2021 has been an odd year on the moral basis of being a fan of World Wrestling Entertainment. Consider everything from constant releases due to alleged “budget cuts” to the departure from the WWE Thunderdome, finally going on tour in front of a live audience. The Stamford-based company faced heavy criticism despite the ever so lop-sided changing of the guard with new President Nick Khan making more moves that have been affecting WWE from NXT to the main roster. Although this may sound like a downer of an intro, there was certainly a lot of good in WWE in 2021, including two new world champions being crowned and joining a who’s who of royalty in this very business. Women’s wrestling continues to make excellent strides despite what was a bit of a down year roster wise and wrestling once again has a live crowd, which was been awesome to see.
Typically, the 3 Count series highlights a pay-per-view or a show either praising or questioning some of the rationale of the booking decisions overall. This time, with the year ending, we should add it up to ten, giving the readers, the ten of the best and worst, the most notable moments WWE in 2021.
WWE in 2021: The 10 Count
Good: The Rise of the Almighty
WWE in 2021 would be remembered as a banner year for “The All Mighty,” Bobby Lashley, as he became the 53rd man to hold the WWE Championship after defeating The Miz on Monday Night Raw, weeks removed from The Miz winning the title against a wounded Drew McIntyre. Lashley’s reign would be a dominant one, as he held the title for 196 days, being one of eight men in wrestling to hold IMPACT Wrestling and WWE’s world titles (Kurt Angle, Mick Foley, Rob Van Dam, Jeff Hardy, AJ Styles, Drew McIntyre & Alberto El Patron)
Bad: Same Old Reliance on Legends
Since 2010, WWE has had an over-reliance of WWE legends to pop a rating or to get old/past fans interested in the new product. Consider the following points.
2010 saw Bret Hart’s return in 13 Years to WWE.
2011-13 was The Rock’s three-WrestleMania program with John Cena.
2014 saw Brock Lesnar ending the streak over a younger talent, Batista’s unfortunate failed return, an Evolution reunion, as well as the debut of Sting at Survivor Series.
2015 saw Sting compete for the WWE Championship at Survivor Series that year was a “celebration” of 25 years of The Undertaker.
WrestleMania 32 in 2016 with the likes of Mick Foley, Shawn Michaels, The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Shane McMahon, and Triple H having involvement, not to mention the return of Goldberg prior to that year’s Survivor Series event.
2017 saw The Hardy Boyz have a nostalgia run and John Cena= deemed a “free agent,” sometime after WrestleMania 33, then you add Kurt Angle to the mix (yes that was a Scott Steiner math reference).
2018 saw the Women’s Royal Rumble and Evolution events, and despite high praise, they deeply depended on the past to put them over, including appearances from the likes of Trish Stratus, Lita, Molly Holly, Michelle McCool, and Torrie Wilson just to name a few.
2019 saw WWE use Brock Lesnar as their safety net for their WWE and Universal title pictures.
2020 saw Edge’s return (which was awesome) and Randy Orton being in the WWE Championship picture.
This year just added to the growing problem WWE has only exacerbated. WWE in 2021 featured Edge, an established entity, winning his second Royal Rumble match and main eventing Night Two of WrestleMania. A match between Damian Priest and The Miz was considered the joke of the year with zombies surrounding the ring as lumberjacks, serving as a promotion tool for Batista’s newest movie at the time. Cena returned for a brief program with Roman Reigns to main event SummerSlam. Brock Lesnar returned following this match. Also, Survivor Series 2021 was a “celebration” of The Rock’s 25-year anniversary of his debut back in 1996; aside from a battle royal, and a random egg that was the basis of another movie from the formerly active wrestler, The Rock didn’t appear once. Not via satellite, not in a pre-recorded promo, or even in a cold open – there was no Rock.
The issue continues and it seems to not be getting any better. WWE still has talent, but the question is, are they able to market their current talent in a higher regard? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Good: Black Excellence, The Rise of Black Talent in the Main Event Scene
WrestleMania was a happy occasion if you are a black wrestling fan. In a scene that hasn’t seen many champions, this was the year that showcased that the absolute best. Speaking of the “Showcase of Immortals,” Night One’s main event saw then-Smackdown Women’s Champion Sasha Banks defend against Bianca Belair (note, the second-ever black wrestler to win the Royal Rumble match). Belair went on to win their title match at WrestleMania (joining Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair in an exclusive class).
In addition, it was fellow New Day member Big E’s turn to get their respected roses, not only becoming the first black wrestler to hold Money in the Bank honors but becoming the 54th WWE Champion, cashing in on Bobby Lashley. Following his victory, Big E embraced fellow New Day members Xavier Woods and former WWE Champion Kofi Kingston. As of writing this, Big E recently entered WWE Day 1 as the champion, holding the title for 89 days (in counting). Hopefully there’s more to come for the former Hawkeye standout.
Bad: The Unprofessionalism of Charlotte Flair
This has been a topic of discussion throughout the year. Since Charlotte Flair returned after what was stated by fiancé and partner Andrade El Idolo as an incorrect pregnancy test, Flair’s attitude has been different. Examples include blatantly flipping off the audience at Money in the Bank 2021, statements made online, and the unceremonious belt swapping alongside Sonya Deville and Becky Lynch that caused a stir between all parties involved. It seems that Flair is thinking about life after WWE, and it is weird to think one of the WWE Performance Center’s star graduates not in WWE anymore.
Good: The Return of John Cena
Despite the irony of the reliance on legends, Ft. Worth, Texas got a treat at the end of Money in the Bank as John Cena returned to a live audience for the first time since February of 2020 with absolutely the loudest pop of the entire year WWE has had (CM Punk’s First Dance outdid it)
Bad: Triple H’s Health
This is a serious matter that doesn’t involve kayfabe by any means. On September 9, WWE announced Paul “Triple H” Levesque underwent successful heart surgery after suffering a cardiac event caused by a genetic heart issue. This was a very serious event and many people within the wrestling world pointed the finger at Vince McMahon for the excess pressure that was put on the-then black and gold brand since the start of All Elite Wrestling. It’s not appropriate to put the finger on someone during troubling times that could’ve risked the health of someone. Here’s hoping that Triple H is doing better.
Good: The Return of Brock Lesnar
Again, the irony of my statement. Yes, this has been a good thing for a few reasons. For one, Brock Lesnar seems to be having a good time being on his own. Secondly, he’s showing a more lighthearted approach and a charisma that fans of WWE weren’t sure that he had. If you watched his Ultimate Fighting Championship days, you would know Lesnar’s charisma, as he didn’t have to hold back. This time around, Lesnar is in goofier skits with Sami Zayn, invading interview spaces, and just being himself. Thirdly, Lesnar’s overlooking of The Bloodline and the causing of friction between former advocate Paul Heyman and current Universal Champion Roman Reigns is making for great television, giving the audience the question of not “if,” but “when” will the turn happen? When will The Bloodline crumble? Is Brock Lesnar really telling the truth? Or is he in Reigns’s head “rent-free?”
Bad: Liv Morgan’s Promo Against Becky Lynch
Honestly, it would not be surprising if the voters of Wrestling Observer Newsletter gave this segment the award for “Most Disgusting Promotional Tactic.” (Although the stabbing of a referee at an indie show and then having the gall to put it on YouTube, very well may be a candidate as well). This was designed to get “heat” on Becky Lynch, when Liv Morgan stated Lynch’s “big contract” was the reason her friends are not in WWE anymore. Granted, it was the higher brass that did tell her to say it, though it was tacky nevertheless. WWE in 2021 and prior faced criticism due to mass releases of nearly 100 members of talent facing the main roster and NXT.
Good: Crown Jewel Was Unironically WWE’s Best Show
With the controversy surrounding the Saudi Arabia regime, there’s already an ethical smack in the face when it comes to supporting WWE partnering with the country’s Sporting Authority. Despite that, Crown Jewel was easily WWE’s best show of the entire year. Typically, the Saudi shows from a wrestling perspective is a mixed bag. This year was extremely different. The Hell in a Cell match between Edge and Seth Rollins was the main roster’s highest-rated match according to Dave Meltzer; add two more 4+ star rated matches with the WWE Champion Big E defending against Drew McIntyre and even the historic triple threat match between Smackdown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch, Bianca Belair, and Sasha Banks. Even Goldberg and Bobby Lashley delivered. This wasn’t a bad show by any means, featuring a healthy balance between the current stars and the older guard.
Bad: The Mass Releases
Now again, like the Triple H health segment, this is another serious topic that doesn’t involve around kayfabe. WWE, at the time of writing this, has released 81 wrestlers in the year 2021, with over 100 being released since the start of the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic. Notable names released include Braun Strowman, The IInspiration (Cassie Lee and Jessica McKay, formerly The IIconics), Nia Jax, Matt Cardona (fka Zack Ryder), Chelsea Greene, Ruby Soho, CJ “Lana” Perry, Buddy Matthews, Aleister Black (now Malakai Black), Killian Dain (aka Big Damo), Karrion Kross (aka Killer Kross), Jeff Hardy, Tegan Nox (aka Nixon Newell) & Keith Lee.
This was sad, preventable, also predictable. It’s sad since over 100 talent and personnel lost their jobs due to business decisions and it was completely unfair by any means. It was preventable due to many reasons. One reason was that since WWE was having a quote-on-quote big money year, profit-wise, it wasn’t necessary for the company to release these talented individuals. Secondly, if WWE brass had the indication of relying on their current talent, WWE wouldn’t have to rely on legends all the time and would have a solid basis on their own product.
This was also predictable due to the petty nature of signing all the talent to prevent them from going to AEW. Ironically, many of those signings went to AEW, IMPACT Wrestling, the National Wrestling Alliance, and even New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The issue for many fans of the product is that WWE managed to sign all this talent, a talent roster with the best depth it has seen since the year 2000 and they didn’t have anything for them. Consider that, in the 2000s, WWE had tag team depth, a consistent mid-card group with many wrestlers one foot in the main event scene, and a deep main event picture on top of consistently above average wrestling and several wrestlers in active programs. The irritation is that WWE has three hours of Raw, two hours of Smackdown, two hours of NXT, an hour of Main Event, an hour of 205 Live, and pay-per-views that run between three to five hours; there’s absolutely no excuse to mismanage Keith Lee, Karrion Kross, Samoa Joe, Aleister Black, or any rotation of stars.
Other Notable Good Moments in WWE in 2021: Nikki A.S.H’s successful cash-in, Edge & Christian reunite at the 2021 Royal Rumble, the return episode of SmackDown in front of live fans (Houston, TX), and Becky Lynch’s return.