Who Will Define AEW's Women's Division in 2021?
When All Elite Wrestling launched in January 2019, the new company promised a women's division unlike we've ever seen before.
Although AEW initially made some interesting signings, the fledgling roster has had its fair share of shortcomings and the subsequent criticism has been swift. With travel restrictions caused by COVID-19 and a slew of injuries in its rearview, hopefully it can deliver on this pledge in 2021.
There were some bright spots during the company's emergence, though. Riho grew into a fan favorite as its inaugural women's champion. Last year, Hikaru Shida proved to be a dominant titleholder, who produced several noteworthy matches, while Nyla Rose made history as the first transgender woman to hold a title in a North American promotion.
Some new faces have also made an impact with the advent of the YouTube series, AEW Dark. Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, Tay Conti, was a standout in the Women's Tag Team Cup Tournament and has continued to develop into a performer to watch. Similarly, Jade Cargill, Red Velvet and Leyla Hirsch have all made their way up to Dynamite and shown a lot of promise.
AEW has made some great strides, but there is still plenty of work to do if it wants to compete with NXT's stacked roster or even Impact's Knockouts division.
On the Jan. 20 episode of Dynamite, AEW announced the Women's World Championship Eliminator Tournament to decide the new No. 1 contender, which could be a great vehicle to showcase the talent it has and to right the ship.
For now, let's take a look at some women who could redefine AEW's women's division in 2021 and play a major role in upcoming storylines.
The Joshi Presence
First, we must address how vital joshi puroresu has been to AEW's plans so far. The hard-hitting Japanese women's style of wrestling helped the company stand out in its maiden year.
When AEW announced the women's world title tournament, the accompanying bracket featured the U.S. and Japanese flags. It's unclear what the significance of the image is yet, but it clearly suggests there will be a strong Joshi presence in the tournament.
In fact, the first match set—Serena Deeb vs. Riho—will mark the former champion's return to the States after a stint in Japan with Stardom. This is an exciting development because the 23-year-old was such an integral part of the foundation of the division. This also opens the door for more returning names such as Emi Sakura, Yuka Sakazaki, Shoko Nakajima, and Aja Kong.
More to the point, this could mean we will see some other Tokyo Joshi Pro or Gatoh Move stars debut with AEW. Maki Ito and Mei Suruga immediately stand out as up-and-comers who would be excellent additions to the 16-woman tournament.
For now, though, we will have to wait and see what this means, but this would be a great opportunity to further highlight Japanese women's wrestling.
Although Anna Jay is still a relative newcomer, she has improved in leaps and bounds since her debut on the Apr. 1, 2020 episode of AEW Dynamite.
The Star of the Show signed for the company with less than a year of experience, but she immediately showcased a firm understanding of theatrics and selling.
As the only woman to join The Dark Order, Jay took on The Queen Slayer moniker and quickly proved to be a special talent. Her brief feud with Brandi Rhodes illustrated that she has the potential to be a legitimate heel and her offense continues to improve. Her finishing move, the Rear-Naked Choke Hold, gives her a nice edge in addition to an array of convincing kicks.
At just 22, the Georgia native is the future of the women's division and a champion in the making. She has won three consecutive matches since unsuccessfully challenging Hikaru Shida for the title in November, making her a strong contender ahead of the Women's World Championship Eliminator Tournament.
So far, AEW is doing a fantastic job developing Jay. Even if she doesn't win the upcoming tournament, her future looks bright.
At its best, the AEW women's division has delivered some exceptional matches when given the chance. Character work, in-ring promos, and the television time needed to cultivate a following are the missing ingredients.
For example, Hikaru Shida is the best worker on the roster, but she hasn't grown that much as a character. That's the only thing that has hindered an otherwise sensational reign as champion. In order to get fans invested in their women wrestlers, AEW has to change that as soon as possible. Jade Cargill and Red Velvet's recent appearances on Dynamite are steps in the right direction at least.
If anyone can buck the trends we've come to expect, it's Big Swole. The last Phoenix of Rise champion initially turned heads in her match with Shanna on Episode 8 of AEW Dark. She went on to become one of the most well-defined characters in the division. Her larger-than-life personality and unparalleled swagger make her so easy to root for.
Last year, her rivalry with Dr. Britt Baker was incredibly entertaining. They were the first women to take part in a cinematic match at All Out 2020. The Tooth and Nail match was no five-star classic, but it allowed the competitors to do something character-driven for a change.
Moreover, Swole routinely received a favorable response from the live audience, so she was connecting with the fans before the pandemic hit. By the time large crowds return to AEW shows, she will work well as a plucky underdog.
Kris Statlander signed around the same time as Big Swole in November 2019. Right away, the indie wrestling standout brought a dynamic look and character to women's division and her physicality made her a believable threat.
At the end of the year, she went on a winning streak, starting with a convincing victory over Hikaru Shida on Dec. 4. Although The Galaxy's Greatest Alien unsuccessfully challenged Riho for the title on the anniversary edition of Dynamite, she still looked poised to be a star.
Statlander and Nyla Rose had a solid match at Revolution but she was once again unable to secure the title. Unfortunately, the 2019 IWTV Wrestler Of The Year suffered a torn ACL in a tag match on the June 10 episode of Dynamite. Her absence was a big blow for AEW over the summer, but she has been backstage recently for appearances on Being The Elite.
Hopefully, that indicates the 25-year-old will be ready to return to the ring in time for the Women's World Championship Eliminator Tournament. If she does, Statlander has to be an early favorite to win and go on to challenge Shida.
Serena Deeb's return to in-ring competition was one of the highlights of 2020, and it's hard to imagine anyone else deserved such an inspiring comeback story more.
The 15-year veteran essentially retired in 2015 before she took part in the inaugural Mae Young Classic in July 2017. In the following year, she became a coach at the WWE Performance Center where she helped to train its next crop of female wrestlers.
The company released her in April as a part of budget cuts caused by COVID-19, but Deeb hit the ground running and earned a contract with AEW in September.
In October, she shocked the world when she upset Thunder Rosa for the NWA World Women's Championship on Episode 7 of UWN Primetime LIVE. She returned to Dynamite holding the most historic women's title in the industry and delivered a fantastic match with Leyla Hirsch. In the last few months, the 34-year-old has successfully defended against Allysin Kay, Rosa and Tay Conti.
Deeb brings much-needed experience to the AEW women's division and will be invaluable as a leader in the locker room. The 41st NWA world women's champion has trained with some notable names such as Lance Storm and Terry Taylor, and her in-ring prowess will boost the company's reputation.
Britt Baker was the first woman AEW signed outside of The Elite. As such, she appeared to be positioned as the division's top star from the start. After all, Baker was present at all of the initial press events and she competed at the first pay-per-view event, Double or Nothing.
However, the Mayor of Brittsburgh didn't click with the fans early on. But the real-life dentist became one of the best characters on Dynamite when she turned heel on the Jan. 22 episode of AEW’s flagship series. Since, her scathing promo work and self-centered persona has become her greatest strength. The Lockjaw is also one of the best finishing moves in the company.
At this point, Baker seems destined to win the women’s title. Her upcoming match at Beach Break against Thunder Rosa will be a big test for her. Still, it's hard to think she wouldn't have won the top prize by now if she hadn't suffered two injuries last year that kept her out of action.
This year could well be the one when the self-proclaimed face of the AEW women's division claims the mantle and redefines it as a top heel champion.
Baker would be the perfect titleholder to build around now because her televised segments will make the division feel like a bigger part of the show every week. Furthermore, she would make a great protagonist for the rest of the women to chase.