Alex has been an online sports and pop culture writer for five years. When he's not writing about sports, Alex is an aspiring screenwriter.
WWE made some big changes in 2021. In addition to becoming exclusive to Peacock, WWE's big events became "Premium Live Events". This change is understandable since PPVs haven't been actual Pay-Per-Views since the founding of the Network in 2014. Most wrestling fans saw this as a passable anachronism - like using a floppy disc as a save icon. But so things go. Ranking these shows was a little tough because even the rock bottom shows were more watchable than the chaff of other years. The ranking will be from worst to best.
It’s easy to say Survivor Series ranks so low because of the latency effect. Being the last PPV of 2021, this show is the freshest in my memory. In fact, the Wrestling Observer recently named it the worst major show of 2021 full stop. But this show’s problems run deep. I was tempted to go easy on this show for one simple reason: Most of the matches were… kinda good. For one, there were no MAJOR stinkers. Survivor Series was bookended by the two best matches: Becky vs. Charlotte (in their series of infinity) and Roman Reigns vs. Big E. But this show proved more than any other, it takes more than good matches to make a good show. It takes things like stakes and investment.
The matches felt like afterthoughts, nothing was on the line, and fans seemed not to care about the belabored Smackdown vs. Raw narrative. Hardly anyone got over. The company seemed to try that clean sweep nonsense again but didn’t even go all the way. While it was irksome seeing Smackdown get buried, it was refreshing to see Bianca Belair get her mojo back. Whether or not I agree with the choice, at least Omos looked like a killer in the battle royale.
They were hung up on putting one person over: The Rock. This was the 25th anniversary of the Rock’s debut at Survivor Series 96. And they brought it up all. The. Time. There were montages, Roman Reigns did a Rock Bottom. They even tied the show in with Red Notice, lumping in clips and even working in a prop from the movie… And it spilled over to the next night’s Raw! So, it seemed obvious that this would be the big comeback for the Rock. Right? Right?!? No, he never showed. As wrestling commenter J. Biggs, pointed out, it felt like a one-way love letter to Dwayne Johnson, hoping he’d make a comeback. Maybe check out the handful of worthwhile matches, but if you watched this live, it probably left a bad taste in your mouth.
The return of live crowds meant one other thing: Yours truly could go to a show again. Unfortunately, it was this show. To be fair, I still had a really good time. But this show was easy to make fun of. Everyone and I mean everyone, had a line about how the show didn’t live up to its name. With only one gimmick match!
As exciting as it was for Big E to win the WWE Championship, it meant the hyped Orton-Lashley match wouldn’t happen. The 6-man tag was surprisingly good (even if it felt cobbled together last minute). The following tag match and US title match were sleeper hits. Charlotte crushing the dreams of hometown hero Alexa Bliss was weird but okay. My one chance at seeing an excellent Becky Lynch match live was dashed by a lame DQ finish. The main event between Reigns and Finn Balor was pretty good… except for a terrible ending. Nobody expected Balor to win (especially with Lesnar lurking). But him doing this big transformation only to biff it. It was like a setup with no punchline. Most of the show was solid, but it could have been so much more.
I’ve already belabored Summerslam underperforming for a while. But this year was especially egregious. It felt like after WWE being on a hot streak with PPVs, they biffed it with some baffling decisions. Alexa Bliss vs. Eva Marie and Jinder Mahall vs. Drew McIntrye made fans wonder what these matches were doing on ANY PPV. But the second biggest of the year? Plus, Goldberg wheezed his way through a championship match with Bobby Lashley – with a terrible finish no less. The tag matches were solid, as was Priest-Sheamus. Nikki ASH almost immediately lost her women’s title back to Charlotte. Solid match, but it began Nikki’s descent into looking like a doofus. The show was buoyed by a GREAT Edge-Rollins match, and the Cena-Reigns main event. The big returns of the night were Brock Lesnar and the long-awaited return of Becky Lynch. Of course, Lynch also squashed Belair in a few seconds. Even something that big had to feel like a pyrrhic victory.
This was a hard show to rank. It was buoyed by two EXCELLENT matches. Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan was a stone classic, as expected by two MVP’s of the business. Sheamus had possibly the match of his career against Drew McIntyre in an epic no holds barred match. I remembered those two matches. And quickly remembered why I remembered ONLY those matches. Rollins vs. Nakamura was the best of the rest, but because of the lack of stakes, it could have been so much more. The women’s tag match was average. Big E vs. Crews underperformed for such talented guys. Strowman vs. Elias was a meaningless stepping stone in the Strowman/Shane feud. Last, and least, was a rare intergender match between Alexa Bliss and Randy Orton. I respect Orton for actually taking the L to a woman. But this was a joke, especially in hindsight. The Fiend made his big return after being immolated. But we’ll get to that catastrophe in time.
Hell in a Cell
In this ranking, the PPVs are getting better, but this still ranks relatively low because so much of this show kind of just happened. For starters, another big match was given away on TV – Mysterio vs. Reigns. In fact, a bunch of Hell in a Cell matches happened on TV. (For anyone who wants to play hardball – in 98, the height of the match’s mystique – two Cell matches happened on Raw.) This ranks low because even though most matches were solid, few were exceptional. Rollins and Cesaro took time to reach that next level. Owens and Zayn had a solid match. But it’s hard to achieve greatness in THEIR series of infinity. What could have been an awesome Ripley vs. Charlotte match was marred by a DQ finish. I mean, we’ve seen matches continue for a lot more than just using the top of the announce table! The real dog was a borderline comedy match between Alexa Bliss and Shayna Bayzler. Still, the eponymous cell matches delivered. McIntyre vs. Lashley was uniquely brutal, and a prime example of the kind of brutality two big men can bring.
Hey, another show with an easy-to-parody title. I remember back in 2010 when WWE first went happy with PPVs titled after gimmick matches, there was a joke: “Are they going to retitle Backlash into Wrestlemania Rematches.” They weren’t far off. I mean, we fans kind of surmised that’s why it’s called Backlash!
Remarkably, there weren’t even a ton of matches that were follow-ups to Mania. But despite ranking a little low on this list, most of the show was solid. Cesaro proved he was ready for primetime in a dark horse title match against Roman Reigns. (Sadly, it didn't last as he'll probably be All Elite soon enough.) The women’s title matches were good, as to be expected from such talented women. Rey and Dominik Mysterio became the first father-son tag team champions in a solid match against Roode and Ziggler. Lashley also continued his reign of dominance in a triple threat against Drew McIntyre and the soon-to-be fired Braun Strowman.
That’s the good stuff. But the lowlight of the night was a bizarre lumberjack match between Miz and Damian Priest. At the last minute, it was revealed to be a tie-in for a Zack Snyder film with ZOMBIE LUMBERJACKS. Honestly, this almost circled back to so-bad-it’s-good. But considering this lousy tie-in was confined to one match and one night (unlike the ham-fisted Red Notice promotion), I’m inclined to be more forgiving. Though Army of the Dead bizarrely won a fan pick Oscar so it must have resonated with someone.
Like with Hell in a Cell, when a show is named after a gimmick match, the gimmick matches better deliver. The Smackdown one was slightly better. Both were also mirrored by quick championship matches. Roman Reigns beat Daniel Bryan quickly, which stoked the fires of their feud. The excellent Raw Chamber ended with Miz cashing in his briefcase to win the WWE championship. Yeah, Miz was WWE Champion in 2021. Easy to forget that happened since he was just borrowing it for Bobby Lashley. The US and women’s tag titles in between these matches were serviceable.
A Saudi Arabia show was… good? You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya! After years of Saudi Arabia shows being guaranteed stinkers, guaranteed to be on the bottom spot of one of these lists, one was finally good. And I don’t mean best of the worst like Greatest Royal Rumble or Crown Jewel 2019, I mean this was genuinely good. Even Goldberg had a really good match against Bobby Lashley. (And that’s good for Lashley because doing the honors for someone who could actually go protected him.) The Hell in a Cell between Edge and Rollins may have been the best WWE Match of the Year. The women's title match was pretty good. Reigns/Lesnar wasn't exactly a barn burner, but it was good enough to top off a worthwhile show. There was some filler. The final match in the queen’s crown sure… happened.
Fans collectively groaned as WWE dug Goldberg out of the mothballs for a match with Drew McIntyre. The match wasn’t exactly stellar, but it was short, and the right man won. Sasha Banks vs. Carmella was serviceable. The show picked up big time with the women’s Royal Rumble. Bianca Belair proved she’s was worthwhile in her Royal Rumble win. Kevin Owens and Roman Reigns had a brutal and epic last man standing match - noteworthy for Owens getting hit with a golf cart! A year after his big comeback, Edge made another comeback of sorts when he won the Royal Rumble from the number 1 position. Overall, a good kickoff to 2021.
They’re baaaaack! Yes, fans were finally back at a WWE show (though it was still some time before they’d be back on a permanent basis). After a warm greeting that did feel genuinely emotional, fans were treated to… a rain delay. Yes, they had to kill time because it was raining. As Gilda Radner once said, it’s always something!
As exciting as this Mania was, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. A lot of fans probably forgot Shane McMahon even had the annual McMahon Vanity Match. But he ate the loss to Braun Strowman. Braun followed up gaining his momentum back by being fired. The women’s tag turmoil match will probably be remembered more for Mandy Rose tripping (from all that rain). But the absolute bottom of the barrel was The Fiend vs. Orton. The match started out okay but ended abruptly when Alexa Bliss turned on The Fiend. And absorbed his powers? Not all losses are burials, but this was the end for the Fiend as he looked like a chump in what should have been his big comeback. AND he was fired shortly after.
There was also a lot of okay stuff – the women’s tag title match, the men’s tag title match. Big E vs. Apollo in the Nigerian Drum match almost reached the heights of fun silliness. The rest of the show was good to great. For one, holy crap! Bad Bunny can wrestle! Sorry, Mr. T; sorry Pat McAfee: We may have a new best celebrity wrestler. Bobby Lashley vs. Drew McIntyre was a worthwhile match to welcome back crowds. Cesaro vs. Rollins was good, as was the US Title Match. Even Logan Paul couldn’t ruin Owens vs. Zayn. Rhea Ripley finally earned the big women’s title win over Asuka.
With two nights, WWE could have their cake and eat it too with main events. And both delivered. Once again, WWE let a women’s title match headline (And this time with two black women). Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair proved they could go on a grand stage. The triple threat between Roman, Edge, and Bryan was a match-of-the-year candidate. Roman had already been on a roll with his heel character. But pinning Edge and Bryan at literally the same time helped establish Roman as a dream-killer.
Money in the Bank
This time they’re back for good. After a one-night fling with crowds, WWE brought them back full-time. And what a show to ring in the return! (Even if many of us who watched at home were burdened with technical issues on Peacock.) Speaking of being back, the men’s money in the bank saw the first dignified winner since Dean Ambrose (in 2016). Big E winning the briefcase came as a surprise, but unlike the Jinder Mahal experiment, Big E proved the dark horse WWE championship CAN work (even if the fun didn't last). Sadly, with yin comes the yang. It was surprising to see Nikki ASH win the women’s Money in the Bank (especially at the expense of Liv Morgan). She did win the women’s title, only to lose it and just look like a complete chump afterward. Although Meltzer’s 2-star review was a little harsh, the women’s money in the bank match did feel a little stagey. I mean, I know wrestling is choreographed, but this was immersion-breaking.
Nikki’s future partner in crime Rhea Ripley lost said title to Charlotte. Whether the company was trying to placate her to stay or not, the match sure was a nailbiter. While not a great match, AJ and Omos against the Viking Raiders was one of the biggest overachievers of the show. Lashley squashing Kofi actually worked because it sold Lashley as a dream killer. Edge and Roman finally had their epic one-on-one encounter, with the return of John Cena.
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© 2022 Alex deCourville