10 WWE and AEW Breakout Stars from the 1st Half of 2021

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2021

10 WWE and AEW Breakout Stars from the 1st Half of 2021

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    Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley have been two of WWE's brightest stars in 2021.
    Bianca Belair and Rhea Ripley have been two of WWE's brightest stars in 2021.Credit: WWE.com

    The first half of 2021 coming to a close provides WWE and All Elite Wrestling fans the opportunity to look back on everything that's gone down so far this year and appreciate all of the wrestlers that have made names for themselves.

    It was evident at the beginning of the year that new stars had to be made. Thanks to an ample amount of people being afforded opportunities, both companies have made strides in that respect.

    Whether they've been on the roster for a while and have been underutilized before recently or have gotten an aggressive push right out of the gate, the biggest breakout stars from 2021 have all impressed one way or another. That could be in the ring, on the mic, in a storyline or a combination of all three.

    Roman Reigns, Drew McIntyre and Kenny Omega have been among the top performers on their respective rosters up to this point in 2021, but their success was expected after how they ended 2020. It was far from a guarantee that any fresh faces would emerge and also thrive, but more than a handful of competitors have managed to do just that.

    There's no telling what the remainder of the year will have in store for these 10 talents, of course, but their strong starts to 2021 should bode well for their immediate futures. More importantly, their exceptional work this year must at the least be recognized and appreciated.

Bianca Belair

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Bianca Belair has been on WWE's main roster for just over a year now, yet her greatest successes have come in the last six months alone.

    The former EST of NXT arrived on the main roster one night removed from WrestleMania 36 but floundered in the months that followed. She went undefeated in singles competition for many months but didn't find direction until being drafted to SmackDown in October 2020.

    So far in 2021, she's won the women's Royal Rumble match as the number three entrant, headlined WrestleMania and run rampant over the SmackDown women's roster as SmackDown Women's champion. She also became the first non-Four Horsewoman to compete (and win) inside Hell in a Cell.

    At this time a year ago, WWE was lacking top talent in the women's divisions on Raw and SmackDown beyond Bayley, Sasha Banks and Asuka. Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch being gone for the latter half of the year didn't help, but Belair's rapid rise has given fans another name to get behind in the championship picture.

    Even once her current reign as champ ends, she will still have cemented herself as a main event player in WWE. From Day 1, Belair was a star waiting to break out, and now that she's been afforded a few opportunities, she's more than made the most of them.

Jungle Boy

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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    Jungle Boy has had his glimmers of greatness over the last two years and is beginning to break out into the successful singles star he's bound to be.

    He's been aligned to Luchasaurus and Marko Stunt from the get-go, and together, the act is entertaining. Jurassic Express were over with the audience prior to the pandemic, but the lack of fans over the last year did their momentum no favors.

    That gave Jungle Boy the chance to hone his skills on his own, and he's been flourishing. Look no further than his one-on-one match with Dax Harwood from the January 27 edition of Dynamite or his strong showing in the Casino Battle Royale at Double or Nothing, in which he emerged victorious.

    He capped off his fantastic first half of 2021 in an AEW World Championship main event on Dynamite last weekend against Kenny Omega. Although he fell short of victory, he had an exceptional performance and proved himself to be a future main event player in the promotion.

    Championship gold has alluded him up to this point in his AEW run, but it's more a matter of when and not if he'll be holding a title, and it sure seems to be coming sooner rather than later.

Bobby Lashley

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    Credit: WWE.com

    At 44-years-old, Bobby Lashley is just now hitting his stride as a singles performer in WWE. More accurately, WWE has only just started featuring him as what he's been all along: world championship material.

    The All Mighty originally returned to WWE in April 2018 following a lengthy hiatus and could have contended for a top title even at that point. However, the company clearly didn't see that same amount of value in him seeing as how he went on to largely do nothing until linking up with MVP and the rest of The Hurt Business in the summer of 2020.

    MVP going to bat for Lashley last year led him to becoming United States champion, and a dominant one at that. Thankfully, that hot momentum carried over into the new year and led to the start of a reign as WWE champion on the March 1 edition of Raw when he knocked off The Miz for the prestigious prize.

    To WWE's credit, it has yet to bungle Lashley's booking. He's been protected at all costs these past few months and has been the best part of the program during his time on top.

    Of course, the key is in the aftermath, as there are no guarantees he'll remain a top-tier talent on the show once he inevitably loses the title. Hopefully his terrific work thus far in 2021 has been enough to convince WWE that he deserves a permanent position among the elite.

Anthony Ogogo

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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    At this time one year ago, Anthony Ogogo was a relative unknown in AEW, at least to those who solely watch Dynamite. He was signed within months of the promotion's launch in 2019, yet he was relegated to a role on Dark commentary for his first two years.

    It wasn't until QT Marshall and his pupils severed ties with Cody Rhodes and The Nightmare Factory that he became a familiar face to fans. Despite Marshall being positioned as the leader of their mini faction, Ogogo obviously had the most potential of the bunch.

    After Cody disposed of Marshall one-on-one at Blood and Guts, Ogogo took center stage and targeted the former AEW TNT champion. His push was abrupt, but he made the most of every opportunity he was given by standing tall over Cody at almost every turn and showing he had what it took to be a terrific talker.

    In his first few televised matches, Ogogo put his opponents away in a matter of moments. He ultimately failed to defeat Cody at Double or Nothing but looked credible in the loss.

    Ogogo has laid low for the last month, but he should make a major comeback one of these days. If he can continue to fine-tune his in-ring skills, he has all the makings of a star.

Damian Priest

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    Credit: WWE.com

    WWE rarely gets it right with the NXT call-ups, but Damian Priest has proved to be an exception in the first half of 2021.

    His decisive loss to Karrion Kross at NXT's New Year's Evil event at the onset of the year indicated he was on his way up to the main roster imminently. Sure enough, he debuted in the men's Royal Rumble match later that month and eliminated three stars (including WWE Hall of Famer Kane) before being tossed out himself.

    He wasted no time in making a name for himself by beating former WWE champion The Miz on the next night's Raw and establishing an alliance with popular rapper Bad Bunny. That earned him a regular role on Raw leading up to WrestleMania 36, where he and Bad Bunny stole the show in a tag team match against Miz and John Morrison.

    Although the feud had no business continuing beyond The Show of Shows, Priest continued to rack up wins over Miz and Morrison in singles competition. He disappeared for over a month—reportedly dealing with personal matters, per PWInsider (h/t Marc Middletown of WrestlingInc.com)—only to resurface on Monday night and come close to winning the Money in the Bank Battle Royal qualifier.

    He may not be involved in the Money in the Bank Ladder match coming up this month, but he will most definitely be wearing gold before long. United States champion Sheamus is virtually guaranteed to be in his sights come SummerSlam.

Tay Conti

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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    To think Tay Conti was under a developmental deal with WWE for almost three years and it did next to nothing with her in that time is mind-boggling when you consider how quickly she has gotten over in front of the AEW audience.

    In all fairness, she wasn't an amazing wrestler when she was with WWE, and she's still improving in that area to this day. However, she did have a presence about her even then, and the company failed to capitalize on it.

    Instead, WWE let her go during the massive wave of cuts in April 2020. Its loss soon became AEW's gain.

    She was brought in to work a handful of matches as an enhancement talent, and slowly but surely, she found her footing inside the squared circle and showed signs of progress. She then embarked on a winning streak on Dark that ultimately earned her a contract with the promotion.

    She's proved to be a great get for AEW's women's division, having racked up wins over The Bunny and Nyla Rose on Dynamite. She even took Hikaru Shida to the limit for the AEW Women's World Championship in the spring, and it won't be the last time she'll be fighting for gold in AEW.

Apollo Crews

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    Credit: WWE.com

    After spinning his wheels in the undercard for four years, Apollo Crews finally captured his first title in WWE in the form of the United States Championship last May. He had a decent reign but was quickly forgotten about again once it ended.

    It was clear Crews wasn't going to get anywhere as a face, which is why him turning heel at the onset of 2021 was the best thing he could have done. It cemented him as a fixture in the Intercontinental Championship picture and led him to becoming the Intercontinental champ by beating Big E at WrestleMania 37 in what was his first singles match on The Show of Shows.

    Better yet, it hasn't been a generic character shift in the slightest. Between his new gear, entrance music, attitude and even accent, he has everything going for him at the moment and has overcome every obstacle put in front of him.

    It raises the question of why WWE didn't attempt to flip the switch earlier. Of course, it's better than never, and now he and Commander Azeez are in prime position to shine on SmackDown in the remainder of 2021.


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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    Following a shaky start to his stint in AEW, Miro is officially off to the races as the new AEW TNT champion.

    There was no reason he couldn't have been better positioned on the card from the moment he arrived. He was given a gamer gimmick and paired off with Kip Sabian instead, and although that accurately reflected who he is in reality, it was a poor use of someone who had the potential to be so much more.

    Thankfully, he eventually severed ties with Sabian and branched off into singles competition. Within weeks, he unseated Darby Allin as TNT champ and has been on a dominant roll ever since.

    Miro should have been a breakout star at the start, but at least now he's where he should have been all along. There's plenty of opponents he can defend his title against in the months to come, and already he's had a handful of quality matches.

    It remains to be seen what his ultimate ceiling is in AEW, but if he can stay on the course he's on, he'll be a certified top talent from here on out.


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    Credit: WWE.com

    Cesaro had been a tag team player for so long in WWE that fans ultimately accepted that was where he'd likely be slotted for the remainder of his career. The company took a chance on him as a singles star in 2014 before getting cold feet and never pushing him at that same level again, at least until 2021 arrived.

    He started off the year with a pair of impressive wins over Daniel Bryan, and that put him on the right track toward singles success. He transitioned into a rivalry with Seth Rollins from there, and when it mattered most at WrestleMania 37, Cesaro secured the victory over the four-time WWE world champion.

    That wasn't the peak of his push, either. The Swiss Superman rode that wave of momentum into WrestleMania Backlash, where he vied for the Universal Championship against Roman Reigns in his first-ever pay-per-view singles main event.

    The two contested an instant classic, and although the outcome largely wasn't in doubt, that didn't stop Cesaro from giving it his all and putting on the performance of a lifetime. Although his loss that night bumped him back down the card a bit, he's remained in the main event mix over the last few months.

    Cesaro may never win a world title in WWE, but the important thing is that he's finally being given more chances to shine and is right where he should be on the card.

Rhea Ripley

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    Credit: WWE.com

    Much like Bianca Belair, Rhea Ripley was the new blood WWE's women's division desperately needed at the time of her call-up earlier this year.

    She wrapped up her run in NXT on the same show as Damian Priest and also debuted in a Royal Rumble match later that month. At entrant number 14, she lasted over 39 minutes and racked up seven eliminations, lasting until the end before being thrown out by Bianca Belair.

    Her disappearance from WWE TV after that was puzzling as it took time for the company to capitalize on her dominant showing that night, but she did debut just ahead of WrestleMania 37. On the night of her arrival, she confronted Asuka and challenged her to a Raw Women's Championship match on The Grandest Stage of Them All.

    She didn't disappoint, either. The Nightmare soundly defeated Asuka to take the title and has held it since then with successful defenses against both The Empress of Tomorrow and Charlotte Flair, including in a Triple Threat at WrestleMania Backlash.

    Her character remains a work in progress as WWE seemingly hasn't quite figured out yet whether she's supposed to be a babyface or a heel. Otherwise, the sky is the limit for this promising up-and-comer who has already taken the Raw women's division by storm.


    Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.