WWE has come out of the COVID-era of wrestling, for now at least, with SummerSlam looking to cram over 40,000 fans into Las Vegas' Allegiant Stadium.
The second half of the year should be much better than the first, since a live crowd creates a vastly preferable atmosphere to the monitors that made up the ThunderDome. But just because things should get better from here doesn't mean 2021's first half has been lackluster.
In fact, we've gotten some outstanding wrestling this year.
This is a rolling list of the best matches on WWE and NXT pay-per-views that you can stream on Peacock (or the WWE Network if you live outside the US). It doesn't include TV matches and will be updated after each pay-per-view.
The match that was meant to happen at WrestleMania, before Daniel Bryan was chucked into the mix, eventually went down at Money in the Bank. It was good. Two significant storylines spilled out of this main event, the first being John Cena's return to confront Roman Reigns and the second being Seth Rollins setting up a feud with Edge by costing him this match. But beyond that, this was a tremendous pay-per-view main event.
Edge and Reigns did a lot. There was a ref bump, Reigns missed a Spear on the outside and crashed through the barricade, Edge locked on a crossface with the help of a steel chair leg, and later countered a Reigns Spear with a Spear of his own, leading to a strong false finish. Ultimately Reigns would win with a Spear thanks to the help of Seth Rollins, who saved Reigns from defeat by superkicking Edge amid the aforementioned crossface.
The only downside was the opening 10-15 minutes, which were slow likely on account of giving the crowd time to regather energy following the men's Money in the Bank match that preceded it.
While Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair shined bright at WrestleMania, the Raw Women's Championship match between Asuka and Rhea Ripley didn't quite live up to expectations. The return match at Backlash, which also included Charlotte Flair, made up for that and more.
This was 15 minutes of non-stop action. A fun 15 minutes. Everything looked smooth, and all three women came out looking stronger than they did coming in. Rhea Ripley retained her title, and would go on to have an even better one-on-one match against Charlotte at Money in the Bank.
Drew McIntyre was the champion of the pandemic era, winning the WWE Championship off Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 36 and holding it, with a few interruptions, until February. It's poetic, then, that he's out of the WWE Championship picture now that crowds are returning. After losing to Bobby Lashley at Hell in a Cell, McIntyre can no longer challenge for the title as long as Lashley holds it.
The main event clash inside the Hell in a Cell cage was by far the pair's best match, and was a fittingly brutal end to their feud. They beat the crap out of each other, and it wasn't violence for violence sake. Lashley and McIntyre told a solid story of McIntyre being the better man, but being screwed out of the title once again. You can roll your eyes at interference in a Hell in a Cell match, which is a fair point, but that doesn't stop this from being a 2021 highlight.
Since returning to NXT, Finn Balor has reinvented not just his character -- gone is Demon Finn, for now at least -- but also his in-ring style. He's rough and rugged, which meshes well with "The Bruiserweight" Pete Dunne. Dunne used his joint manipulation techniques to break Balor down, but The Prince fought back and retained his title with a gnarly finishing sequence that saw him rip Dunne's mouthguard out and destroy him with a shotgun dropkick, Coup de Grace and a 1916.
Dunne may be the future, but right now Finn rules.
We know at this point that Cesaro is unlikely to be positioned consistently as a top-level star by WWE, and the fact this was his first one-on-one shot at a world title essentially confirms that.
In other words, this was Cesaro's time to shine. And boy, did he ever shine.
This was a methodical, well-paced 27-minute main event between the biggest star in wrestling and one of the best wrestlers on the planet. The psychology was strong. Cesaro did a tremendous job of selling the arm that Reigns worked over throughout, and the execution was as effective as you'd expect between these two.
Cesaro proved he deserves to be in more world title matches -- whether he will is a whole different issue.
Although one of WWE's biggest attractions, Royal Rumble matches aren't always great. Sometimes they're laid out poorly, like the 2015 disaster that saw the fans reject Roman Reigns after Daniel Bryan was eliminated early. Other times they lack depth, with the ring filled for too long with wrestlers no one believes could ever win. This year's Royal Rumble match seemingly had the deck stacked against it -- after all, it'd be the first ever with no fans. But it delivered.
It began with Edge and Orton effectively ending their feud that began at last year's event. It included some great action, like an excellent sequence between Daniel Bryan and Matt Riddle, as well as the notable surprise return of Christian. And when Edge ultimately won, it gave The Road to WrestleMania a logical, solid direction.
All in all, a fantastic Royal Rumble match.
Elimination Chamber 2021 may be remembered as the ill-fated event that ended with The Miz winning the WWE Championship, temporarily dragging the title's prestige. But it opened with an Elimination Chamber match featuring Daniel Bryan, Jey Uso, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Baron Corbin and Cesaro that stole the show, and which is absolutely worth a watch.
The Chamber bout was for a shot at Roman Reigns' Universal Championship. Cesaro, Daniel Bryan and Kevin Owens were all possible victors, and the fact that they were all equally plausible winners made the match more dramatic. Outstanding action between Bryan, Cesaro and Uso was mixed with solid character work by Uso, Owens and Zayn.
This match had everything and was ultimately won by Bryan. He wouldn't have much time to savour his triumph though, as Reigns immediately hit the ring for the Universal Championship. That was a sub-two-minute affair and set the stage for Fastlane's exceptional main event.
These two were on the way to having a standout match at Hell in a Cell before their bout was spoiled by a weak, nonsensical finish. At Money in the Bank, however, their irresistable chemistry wasn't hampered by dodgy creative. The result was a main event-quality match, with visceral intensity, believable selling and memorable counters, that's well worth going out of your way to watch.
When this match started the crowd was chanting for Becky Lynch. By its conclusion they were on their feet. That's the best indication you can have that this was damn fine pro wrestling.
NXT TakeOver events are known as being the most consistently excellent in wrestling. This was the best match on a show considered the best TakeOver in years.
Johnny Gargano defended his North American Championship against Kushida in a fantastic wrestling match. I use that word purposefully: This was light on spectacle, carnage and high spots. It was heavy on grappling, submission exchanges and crisp striking.
There's not much to say about this match other than the fact that you should absolutely watch it if you haven't already.
The Royal Rumble was great, and so was the match it led to. In a throwback to olden times, the winner of the Royal Rumble actually competed in the main event of WrestleMania. Edge's fairytail return didn't come true though, as he ended up being stacked atop Daniel Bryan and pinned by Roman Reigns.
The story leading up to the match is an indictment on WWE. Edge is a returning legend with a goal of winning the title he never lost. That's a story that writes itself, yet WWE ended up turning Edge heel. That meant Daniel Bryan was the babyface, even though you could tell in this match the crowd wanted to cheer Edge.
Dodgy theatrics aside, this bout befitted the moniker of a WrestleMania main event. Each wrestler got to shine, and there were plenty of creative, memorable spots. In the end, Roman Reigns got the most dominant win possible. It's unusual to see the bad guy stand so unambiguously tall at WrestleMania, which tells you all you need to know about who WWE sees as its future.
Did Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair main event WrestleMania? Kind of. Their match went on last at Night 1 of WrestleMania 37, and WWE has called it the first one on one women's match to main event The Show of Shows, but the wrestling community as a whole hasn't figured out how to classify the "main event" of a two-night card. But semantics aside, this was outstanding.
Both women were visibly emotional before the bell rang, a legitimate and authentic moment. The match that followed was far better than expected, and arguably the best on either night of WrestleMania. Sasha Banks reminded everyone why she's considered the best by many, and it was a star-making night for Bianca Belair, who has the potential to be a superstar that transcends the genre of professional wrestling.
What becomes of Belair's career remains to be seen, but she can already claim to have had a great WrestleMania match.
The men's Money in the Bank match featured insane action -- armbars on ladders, insane acrobatics, a powerbomb through a ladder, and so on -- and looks to propel Big E to the main event. It was just as thrilling to watch as the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber matches, but had the benefit of a live crowd to make it that much better.
A follow-up from Elimination Chamber and a reprise of sorts from their 2015 Fastlane main event, Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns wrestled an incredible match at the final pay-per-view before WrestleMania.
While the Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber matches on this list were nonstop stimulation, with daring stunts and constant high-pace, this was closer to an old-school wrestling match (at least to begin with). It started out with Bryan trying to out manoeuvre Reigns, and Reigns trying to use his power advantage to squash his smaller opponent. It was awesome.
It was diminished somewhat at the end, as we ultimately saw two referee bumps and interference from Jey Uso and Edge. But this bout served the purpose of setting up the triple threat match that headlines WrestleMania 37 and, just as importantly, was just so fun to watch. Who says submission wrestling isn't a thrill
The best WWE match of the year wasn't on the main roster, it was on NXT TakeOver: Stand and Deliver Night 1. Tommaso Ciampa challenged Walter for the latter's NXT UK Championship and quite literally got slapped down. After a thrilling back-and-forth bout, Walter retained his title by hitting Ciampa with a chop.
It sounds lame, but watch it and you'll see.
It's a testament to the addage that bigger isn't always better, as the bout was under 17 minutes long and featured no weapons or death defying stunts. It was just damn good wrestling. What made it so fabulous is how both played their roles so perfectly. Walter is a big bruiser, Ciampa is a scrappy and resourceful underdog (in this match, at least). Everything they did made sense, was intense and looked great,
For the sake of my entertainment, I hope this match gets topped this year. But I doubt it will.