Ranking the 15 Best AEW Matches of 2021

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2021

Ranking the 15 Best AEW Matches of 2021

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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    All Elite Wrestling lived up to its name in 2021, providing fans with the best in-ring product of any major promotion thanks to one of the most stacked rosters ever assembled in professional wrestling.

    So consistent was the quality of the action from bell to bell that narrowing the list of the year’s best to just 15 was a challenge.

    From technical masterpieces featuring the likes of Bryan Danielson and Kenny Omega to bloody brawls incorporating both men and women, the promotion produced superb matches with nearly every outing.

    In a year that saw Tony Khan and Co. add CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole, Kyle O'Reilly, Bobby Fish and Malakai Black to a roster that already included veterans like Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks and Omega, as well as young pillars like Darby Allin, MJF and Jurassic Express, these are the 15 encounters that captivated audiences and best exemplified what made AEW wrestling's top company over the last 12 months.

15. Bryan Danielson vs. Dustin Rhodes (Dynamite, October 23)

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    The first entry in our countdown of AEW's best of 2021 saw grizzled veteran Dustin Rhodes try to play keep-up with a wrestler at an elite level, chasing his goal of becoming world champion once against Bryan Danielson.

    Rhodes was gritty, proving every bit as resilient as he has throughout his career, but he could not halt the onslaught of his opponent.

    In the first round of the AEW World Title Eliminator tournament that he would ultimately conquer a month later at Full Gear, Danielson defeated The Natural and cashed his ticket to the next round.

    For Rhodes, it was another reminder that even at 52 years old, he still has the drive and desire to perform at a high level. For Danielson, it was a statement performance that indicated his classic against Kenny Omega a month earlier was the rule, not the exception when it came to what AEW fans could expect out of The American Dragon.

    More on that match a little later.

14. Jurassic Express vs. The Young Bucks (Dynamite, August 18)

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    The Young Bucks ruled tag team wrestling in 2021, and on the August 18 episode of Dynamite, Matt and Nick Jackson conquered one of the greatest threats to their reign as champions when they knocked off Jurassic Express' Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus.

    The challengers overcame interference by everyone—from world champion Kenny Omega to The Good Brothers and Brandon Cutler—before they appeared to have the victory in hand. The alertness of Nick to break up a pin then join his brother for a BTE Trigger proved the difference as the industry's top team secured the victory.

    A high-energy bout that would spawn several more matches featuring the talent involved well into the fall, it positioned Jurassic Express as foes of the Bucks, who would see their luck run out weeks later at All Out when they dropped the titles to the Lucha Bros in a match we will touch upon in a bit.

13. Riho vs. Serena Deeb (Double or Nothing: Buy In, May 30)

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    There may not have been an elaborate story or any real feud between Serena Deeb and Riho entering their match for the former's NWA Women's Championship during The Buy-In prior to Double or Nothing in May, but they proved quickly that there didn't have to be.

    In a physical match that saw Deeb flex her heel muscles and provide a taste of what the rest of the year would hold for her, she gleefully beat down Riho and transitioned from one submission to the next. Riho, deceptively tough despite her smaller stature, fought her way back into the match and looked like she may pull off the upset until the relentless champion pounded her knee into the mat and forced a tapout with the Serenity Lock.

    The win set the stage for what would be a banner year for Deeb, who established herself as the best technician in major women's wrestling and a top heel in the AEW women's division. Her feud with Hikaru Shida would produce three superb matches, all of which would have received recognition on a list of the 30 best matches in the company this year.

12. The Inner Circle vs. The Pinnacle (Dynamite, May 5)

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    If not for the convoluted finish, the Blood and Guts match from the May 5 episode of Dynamite would have landed far higher on this countdown.

    As it is, the war between The Inner Circle and The Pinnacle was an appropriately violent, bloody affair that wrote the latest chapter in their escalating feud.

    A modern take on the classic War Games match, it told the stories of two feuding factions and the personal vendetta between their respective leaders, Chris Jericho and MJF, culminating in the latter shoving his mentor and former idol off the cage and through the entrance stage.

    Originally intended for the feud between The Elite and The Inner Circle a year earlier before the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated crowds and forced wrestling companies to take their shows to empty venues in Florida, fans finally got their first taste of the gimmick bout, and the talent involved more than delivered, delivering on lofty expectations.

11. Darby Allin vs. MJF (Full Gear, November 13)

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    Who is the top young star in AEW?

    It was a question at the center of the rivalry between Darby Allin and MJF that culminated in their hotly anticipated match at Full Gear. The opening contest of the November 13 pay-per-view, it called upon several different story threads introduced throughout the rivalry, including MJF's claims that he could beat the oftentimes reckless Allin with a simple headlock takeover.

    Allin proved to be more than his stunt-based offense suggests, outwrestling his opponent on more than one occasion and keeping up with him throughout the encounter. Just when it looked like the scarf-wearing loudmouth might not escape with his arm raised in victory, he blasted Allin with the Dynamite Diamond Ring, applied the headlock and took him over into a pinfall for the tainted win.

    The match—a brilliant bit of storytelling one would assume is beyond the years of the competitors involved—confirmed the growth and evolution of two of AEW's best and brightest. This is a pairing that will wage war, and earn recognition on lists like this, for many years to come.

10. CM Punk vs. Darby Allin (All Out, September 5)

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    The weight of the world was on CM Punk's shoulders as he returned to Chicago for the second time in a handful of weeks for the All Out pay-per-view and a date with Darby Allin. The wrestling world had been whipped into a fervor for his return, had hung on every word of his first couple of promos back, but there was still one lingering question ahead of the showdown: Could he still go?

    It had been seven years since he competed in a pro wrestling ring, and fans were right to question whether ring rust would hamper his first match back.

    Those fans got their answer as he delivered early and often at the September 5 extravaganza.

    Punk shook off any nervousness early and proceeded to put on a performance against Allin the likes of which took even his most ardent supporters by surprise. He hardly looked out shape or fazed by the moment. Instead, he was a returning hero clashing with a modern great, each seeking a win that would silence their doubters.

    Punk got that victory, putting Allin to sleep with the GTS before showing him respect via a post-match handshake. A homecoming, a return to form and a triumphant first match back make this a fairly magical night for the Straight Edge Superstar.

    Not to mention the first of a few appearances in our top 10.

9. Sting, Darby Allin and CM Punk vs. MJF and FTR (Dynamite, December 22)

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    Speaking of Punk, he appears in the latest entry on our list; a blockbuster six-man tag team match from the December 22 Holiday Bash episode of Dynamite.

    The Voice of the Voiceless partnered with his All Out opponent, Allin, and "The Icon" Sting to battle MJF and FTR. Arriving in the ring with faces painted in homage to their partners, the babyfaces battled The Pinnacle trio in a fun, energetic, red-hot main event that had fans in Greensboro, North Carolina, recalling some of the great multi-man tag team matches put on by Jim Crockett Promotions in the same arena during the 1980s.

    Great spots, even better chemistry on both sides of the ring and a crowd that desperately wanted to see Punk get his hands on MJF, the pieces were there for a Match of the Year candidate, and it did not disappoint.

    The good guys would squeak out a victory, each hitting their finishers on Dax Harwood en route to a pinfall victory.

    Long-term, the match may not have the impact of its fellow bouts on this list, but it is representative of something AEW does extremely well: the "party" tag match, with balls-to-the-wall action and a hot finish.

    That was the case here, even if MJF just narrowly avoided disaster in a late-match spot.

8. Bryan Danielson vs. Minoru Suzuki (Rampage: Buy In, October 15)

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    Take two accomplished wrestlers, with a penchant for beating the hell out of their opponents with unforgiving strikes and relentless submission arsenals, and give them time to have the match they want to have. With those ingredients, the result will almost always be an epic, show-stealing, Match of the Year candidate.

    That was the case when Danielson battled the legendary Minoru Suzuki on the October 15 Rampage: Buy In.

    Focusing on said strikes and submissions, the celebrated in-ring competitors punished each other. They are among the best wrestlers of all time, and they delivered a match that left long-time fans salivating, begging for more just in time for Danielson to catch his opponent with the running knee for the pinfall victory.

    It was a match that arrived with the loftiest of expectations given the respect the performers have garnered across the globe over the course of their careers, and it somehow managed to live up to them all.

    In the process, it left the grateful fans hoping it was not the last time the legendary competitors did battle under the bright lights of AEW.

7. Rey Fenix vs. Kenny Omega (Dynamite, January 6)

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    Rey Fenix can do things in the ring that others could only dream of. Kenny Omega is one of the greatest in-ring performers of his generation. There was every reason to believe the January 6 meeting between them, with The Best Bout Machine's AEW world title on the line, would wind up on this countdown.

    It did.

    Fenix's ability to exploit his raw athleticism and fearless attitude to his advantage was on full display. Throwing his body around the ring in a manner few, if any, could ever replicate, he nearly wrestled the title away from Omega, who was still riding high following his tainted victory over Jon Moxley a month earlier.

    On that night, though, the champion would prove why he was in that position. He caught a Fenix in mid-flight and downed him with a modified Tiger Driver 98 before adding the One-Winged Angel for the definitive win.

    A wildly athletic, jaw-droppingly dramatic match set the bar for Omega's reign as world champion. Perhaps impossibly high. Few matches for the rest of 2021 would meet the quality of what AEW's lead heel and the masked luchador accomplished as part of Dynamite's New Year's Bash. 

6. CM Punk vs. Eddie Kingston (Full Gear, November 13)

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    When two wrestlers are able to channel real-life animosity into a story and then a match, the result is almost always something uniquely special. It's not marketed, it's not manufactured or scripted in a creative meeting. It's real, and the fans can always tell.

    Entering Full Gear, the intensity of the CM Punk-Eddie Kingston program could be traced back to real-life dislike between the two stemming from their days on the indies when Punk was one of the buzziest competitors in the business and Kingston was struggling to make a name for himself.

    The disrespect he felt from their initial meeting bubbled to the surface, igniting a feud between The Second City Saint and Mad King that culminated in the Target Center in Minneapolis on November 13.

    The match was violent and physical, with blood from both men. There were teases from Punk of John Cena's five moves of doom, perhaps hinting that the underground fan-favorite had become the establishment he once despised while Kingston now filled his role. Then, there was Punk's homage to Eddie Guerrero on the 16th anniversary of Latino Heat's passing in the very same city.

    In the end, it was Kingston's own hubris that proved costly. He tried to put Punk away with his own Go To Sleep, only to wind up rocked by the finisher himself. Then elbows and some knees and, finally, another GTS as Punk picked up the win.

    Best of all? There was no sudden respect that erased everything that occurred before the match. No, Kingston showed the victor no respect, leaving the door open for the continuation of the feud down the line.

5. Bryan Danielson vs. Eddie Kingston (Rampage, October 29)

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    The intensity was off-the-charts as Danielson and Kingston battled for the right to compete in the finals of the AEW World Title Eliminator Tournament at Full Gear.

    The October 29 showdown on Rampage saw two veterans of the squared circle beat the unholy hell out of each other, their bodies bruised and chests welted unnatural shades of red, blue and then purple as they threw every strike in their arsenals at each other.

    With both men refusing to quit—unwilling to give in to the other and give up on their championship aspirations—they continued to wage war until The American Dragon caught Kingston in a triangle choke. Mad King, never one to go quietly or willingly, flipped his opponent off as he faded to black, and the referee called for the bell.

    Like his battle with Punk a month later at Full Gear, Kingston brought a sense of realness to the match. It felt like a fight rather than two guys manufacturing dislike for each other. This was a physical battle, an unflinching war of attrition between two men in pursuit of childhood dreams and professional achievements rather than two guys merely having a wrestling match, and it enhanced the quality tenfold.

    It is easily the best match in Rampage history thus far.

4. Thunder Rosa vs. Dr. Britt Baker (Dynamite St. Patrick's Day Slam, March 17)

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    One of the most intense rivalries in all of AEW came to a head on a special St. Paddy's Day Smash edition of Dynamite when Dr. Britt Baker DMD and Thunder Rosa settled their score in the first-ever women's Lights Out Unsanctioned match in company history—in the main event slot.

    The result was one of the greatest women's matches in North American history. 

    Jon Moxley, Kenny Omega and Joey Janela had previously set the standard for what a Lights Out match in AEW looked like, and Rosa and Baker continued the tradition, incorporating weapons and bloodying each other's faces as they set to conclude their rivalry. It was a rarity in major wrestling promotions for two women to sport the proverbial crimson masking, hammering home the hatred they had for each other and the ends they were willing to go to win the match.

    We saw just how far when Baker introduced thumbtacks for use with her Lockjaw finisher, only to later find herself powerbombed into a pile of them, piercing her back. Rosa would eventually win the match with a Fire Thunder Driver from the apron, through a table on the arena floor, and fans immediately recognized the magnitude of the match they just saw.

    This wasn't just a feud-ender, but a revolutionary match. It single-handedly evolved the entire division and, hopefully, is just the beginning of things to come as the company prepares to introduce its second women's title to the masses.

    It's a title that the victor of the March 17 war is still in contention for.

3. Lucha Bros vs. The Young Bucks (All Out, September 5)

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    The Young Bucks and Lucha Bros were by no means strangers entering September 5's Steel Cage Match for the AEW Tag Team Championship at All Out in Chicago. They had clashed several times and even helped put the company's tag division on the map from day one.

    This latest chapter in their rivalry would decide if Penta El Zero Miedo and Rey Fenix were able to capture the only set of tag titles that eluded them to that point, inside an unforgiving steel structure designed to keep members of The Elite out.

    The answer was yes.

    Overcoming a calculating attack by Matt and Nick Jackson that saw the siblings bloodied and their masks ripped by the irreverent heels, the challengers countered or answered everything thrown at them until Fenix launched himself from the top of the cage, wiping both opponents out. A devastating spike piledriver to Nick ended the Bucks' reign atop the division and earned the Lucha Bros their latest, potentially greatest reign as champions.

    A red-hot crowd, an appropriately violent blow-off match and the right outcome helped make this one of the year's best; a bona fide five-star, instant classic. The overall strength of AEW's in-ring output rendered it only No. 3 on this countdown. 

2. Hangman Page vs. Bryan Danielson (Dynamite Winter Is Coming, December 15)

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    For one hour, AEW world champion "Hangman" Adam Page and Bryan Danielson wowed the fans in Houston and those watching around the world with an epic encounter that teased both retention and title change, tested the physical toughness of both competitors and further established The American Dragon as the best wrestler in the world.

    Danielson punished Hangman, working his midsection in an attempt at taking his power advantage away from him. Page countered, working on his opponent's left leg, rendered weak by an errant kick that connected with the ring post. 

    The challenger's tenacity in searching for a submission to net him the title and the champion's grit as he fought through the pain, agony and a head laceration to remain in the match kept the fans on the edge of their seats. Hangman's explosive offense popped the fans, while the heel's craftiness returned control of the bout to him.

    In the end, time would run out on both men's quest to have their arm raised in victory, rendering the match a draw. While a winner was not clear, the excellence of the match that had just unfolded over the course of 60 minutes on free television was. 

    An instant classic that took the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions and represented everything that makes professional wrestling such an enjoyable, rewarding art form. It will absolutely earn Match of the Year recognition, and rightfully so.

    With that said, there is another Danielson epic that earns the top spot on this list.

1. Bryan Danielson vs. Kenny Omega (Dynamite Grand Slam, September 22)

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    Rarely do wrestling fans get to see dream matches play out in a ring. They are discussed, debated, prognosticated and fantasy booked, but few ever make it to the ring. On September 22, in AEW's debut in New York City at the historic Arthur Ashe Stadium, one such match did.

    Two men synonymous with the label "best wrestler in the world" squared off to prove just who was most deserving of the title. Bryan Danielson, fresh off a buzzworthy debut in AEW at All Out, battled world champion Kenny Omega in a non-title match to kick off a special Grand Slam edition of Dynamite.

    A raucous crowd at a fever pitch, ready to witness two of the best to ever lace a pair of boots, created a WrestleMania-like atmosphere as the competitors took to the squared circle. Then the bell rang, and what occurred over the next 30 minutes was pro wrestling mastery.

    An expertly paced match that never felt rushed, it saw Danielson fight back from a teased neck injury following a rebound snapdragon suplex on the entrance ramp. Every time he mounted any offensive, Omega was right there to cut it off—a cerebral champion well versed in what his opponent would try next.

    The action intensified, with every move escalating the drama and leaving fans wondering when Omega might put an end to the threat of Danielson to his title or when The American Dragon would rock The Best Bout Machine with a near-lethal kick to the head.

    As the two exhausted, battered competitors came blows, with the crowd cheering one and booing the other, the match abruptly ended.

    There was no obvious high spot that announced to the world that the match was heading to a draw finish. The competitors didn't fire off some convoluted false finish sequence. They continued the match they were having until time expired, leaving the fans wanting more rather than blowing everything at once. 

    It was a brilliant layout to an epic encounter that absolutely lived up to even the loftiest expectations of wrestling's most die-hard fans.

    The setting, the historical nature of the event, the anticipation for the encounter and the idea of two of the best wrestlers in the world going 30 minutes and just getting warmed up helped nudge this one just past Danielson's encounter with Page for recognition as AEW's best of 2021.