Top 10 WWE Superstars of the Pandemic Era by Joel McIntyre

I’m back again with another column and it is time to discuss the end of an era. The Pandemic Era to be exact. It started on March 13th, 2020 when the Coronavirus, known as COVID-19, shut everything down across the globe. At the time, nobody had any idea that WWE wouldn’t be back on the road again until July 16th, 2021. Over the course of 495 days (as WWE pointed out), we have seen some great shows and some not-so-great shows. What I am here for today is to address the standout performers of the last 16 months. Whether it be Raw or Smackdown, I’m choosing to leave NXT out of the equation because they have had fans in some capacity for a year now. Wrestlers like Karrion Kross, Adam Cole, Kyle O’Reilly, Io Shirai, MSK, Santos Escobar, Kushida, Johnny Gargano, and more have done a phenomenal job. Without waiting any longer, here are my top 10 performers of the Pandemic era ranked from ten to one.

Honorable Mentions: These guys and girls barely missed the list, but they deserve recognition for being fairly good and consistent. Cesaro had a stellar 2020 in a tag team with Nakamura but has really come into his own in 2021 once he turned babyface. The Street Profits were Tag Team Champions for most of 2020, first on Raw and then Smackdown when they got drafted. They were one of the only consistent teams of a weak tag team division.

Asuka was Raw Women’s Champion for most of 2020 after winning Money in the Bank and being surprised that she won the Women’s Title due to Becky Lynch’s pregnancy. I liked most of her feud with Sasha Banks as they never seemed to have a bad match. Asuka ended 2020 as Women’s tag team champion with Charlotte Flair. Apollo Crews has had a pretty good 2021 ever since he turned heel. AJ Styles was Intercontinental Champion and now is Raw Tag Team Champion while building up Omos. Rey Mysterio is currently one-half of the Smackdown Tag Team Champions with his son, Dominik. Most of his feud with Seth Rollins was good, but it dragged too long. Others like Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Randy Orton, Matt Riddle, Shinsuke Nakamura, Zelina Vega, The New Day (Kofi Kingston/Big E/Xavier Woods) all had opportunities to shine. Without waiting any longer, here is My Top 10.

#10: Seth Rollins

Seth probably had one of the most drastic character changes of anybody on this list. He started the pandemic as a member of the Raw roster in a feud with Kevin Owens which culminated in a great match at Wrestlemania 36 that gave Owens a meaningful win. He was the Monday Night Messiah. After a brief WWE Title feud with Drew McIntyre, he entered a long-running feud with Rey Mysterio which eventually included Rey’s son Dominik and involved everything from romance to kendo sticks to lost eyeballs but did produce some pretty solid matches including Dominik’s in-ring debut against Seth at Summerslam in a losing effort.

Rollins was drafted over to Smackdown last year where his feud with the Mysterios continued. After he came back from paternity leave, he underwent somewhat of a gimmick change. He now wants you to embrace his vision which led to a pretty good feud with Cesaro. I’d say he’s pretty locked into that #2 heel spot on Smackdown and now he’s on a collision course with Edge at Summerslam. Things are looking up for the Friday night Messiah.

#9: Jey Uso

Jey started in a tag team with Jimmy that was supposed to lead to a tag title match against the New Day and John Morrison and The Miz at Wrestlemania 36. Unfortunately, The Miz got sick and it was changed to a triple threat with Morrison, Kofi, and Jimmy Uso in an excellent ladder match. However, it led to Jimmy Uso suffering a serious knee injury that led to him missing a year of action. After that, Jey faded into the background until his cousin Roman Reigns made his return at Summerslam 2020.

Jey eventually earned a Universal Championship match against his cousin that eventually led to a match between the two at Hell in a Cell 2020 in a match that was very intense. The storytelling was perfect. Jey lost, which meant he had to acknowledge his cousin Roman as the head of the table. It took some convincing, but Jey agreed and eventually became “Main Event” Jey Uso with matches against top stars like Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Edge, and so on including winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal on the Smackdown before Wrestlemania 37. Now with his brother Jimmy back in the mix, Jey just won the Smackdown Tag Team Titles last at Money in the Bank to remind fans just how good The Usos are as a team. However, Jey Uso proved that he doesn’t need his brother to be a top player in WWE.

#8: Daniel Bryan

Daniel has put on some stellar matches over the last 15 months. He started the pandemic feuding with Sami Zayn over the Intercontinental Title which led to their match at Wrestlemania 36 that was more story than match. It was Zayn’s last match for several months. Daniel then participated in an Intercontinental Title tournament after Sami Zayn was stripped of the title which ended in a classic final with AJ Styles at the Performance Center. Styles came out on top although that doesn’t change anything. It was one of the best WWE matches of 2020. He had great matches on Smackdown and yet amazingly he didn’t have another pay-per-view match until TLC, the final pay-per-view of 2020 when he teamed with Big E, Chad Gable, and Otis to defeat King Corbin, Cesaro, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Sami Zayn. Four of those eight participants have changed character allegiances since that match.

Once 2021 hit, Daniel really hit it into high gear. He came in at #17 in the Royal Rumble and lasted 28:50 before being dumped by Seth Rollins. He then competed in the Elimination Chamber and won it to earn an immediate title shot against Universal Champion Roman Reigns which he obviously lost. Bryan managed to get himself inserted into the Edge/Roman Reigns title match at Wrestlemania 37 which many considered the best match of the weekend. Daniel lost, but he did get one more shot against Reigns on the April 30th edition Smackdown that he lost (another excellent match) which meant he had to leave Smackdown. That was a shoot as his contract legitimately expired. He is currently on hiatus while raising his daughter and son with his wife Brie Bella. The 40-year-old Bryan could show up anywhere, although I’d be shocked if he wasn’t back in WWE by the fall.

#7: Sheamus

Sheamus has had a bit of a career resurgence as of late. He had a rather forgettable feud with Jeff Hardy last year that resulted in him getting piss thrown in his face. He was eventually drafted to Raw where he would reunite with his buddy Drew McIntyre in what appeared to be a babyface turn although he still acted like a heel. The feud and split was teased almost immediately even though both tried to downplay it on screen. Eventually, Sheamus did turn on Drew and laid him out which led to a match at Fastlane, which Drew won. The feud was cut way short due to Drew needing to be ready for his title match at Wrestlemania 37. I hope they revisit that down the road because they produced three pretty solid matches in the first quarter of 2021. A lot of Sheamus matches are given plenty of time on Raw and he usually delivers a good performance no matter who the opponent is.

Sheamus defeated Matt Riddle at Wrestlemania 37 for the WWE United States Championship and still holds it to this day although he hasn’t defended it much. He seems to be starting a feud with Damien Priest, which could lead to a hell of a United States Title match.

#6: Smackdown Women’s Champion Bianca Belair

The EST of WWE, Bianca Belair debuted on Raw after Wrestlemania 36, often by the side of real-life husband Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins of the Street Profits. She entered into a brief feud with Zelina Vega after Zelina poisoned her husband before a tag match. It wasn’t much of a feud because Bianca won every match but it kept Bianca on television and building her up. Belair was eventually drafted to Smackdown where the EST of WWE racked up several wins leading to the 2021 Royal Rumble. Bianca would enter #3 at that Rumble and last 56:52 before eliminating Rhea Ripley to win the Royal Rumble and earn a shot at a Women’s Title at Wrestlemania 37. She eventually chose to face Sasha Banks as we all figured she would but before that they both competed for the Women’s Tag Team Titles. It was the classic “Can these opponents work together?” angle that never really works but Sasha and Bianca did earn the main event spot on night one of Wrestlemania 37.

They tore the house down in a four-star great match. Bianca dethroned The Boss to become Smackdown Women’s Champion. She then defended and beat Bayley twice for the belt and just defeated Carmella this past Friday to lose. I expect a rematch with her and Sasha Banks at Summerslam. She has had a great 2021.

#5: WWE Champion Bobby Lashley

If this pandemic helped anybody find their groove, it was Bobby Lashley. He’s one of two guys who became an established main event player during this era. It didn’t start that way as he was being managed by his then “wife” Lana and losing to Aleister Black in seven minutes at Wrestlemania 36. Soon after, he would dump Lana and align himself with MVP and that is when he started to gain steam. Lashley lost a very good WWE Title match to Drew Mcintyre at Backlash 2020 but soon became the United States Champion by defeating Apollo Crews. If there was one negative is it felt like Lashley and Crews faced each other in some form for three months straight.

Bobby and MVP eventually formed The Hurt Business with Shelton Benjamin and Cedric Alexander and they took over Raw for several months. Lashley eventually lost the U.S. Title in a triple threat match to Riddle, who pinned John Morrison. Later that night, Lashley attacked McIntyre allowing The Miz to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase to become WWE Champion. That was short-lived however as eight days later, The Miz tapped to the Hurt Lock allowing Bobby Lashley to become WWE Champion. Lashley would go on to successfully defend against McIntyre at Wrestlemania 37, Drew and Braun Strowman at Backlash, and Drew again at Hell in a Cell. Lashley dominated Kofi Kingston retain the WWE Title last night at Money in the Bank. The Pandemic Era certainly helped to solidify the 45-year-old Lashley as a top guy for as long as he continues to wrestle in WWE.

#4: Drew Mcintyre

I was going back and forth on Bobby and Drew on who to put first, but Drew was basically the anchor of Raw in 2020. He began the pandemic by defeating Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania 36 to become WWE Champion. It was a long journey for him and it sucks that there was no crowd present because they were really reacting to him in the weeks leading up to it. He had short feuds with Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler over the WWE Title as well as Bobby Lashley during the summer of 2020.

McIntyre constantly put on good to great matches, but his best feud of 2020 was probably with Randy Orton. They faced off at Summerslam with Drew getting the quick backslide pin to retain his title. He retained the title in an Ambulance match against Randy at Clash of Champions but Orton finally got his win at Hell in a Cell to become WWE Champion. His reign only lasted a couple weeks before Drew won the title back on an episode of Raw. Drew then went into Survivor Series before losing a hard-fought Champion versus Champion match to Universal Champion Roman Reigns. Drew’s next big victory would be over Goldberg at the Rumble before retaining the title in Elimination Chamber and losing to The Miz right after (due to a cheap attack from Lashley). Drew would then have to deal with his friend turned enemy Sheamus at Fastlane before losing three straight title matches against Bobby Lashley. Drew has started a feud with another friend turned enemy in Jinder Mahal but Drew, along with Bobby, solidified themselves as top guys in this pandemic era for sure.

#3: Bayley

If there were two women that helped carry the torch of the pandemic era, Bayley is one of them. She started as Smackdown Women’s Champion by retaining her title at Wrestlemania 36. From there, she helped carry Smackdown with title defenses against Tamina, Nikki Cross, Asuka, and more. In the process, she once again captured the Women’s Tag Team Championships with Sasha Banks at Backlash 2020 before dropping them to Shayna Baszlier and Nia Jax. Eventually, all the tension and teases of a breakup would pay off as Bayley turned her back on Sasha Banks, leading to a heated rivalry and a Hell in a Cell match at Hell in a Cell 2020 where she would drop the Smackdown Women’s Title to Sasha Banks, ending her 380+ day reign as champion. She would lose a rematch to Sasha before fading to the background a bit.

Bayley would end up being the host of her own talk show “Ding Dong Hello!” which is entertaining most weeks. She didn’t compete at Wrestlemania 37 despite being healthy although she did appear in a segment with the Bella Twins. After the pay-per-view, she kicked off a feud with Smackdown Women’s Champion Bianca Belair, which resulted in two straight losses and a pretty great Hell in a Cell match. She was set to have a third match with Bianca, but she tore her ACL in a mandatory training session in what was described as a freak accident and will be out for about nine months. It’s gut-wrenching because she did everything. She appeared on Raw, Smackdown, even NXT. Hopefully, she comes back stronger than ever before Wrestlemania 38.

#2: “The Boss” Sasha Banks

Sasha and Bayley, much like Drew and Bobby, were toss-ups as far as who would go first, but I felt like Sasha barely won out. She started the pandemic losing a Smackdown Women’s Title Match to Bayley in a match that involved three other people. The teases to a breakup started around this time in what was one of the better long-term builds in recent memory in WWE. She teamed with Bayley to win the Women’s Tag team Titles. They defended them on Raw, Smackdown, and NXT. She competed against NXT Women’s Champion Io Shirai at the Great American Bash themed episode of NXT in a losing effort. She then became Raw Women’s Champion in controversial fashion at Extreme Rules after Bayley counted the three. A rematch with Sasha Banks and Asuka was made for Raw with the stipulation that you could win the title on a disqualification or count-out. Bayley attacked Asuka’s partner Kairi Sane backstage and Asuka got counted out going to help thus allowing Sasha to be officially crowned Raw Women’s Champion.

After losing the Women’s Tag Team Titles and the rematch, Bayley finally turned on Sasha in a great segment. They met inside Hell in a Cell where Sasha Banks won the Smackdown Women’s Championship. They met in a rematch two weeks later where Sasha retained the title against Bayley marking the first time she had ever had a one-on-one successful title defense of a Women’s Title and the beginning of a long reign as champion. Banks entered into a feud with Carmella that resulted in two pay-per-view wins before entering in a brief tag team with 2021 Royal Rumble winner Bianca Belair. They lost a couple of tag title matches to build to their Wrestlemania 37 Women’s Title match which would main event Night One in a classic that saw Bianca end Sasha’s six-month reign as Smackdown Women’s Champion. She hasn’t been seen since the Smackdown after Wrestlemania (although she did appear at the ESPY Awards last week with Belair), but I have a feeling she and Bianca are going to run it back at Summerslam.

#1: Universal Champion Roman Reigns

It couldn’t be anybody but “The Head of the Table” Roman Reigns in the number one spot. He was scheduled to face Goldberg for the Universal Title at Wrestlemania 36 but chose to do what was best for him and his family by sitting out for roughly for months due to the pandemic. Reigns returned in a big way at Summerslam 2020 by attacking “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt after he won the Universal Championship from Braun Strowman. The following Friday on Smackdown, Reigns cemented his heel turn by aligning himself with Paul Heyman. Two days later, at Payback 2020, Roman defeated Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman to become Universal Champion. At that point, the Tribal Chief storyline would begin.

Reigns would feud with his cousin Jey Uso over the Universal Championship that would lead to the two meeting inside Hell in a Cell. Reigns would defeat Jey and, per a stipulation, Jey had to join and acknowledge Roman. Reigns then entered into a two-month feud with Kevin Owens that saw Reigns beat Owens in Cage matches, TLC matches, and a Last Man Standing match. Roman also took on Daniel Bryan at Fastlane 2021 and retained in a great match. Then came Wrestlemania 37 Night 2 which saw Universal Champion Roman Reigns defeat (thanks to help from cousin Jey) Daniel Bryan and 2021 Royal Rumble winner Edge in an excellent triple threat match. Roman followed that up by defeating Daniel Bryan again and forcing him to leave Smackdown before defeating Cesaro in a hard-fought match at Backlash 2021 and Rey Mysterio in a Hell in a Cell match shortly after. Now Jimmy Uso has returned so The Bloodline is at full force. It should be an interesting few months ahead for Roman Reigns as he seems to be on a Summerslam collision course with John Cena. With a title reign passing 320 days and counting, it couldn’t be anybody but him at the top.

That will do it for the top ten stars of the pandemic. It was really difficult narrowing it down to just ten superstars, but I feel like I got most of these probably on the money. It is an exciting time. Fans are back and returns are expected just like John Cena last night. Let’s just try and sit back and enjoy the last half of 2021 in the wrestling world.

E-Mail: joel.mcintyre2021@outlook.com

Twitter: @GiftedMoney