The Wrestle Inn 2021 Wrestler of the Year

(Collage by Trent Breward; Photo Credit: Stardom, NJPW, AEW)

In a year where we again lived under the dark cloud of a pandemic, pro wrestling’s world champs and world-beaters shone. Syuri and Shingo Takagi had career years. Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson rushed through once-forbidden doors to expand their territory. Classics piled up across a variety of promotions. Thanks be to the grappling gods because we sure needed that type of distraction.

But who was 2021’s best; the wrestler who most thrived as a storyteller, as a star, as the sire of unforgettable matches?

For such a subjective question, we of course turned to numbers. 13 Wrestle Inn writers and editors (Hey_Brian, Trent Breward, Adam, Thumbly Squeezed, Ryan Dilbert, Scott Edwards, Steve Howard, Caro, Katie, CiaranRH, Corey Michaels, Robert McCauley, Jamie Johnson) voted on their top five wrestlers of the year. Each first-place vote was worth five points; each second-place vote was worth four; and so forth all the way down to a fifth-place vote being worth one point.

We’ve tallied up the votes and have ourselves a winner.

The results speak to the diversity of tastes among our Wrestle Inn crew, as well as the breadth of options wrestling fans have today. Stardom, WWE, AEW, New Japan, and Big Japan all had representatives at the top of folks’ ballots. 37 wrestlers garnered votes; 9 received a first-place vote.

Read on as we dive into it all:

Wrestlers Receiving at Least 1 Vote:
Johnny Gargano, Yuki Ueno, Becky Lynch, Jonathan Gresham, Masashi Takeda, Konosuke Takeshita, Kenoh, Christian Cage, Britt Baker, Tam Nakano, Suzu Suzuki, Dante Martin, Charlotte Flair, Trevor Murdoch, Danhausen, Eddie Kingston, Darius Lockhart, Minoru Suzuki, Randy Orton, Tsukasa Fujimoto, Josh Alexander, Jun Akiyama, Jeff Cobb

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Thumbly on Baker: Baker got over by calling herself the face of the AEW Women’s Division; she proved it this year both on the mic and in the ring. She served every purpose a feud needed—face, heel, tweener, without ever losing support or (importantly) eyeballs. She was arguably the most consistently must-watch performer in AEW if you take the full year into account. Others had higher peaks and made it higher on my list, but you have to give it up for the DMD.

McCauley on Ueno: Yuki Ueno doesn’t just take the ball and run; he sprints. 2020 saw him featured in a tag team that many considered the best tag run of the year. He followed that up with a DDT Universal title run that saw him produce great matches that not just helped spotlight himself, but his fellow up and coming opponents as well. His work was rewarded by making it to the final of the D-Oh Grand Prix where he’d eventually lose after having defeated the likes of Jun Akiyama along the way. A rocket is attached to the back of Ueno and it’s time everyone joins along for the ride.

Wrestlers Who Received At Least 5 Points:
Zack Sabre Jr. (7 points), Big E (6 points), Takuya Nomura (5 points), Yuka Sakazaki (5 points),

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Thumbly on Big E: I’ve written profusely more than once about Big E and his blossoming to singles star…and now I’m going to do it again. He has developed his own style to still be fun, loose, and entertaining (like his wide-smile taunting when announcing he’d cash in later the same night). But he’s also shown an edge that keeps things real – be it against Sheamus, Apollo Crews, or Roman Reigns. He’s become the main (only?) reason to watch RAW, and long may he reign.

McCauley on Nomura: Strange that a wrestler only six years into his career feels overdue for a run with a company’s top title but that’s the case with Takuya Nomura. Everybody had a pretty good feeling by 2018 that he was the guy and he sealed that thought up in everybody’s mind after his match against Yuji Okabayashi in 2019. Now the time has finally come and BJW feels all the fresher. There’s never a time that Nomura looks in over his head. He’s the most confident wrestler, way beyond his years. Not only did he have hist promotion’s best match of the year against Daisuke Sekimoto, he also entered GLEAT and had a UWF style match with Yu Iizuka that is by far the best match in the promotion’s short history. The guy is a bright spot and is the most rewarding wrestler to follow.

Steve on ZSJ: Great success in the New Japan tag team division as part of Dangerous Tekkers sandwiched an incredible performance at the G1. Victories with different (and entertainingly named) submission moves made even the doubters believe this could be Zack’s year. It wasn’t to be in 2021 but Zack has proven he is a top contender for the heavyweight title.

Just Outside the Top 5:
Hangman Page (10 points), Bianca Belair (9 points), Utami Hayashishita (9 points), Katsuhiko Nakajima (9 points)

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Steve: The EST of WWE has broken into the top tier of performers during 2021. A Royal Rumble win followed by main eventing Mania and having the match of the night with Sasha Banks. Her momentum was slightly derailed at SummerSlam but impressive performances since losing the title have cemented a fantastic year.

Caro: Made me cry in the middle of a bar in Manhattan with a bunch of strangers. 10/10 would do again in another lifetime.

As part of a Wrestler of the Year series for Last Word on Sports, Jamie wrote, “In what is a quite staggering list of Match of the Year candidates, Katsuhiko Nakajima has carried much of the weight left by the proverbial ‘Atlas’ when the dreaded injury struck.”

5. Roman Reigns (14) total points; 2 first-place votes)

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Recommended matches:

  • Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan vs. Edge-April 11, WrestleMania 37
  • Roman Reigns vs. Cesaro-May 16, WWE WrestleMania Backlash
  • Roman Reigns vs. Big E vs. Bobby Lashley-Sept. 20, WWE Raw

Reigns ruled over the biggest pro wrestling company in the land. He was the centerpiece of SmackDown’s key storyline, a Godfather-inspired drama involving Paul Heyman, The Usos, and Reigns’ massive ego.

The reigning, defending WWE Universal champ battled the company’s biggest names, from John Cena to Rey Mysterio, as his title reign stretched on well past 400 days.

Reigns either appeared at the tippy top of our writers’ ballots or not at all. There was no in between. Much like his predecessor, Cena, did before him, Reigns remains a polarizing figure.

Adam: Say what you will about WWE but for my money, there was no bigger star for the biggest wrestling company in the world than Roman Reigns. There was absolutely NO ONE who can match him in terms of absolutely running roughshod over and entire brand and holding the Universal Title for over a year and a half. From wild brawls with Kevin Owens at the beginning of the year, to beating two men (Daniel Bryan and Edge) at WrestleMania and then forming the Bloodline with the Usos. His promos and association with Paul Heyman make him instantly hateable and gives the fans a reason for them to boo him at every occasion, something they’ve been wanting to do forever, even when he was positioned as the top baby face in the company. Whenever Reigns finally gets beaten for that Universal Title, it’s going to be a huge moment.

Thumbly: Making a big change in a moment (as Roman did in his return at SummerSlam 2020) is not easy, but it’s harder to sustain the momentum and let it develop over time. By subtly tweaking his new promo and in-ring styles as he has spent more time as Head of the Table (more often mafia don, less often explosive temper), Reigns has been consistently the best thing in WWE while feeling like a true End Boss. Reigns used to be a modern update of old 80’s Hulk Hogan matches – take a lot of heat, hulk up, hit same 3 moves, win. He has proven himself to be more brutal, agile, and psychological than we knew, to the point where he could let guys like Edge and Daniel Bryan shine before convincingly finish them off with stuff we hadn’t seen from him before. Damn you Vince, for keeping this from us for so long; thank you Roman, for making it worth the wait.:

3 (tie). Bryan Danielson (15 total points; 1 first-place vote)

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Recommended matches:

  • Daniel Bryan vs. Roman Reigns-April 30, WWE SmackDown
  • Bryan Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki-Oct. 15, AEW Rampage
  • Bryan Danielson vs. Adam Page-Dec. 15, AEW Dynamite

After a strong start to the year near the top of the WWE card, Daniel Bryan left the company to become Bryan Danielson again. In AEW, he appeared recharged, invigorated, in love with the art of wrestling once more.

And with that love surging through him, Danielson fired off all kinds of hits in the ring, from 60-minute epics to more tightly packed TV bouts. Dream matches fans had not yet dreamed up came to life courtesy of Danielson.

His time off between gigs may have hurt his WOTY case in some eyes, but The American Dragon’s name showed up on more ballots than everyone but Shingo and Omega.

Brian: How do you define Wrestler of the Year? Is it on character work and promo skills? Drawing Power? Workrate? With WWE, Bryan Danielson was in the Royal Rumble in the winter and headlined WrestleMania in the spring, and then main evented for AEW’s biggest ever crowd in the fall. He’s had four and five star matches on TV and PPV. He’s shown different levels to his character, but all without ever veering from who he authentically is as a wrestler. Bryan Danielson is a wrestling genius and is quite simply still one of the best in the world.

Scott: A main eventer in WWE and a main eventer in AEW. The ‘Yes’ movement gained momentum early in the year leading to Bryan being added to the Roman Reigns versus Edge Mania match. After a valiant attempt to dethrone Roman on Smackdown, Bryan’s contract ended and he headed for new pastures. In AEW he seems even more invigorated with great matches every week including the 30 minute draw with Kenny Omega. The number one contender is currently embroiled in a fascinating feud with Adam Page.

Jamie: Does this pick really need an explanation? Well, here’s one anyway! The American Dragon returned to his lofty station of pure wrestling greatness in 2021. In AEW, a rejuvenated and shackle-free Danielson has been a mouth-watering delight. He’s had Match of the Year gems with both Kenny Omega and “Hangman” Adam Page, as well as great bouts with Miro, Minoru Suzuki, and Eddie Kingston (and more still…). His impressive year might’ve only started in September, but he made up for lost time perfectly

Caro: You’re Gonna Get Your F##$ing Head Kicked-In: The Legendary Story of How I Had a WrestleMania Triple Threat Banger and Jumped to AEW All in The Same Year and Proceeded to Kick Even More Ass.

Corey: Headlining WrestleMania to having dream matches in AEW that surpass expectations, all while making me feel like a kid watching Bret Hart again. ‘Nuff said.

3 (tie). Syuri (15 total points; 3 first-place votes)

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Recommended matches:

  • Syuri and Giulia vs. AZM and Momo Watanabe-May 2, Stardom Golden Week Fight Tour
  • Syuri vs. Utami Hayashishita-June 12, Tokyo Dream Cinderella
  • Syuri vs. Momo Watanabe-Sept. 25, Stardom 5STAR Grand Prix Final

Utami Hayashishita had a hell of a year as Stardom’s top champion, but for many, Syuri was the real MVP of that promotion. The Donna Del Mundo star emerged as a go-to option at the top of the card, as she put together an eye-popping in-ring resume for the year.

Whether it was in her pursuit of the World of Stardom Championship or during her must-see run in the 5STAR Grand Prix, Syuri kicked ass. Many a 2021 best-of list, be it inside the joshi bubble or outside of it, is going to have her name all over it.

Syuri only showed up on 23 percent of ballots, but still managed to score more first-place votes than anyone else. The joshi fans made it clear that to them, she was the undisputed queen of 2021.

Trent: Between her matches with Utami, tag title matches with Giulia as ALK, her many strong SWA Title defences and a phenomenal 5 Star Grand Prix run, Syuri’s 2021 has just delivered incredible match after incredible match. There’s actually too many to count. Nobody has been as good and as consistently good as Syuri.

Scott: No one was able to match the greatness that was Syuri’s year. Whether it was tag team wrestling or putting on a MOTY contender, Syuri could not miss. Her match with Utami Hayashishita helped wake up the joshi world to those outside of the inner circle, getting deserved praise for how tremendous it was. Syuri’s performance, however, on the final night of the 5 STAR Grand Prix is what locked her in as the wrestler of the year. A 20-minute war between her and Takumi Iroha would ultimately get her a spot in the finals where she had another match of the year contender on the same night against Momo Watanabe. She was far and away the best all year and should further that December 29.

2. Shingo Takagi (19 total points; 1 first-place vote)

Wrestlers of the Year 2021: Shingo Takagi

Recommended matches:

  • Shingo Takagi vs. Jeff Cobb-Jan. 5, Wrestle Kingdom
  • Shingo Takagi vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi-Jan. 30, NJPW New Beginning in Nagoya
  • Shingo Takagi vs. Tomohiro Ishii-Sept. 18, G1 Climax

Shingo Takagi put his stamp on 2021 early with a high-intensity classic against Jeff Cobb on the fifth day of the year. He went on to amass a pile of noteworthy matches, at New Beginning, in the G1, at Wrestling Dontaku.

On every big stage, The Dragon dazzled. As IWGP heavyweight champion, he was New Japan’s rock, the ever-dependable clutch performer in a down year, a constant in COVID-wrecked 2021.

Shingo appeared on 46 percent of the ballots and more second-place votes than any other wrestler.

Brian: “Even in what has seemed like a bit of a down year for NJPW, Shingo Takagi has been a steadying force the way Okada and Tanahashi have been in past years. Between the ropes, Shingo began the year with the NEVER Openweight Championship and then carried the IWGP World Heavyweight Title after it was left vacant by Will Ospreay’s injury. Not many stars have had to deal with as many surrounding challenges as Shingo, but despite all of that he’s got the titles to prove his success this year, to go along with a slew of outstanding, entertaining wrestling.”

Trent: “Had a MOTYC with Jeff Cobb in the first week of 2021 and kept the hits coming. Been one of the few real consistently bright spots of NJPW. Fantastic IWGP World Heavyweight Champion.”

Scott: In a year where problem after problem piled up for NJPW, Shingo Takagi was able to shine through it all. He delivered incredible performance after incredible performance on his way to becoming the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Matches with Jeff Cobb, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Will Ospreay, and Zack Sabre Jr. are only part of his year-long dominance inside the squared circle.

1. Kenny Omega (20 total points; 2 first-place votes)

Golden Destiny: Kenny Omega’s Fated 2021

Recommended matches:

  • Kenny Omega vs. Rey Fenix-Jan. 6, AEW Dynamite
  • Kenny Omega vs. Bryan Danielson-Sept. 22, AEW Dynamite
  • Kenny Omega vs. Adam Page-Nov. 13, AEW Full Gear

Christian’s career resurgence. Bryan Danielson’s arrival to AEW. Adam Page’s coronation. All these major moments featured Kenny Omega in the opposite corner.

The Best Bout Machine was everywhere, from the main event in Mexico to the Impact spotlight to the main event of AEW’s biggest selling PPV ever. Along the way, Omega produced classics and bangers galore.

Omega just edged out Shingo in our poll thanks to an extra first-place vote, giving the belt collector one more accolade to add to his stockpile.

Trent: Considering the ailments he’s had to take time off for to end the year, it’s any wonder the guy made it as long as he did, let alone while putting on top tier matches. The Belt Collector had a busy 2021, but an incredibly successful one.

Caro: Did you have me muted on Twitter all year?

Adam: Omega was such a hateable person with his association with the Elite, his cocky attitude, and the fact he held not one but THREE world titles for the majority of the year (AEW, Impact, and AAA). Don Callis at his side made him extra slimy too. Like him or not, you cannot discount how amazing his in-ring 2021 was. In AEW alone, he had absolute bangers against Jon Moxley, Jungle Boy, Christian Cage, and the culmination of the story with Hangman Page at Full Gear where he finally dropped the AEW title. Looking at Impact, he wrestled a completely different variety of opponents like Moose, Sami Callihan, and Rich Swann and not only won but in cases like Moose, helped elevate him as well. All while dealing with a laundry list of nagging injuries. Omega had one of the best years anyone could think of and there’s a reason he topped the PWI 500.

Brian: Kenny Omega perhaps didn’t even have his personal best year ever in 2021, but in a year that opened with a ton of logistical challenges for wrestling as a whole the Best Bout Machine carried the big belt for three separate promotions through the bulk of the year. Three of his matches have a good claim to match of the year (fights with Adam Page, Bryan Danielson, and Rey Fenix). At home in AEW he fought through injuries, had some of the best matches of his career, and together with Hangman Adam Page capped off an all-time great long story. He showed levels of depth to his character, at times vicious, at times hilarious, but always credible and deserving of the belts he had, despite his proclivity for cheating to win. No one else had a 2021 like his, top to bottom.