Wrestler of the Year: Roman Reigns

Tribute To The Troops: Reigns Stands Tall WWE Wrestler of the Year

In 2021, World Wrestling Entertainment grappled with an antagonist it has not faced in over a decade: competition. TNT’s All Elite Wrestling continued to gain steam in 2021, with its athletically credible matches, celebrity guest appearances, and the signing of two iconic pro wrestlers who were once on the WWE roster, CM Punk and Bryan Danielson. By comparison, WWE faced increasingly historic low ratings and poor reviews for its flagship show, Monday Night Raw, and its talent pool was diminished considerably by the releases of several of its superstars.

However, even amidst all of this turmoil, WWE was not devoid of its magical moments. The wrestlers who attained consideration for Wrestler of the Year are those who, with sheer talent and charisma, managed to transcend any justified complaints about WWE and engage and transport WWE’s audiences, even making history in the process.

Honorable Mention: Bianca Belair

Bianca Belair Pro Wrestling Illustrated Womens 150
Photo / Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s 2021 female pro wrestler of the year Bianca Belair is a game changing artist of the craft of pro wrestling. Despite possessing prodigious strength reminiscent of Chyna and an admirable background in collegiate athletics like Beth Phoenix, Belair cannot readily be compared to any WWE superstar of the past. She is a refreshingly personable and wholesomely appealing babyface phenom, who touches a chord with WWE audiences for the representation her high profile at the top of WWE’s women’s division represents, earning their affections with her sassy, tough, but well-meaning persona.

A gifted artist in the ring, who specializes in hard hitting power lift finishers, Belair’s rapid pace of accomplishment looked and felt entirely credible, and the excitement of watching a star on the rise cloaked the air around Belair throughout 2021. After winning the women’s Royal Rumble, Belair set her sights on Sasha BanksFriday Night SmackDown women’s championship. The two faced off at WrestleMania 37, striking an indelible blow for pro wrestling history. Belair and Banks became the first African-American women to face each other in a headlining match at WrestleMania. For this achievement, they won an Espy award. In a controversial move whose ripple effects are still being felt, Belair lost the SmackDown belt to a returning Becky Lynch at SummerSlam. After all the fanfare around Belair, and the way she more than delivered, it was not well received within the industry or amongst fans that Belair’s shine was now being tarnished so abruptly. WWE changed streams and her successes have continued: she captained the victorious Raw women’s Survivor Series team, and on December 20’s Raw, she victoriously finished a series with Doudrop. It’s hard to say at this point in time what 2022 will hold for the vivacious and endearing Belair, but there is no doubt that she made her mark and claimed the hearts of the WWE universe in 2021.

Honorable Mention: The New Day

The New Day WWE Draft
Photos Courtesy of World Wrestling Entertainment

AEW boasts a wealth of popular wrestling tag teams and factions: The Elite, The Inner Circle, The Lucha Brothers, The Best Friends, etc., and the excitement of their multi-man matches is vivifying and palpable. WWE sought to create similar high energy by doubling down on tag team and multi-man in ring encounters once it became clear that AEW was serious competition. It was little surprise that The New Day was at the forefront of this creative turn. One of WWE’s most popular and decorated tag teams in company history, the New Day, were not always victorious in their encounters but always brought their signature high risk gymnastics, group cohesion, and spontaneous comedic touches to stand-out WWE moments like September’s two hour Tag Team Turmoil event on Raw, or a six man encounter between the New Day and the Bloodline, Roman Reigns included, also in September 2021. The New Day also renewed their storied feud with The Usos upon being drafted to SmackDown, the two teams providing WWE’s answer to AEW’s Young Bucks, Lucha Brothers and the like. The presence of the New Day, their popularity and ability, kept WWE competitive.

So many tag teams have been torn apart for storyline dictated reasons when one member decides to go solo. Always groundbreaking, the New Day eschewed this cliché with their insistence that despite Big E’s solo run, they were still very much a unit. Not only did fans ardently chant “You deserve it!” when Big E attained the WWE championship for the first time in his long career with WWE, his New Day brothers in arms Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods, were on hand with just as much genuine love and support. No one was getting superkicked through a barbershop window, a’la The Rockers, here.

The dreams kept coming true for the New Day, as the revived King of the Ring tournament concluded at October 2021’s Crown Jewel. Woods won the coveted honor, after several months of professing that it was his childhood dream to be King of the Ring, the only singles honor he had designs upon, and vocally campaigning on Twitter for the tournament to return as WWE returned to normal operations amidst the end of the ThunderDome era. The often overlooked Woods’ run as King of the Ring caps off a year of scene stealing moments, such as facing off one on one against the vicious Bobby Lashley in July 2021.  While Woods and Big E tasted long awaited singles glory, 1x WWE champion Kofi Kingston was spared a tired narrative of jealousy at his friends’ accomplishments, and instead allowed to play a gracious, supportive role. The enduring appeal of the New Day is in their insistence upon positivity and authenticity, and their unbreakable bond. All of these qualities were given their best light and a heavy showcase in 2021, with characteristically thrilling results.

Wrestler of the Year: Roman Reigns

Roman Reigns Wrestler of the Year Alongside The Usos
Photo / Twitter @WWERomanReigns

Roman Reigns’s late 2020 reinvention continued to coalesce in 2021, and it elevated not only his own performance and reception with fans but Friday Night SmackDown as a brand. In ratings, critical acclaim, and fan discourse, SmackDown became known as WWE’s unofficial ‘A show’, mostly on the strength of Reigns’s “Tribal Chief” saga. As his Universal Championship reign edges closer with every passing day to Brock Lesnar’s 500+ day record, Reigns grows more comfortable in his persona, and in his place at the top of WWE. Once rejected by fans for his bland character and contrived victories, Reigns projects steely command in the role of the “Tribal Chief”, a despotic, calculating heel champion driven by insecurity and mild paranoia to subdue his enemies and secure his championship, by any means necessary. The hints of vulnerability that Reigns shows, in his conflicts with cousins The Usos (Jimmy and Jey) and the dubious loyalties between him and special counsel Paul Heyman, psychologically inform the character’s string of brutal attacks on his enemies and litany of pay per view victories, elevating the story to one of pro wrestling’s best current dramas.

WWE has shown a care elsewhere uncharacteristic to the Tribal Chief narrative, and Reigns has met them in kind with the performance of his life. Once derided for his mic skills, or lack thereof, he at first relied on the loquacious Heyman but by his SummerSlam feud with John Cena was taking the helm and taking the mic to verbally drum Cena with taunts about his unvarying gimmick and ex-girlfriend Nikki Bella. Reigns’s address to the crowd at the top of SmackDown’s broadcasts are now a customary feature of each installment. Pro wrestling is more than what happens in the ring: the stories that surround each match and its participants are what makes sports entertainment distinct from pure sports. In 2021, with its Shakespearean combination of humanistic drama, slapstick comedy, and brutal violence, the Bloodline story was WWE’s offering to the very Muse of sports entertainment, and she was generous to them in return.

As the leading man of this story, Reigns continued to grow far past his former limitations, and captained SmackDown to heights of popularity and critical success not seen for many years. Although he just missed out on the number one spot in Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s yearly ranking, the man who did claim it, Kenny Omega, name checked Reigns as someone he desired to work with. In 2018, when Reigns was being booed by his detractors and Omega was setting the pro wrestling industry on fire with his groundbreaking series against Kazuchika Okada in NJPW, there was little reason to compare the two men. Now, Reigns more than stands beside Omega in his ability to enthrall audiences with an engrossing performance in a long term storyline. For this evolution, and the boon it was to SmackDown and WWE sum total, Roman Reigns is quite deservedly in the discussion for Last Word on Pro Wrestling’s Wrestler of the Year.

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