05/03/2024

Pictures: WWE

When it was thought that 2022 was the craziest year in professional wrestling, 2023 might have just overtaken it.

There were some sights we never thought we’d see, including CM Punk’s monstrous and groundbreaking return to WWE in none other than his hometown of Chicago.

WWE also merged with the UFC under TKO and Roman Reigns broke 1000 days as Undisputed Universal Champion, while AEW held their first ever stadium show in London for All In and brought Adam Copeland to the company.

Several wrestlers shone brightly and increased their stock, as all eyes are now on 2024 and what next year will entail in the industry of professional wrestling. WWE is building towards potentially their grandest WrestleMania ever and the identity of “The Devil” should be revealed in AEW’s biggest storyline at World’s End this Sunday.

Before we get there, below is The Inner Sanctum‘s Wrestling End of Year Awards with the team reflecting on what has been a remarkable 2023.

Theo Dimou

Male Wrestler of the Year: Gunther
Female Wrestler of the Year: IYO SKY
Tag Team of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
Match of the Year: Gunther vs Drew McIntyre vs Sheamus (WrestleMania 39: Night 2)
PLE/PPV of the Year: WrestleMania 39: Night 1
Moment of the Year: CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series
Dream Match for 2024: Seth Rollins vs CM Punk

Gunther has had a star-making year, gaining the records for the longest time spent in a traditional Royal Rumble match and becoming the longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion of all time. An honorable mention for the male wrestler of 2023 is MJF, breaking the record as the longest-reigning AEW World Champion in history and being involved in the company’s best storyline with Adam Cole.

It was a tough decision to choose the female wrestler of the year between Rhea Ripley and IYO SKY, but the latter edges out the Eradicator due to her performances in the second half of 2023. The Genius of the Sky claimed the women’s Money in the Bank briefcase and successfully cashed it in at SummerSlam, before defeating top names like Charlotte Flair, Bianca Belair and Asuka all in singles competition in recent months.

Night 1 of WrestleMania 39 was the embodiment of long-term storytelling at it’s finest, with Rey Mysterio defeating Dominik after months of family angst, Rhea Ripley overcoming Charlotte Flair to become the Women’s World Champion after losing to the Queen at WrestleMania 36, and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn reaching the mountain top by dethroning The Usos for the Undisputed Tag Team Titles in sweet revenge.

There was also some unbelievable wrestling, as Seth Rollins battled Logan Paul that also featured an appearance from KSI and the men’s WrestleMania showcase match with amazing commentary from Titus O’Neil.

CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series will simply never be forgotten, declaring his WrestleMania 40 main event aspirations where he should compete against Seth Rollins for the World Heavyweight Championship.

Alexander Jay

Male Wrestler of the Year: Swerve Strickland
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley
Tag Team of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
Match of the Year: The Usos vs Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (WrestleMania 39: Night 1)
PLE/PPV of the Year: All In
Moment of the Year: CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series
Dream Match for 2024: Cody Rhodes vs Drew McIntyre vs Sami Zayn

I’ll be honest, I had no idea who ‘Isaiah Scott’ was when Hit Row formed in WWE’s NXT. After being released in 2021, the 33-year-old Washington Native in his new moniker of Swerve Strickland has had the fastest ascent to stardom from anybody not named Maxwell Jacob Friedman I can remember this decade.

Swerve left 2022 betraying tag team partner, Keith Lee and entered this year by wrestling lower-card talents like AR Fox and Brian Pillman Jr. By the end of 2023, Swerve has established himself as the top heel on Dynamite and entered December with consecutive victories over Adam Page, Jay White and Jay Lethal.

Swerve’s character is borderline perfect at this moment in time. Standing at 6’1, he is beefed out the body, dialed in the hair, nailed the moveset, crafted catchy entrance music, and his menacing snarl is accompanied with grills and just the most *chef’s kiss* entrance attire to accentuate his intimidating frame (and I didn’t even mention his incredible “manager”, Prince Nana).

He’s an angry, disenfranchised, strong, violent sombitch who’s fresh off of what I consider the rivalry of the year with ‘Hangman’ Adam Page. Swerve earned the victory over Virginia’s favourite son in a brutal Texas Deathmatch at Full Gear.

Swerve has it, in every metric you want to measure him against. It’s clear that the AEW crew see big, big things in his near future and I expect him to hold the World Championship in 2024.

Going back to the Texas Deathmatch at Full Gear, Page drinking Swerve’s blood requires a mention for moment of the year for it’s macabre brutality. With my dream match for 2024, seeing three superstars with legitimate gripes with The Bloodline battle before WrestleMania would be sensational.

Picture: AEW

Casey McGuire

Male Wrestler of the Year: Gunther
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley
Tag Team of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
Match of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn vs Roman Reigns & Solo Sikoa (Night of Champions)
PLE/PPV of the Year: Backlash
Moment of the Year: Sami Zayn turns on The Bloodline
Dream Match for 2024: Seth Rollins vs CM Punk

Gunther is a no-brainer for male wrestler of the year, breaking several records that some fans may have thought were not breakable. Rhea Ripley have given the women’s roster life again with a great connection to the male roster. Her interactions on the main roster have been intriguing and it’s good to see a woman have a dominant role in a major company like the WWE.

The pure crowd of Backlash made this the best PLE of 2023. The Puerto Ricans made the event their own, especially blowing the roof off the arena when Bad Bunny made his entrance. The cameos of several other Latino wrestlers added fuel to the fire, making it one of the best crowds and shows of the year.

It’s painful to look past CM Punk’s return at Survivor Series, since he is my favourite WWE superstar. However, Sami Zayn turning on Roman Reigns at the Royal Rumble shook the wrestling world. The Bloodline were one of the most powerful factions and always got anything they wanted, overpowering the main roster until Zayn made sure to cause some friction in the family.

Liam McMahon

Male Wrestler of the Year: Gunther
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley
Tag Team of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
Match of the Year: Charlotte Flair vs Rhea Ripley (WrestleMania 39: Night 1)
PLE/PPV of the Year: Survivor Series
Moment of the Year: CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series
Dream Match for 2024: Brock Lesnar vs Gunther

Gunther has had a year just as dominant as the last, becoming WWE’s longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion of all time and surpassing The Honky Tonk Man’s record in early September. The leader of Imperium has had a lot on his plate, with the downfall of his faction being teased as Ludwig Kaiser and Giovanni Vinci are seen arguing almost on a weekly basis.

However, no matter the state of Imperium, Gunther has been putting together 4 to 5 star matches whenever he has stepped inside the squared circle, which is something not many other superstars on the roster can say about themselves.

Rhea Ripley’s ascent within the women’s division has been remarkable since joining The Judgment Day at WrestleMania Backlash in 2022. Over the past 12 to 18 months, she has risen to the very top of the company across both the men’s and women’s divisions. Her reign as Women’s World Heavyweight Champion has no end in sight, with her dominance in her faction meeting no ends.

With the returns of CM Punk and Randy Orton, one of the best women’s WarGames matches, the overall pacing of the show and a red hot Chicago crowd, Survivor Series in my opinion can not be topped as the best PLE of 2023.

The WWE return of CM Punk has been a decade in the making, being one of the moments I never thought could take place within the wrestling industry in this day and age. Whether the Best in the World’s return will succeed or fail as did his stint in AEW is to be seen, but I am soaking it all in and enjoying it while it lasts.

The 2023 edition of the men’s Royal Rumble hinted at a potential Gunther vs Brock Lesnar feud, but both superstars went in different directions for WrestleMania 39. The Beast battled Omos, while the Ring General excelled in a triple threat match for the Intercontinental Title. A WrestleMania 40 program between these two would be thrilling, with Gunther putting an end to Lesnar’s illustrious career.

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Callum Logie

Male Wrestler of the Year: Jey Uso
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley
Tag Team of the Year: Finn Balor & Damian Priest
Match of the Year: The Usos vs Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn (WrestleMania 39: Night 1)
PLE/PPV of the Year: WrestleMania 39: Night 1
Moment of the Year: CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series
Dream Match for 2024: Rhea Ripley vs Becky Lynch

“Main Event” Jey Uso is now in your city! This pick for male wrestler of the year is somewhat of a carry-over from his great work with The Bloodline and I was so apprehensive when he was moved away from the group, fearing he would fall into midcard obscurity.

While it’s rare to see a ‘home-grown’ performer these days with a lot of crossover between the two major promotions, Uso breaks the trend and proves with the right investment and storytelling that WWE are able to produce talent of their own.

Rhea Ripley is incredible. The manner she conducts herself, her presence in the ring or beside it during The Judgment Day’s main exploits this year, everything about the Eradicator has been phenomenal. Every time she makes her entrance, it feels like she has added another wrinkle to her character and presentation. Wrestling is often about characters that are larger than life, and Ripley in 2023 has epitomised that type of figure.

Moving along with this, her faction has been my personal favourite thing to watch throughout the year. While some of The Judgment Day’s storytelling has been a little repetitive, I still love the way Priest and Balor team up when it’s all on the line. Balor has long been a favourite of mine and seeing the way Priest has come into his own within the group has been fantastic as well.

The main event of WrestleMania 39: Night 1 has already had everything that can be said about it. I will simply add that tag team wrestling can feel just as important as huge singles matches when booked in compelling storylines, and the four involved were excellent.

I never would have thought that in late 2023, one of the biggest talking points in the wrestling world would be CM Punk returning to WWE. Now that it is a reality and an unforgettable moment, so much intrigue continues to build from his return.

Brandon Patane

Male Wrestler of the Year: MJF
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley
Tag Team of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn
Match of the Year: Gunther vs Drew McIntyre vs Sheamus (WrestleMania 39: Night 2)
PLE/PPV of the Year: Backlash
Moment of the Year: CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series
Dream Match for 2024: Seth Rollins vs Kazuchika Okada

With the AEW World Championship firmly planted around his waist for over a year now, MJF has once again been a pleasure to watch in 2023. He felt like a strong choice for male wrestler of the year with his continually brilliant character work and ability to put on great matches alongside some of the best in AEW.

Rhea Ripley has been a dominant force in 2023, becoming the Women’s World Champion at WrestleMania and performing outstandingly as both an in-ring competitor, and in storyline as part of The Judgment Day.

Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn’s reunion warmed hearts in the early stages of the year and they progressed to have a brilliant run as Undisputed Tag Team Champions, starting with a match of the year candidate to cap off WrestleMania 39: Night 1 that saw them claim the titles.

Speaking of WrestleMania, the triple threat match on Night 2 between Gunther, Sheamus and Drew McIntyre brought us plenty of action from bell to bell. The three larger-than-life superstars left us in awe and the match truly gave the Intercontinental Championship the spotlight it deserves.

The Puerto-Rican crowd was on fire for Backlash in May and their excitement accompanied what was a stellar PLE in the end, with that Bad Bunny entrance certainly one of the best in recent memory.

For the moment of 2023, look no further than CM Punk’s WWE return at last month’s Survivor Series. We were all wondering for years if the day would ever come, and the moment did not disappoint in the slightest.

Finally, with Kazuchika Okada’s NJPW contract expiring in January next year, you just can’t help but wonder what would happen if Japan’s biggest star decides to make his way to WWE. I’d love to see a matchup between WWE and NJPW’s biggest stars of the last decade, as Rollins and Okada would surely produce an all-time classic.

Poletti

Male Wrestler of the Year: Christian Cage
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley
Tag Team of the Year: MJF & Adam Cole
Match of the Year: MJF vs Bryan Danielson (Revolution)
PLE/PPV of the Year: AEW x NJPW: Forbidden Door
Moment of the Year: Bryan Danielson enters Forbidden Door to “The Final Countdown”
Dream Match for 2024: Samoa Joe vs Kazuchika Okada

There are plenty of names who could be male wrestler of the year, such as MJF, Bryan Danielson and Gunther, but what Christian Cage has achieved has been nothing short of remarkable. The current TNT Champion has had a complete career resurgence, elevated fellow talents to the top of their games and has made his title relevant in AEW.

It is remarkable that at the age of 50, Christian can still go with the best of them on the microphone and in the ring, looking better than he did in the years preceding his first retirement. While chasing world titles is probably out of the equation for him, he continues to be at the top of his game and will continue to help the next generation of talent in 2024.

Coming into 2023, MJF was barely wrestling and only chose to when forced to defend his AEW World Championship for the most part. A match against Adam Cole on Dynamite that reached the 30-minute time limit when Cole was less than a second away from winning, eventually led to these two teaming together and capturing the ROH Tag Team Titles.

Since then, MJF and Cole have been involved in some of the most entertaining storylines and matches AEW has produced for the remainder of 2023. MJF wrestled far more frequently, including twice in one night on multiple different occasions.

While the two have not been as iconic in the tag team division as Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, MJF and Cole have raised the overall level of the AEW main event scene as a tag team with different opponents and storylines, which is what gives them the bump for me.

With 60 minutes of non-stop action and then sudden death overtime, MJF and Bryan Danielson put on a clinic of a match that saw MJF retain the AEW World Title and claim 2023’s match of the year. It had everything one could ask for, from hard-hitting action, storytelling, drama, excitement, edge of your seat suspense, a long match length that felt like it was over in minutes, and technical wrestling.

For the first time since 2009, the American Dragon made his way to the ring in a song that has been long associated with him as a professional wrestler. Danielson made his entrance at Forbidden Door to “The Final Countdown”, shocking the attendance in Toronto and sending them into a rapturous applause. It is a moment that speaks for itself.

With MJF being injured, it would not be surprising if Samoa Joe walks into 2024 as the AEW World Champion after World’s End. Kazuchika Okada is off contract with NJPW in January and AEW seems like a natural fit for the Japanese wrestling legend, where he would hopefully end up in the main event scene and challenge for a title.

While Okada can work different styles, his most iconic matches have seen him work what is referred to as “Strong Style”, a very stiff style of wrestling. This would work wonders with Samoa Joe and would be a fascinating match.

Overall

Male Wrestler of the Year: Gunther 3, Swerve Strickland, Jey Uso, MJF, Christian Cage 1
Female Wrestler of the Year: Rhea Ripley 6, IYO SKY 1
Tag Team of the Year: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn 5, Finn Balor & Damien Priest, MJF & Adam Cole 1
Match of the Year: Gunther vs Drew McIntyre vs Sheamus, The Usos vs Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn 2, Charlotte Flair vs Rhea Ripley, Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn vs Roman Reigns & Solo Sikoa, MJF vs Bryan Danielson 1
PLE/PPV of the Year: WrestleMania 39: Night 1, Backlash 2, All In, Survivor Series, AEW x NJPW: Forbidden Door 1
Moment of the Year: CM Punk’s WWE return at Survivor Series 5, Sami Zayn turns on The Bloodline, Bryan Danielson enters Forbidden Door to “The Final Countdown” 1
Dream Match for 2024: Seth Rollins vs CM Punk 2, Cody Rhodes vs Drew McIntyre vs Sami Zayn, Brock Lesnar vs Gunther, Rhea Ripley vs Becky Lynch, Seth Rollins vs Kazuchika Okada, Samoa Joe vs Kazuchika Okada 1

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