Four years since its inception, AEW is still doing everything it can to take the title of professional wrestling’s top promotion away from WWE. As history has shown, however, that’s not an easy thing to do — while Tony Khan has made moves in AEW’s programming, its quality of talent, and taking calculated risks, WWE continues to make clear that the leader in sports entertainment isn’t going anywhere.
This competition has led to an outstanding year for professional wrestling, particularly when it comes to the two major promotions in the U.S. As we wind down 2023, we’re here to look back on the biggest matches and moments from a year to remember in WWE and AEW.
10. Hangman Page and Swerve Strickland reach another level
Hangman. Adam. Page.
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) November 19, 2023
This match wasn’t for everyone. It had lots of blood. There was violence — the image of Hangman drinking and spitting Swerve’s blood is etched in my mind — and incredible storytelling between a former champion finding his fire once again and a rising star becoming an undeniable pillar of AEW.
Swerve going over was the cherry on top of what looks to be a launching pad of a year that included him wrestling in front of 80,000 people at All In with Sting and defeating the likes of Page and former title contender Jay White. This felt like a match we’ll point back to years from now for Swerve, who’s been pounding on the glass ceiling, waiting to break completely through. He and Hangman could be multi-time world champions by the time they’re ready to hang their boots up.
9. Gunther breaks the Intercontinental Championship title reign
WWE’s next big star is quite clearly Gunther. He has been on the cusp of breaking through in recent years during his time as Intercontinental Champion, and all he needed was an absolute show-stealer of a WrestleMania match to kick off the year that made clear he’s going to be a face of WWE. Gunther had a series of really entertaining matches against Chad Gable and is still running through a dominant title run to set him up for his jump to the main event.
WWE hasn’t had a shortage of quality Intercontinental Championship reigns, and for Gunther to set himself apart to this level speaks volumes of what the business sees in him.
8. Bad Bunny leads WWE back to Puerto Rico
For the first time in 18 years, WWE returned to Puerto Rico for one of the most unexpectedly entertaining shows of the year.
On paper, the event looked about as good as any other show this year. But the crowd in San Juan took things to another level. It helped propel Iyo Sky to her eventual title win, gave a hero’s welcome to Zelina Vega, and offered a number of unforgettable moments during Bad Bunny’s moment against Damian Priest — we may never experience anything quite like his entrance before their San Juan Street Fight match ever again.
7. MJF becomes our scumbag
If The Bloodline doesn’t exist, this is likely the storyline of the year. AEW’s biggest villain, their biggest homegrown star, does everything in 2023. He becomes the biggest star in the company, is absolutely despised, is thrown into an odd couple storyline, and creates magic with Adam Cole.
Then as he’s slowly turning from AEW’s most hated to the promotion’s most loved, he goes on to open and close the biggest non-WWE show in history, packs over 80,000 people into Wembley Stadium to watch him nail a Kangaroo Kick and pin his best friend in the main event of their breakout show. He’s now far and away the promotion’s biggest star and has affectionately become our scumbag.
6. Sami Zayn turns on Roman Reigns
This was the storyline of the year. The universal backing of the lovable Sami Zayn gave us an iconic moment when he slammed a chair into the back of Roman Reigns at the conclusion of the Royal Rumble.
The trickle down effect over the coming months would be one to watch, with Zayn losing in his hometown of Montreal, but eventually overcoming the Usos to win the Tag Team titles at WrestleMania alongside Kevin Owens. That fallout has continued over the year, with Jimmy and Jey splitting as a team and settling on opposite shows. But everything goes back to that magical night at the Royal Rumble, when Sami’s split from The Bloodline became official.
5. Sting announces his retirement
There was a moment when a buckle bomb looked to have ended Sting’s career. Prematurely isn’t the right term, because it was plenty reasonable for The Icon to hang up his boots at that point, injury or not.
But when he showed up in AEW, got on the mic, and eventually wrestled in a return match, it was clear he had plenty left in the tank. Fast-forward three years later, and he’s writing his final chapter with a run that is up there with any from his unparalleled career.
4. Roman Reigns reaches 1,000 days as champion
One of the most significant runs in the modern era, Reigns joins only Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Pedro Morales, and Hulk Hogan as stars to have hit that milestone.
He had his standout moments, like matches against Sami Zayn, his WrestleMania showdown with Cody Rhodes, and igniting Jey Uso’s main event run. Regardless of how often the belt has been defended or which shows the Undisputed WWE Universal Champion has missed, Reigns’ title run is one for the ages.
3. CM Punk returns to AEW, leaves again, then joins WWE
One of the most polarizing stars in wrestling history, CM Punk is wrapping one of the wildest years in recent memory for an individual. Punk was on the shelf for a year, recovering from a torn tricep he injured in the main event of AEW All Out and a reported backstage brawl that involved the company’s EVPs, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, among others.
In his return, things went sideways before they could even be rebuilt. Backstage reports continued to follow that repeated those talking points despite Punk heading up AEW’s new Collision show and the Elite operating on Wednesday Night Dynamite. After a reported scuffle ahead of AEW’s All ln show with Jack Perry, Punk was ousted from AEW.
Fast-forward a few months later, and the Cult of Personality is back in WWE, apparently mending the fences that led to his hiatus from professional wrestling and sparking the biggest shock return in recent memory.
2. AEW All In in London
Since its inception, AEW has yearned for an event that stood out as uniquely special — something that could be compared to its WrestleMania. When the promotion announced its intention to run at Wembley Stadium, assumptions were made on just how ambitious the company would be.
The gamble to essentially open the entire stadium up paid off, with more than 80,000 fans coming together for the history-making evening in London. AEW CEO Tony Khan has a great relationship with the folks at Wembley and it appears All In will become a yearly staple for the promotion. How AEW builds off the success of All In remains to be seen as the promotion continues to reload, with guys like Adam Copeland, Jay White, and Will Ospreay becoming permanent staples on the roster.
1. WWE merges with UFC to form TKO
The past year was a whirlwind for WWE, with Vince McMahon pursuing the sale of WWE, returning to the board of directors, and eventually leading a merger, bringing the UFC and WWE under one roof to form the sports and entertainment group TKO.
The move is monumental on multiple levels, first taking McMahon out of the driver’s seat of a company his family built. The collective power of the MMA and sports entertainment leaders coming together offers limitless opportunities for what the future may offer.