Ranking the Best Storylines in WWE and AEW This Year

Graham GSM Matthews@@WrestleRantFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2021

Ranking the Best Storylines in WWE and AEW This Year

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    Edge vs. Seth Rollins was seven years in the making and did not disappoint.
    Edge vs. Seth Rollins was seven years in the making and did not disappoint.Credit: WWE.com

    Between WWE and All Elite Wrestling, many exceptional matches were had throughout 2021, but it was also a year full of compelling storylines that were fun to follow.

    That's especially impressive when you consider that both companies went the entire first half of the year without fans. In making the most of the unfortunate circumstances, WWE and AEW managed to keep viewers hooked on exciting feuds that produced must-see television week after week.

    The art of an awesome angle can be difficult to capture in this day and age because of social media, shorter attention spans and fans being able to predict most of what's about to happen. That isn't to say they're impossible to find, and in fact, those special storylines tend to mean more because they're so few and far between.

    While WWE in particular had one of its weaker years in recent memory creatively speaking, the various storyline gems sprinkled throughout the year kept a portion of the audience hopeful. They also served as a reminder that the promotion is capable of creating greatness when motivated.

    AEW, on the other hand, excelled with its countless surprises, arrivals and above-average in-ring action, but there were a select few angles that truly showcased what the company can do when the right pieces are in place.

    From championships being contested for to personal scores being settled, these were the top eight WWE and AEW on-air storylines of 2021. Most current rivalries, most notably CM Punk vs. MJF and Adam Page vs. Bryan Danielson, are not included because they are just getting underway.

Honorable Mentions

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    The Universal Championship Crusade Between Edge, Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns: What started out as just Edge vs. Reigns heading into WrestleMania 37 quickly turned into a three-way feud over SmackDown's top title when Bryan also got involved. The mic work was consistently phenomenal, and any one of them could have left 'Mania with the gold.


    Chris Jericho Runs MJF's Gauntlet: Inner Circle and The Pinnacle, and specifically Jericho and MJF, spent many months at each other's throats. The best portion of the program featured Jericho having to wrestle and beat opponents handpicked by MJF before Jericho could go finally go one-on-one with him.


    Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair's Battle for Respect: Belair and Banks spent the entire road to WrestleMania as reluctant tag team partners. Their rivalry didn't truly heat up until Banks returned during SummerSlam season and cemented her heel turn with a vicious attack on Belair. They brought the best out of each other both in the ring and on the mic every time they crossed paths.


    Sting Returns to the Ring: After months of teasing it, Sting finally got physical with Team Taz in February and announced his first match in over five years at Revolution. The storyline had a slow build, but it ultimately had a satisfying payoff, with Sting and Darby Allin reigning supreme over Team Taz.


    Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn Return to Their Roots as Rivals: For the many battles Owens and Zayn have had over the course of their careers, they never went one-on-one at WrestleMania until this year. They rekindled their rivalry right before The Show of Shows, had a great match and went on wage war for the remainder of the spring on SmackDown.

8. Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair Blur the Lines of Reality

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    Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair was far from a fresh feud in 2021, but the latest chapter in their storied rivalry may have been the best yet.

    Coming out of the 2021 WWE Draft, both women found themselves switching shows, with Lynch returning to Raw and Flair heading back to the blue brand. An anticlimactic title swap between the two women on the October 22 edition of SmackDown actually ended up being the catalyst for what would be a brilliant build to their battle for brand supremacy at Survivor Series.

    Rumors ran rampant that there was legitimate tension during said segment and that Lynch and Flair were no longer friends behind the scenes. Even their interactions on social media seemed to indicate they weren't as close as they once were, and that only added fuel to the fire.

    In the weeks preceding the pay-per-view, Lynch and Flair took turns ripping each other apart on the microphone and referencing real-life issues that may have hit a little too close to home. The audience ate up every word and knew they were in for quite the collision at Survivor Series.

    Sure enough, it felt like an actual fight between two former friends. They already had strong in-ring chemistry, but throwing those elements of reality into the mix made this match and the entire angle the highlight of Survivor Series season.

7. Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa Raise the Bar

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    Up until earlier this year, AEW was lacking that one defining feud for its ultra-talented women's division. The AEW Women's World Championship was being defended in some excellent matches prior to 2021, but it wasn't involved in many memorable programs.

    Hikaru Shida's absence from AEW programming in the first few months of the year created a noticeable gap in the women's scene, one that was quickly filled by Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa. Baker was already gaining steam as a heel following her feud with Big Swole, and Rosa was becoming a fan-favorite among the AEW faithful.

    The storyline started in late 2020 when Baker cost Rosa the NWA World Women's Championship and only escalated from there. They brawled every chance they had and let it be known to the world that their animosity for each other was unparalleled.

    Baker managed to beat Rosa in a well-wrestled match at the Beach Break edition of Dynamite, but Rosa refused to settle until she gave AEW's resident dentist her comeuppance. That led to the two of them having an unprecedented women's Lights Out Unsanctioned match and headlining Dynamite for the first time ever as well.

    Their brutal, bloody affair saw Rosa emerge victorious in what was widely regarded as one of the best bouts all year for AEW. Expect them to rekindle their rivalry in 2022, this time over the AEW Women's World Championship.

6. Malakai Black Attempts to Turn Cody Rhodes to the Dark Side

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    WWE's loss was AEW's gain when it came to Malakai Black, who quickly made his presence felt in his new home with a shocking debut on the July 7 edition of Dynamite. It was the company's first show back on the road, and thus the timing couldn't have been better.

    He made an immediate impact by targeting a top dog in Cody Rhodes and his manager Arn Anderson, laying out both men with devastating kicks to the head. It was an impactful way for him to arrive, and the follow-up with Black getting the best of Rhodes week after week cemented his status as a star.

    AEW rushed into its first singles match on the August 4 edition of Dynamite, with Black winning in dominant fashion. It was essentially a one-sided squash that not only put over Black huge but got Rhodes one step closer to the dark side, which was Black's plan all along.

    The more Rhodes tried to rival Black, he almost always fell short. Instead of rallying behind him, fans began booing the second-generation star and changed his character's dynamic completely.

    Black benefited from his various victories over Rhodes and the rest of The Nightmare Factory, whereas Rhodes is still struggling to win over the audience again. Even in defeat, Black succeeded in what he set out to do.

5. The Rise of RK-Bro

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    Riddle and Randy Orton were 2021's unlikeliest of allies and wound up being among the best parts of the product all year.

    Ironically, Orton started off the year involved in one of the worst storylines of 2021 with Bray Wyatt and Alexa Bliss. Their match at WrestleMania 37 was vastly underwhelming, and Orton winning in the fashion he did literally killed the career of The Fiend.

    Thankfully, it was a mere eight days later that Orton was already on to the next thing with Riddle, who scored a shocking singles win over him on Raw. A "bromance" blossomed from that point onward, and they haven't looked back since.

    It took time for Riddle to gain Orton's trust, and many believed Riddle was going to find himself on the receiving end of an RKO sooner rather than later. WWE swerved its audience by actually following through with the two as tag partners and not breaking them as soon as they had a chance to get going.

    By SummerSlam, they were officially on the same page, and it was there that they dethroned AJ Styles and Omos to become Raw Tag Team champions. They've been the standard-bearers of that division all year, regardless of whether they've been a cohesive unit or not.

4. Eddie Kingston Gets Personal with CM Punk

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    Despite their storyline being so brief, Eddie Kingston and CM Punk went to great lengths to get people to buy into their bad blood heading into the Full Gear pay-per-view on such short notice, and they ended up making magic.

    The biggest criticism among fans regarding Punk's first few months in AEW was that he was still searching for his first full-fledged feud. He was beating people left and right and going undefeated in one-on-one action, but he had yet to sink his teeth into a meaningful program.

    Enter Eddie Kingston.

    Punk was fresh off a win over Bobby Fish on Dynamite when he was confronted backstage by Kingston, who took exception to Punk's presence in the company based on how he treated him years earlier. The two had a heated exchange that night that turned into an all-out war of words on the subsequent show.

    Of the two, Kingston's emotional promo was easily superior, and the fans let him know it. Nonetheless, Punk got fired up for a change, and the backstage brawl between them set the stage for their Full Gear encounter nicely.

    Their match at the event matched the build perfectly. It was gritty, it was hard-hitting, and it was real, which was what made this such a treat to experience. Here's hoping it isn't long before they rekindle their rivalry, because this was too good to not revisit eventually.

3. Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar: Where Does Paul Heyman's Allegiance Lie?

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    Similar to Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, this is a feud that has been done to death over the years yet has felt completely fresh because of the fresh coat of paint both megastars have gotten this year.

    Having held the Universal Championship for nearly the whole 12 months, there can be no doubt that 2021 was the year of Roman Reigns. He didn't turn his career around until aligning with Paul Heyman in August 2020, so it can be argued that the genius behind ECW was the biggest driving factor behind Reigns' resurgence.

    Previously, Heyman mainly associated with Lesnar and no one else, but with Lesnar gone from the company following WrestleMania 36, Heyman only answered to The Tribal Chief. Fans always questioned what would happen if The Beast ever resurfaced to confront Reigns and Heyman, and we finally got our answer at SummerSlam.

    The surreal moment of the three sharing the ring together was followed up with exceptional storytelling on SmackDown. Lesnar showed more personality than he had in years and acted confident that he and Heyman were still buddies while Reigns acted afraid of Lesnar showing an interest in his Universal Championship.

    Every interaction Lesnar, Reigns and Heyman had left viewers wondering where Heyman's allegiance lied, and we have yet to get an answer. Their Crown Jewel match was a fantastic first chapter of this story they're trying to tell, and the next chapter will come at Day 1.

2. Edge Seeks Revenge on Seth Rollins 7 Years Later

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    For seven years, Edge was haunted by the image of Seth Rollins nearly ending his life when he threatened to hit him with a Curb Stomp into the mat and paralyze him forever. In 2021, one year removed from returning to the ring and getting medically cleared to compete again, he had the chance to avenge that fateful day.

    That was where the storyline started, but it was revisited when Rollins cost Edge the Universal Championship at Money in the Bank. Edge noted that he never forgot what Rollins did to him way back when in 2014 and that he was going to put "Edge lite" in his place once and for all at SummerSlam.

    It was a simple and effective build made only better by the show-stealing match they produced at the event. Edge's win appeared to mark the finale of the feud when in reality it was only just beginning.

    Rollins continued to make life miserable for The Rated-R Superstar in the weeks that followed, including beating him senseless in a match at Madison Square Garden and invading his home. Edge didn't take Rollins' heinous antics lightly and responded by challenging him to a Hell in a Cell match at Crown Jewel.

    The storyline was so riveting ahead of the event that it made the match and its stipulation that much more meaningful. They had an instant classic like only they could, and Edge's hard-fought victory was exactly how it needed to end.

1. Adam Page's Quest for Kenny Omega's AEW World Championship

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    It was evident when Kenny Omega won the AEW World Championship in December 2020 that all roads would lead to Adam Page dethroning him as champion when the time was right to cap off what would become a two-year story arc.

    With CM Punk and Bryan Danielson coming in and other stars getting hot, it would have been easy for AEW to go in a different direction and have someone else end Omega's reign of terror instead. Rather, they stayed the course with Hangman and ensured he got his rightful shot in the main event of Full Gear—the same show Omega beat him at one year earlier.

    The story was beautifully told throughout the year. While Omega focused on beating every challenger in front of him, Page kept racking up wins and building a case for why he should be next in line for a title opportunity. He originally crossed paths with Omega and the rest of The Elite over the summer, but fatherhood led to Page taking time off and the rivalry being put on the back burner until October.

    Despite Page being off AEW TV for over two months, he returned as over as ever and went on to win the title at Full Gear in a thrilling main event where he had the crowd behind him every step of the way. They didn't miss a beat upon going back to the feud two months later, and the payoff was pure perfection.

    It remains to be how seen how anything AEW or even WWE do in 2022 will top these top-tier storylines, but the hope is that they laid the groundwork for equally engaging angles still to come and that masterful storytelling is achievable when executed appropriately.


    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.