Wrestling is always more exciting with the possibility of talent jumping from one promotion to another. Unfortunately for all of us, the lack of legitimate American competitors to World Wrestling Entertainment has deprived us of that excitement for the better part of two decades. Since the founding of All Elite Wrestling in 2019, however, we’ve seen talent jumping from WWE at a rate unseen since the ’90s. But how have things gone for all of those wrestlers? Some have seen incredible success, while others seem to have made a lateral move or even, in a rare cases, a downgrade.
Before I get into the rankings, I want to outline my process to curb “what about so-and-so” tweets, which you can send me @HEATcomic. If you don’t make a point that interests me, will I probably reply to you by shilling my wrestling graphic novel, Wrestlemon? Yes. Did I mention that specifically to plug said wrestling graphic novel, Wrestlemon? Also yes. Use promo code VOW30 for 30% off!
Now, on with the process.
First, I am only counting wrestlers who have left WWE since the announcement of AEW’s formation (January 1, 2019). That removes a handful of current roster members from the rankings – Cody, PAC, Trent?, Matt Sydal, Lance Archer, and Serena Deeb. I’ll talk about them briefly in an honorable mentions section.
Second, only wrestlers who have had matches on TV for both WWE and AEW will be count. YouTube stuff doesn’t count, because unfortunately I don’t watch it. Also, wrestlers only, despite a handful of managers having official matches for both companies. It’s not really fair to have managers, referees, and commentators ranked alongside wrestlers, as they’re judged on completely different criteria.
Third, I’m using the AEW roster page and regularly watching Dynamite to determine who gets into the rankings. The crew of Dark wrestlers has a bunch of former NXTers, but most of them don’t really do much. Your Ryan Nemeths and Cezar Bononis of the world. They technically meet the criteria, but it also doesn’t feel like they’re actually part of the AEW roster, and the website confirms that.
With those criteria in mind, we’re left with 14 ranking slots for 16 wrestlers (although I’m sure that number will be increasing shortly). Two of the eligible acts are tag teams, hence there being less slots than wrestlers.
The rankings are going to be based on what the wrestlers have done in AEW so far, how that compares to what their peak was in WWE, and what they contribute to the promotion. Potential is also taken into account, as several people on the list clearly have more runway ahead of them before they reach their peak. Taken all together, the question I’m asking when I decide who gets ranked where is “have they contributed more to the show being good than the previous people on the list?”
Honorable Mentions: Cody, PAC, Trent?, Matt Sydal, Lance Archer, and Serena Deeb
Several of the wrestlers on this list would rank quite highly were they eligible, but I had to draw the cutoff somewhere, and many of these folks haven’t been in WWE for ages.
Cody Rhodes went from being a surefire prospect to Stardust in WWE, and now he’s the ace of his own company. His ceiling is whatever he wants it to be.
The revelation during the 205 Live era that PAC was a magnetic promo rocketed his ceiling up to world champion of a major promotion. He hasn’t achieved that in North America yet, but he’s been a main event-level wrestler for AEW since his debut and will certainly continue in that role for the foreseeable future.
Trent? feels like a guy who could evolve into a main eventer if he can stay healthy long enough, as he looks great and can deliver to that level between the bells. He’s probably not a world titleholder unless he evolves as a promo, given how protective AEW is of its world title, but I expect him to win some gold down the road. Going from WWE jobber who took gross bumps to his current role is already an astronomical improvement, but I think there’s more potential in him.
Lance Archer has taken a similar path, going from WWE afterthought to an effective, athletic monster who is a strong promo and can hang with the top guys in the ring. He’s probably outgrown Jake Roberts at this point, but I loved the grimy, Devil’s Rejects feel of their early vignettes. His recent turn as a brutal, ass-kicking babyface has had some of those vibes but without the sinister elements that Jake the Snake offered early on.
Matt Sydal is on the downslope of his career, but serves a really valuable role as a veteran that can hang with anybody and win or lose without losing credibility. He has probably reached his ceiling in terms of card position as a guy who can challenge for titles in between major defenses, but I’ll never complain about seeing him pop up on Dynamite.
There was a period during the pandemic where Serena Deeb was easily the best performer in the women’s division. She’s had a handful of unexpected bangers in NWA title matches, and I hope she remains a regular.
Now, on to the rankings. We’re going to be starting at 14 and working our way up.
14. Matt Cardona
It’s fascinating to look back at Cardona’s brief AEW stint now with knowledge of his tremendous GCW performances. He’s an interesting case, because while he definitely didn’t seem like he could hang in the ring working AEW’s style, I do think his look and charisma could have allowed him to carve a niche for himself. He’s one of those guys that look like a normal dude in WWE, then leaves and looks like the Incredible Hulk. He wrestled like a guy who hadn’t unlearned the WWE style and found who he was as a wrestler yet, but I think with some effort he could contribute more than a few of the folks ranked ahead of him on this list.
13. Jake Hager
This is one of those guys that I think Cardona would have been able to eclipse. I read a snippet from a Chris Jericho interview about putting together The Inner Circle where he said that the call to use Hager was made because Jericho was comfortable with their chemistry, but you’d never be able to tell by how Hager carries himself on TV. I actually really liked Jack Swagger at certain points in his WWE run, including his oft-maligned World Heavyweight Championship reign, but none of his in-ring fire came with him to AEW. Worse, he’s in a unit that shines a stark light on all of his flaws. He has to cut promos in the same segments as Sammy Guevara and Santana, who ooze authenticity when they speak, and work matches with younger, faster, more motivated performers. His best use is short hoss fights and stuff like Stadium Stampede and Blood and Guts where he can do his spots and then fade into the background for a bit. I can’t imagine what he’ll do after the Inner Circle splits.
12. Shawn Spears
Shawn Spears is a guy who’s rarely bad but also doesn’t have a ton of upside. There’s certainly something to be said for having veterans around, and he has been a key participant in Sammy Guevara’s rise as a babyface, but he’s essentially already at his ceiling. He’s fine as the loss post in the Pinnacle, but he’s another guy that I think Cardona could have eclipsed. Even his manager, Tully Blanchard, is more interesting with other wrestlers than he is with Spears. I’ll be talking about those other wrestlers in a bit!
11. Matt Hardy
At this point, I get bummed out when I watch Matt Hardy wrestle. The dude moves like the line between ambulating and being in an ambulance is frighteningly thin. I hope he transitions into being a manager full time, both because he’s more entertaining in that role and also because it would mean I don’t have to watch him wrestle.
Bringing him in to do the Broken Matt stuff with Chris Jericho early in the pandemic was a real head-scratcher, given that the gimmick’s popularity was pretty much worthless without an audience. I really like the development of Big Money Matt/Hardy Family Office, and those backstage segments of Hardy hustling people into joining him are my favorite thing he’s done since the original Final Deletion. Those are also pretty much single-handedly lifting Hardy out of last place, where he would be based on his in-ring results. If Hardy sticks around, I’d like to see him stay in the role of a manager who can occasionally take some lumps after a babyface tears through all of his goons.
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10. Dustin Rhodes
Dustin Rhodes, unlike Matt Hardy, doesn’t seem to show his age at all. While he reached what I presume will be the last peak of his career in the instant classic bloodbath against Cody at the original Double or Nothing, he gives everything he’s got whenever his feuds end up on Dynamite. That Cody match and the bunkhouse brawl against the Butcher and the Blade on Dynamite are bigger highlights than anyone ranked behind him (and a lot of the people ranked ahead of him), but he’s winding down his career in the ring.
9. Andrade El Idolo
Andrade is getting a lot of credit for his future potential here, because if I’m giving him credit solely for what he’s done on Dynamite so far, he’s probably at number 12 on the back of a decent Matt Sydal match. The debut fell flat, and the Vickie Guerrero pairing was not a great idea. Having Chavo Guerrero as a manager is a huge improvement, but also kind of a problem because Chavo is coming across as far more charismatic. El Idolo has strong in-ring charisma, and I believe that he can get himself over on his work, but repetitive segments trying to recruit luchadors to be his henchmen are not ideal uses of him. Much like his start in WWE, his character isn’t gelling, but there’s still time to course-correct with some bangers against the members of Death Triangle.
8. The Good Brothers
Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows have been skips for me on pro wrestling shows for years now, so imagine my surprise when they showed up in AEW and immediately became solid contributors on Dynamite. I’m also a bit surprised that Gallows has, by and large, put in a far greater effort than Anderson. That does beg the question that, with Gallows both trying harder and having infinitely more personality, what is Anderson there for?
I don’t think The Good Brothers are going to be long-term roster members, which is fine because I also think they’re already at their ceiling as an act in AEW. They’re excellent henchmen for Kenny Omega until they can return to New Japan to wrestle for the IWGP tag titles several hundred times in matches I won’t watch.
7. Christian Cage
While Christian Cage’s debut as a hyped hall-of-fame worthy roster addition didn’t really set the world on fire, I think he’s been a strong addition to the roster. He speaks with a naturalistic delivery and can play off of all kinds of different characters with ease, and he’s still got the goods in the ring. His style brings something a bit different to the table, as he works a slower pace that reinforces the character of a wily veteran who is past his prime but is tough as nails and able to outwit opponents.
For all his positives, Cage has mostly meandered around the midcard and served as a crutch for Jungle Boy in promo segments. He feels like a very useful piece that AEW hasn’t figured out what to do with. It seems like he’s on his way to a program with Kenny Omega to buy time before Adam Page’s coronation, which is a big opportunity to really carve out a role for himself. If Cage can live up to the standards of Omega’s previous defenses, he can cement himself as being worth involving in the main event picture as a guy who can be a credible placeholder challenger that can be heated up quickly to plug gaps while other, long-term stories continue to simmer. Granted, he probably already IS that guy just based on the rest of his career, but a quality feud with Omega would do a lot for my interest in him as a character moving forward.
I’m probably higher on FTR’s AEW run than many of the other writers here at VOW, but they definitely underwhelmed in some of their early bouts. FTR built their rep in NXT by working frantic, high-spot heavy tags that used chaos and excellent timing to produce match of the year candidates in a company where tag team wrestling felt like a ghost of the past. In AEW, they started working the southern-style tags that they had convinced people they were working in NXT. The energy and chaos weren’t there. The much-anticipated Young Bucks match, while being very good, wasn’t the expected 5-star instant-classic, and that was a mark against them, as well.
But when I look at their overall output in AEW, they end up looking like victims of their own hype. When I look at their Cagematch listings, I see a bunch of tags that I really enjoyed, but weren’t MOTY candidates. Because of the structure of NXT during their time there, with Takeovers being the only time when matches actually mattered, there was an inflated sense of what they would deliver. I’m also completely ignoring their RAW run, because that was a whole lotta nothin’ where they didn’t get the time or opponents necessary to put on the types of matches they had become famous for. In AEW they’ve settled into being a team that can consistently have 3.5-4 star matches on Dynamite with pretty much anybody while also having some room to reach a higher ceiling in big matches.
5. Malakai Black
AEW has had a bad habit of handling new stars poorly at the beginning, then eventually figuring them out. Malakai Black has bucked that trend hard by playing the strongest hand any AEW heel can be dealt – absolutely destroying Cody Rhodes. Do I have concerns that Malakai Black is going to have Lore™ because of Tommy End wilding out on Twitch? Yes. Yes, I do. But right now he’s absolutely on fire and has the best starting feud he could ask for. Just have him keep kicking people and don’t turn Malakai Black into some kind of wizard vampire with magical powers.
4. Mr. Brodie Lee
Brodie Lee is the first wrestler on this list that walked into AEW and immediately showed fans how much he had been wasted in WWE. All the circumstances were right to get him over as a star by beating Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton at Wrestlemania: Mat Worms, but WWE blew it and missed the opportunity.
In AEW, Brodie Lee’s debut as the Exalted One attached him to a unit that was floundering after an extremely poorly received year-ending angle in 2019. That association could have sunk him, but instead, he dragged the entire faction up into relevance. Everyone in the Dark Order was elevated by their attachment to Brodie Lee.
Lee’s tenure in AEW was tragically short, but he was a magnetic presence and his shocking squash of Cody to win the TNT Title will likely remain an all-time Dynamite moment. Coupled with the excellent dog collar match with Cody and his brawl with Jon Moxley for the world title, Lee did some of the best work of his career at Daily’s Place.
3. Chris Jericho
Chris Jericho was the most difficult wrestler on this list to figure out a ranking for, because the quality of his output has been all over the place, but he’s inarguably among the most important figures in AEW’s existence.
As the first World Champion, Jericho was the keystone of AEW’s early identity. Dynamite revolved around him. He was the shared point of reference for any wrestling fan of the past 30 years. Whether they were modern wrestling nerds who knew him from WWE or New Japan, or long-time viewers who knew him from any of the plethora of major promotions he’s worked for, he was a bridge to bring those fans together. Ratings evidence has born out Jericho’s success in that role.
What makes Jericho difficult to rank is that the quality of what he’s up to while drawing those ratings is highly variable. He’s been starting to show his age for a while now, and AEW hasn’t gone out of their way to hide his weaknesses as much as they could. He’s been part of some compelling stories with dramatic matches (particularly his programs with Cody and Jon Moxley), but he’s also had stinkers when asked to have singles matches and he’s been a part of more than a few cringey segments. His AEW run has been a strong argument that Jericho’s best in-ring performances at this point in his career come when he emulates bloody luchador brawls.
Miro is a great example of AEW’s bad habit of handling new wrestlers poorly after their debut. His time as The Best Man for Kip Sabian and Penelope Ford felt like a waste of everyone’s time, even if I personally liked Miro’s chemistry with Chuck Taylor in their segments, and Arcade Anarchy was fun. But being fun felt like a disappointment because of how poorly Miro had been handled after his initial megapush in WWE. Here was a guy who looked and wrestled like a killer, had a ton of charisma, and could make himself a highlight even with utter garbage to work with, creatively. And he went nowhere. Now he’s got a fresh start in a whole new company and… he’s a Twitch streamer.
Being broken off from a goofy undercard act allowed Miro to grow rapidly into the merciless juggernaut we now know as God’s Favourite Champion, Miro the Redeemer. His promos have been consistently excellent, with clarity of purpose and character and powerful deliveries. Between the bells he has settled into brutal style with physicality that projects absolute confidence of victory. If he can maintain his current level of performance against higher-profile opponents, his ceiling is nothing short of World Champion.
If Miro had started his AEW tenure with his current character and presentation, he’d probably end up ranked first, but instead, he serves as an exemplar of finding ways to make the most out of talent even if the initial swing is a miss.
1. Jon Moxley
My love of Miro aside, there was really no question as to who would be number one. Jon Moxley came into AEW and from the first second he appeared on screen he was a transcendent star. He was what Dean Ambrose might have been if WWE had pulled the trigger on him in his title challenge against Triple H at Roadblock in 2016. He radiates cool with a hard edge of violence. He’s not the lunatic fringe who might do something wacky at any moment, he’s a dangerously unhinged fighter who’s willing to kill himself to make sure he takes you down with him (see: the several deathmatches and violent brawls that have left a trail of destruction in his wake).
Mox has already held AEW’s richest prize, but it feels like he’s still got room to grow. I don’t doubt for a second that he will wear the World Championship belt again, and he’s got unfinished business with Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks. Moxley is AEW’s biggest star, and has been incredibly consistent since the start, delivering 4-star-plus main events and fire on the microphone on a regular basis.
Jon Moxley went from being the afterthought of the Shield breakup to the standard-bearer for the first legitimate competitor to WWE since 2001 and the most over star in American wrestling. If that doesn’t get him the number one spot in some nerd’s rankings, what would!?