Much like last year, the global pandemic affected the entire wrestling industry (as it did virtually every industry) in a significant way. Unlike the previous year, though, early signs of global recovery led a degree of normalcy, with the world's two largest promotions returning to touring in the second half of the year.
Beyond that, All Elite Wrestling made its biggest strides yet in 2021, expanding its broadcast reach, breaking pay-per-view records, and acquiring many of the industry's top names along the way. Despite giving WWE its first taste of real competition in decades, Vince McMahon's promotion also experienced a record year on many levels, including a landmark distribution agreement for its content rights.
In counting down the Top 50 Wrestling Headlines of 2021, Wrestling Merchandise and Memories considered the following criteria:
Was the event unique to this year? Or does it happen quite frequently?
What were the overall ramifications for said event?
Did the development have a profound impact on how this wrestler or promotion did business?
Did this development receive any mainstream publicity outside of the wrestling community?
When possible, we have tried to add a date to each development. Some of them combine more than one event, and some lump a string of developments to demonstrate an overall trend.
If you'd like to be a part of this conversation, Tweet us at @canadianbulldog using the hashtag #Top50, or leave a comment below.
Ready? Here we go!
Mark Henry is All Elite
AEW's Double or Nothing pay-per-view included a surprise appearance by Mark Henry. The WWE Hall of Famer and Busted Open host joined the organization to be a coach and also to become a commentator for the promotion's upcoming AEW Rampage program.
Jack Lanza passes away
WWE Hall of Famer Jack Lanza passed away at the age of 86. Best known as part of The Blackjacks along with Bob "Blackjack Mulligan" Windham, Lanza competed in the AWA, WWWF and other territories. After retiring, he became an agent with the WWF for several decades.
Paul Wight is All Elite
Former WWF, WCW and ECW Champion Paul Wight (a/k/a The Big Show) made his debut in All Elite Wrestling. Not only did Wight become a commentator for AEW Dark Elevation, but he would later don the trunks for the first time in about six months to battle QT Marshall at AEW All Out.
Bobby Eaton passes away
Legendary tag team competitor Beautiful Bobby Eaton passed away at the age of 62 following a series of health issues. Eaton is best known as a member of The Midnight Express (teaming with both Dennis Condrey and Stan Lane) and he also had a run with the WCW Television Championship in the early 1990s.
At the end of 2020, Kenny Omega teased opening the "forbidden door" and showing up in Impact Wrestling. At the promotion's Rebellion pay-per-view, Omega (with Impact's Don Callis in tow) defeated Rich Swann to add the Impact Championship to his collection.
Malakai Black is All Elite
Fresh off of a disappointing WWE run (and being released by the company one month earlier), the former Aleister Black debuted in AEW as Malakai Black, making an immediate impact by attacking Cody Rhodes and Arn Anderson on an episode of AEW Dynamite.
All Elite Wrestling debuted its second broadcast series, titled AEW Rampage, on TNT. The first episode saw Christian Cage defeating Kenny Omega for the Impact Championship, as well as Miro vs. Fuego Del Sol and Dr. Britt Baker defeating Red Velvet in her hometown of "Brittsburgh."
October 1 & 4
WWE held its annual draft on SmackDown and Raw with a number of wrestlers switching rosters. Big E, Bianca Belair and Edge were among those coming to Raw, while Drew McIntyre, Charlotte Flair and Jeff Hardy coming to SmackDown. NXT also lost several competitors to the main roster.
Blood & Guts
As a result of The Pinnacle being created (see # 49 for details), the faction immediately targeted The Inner Circle and challenged them to a Blood & Guts match on a special episode of AEW Dynamite. The tribute to NWA/WCW's War Games ended with The Pinnacle winning and MJF tossing Chris Jericho off of the structure.
Owen Hart is... All Elite?
AEW made an unusual announcement in September, announcing an agreement with the late Owen Hart's family to use his name and likeness in merchandising and an upcoming Owen Hart Cup tournament. It's the first time The King of Harts' family made such an agreement since his tragic passing in 1999.
New Jack passes away
ECW icon New Jack passed away from a heart attack at the age of 58. In addition to winning championships in ECW and Smoky Mountain Wrestling, Jack was known for his violent demeanor in and out of the ring, and his featured role in the 1999 documentary Beyond The Mat.
Daffney passes away
Former WCW and TNA competitor Daffney passed away at the age of 46. The death followed a very troubling Instagram video she posted, reading a suicide note and holding what appeared to be a gun. Daffney's tragic passing was covered by USA Today, while many in the wrestling industry paid tribute to her.
The Plane Ride From Hell
The popular Vice series Dark Side of the Ring aired an episode on WWE's infamous Plane Ride From Hell, in which several passengers acted scandalously on a 2002 charter flight from Europe. After the program aired, Tommy Dreamer, Brock Lesnar, Scott Hall and Ric Flair were publicly criticized for various reasons.
The next evolution of NXT began in September, complete with a new logo and color scheme for the brand and a variety of new, younger wrestlers showing up on the program. In the first episode, Tommaso Ciampa regained the vacant NXT Championships in a Fatal Four Way.
AEW goes back on the road
After more than a year playing to a fairly limited crowd at Daily's Place, All Elite Wrestling went back on the road with a special episode from Miami. The AEW Road Rager show featured Cody Rhodes, The Inner Circle and The Young Bucks.
Miz in the Bank
The Miz cashed in his Money In The Bank contract for the second time in his career, opportuntisically capturing the WWE Championship. After champion Drew McIntyre retained the title in an Elimination Chamber match, The Miz capitalized and briefly held the gold.
The Beast is Back
SummerSlam concluded with the somewhat-unexpected return of Brock Lesnar to WWE. The Beast Incarnate showed up to confront Roman Reigns, who had inherited Lesnar's former advocate Paul Heyman in the year prior, reigniting a unique rivalry.
One the biggest rivalries in 2021 was between WWE Hall of Famer Edge and Seth Rollins. The two battled at SummerSlam with Edge winning, followed by a Steel Cage Match won by Rollins. The trilogy ended with a Hell In A Cell Match at Crown Jewel, which Edge won.
One of the most interesting pairings of 2021 saw Randy Orton and Riddle teaming up under the name RK-Bro. While it seemed destined to be a short-term storyline, the off-beat duo managed to defeate AJ Styles and Omos to win the Raw Tag Team Championship.
Paul Orndorff passes away
WWE Hall of Famer Paul Orndorff passed away at the age of 71. The competitor known as Mr. Wonderful is best remembered for his rivalry with Hulk Hogan, which included a tag team match in the main event of the first WrestleMania.
Edge wins Royal Rumble
WWE Hall of Famer Edge made history by winning his second Royal Rumble, more than a decade after his first win. The Rated R Superstar started the match as # 1 and lasted almost an hour (along with # 2 Randy Orton), eventually eliminating his former tag team partner to win.
Bianca's big moment
Bianca Belair, fresh off her Royal Rumble victory, competed in the main event of Night One of WrestleMania XXXVII, challenging Sasha Banks for the SmackDown Womens Championship. This was the first time two African-American wrestlers headlined a WrestleMania.
The Champ is Back
John Cena made his return to WWE for the first time in over a year, confronting Roman Reigns at the conclusion of the Money in the Bank pay-per-view. Cena would challenge Reigns for the Universal title at SummerSlam before returning to his career in Hollywood.
WWE roster releases
WWE has released about 80 competitors this year, an unprecedented amount in the modern era. Those leaving the company included Braun Strowman, Keith Lee, Bray Wyatt, Lana, Mickie James, Velveteen Dream, Ruby Riott, Andrade, Aleister Black, Hit Row, Jeff Hardy, Ric Flair, Karrion Kross and Nia Jax.
WWE sells streaming rights to Peacock
In a deal that was reportedly worth over $1 billion, WWE sold its U.S. streaming rights to NBCUniversal's Peacock network. While opening WWE programming to 1.1 million Peacock subscibers, it also signified to many that WWE may eventually put themselves up for sale.
The Pinnacle is born
After being kicked out of The Inner Circle amid concerns he was trying to sabotage the group, Maxwell Jacob Friedman wasted no time creating his own faction. The Pinnacle aligned MJF with Wardlow, Shawn Spears, Tully Blanchard and FTR (Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler).
King and Queen crowned
WWE Crown Jewel gave fans in Saudi Arabia the coronation of two members of royalty. Xavier Woods defeated Finn Balor to win the King of the RIng tournament, while Zelina Vega pinned Doudrop to become the company's first winner of The Queen's Crown.
January 4 & 5
Ibushi rules Wrestle Kingdom
Kota Ibushi was the big winner at Wrestle Kingdom 15 in Tokyo. On the first night, he defeated Tetsuya Naito to capture both the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships. The second night, he successfully defended them against Jay White.
Christian Cage is All Elite
Upon Paul Wight's AEW debut, he promised a "Hall of Fame worthy" talent would soon be debuting in the company. At AEW Revolution, that turned out to be Christian Cage. Cage would go on to have a career year, appearing at WWE's Royal Rumble, capturing the Impact Championship and teaming with The Jurassic Express.
Despite being paired with AJ Styles for several months, Omos waited until WrestleMania XXXVII to make his in-ring debut. Teaming with Styles, Omos defeated The New Day to capture the WWE Raw Tag Team Championship in his first
NXT moves to Tuesdays
After losing a ratings war against AEW Dynamite, NXT was moved from its Wednesday slot on the USA Network and debuted on Tuesday nights instead. WWE's developmental league would go through several changes to its look and roster throughout 2021.
Ospreay wins New Japan Cup 2021
Will Ospreay scored a big victory in Sendai, Japan, depeating Shingo Takagi in the finals of the New Japan Cup 2021. After the match, Ospreay attacked his girlfriend and stablemate Bea Priestly to show how serious he was taking his future challenge of Kota Ibushi.
Thunder Rosa and Dr. Britt Baker made history by not only being the first women to main event an episode of AEW Dynamite, but also doing so in a brutal, Unsanctioned Lights Out Match that included the usage of tables, ladders, chairs and even thumbtacks during the course of the bloody bout.
Samoa Joe regains NXT Championship
Samoa Joe had a tumultous 2021, going from announcer to being fired to returning to NXT. At the brand's TakeOver XXXVI event, Joe pinned Karrion Kross to win the NXT Championship for a record-setting third time.... although he only held the belt for about three weeks before vacating it.
WWE's first event in front of a large crowd in over a year got off to an auspicious start when Night One of WrestleMania XXXVII began with the first-ever rain delay in WrestleMania history. The delay only lasted about 30 minutes, giving WWE performers an opportunity to improv several on-camera segments.
The Man returns
At SummerSlam, Bianca Belair was set to defend her WWE SmackDown Womens Championship against Sasha Banks. However, Becky Lynch eventually took Banks' place in The Man's first appearance in over a year, winning the title in 26 seconds and turning heel.
Bad Bunny battles
The Royal Rumble saw a special appearance by musician Bad Bunny, which led to an in-ring confrontation between him and The Miz. Over the next several months, the Grammy award winner would win the 24/7 Championship and have an impressive tag team match at WrestleMania XXXVII.
AEW debuted in New York City by bringing the first wrestling event to Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens. The Dynamite Grand Slam program was highlighted by a classic match between Bryan Danielson and Kenny Omega, while the Rampage taping from the same venue also featured the company's top stars.
ROH going on hiatus
Ring of Honor announced that after an impressive 19-year run as one of the industry's biggest breeding grounds for upcoming stars, it was going on hiatus for at least the first quarter of 2022. The announcement has caused concern about the future business viability of ROH.
Lucha gold rush
In one of the best matches of 2021, The Lucha Brothers (Pental El Zero and Rey Fenix) captured the AEW World Tag Team Championship for the first time in their careers. The brothers defeated The Young Bucks in a brutal, hard-fought Steel Cage Match at AEW All Out.
Lashley strikes gold
Well... that didn't last long. The day after The Miz captured the WWE Championship, Bobby Lashley reminded Miz that he owed him a title shot. Miz ducked Lashley for a short while until The Almighty captured his first WWE Championship on an episode or Raw.
The Revolution will be botched
The AEW Revolution pay-per-view ended with a whimper not a bang -- which isn't a great finish for an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch. In a bout between AEW Champion Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley, the "explosion" was fairly tame.
Takagi vs. Okada
The main event of New Japan Pro Wrestling's Dominion pay-per-view saw Kazuchika Okada battle Shingo Takagi for the vacant IWGP World Championship. Takagi won the match and the title in an impressive 36-minute match that was very highly rated by critics.
WWE on the road again
After more than a year of competing on closed sets or limited audiences, WWE began traveling again in July with a huge PR campaign backing it up. Money In The Bank was held in Fort Worth, Texas, headlined by a WWE Championship match between Roman Reigns and Edge.
It's a New Day for Big E
Big E captured his first WWE Championship on an episode of Monday Night Raw. The New Day member telegraphed earlier in the night that he had come to Raw to cash in his Money In The Bank contract, which he did successfully after Bobby Lashley defeated Randy Orton on the program.
Adam Page wins AEW Championship
Hangman Adam Page became the fourth person in history to capture the AEW World Championship at AEW Full Gear, ending Kenny Omega's nearly year-long reign as champion, and concluding a long storyline between the ex-partners.
Throughout 2021, Roman Reigns held an iron grip on the WWE Universal Championship, turning back challenges from Kevin Owers, Daniel Bryan, Edge, John Cena, Cesaro, Brock Lesnar and Big E, among others. Reigns may soon be the longest-reigning Universal Champion ever.
Danielson, Cole, Soho are All Elite
AEW All Out saw the debuts of three major talents. Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole and Ruby Soho (f/k/a Ruby Riott) showed up at the pay-per-view, each making an immediate impact and proving there is life after WWE.
WWE announced that SummerSlam 2021 was not only the most-viewed but also the highest-grossing SummerSlam event in its 33-year history. More than 51,000 fans watched the event live in Las Vegas; online viewership was 55 % higher than 2020; and Brock Lesnar's return garnered more than 4 million Instagram views.
CM Punk is All Elite
Former WWE Champion CM Punk returned to a wrestling ring for the first time since 2014, debuting on an episode of AEW Rampage in Chicago. The Straight Edge Superstar made headlines around the world, loudly signifying the notion that WWE is no longer the only game in town for established wrestlers.