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brodie lee tribute

This is the last of our 2020 awards. On Monday, we kicked off our awards with the 2020 Fight Game Media Boxing Awards. On Tuesday, we posted our 2020 Fight Game Media MMA Awards.

Our pro wrestling awards are dedicated to Jon Huber, aka Brodie Lee.

The Panel

Duan Greally: Longtime Fight Game Media contributor and co-host of The Rocky Podcast and The Fabulous Four Podcast
Alan Counihan: Long time Fight Game Media contributor and columnist and podcaster for Pro Wrestling Torch
Andy Marshall: Pro wrestling writer at Fight Game Media and co-host of Break It Down, a podcast exclusive to the Fight Game Media Network
Parker Klyn: Pro wrestling writer at Fight Game Media
Justin Knipper: Fight Game Media editor and co-host of High Tension, a podcast exclusive to the Fight Game Media Network
JD Oliva: Amateur and pro wrestling writer at Fight Game Media and co-host of High Tension, a podcast exclusive to the Fight Game Media Network
Carlos Toro: Boxing writer at Fight Game Media and co-host of the Pound 4 Pound Podcast with Robert Silva, exclusively on the Fight Game Media Network
Paul Fontaine: Ratings and MMA betting writer at Fight Game Media and co-host of In The Clinch with Ryan Frederick, a podcast exclusive to the Fight Game Media Network
GG: Editor at Fight Game Media and creator of the Fight Game Media Network

The Categories

Most Outstanding Wrestler
Show of the Year
Match of the Year
Breakout Star
Who’s Next

Most Outstanding Wrestler

Duan: Minoru Suzuki
Suzuki’s performances in 2020 defied belief. At 52-years-old, he was the one who time and time again came up with the goods when New Japan needed it. Post lockdown, it was he and Nagata who got the promotion firing again. In Jingu Stadium, who stole the show? People said he was too old for the G1. He had some of the best matches of anyone right throughout the tournament. Suzuki is one of a kind. Don’t include him in your notions of age.

Duan’s previous winners:
2019: Will Ospreay
2018: Walter
2017: Kenny Omega
2016: AJ Styles
2015: Jay Lethal
2014: Seth Rollins
2013: Daniel Bryan
2012: CM Punk
2011: Dolph Ziggler
2010: John Cena
2009: Chris Jericho
2008: Jeff Hardy

Alan: Go Shiozaki
In many ways, the year and title reign of Go Shiozaki has been a symbol of what the world has gone through this year. Started off great, full of excitement as he won the GHC Championship in an amazing match against Kaito Kiyomiya on January 4th. But as the year wore on, Go was worn down. He faced one difficult challenge after another. The injuries piled up, the tape holding him together got more necessary by the month and he was getting the ever living shit kicked out of him by his opponents. But he persevered and he somehow just kept going. After back-to-back grueling 45+ minute matches in November and December against Nakajima and Sugiura, he still has his title and he’s used it to prove he was the most resilient champion in pro wrestling in 2020. A truly epic title reign that defied the limitations it took place under.

Alan’s previous winners:
2019: Will Ospreay
2018: Walter
2017: Kazuchika Okada
2016: Kazuchika Okada
2015: Yuji Okabayashi
2014: Tomohiro Ishii
2013: Kazuchika Okada
2012: Kazuchika Okada
2011: Daisuke Sekimoto and Akira Tozawa
2010: Chris Hero
2009: KENTA
2008: Shingo Takagi

Andy: Jon Moxley
When AEW needed a home run hitter, Jon Moxley stepped up and swung for the fences. The second champion and first true babyface world champion in the promotion’s history, Mox’s matches became appointment television. His promo battles with Eddie Kingston produced some of the most compelling wrestling television of the year. To have the weight of a start-up promotion and come through both on the mic, and in the ring, Moxley has helped establish AEW as a viable alternative as its second big star after Chris Jericho.

Parker: Hiromu Takahashi
It feels like an eternity ago at this point, but as recently as late 2019, it was still up in the air whether or not Hiromu Takahashi would ever return to the squared circle. After his devastating broken neck at the G1 Special in 2018, Hiromu took a full 18 months off of wrestling, with little in the way of updates. Now, a year after his return, I have no qualms saying that Hiromu is not merely just as good as he was pre-injury. He’s even better. In an up-and-down year for New Japan, Hiromu was the promotion’s most consistent in-ring force. He was the only wrestler to get a truly great match out of EVIL. His performance in the Best of the Super Juniors tournament resulted in matches with SHO, Robbie Eagles, Ryusuke Taguchi, DOUKI, and Master Wato that all rank among those competitors’ career bests. He had the match of the night against Ryu Lee at the New Beginning and Taiji Ishimori at Summer Struggle, two of NJPW’s five biggest shows all year, and it was all bookended by perhaps Hiromu’s two best matches all year: vs. Will Ospreay at Wrestle Kingdom, and vs. El Desperado in the finals of the Best of the Super Juniors. Beyond all that, being the man to retire Jushin Thunder Liger will likely be Hiromu’s enduring legacy from 2020, one of the greatest in-ring years from any wrestler in history.

Justin: Tomohiro Ishii
I can’t think of another who has put on so many consistently awesome wrestling bouts than Ishii. Of course, it includes his recent string of matches over this year, but the run extends back to at least 2018. If Tomohiro Ishii is involved in a match, NJPW or otherwise, it will most likely be great, and if it’s a singles match with stakes, like a title match or a G1 or New Japan Cup match, you’re almost guaranteed top-tier wrestling courtesy of this man. He’s outstanding and then some, and we as fans need to appreciate this fact before he eventually retires.

Justin’s previous winners:
2019: Kento Miyahara

JD: Jon Moxley
All Elite Wrestling put their World Heavyweight Championship on a proven star with legitimate box office appeal in a year of such uncertainty. Throughout 2020, Jon Moxley provided stability in an unsure era helped elevate the AEW World Title. His appearance on Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport gave Moxley and the belt an old-school flair, akin to the days of Harley Race and the NWA traveling champion.

Carlos: Shingo Takagi
No wrestler has adjusted to wrestling in the COVID-19 era of wrestling than Takagi. It’s like he instantly understood how to get the best matches out of everyone with limited or no crowd and mastered that art, something no other wrestler has been able to do. In terms of in-ring quality, you can’t find a bad singles match from Takagi since this summer. In fact, you can’t even find an average match. All have bordered between really good and great. His matches with SHO, Kazuchika Okada, Minoru Suzuki, Kota Ibushi, Tomohiro Ishii, Will Ospreay have been phenomenal. That’s why Takagi gets my pick for Most Outstanding Wrestler.

Paul: Kenny Omega
May have had the best tag team match and best singles match in North American wrestling in 2020. He held the AEW World tag team title and AEW World championship and also made appearances in Triple A and Impact Wrestling in one of the most buzz worthy pro wrestling angles of the year.

Paul’s previous winners:
2019: Chris Jericho

GG: Jon Moxley
I know, I know, this is a bit of a biased choice if you believe that him being on our show influenced this decision. And while it probably did, that doesn’t take away anything that Jon Moxley did in 2020. There are some things on the AEW show that come across as less than realistic. But just about everything Jon does comes across as realistic. He’s the best promo in the game today. And he put a big bullseye on his back after doing the podcast with Chris Jericho after he left WWE. But he backed up everything he said and proved the doubters wrong.

GG’s previous winners:
2019: Will Ospreay
2018: Kenny Omega
2017: Kazuchika Okada
2016: AJ Styles
2015: AJ Styles
2014: Adrian Neville
2013: Daniel Bryan
2012: CM Punk
2011: Dolph Ziggler
2010: Daniel Bryan
2009: Chris Jericho
2008: Chris Jericho

Show of the Year

Everyone submitted their picks before the last AEW Dynamite show of the year, which was a tribute to Jon Huber, aka Brodie Lee. I think many would want to change their picks to that show, but because of the timeliness of getting the awards done, the original choices will stay as is. However, because I have final edit, I was able to fit it in as mine. — GG

Duan: Summer Struggle in Jingu
This was the big celebratory show NJPW needed. After some booking misfires over the summer, it felt like it was time to give the fans what they wanted and that’s what they did. The undercard had some of the best in ring action in New Japan this year and Tetsuya Naito’s long overdue coronation post main event felt like the biggest moment in wrestling in a great long while.

Duan’s previous winners:
2019: G1 Climax 29 Final
2018: NXT TakeOver: New Orleans
2017: NXT TakeOver: Chicago
2016: Progress Brixton
2015: Ultimo Lucha
2014: Payback
2013: SummerSlam
2012: TLC
2011: Money In The Bank
2010: WrestleMania XXVI
2009: Judgment Day
2008: WrestleMania 24

Alan: Wrestle Kingdom 14 (Night One)
A tremendous event which worked both as a great set-up for the night that followed, and an outstanding show in its own right. It was capped off by the super Okada vs. Ibushi main event, but this show offered plenty of enjoyable bouts on the undercard including the jaw-dropping Ospreay vs. Hiromu junior title match.

Alan’s previous winners:
2019: Wrestle Kingdom 13
2018: OTT WrestleRama II
2017: Wrestle Kingdom 11
2016: Wrestle Kingdom 10
2015: Wrestle Kingdom 9
2014: NJPW G1 Climax Day 7
2013: NJPW G1 Climax Day 4
2012: NJPW King Of Pro Wrestling
2011: PWG DDT4
2010: PWG Seven
2009: PWG Threemendous 2
2008: ROH Supercard Of Honor 3

Andy: NXT TakeOver: Portland
It seems important to point out the difference between an NXT show with a main roster WWE presentation. The sometimes third brand, sometimes developmental system; NXT routinely produces some of the best matches and shows promoted under a WWE banner in any given year. 2020 was no exception as Takeover: Portland was fortunate enough to get the full live arena crowd experience. The opener featuring North American champion Keith Lee and Dominik Dijakovic was easily both men’s best match since signing with the company. Finn Balor and Johnny Gargano fought for close to a half hour and served as the reintroduction of Balor as a main event heel after being moved back from the main roster. Rhea Ripley was still being treated like the next Hulk Hogan as she got a short-ish victory over Bianca Belair. Belair would be called up shortly thereafter. Matt Riddle and Pete Dunne defeated NXT Tag Team champions Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly in a great match that had the crowd lose their mind when The BroserWeights won the gold. Finally, in another chapter in the feud between Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano was written, as Gargano turned heel and cost Ciampa his chance at the NXT championship against Adam Cole. It feels like cheating to pick a show that had such a great group of fans in the Pacific Northwest cheering them on, but this was perhaps the last great classic Takeover show.

Parker: NJPW G1 Climax 30 Night 13
I’m a wrestling fan, meaning I like wrestling matches first and foremost. Angles and storylines are all supplementary bonuses for me; for the most part, I am only truly invested in what happens between the ropes. So when NJPW, in the middle of a pandemic, put on a show that many people called the greatest night of wrestling in G1 history, I knew right then that it was my show of the year. Four of the matches on the G1’s Night 13 had no story around them at all; the one that did, Jay White vs. Yujiro Takahashi, was over in less than four minutes. Everything else on the show was absolutely spectacular. Tomohiro Ishii and Jeff Cobb lived up to the high expectations set a year prior when their first G1 encounter fell short. Will Ospreay gave Taichi a chance to wrestle the best match of his life. Kota Ibushi and Minoru Suzuki may as well have been a campy sci-fi flick, with Ibushi playing the likable protagonist and Suzuki the terrifying monster. And the first-time Kazuchika Okada vs. Shingo Takagi matchup was better than I could’ve even hoped, somehow beating the rest of the show out for the match of the night. The styles all varied — Ishii/Cobb was a brawl, Taichi/Ospreay was a spotfest, Suzuki/Ibushi was, well, a Suzuki match, and Okada/Shingo gave us the classic NJPW main event formula we love — and when put together, I can’t really conceive of how somebody could have wanted more out of a show.

Justin: NJPW G1 Climax 30 Night 17 (A Block Finals)
I couldn’t have asked for much more than what was offered on this card, which says something in during the fall G1 tournament this year, Carlos Toro and I watched every single G1 card, reviewing each bout, and somehow I wasn’t sick of it by the time we got to Night 17 of the tournament. And that’s when the roster–well, the A Block participants–brought their game to even higher levels than in weeks prior. If you’re going to watch one front-to-back G1 2020 card this year, try this one.

Justin’s previous winners:
2019: Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport

JD: AEW Revolution
Viewing AEW’s second pay per view from Chicago is a window to the world we used to know — a world before Covid-19. Seeing a maskless, sold-out crowd seems so foreign today. Hearing that crowd react and cheer for the matches makes one yearn for the old days. The lasting image of Jon Moxley holding the AEW belt up before the crowd became pro wrestling’s final image before the pandemic. Stellar matches between Kenny Omega/Hangman Page and the Young Bucks and the world title match between Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley helped push this show over the top.

Carlos: NJPW G1 Climax 30 Night 13
I had discussed this on the G1Cast with Justin Knipper, but this was the best show of this year’s G1 Climax and it’s not even close. Now looking back on it, no show was able to deliver greater wrestling from the opening match to the main event quite like this one. This show not only highlighted some of the year’s best matches (Okada vs Shingo, Ibushi vs Suzuki) but also showcased a variety of genres and styles inside pro wrestling. Even the “worst” match on this show, Jay White vs. Yujiro Takahashi, was a tremendous showing of wrestling storytelling as far as the inner workings and growing strife within certain members of Bullet Club despite in being less than 4 minutes maybe featuring 2 or 3 moves total. There’s not a single bad match on this show and every match was incredible. It was the best two-and-a-half hours of wrestling in 2020.

Paul: AEW Dynamite – March 18th
There have been shows with better matches and shows with better angles. But this show was the perfect show at the perfect time. After a solid week of being inundated with COVID news and facing a long uncertain time ahead, I was able to forget all of that and just watch the AEW crew put on the best possible show they could under extremely trying circumstances. From the opening heart-felt promo by the ELITE to the reveal of Brodie Lee as the leader of the Dark Order to the debut of Matt Hardy, it was a solid show that had me literally in tears (in a good way) several times during the show. I will not forget this show for a long time. It was especially good when considering that WWE had aired two shows without fans prior to this that paled in comparison so my expectations were very low going in. The handful of wrestlers they had at ringside felt like 20,000 fans in an area after watching 5 hours of RAW and Smackdown that week in empty buildings.

Paul’s previous winners:
2019: AEW Double Or Nothing

GG: AEW Dynamite – Brodie Lee Tribute
If you haven’t read Parker’s review of the show, definitely give it a read. This was the most thoughtful, giving, classy, special tribute wrestling show I’ve ever seen. Thoughtful isn’t a word I’d generally use to describe wrestling promotions, but Tony Khan and company should get all the credit in the world for making this a great night for the Huber family.

GG’s previous winners:
2019: AEW Double Or Nothing
2018: NJPW Dominion
2017: G1 Special in USA Night 1
2016: Wrestle Kingdom 10
2015: Wrestle Kingdom 9 and WrestleMania 31
2014: SummerSlam
2013: SummerSlam
2012: TNA Destination X
2011: Elimination Chamber
2010: WrestleMania XXVI
2009: Backlash
2008: Wrestlemania 24

Match of the Year

Duan: Kento Miyahara Vs Jake Lee at New Year’s Wars 2020 (Day 2)
There is a lot to be said for just putting the two best guys in your promotion in there and getting out of their way so they can do their thing. This was the same weekend as two fantastic Wrestle Kingdom shows and there is no question for me what the match of the weekend was live. There’s not a wrestler in the world better than this version of Miyahara and Jake Lee was right up there with him the whole way. These two could probably produce something just as special any time they wrestle over the next 10+ years.

Duan’s previous winners:
2019: Kota Ibushi Vs Jay White – G1 Climax 29 Final
2018: Kota Ibushi Vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax Final
2017: Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada – Wrestle Kingdom 11
2016: The Revival vs DIY – NXT TakeOver: Toronto
2015: John Cena vs Seth Rollins Vs Brock Lesnar – Royal Rumble
2014: John Cena vs Cesaro – February 17, 2014 Raw
2013: Brock Lesnar vs CM Punk – SummerSlam
2012: Triple H vs The Undertaker – WrestleMania 28
2011: Triple H vs The Undertaker – WrestleMania XXVII
2010: Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker – WrestleMania XXVI
2009: Rey Mysterio vs Chris Jericho – The Bash

Alan: Kenny Omega and Adam Page vs The Young Bucks – AEW Revolution
In many ways, this was the last time wrestling felt normal to me. It’s my cut-off point for the “old era” versus what we have now, and I’m so glad that we got this match before everything changed. We got to see AEW truly put their best foot forward and show just how incredible their product can be, and has the potential to be again. All four men were locked in during this captivating match, but Hangman Page was the one who really made it special. You couldn’t help get behind him and his quest to prove himself. Story, drama, excitement and innovation – this had it all.

Alan’s previous winners:
2019: Shingo Takagi Vs Dragon Lee – Best of the Super Juniors Day 8
2018: Kota Ibushi Vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – G1 Climax Final
2017: WALTER vs Ilja Dragunov – wXw 16 Carat Final
2016: Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – Wrestle Kingdom 10
2015: Shingo Takagi vs. Masaaki Mochizuki – Dragon Gate “Gate Of Destiny”
2014: Masato Yoshino vs Masaaki Mochizuki – January 16, 2014 and The Jimmys Vs The Millennials – September 23, 2014
2013: Kota Ibushi vs Shinsuke Nakamura – G1 Climax Day 4
2012: Kazuchika Okada vs Tetsuya Naito – NJPW 40th Anniversary Show
2011: Shingo Takagi vs BxB Hulk – Dragon Gate: Pro Wrestling Festival In Kobe
2010: Susumu Yokosuka vs Shingo Takagi – Dragon Gate in Nottingham
2009: 2 Skinny Black Guys vs The Young Buck$ – PWG Threemendous 2
2008: Kenta Kobashi, KENTA, Akihiko Ito, & Atsushi Aoki vs. Kensuke Sasaki, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Kento Miyahara, & Takashi Okita

Andy: Hiromu Takahashi Vs Will Ospreay – Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night One
I am not going to sit here and pretend I am any kind of expert on Japanese wrestling. My introduction to The Timebomb happened only a few months before a severe in-ring neck injury almost cost him his career. To have seen that happen live, and return, and have THIS caliber a match with an equally insane, balls-to-the-wall competitor like Ospreay, is enough for it to win on sentimentality alone. I am not going to do it any kind of justice recapping it here. Go watch the best junior heavyweight in the world get the torch passed back to him by the guy fighting Okada this year. You’ll be glad you did.

Parker: Kazuchika Okada Vs Tetsuya Naito – Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night Two
The Naito story is one of missed opportunities. His preternatural gifts for in-ring competition led to monstrous pushes early on in his career, where crowds summarily booed him for being boring and milquetoast. After reinventing himself as El Ingobernable, he was rewarded with his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship victory, only to lose it back to Kazuchika Okada with just one successful defense in between. He won the 2017 G1 Climax in spectacular fashion with unbelievable performances throughout, but stunningly lost to Okada yet again at Wrestle Kingdom 12 in a match where Naito’s victory was thought to be a foregone conclusion. But in early 2019, when he won the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, we began to think that perhaps Naito had bigger things in store, discussing the desire to become a double champion. Eventually, the Double Gold Dash came to fruition, and he foiled Jay White on Night 1 of Wrestle Kingdom 14 to win back the Intercontinental Championship. Faced with Okada on Night 2, Naito (and Okada, but this isn’t his story) gave wrestling fans everything they wanted and more. The drama was unbelievable. You’ve never heard a crowd so hot. Naito became the first person to kick out of the spinning Tombstone into the Rainmaker combination. When Okada focused his attack on Naito’s knee at the match’s end, the crowd loudly booed, a reversal of six years prior. The collective gasp when Naito not only attempted his hated Stardust Press, which had whiffed two years prior, but nailed it, is a perfect example of why wrestling’s success is so much of a function of the live crowd. There is no promotion that comes close to NJPW when it comes to long-term storytelling, and when you combine that with the impeccable in-ring work and one-of-a-kind atmosphere, you get the 2020 match of the year.

Justin: Kota Ibushi Vs Taichi – NJPW G1 Climax 30 Night 17 (A Block Finals)
I and many others seemed to have turned the corner on Taichi this year. It must have been the shift from junior to heavyweight. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but somehow, and finally, Taichi feels ‘at home’ or more comfortable than ever in his heavyweight heel role. Maybe him having to ditch ‘diva’ (NJPW’s words) Miho Abe due to pandemic circumstances, maybe that’s one other element that’s helped him discover who he really is in the ring.

His match with Kota Ibushi this year was one of the most unique offerings on the market, and was definitely a stand-out match of the entire tournament, which applies whether fans loved or hated it. It was nearly 20 minutes of low kicks, each wrestler refusing to give in, refusing to sell any of the pain until late into the match. It was a simple story that helped strengthen Taichi’s resolve in the eyes of fans, but it also helped showcase Ibushi’s storytelling capacity. I’m convinced Ibushi could pull off literally any style of match and make it work regardless of the plan, gimmick, venue, or era. This was my match of the year because of how memorable it was, and because what the story focused around, an absurd contest of opposing wills, that’s one side of what I believe the core of pro wrestling is, and is ultimately what fans want to see more than anything else.

Justin’s previous winners:
2019: Will Ospreay Vs Shingo Takagi – Best of the Super Juniors Final

JD: Go Shiozaki Vs Katsuhiko Nakajima – NOAH The Chronicle Vol. 4
Pro Wrestling Noah triumphantly roared back in 2020 with new ownership and on the back of Champion, Go Shiozaki. The four-time champion was already in the midst of a career year when his long-time AXIZ tag team partner Nakajima turned on him. The feud built up over the summer, with Nakajima winning the N-1 Victory tournament. The two finally met at Chronicle Vo. 4 on November 22nd in a 43-minute, all-out war between the two former friends. The history of the match and the long-term story of Shiozaki’s falling body make for an absolute classic.

Carlos: Kenny Omega and Adam Page vs The Young Bucks – AEW Revolution
There have been so many fantastic matches this year but no match was able to get me more emotionally invested and get me to rewatch it as much as this one. Between the incredible wrestling and the amazing spots to the Bucks hitting Kenny with the Golden Trigger to Page’s One-Winged Angel and seeds being further planted on an Omega-Page split, this match was not just my favorite but my pick for the best of the year.

Paul: Kenny Omega and Adam Page vs The Young Bucks – AEW Revolution
Maybe the best tag team match I’ve ever seen. The culmination of six months of storylines that ended up just launching the story into a new direction. This solidified the unlikely pairing of Hangman and Omega as the top team in AEW while not bringing the Bucks down one iota. With FTR set to debut a few months later, this story was far from over, but on this night it was just four of the best and most over wrestlers in the world doing what they do best.

Paul’s previous winners:
2019: Johnny Gargano Vs Adam Cole – NXT TakeOver: New York

GG: Kazuchika Okada Vs Tetsuya Naito – Wrestle Kingdom 14 Night Two
Because the majority of this year featured matches that weren’t really in front of crowds, I tried to pick a match during the pandemic era. But I couldn’t find one that hit perfectly for me. Even the great Walter vs Ilja Dragunov was still clearly missing a crowd response, which would’ve included loud gasps for how many times Walter chopped him. That gave me little to work with, but still a few great matches. When I went through my short list, I kept coming back to this one. It was the master against the hero the crowd was dying to see win. And when he did win, it was magical.

GG’s previous winners:
2019: Will Ospreay Vs Kazuchika Okada – G1 Climax 29 Night Seven
2018: Kenny Omega Vs Kazuchika Okada – NJPW Dominion
2017: Kenny Omega Vs Kazuchika Okada – Dominion
2016: Kazuchika Okada vs Hiroshi Tanahashi – Wrestle Kingdom 10
2015: Hiroshi Tanahashi Vs Kazuchika Okada – Wrestle Kingdom 9
2014: Adrian Neville vs Sami Zayn vs Tyler Breeze vs Tyson Kidd – NXT TakeOver: Fatal 4-Way
2013: Daniel Bryan vs John Cena – SummerSlam
2012: Brock Lesnar vs John Cena – Extreme Rules
2011: CM Punk vs John Cena – Money In The Bank
2010: Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker – WrestleMania XXVI
2009: Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker – WrestleMania XXV
2008: Chris Jericho vs Shawn Michaels – No Mercy

Breakout Star

Duan: Hiromu Takahashi
Hiromu returned from injury a better, smarter and altogether more complete wrestler. He was one of New Japan’s most consistent big match performers of 2020 bookending the year with classic matches in his junior heavyweight title victory over Ospreay on January 4th and in the Best of The Super Junior final against El Desperado on December 11th. More than that though, he ends the year looking like an almost certain future IWGP heavyweight champion which I could not have imagined possible one year ago. The crowd believes in him and when his time comes they will be ready for it.

Duan’s previous winners:
2019: SANADA
2018: Jonathan Gresham
2017: The Young Bucks
2016: Rich Swann
2015: Kevin Owens
2014: Adrian Neville

Alan: Dragon Gate’s Class Of 2020
Wow. That is all I can say regarding how DG’s newcomers have taken a hold of the company. SB KENTo, HipHop Kikuta, Taketo Kamei and Sora Fujikawa came out of the traps with gusto and look like they will be given the keys to the future of Dragon Gate. An already stacked roster of young talent (including current champion Shun Skywalker at 24 years old) looks even more impressive than it did 12 months ago thanks to the additions of these four youngsters. With Masato Yoshino retiring next July and several other staples of the promotion moving into their 40s, the time for change has come and DG was not shy with hammering that point home in 2020.

Alan’s previous winners:
2019: Naoya Nomura
2018: #STRONGHEARTS
2017: WRESTLE-1
2016: Matt Riddle
2015: Will Ospreay
2014: AJ Styles

Andy: Orange Cassidy
At first, I was going to give this to MJF. He has become one of the main characters on AEW television, despite being a smug, mean-spirited heel. He has made the jump from All Star to All-NBA. MJF is living up to the hype, but that kind of heeling was always going to work, especially with how effortless it really is for MJF. Orange Cassidy, on the other hand, was never really supposed to be here. He was not supposed to become the darling of a cable television network. He’s a merch selling machine and has received multiple high profile matches such as a big program with Chris Jericho (which he won) and more than a few cracks at the TNT championship (which he’s lost.) Rumor has it Tony Khan wasn’t even interested in bringing him in at first. For what seems like a one-note indie gimmick, Cassidy has commit to what he does just as hard as MJF and made himself a star in a new promotion.

Parker: Go Shiozaki
While it’s strange to call a 38-year-old former AJPW Triple Crown champion and a four-time NOAH GHC Heavyweight Champion a “breakout star,” I can’t think of any wrestler that matches that title in 2020 better than Go Shiozaki. As a puroresu completionist, I’ve been aware of Shiozaki’s talent for a long time, but until 2020, he was never really in any sort of conversation for “best in the world.” Now, in them midst of the most incredible heavyweight championship run since Okada’s two-year reign, people are finally catching up to Shiozaki’s greatness. In fact, his reign mirrors Okada’s quite a lot — long, drawn-out, epic matches where he does his very best to wrestle the challenger’s style. For NOAH, a company that just two years ago came extremely close to being bought out or even folding, to be in the conversation as the best non-NJPW promotion in Japan is remarkable, and the biggest reason is Shiozaki’s title reign. While each Shiozaki defense is fantastic and enthralling in its own way, it is the stretch of defenses against Kenoh, Katsuhiko Nakajima, and Takashi Sugiura that sent it to the next level. The Kenoh match is almost a spiritual sequel to Okada/Omega II, an hour-long draw where the two athletic performances within are unrivaled. The Nakajima match is notable for its brutality, with the legitimate kickboxer Nakajima pulling no punches when it came to kicking the daylight out of the beaten-down champion. And the Sugiura match is where people couldn’t ignore Shiozaki and NOAH any longer, with a closing stretch that rivals any post-pandemic match from around the world. Nobody would have predicted Shiozaki being in any sort of “wrestler of the year” conversation at the start of the year, so the fact that he’s on the shortlist proves to me that he is the breakout star of 2020.

Justin: El Desperado
After he took a year off to recover from a broken jaw at the hands of Jun Kasai last year, Desperado was back in the fold in June, where he surprised me and I’m sure a few others with his excellent studio match with Tomohiro Ishii, a dark horse singles bout this year, for sure. It wasn’t a fluke, either, as ‘Despy’ just headlined NJPW’s recent Budokan show against the human fireball that is Hiromu Takahashi. Some even claimed it was Match of the Year already. El Desperado has bided his time since returning from Mexico in 2014, now back in the NJPW mix as more than a bit player than before. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him get a run with the IWGP junior heavyweight title in 2021.

Justin’s previous winners:
2019: Matt Riddle

JD: John Silver
John Silver started the year as a bit player in a failing comedy act. By the end of the year, Silver was an internet darling who had a chance to showcase his in-ring talent against Hangman Adam Page on Dynamite. Silver became the star player for the Dark Order on Being The Elite, showcasing his unique comedy talent and chemistry with the late Brodie Lee.

Carlos: Jey Uso
From the moment he was thrust into the main event spotlight with his feud against Roman Reigns months ago, we had no idea of what Jey’s ceiling would be. After hearing his passionate promos and his wars against Reigns, it was clear that Jey was no longer one-half of a very successful tag team in WWE. He was his own star and he’s emerged as arguably WWE’s MVP for the second half of 2020. Since his feud against Reigns, Jey’s not had a single appearance where it can be seen as a disappointment or a waste of time.

Paul: Damien Priest
It seems weird for a 36-year-old guy to get this award but to look at where he was at this time in 2019 until now, it’s been a world of difference. Even though he is older, he hasn’t been doing this at a high level for a long time and will likely have at least another 10 years especially if he can work the WWE big man style of match over that time. His promos are a highlight of NXT most weeks and his in-ring is among the best for someone his size in all of wrestling.

Paul’s previous winners:
2019: Maxwell Jacob Friedman

GG: Kyle O’Reilly
I’ve been a little hard on Kyle because he’s more aw shucks than fiery babyface, but when given the chance to go solo this year, his work showed him to be at the tippy top level in WWE. He will more than likely never get a run on Raw or Smackdown as a single, but at NXT, he has transitioned from top level tag team wrestler to top level single’s wrestler in a very short time.

GG’s previous winners:
2019: Rhea Ripley
2018: Will Ospreay
2017: Andrade Cien Almas
2016: Jeff Cobb
2015: Timothy Thatcher
2014: The Usos

Who’s Next

Duan: Hokuto Omori
All Japan has great young talent coming through with the likes of Atsuki Aoyagi, Dan Tamura, Rising Hayato, Ryuki Honda and Francesco Akira among others starting to break out on the main roster, but Hokoto Omori is the one they seem most ready to pull the trigger on right now. The pairing with Enfants Terribles was an excellent move for him at this stage of his development and he’s started to pick up some major wins teaming with veterans Yusuke Kodama and Koji Doi. He fits perfectly as the hotheaded young gun of the group and his confidence and presence have come on tenfold since moving into the role. He and Doi already have a bid for the All Asia Tag belts lined up for January 3rd and singles titles may not be too far behind for The North Wolf.

Duan’s previous winners:
2019: Keith Lee
2018: The Rascalz
2017: Nikki Cross
2016: Pete Dunne
2015: Chad Gable
2014: Finn Balor
2013: Seth Rollins
2012: Bray Wyatt
2011: Justin Gabriel
2010: Dolph Ziggler

Alan: The Great O’Khan
If you think O’Khan is just going to be an undercard lackey for the new Empire group, you are sorely mistaken. NJPW and its upper management in particular have been high on Tomoyuki Oka since they signed him as a sponsored amateur wrestler. He’s a guy they will look to build the company around. Jay White starting his push with a Tanahashi Tokyo Dome match was a clear sign of where he was headed, and it’s the exact same case here.

Alan’s previous winners:
2019: Luke Jacobs and Ethan Allen
2018: Scotty Davis
2017: Darby Allin
2016: Takuya Nomura
2015: El Lindaman
2014: Big R Shimizu
2013: Kalisto
2012: Dean Ambrose and Yuji Okabayashi
2011: Manabu Soya and Takumi Soya
2010: Tetsuya Naito

Andy: Tyler Bate
So this feels like cheating again, because Bate is already an established guy in the canon of NXT and NXT UK. I believe he’s been kept on ice for a while now, and he’s still only 23-years-old. No, I choose him because I think it’s finally time he joins fellow countryman Pete Dunne over here in the United States for a longer run in front of an American audience as a singles star. If you’ve seen his war with WALTER or any of his work as a member of the Moustache Mountain team with Trent Seven, this is a guy who will be the absolute future of the business, where ever he lands. If WWE is truly trying to spice up its presentation with new characters and new people to cheer for, I think it’s time the Big Strong Boy starts his ascension to the top of the American wrestling world.

Parker: Maki Itoh
In recent years, the “meme” wrestler has been a bit of a trend. I think it started when NJPW finally started to establish some Western popularity and fans were enthralled by Toru Yano’s antics. Since then, wrestlers like Orange Cassidy, Danhausen, and the now-disgraced Joey Ryan, with similarly ridiculous gimmicks that drop any sort of sports-like pretense for wrestling, have or had earned full-time contracts to work for national American promotions. These competitors have gotten over with international audiences based on their online presence and comedy chops, and to me, the next one to fully break out (and perhaps even surpass all of the above) will be Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling’s Maki Itoh. Itoh has struck gold with her gimmick and fan engagement. Her gimmick is this: she’s beautiful and extremely cute, but she’s also a demanding brat who curses like a a sailor. (Her Instagram username is “@makifuckingitoh.”) And even though it’s not my cup of tea — she’s a decent in-ring wrestler at best — for whatever reason, people completely eat it up. Itoh has already surpassed anyone from STARDOM, a much larger promotion, in foreign popularity, as any social media post she makes in English gets thousands of likes. She had a bit of a setback early in 2020 as her highest profile American booking yet, a singles match with Priscilla Kelly at WrestleCon, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But considering the level of popularity she’s been able to reach without any sort of established American presence, as soon as she’s able to make it over here, I see Itoh becoming one of the hottest young stars in all of professional wrestling.

Justin: Sareee
What stands in Sareee’s path to WWE stardom are the obvious pandemic conditions, but also time itself. The Japanese phenom was scheduled to arrive in the US last March, which was unfortunately right when COVID-19 began to explode. The excursion wasn’t cancelled, but it’s on indefinite hold.

When she initially received the offer from WWE’s Triple H, she admitted that it was a “very confusing or complicated” feeling for her. While she realized that WWE is the number one organization in the world, she also understood that the status of its top stars isn’t maintained by wrestling ability alone. Everything from content to rating to merchandise revenue is digitized and studied, very much unlike the grassroots approach taken by joshi companies, and in a recent interview with Yahoo JP, she admitted she understood how tough the coming challenge would be.

Sareee was hesitant early on, feeling conflicted about leaving Japan for WWE before really becoming the number one player in Japan before leaving. After the meeting with Triple H, Sareee consulted with her senior, legendary joshi wrestler Jaguar Yokota, who insisted Sareee take the challenge. “I want Sareee to make the dream we couldn’t hold and make come true.” That’s how Sareee came to make her final decision.

Sareee received permission from WWE and wrestled matches in Japan as a tangential WWE superstar or freelancer, with the phrase “WWE Countdown” attached to all of her bookings. It speaks to how highly Triple H and company think of Sareee as a performer, as few often get such treatment. For those who aren’t yet familiar, she’s a throwback in many ways, and wrestles more like women of Japan in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a much stiffer, more idiosyncratic, more realistic way of pro wrestling.

“Of course, I can go to WWE and become the top, but that’s not enough. I want to reach Japan. I want to be a bridge. I’m going to America with Japanese women’s professional wrestling on my back. I don’t want to end up at the top of WWE because I’m going to carry what I’ve learned from all the women’s seniors. I want to go home. And I want to raise the level of Japanese professional wrestling. I think it’s quite difficult, but my dream is too big and I don’t know, but in the end I want to raise the level of the genre, that is my mission.”

Justin’s previous winners:
2019: Jake Atlas

JD: SBKento
In Japan, 20-year-old Kento Kobune made quite the impression, teaming with DragonGate legend Naruki Doi. In November, at DG’s Gate of Destiny, Kobune turned his mentor Doi and joined the villainous RED faction. Later that night renamed SBKento, he teamed with Kazma Sakamoto and Takashi Yoshida to defeat Team Boku (Doi, Shimizu, and Punch Tominaga) to win the Open The Triangle Gate (six-man) titles. At Final Gate, Kento joined the RED team to face the Toryumon Generation in a one-team-must disband match. Kento secured the win for red, destroying Dragon Kid’s mask and submitting him in the Sharpshooter. Heading into 2021, Kento has emerged as one of RED’s leaders.

Carlos: Raquel Gonzalez
Raquel would have been my third pick for breakout star of 2021 had it not been for Jey Uso and Darby Allin. However, of those three, I think Raquel still has the most room to grow as a performer and by this time next year, I think we’ll be viewing her as one of the best women’s wrestlers on this side of the world. She’s been an incredible asset to NXT and I think she will continue to be a major focal point and wouldn’t be surprised if she gets a title run in the near future.

Paul: Clark Connors
We’ve so far only seen him as a New Japan Young Lion or on the NJPW Strong show on New Japan World. If he gets to work back on the New Japan main roster or signs somewhere else, I think Connors will completely shine. He’s one of the most naturally gifted performers I’ve seen since Kurt Angle. For those who haven’t seen him, he’s a combination Chris Benoit and Owen Hart, IMHO, taking the lead from both. He has even shown personality in vignettes that air in “commercial breaks” on the NJPW World shows.

Paul’s previous winners:
2019: Sammy Guevara

GG: Austin Theory
Austin had a weird 2020. He was thrust upon the main roster at a time when he didn’t seem to be ready and while he didn’t excel, I didn’t think he messed up his opportunity in any way. He then was gone from TV for awhile and when he showed back up in NXT, there was an increased confidence. His current role with the Gargano family is a bit up and down because he has to do a lot of comedy, but he’s perfect for the type that WWE likes.

GG’s previous winners:
2019: Montez Ford
2018: A-Kid
2017: Jungle Boy (Jack Perry)
2016: Karl Fredericks
2015: Jeff Cobb
2014: Rusev
2013: Big E. Langston
2012: Antonio Cesaro and Wade Barrett
2011: Brodus Clay
2010: Dolph Ziggler

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