Professional wrestling returned to form in 2021. Limited crowds and studio shows were replaced by packed houses and even a stadium show for WWE’s SummerSlam, and the industry felt complete with fans back in the stands.
There was a lot to like in 2021. Though the pandemic remains ongoing, indie wrestling regained a great deal of momentum. There were standout performances across every level of the industry, including a seminal moment when Sasha Banks helped make a star out of Bianca Belair at WrestleMania 37. In my eyes, the match of the year was Walter–Ilja Dragunov in August at NXT TakeOver 36, and wrestling was also treated to its best new announcer in more than a decade with the emergence of Pat McAfee on SmackDown. As a whole, the wrestling industry produced a lot of memorable moments over the past year.
Like last year, this list features all the top performers and is not broken down by gender. A great wrestler is a great wrestler, which is why there is only one top 10 from this author. A look back at last year’s list featured a career year from Banks, who was the standout performer in 2020. That list also included Eddie Kingston, who had a breakout year, Roman Reigns (who worked only half the year), Kota Ibushi, Io Shirai, Bayley, Kenny Omega, Tetsuya Naito, Drew McIntyre and Jon Moxley. This year has plenty of new faces that emerged as the top performers.
Factors involved in selecting the top 10 included a combination of the wrestler’s work in the ring, the attention their work generated 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 their opponent was also emphasized.
Relevance to the wrestling world (e.g., if Randy Orton is ranked ahead of Hiroshi Tanahashi, 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 2021, beginning with the notable omissions.
Notable omissions: Sasha Banks, Edge, Seth Rollins, Thunder Rosa, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Deonna Purrazzo, Miro, Kazuchika Okada, “Hangman” Adam Page, Bobby Lashley
10. Jonathan Gresham
Top three matches of 2021: ROH Anniversary Show vs. Dak Draper; PWG Mystery Vortex vs. Lee Moriarty; Final Battle vs. Jay Lethal
Jonathan Gresham enjoyed a constant rise in 2021, an undeniable trajectory that peaked in December with him winning the Ring of Honor title.
Working a variety of opponents, like Aramís, Rhett Titus, Minoru Suzuki and Alex Shelley, this past year highlighted Gresham’s versatility. He also further established his “Pure” style of wrestling, taking a major risk in his attempt to showcase a more technical genre.
Standing 5' 4", Gresham has believed that his style and devotion to the craft would overcome any perceived height disadvantage. His matches are a tribute to the art of pro wrestling, and his persistence paid off—in 2021, he proved that his technical style of wrestling belongs among an elite category of the profession.
9. Josh Alexander
Top three matches of 2021: Rebellion triple threat vs. Ace Austin and TJP; Slammiversary Ultimate X match; Bound for Glory vs. Christian Cage
At the end of 2020, Josh Alexander looked like an excellent tag team wrestler.
Partnering with Ethan Page, they made magic together as The North. Overshadowed by the charismatic Page, it appeared Alexander would make a good complementary piece to a team, yet not be the featured attraction.
This past year certainly changed that.
Alexander’s body of work from 2021 holds up against anyone’s. He stood out in Impact’s famed X division, then made the gargantuan climb to the world title picture. The highlight was when Alexander defeated TNA staple Christian Cage, who returned to Impact during his sensational year, to start his first reign as world champ. It didn’t last long, with Moose beating him immediately after he won, continuing his chase. But Alexander proved himself as world champion contender in 2021, making one of the most significant leaps this past year in wrestling.
8. Cody Rhodes
Top three matches of 2021: Dynamite vs. Penta El Zero Miedo; Dynamite vs. Malakai Black; Dynamite vs. Andrade El Idolo
There is no one in the industry like Cody Rhodes.
The son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, he has a distinct lineage. And there is a unique value in his work for those who have watched Rhodes grow, mature and develop on a weekly basis for the past decade and a half.
Rhodes is also a tremendous ambassador to pro wrestling, which he showed during the past year. He carried Shaquille O’Neal in a wildly entertaining mixed tag match last March, which was an important moment for AEW.
Rhodes helped introduce Malakai Black to AEW, as well as further established Andrade as a top-tier talent. Not all his programs were a success (the one with Anthony Ogogo particularly failed to resonate), but Rhodes is the type of performer constantly taking risks in pursuit of greatness. That was again on display in his Atlanta Street Fight last month against Andrade, where he took the brunt of a flaming table spot.
Ending the year with another TNT title win, Rhodes continues to elevate himself to a higher plane in pro wrestling—and does everything he can to help his wide array of opponents.
7. Dr. Britt Baker
Top three matches of 2021: Dynamite Lights Out match vs. Thunder Rosa; Double or Nothing vs. Hikaru Shida; All Out vs. Kris Statlander
More than just a jump, Dr. Britt Baker made a remarkable leap in 2021.
Baker put herself on the map as a world champion, running with the opportunity to become the focal point of the women’s division in AEW. Her Lights Out match against Thunder Rosa was a turning point for AEW, further highlighting the need for more opportunities for the women on the roster. She has also become stronger on the mike, owning her role as one of the top villains in the company.
One of the most impressive parts of Baker’s title reign is the way she shows off her vulnerability. Each match, whether it is with Riho, or Tay Conti or Kris Statlander, she struggles just a little more with her opponent. It is a major component for a heel champion, and a nuance that Baker is executing to perfection. As champion, she enjoyed her best year yet in 2021.
6. Big E
Top three matches of 2021: Money in the Bank ladder match; Monday Night Raw vs. Bobby Lashley; Survivor Series vs. Roman Reigns
Big E finally broke into the promised land of WWE, winning the world title in September. He finished the year as champion and undeniably established himself as a main-eventer.
In the modern age of pro wrestling, there is no more difficult role than a pure babyface. That is Big E’s position, and he plays it with realism and authenticity. His moment winning the Money in the Bank match back in front of a live crowd in Fort Worth was electric, and the crowd in Boston at Raw was ecstatic to see him finally win gold.
Big E was not booked as a dominant champ. He lost in a six-man tag match to Roman Reigns and The Usos one week after winning the belt, and he was defeated cleanly by Reigns at Survivor Series. But what Big E accomplished in 2021 is still extremely important: He elevated himself to new heights, forever impacting his career, by being so incredibly compelling in the ring that Vince McMahon had to make him WWE champion.
5. Bryan Danielson
Top three matches of 2021: SmackDown vs. Roman Reigns; Dynamite “Grand Slam” vs. Kenny Omega; Dynamite “Winter is Coming” vs. “Hangman” Adam Page
Bryan Danielson put together one of the most unique years in wrestling history.
He started the year in WWE, where he shined in the Elimination Chamber match in February. There were then excellent matches against Roman Reigns and Jey Uso leading up to WrestleMania, where he was added to the Reigns-Edge match and brought a whole new level of excitement to WWE’s biggest show of the year. Danielson’s run in WWE came to its conclusion in an outstanding and emotional bout on SmackDown at the end of April when he lost to Reigns.
The next time we saw Danielson in a match took place more than four months later in AEW against Kenny Omega at the “Grand Slam” edition of Dynamite. Danielson then worked a slew of matches, bringing excitement and joy in between the ropes against a variety of opponents that included Nick Jackson, Minoru Suzuki, Eddie Kingston, Rocky Romero, Dustin Rhodes and Anthony Bowens. In a very short amount of time, Danielson helped place a bright spotlight on AEW, adding more validity to the claim that it is the company that delivers the best pro wrestling in the world.
Danielson finished the year with a 60-minute classic against "Hangman" Adam Page in December. In only eight months of action, he put forth some of the best wrestling matches in the world.
4. Shingo Takagi
Top three matches of 2021: Wrestling Dontaku vs. Will Ospreay; Dominion vs. Kazuchika Okada; Power Struggle vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
Shingo Takagi helped carry New Japan Pro-Wrestling as its top star in 2021.
Whoever could have imagined that? For longtime Shingo fans, it never felt like he would ever be pushed as the top guy in NJPW. And that notion was reinforced when he lost to reigning champ Will Ospreay in May; the match was sublime, but Takagi was ultimately presented as the opponent instead of the attraction.
But then everything changed.
Ospreay was stripped of the belt, and a new champion for the vacated title was decided when Takagi defeated the great Kazuchika Okada at Dominion in June. Takagi then finished out the year as IWGP world heavyweight champion, making a convincing claim for himself as the best wrestler in the world. His run in the G1 Climax tournament this fall was outstanding, and his match against Zack Sabre Jr. in November was the single best world title match of the year.
3. Bianca Belair
Top 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 moment at WrestleMania 37.
That match meant significantly more than fighting for a title. It was two incredibly talented women, on a show predominantly featuring men, wrestling on center stage for a company that has a poor history of diverse matchups in the main event. (It was also, notably, the first WrestleMania singles match featuring two Black women.) And while Banks was already established as a megastar, Belair had never proved herself in that setting. Yet she delivered an all-time great match with Banks, one that placed her in an entirely new stratosphere in WWE.
Belair enjoyed a successful title reign, with her work inside the Hell in a Cell cage wrestling Bayley the highlight of her run. She was not helped by the short-term decision to lose in a squash match to the returning Becky Lynch at SummerSlam, but she still delivered meaningful moments at Survivor Series and at Crown Jewel, where she again proved that her chemistry with Banks is undeniable.
Belair delivered a convincing performance as to why she belongs among the best in the world in 2021.
2. Kenny Omega
Top three matches of 2021: Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match at Revolution vs. Jon Moxley; Dynamite “Grand Slam” vs. Bryan Danielson; Full Gear vs. “Hangman” Adam Page
Once the bell rings, Kenny Omega’s brilliance inside the ring is unquestionable.
He spent the majority of the year in 2021 as AEW champion, on top of representing Impact and AAA as their top champ. In addition to outstanding matches, Omega was focused on making stars around him. He relishes that role, and he played a pivotal role in showcasing “Hangman” Adam Page as a legitimate main-event talent.
Omega made an extremely valid claim for the top choice. His creativity and innovation in the ring make him must-see, and that was evident throughout his entire title run. Omega took chances, bringing the semiobscure Japanese concept of the exploding barbed wire death match to an AEW pay-per-view. But his most impressive feat was his work elevating Page to the next tier, putting AEW—and the wrestling world as a whole—in a better position with another breakout star.
1. Wrestler of the Year: Roman Reigns
Top 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 connected with the audience better than any other wrestler over the past year. His work felt natural, never contrived or forced. And when he stepped in the ring, all the way from January’s Royal Rumble match against Kevin Owens until the last WWE pay-per-view of the year at Survivor Series in a match against Big E, he made those matches gripping, compelling and always worth watching.
What would SmackDown have looked like in 2021 without Reigns? His Bloodline partnership with Paul Heyman and The Usos made every week worth watching. Reigns’s role was to be the biggest star possible for the world’s largest promotion, and he accomplished that in a marvelous manner.
The chance to see Reigns wrestle John Cena helped make SummerSlam—a stadium show taking place during a pandemic—a genuine success. His presence brought constant relevance to WWE whenever he appeared on television. After what we witnessed this past year, it is unfathomable to imagine the WWE product without Reigns.
Reigns was the best in the world in 2021, making him the wrestler of the year for Sports Illustrated.
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.