There hasn’t been a better time to be a wrestling fan in 20 years.
WWE is red hot right now on the heels of Paul “Triple H” Levesque taking over creative following the retirement of longtime promotion patriarch Vince McMahon. Ratings for Monday Night Raw are up, and tickets are selling fast. Clash at the Castle on Saturday in Wales will have more than 60,000 in attendance, including boxing’s heavyweight champion and former WWE participant Tyson Fury. WWE has already sold about 50,000 tickets each night for WrestleMania 39 next April.
Meanwhile, AEW is still trucking along in its fourth year as a national television entity. The promotion has one of its biggest pay-per-view events set for Sunday: All Out in Chicago, headlined by CM Punk in his hometown against up against Jon Moxley for the AEW World title. AEW Dynamite has been first or second in the key demographic on Wednesday nights in the U.S. every week this summer.
Impact Wrestling is more interesting than it has been in years. Ring of Honor is now under the guidance of AEW owner Tony Khan, with negotiations on a new distribution deal in progress. Plus, the independent scene in the United States, led by the likes of spiritual ECW successor GCW, is strong. Women of Wrestling, an updated version of 1980s cult classic GLOW, is led by Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and is set to debut this month on Paramount networks.
Over in Asia, New Japan Pro-Wrestling just finished up its big G1 Climax tournament and is readying for fans to be allowed to cheer again (currently, they can only clap during shows due to COVID-19-related restrictions). Stardom, an all-women’s promotion, has grown more from a business perspective than any wrestling company in the world over the past three years. AAA in Mexico is celebrating its 30th anniversary with major shows, highlighted by Triplemanía in Mexico City on Oct. 15, and CMLL is beginning to do near sellouts at the iconic Arena Mexico leading into its 89th Aniversario event on Sept. 16.
With wrestling at an all-time high worldwide, it makes this weekend’s events must-see programming. WWE has Clash at the Castle headlined by Roman Reigns versus Drew McIntyre for the Undisputed WWE Universal title and NXT Worlds Collide featuring Bron Breakker taking on Tyler Bate to unify the NXT and NXT U.K. championships. AEW has All Out with Moxley vs. Punk, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks going for the inaugural AEW Trios titles.
With a busy week and many huge shows coming up over the next few months, the time was right to debut ESPN’s new pro wrestling rankings, as voted on by an internal panel. Our top male stars, female stars and tag teams in the world are ranked below with analysis from David Dennis, Greg Wyshynski and Marc Raimondi.
Best female wrestler: Bianca Belair, WWE
Top 5: Bianca Belair, 41 (WWE); Becky Lynch, 32 (WWE); Thunder Rosa, 11 (AEW); Jade Cargill, 9 (AEW); Liv Morgan, 7 (WWE)
WWE has spent the ast few years looking for a replacement for John Cena as the company’s flagship hero who captures the hearts and minds of fans and future generations of ticket buyers. This year solidified the fact that they’ve finally found their new banner-waving babyface, and her name is Bianca Belair. We can’t talk about Belair’s 2022 without returning to last year at SummerSlam. It was there that Belair lost to the returning Becky Lynch in 26 seconds. The embarrassing loss felt like a slap in the face to Belair’s fans at the wrestler herself, who had made history by defeating Sasha Banks in the main event of WrestleMania — the first time two Black women had headlined the event. What could have been a momentum killer for the “EST of the WWE” turned into her story of redemption, unyielding fan support and the making of a superstar. This year, the fairy tale has come to fruition.
Belair started 2022 by fighting her way back to the top of the women’s division, culminating in another absolute classic, five-star (my rating) match to reclaim her title from Becky Lynch at WrestleMania 38. She followed that up with another show-stealing match against Lynch at SummerSlam. Belair is racking up high-level matches, and that’s not what’s totally driving her popularity. Belair’s popularity and brilliance come from exuding babyface emotion while sounding like the superstar athlete and the homie you grew up with back home. She is charismatic while being intense and captivating.
The most promising part of Belair’s outlook is she has a gallery of challengers to keep her title run interesting well into next year. She is in the middle of a feud that will eventually give us matches with Bayley. Sasha Banks and Naomi are returning. Rhea Ripley is in the periphery. And there’s always a big-money match with Ronda Rousey to make if WWE so chooses. The biggest babyface wrestling has seen in years has options, and that’s good for all parties involved.
The female wrestler I’m most excited to watch? Jade Cargill, AEW. One of the best things about wrestling is watching burgeoning stars hone their crafts, get better and see themselves reach their full potential. Cargill has had all the makings of being a crossover star and a household name ever since her first appearance on AEW TV. But she was green as Hurricane Helms’ costume.
Watching her get better every week — finding her groove on the mic, introducing her Baddies Section and improving her ring generalship — has been impressive to witness. It seems inevitable Cargill will reach the heights she seems destined for, and watching her hit new levels is one of many reasons to watch AEW every week. — David Dennis
Others receiving votes: Syuri, Toni Storm, Asuka, Britt Baker, Charlotte Flair, Deonna Purrazzo, Jamie Hayter, Tam Nakano, Trish Adora, Jordynne Grace, Kris Statlander, Nikita Lyons
Best male wrestler: Roman Reigns, WWE
Top 5: Roman Reigns, 40 (WWE); Jon Moxley, 33 (AEW); Seth Rollins, 15 (WWE); Bobby Lashley, 6 (WWE); Bryan Danielson, 5 (AEW)
Why does Roman Reigns deserve the top spot? What, you don’t think he belongs on top? Do you doubt the Tribal Chief? Do you dare disparage the Head of the Table?
This kind of consensus praise for Roman Reigns is incredible, actually. For years, fans moaned about his push as the next face of the WWE. Today, he is the face of the WWE, as Roman’s reign as Universal Champion has lasted over two years and he’s the first Undisputed WWE Universal champion after defeating Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship at WrestleMania. Yet most fans and our voters haven’t tired of him. That’s a tribute to his character work as a smug, amusing winner and backing it up with athletic and entertaining in-ring work.
There has been speculation that Reigns will lose one of his belts soon, perhaps even at “Clash at the Castle” to a resurgent Drew McIntyre. That would be fine, and seeing a vulnerable Reigns trying to climb another mountain would be appealing. My favorite moment of his recently was one in which he was in peril: when Lesnar flipped the ring at SummerSlam with a forklift, sending Roman tumbling off the apron, his superhumanity briefly interrupted by an unpredictable force. How he reacted made that match. How he reacts to additional adversity could make his year.
The male wrestler(s) I’m most excited to watch: Blackpool Combat Club. BCC has been one of the consistently great things about an AEW product that hasn’t been all that consistent or great lately. While we’ve enjoyed the frequent guest appearances by Jon Moxley’s circulatory system during his outstanding matches, we’ll give the nod here to Bryan Danielson as he continues to be a fascinating performer. From his marathon matches filled with stiff strikes and compelling psychology to his “charismatic heel” mic work, “The American Dragon” has been on fire. The big question: Now that Kenny Omega is back from injury, how long before we finally get a rematch of their five-star time-limit draw at AEW Grand Slam last year? — Greg Wyshynski
Others receiving votes: Josh Alexander, Drew McIntyre, Will Ospreay, Christian Cage, Jay White, Kazuchika Okada, Wardlow, AJ Styles, Claudio Castagnoli, Montez Ford, Brock Lesnar, Carmelo Hayes, Cody Rhodes, CM Punk
Best tag team: FTR, AEW
Top 5: FTR, 37 (AEW); The Usos, 36 (WWE); The Young Bucks, 19 (AEW); Street Profits, 13 (WWE); Lucha Bros, 9 (AEW)
There is no arguing FTR right now as the best tag team on the planet. No team has had a better year, and the past few months have mainly been red hot for Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler, highlighted by a pair of matches for the Ring of Honor tag team titles with The Briscoes, who are deserving honorable mentions on this list. FTR currently holds three different tag team titles for promotions in three continents: Ring of Honor (ROH), IWGP Heavyweight and AAA.
FTR also had a tremendous match with the Young Bucks in April, and it seemed like the two teams were on a collision course with four different tag team titles on the line at All Out on Sunday, but that did not come to fruition. The Young Bucks lost the AEW tag titles to Swerve In Our Glory, who will defend the belts against The Acclaimed on the pay-per-view card. Instead, FTR has been thrust into a storyline with Wardlow against Jay Lethal’s group with Sonjay Dutt and 7-foot-2 former NBA player Satnam Singh.
The good news? FTR will team with Wardlow against Lethal and the legendary Motor City Machine Guns at All Out. The Motor City Machine Guns, including Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin, have been standouts for over a decade with ROH, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Impact and other promotions. FTR and the Machine Guns have never faced each other in a straight-up tag match, so hopefully that is what this trios match leads to in the future. Shelley and Sabin will be making their AEW debuts Sunday.
The tag team I’m most excited to watch: The Usos. Jimmy and Jey also need to get some love in this section. The current unified WWE tag team champions hold the Raw and SmackDown titles and routinely can be found in the main event program with their cousin Roman Reigns (and now Sami Zayn, apparently?). For a long time, WWE has neglected what could be an exciting, needle-moving tag team division, but The Usos can’t be ignored and the Triple H era should only further their legacy. Since Jey’s program with Reigns as a singles competitor in 2020, The Usos have been a highlight of WWE television.
The Usos’ match against the Street Profits in July at Money in the Bank was probably the best straight-up tag match involving two teams in WWE this year. They also had an absolute banger at WrestleMania Backlash in May, teaming with Reigns against Drew McIntyre, Randy Orton and Matt Riddle. The Usos don’t currently have a match booked for Clash at the Castle on Saturday, but expect their presence to be felt in the main event when Reigns defends against McIntyre. — Marc Raimondi
Others receiving votes: Swerve In Our Glory, The Briscoes, The New Day, The Acclaimed, Jurassic Express, The Mysterios
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