2021 is wrapping up and it leaves behind it a legacy of fantastic wrestling matches. Whether it be in WWE, New Japan Pro Wrestling, AEW or even a couple of surprising entries from other lesser-known promotions, wrestling fans should look back on this year fondly for its range of stellar performances.
2021 has a bit of something for everyone, whether you love your gritty, technical masterpieces, bloody deathmatches or blockbuster main event encounters, wrestling bounced back in a big way following the bitter tasting year that was 2020. Enjoy the ride as we take a look back on 15 of the very best wrestling matches of 2021.
But before we jump into the list, let’s show some love to the honourable mentions.
Best Wrestling Matches Of 2021: Honourable Mentions
Kenny Omega vs ‘Hangman’ Adam Page (All Out)
A beautiful pay-off to a year-long story.
Kota Ibushi vs Jay White (Wrestle Kingdom)
Jay White’s potential fulfilled.
Bryan Danielson vs Eddie Kingston (AEW Rampage)
Hey AJPW, how ya doing?
Johnny Gargano vs KUSHIDA (NXT: St. Valentine’s Day Massacre)
A fitting prelude to Balor/Dunne.
MJF vs Darby Allin (Full Gear)
AEW pillars doing pillar-things.
This wasn’t just a huge match for the rejuvenated Impact Wrestling, but for the industry as a whole. After aligning himself with Don Callis at 2020’s Winter is Coming event, Kenny Omega took his business to Impact Wrestling, bursting through the Forbidden Door as part of AEW’s expansion into both Impact and NJPW.
Naturally, the AEW Champion was immediately booked into the main event scene, soon to challenge Rich Swann for the Impact Championship to commence his Belt Collector run. For the first time in a long time, the eyes of the wrestling world were on Impact Wrestling for the Rebellion pay-per-view, headlined by one of the greatest of our time.
Omega’s appearance made way for the likes of Minoru Suzuki, KENTA and other global talent to make the jump overseas and create a buzz like no other across the industry. Plus it was an awesome match to boot, which is no surprise considering the talent involved. Swann may still be reeling from a pretty harsh departure from WWE which brought with it a tonne of personal backlash, but this match helped remind the fans just how great he can be and provided him with one final, star-making moment as the face of Impact’s brand.
14. Edge vs Seth Rollins – Crown Jewel 2021
WWE have called this the finale of one of wrestling’s greatest trilogies, and though I wouldn’t quite go that far, it was certainly a fantastic series of matches and has definitely earned itself a place on our best of 2021 list. Edge’s comeback run hit a bit of a snag last year with his untimely injury, but that didn’t stop ‘The Rated R Superstar’ from once again returning to action to tick off a few more of those bucket list feuds, one of which was against ‘The Messiah’ Seth Rollins.
Edge and Rollins lit up the summer season with intense promos and outlandish skits, eventually building to a classic singles bout at SummerSlam. The feud spilled over into WWE’s annual Saudi trip, where the two would open the Crown Jewel event with a thrilling Hell in a Cell match, a rare feature outside of its aptly named pay-per-view which has since gone down as one of the best Cell matches of recent memory.
The two rivals put on a masterclass in wrestling psychology and creative spots, bringing in all sorts of weapons in a pacey affair that put the often controversial event off to a good start. It serves as a rare call-back to when the Cell stipulation was used as a means of bringing only the most bitter blood-feuds to an end, hopefully prompting the backstage folk to scrap the HIAC pay-per-view in favour of the once in a while approach.
13. Shingo Takagi vs Zack Sabre Jr. – NJPW Power Struggle
Despite being a little further behind in the road to pandemic recovery, New Japan Pro Wrestling delivered some fantastic wrestling in the latter half of 2021. One of the standout stars of this year’s G1 Climax was Zack Sabre Jr, a man well known by aficionados of the BritWres scene and those that tuned in for the WWE Cruiserweight Classic back in 2016. A reinvented Sabre went on a tear throughout the trying tournament, putting on instant classics against the likes of Kota Ibushi, KENTA and the current IWGP World Champion, Shingo Takagi.
Even though Zack would only come in with 12 points to close out the tournament, he made a big enough impression on the global audience that fans were desperate to see the Suzuki-Gun youngster receive another pop at the champ, and that’s exactly what they got at November’s Power Struggle event.
There are few wrestling fans in the world today that would go into a Shingo Takagi match with anything less than high expectations, but he and ZSJ blew the world away with their masterclass in main event wrestling. If anything, this has cemented Sabre Jr. as the next breakout star on the New Japan roster in 2022. Do yourself a favour and watch this match if you haven’t already.
12. Bianca Belair vs Sasha Banks – WrestleMania Night 1
A heartwarming moment for everyone involved, the main event of WWE’s first show of 2021 with a live audience didn’t disappoint. When thinking back on WrestleMania moments from this year’s event, the image of Bianca and Sasha breaking character for a brief moment to shed some tears of joy, revelling in the historic moment they were in the process of making, will be one of the most wholesome.
Being the first two black women to headline a WrestleMania card saw the two superstars through to various mainstream media success, including a prestigious ESPY award. More importantly though, it etched both women into the annals of wrestling history, with an equally impressive match-up to boot.
The two athletes delivered on a truly exciting Women’s championship contest, a rare sight on the main roster. Belair was crowned champion for the first time in her career and closed the first night of WrestleMania on top of her game, a star-making night to say the least.
11. Roman Reigns vs John Cena – SummerSlam
I imagine that an argument could be made for this match to be slightly higher up on the list, purely down to the fact that it lived up to the hype of being the wrestling equivalent of a summer blockbuster. John Cena’s return at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view instantly set the wrestling world on fire, bringing back many jaded fans to watch a dream rematch between two of the biggest stars of this generation do battle.
The original Cena/Reigns torch-passing took place at the No Mercy pay-per-view in 2018, though it didn’t really meet the high expectations of the fans. Since then, Roman has evolved into one of the best heels in wrestling today, let alone the best wrestler of 2021, so it felt only natural for WWE to hit the reset button and re-do the megastar feud for this year’s Biggest Party of the Summer.
The match itself was pretty standard for a Cena vs. monster heel match, but it served all of its intended purposes. Reigns dominated most of the bout and looked like an absolute beast, Cena proved that he can still go as one of the greatest to button up a pair of jorts and WWE reaped the benefits of a main event that actually felt memorable for a change.
Just to top it all off, we witnessed the debut of Brock Lesnar’s man bun, and it was glorious.
10. Kenny Omega vs Bryan Danielson – AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam
Much like Reigns/Cena, a strong argument could be posed for this match to be higher on this list. Kenny Omega vs. Bryan Danielson was the first match on everyone’s minds when ‘The American Dragon’ emerged in the closing moments of All Out 2021, a dream return match from their work in the early 2000s. Omega and Danielson had never met on a mainstream stage prior to Grand Slam, and the fans were more than ready to see this fantasy clash.
Watching this bout back, the goosebumps are just as prominent when listening to the duelling chants at the top of the match. This had that ‘big fight feel’ that WWE yearn for. The match itself lived up to the expectations, with Meltzer crediting the 30 minute exhibition with an immediate 5* rating. However, I couldn’t help but feel a little empty when the time limit ran out.
Booking-wise, AEW were in a tough position to give the audience a satisfying conclusion while keeping both the debuting Danielson and the AEW Champion looking strong without the championship on the line. Both men got as many of their signature spots in as they could, but something was still missing. It almost felt like they were holding back on the true potential of this match for a slightly higher-profile event.
Regardless, this match was a spectacle from start to finish and despite my criticisms, I still consider this one of 2021’s best.
9. Adam Cole vs Kyle O’Reilly – NXT TakeOver: 36
The Undisputed Era will forever be synonymous with NXT’s final act, closing out the closing chapter of NXT’s age of dominance within mainstream wrestling. As the Wednesday Night Wars came and went, NXT writers thought it pertinent to split their most successful faction to date, pitting their leader, Adam Cole, against the stand-out, Kyle O’Reilly.
This was easily a feud that could have been given the NXT Championship spotlight, but it held up just as much as the title feud between Karrion Kross and Finn Balor, if not more so. Cole and O’Reilly headlined the WrestleMania weekend TakeOver, Stand and Deliver, in a match that out-classed the NXT title match and all of the following two-night’s worth of pirate-themed wrestling. They then followed this up with a finale worthy of being considered NXT’s swansong, an epic 2-out-of-3 falls contest at TakeOver: 36.
The two former UE pals played second fiddle this time to a returning Samoa Joe, but once again left fans buzzing about their unyielded in-ring chemistry, brutal spots and, most of all, what this meant for both superstars going forward. Most predicted that Adam Cole would go on to debut on the main roster, leaving KOR to fulfil his potential as a singles babyface star, but it wasn’t to be. Cole would then depart from the company and debut for All Elite Wrestling, while O’Reilly served as a veteran partner for NXT 2.0’s Von Wagner.
Either way, they can rest on their laurels knowing that the Undisputed Era came to an end in spectacular fashion, with the two shining stars doing what they do best in an environment they truly thrived in.
8. Thunder Rosa vs Dr. Britt Baker – AEW Dynamite: St. Patrick’s Day Slam
St. Paddy’s today is often associated with rich stouts and Hornswoggles. In 2021, however, it represented how far women’s wrestling has come with a headlining, bloody affair between two of the biggest female stars in pro wrestling today. Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa delivered a deathmatch-style contest that received high credit from hardcore wrestling legend Mick Foley and truly shifted the focus of AEW’s fanbase onto the burgeoning women’s division.
Baker/Rosa stands out as AEW’s best ‘Lights Out’ match to date, giving the audience everything they wanted from a brutal stipulation match such as this. Even the likes of Jon Moxley, Joey Janela and Minoru Suzuki, wrestlers often seen spilling blood in deathmatch-style bouts, weren’t able to touch how intense and exciting this was. This match alone set up a potential headlining feud between the now-AEW Women’s Champ and an aspiring challenger in Thunder Rosa, just by being an unexpectedly good match, a rare feat in modern wrestling.
The image of a bloody Britt Baker smiling through the blade job was on par with Austin’s WrestleMania 13 crimson mask. This match will be historic for AEW, mark my words.
7. WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov – NXT TakeOver: 36
Heading back to NXT and their incredible 36th TakeOver event, the NXT UK brand was given the temporary spotlight in the highly-requested rematch between ‘The Ring General’ WALTER and his arch-nemesis, Ilja Dragunov. Their previous encounter in 2020 came very close to becoming widely recognised as the Match of the Year, so expectations were incredibly high for this return contest.
NXT UK fans have struggled to see a successor to WALTER’s record-breaking title reign outside of Ilja Dragunov. His brutal, bruising match against WALTER last year gave many the hope that Dragunov would eventually fight his way back into the title picture, and that’s exactly what he did in 2021. After battling through the likes of Joe Coffey and Rampage Brown, Ilja set himself up for a huge, marquee match on American soil as part of TakeOver: 36.
Personally, I prefer their first championship match, but the sequel certainly still lived up to the hype. The result was telegraphed pretty well with some fun, long-term booking in the form of Ilja’s growing resilience in singles matches and WALTER’s susceptibility to chops to the back of his head. It was subtle, but a nice continuity to watch evolve on episodes of NXT UK. With the added element of Triple H and Shawn Michaels handpicking it to take place on mainland NXT instead of on a random episode of UK TV, it helped build this match to be the epic marathon it became.
Much like his predecessor, Pete Dunne, WALTER has nothing to be ashamed of with his NXT UK Championship reign. It started and ended on a high note, so here’s hoping the big Austrian will make it to mainland NXT in 2022.
6. Bryan Danielson vs Minoru Suzuki – AEW Rampage
Without a shadow of a doubt, Bryan Danielson is wrestling at his peak as part of the AEW roster. Following on from his incredible dream match against Kenny Omega, Danielson went on to put together ridiculously good wrestling matches with Nick Jackson, Eddie Kingston and Miro. But on top of all that, and one of the two contenders for his 2021 masterpiece, was his Rampage match against Japanese wrestling legend, Minoru Suzuki.
A rematch from Danielson’s original indie days in Japan, ‘American Dragon’ vs ‘Murder Grandpa’ was a blockbuster attraction that wrestling fans were begging to see as soon as Bryan confirmed his intentions to leave WWE. Even though Vince was prepared to allow Bryan to compete overseas, potentially as part of the 2021 G1 Climax tournament, I doubt we would’ve seen this clash take place while he was under a WWE contract, or at least not to the standard it met in AEW.
Minoru’s stay in AEW was brief, yet it delivered on so many levels and reminded the world that Suzuki is easily one of the best in the world today. His initial stare-down and forearm-fest with Moxley at All Out was just as exciting and surprising as the announcement that he’d face Bryan Danielson on a free, YouTube-broadcasted special of AEW Rampage. This match could have easily sold a few extra tickets to any of AEW’s major events but instead it was exploited to net a few extra views for Rampage’s Buy-In.
Regardless, it was just as satisfying. This 20 minute bout was cringe-inducing, brutal and everything that makes these two a certifiable dream match in 2021. For a moment, I was worried for Danielson’s health thanks to the level of violence taking place in this match. Fortunately, both men survived, but boy did they try and send each other home with a neck brace.
5. Kazuchika Okada vs Will Ospreay – Wrestle Kingdom
It’s hard to have a ‘best matches’ list and not include a Kazuchika Okada bout. ‘The Rainmaker’ has held down his title of being the Ric Flair of this generation. Any and every match Okada appears in, he delivers, and gets the very best out of his opponent in the meantime.
At this year’s Wrestle Kingdom event, Okada once again faced-off with his former Chaos stablemate, and latest best-friend-turned-enemy, Will Ospreay, in a match that lived up to all expectations.
Okada/Ospreay made for some of the best wrestling matches in 2019 and 2020 with their occasional encounters in G1 tournaments and their IWGP Championship match that set the world alight. Both men have an easy claim to being one of the best wrestlers in the world, so bringing them together for a marquee Wrestle Kingdom singles match was a natural choice for NJPW in 2021.
The freshly-turned heel Ospreay battled his former ally for over half an hour in the Tokyo Dome, proving that he was more than worthy of being a main-event level talent in Japan and cementing his opportunity to challenge for, and win, the IWGP Championship at Sakura Genesis. Even in defeat, Ospreay looked like a megastar in Japan, putting together an absolute masterpiece of pro wrestling that was later showered with 5* ratings.
Okada vs Ospreay III is looking very likely to be a staple of 2022’s edition of Wrestle Kingdom, so watch this space where we’ll likely be bigging up their return match this time next year.
4. Finn Balor vs Pete Dunne – NXT St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
After NXT’s revival of the Valentine’s Day pay-per-view, I spent many hours contemplating just how great the NXT Championship main event between Finn Balor and Pete Dunne was. It was a personal dream match for me, having watched both Balor and Dunne grow up and evolve as part of the British indie scene, and be polished into the mainstream versions of themselves in WWE and NXT respectively.
Both technical masters and hard-hitting bruisers, Dunne and Balor delivered on the high standards they set for themselves in every main-event level match. Finn Balor’s return to NXT should be seen as a massive success, mostly because it helped establish stars like Pete Dunne, Kyle O’Reilly and Damian Priest in matches that have been critically acclaimed in 2021.
Balor/Dunne will stand the test of time for being one of the best examples of Japanese/British strong style under the WWE umbrella. I’m hoping that, now that Finn has returned to the main roster, Pete Dunne can follow up his historic UK title reign and this prime example of his main event potential with an NXT Championship reign in 2022.
I wish I could make this match number 1 on this list, but alas, there was even better wrestling out there.
3. Roman Reigns vs Daniel Bryan – SmackDown Live
Oh hello again, Bryan ‘Daniel Bryan’ Danielson. Who would have thought we’d see you again on the best wrestling matches of 2021 list?
Most wrestlers are best remembered for their final dance in WWE and for Daniel Bryan, his lasting impression on the WWE fanbase will be a stellar contest against Universal Champion, Roman Reigns. Bryan himself has admitted that he wasn’t sure why he was included as part of the WrestleMania triple threat with Edge, the story made just as much sense without him and could have been a more satisfying tale to tell alongside Edge’s comeback story. Nevertheless, Daniel Bryan was entered into the main event and memes flooded the internet.
Roman Reigns stood tall to close out WrestleMania 37 Night 2 and ‘The Rated R Superstar’ took some time off to nurse some injuries. Meanwhile, Daniel Bryan’s story continued, which led him to a main-event clash against ‘The Tribal Chief’ on a special episode of SmackDown Live. Little did we expect the fantastic match we’d receive courtesy of two of the best wrestlers of 2021.
Bryan left it all in the ring for his very last WWE match-up, leaving on a high note and giving Roman Reigns a spectacular title match under his belt, further cementing his status as ‘the guy’ in WWE, and wrestling as a whole. Say what you will about WWE, but occasionally they can pull out an absolute belter on the main roster. This was one of them.
2. Will Ospreay vs Shingo Takagi – Dontaku 2021
I’ve already spoken of both Shingo Takagi and Will Ospreay in this list, so there should be no surprise that when ‘The Dragon’ and ‘The Assassin’ met one-on-one in 2021, they delivered nothing short of one of the best wrestling matches seen this year. With the IWGP World Championship on the line, Ospreay and Shingo absolutely killed it, showcasing everything that prophesised them as the next breakout stars of the New Japan roster.
Ospreay would be forced to have to take time away from the business due to injuries and the lasting effects of the pandemic, giving Shingo the time to succeed him as the deserving IWGP Champion, but we’re set to see the two involved in a series of matches at 2022’s Wrestle Kingdom event, alongside Kazuchika Okada who will undoubtedly produce untouchable matches against both men to kick off the new year.
When thinking about ‘those feuds’ that are destined to produce the sort of matches that will live on forever in folklore and highlight reels, on par with the likes of Flair/Sting, Steamboat/Savage and Hart/Michaels, I’d put this particular match up there. It’s everything NJPW has become best known for, watch it, then watch it again.
1. The Young Bucks vs Lucha Brothers – All Out 2021
So, here you are. The number 1 best match of 2021. A steel cage 2-on-2 match between two of the best tag teams of all time, The Young Bucks and The Lucha Brothers.
These four men have competed in MOTY contenders several times already, specifically their series of matches to kickstart the AEW Tag division back in 2018 and a couple of occasions in PWG, but none of those encounters lives up to the highest of standards set at All Out 2021.
Tag team wrestling can be a beautiful art-form when executed well, and even though this match wasn’t a traditional tag match, it definitely lived up to everything that makes 4-man matches some of the best content. Every member of this match received a ‘moment’, neither team walked away looking weak or out of their depths. The Young Bucks could easily retire from wrestling following this incredible match which featured blood and guts, well-choreographed sequences, and a genuine chemistry.
The Lucha Brothers have since gone on to compete in equally fun matches against the likes of FTR, Butcher & Blade and the team of Andrade El Idolo & Malakai Black. They hold the torch for excellence in tag wrestling, surpassing some of the greats with their recent body of work, and the Young Bucks have a lot to be credited for with that.
AEW is where it’s at in 2021, and will likely live up to the same in 2022. Whether it be tag or singles competition, it’s where wrestling fans can go to let go of prejudices and low expectations and simply enjoy pro wrestling again. Thank you, AEW.
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