The Biggest Surprises from WWE and AEW in 2021
Wrestling is entertainment built on moment-to-moment excitement. One of the best ways to spark that is through surprises.
These are the rare opportunities for WWE, All Elite Wrestling or any other promotion to pull off a moment that transcends casual viewing.
It could be a win few predicted, the return of a legendary performer after time away, or it could be a business decision that shakes the foundation of the entire industry.
From CM Punk to Becky Lynch, the following are the biggest surprises of 2021.
CM Punk Returns to Wrestling After Seven Years
Before 2021, the idea of CM Punk returning to professional wrestling was inconceivable. He was so disappointed by his experience with WWE that he had given up what he loved. He took a brief shot at MMA that did not go well, and he seemingly shifted to commentary.
Tony Khan stepped in to change that. Selling The Best in the World on AEW's product, he managed to convince Punk that he would be able to have the run he always wanted with his burgeoning company.
While word got around that The Best in the World would debut in Chicago for AEW Rampage: The First Dance on Aug. 20, many still were skeptical right up to the moment the show went on the air.
However, the sound of "Cult of Personality" fought with the raucous noise from the crowd to ensure a memorable moment that no other could match in 2021. AEW had changed the business in a way that will be felt for years to come.
Since then, Punk has had some great matches and moments, especially highlighted by his story with Eddie Kingston and growing rivalry with MJF.
Becky Lynch Returns to WWE and Wins SmackDown Women's Championship
Few women can make such an impact on the business that their star power rivals the top male stars, and an argument can be made that Becky Lynch is the biggest name in WWE outside of Roman Reigns.
She went on maternity leave at the height of her popularity in May 2020, and the women's division struggled to keep the same relevancy. Her return at SummerSlam in August was one of the biggest moments WWE has seen in a long time.
The surprise came from the build. Bianca Belair was supposed to face Sasha Banks in a WrestleMania rematch for the SmackDown women's title, but an unexpected absence opened up the opportunity for a shocking outcome.
The positive of this surprise was the return of Lynch, who has put on a series of great matches since her return, notably with Charlotte Flair and The EST of WWE.
The negative was the presentation at SummerSlam. She defeated Belair with a single side slam in seconds, ending an important run for a young star on the rise. While The EST remains an important figure on Raw, it did not feel like the right time for her to lose, especially in such a sudden fashion.
Adam Cole, Bryan Danielson and Ruby Soho Debut at AEW All Out
All Out 2021 was a special moment in All Elite Wrestling history. CM Punk had his first match in seven years, and the card was stacked with major title matches and unforgettable moments.
Nothing left as lasting an impression as the surprise arrivals over the course of the show, though. Reports came out weeks before of both Bryan Danielson and Ruby Soho signing with AEW, and those rumors seemed to dampen the moments that would come.
Even before she arrived as the Joker in the Casino Battle Royale, fans were chanting for Soho, who managed to defeat the field to instantly establish her as one of the company's top women. While she was largely underutilized in WWE, fans knew she had the talent to thrive.
Danielson was also expected to arrive soon, but there was no true guarantee he would be at All Out. However, before he could make his entrance to interrupt Kenny Omega, there was another surprise.
Just two weeks after his contract ended with WWE, Adam Cole emerged to a raucous ovation and revealed he was joining The Elite. This brought out Danielson to declare his intent to topple the group.
It was the final cheer of an impactful night. AEW made its clearest statement of intent with a phenomenal buy rate and moments that would shake up pro wrestling.
The Miz Wins the WWE Championship and Loses It Within Weeks to Bobby Lashley
WWE pulled a few tricks in 2020 with the Money in the Bank briefcase. After Otis claimed a shocking victory, he found himself tricked into a match with his contract on the line. The Miz defeated him with the help of Tucker and would seemingly position himself as an easy scapegoat to lose.
Instead, after a poorly devised cash-in attempt at Tables, Ladders & Chairs a year ago went wrong, he was given his briefcase back and managed to defeat Drew McIntyre after a grueling Elimination Chamber match to capture the WWE Championship.
It was a short-lived title reign. Bobby Lashley helped The A-Lister win the gold and then demanded his own championship shot, and he would take the title in dominant fashion.
This whole cycle of events showed that WWE was finally willing to put over veterans. The Miz had an awkward WWE Championship reign that never panned out, but it added a title to his record that should solidify his legacy.
It was also a natural transition to Lashley's first world title reign, but it's a wonder it took so long. The All Mighty is everything WWE should be looking for, and he showed in his reign just what he can do.
Malakai Black Arrives in AEW Just 35 Days After WWE Release
It could be argued that the two other big surprises for AEW in 2021 were not surprises at all. Many expected them. But the one moment no one could have predicted was the arrival of Malakai Black.
After his shocking release from WWE on June 2, it seemed Black was destined to sit and do nothing for three months like most outgoing Superstars. Instead, the company seemingly made a mistake with his non-compete clause.
After 35 days, he arrived unexpectedly to lay out Cody Rhodes with Black Mass. Before CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole and Ruby Soho, The Dutch Destroyer debuted with the shocking power and force that has made him an enigmatic presence in AEW.
He is the only wrestler with two singles victories over Rhodes, and his entrance strikes fear in a way that few can match. It feels like it has all come together for Black to define the future of AEW.
WWE Releases Bray Wyatt, Braun Strowman, Hit Row and Many More
It is disappointing to end on such a sour note, but nothing has been more shocking in 2021 than the number of wrestlers WWE has released. This includes two names featured earlier in this article: Malakai Black and Ruby Soho.
The company also released Bray Wyatt, Braun Strowman, Hit Row, Keith Lee, Karrion Kross, Nia Jax and more. Many stars featured on programming and advertisements just days before their exits. Add to this so many more names WWE has hoarded and misused.
In many ways, it felt like WWE reckoning with signing so many talent in order to take away those stars from other possible competitors. AEW's success showed this strategy was unwarranted, causing many to be cast aside unexpectedly.
Wyatt was a major star in WWE until his final day, but Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful reported behind-the-scenes drama led to his sudden departure. It is less clear what would have caused WWE to let go of a former world champion like Strowman so suddenly.
There was no rhyme or reason to the releases that included Hit Row, a group that had proved themselves again and again only to released weeks after debuting on SmackDown.
Nothing changed the industry quite like WWE's multiple releases. NXT was forced to evolve, the industry was so overloaded with talent that no company could keep up, and many wrestlers were left without a regular pay check by a company that once promised stability.