While there is no shortage of wild and unique years in the history of professional wrestling, 2021 will go down as one of the most interesting of them all. There were constant landscape-changing bombshells dropped throughout the year as WWE and AEW attempted to continue navigating a global pandemic.
From talent jumping ship to talent long-retired making unlikely returns, the most important rosters in American pro wrestling shifted continuously, though maybe most surprisingly, many of those changes came as WWE made several massive cuts to their roster.
There was also the return of live fans, and eventually, touring schedules. While uncertainty continues to reign as COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing down or developing more contagious variants, the wrestling business forges ahead, a constant on the airwaves as always.
Let's take a look back at 2021 and the highs and lows in the world of wrestling.
Big events delivered the goods: Whatever your feelings on WWE's weekly television product, the promotion continues to largely shine during major events. There's no denying that the WWE roster is as talent-laden as ever, even as they released heaps of skilled performers over the calendar year. It wasn't often a WWE pay-per-view event left you feeling let down by the in-ring action.
If WWE's big events were good, AEW's were incredible. Twice in 2021, AEW delivered events that rank among the best pay-per-views in the history of wrestling. All Out and Full Gear were nights that reminded what pro wrestling at its absolute best can provide: full of surprises, thrills and nail-biting action. AEW even made good on their more heavily-hyped TV specials with moments like a fully off-the-leash Bryan Danielson going 60 minutes with Kenny Omega and 90 minutes with Adam Page, and of course, the return of CM Punk.
Big E finally reached the top: For years, WWE fans have singled out Big E as someone with all the potential of being "the guy." When he went on to win Money in the Bank, it seemed all but guaranteed that Big E would get the opportunity to be world champion. WWE did not drop the ball, even going as far as to have Big E announce on Twitter that he intended to cash in his guaranteed title shot during Raw on Sept. 13. He did just that, beating Bobby Lashley to become WWE champion in one of the top feel-good moments of the year.
CM Punk returns to wrestling: AEW did not officially announce CM Punk would be making his return to wrestling but still sold out Chicago's United Center on the rumor Punk would appear on Aug. 20. The moment wrestling fans had long wanted finally came and words can't capture the moment as effectively as the video.
The return of fans: WWE and AEW did their best to navigate the pandemic, especially in difficult circumstances wherein fans could not attend events live. Still, there's nothing like a live crowd at a wrestling event -- even if WWE certainly loved the ThunderDome era's ability to control crowd reactions with the push of a button. WrestleMania saw WWE's first real push to bring fans back into the fold, even if it took until July for a full return to touring. AEW similarly welcomed fans back in a limited sense before their own July return to touring.
AEW still has a problem featuring women: While the women's side in AEW is in a better place than it has been at any point prior, the promotion still seem to have a hard limit on how much time women can get on weekly TV. Every show gets one women's match and only one women's match. Interestingly, the average AEW women's match since September has been nearly a minute longer than the average WWE women's match. Women get time to shine when they're in the ring, they just aren't in the ring enough.
Setting record profits while cutting huge groups of talent: Cuts are to be expected in the wrestling business. Sometimes they are a result of talent issues and sometimes creative just has no plan for what to do with a wrestler. But WWE had multiple massive cuts from developmental talents to top superstars such as Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman. Almost without fail, those cuts were chalked up to a result of budgetary decisions. This excuse has not gone over well with fans given WWE has repeatedly reported record profits. While WWE rakes in money during a global pandemic, they have cast off talent claiming financial needs. It has not been a good look.
That exploding barbed wire deathmatch: While AEW has largely crushed it in-ring in 2021, the Revolution pay-per-view failed to end with a bang -- quite literally. After an otherwise great exploding barbed wire deathmatch between Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega, Moxley was left down in the ring as the clock counted down to a final explosion. Eddie Kingston dramatically threw his body over Moxley as the countdown hit zero only to see a mild sparkler show and a few bits of pyro outside of the ring in one of the flattest moments of the year. AEW would go on to make the "explosion" part of the storyline but in the moment, it was an embarrassment.
WWE is in a creatively bad place and it's hurting business: Here and there, WWE hits a good note creatively. But so much of the week-in, week-out grind of WWE programming has grown stale that ratings are dipping and attendance is in a very bad place. You can try to chalk much of those issues up to the pandemic, but it's hard to feel motivated to give a promotion your time and money the 20th time you've seen two pay-per-view opponents forced to team together while WWE asks "can they coexist?" Even Roman Reigns, who was a shining character through the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021 has run out of steam as WWE has failed to build up compelling opponents while ruining some of the most interesting potential foils all in interest of waiting for Brock Lesnar's return.
With AEW on the rise and WWE struggling to put on compelling television and draw their typical big live crowds, 2022 is going to be an interesting year. Can WWE right the ship and continue their dominant run atop the wrestling scene or is AEW set to continue closing the gap as WWE faces real competition for the first time in decades?