This might be the best time to be a professional wrestling fan. With tons of options all over television and streaming, enthusiasts should have no problem finding what they like and sticking with it – or consuming every minute of action they can.
This year, the outside-the-ring news overshadowed the exceptional work between the ropes.
In June, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, the face and patriarch of the pro-wrestling industry for over three decades, retired amid an investigation into alleged misconduct. That came four months after McMahon, 77, performed in his final-ever match, against color commentator and wildly popular sports podcast host Pat McAfee at WrestleMania 38. After that match, McMahon was confronted by old rival “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who gave him one last Stunner for old time’s sake.
With McMahon gone, the trio of Paul “Triple H” Levesque, Stephanie McMahon (Vince’s daughter) and Nick Khan essentially took the company’s reins. Triple H, the former WWE champion and husband of Stephanie, has righted the ship creatively after McMahon’s departure, and WWE business remains relatively strong.
Not to be outdone, AEW also had drama in its third full year of existence. Just a year after his return from a seven-year layoff, CM Punk reportedly got into a physical altercation with top wrestlers and executive vice presidents Kenny Omega and Matt and Nick Jackson, and the Young Bucks, following the All Out pay-per-view card in September. Punk, injured earlier in the night during his match, relinquished the AEW championship and has not been seen on screen since. Omega and the Young Bucks returned after a reported suspension last month.
Meanwhile, in WWE, Roman Reigns’ incredible reign as Undisputed WWE Universal Heavyweight champion has continued, with Sami Zayn and Solo Sikoa joining the sublime Bloodline storyline with the Usos. Reigns’ former Shield stablemate Jon Moxley bailed out AEW on several occasions with Punk injured, just months after returning from rehab for alcoholism, emerging as the most valuable wrestler in the promotion and a locker room leader.
Marc Raimondi, Mike Coppinger, Greg Wyshynski and Brandon Caldwell look at the best performers in pro wrestling in an eventual 2022 campaign.
Female wrestler of the year: Bianca Belair – 89%
It’s been an incredible evolution for Belair, going from a great athlete in development to a prospect to someone who lost her title in seconds at SummerSlam 2021 to a cornerstone of the WWE women’s roster. That label can be raised even more now. Belair was arguably the best performer in the world in 2022, and the competition was steep.
This isn’t just about her long reign as WWE Raw women’s champion, either. Belair took on all challengers and hurdled them like she was back on the track at the University of Tennessee. Her match against Becky Lynch was one of the highlights of a stacked WrestleMania 38, and they followed that up with a barnburner in a SummerSlam rematch. Later in the year, Belair and Bayley tore it down in a ladder match at Extreme Rules and an excellent Last Woman Standing match at Crown Jewel.
Belair is an up-and-comer no longer. She’s a full-fledged superstar. — Raimondi
Male wrestler of the year? Roman Reigns – 67%
Reigns isn’t just the biggest star in professional wrestling — he’s also amidst a historic championship run. The “Head of the Table” has held the WWE Universal Championship for well over two years, a title he should keep heading into WrestleMania 39, when he could meet The Rock in the main event.
Reigns isn’t simply the chosen one; he’s earned his place as the best men’s wrestler in the world with a fresh character, a powerhouse wrestling style and much-improved promo skills that drive the organization’s top storylines.
His 2022 campaign has been buoyed by Sami Zayn, who injected The Bloodline with a dose of creativity, thus keeping Reigns and the faction from becoming stale. At 37, Reigns has developed into everything Vince McMahon could have hoped for when he ordained him as the top star in WWE 10 years ago. Reigns will go down as one of the greatest needle-movers of all time, and his work in ’22 is a big reason why. — Coppinger
Tag team of the year: The Usos – 50%
Tag team wrestling across the globe had a banner year in 2022, but no team became more decorated than The Usos. For years, Jimmy and Jey Uso argued they were part of a pantheon of great WWE tag teams. In 2022, they leaped above everyone to cement themselves as the best. Even as FTR nipped at their heels, winning titles across several promotions and feuding with The Briscoes, the Usos were undeniable.
Eclipsing Demolition and their rivals, The New Day, for the longest reign as tag team champions in company history was one thing. Routinely upping their game not only as a tag team but as an intricate part of wrestling’s best storyline was another. From their instant classic with The Street Profits at Money In The Bank to their dramatic triumph over The New Day in November, the Usos made sure their twelfth year on the main roster outdid any other tag team — and aim for even more in 2023. — Caldwell
Rookie wrestler of the year: Logan Paul – 39%
It’s OK to admit you were skeptical about Logan Paul. Who among us didn’t wonder about a 27-year-old product of the creator economy, best known for controversial YouTube stunts and specious exhibition boxing matches, signing a multi-year deal with the WWE? While celebrities are usually asked to learn a few moves and are protected in tag matches, Paul was instead booked to face The Miz at SummerSlam and then undisputed champion Roman Reigns in the main event at November’s Crown Jewel. That’s a lot.
That skepticism quickly dissipated when we saw what Logan Paul could do in the ring, and the athleticism he exhibited in those matches — like those splashes through tables, first on The Miz and then one on Reigns that Paul filmed himself performing in real-time, to viral acclaim. Shane “Hurricane” Helms, his WWE trainer, praised Paul’s capacity for learning the craft and his humility.
Now, if only the WWE would do the right thing and pull the trigger on a Logan Paul heel run… — Wyshynski
Breakthrough wrestler of the year: Ricky Starks – 28%
“I never needed a name to make it right here, and I don’t need a name to beat your little ass.”@starkmanjones responds with #Absolute 🔥🔥🔥!
It’s #AEWDynamite LIVE on TBS! pic.twitter.com/Ejd5Kn4EKV
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) December 8, 2022
The choice for the biggest breakthrough star in 2022 is “Absolute.” After a broken neck stalled his progress in 2021, the 32-year-old Starks worked his way back to prominence as the FTW champion and part of AEW’s Team Taz early this year. He was always solid as part of the heel faction, including a great showing in a triple-threat tag match with Powerhouse Hobbs at Double of Nothing in May. Still, he started to create magic when he turned babyface over the summer with an inspiring promo.
The always meticulously dressed Starks beat Hobbs, who turned on him, in an unsanctioned match at Grand Slam. Then, the New Orleans native won the annual AEW championship eliminator tournament and the Dynamite Diamond Ring battle royal to set up a title match with the new champion MJF. Leading into that bout earlier this month, Starks and MJF engaged in one of the best promo battles of the year, with the cocky-yet-relatable Starks arguably getting the better of MJF, the current best promo guy in the business. — Raimondi
Promo artist of the year: MJF – 72%
“Tonight we are going to find out what happens when pressure is applied to the pebble. Will he turn into the diamond everyone claims him to be? Or will he simply turn into dust?” @The_MJF @starkmanjones
Tune in to #AEWDynamite: #WinterIsComing LIVE on TBS! pic.twitter.com/lCrfy7sFOG
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) December 15, 2022
Speaking of the best promo guy in the business, it’s not always about what Maxwell Jacob Friedman says, it’s the anticipation of what he might say. Will he call his boss “a mark” and beg to be fired? Will he openly boast about leaving for the competition when his contract is up? Will he pit pro wrestling fans against UFC fans? Will he discuss a childhood photo of himself and an opponent to make it part of their storyline? Will he insult the fans, or say something to earn their adoration and then make a mockery of them again?
MJF did all of this and more in 2022, as he won the AEW world championship for the first time. His promos weren’t all instant classics — we could go without him trolling the fans about bolting for the WWE in 2024, as that’s now the cheapest of heat — but they were always captivating. It’s sometimes hard to remember that the Burberry-scarfed miscreant is only 26 years old when you see him match a master of the promo arts like William Regal word-for-word. Then again, that’s why he’s MJF. He’s better than you. And you know it. — Wyshynski
Match of the year: Sheamus vs. Gunther, Clash at The Castle – 33%
A brutal, hard-hitting match — especially by WWE standards — Gunther’s win over Sheamus in September restored some much-needed prestige to the oft-ignored Intercontinental Championship.
There were many contenders for this award, but this match stood out above the rest for its physicality and striking between two of the stiffest workers in wrestling. Adding to the action was an incredible atmosphere: 60,000 plus packed Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, to cheer on Ireland’s Sheamus, who was looking to become a Grand Slam champion.
Over 20-plus minutes, Gunther and Sheamus punished each other with a series of open-palm slaps and knife-edged chops in a bout that took them to the ring apron, announcer table and the crowd.
NXT has repeatedly featured this sort of violent match, but such is rare on WWE’s main roster. Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come in the Triple H era. — Coppinger
Best PPV event of the year: AEW x NJPW: Forbidden Door – 28%
HIGH FLY FLOW by @tanahashi1_100! Order #ForbiddenDoor right now! #AEWxNJPW pic.twitter.com/KRyaxAppDP
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) June 27, 2022
AEW received quite a bit of criticism for the build-up to its first co-promotional show with New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW). Japanese wrestlers appeared on AEW’s weekly Dynamite show cold with little introduction, causing those who don’t follow wrestling in that part of the world to cry foul. Part of the issue was that the main event was supposed to pit then-AEW champion CM Punk against NJPW uber-babyface legend Hiroshi Tanahashi, but Punk broke his foot and had to pull out of the match. Jon Moxley replaced him.
While the leadup was uneven, Forbidden Door delivered enormously. It was a good lineup on paper, and it exceeded expectations. Moxley vs. Tanahashi was excellent, as was a match between Claudio Castagnoli and Zack Sabre Jr. But a dramatic, back-and-forth, athletic affair between Will Ospreay and Orange Cassidy completely stole the show. The pre-show was even strong, highlighted by an unforeseen banger between the team of Chris Jericho, Minoru Suzuki and Sammy Guevara and the team of Eddie Kingston, Shota Umino and Wheeler Yuta. — Raimondi
Best storyline of the year: The Bloodline and Sami Zayn
The Bloodline is as dominant a faction as we’ve seen in wrestling. Reigns is the undisputed world champion. And his cousins, theUsos, are the undisputed tag team champions. All of them have held their titles for record amounts of time. But dominance can get stale without a storyline. Thus making the creative addition of Zayn to the group one that managed to elevate a group that was already flying high.
To call Zayn one of the WWE’s most unique talents would be an understatement. How many wrestlers can put on championship-level matches but also thrive in a WrestleMania gimmick battle against the cast of “Jackass,” one that ended with him pinned in a giant mousetrap? He can work, he can talk and he has a gift for understanding what the moment needs.
His interaction with The Bloodline started after that Johnny Knoxville feud, as Zayn sought credibility through an association with Reigns and Co. In May, the Head of The Table made him an “Honorary Uce” and an ancillary member of the group. By September, he was “an Official Honorary Uce” and a more engrained part of the group, which had now added Solo Sikoa, the Usos’ younger brother.
Zayn’s time with The Bloodline featured tension with a jealous Jey Uso and some promos where Zayn’s natural comedic talents brought his super serious stablemates to the point of breaking. All of it points to an inevitable moment where The Bloodline will turn on their “Honorary Uce” to ignite a major face turn. The emotional investment from fans is so intense that some have suggested, without irony, that Zayn should finally take the title off of Reigns at a WrestleMania main event.
Such is the power of this angle, the best of 2022. — Wyshynski