Ranking the 5 Best Storylines in WWE and AEW of 2021
For both WWE and All Elite Wrestling, 2021 was a year of ups and downs creatively.
For every great story, there were two or three so-so programs that failed to light the wrestling world on fire. But those great stories were epics—some of the best in recent memory.
From a cowboy's pursuit of championship gold to the paranoia of an industry giant amid the challenge of a conqueror, they captivated fans and created a buzz about the industry that generated excitement and led to some of the most memorable moments of the year.
5. Seth Rollins Is NOT Edge Lite
Seth Rollins attacked a vulnerable Edge in 2014, using the former world champion as a pawn in his attempt to get The Authority reinstated to WWE. It is a moment The Rated-R Superstar remembered vividly and recalled when he engaged The Visionary in a monthslong feud that stretched from the summer and into the fall.
The feud, which saw Rollins obsessively brush off claims that he was Edge Lite before invading his rival's home and threatening his family, spawned three excellent matches.
Split right down the middle between SummerSlam and SmackDown in Madison Square Garden, the feud culminated inside Hell in a Cell with a Match of the Year candidate won by Edge.
For Edge, it was proof that he was still among the best wrestlers in the world. For Rollins, it was an opportunity to remind fans that, beneath the flashy suits and sometimes over-the-top material given to him by WWE Creative, he was still an elite worker.
More importantly, it was evidence of the storytelling mastery each possesses.
4. Bryan Danielson's Championship Chase
Bryan Danielson's quest for the AEW world title has taken him through two time-limit draws with top stars in professional wrestling.
The first came at Dynamite Grand Slam in New York's Arthur Ashe Stadium, where he went 30 minutes with Kenny Omega in a physical war of attrition. The second, three months later against Hangman Page, went 60 minutes.
In both matches, he neither won nor lost, which begs the question: Is it because he's good enough to go the distance with the champ or is it because he's not good enough to beat the champion in the allotted time?
That is a question that should be addressed, presumably by Page in the coming weeks, as they prepare for the inevitable rematch.
Even if it is not, Danielson's pursuit of the title has made for some fantastic television and resulted in Match of the Year candidates likely to win big in end-of-year conversations.
The fun-loving Riddle lives the high life and kicks people's chests in for a living. The uber-serious, calculating Randy Orton has made a career out of RKO'ing the elite in pro wrestling en route to 14 world title reigns. There are no two different Superstars on the WWE roster more different than them, yet they came together in 2021 to form a championship-winning duo who remains atop the Raw tag team division as the year comes to an end.
Orton has taken Riddle under his wing, helped him grow and evolve as a wrestler, all while shaking his head at the absurdities of the former mixed martial artist.
Yet, despite the disparity in character, the two have been wildly successful and, more importantly, immensely popular.
Orton's patience with Riddle's insubordination will inevitably wear thin and he will turn on the shoeless wonder, instigating a feud that will put The Original Bro over as the future face of Monday nights. Until then, the ride has been a fun one and injected much-needed energy and life into the red brand's midcard and tag team divisions.
2. Whose Side Is He On?
Is Paul Heyman a special counsel or is he an advocate?
It is a question Roman Reigns repeatedly found himself asking following Brock Lesnar's return at SummerSlam and subsequent targeting of his Universal Championship. Was the man he entrusted his business to a double agent, secretly working for Lesnar in some scheme to knock The Tribal Chief off the top of the WWE mountain?
His paranoia led to him asking Heyman one last time why the godfather of extreme was so hellbent on protecting Lesnar from The Head of the Table, to which Paul responded that he was more worried about protecting Reigns from The Beast.
Heyman was fired, creating questions about his loyalties now that he has seemingly been cast off by both of his former clients.
The story, in its fourth month and figuring to continue into the new year, has been among the bright spots on an otherwise up-and-down SmackDown brand in 2021.
1. Hangman Page's Championship Quest
At All Out in September 2019, Hangman Page failed to make good on his promise to become the first AEW champion. In the subsequent months, he doubted himself and turned to alcohol to ease the anxiety of his failure.
He won tag titles with Kenny Omega, but when he had a shot this past summer to earn a championship opportunity against his former partner-turned-rival, he failed.
Going home to celebrate the birth of his daughter, he disappeared from television until returning in October, winning the Casino Ladder match and earning the shot at Omega's title that eluded him earlier. Page vowed to bring "cowboy s--t" to Minneapolis and their long-awaited match and he did just that, defeating The Best Bout Machine and capturing the title in the emotional culmination of his incredible journey.
Page's willingness to lay himself out there for everyone to see, admitting his anxiety and expressing the importance of seeing the birth of his child at the expense of the hottest period of his career, endeared him to the audience and had it fully behind him as he entered the Target Center for his coronation.
It was the best story of 2021, arguably the best in AEW history and the sort of star-making narrative you wish the guys in the other company were more willing to tell.