In terms of sheer volume there was probably more good wrestling available to watch in 2021 than any year before it, with major and oft-unexpected names filling up the cards. John Cena wrestled in front of live crowds for the first time in two-and-a-half years. Sting did the same for the first time since 2015. CM Punk made the return that no one really believed would ever happen. Increased collaboration across promotions saw mind-blowing crossovers like Chris Jericho vs. Nick Gage, Bryan Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki, and Orange Cassidy in a tag team with Tomohiro Ishii.
I could go on and on, but that would defeat the purpose of a “summary.” To keep things manageable, here are five matches from five different promotions, presented in chronological order, that stand out to me as particularly memorable from 2021.
Dr. Britt Baker, D.M.D. vs. Thunder Rosa, AEW Dynamite, March 11
It would be easy to fill this whole list with matches exclusively from All Elite Wrestling, which enjoyed its most successful year yet in its young existence through the development of young talents like Jungle Boy and MJF, and the shock signings of legends like Bryan Danielson and CM Punk. Their absurdly talented roster, plus the outsiders who crossed through “the forbidden door” to make guest appearances, piled up classic matches, including the Young Bucks vs. the Lucha Brothers in a steel cage on PPV; Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki on a free YouTube stream; and Punk vs. Eddie Kingston in 11 minutes of fiery back-and-forth action.
What many of AEW’s best moments had in common is that, on paper, they already looked set to be awesome, and then the performers went out and delivered on those high expectations. Britt Baker vs. Thunder Rosa, on the other hand, was something else entirely: a shockingly violent TV main event in an empty arena that served as a star-making moment for two of the most talented wrestlers in the promotion’s underutilized women’s division.
When Danielson vs. Suzuki was announced, for example, you could safely bet that theirs would be a stiff striking affair that bordered on shoot-fighting. (And it was!) But ahead of the first women’s main event in Dynamite history, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the levels of nastiness and creative risk-taking that Baker and Rosa would achieve. Baker has since risen to become one of the promotion’s most popular performers, and the image of her looking directly into the camera while using her teeth to open a bag of thumbtacks, face covered in blood, stands out as one of the most groundbreaking and spine-tingling moments of AEW’s packed year. This was the exact kind of spotlight that people were begging AEW to shine on its women all through its early existence.
Shingo Takagi vs. Will Ospreay, NJPW Wrestling Dontaku, May 4
This was a rough year for New Japan Pro Wrestling, which spent the previous decade as the industry’s worldwide standard-bearer for virtuosic in-ring craftsmanship. While the American promotions enjoyed the back half of 2021 putting on shows indistinguishable from the ones they ran in February 2020 and before, Japan’s significantly more cautious response to COVID-19 has continued to mute the atmospheres at their live shows, requiring smaller crowds whose noisemaking is limited to claps and stomps. On top of this, medical issues with several key members of the roster have conspired to hurt the promotion’s title picture and at times severely limit the breadth of their cards.
One such event, hampered by a half-dozen performers in COVID protocols, was Wrestling Dontaku in May. In this particular case, the two men who closed the show did everything they could to make up for the absences and small number of matches. Will Ospreay and Shingo Takagi went 45 minutes for the IWGP World Heavyweight Title, gradually building to a hard-hitting finale that established both of them as world champion-caliber top dogs in this topsy-turvy era. When the near falls build in the match’s final minutes, and both performers sell the effects of the battle like they could fall unconscious at any second, the sound of the applause rivals anything heard in NJPW’s pre-COVID times.
Ospreay had to vacate the title he won due to a neck injury suffered in this spectacle. Like several other New Japan performers, he’s spent the post-vaccine era touring the far more permissive United States. Shingo has stuck around: He beat Kazuchika Okada to earn that first world title and has held it through months and months of grueling main events. He will go down in history as the man who carried NJPW through a trying year of uncertainty and isolation. Perhaps that’s not the same as being the greatest, but it’s still an honor to be proud of.
Jude London and Paris De Silva vs. Kyle Fletcher and Mark Davis, PWA Black Label Aussie Open Vs. VeloCities, May 8
This was the first and to-date only match I’ve seen from the Sydney, Australia-based promotion PWA Black Label, but the story being told in this showdown between the tag teams Aussie Open and VeloCities is instantly accessible even for a newcomer. Aussie Open are the bigger, stronger, and more-traveled team, returning home in the midst of lockdowns to challenge the upstart champions who had scarcely ever wrestled outside their continent. In front of maybe a few hundred fans who seem overjoyed just to be watching live wrestling again, these teams delivered a nonstop showcase of exhilarating action, where the resilient underdogs came back again and again from being manhandled by the experienced challengers, making you believe in their determination to cling to their belts until finally, after 37 minutes, they succumbed to one too many bone-crushing blows.
It’s funny how quickly I got used to seeing enthusiastic crowds at live events again, after over 14 months of at-best scattered and distanced seating. But back in May, just a few days before my second vaccine dose fully kicked in, this show was still something marvelous, providing hope that the smaller wrestling promotions wouldn’t in fact all fall victim to the pandemic. Aside from just being a hell of a wrestling match, Aussie Open vs. VeloCities was a window into the other side of the world, at a time when it was only just starting to come back into focus.
Chris Brookes vs. Lulu Pencil, Gatoh Move ChocoPro, July 22
The unique aesthetics of ChocoPro will either delight you with their lo-fi charm or confuse you with their unconventional cuteness. Created as a free YouTube show by Emi Sakura’s Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling during the most isolated days of the early COVID era in Tokyo, ChocoPro has earned a cult following for the way it mixes compelling emotional storytelling with DIY production. You’ll notice instantly in the above video that the action doesn’t even have a proper ring to take place in, that it’s shot with one smartphone camera, and that the chat on the side (if you go to the website) is extremely invested in Lulu Pencil’s success.
The Lulu character, as I understand it, is meant to be a wrestler lacking legitimate talent but overflowing with heart. That she’s not physically gifted is enough of a problem in women’s matches, but it’s downright dangerous in a battle against Chris Brookes—the male British wrestler who has about a foot and a hundred pounds on her—especially when they’re going for 30 minutes, with the win being awarded to whoever scores the most falls.
Intergender wrestling is extraordinarily tricky to pull off, because done wrong, it can easily look like either unbelievable nonsense or dramatized domestic violence. But the playful feel of ChocoPro softens Brookes’s blows on Pencil and inspires you to believe that, in this escapist world, Lulu actually has a chance. It’s not even close at the end; despite Brookes’s tendency to treat the contest like a joke, he still holds a 3-0 lead in the final 15 seconds. But even in the closing moments, Lulu doesn’t give up, and her refusal to back down scores her a fabulously satisfying pin that—credit to the performers—feels more important than the three that came before it. At the end of the match, I was a full-fledged member of the Pencil Army.
Joey Janela vs. Nick Wayne, DEFY Brutalist, Nov. 20
There were plenty of exciting wrestling debuts on national TV this year, including Jade Cargill and Hook in AEW and Bron Breakker in WWE. But on a much smaller stage in Seattle, it was 16-year-old Nick Wayne who pumped me up the most for the business’s future. In a 33-minute match for DEFY Wrestling against AEW talent and indie mainstay Joey Janela, the son of the late Buddy Wayne pulled out every trick in the book as part of a performance that should be unfathomable for a kid this young.
Fans who prefer their matches to have little pockets of air in between the big moments, in order to let their effects sink in, may be bothered by this nonstop parade of incredibly athletic moves that have no effect on the competitors. But as a declaration of Wayne’s talents, this one couldn’t be any better. The essence of Janela’s Jersey-Shore daredevil gimmick doesn’t always get across when he’s on AEW, but in an intimate venue full of hardcore fans, he’s entirely at home and serves as a surprisingly excellent foil to the skinny, cleancut local hero. Janela does everything to keep the crowd in Wayne’s corner, and he’s a selfless canvas for the up-and-comer’s best stuff. Wayne is a prodigy, and when the bell rings at the end, you will have just finished witnessing perhaps the most astonishing performance ever by a teenager in a wrestling ring. Start preparing yourself for Nick Wayne vs. Hook in the main event of All Out 2024.