2021 was a landmark year for wrestling, with All Elite Wrestling reaching new highs through the addition several big-name talents, Game Changer Wrestling establishing itself as the top indie promotion, and the independent scene as a whole thriving after a tumultuous 2020. It also saw the creation of RingCrashers, the official wrestling hub on GateCrashers, and we’ve been at the forefront of providing you wrestling coverage like you’ve never seen. The RingCrashers team has chosen our top picks for the wrestling moments that made 2021 an amazing year for professional wrestling. We hope you enjoy this retrospective as much as we did putting it together. With that said, let’s get to the lists.
1. CM Punk Arrives in All Elite Wrestling
While AEW has had a range of big debuts – from Malakai Black, to Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson – none had a bigger significance to the company (and wrestling as a whole) than CM Punk arriving after seven years away from the ring. Built up with vague hints that all but heralded his arrival and finally paid off in the second episode of AEW Rampage entitled “The First Dance”, Punk stepped into the ring to a raucous reaction from a sold out United Center in Chicago.
Punk’s return represented everything that we love about wrestling: a moment of pure bliss and gratification shared by an entire community of wrestling fans. And it wasn’t just in Chicago where this joy was felt. The entire wrestling world reacted with such vigorous joy at Punk coming back to wrestling, something that seemed unlikely for quite some time.
2. Hangman Page’s World Title Victory
2021 also saw the culmination of a two-year arc that began right at the inception of AEW as a whole. At the company’s initial press conference, “Hangman” Adam Page boldly declared that he would be the first-ever AEW World Champion. However, he’d ultimately come up short, losing to Chris Jericho at All Out 2019. This would begin a character journey that would see Hangman go through many ups (winning the AEW Tag Titles, finding friends within the Dark Order) and downs (losing the Elite as friends, being betrayed by Kenny Omega), as he grew as a character right before fans’ eyes.
After a return from paternity leave in the fall of 2021, Page would throw himself right back into the AEW Title picture with a win in the Casino Ladder Match at Dynamite’s anniversary show. That win would set the stage for a highly-anticipated rematch against Omega at Full Gear – the very same event that Kenny defeated Page just a year ago to earn the title shot that he’d eventually seize upon. Through a build that saw Page disguising himself as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man to fool The Elite, as well as also cutting one of the greatest promos of his career, Page was more than ready for the greatest challenge he’d ever face.
Hangman’s championship victory was the endgame that AEW was always building towards, and in reaching that destination, fans got to see the good guy win in the biggest triumph of his career. Now that’s some real Cowboy Shit.
3. Mental illness awareness from AEW
I think one of the most important steps AEW has taken this year has been addressing mental health, with Eddie Kingston at the forefront of these efforts. His face turn in March after the infamous Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch botch at Revolution 2021 was fully initiated with a post-event promo on Dynamite where he explained his reasonings to protect friend-turned-rival Jon Moxley. This promo would feature Kingston talking about how the “explosion” caused an anxiety attack/PTSD flashback to a time where he was sitting in a jail cell and awaiting his fate.
Then in November, Kingston would write a moving article for The Players’ Tribune where he recounted his struggles throughout his life in a personal essay that spoke from the heart of the man himself.
While Kingston has largely been at the forefront of this mental health focus, there’s been instances where we’ve seen it elsewhere in AEW, such as the aforementioned Hangman’s self-confident issues used as way to strengthen his character, and CM Punk mentioning in a promo that he wasn’t sure if the fans would still accept him after years of being away. AEW also posted a video by Ryan Nemeth on their YouTube page, featuring several wrestlers talking about their own mental health struggles. This came after Jon Moxley was granted a break from AEW to recover from his alcohol issues, which saw the whole wrestling world rally around him for support.
To see a wrestling promotion put such an emphasis on the need of taking care of yourself both physically and mentally is refreshing to see, and as someone who’s had his own struggles with mental health and self-confidence, it’s something I greatly appreciate.
4. Matt Cardona’s 2021
The former Zack Ryder had himself a landmark year on the independent scene, especially when he became a part of the GCW roster. He made his presence known by targeting Nick Gage and quickly becoming the most hated man in all of GCW. Cardona quickly branded himself the “Deathmatch King” and pitched in some of the best heel work outside the big two wrestling companies.
The TBS Championship Tournament
In previous recaps of AEW Dynamite, I’ve made no secret about how I think AEW could do better by their incredible women’s roster. And while there’s still a long way to go, the TBS Championship Tournament has been a pleasant surprise to follow. Officially announced back in October and playing out in recent months, leading to the finals on the first episode of Dynamite on TBS, this tournament has played host to such amazing matches like Hikaru Shida vs. Serena Deeb, Ruby Soho vs. Kris Statlander, and Thunder Rosa vs. Jamie Hayter. As a fan of wrestling tournaments, the TBS Title tourney has been enjoyable from start to finish and when it comes time to see the actual TBS Title being defended, I hope we get the same quality of matches that we’ve seen in the tournament.
1. Bryan Danielson vs. Kenny Omega
Back in 2006 I was able to see my then two current favourite wrestlers face off when Samoa Joe met up with Kurt Angle. I didn’t know that, fifteen years later, I would have the same opportunity when Bryan Danielson stepped into the ring with Kenny Omega. It was like seeing masterwork era Picasso and Dali painting on the same canvas. Omega is the opponent that Danielson wanted for all those years in the WWE. Danielson could bring people to his level, but there wasn’t anyone in the WWE machine that could match him. When these two finally did lock up, it was epic. Each moment built on the last, rising action after rising action, culminating in the perfect ending; these men are perfectly matched. We should have known.
2. Hangman Page wins the AEW title
I have been writing about the early AEW PPVs. This has allowed me to take a second look at the long term storytelling of Adam Page. As a member of The Elite it was obvious to all (at the time) that he would win the Casino Battle Royale and defeat Chris Jericho to be the first AEW champion. But that didn’t happen. He lost, meandered and then found a partner in co-Elite Kenny Omega. They won the tag belts, lost them, and then the descent for Page began. Turning on the Bucks, being kicked out of The Elite when he couldn’t leave on his own, drinking, mixing it up with Team Taz and palling around with The Dark Order. All this while Kenny stole the AEW title and The Bucks followed him down a dark path. Opportunities were given to Page and then lost, until, again, he won the Casino (Battle) Royale to become the #1 contender for his former tag team partner’s AEW title.
Then the match fucking ruled. Page won because he’s the hero.
3. Eddie Kingston’s article about mental illness
Whether Eddie Kingston knows it or not, he is showing how a man transitions from toxic masculinity to masculinity, how taking responsibility for your own well being is fundamental to being human, how admitting and embracing weakness doesn’t make you a weak person, how you can have a past that is dark and haunting without making you into a shallow ghoul.
Read his article here.
4. CM Punk’s Debut
I have been a huge CM Punk mark since I saw him live at Do or Die in 2003. He looked like me and my friends, listened to the same bands, had the same shitty tattoos and shitty attitude. His run in ROH was legendary. His run in WWE was shocking in both it’s long term success and brutal end.
I do have to admit that I was a little bit sick of post-wrestling Punk. He seemed mean on Twitter and folks who ran into him in real life didn’t always have good interactions. The ending of his long-term friendship with Colt Cabana really stung. I mean, I don’t know them, but it still hurt.
So when he was “rumoured” to be debuting in AEW I held my breath. I thought “Enh, you kind of burned yourself out on Punk. If he shows up, cool.” But the anticipation grew… and grew… and grew…
That night in Chicago I heard “Cult of Personality” blast from my TV. The crowd exploded. I jumped off my couch with tears in my eyes.
CM Punk was back, and CM Punk was smiling.
5. Young Bucks vs. The Lucha Brothers
Look, the Bucks and the Lucha Bros can have great matches with anyone. There’s something different when they face each other, though. The almost supernatural connection that top level talents have when they work with each other. Tom Brady and Ron Gronkowski. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler. You can add The Young Bucks and The Lucha Brothers to that list.
The build to this match was kind of flat; the Bros won a tournament to face The Bucks in a steel cage. There wasn’t much of a build on a personal level, but there didn’t need to be. They already had a long history, being involved in one of the first legit feuds in AEW. All these teams need is a ring and an excuse to blow minds, and that’s what they did at All Out in September.
Trying to encapsulate a Bucks/Bros match is impossible. It’s like trying to describe a tsunami. You just have to see it. YOU HAVE TO SEE IT.
Wait, what do you mean I can only pick 5?!
1. Effy vs Parrow: Last Daddy Standing match
Imagine you’re me. You’re a relatively new wrestling fan who’s discovered the queer wrestling scene and the deathmatch scene. You’ve already been entranced by the matches on the Fear the Gay Agenda card— slick neon, slamming opponents into the bar, two wrestlers trading a blunt between blows. You’re sitting there wondering to yourself— there’s no way they can top this.
And then Effy threw himself and Parrow through a flaming sheet of plateglass.
I don’t think that final image of Parrow on the throne, Effy kneeling in exhausted supplication mere moments away from rising, will ever leave my head. If you have an IWTV subscription and you don’t mind blood and glass, this match is a must watch.
2. Britt Baker vs Thunder Rosa lights out match at St Patrick’s Day Slam
Are all my match choices for this year the deathmatches? Absolutely. I have no qualms in admitting that. I love deathmatch wrestling. This match was an absolute banger, skyrocketing Britt Baker to one of my favourite women on the docket, making me wonder why Thunder Rosa wasn’t signed already (she has been signed since then, giving me hope that one day we’ll get an officially sanctioned rematch), and putting women’s deathmatch wrestling on the map for many people who I think wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. (Also, hey Britt— I know it’s kinda gross, but please just once put teeth in your bag where the thumbtacks usually are.)
3. Danielson vs Omega at AEW Grand Slam
4. Mox & Gage come face to face at Joey Janela’s Spring Break
Once again, I really made my way onto the wrestling scene this year. In my opinion, the best wrestling moments are the ones where you can feel the history bleeding out without ever needing to have known it. Learning that the last time Jon Moxley and Nick Gage faced each other in the ring in 2011 made a lot of things make sense. And listen— much of their feud this year has been some of my favourite shit to watch, between Mox stealing the belt off Matt Cardona at the Art of War Games, and that breathless confrontation at Fight Club, but the pure electricity that sparked when Mox first met Gage at Joey Janela’s Spring Break back in April is unrivalled.
5. CM Punk debuts
We’ve had a lot of debuts this year. I have never heard a crowd pop as loudly as they did for CM Punk that night in Chicago. Somehow, they got even louder when he actually came out— you wouldn’t think it’s possible, but the evidence is there. I go back and I watch it again and again, just to watch the raw emotion on Punk’s face when he comes out, does his slow turn, and realises, for certain, that he made the right decision in returning to wrestling. And it proves that the best thing that you can do when the fans have built up expectations and hype for a debut— teased for weeks and weeks and basically the worst-kept secret in wrestling by the time of airing— is to give the fans exactly what they want.
Honorable Mention: The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man takes out the Super Elite
I am gonna be completely serious here. I think people look at comedic wrestlers and comedy bits and brush them off when it truly takes a lot of effort to craft a well-timed punchline that lands well. And I think this is true of all genres, not just wrestling, but obviously this is about wrestling. I think this particular moment was exceptionally well-timed, well-crafted, and well-earned; the perfect button to an incredible Halloween episode and a wonderful climactic moment in a feud that had been boiling for two years.
That said, what a marvelous image this was to hurtle us into Full Gear not two weeks later.
1. CM Punk returns
In the space of about a month, CM Punk, Adam Cole, and Bryan Danielson debute for AEW. But the first one, a return after seven years, was the one that made headlines. It’s a moment of raw emotion for both Punk and the audience, and is a perfect example of why we watch wrestling. It’s not just about a match, a well-timed finisher. It’s about stories, people, and what we invest and get out of them.
2. No Peace Underground’s Fear the Gay Agenda
A deathmatch show unlike any other this year, the first match started with someone being put through a house of flourescent light tubes, the “softest” match of the evening involved a blunt being passed between the performers, and the last match ended with a – I know MK talked about this, but I have to say it again – FLAMING GLASS SPOT. Effy and Parrow’s feud was secretly the best feud of 2021. Parrow’s promo during the show, with the iconic line “I am a homo, and I am going to murder you” sits in my mind to this day.
3. Jon Moxley steals the GCW Championship from Matt Cardona
GCW’s Art of War Games event this year ended with its “main event” of Matt Cardona against Frank the Clown, a “Chicago talent” that the locals on the announcing crew quickly disowned. Matt Cardona, starting with his declaration of himself as the Deathmach King and throughout the rest of the year, did the best heel work of 2021. Wait, you say, what about…? No, really. Anyone who introduces a spinner belt for their title reign immediately makes Heel of the Year their title to lose. After that squash of Frank the Clown, Jon Moxley (disguised as a G-Raver cultist) was able to ambush Cardona and pin him. The reveal of Moxley, combined with the elation of someone other than Matt eff-ing Cardona having the belt, was only topped by Moxley immediately cutting a promo on Nick Gage. The culmination of this all in GCW’s Fight Club led to a deathmatch for the ages. While Jon Moxley is presently out (get well soon Mox), this is a feud I eagerly await revival in 2022.
4. The Elite. The The Elite.
Two moments stand above all others in the Elite’s storytelling in 2021. The first was All Out, where Matt Jackson donned a thumb-tack heeled Jordan with a look of childish glee. The second was Kenny Omega blankly staring at a sign. “What would Kota think?” The reigns of Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks had very different stories this year. Kenny Omega as the Belt Collector rampaged through multiple promotions and slowly lost confidence in himself and became more and more desperate until his former tag partner asserted himself and took gold. The Young Bucks meanwhile took challenger after challenger until a tag team that they consider kindred spirits matched them in possibly the match of the year, captured perfectly with the shot of Rey Fenix standing at the top of a twenty-foot steel cage. They were two different stories, interlinked and completely inseparable.
5. Rising Stars
This is primarily an AEW one, but applies to the industry as a whole. This coming generation of wrestlers is stacked. This could just be a list of names: Dante Martin, Jungle Boy, Lee Moriarty, Daniel Garcia, Leyla Hirsch, and…oh, okay, HOOK. This was a year of amazing ascensions, and I think we’ve got a bright future for talent ahead of us.