To understand the popularity of a professional wrestler, one generally doesn’t have to look past crowd reaction.
Who was the most popular wrestler in 1998? When you hear the glass shatter and the crowd erupts, you know the answer was Stone Cold Steve Austin.
And how about in 2000? Listen for the three words – “If you smell” – and it becomes obvious The Rock stood above the rest.
While 2020 has been a unique year for wrestling by many standards, perhaps the most interesting of all is trying to figure out who is “over” in a year when fans have been barred from arenas longer than they were allowed into them. The business strategy of listening to the crowd is tough to gauge when there is no physical audience to listen to.
And so the task of ranking the top 20 wrestlers of 2020 within WWE was tougher than perhaps it would have been in years past.
These rankings are based on championships held across the core four WWE brands (Raw, SmackDown, NXT, NXT UK), time spent on television and impact made on social media.
20) WALTER – NXT UK Champion
WALTER made a big impression on the WWE Universe at Survivor Series 2019, and his star continued to grow in 2020. While a lot of his work may not have been seen or showcased this year, he wrestled in what can be considered a match-of-the-year candidate in October when he took on Ilja Dragunov.
If you haven’t seen that match, go out of your way to watch it immediately. It is likely the match of the year in WWE, and perhaps the best match of at least the past five years within the company.
19) Kevin Owens
The native of Marieville, Que., made headlines at WrestleMania this year thanks to his leap off the WrestleMania sign, putting Seth Rollins through a table in the process. Owens didn’t hold any titles this year, but his run as an edgy babyface, along with consistently being on television, drive his value up.
18) AJ Styles
Styles held the Intercontinental Championship for 71 days this year and participated in one of the most memorable matches of 2020 in WWE – his match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania. Since entering WWE in 2016, Styles has consistently been in the discussion for best in-ring competitor, and that status will always keep his name elevated on “Best Of” lists.
17) Alexa Bliss
A tale of two halves of the year puts Alexa Bliss inside the top 20. Her run in the first half of the year as tag champion was solid if unspectacular, but her work alongside The Fiend in the latter half of the year has been extremely captivating. Since aligning herself with The Fiend, and not looking one bit out of place in the process, Bliss has been part of interesting television every single week. Her metamorphosis into the role has been great, leaving plenty of runway for the character to develop, as well.
16) Finn Balor – NXT Champion
“The Prince” made headlines late last year when he returned to NXT as a full-time competitor, jettisoning the main roster in the process. Balor was expected to add star power to a brand that was now competing for viewers on Wednesday nights in the United States with upstart All Elite Wrestling. Balor now occupies the top spot on NXT, as the NXT Champion, capturing the title in September. At NXT Takeover 31, Balor competed against Canadian Kyle O’Reilly in what should be considered a match-of-the-year contender in NXT.
15) Bobby Lashley – United States Champion
Bobby Lashley’s place on this list is aided by his presence alongside “Hurt Business” stablemates MVP, Shelton Benjamin and Cedric Alexander, which has become one of the best parts of Monday Night Raw in the late portions of the year.
Lashley has been absolutely dominant as United States Champion, a title he won in August, crushing anyone and everyone is his path. His spot on the list could have been higher had it not been for the extremely unfortunate storyline alongside Lana early in the year.
14) Braun Strowman
This is the first ranking where I received some pushback, hearing arguments that Braun Strowman should be higher. There is merit to the argument, as Strowman held both the Intercontinental Championship and the Universal Championship this year.
While he should be praised for the hardware, his championship reigns left something to be desired. The IC title run was just 36 days, and his Universal Championship victory came byway of happenstance when Roman Reigns chose not to compete at WrestleMania due to the pandemic, leaving Goldberg without an opponent. The championship gold will be remembered, but the content surrounding the title wins and defences may not be.
13) Adam Cole
Sorry, it’s tough to even write Adam Cole without adding BAY-BAY afterwards. And perhaps that’s as good a reason as any to elevate Cole on this list. Cole has been the face of NXT since 2017, establishing himself as a major star in the process. His astounding 403-day reign as NXT Champion came to an end in July, but he’s continued to stay in the main event picture.
12) Keith Lee
This is where I received more pushback than anyone other on the list, with several arguing (including fellow Sportsnet Aftermath panelists former WWE Superstar Santino Marella and former WWE referee Jimmy Korderas) that Lee was ranked too high.
Lee’s impact over the last three months has been little to nothing, but Lee was NXT Champion and NXT North American Champion earlier in the year, he’s been on television every week, and he defeated Randy Orton on his first PPV as a member of the main roster. Lee was a star earlier in the year and remains a star despite how he’s being portrayed on television. These rankings don’t necessarily take into account star potential, but Lee certainly has that in droves.
Oh, and Lee was part of the best promo package of the year in WWE.
11) Sami Zayn – Intercontinental Champion
Montreal’s finest Sami Zayn had quite the roller coaster of a year, but with far more peaks than valleys. Zayn began his year in more of a managerial role but transitioned successfully back into wrestling following his Intercontinental Championship victory in March. Zayn then competed in a marquee match at WrestleMania against Daniel Bryan before stepping away from television for several months during the beginning of the pandemic. Zayn, though, returned with a bang, capturing the IC Championship once again.
Zayn has been shining in his role as a smarmy heel, and has successfully defended his championship on multiple occasions in the process. Zayn has been a great part of WWE television every week he’s been around.
10) Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins – SmackDown Tag Team Champions
The only tag team on the list is certainly deserving of their spot. Tag team wrestling has left a lot to be desired in 2020 in WWE, particularly over in the last quarter of the year.
Ford and Dawkins continue to shine through an otherwise dreary part of the company. The duo won their tag belts at the beginning of March and haven’t looked back. They even managed to stay relevant and on top of the division during several weeks of hair-pulling television when they competed against The Viking Raiders in basketball games, axe throwing, bowling and more.
If Ford and Dawkins can remain relevant and occupy the No. 10 slot after that, then the sky is the limit in 2021.
9) Rhea Ripley
Perhaps the fastest rising young star in the women’s division, Ripley became the first woman on the NXT roster to compete in a major singles match at WrestleMania when she defended the NXT Championship against one of the best in all of pro wrestling, Charlotte Flair. The bout was the best wrestling match of Night 2 at ‘Mania, and is in the conversation for best match overall at WrestleMania this year.
Ripley continues to prove on NXT every single week she is the present and future of WWE, regardless of division.
8) Io Shirai – NXT Women’s Champ
After Ripley dropped the NXT Women’s Championship to Flair, she was granted a rematch, but in a triple-threat match also involving Shirai, who ended up capturing the title, marking her first championship in the WWE system. Shirai’s title win in June was the high-water mark on her 2020 resume, which has also included wins over Tegan Nox, Dakota Kai and Candice LeRae.
The NXT women’s division is the best in all of professional wrestling, and Shirai has stood atop its mountain for the better part of 2020.
2020 has been a unique year in the women’s division on both Raw and SmackDown. The two biggest stars on the main roster, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, have been gone for at least half the year, with the former exiting soon after WrestleMania following a pregnancy announcement.
In the aftermath of that announcement, Asuka was awarded the Raw Women’s Championship thanks to her Money in the Bank victory. Since then, Asuka has remained on top of the Raw division, with little-to-no believable competition. It takes a certain form of special sports entertainer to remain at the top of the card, at the top of their division, without any help. Asuka is that certain kind of special pro wrestler.
6) The Fiend/Bray Wyatt
This is where we start getting to the major stars of 2020, and we start with The Fiend. The Fiend remains intriguing and must-watch television whenever he steps in a wrestling ring.
The Fiend held the Universal Championship entering 2020 and seemed poised for a very lengthy run, but his rocket pack was quickly removed after a loss to 53-year-old Goldberg just over a month before WrestleMania. The title loss was truly disheartening for a character that had so much promise.
Since then, The Fiend has done wonders, though, in repairing his image. His “match” at WrestleMania against John Cena was my favourite match of the year, as mentioned in Aftermath’s Year in Review series on YouTube, thanks to the imagination that went into its presentation. It’s a must-watch.
The Fiend captured the Universal Championship once more this year, in August, only to lose it just six days later. That loss, however, felt more justified as it came against…
5) Roman Reigns – Universal Champion
No wrestler better exemplifies a major juxtaposition from the start of the year to the end better than Reigns.
He started the year in a feud with Baron Corbin, resulting in a largely forgettable series of matches. He was on his way to a one-on-one match with Goldberg for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania (a match he seemed almost certain to win), before deciding to step away from wrestling during the pandemic due to health reasons.
Reigns returned in August, after more than four months away, and immediately inserted himself in the main event picture, resulting in a Universal Championship victory. Reigns returned with a different attitude, and a far more relatable and easy-to-understand character. Reigns came back as a power-hungry “head of the table,” laying claim to anything he pleased.
His new outlook on life in pro wrestling has been absolutely amazing, byway of his attitude, his work on the microphone and his in-ring abilities. If Reigns didn’t start the year in a snore of a feud, he may very well occupy the No. 1 spot.
4) Sasha Banks – SmackDown Women’s Champion
As mentioned previously, it’s been an odd year in the women’s division on both Raw and SmackDown, as both main roster divisions have been left without big stars for a majority of the year. On the blue brand, Banks has picked up the slack.
Banks was one half of the Woman’s Tag Team Champions, alongside Bayley, for a good chunk of the year before beginning one of the better rivalries of the year within WWE against Bayley.
In addition, Banks was the most tweeted about women in pro wrestling this year, and No. 8 overall amongst all female athletes. She has been an absolute monster star for WWE in and out of the ring.
While Banks was indeed a major star, she was playing a sidekick role of sorts for a good portion of the year next to Bayley, who was playing the role of biggest star in the women’s division across all of WWE.
Bayley began her reign as SmackDown Women’s Champion in October 2019 and carried it for over a full calendar year before losing the belt to Banks following a bitter, personal feud that ended with a fantastic Hell in a Cell match.
Bayley carried the SD title and the women’s tag titles at the same time this year, along with carrying the women’s division as a whole.
Bayley’s work as a top star for the entirety of the year with little to no time off cements her spot near the top of the list.
2) Randy Orton
The longevity of Orton should be commended by every wrestling fan out there.
It’s been absolutely incredible to watch Orton get better and better throughout his lengthy career in WWE. Not only has Orton gotten better, he’s gotten better while staying on top in the No. 1 wrestling organization on the planet.
This year, Orton’s work has included a rivalry with a newly returned Edge ahead of WrestleMania, which resulted in some of the best promo work of the year across all of pro wrestling. He also captured his 14th career world title, leaving him just two shy of tying Ric Flair on John Cena for most all-time.
1) Drew McIntyre
In an era where fans are begging WWE to push new stars, WWE listened byway of anointing McIntyre as the present and future of the company.
McIntyre has done absolutely everything to cement himself as a top star this year, complete with a memorable Royal Rumble victory, a WrestleMania win over Brock Lesnar and a lengthy WWE Championship reign.
McIntyre has been fantastic in the ring, his promo work has been very good and his overall presentation feels real and easy to digest. Nothing seems out of the ordinary when looking at McIntyre as the top champion in the company.
The only thing missing from his crowning year of achievement is crowd validation, which would be absolutely massive.