Over the last few years in pro wrestling, there has been a major shift in the power structure of the industry.
This aforementioned shift in power hasn't necessarily occurred at the top, where WWE has resided for most of the last three decades. They have clearly been the leader of an industry that they like to refer to as 'sports entertainment'. It's more at the next level, where every other North American company seems to be jockeying for a position to be the next best thing to WWE programming.
While the clear-cut challenger to WWE right now is AEW, there have been several intriguing twists and turns that have involved most of the 'mid-major' promotions. Let's take a look at how these promotions have fared in the past year, as they continue to build their brands in the shadow of pro wrestling's ever-changing landscape and the specter of the COVID crisis:
Let's start with WWE, who have certainly taken their fair share of hits over the last couple of years
For most of our lifetimes, World Wrestling Entertainment has been the 'worldwide leader in sports entertainment'. Even in 2021, they continue to sit atop that throne.
Vince McMahon's pro wrestling empire has reached levels that no other federation can ever possibly attain, despite a declining trend in interest and ratings. Even when they are down, the drawing power and marketing attention that the letters 'W-W-E' attract will likely never be matched in the history of this business again.
Despite their naysayers, McMahon & Company will likely be the industry leaders - almost by default - as long as they own the promotion.
Even if World Wrestling Entertainment passes on to other members of the McMahon family, or is eventually sold to a major conglomerate, their unique branding will always make them the number one pro wrestling company in the world.
Add in the fact that WWE is the only corporation that has been able to manage three separate, successful brands at the same time, and it's easy to see that the world's largest sports entertainment giant is a juggernaut that will refuse to die.
All Elite Wrestling has done a terrific job in establishing themselves as the closest challenger to WWE in years
AEW is another company that definitely has its critics, but no one can argue with the fact that they were able to land a deal on a major cable network.
AEW Dynamite on TNT has become a weekly staple for a good percentage of the remaining wrestling fan base. And their online program, AEW Dark, has become a great springboard for younger talent who are looking for a chance to get noticed.
Obviously, they have acquired a lot of their star power through the ink in Tony Khan's checkbook, but they've also developed a good crop of young stars like MJF, Darby Allin, Sammy Guevara, Ricky Starks, and many more.
Couple that with the fact that AEW has become a 'destination point' for many top-level free agents in the wrestling industry, and it appears that the Jacksonville-based company will be trying to nip at WWE's heels for years to come.
IMPACT Wrestling's recent resurgence has lifted them to the number three spot in the United States right now
The one company that always seems to be on everyone's radar for their eventual demise has been IMPACT Wrestling. However, over their nearly 20-year history, the promotion continues to survive despite much change and evolution.
With all due respect to Ring of Honor, IMPACT has pulled ahead of them due to their recent relationship with AEW, as well as the fact that much of the Ring of Honor roster has been purged by their competition.
Also, IMPACT has fully embraced the concept of marrying art with wrestling by producing several mini-movies and skits that, while lampooned by some, have helped them establish a whole, new identity with their audience. They have also opened the books in terms of their creativity. With the current AEW invasion angle, IMPACT may truly be on the cutting edge of pro wrestling in 2021.
ROH has fallen far in the last couple of years, but are still an important part of the North American pro wrestling landscape
Just a few years ago, Ring of Honor was the clear-cut number two to WWE, based on the incredible matches they were producing and the wealth of talent they had on their roster at the time. Then, with the launch of All Elite Wrestling and an exodus of talent from WWE to AEW, the Sinclair Broadcasting-owned promotion has been scrambling to reach similar heights compared to their glory days. Despite their reach in numerous syndicated markets, the promotion lost a lot of the momentum it once had from 2016 to 2018.
While ROH's parent company Sinclair Broadcasting owns a significant number of TV stations in America, they schedule the weekly wrestling programming at different times, in different markets. The fact that they don't have a set slot in every single city hurts their ability to market to a broader audience.
In other words, being on the local affiliate in Springfield, IL, at 11 PM isn't exactly something that makes a promotion look like a top notch production.
In order to get back to their glory days from a few years ago, ROH needs an influx of new talent and hopefully, a uniformed, prime-time show that Sinclair can broadcast on most of their affiliates at a reasonable hour.
Despite all their difficulties, ROH continues to march on and the talent still delivers a quality product.
Major League Wrestling rounds out the Top Five, and may actually be the most underrated pro wrestling promotion around today
When MLW re-launched back in 2017, many critics scoffed at the same notion. After all, if it didn't work the first time, why would it work now?
Well, those critics have been proven wrong, as Court Bauer's vision of marrying old school angles with a new school style has been achieved. Long renowned for going back to wrestling's roots, MLW is also known for the way it has developed new talent.
Stars such as Jacob Fatu, Alex Hammerstone, Myron Reed, and many more have been able to make a name for themselves there. The organization has also been a proving ground for others like MJF and Brian Pillman, Jr., who have moved on to bigger things in other promotions.
Where do the Big Five pro wrestling companies stand at the beginning of 2021?
Hopefully, pro wrestling - and the world in general - will get back to some kind of normalcy in 2021.
Today, the grappling game has some pretty solid foundations to build on in WWE, AEW, IMPACT, ROH, and MLW, along with some other impressive companies that come in just below this list.
As much negativity as there is surrounding the wrestling industry today, one can bet that the aforementioned top five promotions will entertain the fans through 2021 and beyond.