The world of pro wrestling is never exactly a dull scene, both in and out of the stalwart WWE, but 2021 really was an electric year for the sport. Struggles from the previous year caused the pro wrestling organization to make a lot of tough decisions, while rivals like AEW continued to gain ground, with one apparently leaving for good. The end result was a slew of major headlines throughout 2021, with many of them being totally unexpected.
There are way more than 10 major headlines that hit the pro wrestling world this year, to be sure, but it's almost impossible to believe even these all happened in a single year. I believe when fans look back on 2021, these will be the biggest updates and changes that stick out the most.
The Return Of WWE's Live Arena And House Shows
Many professional organizations survived in 2020 without live, in-house audiences, but few were impacted as greatly as WWE. In part by utlizing some inventive change-ups specifically for TV audiences, the company prevailed and, eventually, brought back its live arena and house show touring schedule in late July. In hindsight, this may not be looked back on as such a major moment for those far removed from pandemic lockdowns, but those that were part of it know just how big the return to normalcy (and the return of ticket and merch sales) meant for a lot of people.
WWE Releasing Bray Wyatt, Jeff Hardy, Nia Jax, And Many More
Releases are common in the WWE, but 2021 was a particularly rough year for WWE Superstars. The organization released around 80 wrestlers, and not insignificant names either. Bray Wyatt, Nia Jax, Jeff Hardy and many other superstars considered to be a fixture of the organization were handed their walking papers for various reasons, though the most common among those listed were budget cuts. The narrative isn’t hard to believe given the WWE had to go a full year without fans in arenas, though that hasn’t stopped speculation from many that some releases had additional reasons, with SmackDown's Toni Storm reportedly requesting a release just days before 2021's end.
CM Punk Returning To Pro Wrestling For First Time In 7 Years
CM Punk abruptly exited the WWE as one of its top stars back in 2014, and for many years, he never looked back. He had some UFC fights, some acting roles, and other gigs outside of professional wrestling to the point that it seemed he’d never return to it again. That all changed in 2021 when, after months of rumors, CM Punk made his official return to pro wrestling for AEW. The moment was huge not just because of how inconceivable it seemed even a year before, but because one of wrestling’s greatest talents was back in the ring where he belongs.
AEW Drawing Top WWE Talent
CM Punk’s return to pro wrestling was massive on its own, but AEW really showed its rising power of influence by snagging quite a few major stars that the WWE reportedly wanted to retain. Daniel Bryan could’ve continued to be a main event draw on either of the WWE shows, but instead chose to take his talents over to the rival organization. The same is true for Adam Cole, who seemed primed to make a major roster debut following his multi-year run in NXT, but he decided to roll that momentum into big opportunities over at AEW. It seems like top stars now have a legitimate alternative to the WWE, which will undoubtedly create more interesting contract situations for both companies as more stars approach renewal deadlines in the coming years.
Charlotte Flair’s Drama With Becky Lynch And The WWE
Charlotte Flair’s had about the roughest year out of any actively rostered WWE star. Fans learned she had a backstage altercation with Becky Lynch following Flair going off-script during an episode of SmackDown, and that many in the organization found her difficult to work with. The WWE then turned that real-life drama into a storyline for Survivor Series, which wasn’t the only time in 2021 it capitalized on a sensitive subject. Charlotte’s future with the WWE still feels strong though, especially since her ex-fiancé Andrade is over in AEW.
Ring Of Honor Going On Long-term Hiatus
The WWE obviously wasn’t the only pro wrestling organization that suffered throughout 2020, as one prominent indie wrestling organization continued to feel the pains throughout 2021. Ring Of Honor, the former home of countless superstars of the WWE, AEW and other organizations, released all of its wrestlers from their contracts in late October, and hosted its tentatively final pay-per-view in December. As of this writing, there are potential plans to reboot the org, as it were, in April 2022, but if the past two years have taught fans anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. Hopefully, Ring of Honor can return to its former glory, and continue to be a bastion for indie wrestling for years to come.
Notable Former Superstars Passing Away
Death is an unavoidable consequence of life, and while pro wrestlers may seem like superhumans on television, they too are subjected to it. Pro wrestling lost a lot of greats this year including Bobby Eaton, Paul Orndorff, Daffney Unger, New Jack, and Jimmy Rave. There’s no universal reason for all of these deaths, of course, but it seems as though the passing of past favorite wrestlers always brings a feeling of nostalgia and a celebration of the departed athletes' greatest moments in the ring. Their legacies will live on through their work, and will continue to be celebrated by future generations who come across older matches on TV and streaming.
The WWE Shaking Things Up On Commentary
The WWE’s rough year with Superstars being released largely overshadowed some other changes outside of the ring, especially behind the commentary tables. This year alone saw former NFL star and huge wrestling fan Pat McAfee become a full-time analyst on SmackDown, while prominent sports commentator Adnan Virk was released from Monday Night Raw duties less than two months into the gig. Beth Phoenix also left the NXT commentary team to focus more on her family, though will still be involved with the WWE going forward. That’s a lot of movement considering how long certain WWE commentary teams have stuck together in the past.
NXT Re-branding And Returning To Its Roots
The WWE seemingly decided it’s time for a change, and rebranded NXT into NXT 2.0. This change brought a fresh look, feel, and some new faces to the product, and overall, it seems like a good thing. NXT 2.0 already has some new talent like Bron Breakker in its ranks that look ripe to develop into major main roster stars, which is probably exactly the type of homegrown talent the WWE hopes to cultivate in the face of competition like AEW. So far, this feels like a positive change, though time will tell if it performs as well as the old NXT in the long run.
The WWE Announces NIL Program
The WWE has always kept a close eye on college athletes who had the potential to become future superstars, so it’s only fitting the organization launched its first NIL (name, image, likeness) program alongside other professional sports. Under this new NIL deal, the company recently signed college-age superstars like Olympian Gable Stevenson alongside several other younger athletes it hopes to bring into the developmental fold. This move allows the WWE to bring in talent straight out of school with a goal of developing them into long-term Superstars It definitely feels like the start of a new era in the company, and a gamechanger for WWE if the program is a success.
2022 and beyond will bring even more changes to the sport of wrestling, though I feel 2021 will be a year to remember in the industry for a long time. Fans can relive some of the drama with a Peacock premium subscription, and see some great other matches from the past as well.
Mick likes good television, but also reality television. He grew up on Star Wars, DC, Marvel, and pro wrestling and loves to discuss and dissect most of it. He’s been writing online for over a decade and never dreamed he’d be in the position he is today.
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