Looking back at 2021, it is impossible to ignore the global pandemic, which stubbornly stuck around all year. Promotions dipped their toes in the water, having fans back and then, in some instances, were forced to retreat. Masks were everywhere, and not just in the ring … until they weren’t, as WWE and AEW capitalized on the more lax rules in states like Texas and Florida to run shows. And, I guess we’d better mention the Omicron variant, since it appears it might rule 2022. Sigh.
There was good and bad to it all, of course. Wrestling thrived, and Matt Cardona — the former Zack Ryder — raved about the times we live in an interview with SlamWrestling.net’s Greg Oliver: “It’s a great time to be a wrestling fan, but it’s an even better time to be a wrestler. Because, look, WWE’s thriving, AEW’s thriving, but there’s so many other things outside of those two companies, and it’s just a great time to be a fan and a wrestler.”
Here are some of the biggest wrestling stories that we covered at SlamWrestling.net in the past 12 months.
Death was a constant
It’s an unwritten rule in the newspaper world that you don’t write that someone committed suicide, and that has generally carried over to SlamWrestling.net. However, when the subject goes on Instagram, saying they are about to kill themselves, and then does? That suicide is not only the focus of the story but also opens the door for much-needed discussions on mental health.
That was the case on September 2, 2021, when “Daffney” Shannon Spruill took her own life.
The Instagram feed, where countless friends, colleagues and more pleaded with her to consider other options, as she ignored her ringing phone, was terrifying to watch. Despite authorities being dispatched, by the time they got in, it was too late. She was 46.
Spruill’s death was different than the others in 2021, not just because she was young. No, it had something to do with talking about issues, about mental health, especially in the midst of a global pandemic where many of the resources and services normally available to those in need weren’t available.
The “Tag Me In” campaign, led by some of the major female names in pro wrestling, raised money and awareness about mental health, and was proof that out of sad times can come some good.
Spruill wasn’t the only name to pass in 2020, and our obituary page grew far too much. COVID and complications from the virus were responsible for many deaths (Reggie Parks, Royce Profit [Tom Cusati], Steve “The Brawler” Lawler), but there were also accidents, like “Golden Boy” Michael Cammett dying while white-water rafting and Pasion Kristal drowning. Josephus a.k.a. The Question Mark (Joseph Hudson) was the only person active on a major roster to pass, but, man, the list of legends who left us is, well, legendary … goodbye to headliners such as Buddy Colt, Dominic Denucci, “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton, “The Assassin” Jody Hamilton, “Blackjack” Jack Lanza, Angelo Mosca, New Jack, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, “Hacksaw” Butch Reed, and “The Patriot” Del Wilkes, key promoter Jim Crockett Jr. and women’s legends Ethel Brown, Ann Casey, and Natasha the Hatchet Lady. Slam lost a friend and contributor in Mark Bujan too.
— Greg Oliver, SlamWrestling.net Producer
WWE puts the OC in PeacOCk
By which we mean “Original Content.” Which isn’t necessarily intuitive, but our computer auto-corrected our original “WWE-Cock” heading to “WEE-Cock” and we weren’t comfortable with that.
But there was nothing “wee” about WWE’s deal with NBC Universal – which saw WWE sell exclusive US broadcast rights, including for its pay-per-views and other original shows, to NBCU’s Peacock streaming service. On the contrary, it was absolutely massive.
Valued at a reported $1 billion USD over five years, the deal saw the shutdown of the WWE Network in the States. In addition to the monetary benefits, WWE touted the deal as a way of focusing on its core strength of content development as opposed to running the technology platform on which it aired. In addition, with cross-promotion opportunity, including an annual signature documentary to air exclusively on the Peacock, both companies hoped to be able to attract new eyes to the product.
Of course, the deal has led to some controversy: many fans were upset when news got out that Peacock had been editing some of the edgier content from historical shows; and there have been more than a few instances of streaming issues on the new platform. Still, none of those seem to have resulted in substantive problems for the company, or in any way reduced (as alleged by DX back in the day) Vince’s love for “the cock.”
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
For years, NXT provided WWE with an in-house alternative to its Monday and Friday night programming. The black and yellow brand featured matches that were generally longer and more exciting. The roster was largely comprised of stars who had made their own names through the independent circuit before joining NXT – and refreshingly, were allowed to maintain their established gimmicks and characters. The periodic Takeover shows were routinely touted as being some of the best programming under the WWE umbrella. With fans and critics raving about the shows, a lot of praise was heaped on the operational head of the brand, Triple H, and his team of agents, trainers, and talent. Could the success continue?
No chance in hell.
In the summer, WWE Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan confirmed that the brand was being completely revamped, and that NXT 2.0 was being launched. The new direction was to take things back to being a developmental territory, where WWE could forge new characters more in-line with the company’s preferred mold. Or as The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer put it, “no more midgets, no one starting in their thirties.”
A new logo saw the familiar black and gold scheme replaced by a multi-color kaleidoscope of colors. The TV production look was changed to include brighter lights that visually changed the atmosphere. And, most of all, the roster was almost entirely remade.
Veteran NXT talents that had become bona-fide stars were either let go or called up to a different brand, or didn’t renew their contracts. New characters – many of whom looking like they were right out of the 1980s with cheesy over-the-top personas – were introduced, many without any fanfare or advance promotion.
And despite the ratings – which had suffered when the show aired against AEW’s flagship show Dynamite for several weeks until NXT changed nights – never having bounced back to pre-makeover levels, it doesn’t look like there will be any retreating from the 2.0 strategy. Indeed, in the main event of December’s WarGames show, the main event saw a contingent of the new blood defeat a team of NXT stars that pre-dated the change.
Rumors abound about backstage politics having played a part in the change, and with it being unlikely that anyone involved will “spill the tea” on what really happened, all fans can do is wonder what will happen NXT.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
Ring of Honor’s Final Battle
On February 23, 2002, at the Murphy Recreational Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the world was introduced to the wrestling promotion that could, as Ring of Honor held its inaugural event. Little did those in attendance know that the world of independent wrestling was going to change forever.
Through the next 19 years, Ring of Honor has inarguably changed the landscape of professional wrestling by introducing us to wrestlers such as Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, CM Punk, The Briscoes, The Young Bucks and so much more. All of this came to a sudden halt as on October 27, 2021, it was announced that ROH would be taking a break from normal operations after its Final Battle PPV and that all talent contracts would be honored until the end of 2021 with wrestlers able to find employment elsewhere immediately.
The entire wrestling world wondered what was next. Among the Slam Wrestling crew, speculation ran wild as our writers attempted to make sense of what is next for ROH. Talent even had messages for their fans and colleagues. The possibilities of what will happen were as endless then as they are today. Will ROH be sold? Will the tape library end up in the hands of WWE or AEW? Will ROH have the same fate as WCW? All we knew by the end of the year was that the wrestlers still employed were considered free agents and some, like Jay Lethal had already found new employment, signing with AEW.
While the exact details of the relaunch are not known, fans will circle April 2022 in their calendars as that is the expected return of ROH during its annual Supercard of Honor show that typically happens during WrestleMania weekend. What the future of ROH holds is still in the air but what we can say is that ROH provided us with great memories. As CM Punk told the ROH faithful at Final Battle via a video message, “(they should) not be sad if this is the end, but be damn happy that Ring of Honor happened.”
— Boris Robert Aguilar, Contributing Writer
Seven years. That’s how long CM Punk had been away from wrestling. That’s how long fans had chanted his name at wrestling events, in the desperate hope that one day he would once again be the smiling face on their TV.
And on August 20, 2021, both Punk and his fans were richly rewarded, when he returned to wrestling as a member of the AEW roster. In one of the most anticipated returns of all time, his hometown Chicago crowd collectively exploded in delight when the opening riff of Living Color’s “Cult of Personality” hit the speakers.
After celebrating with the fans, Punk entered the ring and cut a promo that may not be as quotable as his infamous Pipe Bomb from years ago, but nonetheless felt more heartfelt, emotional, and honest.
Since then, Punk’s popularity hasn’t waned, and fans continue to see what he’ll say next, and to whom he’ll say it. After a few high-profile matches with Darby Allin and Eddie Kingston, Punk has now turned his attention to MJF, who arguably is the only person better than Punk on the microphone in AEW.
Like Mussolini and Kennedy, Punk is indeed a game-changer. And after a seven-year absence, fans are once again loving the game.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
Walking through the Forbidden Door
Fans have been having the conversations for years. Who is the best wrestler of all time? Is it Hulk Hogan or Bret “Hitman” Hart? Are The Road Warriors the best tag team, or can The British Bulldogs lay claim? Doesn’t matter who you bring up, because for the longest time, wrestlers only faced the best in their own respective promotions, and never the ’twain would meet (unless their contract expired or they got future endeavored). Yes, the “Forbidden Door” of professional wrestling was locked tighter than Fort Knox.
But 2021 was the year the door was kicked wide open.
All Elite Wrestling (AEW) led the charge in 2021, and CEO Tony Khan introduced the phrase “The Forbidden Door” to the wrestling vernacular. Before that, the phrase was best known as the title of a bad Dean Koontz novel, or the name of a strange Indonesian psychological thriller (go ahead and Google it, if you don’t believe me). In wrestling, it was the concept that ensured that if you were contracted to a promotion, there were no other opportunities to be had in other promotions.
One of the earliest benefactors of this Door being flung open was IMPACT! Wrestling.
As 2021 opened, Kenny Omega was crowned the new AEW World Heavyweight champion, with a little assist by Don Callis, who was the co-executive producer for IMPACT!, alongside fellow Canadian Scott D’Amore. Almost immediately, Omega and Callis, alongside The Good Brothers Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson, ran roughshod through the IMPACT locker room. This culminated in Omega defeating Rich Swann at the Rebellion PPV.
This went back and forth, with Matt Hardy and the tag team Private Party also coming to crash the party in IMPACT. This also started up “paid ads” from the pocket of Tony Khan waving the AEW banner, almost as an “invasion” type angle. Omega even added to his belt collection, adding to those titles the AAA Mega Campeon belt in Mexico.
But things changed when Christian Cage came to AEW, and Captain Charisma faced Omega to win the TNA/IMPACT! belts back on the debut of the new AEW Rampage show on TNT.
There are other examples of wrestling talent walking in the doors or other promotions, especially the women. While the National Wrestling Alliance was away on hiatus, it was Serena Deeb who was the standard bearer, and she made her presence known in AEW as The Woman of a Thousand Holds, and she defended “The Burke” at every chance offered. After she was signed by AEW, she came back to the NWA to face Kamille in a classic match, where the Brickhouse stood tall at the When Our Shadows Fall PPV.
The Women of AEW and IMPACT also kicked down a few more doors at the NWA EmPOWERRR PPV. Not only did KiLynn King and Red Velvet have a chance to shine in the NWA Women’s tag team tournament, but “Legit” Leyla Hirsch put on a wrestling clinic facing Kamille for The Burke. It also had the benefit of Melina getting a chance to challenge then-IMPACT Knockouts champion Deonna Purrazzo.
Even smaller venues like Game Changer Wrestling got in on the act of going through The Forbidden Door, when Nick Gage got a chance to put “The Painmaker” Chris Jericho in a death match during his Labors of Jericho. Matt Cardona of IMPACT joined in the fun, winning the GCW World Championship, and there has never been a man that has enjoyed trolling the GCW fans as much as Cardona.
AEW, the NWA, and IMPACT have shown fans that anytime talent walks through The Forbidden Door, it is only going to prove to be best for business. Whether its big names getting title opportunities, or wrestlers getting a chance to shine brightly in a big matchup, nothing looks to be “forbidden”, and it has the benefits of an open door policy.
Who knows what 2022 will hold? But it can be certain that opportunities to walk in the door aren’t as forbidden.
— Tommy “Milagro” Martinez, Contributing Writer
Dreamer gets snared, pays fare for Flair’s air affair
For the past few years, the Vice TV show Dark Side of the Ring has shone a light on some of the scandals from pro wrestling’s past. In September, the documentary series covered the infamous “Plane Ride From Hell” incident from 2002, during which a number of shenanigans – some harmless, others not – ensued on a WWF chartered plane on a trip back from a European tour.
The resulting fallout of the episode would prove to become a nightmare for ECW original Tommy Dreamer. And – though it wasn’t the biggest airplane-related disaster that Ric Flair ever experienced – it did somewhat crumble Space Mountain.
During the episode, stewardess Heidi Doyle talked about an incident where Ric Flair walked around naked but for his ring robe and flashed her. Later, he allegedly forced Doyle’s hands on his “little Naitch” and forcibly detained her in the galley area.
Dreamer refuted the claims in an interview on the show, saying “Ric Flair is not going to try and impose by force any sexual stuff onto anybody. He is just flaunting, styling and profiling, doing like the Ric Flair stuff where everybody is going to laugh about it but obviously someone took offense to it.”
The resulting fallout was swift and severe. Within a few days of the episode airing, Dreamer was suspended indefinitely from Impact Wrestling (although reports say that he has returned to the company in December).
Flair was reportedly dropped as a spokesperson for the automotive insurance company Carshield as a result of the negative impression of the event after the episode aired. WWE and Peacock took action as well, removing a segment of its animated Story Time show that focused on the plane ride. In addition, Flair’s image and signature “Wooo!” soundbite was removed from the video package introducing WWE TV shows. WWE’s online store also pulled all Ric Flair merchandise at the same time. Though it’s possible the timing of that was merely coincidental, since Flair had asked for and obtained his release from WWE weeks earlier.
If anything, the fallout may make wrestlers think about whether they want to participate in any future episodes, should Dark Side run a fourth season of shows. Because Diamonds Last Forever… and so does video of you saying things that might get you cancelled.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
The never-ending future-endeavoring
If there are any billionaires out there reading this, the first thing we’d ask is if you’d like to invest heavily into Slam Wrestling (if so please reach out to any of the editors).
The second thing we’d ask is if you want to start up your own wrestling company. Because there’s a full roster worth of free agents out there now, thanks to the series of roster purges that WWE made in 2021. During the year, approximately 80 members spanning all domestic and international brands were let go.
Some of the cuts were likely expected as the talents involved weren’t being used in any meaningful capacity. But others seemed to come out of nowhere and were particularly baffling since the talents involved had been regularly appearing on TV in prominent storylines. Others still had been big names in NXT and were released within weeks of being called up to the main roster, or – as in the case of Hit Row – hadn’t even had a match on their new show before getting the boot.
To wrestling fans, the releases definitely made WWE – and in particular Vince McMahon and Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan – look like major heels. Citing cost-cutting as the rationale behind many of the decisions seemed completely incongruous when they were touting record profits on investors calls. It also didn’t help that McMahon seemed almost cavalier about the releases, even making an on-screen appearance on RAW last month, bragging about how much he enjoyed firing people during the holidays.
The company’s reputation took a further hit when long-time veteran Mickie James tweeted out a photo of a garbage bag containing her belongings that was shipped to her after her release. Though WWE subsequently apologized and noted that the individual involved had been terminated, the optics of the incident really made the company seem tone-deaf and insensitive.
With the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, perhaps that’s what is driving some WWE talent to let their contracts expire and go elsewhere (such as Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole and Kyle O’Reilly), request their releases (like Andrade and Toni Storm), or do what Jeff Hardy did: literally walk out of the company mid-match..
Whatever the reasons, it’s hopeful that Khan and McMahon will sheathe their scythes for some time – or they might fans their fans follow the departees and wish WWE the best in its future endeavors.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
You sold out! You sold out!
In its quest to partner up with mainstream companies and offer a unique form of creative advertising for sponsors, both AEW and WWE came up with some real stinkers this year.
To promote the movie Godzilla vs. Kong, the April 1 episode of AEW Dynamite presented a match between Jurassic Express and Bear Country. On the surface, the inclusion of Jurassic Express makes some sense, since Luchasaurus is a dinosaur-themed character. But as Kong is a giant gorilla, the inclusion of Bear Country – who, as the name implies, has a bear motif and has nothing to do with gorillas whatsoever – was simply inexplicable. While the match was fine, there was (pardon the pun) bear-ly any linkage to the movie.
That still may have been better than the crowbarring of a storyline involving a Golden Egg – as featured in the Netflix movie Red Notice starring WWE legend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. At the Survivor Series pay-per-view, Vince McMahon showed off a Golden egg statue that he claimed was gifted to him by Johnson and that was worth a hundred million dollars. The egg was stolen during the show, and on the next night’s RAW, it was revealed that Austin Theory had stolen the egg in order to take a selfie with it. Theory returned the egg, McMahon forgave him, and the storyline concluded flatter than a pancake (or, to use an egg pun, an omelet). Reportedly, the original planned storyline was even worse. Which is hard to imagine, since this one really laid an egg.
But, as unbelievable as that, perhaps the nadir of WWE’s creative advertising “integrations” came at the Backlash PPV, which saw a horde of zombies – as seen in the Netflix film Army of the Dead – act as lumberjacks for a match, and then invade the ring and attack/eat The Miz. This terrible idea, to promote the movie starring another WWE legend Dave Bautista, was not only visually silly but also affected the outcome of a match that presumably some people actually wanted to watch. If zombies were trying to nourish themselves on brains, they would have starved if they’d gone after whoever thought this one up.
Unfortunately, with the money that a wrestling company can make for this kind of promotion (the Red Notice deal was reportedly a seven-figure deal), the likelihood is that we’ll see more of this type of thing in the future. Because, as they say, it’s best for business.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
After a year of mainly empty arenas or reduced crowds, it was good to see the widespread return of live crowds to wrestling shows. Well, mostly. As a couple of incidents shows that there are still a few “fans” who felt the need to insert themselves into the action.
On a July episode of AEW Dynamite, a fan rushed into the ring and attacked Chris Jericho. Security was able to take him away, but not before Jericho got in a shot on the guy. The fellow explained he did it to show his support for Jim Cornette, a frequent critic of AEW and Jericho, but Cornette quickly denounced the actions on his podcast.
In November, one of the members of the WWE Universe charged Seth Rollins as he was making his way up the entrance ramp and took him down. Although Rollins did the safe and responsible thing and fought to get out from underneath the man and let security deal with him, some veteran wrestlers criticized Rollins for not retaliating on the fan, who reportedly was the victim of a catfishing incident that made him think he had enmity with Rollins.
Luckily, in both instances, nobody got hurt.
But idiotic actions weren’t restricted to only those on the other side of the guardrail. Indeed, one of the most brutal attacks of the year was perpetrated by someone who was actually booked on a show, though arguably has as much skill as either of the aforementioned ticket-holders.
In December, disturbing images and videos were posted of an incident from a World Class Revolution show where “wrestler” Devon “Hannibal” Nicholson, in his new Blood Hunter persona, stabbed referee Lando Deltoro with a railroad spike after a match. While the spot was planned, pictures of Deltoro’s head afterwards showed considerable damage, requiring multiple staples to his head. Nicholson – a veteran Canadian wrestler/YouTuber but who is more famous for contracting hepatitis from Abdullah the Butcher, apparently lacked the skills to safely execute the attack and attributed his going too deep into the ref’s forehead to the inability to see through the eyeholes of his mask (though, critics note that seems only to raise more questions as to Nicholson’s professionalism).
A GoFundMe has been set up to help Deltoro with the medical bills. Meanwhile, the promotion noted in an online statement that “moving forward (it) will not be associated with Devon Nicholson… in any way, shape, form or fashion.”
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
Deathmatch star gets a ‘pizza’ the action
Nick Gage isn’t a household name – and chances are that at the start of 2021, even most wrestling fans had never heard of him. But after being the subject of a Dark Side of the Ring episode, Gage had some major industry buzz. So much so that he was invited to make his first (and to date, last) appearance on a mainstream wrestling TV show, competing against Chris Jericho on an episode of AEW Dynamite. As is customary for Gage, controversy followed, when a sponsor, Domino’s Pizza was critical of the appearance, upset that one of their ads immediately followed a gruesome spot in the match that saw Gage carve up Jericho with his trademark pizza cutter (reports suggested that it was actually WWE that tipped off Domino’s about it and pressured media outlets to report on Domino’s response). While the controversy ultimately faded, and the spotlight on Gage dimmed, for a while, Gage broke through the glass ceiling. And while he may not have been the toast of the town – even if that toast was only with a couple of cans of PBR.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor
Other Notable and Newsworthy Items
- In November 2021, shortly after the release of Jon Moxley’s autobiography, it was announced that he’d entered himself into an in-patient alcohol treatment centre. Though this seemingly required the company to make major changes to their booking plans, AEW and President Tony Khan offered nothing but support to Moxley. Hopefully Moxley gets the help he needs, and when he does he can go back to destroying himself physically through his in-ring battles instead.
- Matt Cardona shocked the world when he unveiled some actual charisma during his appearances in Game Changer Wrestling. In addition to showing off some personality, Cardona showed that he also had some deathmatch chops, as he beat Nick Gage for the GCW Championship in July. As champion, Cardona exuded an actual personality, drawing intense hatred from the GCW faithful. Unfortunately, after losing the title in September, Cardona seems to have also lost any interesting spark and is back to boring fans in Impact instead.
- With his widow Martha wanting nothing to do with WWE, many felt it would be unlikely that Owen Hart would ever get acknowledged for his contributions to wrestling. Fortunately, that’s not the case, as AEW announced it will be partnering with Martha’s Owen Hart Foundation to hold two tournaments – one men’s and one women’s – in Owen’s honour. The Owen Cup winners will be crowned at the 2022 Double Or Nothing PPV event. It’s been too long since Owen’s name has been mentioned in wrestling. Well, enough is enough, it’s time for a change.
- WWE has a lengthy history of having celebrities compete in matches, and 2021 was no exception. This year’s shining celebrity star was popular rapper Bad Bunny. The long-time wrestling fan lived his dream of competing in a WWE ring, winning the 24/7 Championship (which he proudly wore to the Latin Grammy Awards), and earning critical praise for his match at WrestleMania where he teamed up with Damian Priest against The Miz and John Morrison, whose antics Bunny didn’t cotton to leading to a tale of triumph. See what we did there? Cotton… tale? Yeah, we’re hilarious.
- Wrestling fans were looking for something to fill the GLOW-shaped void of wrestling-related TV series, and they got a couple of options this year. The first and highest-profile show was Young Rock, a biographical sitcom about the life of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who also starred as himself in the show). The other was Heels, a family drama starring Stephen Amell, about two brothers who are also professional wrestlers. In non-wrestling series, one of the episodes of this season of The Walking Dead centered around a former professional wrestler and included a zombie fight reminiscent of the aforementioned Backlash. Meanwhile, WWE superstar Miz fared quite well as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, though some would argue he was the victim of a mirror-ball-sized screwjob when he got eliminated despite having a fairly high score that week. It would seem that, other than for actual wrestling shows, viewers want to see wrestling on TV.
- In the tradition of early 1990s Hulk Hogan, and “Super Cena”, in 2021, AEW’s Cody Rhodes became the babyface that the fans love to hate the most. Despite shaking hands and kissing babies, every time Rhodes made an appearance, he often received more boos than the dastardly heel he was facing. We blame Brandi.
— Bob Kapur, Senior Editor