We’ve finally gotten through the longest year in the recorded history of time itself. Congratulations on making it to 2021, everybody.
Instead of taking the time to look to the past, I figured we could do something fun and look to the future. One of my favorite annual columns has been my “30 Under 30” editions, where I look at the 30 wrestlers under the age of 30 that I feel have the biggest and brightest futures. In previous entries, I’ve listed names that would go on to win their first World Title later that year, others who would reach main event status for the first time, and even more that would go from the independent scene to being signed by WWE or a promotion that was of a much higher stature than where they were to that point.
This year’s version of the column will be slightly different than the ones I’ve done in years past, though. Unfortunately, because of COVID travel restrictions and social distancing rules, the independent wrestling scene took a huge blow in 2020, and the upcoming year is up in the air for a lot of independent wrestlers, as well. It’s very difficult to figure out the futures of people when you don’t have any guarantees for who they’ll be wrestling, when they’ll be wrestling, where they’ll be wrestling, etc. The shutdowns have also affected the amount of true blue independent wrestling I’ve been able to see. I’m talking REAL indy wrestling. The shows that, even without COVID, were being held in front of 100-200 people, and that aren’t being co-signed by WWE. That, combined with the rise of AEW and a lot of indy names heading to that promotion, means the 2021 edition of 30 Under 30 will be a lot more mainstream-centric than the usual editions are. Here’s to hoping that the 2022 version will be back to normal.
So, as I said, this is about who I feel has the biggest and brightest futures. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these are people who I feel are the BEST. As we’ve all seen with wrestling, being the BEST in-ring worker doesn’t guarantee you success, while being a subpar in-ring worker doesn’t guarantee you failure. It’s the nature of the beast. The only criteria for the list is those bright futures, and that everyone included has to be under the age of 30 on January 1st of this year. Finally, the list is merely going in chronological order, from the oldest wrestler to the youngest, so don’t get all bent out of shape because so-and-so is listed ahead of such-and-such.
Now that I’ve taken the time to explain everything, I think we should get to the list.
LESS DEW EET!!!
Raquel Gonzalez (Born on January 12th, 1991): It doesn’t take a lot of searching to see that this woman has an incredibly bright future. She has only been wrestling for a few years now, and the improvements she made from 2018-2019 to 2020 have been incredible. She seems like an entirely different person in the ring, and is wrestling with all the swagger and confidence a big star should have. You don’t see a lot of true “giants” in women’s wrestling. If you look at the current WWE roster, the tallest women are Nia Jax and Jessamyn Duke, who are both listed at 6’0″, with Charlotte Flair and Indi Hartwell, who are both listed at 5’10”. Gonzalez is also listed at 6’0″, but I’ve seen some of her basketball listings having her at 6’1″. Someone that she has been compared to a lot, Chyna, was listed at 5’11”. My point is that she’s one of the taller women that WWE has ever employed, and she wrestles like it, as well. She is already well on her way to being in the mix for the NXT Women’s Title (if she doesn’t get called up beforehand), but if she continues improving at the rate she is, it won’t be long until she’s looked at as being one of the top women’s talents in the company.
Rich Swann (Born on February 15th, 1991): To say that he has turned things around for himself would be an understatement. At this time, three years ago, Swann was in the middle of serving a suspension from WWE for violating their zero tolerance policy on domestic violence after being arrested and charged with battery and false imprisonment. The arrest report stated that Swann and his wife (Su Yung from Impact Wrestling) got into an altercation after he criticized her performance at a wrestling event, and that he grabbed her in a headlock and dragged her into his car when she tried to get away. When that news broke, people jumped to every conclusion in the book. People assumed he had just pissed his career down the toilet. Being released from his WWE contract only fueled those opinions, even though it was a mutually agreed upon release after all charges against him were dropped due to a lack of evidence. After signing with Impact, he would become the company’s X-Division Champion after six months. It seemed like he would be relegated to that part of the card permanently, but then a funny thing happened on the way to purgatory… he became the Impact World Champion. We’re now two-and-a-half months into his reign as the top guy for the promotion, and things are going well for him. It has been quite the turnaround, and it only seems to be getting stronger. His title reign has already been impressive, seeing him defeat Sami Callihan, Ken Shamrock, and Chris Bey in successful defenses, so here’s hoping that it keeps going well for him. I do think, however, that we’re likely to see him drop the title to Kenny Omega in Kenny’s “belt collector” storyline, but time will tell.
Shotzi Blackheart (Born on March 13th, 1991): I will be the first to admit that I wasn’t sure if Shotzi could be successful in NXT. Not because of her own abilities or anything. I just didn’t know if her “out there” persona would catch on with people on a larger scale. Thus far, I would say her persona has actually helped her to become one of the more popular women in NXT. Her complete and utter lack of concern for her own well-being also helps her to stand out, as she will have some crazy spots in her matches. Her overall win/loss record wasn’t exactly tremendous in 2020, but to be fair, it got a lot better as the year went on. The Shotzi that started 2020 isn’t anywhere near the Shotzi that ended 2020. NXT showed faith in her, not only by making her the host of Halloween Havoc, but by having her pick up big wins against the likes of Raquel Gonzalez and Dakota Kai in the last few months. With her popularity increasing, as well as the company’s belief in her, you have to think she could be on the verge of putting herself into title contention on Wednesday nights.
Britt Baker (Born on April 23rd, 1991): I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating… AEW has been very strong in a lot of areas, but their women’s division has not been one of them. Britt Baker has been one of the exceptions to that. Her in-ring work has been solid, but it is her character work that has really stood out in a division where a lot of the women have just been… women that wrestle. While she was on the sideline with an injury, AEW was smart to keep her around as an on-air character, and her heel work there was one of Dynamite’s highlights on a weekly basis. Now that she is healthy again, she is picking up wins, ending up on the victorious side of her last three singles matches. With AEW Women’s Champion Hikaru Shida in need of challengers, Baker is getting momentum at the right time. 2021 is looking like it could be a big one for the good Doctor.
Adam Page (Born on July 27th, 1991): Hangman’s AEW journey has been a fascinating one to watch. He signed with the company and was viewed as the lowest on the totem pole as far as the members of The Elite that were in AEW. His first year with the company saw him rack up wins, get into contention for something bigger, only to lose, and then he’d rack up wins and start the entire process all over again. His 2020 was where he really made a splash, first by winning the Tag Team Titles with Kenny Omega and successfully defending them nine times in seven-and-a-half months, but then showing that he wasn’t just “Omega’s tag partner” by looking like an absolute star in those title matches. People began viewing Page as World Champion material because of everything that went down in those tag bouts, and you know what? I’m one of those people. I don’t know if I’m comfortable enough saying that it will happen in 2021, but I think he’ll be the AEW Champion by the end of 2022, at least.
Ben-K (Born on October 19th, 1991): I felt a whole lot more comfortable about his future before his match against Shun Skywalker a couple weeks back. If you’re not aware, he was knocked unconscious by a clothesline during the match, and was then hit by multiple moonsaults from the top rope, and multiple standing knee moonsaults, all while still out cold. It was as if Skywalker and the referee had no clue about him being unconscious, even though it was clear as day watching the entire thing happen. Dragon Gate would say that Ben-K suffered a “mild concussion” and wouldn’t provide details on when he would be able to return to the ring. When he is able to return to wrestling, and when he actually has co-workers that have even the slightest grasp of brain injuries and the damage they cause, he’ll continue to be one of Dragon Gate’s top stars. In the last four years, he has won the Open The Dream Gate Title (Dragon Gate’s top singles title) once, the Open The Twin Gate Titles (their tag titles) twice, and the Open The Triangle Gate Titles (their six-man titles) twice. 2020 could’ve been the year that more people outside of Japan got to know about Ben-K, with Dragon Gate announcing a working relationship with Major League Wrestling, and a talent exchange being a large part of that relationship. That was announced to kick off February 2020, and… well… we all know how the rest of 2020 turned out to prevent something like that from taking place. If he can bounce back from that concussion, 2021 could be another in a growing string of big years for the powerhouse.
Sasha Banks (Born on January 26th, 1992): With everything Sasha has accomplished in her career, it feels like she should be knocking on the door of 40. Instead, here we are, a few weeks away from her turning 29. She’s one of the relatively rare names on my annual lists that has already accomplished a ton at an early age, and isn’t just a “watch out for this person in the future” pick. Counting her current Smackdown Women’s Title reign, she has been a champion on nine different occasions in the last six years. If you’re looking at what is left for her to accomplish, you have the Women’s Royal Rumble, Women’s Money In The Bank, and a lengthy singles reign as a member of the Raw or Smackdown roster. As of the day this column is posted, her current reign as Smackdown Women’s Champion is at 73 days and counting, which is her longest main roster singles reign, but pales in comparison to the likes of Bayley’s longest reign (379 days), or the likes of Becky Lynch (398 days), Charlotte Flair (146 days), Alexa Bliss (222 days), Ronda Rousey (231 days), Asuka (136 days as of the day this is posted), or even Carmella (130 days) and Naomi (139 days). If you want to fantasy book and look ahead, WrestleMania would be the 154th day of her reign, so… there’s that. Either way, you have to include Sasha here, no matter how much she has achieved. Barring injury, starting a family, or Hollywood knocking on her door after The Mandalorian, you know she’s going to continue being at the top of whatever brand she’s on for years to come.
Jay White (Born on October 9th, 1992): As I type this, we are in the immediate aftermath of the main event for New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom, which saw Kota Ibushi retain the IWGP World Heavyweight Title and the IWGP Intercontinental Title against Jay White. While “Switchblade” wasn’t able to get back to the top of New Japan for the first time since losing the Heavyweight Title to Kazuchika Okada in April 2019, he was part of the longest match in the storied history of the Tokyo Dome. Think about that for a moment. Think of all the classics that have taken place in that building. The matches that Dave Meltzer rated five stars, six stars, and even seven stars. None of those matches went as long as Ibushi vs White did. That says a ton about how much New Japan trusts both men. Now, in what may or may not be part of a storyline, White is teasing that it might be time to leave New Japan and wrestle elsewhere. Of course, the rumors of WWE/NXT or AEW are starting to fly because of his comments. If he really is leaving, there will be a ton of hype for wherever he goes. If he isn’t going anywhere, we go back to him being trusted enough by New Japan to have record-breaking matches in the main event of their biggest show of the year. Either way you look at it, he’s looking at a big and bright future.
Darby Allin (Born on January 7th, 1993): When I first started calling Darby the “next Jeff Hardy” in columns, a lot of people dismissed it. Fast forward a bit, and not only is he the TNT Champion, but he is aligned with Sting, of all people. I’d think that makes it pretty safe to say that AEW sees something special in him. Remember what I said about Shotzi Blackheart having a lack of concern for her own well-being? Magnify that by at least ten and you have the lunatic known as Darby Allin. He’s definitely one of the smaller wrestlers in AEW (listed at 5’8″ and 180 pounds), but that intentional recklessness that he displays in his matches makes up for his lack of size. I’m still not even quite sure what his ceiling is with AEW, to be honest. Could I see him as an AEW World Champion eventually? Yes. Could I see him topped off as a major player in AEW’s midcard and tag scene? Yes. It’s hard to predict for him, but either way, he’s going to continue having a big spot in AEW. The Sting pairing is potentially huge for him.
Pete Dunne (Born on January 31st, 1993): Do you all remember when WWE held their United Kingdom Championship Tournament in January 2017? For many people, it was the introduction to the likes of Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate, Trent Seven, Danny Burch, Mark Andrews, Jordan Devlin, and more. I had seen Seven, Burch, and Andrews before the tournament, but it was my introduction to Dunne, Bate, and Devlin. Right away, I could tell Bate was going to be special, but I was drawn to Dunne instantly. I loved that he was a cruiserweight-sized wrestler that wrestled like a heavyweight. His Bruiserweight nickname was so fitting. Over the last four years, I’ve only grown to become an even bigger fan of Dunne as he has gone back-and-forth between NXT and NXT UK. I’ve always been a fan of wrestlers who are world traveled, either able to pick up different styles to use for themselves, or at least able to work against wrestlers of all types. That’s what Dunne has been able to do, wrestling against the likes of the aforementioned NXT UK names, but also having matches against Adam Cole, Roderick Strong, Kyle O’Reilly, Johnny Gargano, Ricochet, The Velveteen Dream, and Damian Priest. That Bruiserweight style allows him to go toe-to-toe with much larger opponents and have success. I would love to see him get an opportunity on Raw or Smackdown in the future, but we know how that goes. For the time being, I’ll have to settle with watching Dunne try to break the fingers of everyone on the NXT and NXT UK rosters, and I’m fine with that. He may get a chance to go after the fingers of none other than current NXT Champion, Finn Balor, who is on record saying that he wants to face Dunne. That could be a lot of fun.
Mayu Iwatani (Born on February 19th, 1993): Asuka. Io Shirai. Kairi Sane. Riho. Hikaru Shida. Toni Storm. WWE and AEW have had some crazy good Japanese (or, in Storm’s case, Japanese-worked) women working for them and winning titles in the last few years. With all that talent, what if I told you that there is a portion of joshi puroresu fans who feel Mayu Iwatani is better than all of them? Every year, when you look at year-end Wrestler Of The Year lists, Iwatani is a name that frequently pops up. Since becoming a father, I’ve had to cut back on some of the wrestling I used to watch on a regular basis, so I haven’t kept up with her career as much as I would like to over the last two years, but I still keep up with what’s going on if I don’t get to watch. Working for Stardom, she has been able to help carry the promotion on her back when people thought the losses of Sane and Shirai would cripple them. Even at the age of 27, she has reached “icon” status in Japan, not just because of her in-ring skills, but also because she’s been wrestling for a decade now. Count me in as one of the people who feel she would be a more “known” name in North America by now if it weren’t for COVID, with the aforementioned names in this paragraph showing that WWE and AEW have their ears and eyes focused on the women of Japan. We don’t know what the future holds as far as travel restrictions and a worldwide pandemic are concerned, so it’s hard to predict anything for Iwatani outside of continued success for Stardom and building a legendary profile for herself.
Will Ospreay (Born on May 7th, 1993): This is only a slight exaggeration, but it seems like New Japan has pushed Ospreay to the cusp of being a main event heavyweight, only to have him lose and move back down the card. The three-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and one-time NEVER Openweight Champion has been ready for stardom in the heavyweight division for a while now. In the last few months alone, he holds singles victories over Kazuchika Okada, Tomohiro Ishii, Minoru Suzuki, and Jay White. Two days before posting this, in one of the more high-profile matches of his career to date, Ospreay would lose to Okada at Wrestle Kingdom. Was it a Match Of The Year kind of bout? Yes, it was. He still lost, though. I’ve seen some people say he hasn’t been pushed to the top because of racism and things of that nature. Tell that to Jay White, Kenny Omega, and AJ Styles, who have all been the IWGP Heavyweight Champion in the last six years. Only New Japan knows what the real deal is, but they have certainly trusted Ospreay enough for him to be a part of numerous classic matches in the last few years. As long as that continues, he’ll have a very bright future with the promotion, even if he never quite reaches the top of the mountain.
Sammy Guevara (Born on July 28th, 1993): Wrestling has done well through the years when a promotion has at least one heel that is such a smarmy douche that you want to see them get their ass handed to them. With Sammy Guevara, that’s exactly what AEW has right now, and I mean that in the best possible way. He has excelled in his role as a member of the Inner Circle, looking like a future star while still playing a background role to Chris Jericho and, at times, Jake Hager and the team of Santana and Ortiz. Now that MJF and Wardlow are part of the group, Sammy is having to share the spotlight with even more people, but a lot of people are expecting the current story to end with Sammy being squeezed out of the group and becoming a face. He plays the heel role so well, but just by looking at him and watching him wrestle, you can see a successful face, as well. He’s young, he’s fresh, he’s exciting, he’s a good looking guy… every ingredient needed for AEW to present him as a face star if the situation calls for it. Time will tell.
Sonya Deville (Born on September 24th, 1993): Like can be crazy sometimes. The only reason I say that is because Sonya had just starting building a ton of momentum, but then had to take a hiatus to deal with her personal life and was gone for a little over four months. She should be able to pick up where she left off, though. With Shayna Baszler and Asuka on Raw, there’s nobody on the Smackdown women’s roster that wrestles the wrestling/MMA hybrid style that Deville uses. That’s the kind of thing that a good creative team and booking squad will be able to take advantage of. She can be a very dangerous opponent for Sasha Banks, or for someone like Bianca Belair if Belair is pushed the way people are expecting her to be this year. Mandy Rose being on Raw now should also help her move out of the “shadow” that was there before her hiatus, too. Things are falling into place nicely for her. Now, it’s up to WWE to make it work.
Ilja Dragunov (Born on October 10th, 1993): Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of people immediately think of WALTER when they think of Ilja Dragunov. Not just for their classic match for the NXT United Kingdom Championship a couple months ago, but also for their absolute wars in wXw, PROGRESS, and PWG through the years. It’s not like Dragunov has looked like doodoo when he isn’t facing WALTER, though. He has made a great career for himself wrestling all over the place, showing what he got to show to a larger audience with his WALTER match in NXT UK… that he is capable of taking an otherworldly amount of punishment, but that he can dish it out, as well. He’s not the biggest guy in the world (his billed height and weight are almost identical to someone like Ricochet, for example), but that’s what makes his matches all the more impressive. Even though he wasn’t able to end WALTER’s insanely long reign as the NXT UK Champion, a lot of people are wondering if the buzz that was created following their last match could have NXT UK revisit it again, perhaps with Dragunov coming out on top. If there’s anyone who deserves it, it’s him. As of the day this gets posted, WALTER will have been the champion for a whopping 642 straight days. That’s a lot of “rub” for the person who finally defeats him. Why not Dragunov?
Ricky Starks (Born on February 21st, 1994): This is nothing against Ricky Starks at all, but I’m not as confident in his future success with AEW as I once was. Again, that has nothing to do with anything he did or didn’t do. It’s more about how Team Taz continues to add members to the group and the focus seems to be more on them at the moment. Brian Cage and Powerhouse Hobbs get a lot of attention because of their look and dominant offense, and now, we’ve seen an entire storyline revolve around Taz’s son, Hook, being involved with the group. Starks remains one of the hottest acts in AEW as far as wins and losses are concerned, though. He has won his last eight singles matches, and 16 of his last 17 singles matches since losing to Cody on June 11th of last year in a TNT Title shot. If wins and losses truly matter as much as AEW likes to say they do, wouldn’t you agree that eight wins in a row, and 16 wins out of 17 matches, is deserving of a push up the card? I’d say so. With Team Taz continuing their feud with Darby Allin, could Starks be next-in-line for the TNT Title? Sure seems that way. Maybe he’d get a little more attention then.
Liv Morgan (Born on June 8th, 1994): Liv has had quite a roller coaster ride of a time on the WWE main roster, hasn’t she? The Riott Squad debuted on Smackdown pretty much out of nowhere, looking very strong as a unit. In their first match together, they defeated Charlotte, Naomi, and Natalya. Their third match together saw them beat the team of Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and Naomi. A month later, they would defeat that same Becky, Charlotte, and Naomi team. Their momentum seemed to slow down for a while, and then Ruby Riott would miss time with a knee injury, which would cause Morgan and Sarah Logan to get lost for a while. When Ruby returned, things seemed ready to roll again, but it just never happened. Then, the group was split in the Superstar Shake-Up, and Morgan basically disappeared from television entirely. She was placed in a quasi-lesbian storyline with Lana, but that disappeared almost immediately, too. Now, she’s back with Ruby Riott as a duo with Sarah Logan being released from the company and starting a family, but Morgan is now seeing the most extended success she’s had on the main roster. The new Riott Squad won their last three tag matches to close out 2020. From the end of August to the end of December, Morgan was 9-3-1 in the televised non-Battle Royal matches she participated in, and the Riott Squad are now firmly planted in the Women’s Tag Team Title picture moving forward. Liv has come a long way since not even being able to be on television for months at a time.
Deonna Purrazzo (Born on June 10th, 1994): Hey, speaking of women that have had a roller coaster ride recently, look no further than Deonna Purrazzo. WWE and NXT enhancement talent to contracted WWE performer to NXT UK member to main roster enhancement talent again to being released during the big COVID-related cuts. After being released, she would make her return to Impact Wrestling, and in her second televised match, she became the new Impact Knockouts Champion. Add a second reign as Knockouts Champion, and you have yourself someone who has had quite the 2020. She comes across as almost a completely different wrestler as she did when she was with WWE, almost as if she discovered herself and a new confidence after being released. As the centerpiece of a very strong Knockouts division, her 2021 looks to be something she can continue building on. The Virtuosa looks to have finally settled that roller coaster ride of the last couple years.
Bandido (Born on April 17th, 1995): In one of my early drafts of this column, Bandido was joined on the list by his longtime tag partner, Flamita, but he remains here “alone” after the final cuts. 2019 and the very beginning of 2020 was a good stretch for Bandido in America. He won Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s Battle Of Los Angeles tournament and turned that into winning the PWG World Title three months later. A month after that, he teamed with Flamita and Rey Horus to become the new Ring Of Honor Six-Man Tag Team Champions. Throw in becoming the Heavyweight Champion for The Crash Lucha Libre in November 2019, and you have a lot going on for the guy. Then… the world kinda shut down for a while. He is still in possession of those titles, but he has exactly zero matches for PWG since winning there in December 2019 and hasn’t had any matches for RoH since February 2020. Sure, it makes his title reigns look great on paper, but what does his future hold? It’s difficult to say for sure. Once travel restrictions made wrestling for somewhere other than WWE and AEW a mess, people like Bandido have been off the radar. A look at his 2020 shows a few matches for wXw in March, and then nothing until a few matches for CMLL in Mexico in September and October, and then… nothing. If… and that’s a big if… things can start getting back to normal, Bandido is too talented to not continue his winning ways.
Tessa Blanchard (Born on July 26th, 1995): This one could need an asterisk. The extra curricular stuff with the things she is rumored to have said and done in the past has cost her a lot of exposure and bookings. For multiple reasons, she hasn’t had a match in almost five months, and that match was the first one she had in six months. She is far too talented to remain off the radar, so unless some concrete evidence comes out about some of the accusations thrown against her, she won’t be inactive for long. AEW is in dire need of someone like her for their women’s division, and WWE/NXT could always use some new blood for their divisions. I would expect her to wind up in one of those spots at some point this year. She’s going to be a game changer wherever she goes. That’s kind of why I want her in AEW. It’s like a team sport. If you can sign a big ticket free agent to turn your team’s biggest weakness into a potential strength, why wouldn’t you? That’s not even counting the potential for intergender matches if TNT will allow them to do things of that nature. It has been a while since her name was really in the news, but I think that changes soon, and that she’ll be special wherever she lands.
Toni Storm (Born on October 19th, 1995): Toni is a woman that has won, and won a lot, just about everywhere she has wrestled. Women’s Champion in PROGRESS. World Of Stardom Champion (their top title) in Stardom. Two-time Women’s Champion in wXw. Women’s Champion in NXT UK. Those are just some of the title reigns she’s had in her career thus far. Now, it appears she’s looking to add to her impressive list of victories by working in NXT. She has only wrestled a handful of matches for the brand, but is already being placed in a prime spot after being on the winning team at Takeover WarGames, followed by a victory over Rhea Ripley. When title victories follow you everywhere you go, it’s only a matter of time before the NXT Women’s Title is hers, too, right? You would think so. With Io Shirai beating the top challengers for the title in recent months, someone new is needed to step up. Raquel Gonzalez could fill that role, but some are curious if it’s too soon for that. That’s where Toni Time comes into play. If you’re bringing her all the way to America in this crazy time, you’re doing it for a reason. I’m thinking we’ll see that reason sooner than later.
MJF (Born on March 15th, 1996): You can say whatever you want about the cheap heat he loves to go for as a heel. The point is that it’s working for him. He does really well when it comes to getting hated, so what reason is there to change his style? If he wants to cut promos like he was a heel in the mid-1980’s, so be it. He’s in an interesting spot, though, because his in-ring work doesn’t quite reach the level of his character work. He cuts very good promos and is very entertaining in the segments he’s in, but whenever he is put in a big singles spot, the match isn’t all that good. When he signed with AEW, people thought he was a future World Champion, but I think a lot of the bloom is off of that rose at this point. Does that mean he’s going to fade into bolivian? I highly doubt that. We just need to adjust our expectations. One, he’s still plenty young enough to keep improving in the ring. Two, even if he isn’t ready to be a main event wrestler, he can have plenty of success elsewhere on the card. He’s way too good at drawing a crowd reaction to just go away.
Kaito Kiyomiya (Born on July 17th, 1996): Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Title has been held by some of the most legendary names in the history of puroresu. Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama, Kensuke Sasaki, Yuji Nagata, Minoru Suzuki… the list goes on and on. In the belt’s history, no champion was as young as Kaito Kiyomiya was when he won it in December 2018 at the age of 22. That also means he was the youngest GHC Tag Team Champion in history, winning those belts with Go Shiozaki when he was only 21. After a very rough stretch of business for NOAH, even facing rumors of shutting down for good, the promotion has bounced back in a major way, largely in part to pushing fresh names such as Kiyomiya. In a previous edition of this column, I mentioned that I really enjoyed Kiyomiya’s level of confidence, both in himself and in his company, as he was calling for NOAH to challenge New Japan for the crown in Japan, even saying that he wanted a match with Kazuchika Okada in an “Ace vs Ace” bout. Why wouldn’t you believe in yourself and your “home” promotion to that level? After dropping the Heavyweight Title to start 2020 off, he hasn’t been able to regain the same level of success and stature, going 0-3 in title matches for the rest of the year, but you have to think he’ll return to previous glory before long.
Rhea Ripley (Born on October 11th, 1996): If you would’ve ranked the names on my list last year in order of who I felt had the brightest future, I’m pretty sure Rhea Ripley would rank at the top. Top five, at the very least. Here we are, a year later, and Ripley is clearly still on the list, but her ranking would be lower if this were in that type of order. That’s the amount of damage the company did to her by having her lose to Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania. She looked like she was on the verge of becoming the next big megastar in women’s wrestling, and then, because WWE can’t help themselves when it comes to pushing Charlotte, her momentum just stopped. She went from the next big thing to not even being used on NXT. It would take three months after WrestleMania for her to even be on the winning side of another match. She was lost in the shuffle for a while, but luckily, she has been bouncing back again in the last few months. She’s in the weird spot now, though, where she is rumored to be getting called up to the main roster every time she loses or something major happens. When she beat Mercedes Martinez in a Steel Cage Match in September, there were rumors of a call-up. When she beat Raquel Gonzalez at Halloween Havoc, she was rumored to be on her way to the main roster. When she unsuccessfully tried to take the NXT Women’s Title from Io Shirai in November, it was supposedly her “farewell” match in NXT. When her team was on the losing end of War Games… when she lost to Toni Storm… you get the point. She’s too talented, and can be presented as too much of a total package, to stay down for long. Whether it’s NXT, Raw, or Smackdown, I expect big things from her in 2021.
Tyler Bate (Born on March 7th, 1997): It still boggles my mind that Bate was 19 years old when he became the first WWE United Kingdom Champion. Even crazier was the fact that, by that point, he had already won CHIKARA’s Campeonatos de Parejas (their Tag Team Titles) with Trent Seven, PROGRESS Wrestling’s Tag Team Titles (also with Seven), and wXw’s Shotgun Championship, among other things. That’s an obscene amount of success for someone under the age of 21. Keep in mind, mainstream wrestling in America usually doesn’t even see someone debut until they’re already 23, 24, 25 years old and maybe not have success until their late-20’s. While he hasn’t had as many matches with the O.G. NXT as Pete Dunne has had, he has still looked great when he does perform there. I would love to see more of him in NXT, but you know, pandemic and all that. Since losing the United Kingdom Title in May 2017, he has yet to taste a title with the NXT UK brand, but that is mainly due to the fact that Pete Dunne’s reign as champion lasted 685 days and WALTER’s reign is at 642 days as I mentioned in the Ilja Dragunov section. Bate has positioned himself as being a key focal point for NXT UK for a long, long time, and when you think that he probably hasn’t even hit his peak yet, that’s a scary thought.
Dominik Mysterio (Born on April 5th, 1997): When you’re the son of wrestling royalty, a lot is expected of you if you decide to follow in their footsteps and become a wrestler yourself. Rey Mysterio is one of the sport’s all-time greatest performers, so Dominik Mysterio definitely has his work cut out for him. If his 2020 was any sign of what’s to come, I think he might have a shot at handling it successfully. Big Dom had no business being able to step into a marquee position with the largest wrestling promotion in the world, with as little (professional) training as he’s had, and look as amazing as he did. Yes, working against the likes of Seth Rollins, Murphy, Andrade, and Angel Garza will help you look great, but it’s not like you or I could just wrestle a great match against them fresh from our couches. Once the entire Mysterio drama story cooled down, WWE was smart to keep Dominik out of the ring. He hasn’t wrestled since being in the pre-show Battle Royal at Survivor Series. It would behoove Dom to keep training and return down the road where he has more experience and can possibly wrestle someone different for once. It seems like that’s going to be the plan, as Dom is reportedly making a temporary move from California to Florida so that he can continue his training at the WWE Performance Center and with Tyson Kidd at Kidd’s ring set-up. He’s only 23 years old, so he has time, but I’m not talking about keeping him away for years. After WrestleMania, at the earliest, is when I’d bring him back, but it should probably be sometime in the second half of the year. The kid has “it” in the ring, and he has the potential to be special. WWE has to handle that properly and not “ruin” him. No pressure or anything.
Anna Jay (Born on July 15th, 1998): In doing research for this column, I discovered something that I didn’t know about Anna Jay. She’s obviously young, only turning 22 this past summer, but with that age comes inexperience. She only began her wrestling training two-and-a-half years ago. Her first match was only 16 months ago! We’re not talking Dom Mysterio here, where he has very little professional training but is a third-generation wrestler so he has probably been “training” to be in the business since he could walk. Anna Jay apparently walked in off the street, so to speak, and is already in a featured role on a nationally televised wrestling show. It really is incredible to see how smooth and fluid she is in the ring. I’m talking smooth and fluid, full stop, not just smooth and fluid for a no0b. Being involved in the Dark Order meant she was going to be involved in a lot of things, although it remains to be seen what will happen with the group now that Brodie Lee has passed away. She is building up a lot of momentum, winning seven of the last eight matches she’s been involved in, with her only loss coming in a non-title match against AEW Women’s Champion Hikaru Shida. Her last singles loss to someone that wasn’t the champion was seven months ago. She has everything that it takes to be a star in the business, and none other than Brodie Lee himself saw that, saying that he wanted Sonny Kiss to “take care of her” and to not to let the wrestling business “corrupt” her. I’m very interested to see the direction that AEW goes in with the Dark Order now that Brodie is gone. Do they get a push, with multiple members of the group moving up the ladder? Are they all faces now? Does Anna Jay become the new leader, as some have suggested should happen? I’m more excited for her future than most of the names on this list, if I’m being honest, because of the untapped potential that is there.
Darius & Dante Martin (Born in 1999 and 2001, respectively): I went back-and-forth on whether or not to include Top Flight separately or as a duo, but it just made too much sense to keep them together. If you’ve been reading my work recently, you’d already know that I’m a big fan of what I’ve seen with these two in AEW so far. They’ve only had six matches in AEW, and have been on the losing end of five of them, but they have looked great in matches against some of the top players on the AEW roster. AEW wrestlers are putting them over in interviews. It is clear that someone in charge of things with the company is a big fan of theirs and sees something big in their futures. Their in-ring chemistry is tremendous, as you would expect, and is only getting better. They’re already showing that these big-time situations aren’t too much for them to handle. The only step they need to take now is to see if they can handle the pressure of performing in front of larger and larger crowds, and with AEW allowing more people in for their shows, the Martin boys are getting to knock that off the list, as well. They’re on the verge of something special in AEW, and I can’t wait to see them reach their potential.
Momo Watanabe (Born on March 22nd, 2000): In a move that makes me feel like I need to buy myself a cane and start eating dinner at 4pm, we have come to the first person I’ve ever featured on these lists that is born in the 2000’s. Good God. Not even 21 years old yet, Momo Watanabe has already had a helluva run for Stardom, finding singles success, as well as success as a tag and as a six-woman tag wrestler. In May 2018, she won the Wonder Of Stardom Title (the company’s version of the Intercontinental Title), and held it for 358 days. November 2018 saw her and Utami Hayashishita capture the Goddess Of Stardom Titles, while she has had two reigns with the Artist Of Stardom Titles (six-woman tag), including one where she teamed with Io Shirai in 2017. She has been away from holding a championship for a while now, but teaming with AZM to win the promotion’s Tag League tournament a couple months ago shows that she is still one of Stardom’s key players. After a year that saw Kagetsu retire, Arisa Hoshiki be forced into retirement due to head and neck injuries, and the tragic suicide of Hana Kimura, Stardom is in need of a boost in the new year. That boost could, and perhaps should, come in the form of one of its bigger stars regaining some of the momentum she once had.
Brodie Lee Jr. (Born in 2012): I figured we could end this with a bit of a smile, going from the first person in my 30 Under 30 history born in the 2000’s to the first person born in the 2010’s. What other eight-year-old out there has a pinfall victory over Kenny Omega, a TNT Title reign, a Falls Count Anywhere victory in a crossover match with Adam Cole, a brawl with Marko Stunt, and a vicious kendo stick shot on MJF, all in the last few months? He even got to train with Tyson Kidd, Natalya, and Liv Morgan. That’s a pretty incredible run, don’t you think? Nobody knows if -1 will end up following in his father’s footsteps down the road, but for the rest of his life, he will have the memories and moments that the pro wrestling world have come together to give him during the toughest phase of his young life. Bless that child, and bless the entire Huber family.
There you have it, folks. My 30 Under 30 list for the year. As I said earlier, this year’s list is way more mainstream-centric than usual because of everything going on in the world, but there it is nonetheless. What say you? Who did I include that you feel shouldn’t be here? Who did I leave out that you feel should be included? As always, hit me up in the comments section below or on Twitter (@HustleTheSavage), and let me know what’s on your mind. Now, it’s time for some Power Rankings…
Weekly Power Rankings
- The Brodie Lee Tribute Show: Top to bottom, AEW gave us as good a tribute show as we could’ve hoped for. I’ve seen people mention that the level of sadness and emotional displays weren’t on the same level as the Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero tribute shows, but there might be a logical explanation for that. With Owen and Eddie, their deaths were very sudden and shocking. Brodie’s passing was probably something his co-workers have been able to prepare for. You just can’t underestimate what preparation can do for grief. His passing was shocking to us, the fans, because we weren’t in the loop about what was going on. Chances are, the AEW roster knew about his hospitalization for two months, and with Brodie Jr. being brought in for his “match” against Kenny Omega, that was probably a signal that the end was coming up. As a show itself, we all got to enjoy the kind words people had for Jon Huber, as well as seeing The Dark Order get to shine in their matches.
- Kota Ibushi: When you win the IWGP Heavyweight Title and the IWGP Intercontinental Title in Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night One’s main event, and then successfully defend the titles in Wrestle Kingdom 15 Night Two’s main event, you’re doing something special. When both matches are great performances, it’s even better. After a great stint as a Junior Heavyweight with New Japan, Ibushi has finally reached the top of the company ladder, and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes as the new dual champion.
- Shingo Takagi vs Jeff Cobb: My personal choice for the best match at Wrestle Kingdom, this was every bit of a “hoss battle” as I wanted it to be. As Big E would say, it was two big meaty men slapping meat for over 20 minutes, with awesome displays of power and viciousness. Now, to see if my Wish List item of Shingo moving up the card in 2021 will happen.
- Kazuchika Okada vs Will Ospreay: My choice for the second-best match at Wrestle Kingdom. Okada is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all-time, and you already know you’re getting something great when he’s involved, especially on the WK stage. Throw in Ospreay wrestling with a chip on his shoulder about whether or not he “belongs” working with the heavyweights, and you have yourself a Match Of The Year candidate.
- Drew McIntyre vs Keith Lee: If you’re looking for the best non-Wrestle Kingdom match of the week, look no further. I know a lot of people were disappointed by the outcome, either because they wanted to see Lee win the title outright or because they wanted to see a major shake-up like Lee turning heel to join The Hurt Business, etc. That’s fine, but it didn’t take away from the quality of what we saw. Another “hoss battle” with both men hitting each other with everything they have. No, Lee didn’t win, but with what happened in the post-match, perhaps that’s for the best. Can you imagine the reaction if Lee won the WWE Title, only to drop it 27 days later to Goldberg? People would lose their minds. They’re going to lose their minds if that happens to McIntyre, but giving someone a new reign only to feed them to Goldberg? Yikes.
- Hiromu Takahashi: With his fourth reign as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, Takahashi reaches rarified air as one of New Japan’s greatest Juniors. Only five men have held that title more times than him, and only seven men have held the title for more overall days than him.
- Pete Dunne: He’s picking up some key victories in recent months, and seems to be placing himself into NXT Championship contention. I’m all for seeing new blood involved in the title picture, and he’s someone that could have a very intriguing reign at the top of NXT if given the opportunity to do so.
- Mercedes Martinez: She was a badass in NXT, then got called up to the main roster to be a part of Retribution, only to reportedly say that she wanted out, and is now back to being a badass in NXT. This is one of the bigger dodged bullets that we’ve seen in wrestling in a long time. Even if she doesn’t end up winning the NXT Women’s Title before she retires, it’s still a huge win for her. Her reputation was on the line with Retribution, and she was smart enough to see what was going to happen to that reputation.
- Sonya Deville: We don’t know the (kayfabe) reasoning for why she’s back, but the fact that she’s back is enough for me. With everything that has been going on in her personal life, it’s good to see her back on television. I hope that she can find some sort of peace and normalcy now. I also hope that I can see her build on the momentum she was having before she had to leave, but as I said, it’s just good to see her back at all.
- People Who Hate Ric Flair: If you hate Ric Flair, you probably enjoyed Raw. Not only did he get berated by his own daughter and made to look like someone who she could put into a care home at any moment, but he was berated by Randy Orton, as well. For one reason or another, they made Flair look like a piece of shit. Hooray?
This Week’s Playlist: Nothing this week, as I’ve been spending my time watching the news this week, with everything that has been going on in our country. Hopefully, I’ll have music back for next week’s column.