wrestling / Columns

The 411 Wrestling Year-End Awards (Part One) – The Biggest Disappointments of 2020

January 3, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
WWE Empty Arena

Welcome back to Part One of the 411 Wrestling Year-End Awards of 2020! The Year-End Awards have been out for a couple of years but they’re back, and here’s how they work. For the next couple of weeks, we will present our top choices for a particular topic relating to wrestling in 2020. All the writers here on 411 will have the ability to give us their Top 5 on said topic and the end, based on where all of the votes rank on people’s list, we will create an overall Top 5 list. It looks a little like this…

1st – 5
2nd – 4
3rd – 3
4th – 2
5th – 1

Once everyone’s had their say, we will tally the scores and get our overall top 5. We’re starting off with the Biggest Dissapointments of the year, and let’s face it: it was 2020, there are a LOT of disappointments to choice from. So let’s get right to it…

Rob Stewart

5. Several Months Of No NJPW
4. Charlotte Defeats Rhea Ripley at WrestleMania
3. Retribution’s Sputtering Out and Directionlessness
2. ANOTHER Year Of the Men’s MITB Briefcase Not Really Achieving Anything For Anyone

1. No Crowds For 3/4th Of the Year – An empty WrestleMania taking place in a gym? Orange Cassidy getting a big push in front of no one? Come on, man. How could it be anything else? Watching wrestling this year felt freakishly weird, and while AEW did well enough by having talent act as fans and WWE eventually gave us the Thunderdome, it was a ROUGH couple of months.

Jeffrey Harris

5. The Smackdown Hacker
4. NJPW Not Stripping Jon Moxley Of the IWGP US Title
3. Rob Gronkowski’s Pathetic WWE Run
2. Bill Goldberg Returning and Winning the Universal Title at Super ShowDown 2020

1. Kota Ibushi Losing the Briefcase to Jay White – I think this angle would’ve turned out a lot better if they did a bit of briefcase hockey between Jay White and Kota Ibushi. Ideally, I think Wrestle Kingdom 15 is the year that Ibushi finally wins the big one. He’s still getting a title shot, but the way NJPW went about it and got to Ibushi’s title match was really bone-headed and counter-intuitive. Having him lose the briefcase, only to announce him as the Night 1 double-gold opponent was asinine. Ibushi never should’ve lost the briefcase in the first place, or he should’ve won it back for Jay White. Additionally, this makes No. 1 on my list since I generally held NJPW as a product in high regard for the last year. This was a major error on their part.

Steve Cook

5. Kylie Rae’s Retirement
4. Rusev’s Booking Post-WWE
2. EVIL’s IWGP Title Run

1. COVID-19 Wipes Out Live Events Across Pro Wrestling – I don’t know what else could be number one. I imagine a good percentage of people reading this had something they were looking forward to attending live. Maybe it was WrestleMania, or the litany of events on WrestleMania Weekend. Possibly AEW’s first trip to your town, a live Raw or SmackDown taping, or a New Japan show outside of Japan. Hell, maybe you were going to Japan yourself. Some people do that. Not in 2020. Outside of some socially distanced events & some outlaw mudshow stuff, live pro wrestling went behind closed doors after the beginning of March. Not only did it provide a less than ideal environment for wrestling on television, people didn’t get to go out and enjoy it.

Dino Zee

5. Those Revealed in #SpeakingOut
4. Keith Lee’s Run on the Main Roster
3. The New Day “Ends”
2. Jon Huber & Hana Kimura die

1. Wrestling Finds the Reality from Which it Cannot Provide Escape – This basically encapsulates everything else on the list, and then some. Pro Wrestling has always been the place to go for us to escape, to forget, to pretend. Whether it’s something extremely personal, or some shared tragedy, wrestling is where we can go get lost in another world altogether where none of that matters. And it’s been great.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, made that simply impossible. Independent shows were forced to stop running. The bigger shows had to run without fans, a constant reminder of what we were dealing with. The usual rumor mill became permeated with scuttlebutt about failed COVID tests, people’s reactions to them, and things of that nature. In every aspect, it was impossible to retreat.

For a while, I was intrigued. I wanted to see the first round of shows without fans. I thought it’d make for some fun theater. I thought a fan-less WrestleMania could be a great chance for some experimentation. I liked seeing Impact and AEW use wrestlers as fans. In fact, that was actually one of my favorite things. They were *so good* as fans – almost like they were trying to show other fans how to act or something, heh. I don’t know, I dug all the interactions. I even kinda like WWE’s Thunderdome, even if it’s a little hokey.

But losing the indies was the big one. Not having Hoodslam available has been a slight form of torture. That show as my release. A wonderful, loud, guttural release every Friday night. And that goes for everyone who had their little local indy that they loved to go to. I was gonna see Faye Jackson for the first time at a Hoodslam on March 13, the day they shut everything down. Gone. For months. Some still not back, depending on where you’re at.

I still watched this year, but it wasn’t quite the same. It felt like self-contained episodes that didn’t matter in the long run. I mainly watched WWE pay per views, and then Impact and AEW. What should have been an insanely fun year for wrestling was kneecapped out of the gates, and then was completely overwhelmed by the real world. The cynic in me can only hope that it can’t get any worse, right? 2021’s gotta bounce back somewhat?

Len Archibald

5. Wrestling Deaths
4. The WWE/Third Party Platform BS
3. Rhea Ripley Loses to Charlotte at WrestleMania
2. Retribution…Somehow Killed Worse Than Nexus

1. COVID-19 – Look, it wasn’t going to be anything else. COVID fucked EVERYTHING up. Personally, I was out of work for a month, hit the ER three times, was sure I was going to die once and am still feeling life-changing side effects. So, when everything went to shit and god revealed himself to be George A. Romero and shut everything down like a real zombie apocalypse – yes that was going to hurt everything. For the first time in a long time there was legitimate discussion about WWE shutting down. Most smaller promotions have not survived the economic strain from the pandemic. AEW, Impact and New Japan have all felt the effects of COVID through various means, everything from finances to booking plans being affected because of travel bans. Even WWE felt the effects economically as their live gates disappeared and the company produced the single weirdest WrestleMania in history from it. For me, though, COVID affected one of the most important aspect of professional wrestling: fan participation. A live crowd can sometimes make or break a wrestling match or pay per view and push great moments over the edge into iconic. Imagine the WrestleMania X-8 stare down between Hogan and Rock in an empty arena, or the Pipe Bomb being dropped in The Thunderdome…I’m sure it wouldn’t have the same impact. There are so many moments this year that was worthy of being viewed and cheered by a live audience: Becky Lynch’s pregnancy announcement and anointing Asuka as the HBIC of the Raw Women’s division; Drew McIntyre defeating Brock Lesnar; Sting’s return on Dynamite; Sasha and Bayley’s storyline; anything Chris Jericho – most heartbreaking: The Undertaker’s farewell to wrestling will always feel incomplete without fans cheering him on. Everything is unnatural right now and the pandemic is a tragedy – we can discuss politics all day – and I know they will be discussed because we can’t help ourselves, but at the end of the day we are in the middle of a very shitty situation and we are all rowing the same direction to a resolution where we are no longer hearing about deaths and the actions that could have been taken to minimize said deaths. We are in the throes of a new normal – there are too many variables to accurately predict when life as we know it, including how we consume live entertainment – will get back to pre-pandemic capacities. Right now, we will need to settle for The Thunderdome’s canned audience and socially distanced, quarter-capacity arenas. COVID has severed wrestling’s most sacred connection between performer and fan and it may be years before that connection is repaired – and how different will the wrestling landscape be when that happens?

Ian Hamilton

5. EVIL As a Main Eventer
4. Undertaker’s Farewell At Survivor Series
3. Britwres. That’s it. Britwres
2. The Collective/Fallout of COVID-19 Tests

1. WWE’s Handling of the Pandemic (Releases/Furloughs) – 2020’s been tough for everyone, I get it. But with all of the TV money that WWE had in the bank, folks in the know were predicting that WWE – without fans or travelling – would still be raking in the money this year. So releasing guys in the middle of a pandemic, with very few places to go, was a low move. Even more so when those profit predictions came to pass.

Jake Chambers

5. Tetsuya Naito as IWGP Heavyweight/Intercontinental Champion
4. The Vacant NXT Title 60-minute 4-Way Ironman Match
3. The Money in the Bank “Corporate” Ladder Matches
2. WWE’s continued midcard purgatory for Bryan, Cesaro, Nakamura, Andrade, Metalik, Gulak, Black, Ricochet, Tozawa, Murphy, Ali, Alexander, Riddle, Morrison, etc.

1. Empty Arena Wrestling – All pro-wrestling had an opportunity this year to shake the cobwebs off what has become an incredibly rote form of visual presentation. There have been many theories over the years regarding the continued slide in ratings and mainstream interest in pro-wrestling, and I think one big reason we rarely talk about is how all the in-ring action looks the same. Compound that with the sheer amount of wrestling on TV and you’ve got a largely indistinct, simple status quo of wrestling matches. Despite a promise of change, AEW didn’t do anything dramatically different when they had live audiences, and then no company found a way to innovate when they were forced to wrestle inside empty arenas. To be clear, I’m not talking about “cinematic” matches, which we’ve seen many times before 2020, but the style of movement employed by the wrestlers, including how they simulate pain, how moves are realistically applied, narratives of momentum, and strategic counter-holds, to name a few features that could use refreshing. Unfortunately I was disappointed that the lockdown era was just more of the 21st century preference for commerce-over-art, as pro-wrestling companies scurried to fill up contractual TV time for a niche audience of addicts rather than dazzle with unique wrestling that would make audiences want to tune in.

Tony Acero

5. Jeff Hardy Pees
4. RAW Underground
3. The Constant Push of Lana
2. Retribution

1. Brodie Lee Dies – It was all but written in permanent ink that Retribution would be the greatest disappointment of the year until about a week ago when we got the horrible news that Brodie Lee passed away at the age of 41. In a year that just kept hitting us with tragedy, this was really the most difficult way to go out. RIP Brodie.

Blake Lovell

5. Goldberg Defeating The Fiend at WWE Super Showdown
4. WWE’s Third Party Platform Policy
3. Matt Hardy vs. Sammy Guevara Match Continuing at All Out
2. RAW’s Record-Low Ratings

1. The Stories Behind the #SpeakingOut Movement – While this was a necessary development in an attempt to rid pro wrestling of a toxic culture of abuse, it doesn’t make the stories themselves any less disappointing. In a year filled with lows, this was undoubtedly the lowest for the wrestling industry as a whole. Nothing will be able to make things right for those who were traumatized by the events that led to their eventual speaking out, but at least it exposed the talents responsible and forced companies to take a hard look at a trend of disturbing behavior outside the ring.

Kevin Pantoja

5. Rhea Ripley’s Declined Push
4. WWE Having Nothing of Note for Aleister Black or Ricochet
3. NJPW Continuing to Overbook Overly Long Main Events
2. AEW’s Handling of the Women’s Division

1. WrestleMania With No Crowd – Obviously, most of 2020 suffered from what COVID-19 did to live audiences. However, things have gotten better in that department. AEW has had smaller crowds and the same goes for NJPW. WWE hasn’t been as awkward with the Thunderdome and Capitol Wrestling Center setups. Before that, WrestleMania 36 took place without any crowds at all. Since WWE hadn’t yet figured out how to make things seem okay from a presentation standpoint, the entire event felt shallow. The biggest show of the year came across like a long house show, which is a shame.

Jeremy Thomas

5. AEW’s Handling of Matt Hardy’s Injury
3. Several Names Revealed As Abusers in #SpeakingOut Allegations
2. Wrestling Deaths: Hana Kimura, Brodie Lee, Shad Gaspard, Larry, Many More

1. COVID-19 Brutalizing the Wrestling Industry – 2020 is a year we’d all rather soon forget for a ton of reasons, but let’s face it: the coronavirus is foremost among them. COVID-19 affected everything in the world without exception. That includes professional wrestling where promotions shut down — some of them permanently — and those that didn’t had to make some incredibly difficult choices. That meant temporary hiatuses, cancellations of shows, empty arenas, releasing talent, and a host of other acts. While in general companies went about things as best they could, that didn’t stop scores of wrestlers and staff from contracting the virus for a variety of reasons. You can pick one of a hundred reasons why this was brutal as a wrestling fan, to say nothing of just being a person. Conventions canceled, people being at an all-time stress high, people dying…the list goes on and on. And we’re not done with it yet, nor may we be for a while. COVID-19 wasn’t the end-all, be-all of wrestling’s problems in 2020, but it was at the core of so many of them that it’s hard to see anything else topping this list for me.

AND 411’s TOP 5 Disappointments of 2020 ARE…

5. WWE’s Treatment of Money in the Bank7 points

4. #SpeakingOut12 points

3. Wrestling Deaths14 points

2. RETRIBUTION and The Smackdown Hacker16 points

1. COVID-19’s Effect On the Wrestling Industry40 points