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Happy New Year, ladies and gentlemen. 2021 has arrived, but before we dive headlong into a fresh start, let’s take a look back at the year that was in wrestling. I watched the offerings of several companies in 2020, with AEW earning the most consistent viewership, my daughter’s budding enthusiasm for WWE helping reinvigorate my own enjoyment of the mother ship promotion, several on and off months of subscribing to NJPW World fueling my New Japan engagement, Takeover continuing its run as an elite special event franchise maintaining my connection to NXT, and even Impact Wrestling holding my attention. So, the forthcoming list attempts to serve many masters of the pro wrestling craft. No patented “Doc” Chad Matthews formula here, though I gravitate with so few spots toward promotional headliners / face of the brand-caliber types. Comments welcome, as your own picks for 2020 Wrestler of the Year.
AJ Styles (WWE)
2020 was a bounce-back year for The Phenomenal One. Though he still was not at the level of consistency that we came to expect from him during his first three years in WWE, he put together a strong resume. Retiring the Undertaker in my choice for the cinematic match’s current standard-bearer is a heck of a feather in his cap, as was the positioning of said match as Night 1 of WrestleMania’s main-event. He also delivered the WWE TV match of the last few years, was involved in that excellent Ladder Match for the Intercontinental Title in September, closed the year competing for the WWE Championship, and was a steady presence all year as a dependable personality and in-ring performer.
Sami Callihan (Impact)
To me, he’s the most consistent star they have and there is nobody I can think of that better represents who they are right now. Impact is different and increasingly unapologetic about it and I love that given where they once were. Callihan’s rivalry with Tessa Blanchard was something only they could do, at least at my level of wrestling perception, and it was outstanding. Callihan vs. Blanchard in January 2020 will go down, like their match in 2019, as among the year’s most underappreciated gems. The hacker gimmick has critics, but he continues to deliver and he is the one guy I think they can least afford to lose; he exemplifies their identity.
Seth Rollins (WWE)
I give him the nod ahead of Styles mainly for being a more integral personality to the WWE machine in 2020. Styles had a higher peak that was the primary catalyst for his inclusion, while Rollins was more important to the product overall. Rollins had a very Chris Jericho in the 2000s kind of year, reinventing himself to the point that his heel schtick wound up successfully carrying a lot of things that might not have worked in someone else’s hands. For instance, his storyline with Dominik was one of the surprise hits of the year, both the feud and particularly the initial payoff match at Summerslam. The Messiah’s feud with Kevin Owens now reflects back as underrated, as well. It was not a career year for Rollins, but it was a career-enhancing year nevertheless.
Hiromu Takahashi and Shingo Tagaki (NJPW)
Hiromu took his career to the next highest level in terms of roster positioning and Shingo used excellent matches highlighted by a tremendous run in the G1 to keep himself within striking distance of being the breakout New Japan star of 2021. Takahashi’s performance in the Tokyo Dome last January elevated him to a status for me that many NJPW pundits reserved for Shingo in year-end praise. I cherry pick New Japan, so Shingo was considerably lower profile in my mind, but he again in limited opportunities (for my viewership habits anyway) delivered some of the most memorable matches of the year, just as he did for me in 2019.
Finn Balor (NXT)
Though he did not challenge for a career year in 2020, he still had one of the best years of his career. NXT, as has become commonplace, failed to win my viewing attention much week-to-week, but his performances at Takeover were all excellent, no matter the role that he was asked to play. In matches against O’Reilly (my favorite NXT match of the year) and Gargano, Balor basically showed us what he could have become in New Japan had he moved up to heavyweight and they had given him the chance to overcome his decidedly Junior Heavyweight frame. He reminded me why I consider him among my favorites of his generation, and he kept the Good Ship NXT steadied.
#10 – Kota Ibushi (NJPW)
There is a distinct lack of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to his resume, but in terms of in-ring performance at the highest level, nobody was better than the Golden Star. Props to Naito’s story, but the best match at WrestleKingdom and arguably the best singles match in any promotion all year was Ibushi vs. Kazuchika Okada. A record 40,000 people were there to watch him try to take down the modern ace. Then, Ibushi helped bolster the tag team scene while NJPW came back from early pandemic restrictions and then he put the pedal to the metal during a G1 Climax that he won for the second consecutive year. His array of matches were, contrary to the popular narrative that Shingo Tagaki stole the tournament, the truly best of the lot. Frankly, there is not a consistently better wrestler in the world than Kota Ibushi, so combined with his Night 1 WK14 main-event and his G1 victory, his distinct talent carried him into the Top 10.
(Tie) #9 – Asuka (WWE) and Bayley (WWE)
A clinical breakdown, if you will: Bayley had the longer title run, but Asuka was in the focal point match, by comparison to Bayley, at each of the Big 4 PPVs, even when Asuka was the Tag Team Champion in the Mania opener (that’s an important spot). Bayley, as a character, owned the summer overall, along with Banks. That brings her to the dance here; she was the Co-MVP of WWE between May and August. Given her feud with Becky Lynch to start the year and another awesome mid-card match with Banks at Survivor Series, her resume fills the entirety of 2020 better than Bayley’s. Nevertheless, Bayley owns the WWE Match of the Year, and that aforementioned title run spanned the first 11 months of the calendar. Generally, I think you would give the slight edge to Asuka, but where you could argue that it was the slight edge going the other way is that 2020 has been Bayley’s coming out party, an intangible that people tend to remember in conversations like these a few or more years down the road. Plus, if you want to get nitpicky, you could say that Asuka primarily got her spot because “The Man” got pregnant and respectfully stepped aside. The bottom line is that they both had their best runs on the main roster to date, and it felt like a long time coming for each star. I could not separate them. They both deserve this spot.
#8 – Tetsuya Naito (NJPW)
Kota Ibushi nearly got the nod over him for having a better-rounded year, but Naito was finally given the chance to be the top guy in New Japan, for better or worse, a dynamic that could not be ignored. This was not one of those years when someone else, like the LIJ leader himself years ago, got the title without the positioning as the alpha to go with it. Nobody could question that Naito was number one. He was the focal point of the most successful WrestleKingdom of all time. He carried NJPW’s top two championships simultaneously for most of the year. The match quality was not, in my opinion, up to the standard previously set by IWGP Heavyweight titleholders, but it was an unusual year when a key element of wrestling success – audience participation – was drastically altered; plus, he delivered big time in situations that he was supposed to.
#7 – The Young Bucks (AEW)
Tag team wrestling was as promised in AEW’s first year with its full compliment of television and pay-per-views. The Young Bucks were the ones that made the promise during AEW’s initial press conference in January 2019. It was the showcase that people wanted, if for no other reason than to give Matt and Nick Jackson the proper platform to exhibit why they were regarded as the tag team of the 2010s by many aficionados. To claim that they have been anything less than amazing so far, delivering as they have a plethora of the awesome matches they were expected to have and also adding a heavy dose of character (see their work in the greatest tag team match ever at Revolution ’20), is to frankly admit that you missed something that everyone paying close attention has seen.
#6 – Randy Orton (WWE)
It was good to see Orton have a year of this caliber. When someone is around as long as he has been, you would like to see them have several peaks. I think Orton’s best years were 2009, 2011, and the 2013/14 combo. Since then, he has had little more than moments that further defined his legacy. 2020, safe to say, was another peak year that people will most fondly remember him for when his resume is complete some day. A star of his historical stature needs a year like he has had to confirm that he’s not just a hanger-on, basking in the limelight as long as he can while taking up a spot that someone else could use to establish their peak en route to a legendary career. His feud with Edge through the first half of the calendar produced excellent character work and one especially great match, and then his work with Drew McIntyre in an extended rivalry that saw him put the younger star over both on the second grandest WWE stage and in dramatic fashion on the Raw before Survivor Series solidified his Top 5 bona fides for 2020 while making clear that he absolutely he has more left in the tank as he nears the 20 year mark of his WWE tenure.
#5 – Sasha Banks (WWE)
Though she may not have the consistency across the year like an Orton or McIntyre, she has been one of the MVPs of WWE since the early summer. I could not tell you a single thing she did for the first five months of the year, but when her and Bayley were unleashed on both shows, it felt historically relevant. Banks is the more established talent, pretty much rivaled by Charlotte and Trish alone atop the Mt. Rushmore of women’s wrestling lore discussion, so Bayley’s ascent stands out more than Sasha just being the outstanding wrestler that she is and has been for a half decade plus now. Nevertheless, Banks has had as strong a run to close the year, specifically dating back to the period when she started her rivalry with Asuka, as anyone not named Roman Reigns. She was one of the Top 5 WWE stars of 2020, fueled by the best run of roster positioning she has ever experienced on the main roster and making the most of every opportunity to remind us why she is revered by diehard fans.
#4 – Kenny Omega (AEW)
When I think of a Wrestler of the Year contender, I trend toward immediately thinking of the stars that carried the show. The best mid-card year, for me, could never eclipse someone who the show depended on for character and promos. So, Omega is therefore an interesting case. He starred in the tag scene as a champion for eight total months including a seven month title reign. The Tag Team Titles are not a mid-card spot. They are a co-main-event spot. By year end, the main-event singles spot belonged to him, too, and he has certainly made some noise in his limited time as World Champion. Jericho and Moxley were great champions for AEW, in a very “this is the best quality wrestling show I’ve watched in a long time” kind of way, but Omega is charting his own path and taking modern wrestling down an unfamiliar road while holding Pretty Platinum. The resume in-ring was predictably stellar of course, running down as the greatest tag team match ever (legit), arguably the best example of the cinematic match in its short but growing history, the best opening match in AEW PPV lore (vs. Hangman Page), probably AEW’s best singles match in 2020 against PAC in February, and the absolutely fantastic showing in a late candidate for world singles Match of the Year with Laredo Kid a couple of weeks back at TripleMania (AAA).
#3 – Roman Reigns (WWE)
Take his four month sample size and extrapolate it out across the entire year and there is not a doubt in my mind that he would be the consensus top dog in the world. If you downplay what he has done since turning heel in August, you just are not paying attention. Everything we always hoped this guy could be? That is what he has been. It almost feels like a decade in the making because, philosophically, taking a babyface who gets booed by WWE’s increasingly aging audience and turning his character allegiance to the dark side is a long time coming. He has been absolutely amazing. Can WWE stars get nominated for Emmy awards? If so, let Roman be the first to receive one. He has been that good. The pairing with Heyman, the storyline with Jey Uso, the way he handled the limited Survivor Series build with Drew McIntyre to make it feel must-see, and the quality of the matches he has had, collectively, have showcased the optimization of Roman Reigns. He was an enormously successful wrestler, but his success was achieved despite his limited character; now, his success is largely built on the strength of his on-screen persona. For WWE fans like myself looking for a reason to renew our passion for the product, Reigns is a beacon of hope that Vince and Co. are ready to stop handicapping their modern superstars.
#2 – Drew McIntyre (WWE)
It was a tough decision not to give McIntyre the nod for #1. He has had a tremendous year. Insomuch as Roman has given lapsing WWE fans hope and current WWE fans reason to bask in his glorious personic shift, the WWE product overall felt like it started to get its creative ducks back in a row when it put the pedal to the metal on McIntyre’s push at the Royal Rumble. Though it kind of came out of left field, the McIntyre Renaissance was a truly welcome sight. Like the stars ranked right ahead and behind him, he took full command of his opportunity. I have heavily criticized WWE since 2017 for pushing me and fans like me away; I give them credit where due for pushing McIntyre like they did others years ago and to McIntyre for taking full advantage of it. As will be demonstrated in my upcoming WWE Match of the Year column, McIntyre delivered as consistently in-ring as anyone in the world this year, from a hoss match with Bobby Lashley to a feature length Summerslam match with Orton. His 6+ month WWE Title reign felt significant, one of those rare times when both the man made the title and the title made the man. McIntyre was the top star on WWE’s lead brand all year, and for that plus the aforementioned reasons, he is perhaps the easiest pick for WWE Wrestler of the Year since AJ Styles in 2016
I’m excited to see how he builds on it in 2021 (and if WWE lets him).
#1 – Jon Moxley (AEW)
Though his resume lacks that one, unmistakable all-time classic match, I suspect the wrestler I think of most when I reflect on the year 2020 will be Mox. He and McIntyre had similar years in many ways, both given a chance some would say was overdue to carry their respective promotion as the leading man. I believe that AEW affords its talent the creative freedom to put the old wrestling adage “being himself with the volume turned way up” to optimal use, and Moxley was a beneficiary of it. McIntyre often drifted into the WWE-centric Superman archetype, while Mox could on occasion ramp up his edginess without it feeling hokey. The result was a more engaging character for the 9-month reigning AEW Champion. Character set Mox apart all year. Nobody gave better interviews or was more compelling, though a few were on his level. Typically, I would want my pick for Wrestler of the Year to have a pristine match resume, especially in this day and age, but it was not as if he failed to deliver. Matches with Brodie Lee, MJF, Darby Allin, and Chris Jericho come to mind as evidence to a great year on the 20’x20′ canvas for Mox. Yet, watching him own his role as the top guy the way that he did, fulfilling his promise from the Ambrose days, carrying AEW through a year largely absent one of the promotion’s top commodities – its audience – was a real pleasure for this 30 year wrestling fan. His achievements were too great to put anyone else in this spot, even if others were comparably worthy of it.