last year.
Kingston worked the outdoor Deathmatch Drive-In for ICW, then cut an expletive-filled promo that changed the direction of his career. He saved his harshest words for Nick Aldis, which Kingston hoped would lead to a program for the NWA worlds heavyweight championship, as well as Zack Sabre Jr., as the two of them had unfinished business to settle in England at RevPro. He also called out AEW star Cody Rhodes, who was issuing an open challenge for his TNT championship. This ultimately led to Kingston’s debut match in AEW, which was against Rhodes, and then his signing with the company.
But this wasn’t a situation where the highlight of Kingston’s career was merely signing an AEW contract. He was a highlight of Dynamite throughout 2020, and his AEW world championship program with Jon Moxley was cutting-edge, appointment viewing. Kingston even main-evented the Full Gear pay-per-view in November, coming up short to Moxley in his quest for the title but nonetheless establishing himself as one of the best in the business.
9. Roman Reigns
Top three matches of 2020: Hell in a Cell vs. Jey Uso; Survivor Series vs. Drew McIntyre; TLC vs. Kevin Owens
After missing six months of in-ring action, Roman Reigns stands as the most debatable name on this list.
There were many other deserving performers for this spot. Shingo Takagi was outstanding in New Japan Pro Wrestling, elevating himself on the card and delivering phenomenal matches. Cody Rhodes also had a fantastic year, shining a spotlight on several younger, emerging performers—like Jungle Boy, Sonny Kiss, Ricky Starks and Warhorse—in his open challenges for the TNT championship. But even after missing half of the year, opting to spend time with family after his wife gave birth to twins, Reigns returned at the end of August and has delivered the best work of his career.
The program with Jey Uso has presented the former tag team specialist in an entirely new light, which was on display in their matches at Clash of Champions and inside the cage at Hell in a Cell. Even with a very short build, the champion vs. champion match at Survivor Series, pitting Reigns against Drew McIntyre, had a genuine big match feel that was rarely on display in pro wrestling—in either North America or Asia—in 2020.
Pairing Reigns with Paul Heyman and unleashing a new edge to his character has brought forth a new gear in Reigns’ promos. Despite his time away from WWE, Reigns is appointment viewing the moment he emerges on screen.
8. Kota Ibushi
Top three matches of 2020: Wrestle Kingdom 14 vs. Kazuchika Okada; G1 Climax vs. Minoru Suzuki; G1 Climax vs. Tomohiro Ishii
Kota Ibushi continued to elevate his work in 2020.
He began the year by wrestling a masterpiece of a match against Kazuchika Okada in the Tokyo Dome during the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 14. That match could have defined the entire year—it was back-and-forth, offering a relentless pace and classic storytelling—yet there was another spectacular Okada match the following night during the show’s second night, which ended in a title change and saw Tetsuya Naito emerge from the Dome as both IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental champion. So Ibushi’s work was overshadowed, which is nearly impossible considering the level at which he is operating.
Ibushi again starred in the G1 Climax. He won the tournament for a second consecutive year, and the level of brilliance in his slate of matches was outrageous. Must-see viewing included bouts against Shingo Takagi, Minoru Suzuki, and Will Ospreay. He also shined in a New Japan Cup match with Zack Sabre Jr.
Ibushi once again proved in 2020 that there are few better performers than him in the world. He is the rare type of wrestler who could main-event in any promotion—Ibushi vs. Drew McIntyre or Roman Reigns, Ibushi vs. Kenny Omega or Jon Moxley, Ibushi vs. Rush or Jacob Fatu or Rich Swann would all headline a pay-per-view—and if AEW ever works out a talent-exchange program with NJPW, then Ibushi has to be top of its list.
7. Io Shirai
Top three matches of 2020: TakeOver: In Your House vs. Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley; Great American Bash vs. Sasha Banks; NXT “Tables, Ladders, and Scares” match vs. Candice LeRae
Pound for pound, Io Shirai is the best wrestler in the world. And she proved that again in 2020.
Shirai missed and most of January and all of February recovering from a knee injury but returned to win a qualifying match for a No. 1 contender’s ladder match. She won that ladder match, then headlined Takeover: In Your House in June, where she pinned Rhea Ripley in a triple-threat match that also included Charlotte Flair. Pinning a star the magnitude of Flair would have been a tremendous moment, but Shirai spent the rest of 2020 establishing herself as a premier champion in all of wrestling—and benefited tremendously from a win against Sasha Banks in July.
There is a long history of men main-eventing pay-per-views and weekly shows. While it has become more common to see a woman close out the show, it still does not happen enough. Shirai operates on such an elite level that she has proven that she belongs in the main event, an opportunity she has received in NXT. Compelling matches against Candice LeRae and Rhea Ripley have illustrated her versatility, and Shirai has built herself into a champion who looks like she will never drop the belt–which only helps whoever dethrones her.
Shirai was the year’s best performer in NXT.
Top three matches of 2020: Extreme Rules vs. Nikki Cross; SummerSlam vs. Asuka; Hell in a Cell vs. Sasha Banks
WWE now has the ThunderDome to instantly capture a viewer’s eye and attention. Before that, while performing weekly shows without a crowd at the WWE Performance Center, the product was carried by Sasha Banks and Bayley.
2020 was a year that belonged to Banks and Bayley. They brought energy and excitement to Raw, SmackDown, and NXT, where they defended the women’s tag team championships. The story arc was largely built around their friendship and Bayley’s lengthy title run with the SmackDown women’s championship, until she turned on Banks and the two met in a masterpiece of a Hell in a Cell match in October.
Against all odds, Bayley and Banks wrestled a more thrilling, hard-hitting, emotional and compelling match together at Hell in a Cell than the classic they had five years earlier at TakeOver: Brooklyn. Every time Bayley shared the ring with Banks, it was magic. She also did everything possible to put over other talent—particularly a very entertaining match at Extreme Rules against Nikki Cross. A couple issues that were out of Bayley’s hands is that she could have greatly benefited from a singles match at WrestleMania instead of a five-way multi-wrestler match—when does that ever seem like a good idea?—and she was given the task of making Tamina look like a title threat after being out of the championship picture for years. Yet she did it all, and cut some of the best promos of the year.
Bayley continues to set the high standard in professional wrestling, and she was superb in 2020.
5. Kenny Omega
Top three matches of 2020: Full Gear vs. Hangman Page; Dynamite vs. Jon Moxley; Triplemania vs. Laredo Kid
Kenny Omega was one of the more challenging performers to place on this list.
Omega played a key role in two of the best matches of the year, which were a tag match with Hangman Page against the Young Bucks at Revolution in February and a singles main event at AAA’s TripleMania in December against Laredo Kid.
Despite spending a large portion of the year in a tag team with Page, there were still plenty of singles matches that stood out as elite. He wrestled Pentagon on Dynamite in October, not to mention the bout against Page at Full Gear in November. Another outstanding match was the 30-minute “Ironman Match” against PAC on Dynamite, as well as standout bouts against Sammy Guevara, Trent and even a match that put Alan Angels on the map.
After what appeared to be a slow start in AEW, Omega is now the defining factor on its programming, ending Jon Moxley’s reign as AEW champion and making appearances on Impact Wrestling’s television show.
AEW’s pulse is directly connected to Omega, which is why he ended the year as the company’s world champion.
4. Tetsuya Naito
Top three matches of 2020: Wrestle Kingdom 14 vs. Jay White; Wrestle Kingdom 14 vs. Kazuchika Okada; G1 Climax vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi
Neither Hiroshi Tanahashi nor Kazuchika Okada carried the New Japan product in 2020. That distinction instead belonged to Tetsuya Naito.
Naito started off the year in resplendent fashion by defeating Jay White during the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 14, then main-evented the second night by defeating Okada for the IWGP heavyweight championship. Outside a 48-day stretch where Evil won the belts, Naito spent the overwhelming majority of the year as the face of the company.
After leaving the Tokyo Dome with the IWGP heavyweight and intercontinental titles, Naito’s first defense took place in February against Kenta. His next defense was in July, when he dropped both titles to Evil at Dominion, before regaining the double gold at the end of August. Naito’s year then picked up dramatically in the G1 Climax, where he had outstanding bouts with Zack Sabre Jr. and Juice Robinson.
Adding Evil into the main event did not click for New Japan, though Naito brought out Evil’s best in their match against one another in November at Power Struggle. Naito helped New Japan keep its international profile raised in 2020, as well as further elevated himself as a fan favorite in Japan. He is now one of the company’s defining stars.
3. Drew McIntyre
Top three matches of 2020: Money in the Bank vs. Seth Rollins; Hell in a Cell vs. Randy Orton; TLC triple-threat ladder match vs. AJ Styles and the Miz
Putting the WWE champion atop this list is a little like playing for the New York Yankees or rooting for the house in blackjack. WWE is the most powerful wrestling entity in the world, providing a platform with reach unlike any other. The role of its champion is supposed to be a larger-than-life figure with a presence, demeanor, and ability that resonates across a fan base that covers ground in multiple continents.
Incredibly, Drew McIntyre meets all those standards, but truly resonates in his ability to connect with fans. It is clear that McIntyre is a proud disciple of Bret Hart, as he has continued to refine his work and add believability to every action he takes while on-screen. McIntyre is also a massive presence, with a body that looks like an action figure, yet he is able to work as the underdog in many of his matches.
The past 12 months were monumental for McIntyre, who finally gained the confidence of Vince McMahon as a main-event act. He won the Royal Rumble match in January, slayed Brock Lesnar in the main event of night two at WrestleMania 36, then made the most of every opportunity given to him. Whether it was a rushed program with the Big Show or King Corbin, matches where he wanted to make his opponent shine despite a significant difference in size against Andrade and Angel Garza or a physical, hard-hitting bout with Bobby Lashley at Backlash, this was McIntyre’s year to prove he could carry the company as a babyface.
McIntyre was a constant force on Raw throughout the year, and a reason to tune in while the show struggled to connect with viewers. After a summer of feuding with Randy Orton, McIntyre dropped the belt to him at Hell in a Cell, only to win it back a couple of weeks later on Raw. His Survivor Series moment with Roman Reigns felt as big-league as it gets and he also was fantastic in the year-end TLC pay-per-view in a triple-threat “Tables, Ladders and Chairs” match.
Showing versatility and range, McIntyre succeeded in 2020 as a babyface champion, one of the most arduous challenges in the industry.
2. Jon Moxley
Top three matches of 2020: New Beginning in Osaka vs. Minoru Suzuki; Revolution vs. Chris Jericho; Full Gear “I Quit” match vs. Eddie Kingston
Jon Moxley was the signature star of AEW in 2020 and brought a whole new currency to the promotion’s world title.
He opened the year with a New Year’s Day victory against Trent on Dynamite, then flew to Tokyo to defend the IWGP United States championship on back-to-back nights against Lance Archer and Juice Robinson at Wrestle Kingdom 14. He then returned to AEW, conquering the likes of Sammy Guevara, PAC and Joey Janela aboard the Jericho cruise ship before returning to Japan and having an entertaining, physical bout against Minoru Suzuki. Opponents looked legitimate even in losses to Moxley, one of wrestling’s most endearing—yet dangerous—personalities.
After defeating Chris Jericho at Revolution in February, ending a phenomenal four-month storyline, Moxley became the second-ever AEW world champion and its first-ever babyface with the belt. And though he had some outstanding runs in WWE as Dean Ambrose, both as part of the Shield and as a singles star, he was never tasked with the responsibility of carrying the company for a prolonged stretch of time. Moxley did just that in AEW, also amidst a pandemic that removed fans from shows as well as altered the presentation of pro wrestling.
Matches that stand out are titles defenses against Eddie Kingston, Mr. Brodie Lee, Kenny Omega and MJF, but another massive moment occurred when Moxley—one of the premier stars in the entire industry—worked an indie show in October against Chris Dickinson. Moxley’s appearance at the show was electric, and it placed an entirely new spotlight on Dickinson, who is one of wrestling’s rising stars.
Moxley made AEW must-see in 2020, putting forth another sensational year.
Wrestler of the Year: Sasha Banks
Top three matches of 2020: Great American Bash vs. Io Shirai; Extreme Rules vs. Asuka; Hell in a Cell vs. Bayley
Sasha Banks emerged as the defining star of 2020 in professional wrestling.
In a year where shows felt disjointed without a crowd, the antidote was turning on WWE programming to watch Banks excel at her craft.
Banks worked across all three WWE brands in 2020, adding life to Raw, SmackDown and NXT. She made her opponents look like stars just because they were standing across from her. This was only amplified in situations like NXT’s Great American Bash special in July, where she lost to Io Shirai, significantly boosting her value as champ in NXT. Banks also had a string of fantastic bouts with Asuka, as well as shined a light on opponents in matches against Shayna Baszler, Naomi and Kairi Sane. Her year reached a whole new stratosphere when she defeated Bayley at Hell in a Cell, ending her rival’s championship reign in a match that exceeded every expectation. Banks and Bayley brought a WrestleMania-level main event to the middle of the Hell in a Cell card, a match that was even better than their bout in 2015 at TakeOver: Brooklyn, a feat that seemed impossible.
There were so many highlights in the past few months alone. Banks had a rematch with Bayley on SmackDown, wrestled another phenomenal bout with Asuka at the Survivor Series and then led Carmella to the best match of her career in December at TLC. Part of Banks’ excellence in the ring can be tied directly to the emotion found in her matches. Similar to Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat from past generations, Banks leaves no doubt in a viewer’s mind that her title is the single most important part of her work. Her facial expressions in matches, her promos, and her in-ring brilliance all return to the fact that she needs that title belt. Her work is oozing with intensity, and the sole desire of victory is always clear.
This year more than ever, Banks has shined as WWE’s top star.
Pro wrestling at its highest point is a lot like the wind in the sense that one can feel it but not touch it. Banks’ brilliance in 2020 was undeniable. She helped make opponents, and she created something on-screen that fans felt. She accomplished this in a manner unlike any other over the past 12 months.