Double or Nothing 2020 is upon us, ladies and gentlemen, and with it naturally come memories of the inaugural AEW pay-per-view a year ago. What a night that was…a visceral experience as much as it was a wrestling special. My fandom shifted after Double or Nothing 2019, a new passion ignited causing less emphasis to be placed on WWE and more energy to be put toward wrestling promotions that made me happy. I can thank All Elite Wrestling for, in the time since last May, giving me the domestic product I needed to get myself fully extracted from the increasingly jaded trap I had fallen into with the sports entertainment genre. On the eve of the first anniversary of the event that started my personal fan Renaissance, please join me in celebrating AEW through an exploration of its Top 20 wrestlers from inception to present day. Below, you will see the Top 10. At my new blog, escapetosportsentertainment.com, you can find entries 11-20 if you are interested.
#10 – Maxwell Jacob Friedman (MJF)
Of all the rising stars in AEW, MJF seems to have the highest ceiling. His charisma proved well hyped by time Dynamite celebrated its fifth month on the air and he has proven solid enough in the ring at a young age to project that he will excel between the ropes before long. He reminds me a lot of Cody circa 2009-2010, though MJF’s ability on the microphone at his age is more reminiscent of Miz. Ceiling aside, MJF is already a star and one of the best characters in AEW, giving Dynamite a great change of pace whenever he is on screen. Dynamite is mostly about action, so characters like his are prompted to maximize their time to connect to the audience when speaking or doing segments. Minute for minute on TNT, one could argue that MJF promo segments are as good as the ones featuring the guys who will populate the forthcoming Top 5. The “Lashing” of Cody will go down in history as one of the greatest television bits in modern wrestling lore, and it was MJF’s ability to sell his end that elevated it to its peak effectiveness.
#9 – So Cal Uncensored (SCU)
The first-ever AEW World Tag Team Champions made an immediate impact at last year’s Double or Nothing, opening the show with their signature catchphrase-laden shtick and a rip-roaring 6-man tag team bout to boot. Since then, the shtick has largely been replaced by a litany of memorable moments, from Scorpio Sky wrestling in street clothes to their title victory on Dynamite to Scorpio vs. Jericho for the World Title to more recently Kazarian wrestling Kenny Omega during a COVID-induced non-crowd show. My personal favorite SCU performance took place on the Jericho Cruise, when they dropped the titles to Omega and Hangman Page in what currently ranks as my second favorite match on Dynamite to date. Tag team wrestling has been one of the best things about AEW and SCU certainly has been one of the division’s anchors, so to see them excel to the level that they did against the Elite members was a real treat. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how far up the hierarchical ladder Scorpio Sky can climb.
The unsung hero of All Elite Wrestling’s first twelve months, Pac basically took everything that was working so well during the better half of his run as the King of the Cruiserweights in 2017 and applied it in a setting that did not restrict his upward mobility. His first night in AEW saw him KO Kenny Omega with a submission hold in a match that was one really badly botched climactic sequence away from being an utter all-time classic (they gave us the utter all-time classic in the current front-runner for TV Match of the Year on the Wednesday before Revolution). Pac exudes a dangerous aura against every wrestler ahead of him on this list, he is in my opinion the best wrestler of anyone on this list, and he is pretty much the guy in AEW that I would be most excited for should he win the World Championship at any point in the not too distant future. This guy is pure gold.
#7 – The Lucha Brothers
I’ve been to one AEW show thus far and, at my daughter’s request, I made a sign for the first time in almost 20 years. The subject of my sign? Pentagon, Jr. (The sign read “Unleash Pengaton Jr.”). Rey Fenix grabs the headlines and deservedly so as the evolutionary Rey Mysterio, but through two seasons of Lucha Underground viewing, Penta’s storytelling acumen makes him more up my alley. That said, as a unit, The Lucha Bros have been incredible. Through AEW’s first year, they have offered the best Ladder Match I’ve ever seen (at All Out), one of the five best standard tag team matches I’ve ever seen (at Double or Nothing), and one of the Top 5 matches in Dynamite history (against Omega and Page). They are a highlight of every show that they’re on, collectively or individually (especially when Fenix is that individual when considering his amazing match with Nick Jackson). To have accomplished what they have and it feel like they’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do is an incredible thought for year 2.
#6 – “Hangman” Adam Page
From winning the Casino Battle Royal last May to competing against Jericho for the World Title in the main-event of All Out to winning the Tag Team Championships with Kenny Omega to being the driving force of the greatest tag team match ever (and one of the greatest matches ever period) to all of the ups and downs in between, Adam Page has had one heck of a first year in AEW. It is almost hard to believe today that he was a controversial pick to compete for the AEW Title given how over he has become since the beginning of the year; he is arguably the most over babyface in the company. He needed the television show to subtly work his way into the hearts of the fans after a fairly lukewarm summer of 2019. Anyone like myself who was largely unfamiliar with Hangman prior to AEW learned quickly that he has got “it” and then some by the time Revolution rolled around in February; hopefully COVID won’t squash all of his momentum. In my opinion, he is the most likely star in AEW to lead the company consistently into the ratings territory they presumably covet.
#5 – Jon Moxley
The current AEW World Champion at just 5th? That’s AEW for you, folks. Moxley has been very good in his role, without question. The feud he had with Jericho was an absolute home-run. He was the other half of my most anticipated match of 2019 (against Kenny Omega at Full Gear) and he delivered a truly exemplary hardcore match. “Unforgettable” would well describe his AEW debut at last year’s Double or Nothing. He has had a plethora of really good to great television matches against all and sundry, up and down the roster hierarchy. Critically speaking, I still want more from him as a character because I think he’s got more to give. Through year one, I think Mox has been unleashed at times in the ring, but never yet as a personality. That aside, he is the right guy to carry the company as champion and it has been an awesome year for him.
#4 – Kenny Omega
Still great and a legitimate 1A candidate against any of the wrestlers ranked ahead of him here, Omega has contributed most in ways I don’t think anyone really expected him to. Instead of headlining every pay-per-view, he has fluctuated between being a set-up guy, the borderline top guy, a feature attraction, and presently one half of the World Tag Team Champions. During the COVID shows, I think he has been the in-ring MVP, offering excellent TV matches against Kazarian, Guevara, and Trent. He has been great in every role. That the best is probably yet to come is a tantalizing thought really. In my personal Top 10 AEW matches to date, Omega was involved in four of them, two being in the Top 4, so the “Best Bout Machine” moniker lives as far as I’m concerned. Overall, I have been very impressed that Omega could display so much value across the card, seamlessly moving around wherever he has been needed (even on Dark). He may not been, in year 1, the Kenny Omega that we expected, but he has been the Kenny Omega that AEW needed.
#3 – Cody Rhodes
Character-wise, Cody is “The Man” in AEW as far as I’m concerned, and it is his character that sets him apart from almost everyone else in the English-speaking wrestling world. His ability to communicate with the people as a babyface is practically unheard of in the modern era. It’s John Cena at his best, only without half the crowd chastising him. I was there for the iconic go-home PPV promo on Jericho last November and got to see first-hand how he basically grabs every person sitting in the arena and makes them think he is speaking directly to them. He’s got a magnetism, brothers and sisters. It’s spectacular to watch. Seeing Cody accomplish what he has is…it’s special, man; I don’t know how else to put it. As for his wrestling, the 5-star classic against his brother showcased that his way – an old school storytelling methodology that I love – still works; so did the Full Gear match with Jericho for that matter. That style takes the right dance partner, but when he it clicks, it is magic. Give him a lot of credit for his TV matches, too, because he cranks out really good ones routinely and they all feel significant because he is in them.
#2 – The Young Bucks
Critics, eat your heart out, right? Seriously, I heard some things about these guys from WWE-centric fans over the years that were not very flattering, but I’m guessing those folks saw a limited catalogue of Bucks matches. What I’ve observed in the last 12 months from the Bucks is a pair of tag team wrestling geniuses that are as adept at telling a story as they are at flipping off of a ladder. Speaking of ladders, it was their match with Fenix and Pentagon at All Out that sealed the deal for me, because it was everything you could ever want from a stunt-brawl version of the gimmick, but they sprinkled in enough layers of character-driven drama that they earned my highest level of genre-specific praise (best ladder match ever). In their previous match with the Lucha Bros, they showcased their athleticism and their ability to take the “more is more” modern style to dizzying heights. Contrast Double or Nothing 2019 to Revolution 2020; they went wild with content, but the content was complimentary to a masterfully told story among the Elite members. I’m not kidding when I say that Bucks vs. Omega and Page was perhaps the best match I’ve ever seen. Add in what Matt and Nick have done on Dynamite and their willingness to put over teams like Proud and Powerful and Private Party…it blows anything I’ve seen from a tag team in a single year away (and I challenge the Revolt to come to AEW and take back their throne if they can, in that regard).
#1 – Chris Jericho
When he was Le Champion, he was a revelation, the latest incarnation of a character that had yet again been reinvented, as usual reflecting a man with his finger on the pulse of the wrestling world in which he was performing. Everything he said turned to gold (I’m the proud owner of a case of “A Little Bit of the Bubbly”). All of his television segments were refreshingly authentic and engaging. His feuds with both Cody and Moxley and the segments that built them were particularly fantastic – arguably the best World Title storylines in years. A deliberate shift to more a brawler aided his work in the ring and returned him to the place he belongs as one of the most “can’t miss” wrestlers in big matches as well. As evidenced by matches against Darby Allin, Jungle Boy, and Scorpio Sky, he is as good as ever at helping elevate mid-card talent too. So, there’s really nothing that Jericho did not accomplish in AEW year 1. Even without the title, he still feels like he is the captain of the promotion. Massive kudos accordingly for coming into a new venture and gelling so well with everyone he has worked with. I never previously considered him a pantheon star of the WrestleMania Era, placing him just outside that exclusive group in the legitimate discussion for all-time greatest, but this past year in AEW (combined with his work in New Japan) has changed my opinion. (*pops* a bottle of “The Bubbly”) A toast to Le Champion!
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