Pro Wrestling 2023 awards: Rhea Ripley, MJF and LA Knight take top spots

There was plenty to be appreciative of in the pro wrestling world in 2023. Dream matches materialized. New champions were crowned. Superstars switched promotions. What more could a wrestling fan want?

2024 looks to be more dramatic than ever. Stars like CM Punk, Jade Cargill and Adam Copeland will continue to make waves in their new homes. WrestleMania 40 looks poised to crystallize long-running storylines. Ric Flair, Sting and Billy Gunn continue to defy Father Time with their presence inside the squared circle.

But what wrestlers, matches and events stood out the most in 2023? We gathered our group of wrestling marks — Brandon Caldwell, Eddie Maisonet, Marc Raimondi and Greg Wyshynski — to look back to the beginning of the year and crown the winners for ESPN’s 2023 Pro Wrestling Awards.

Editor’s note: ESPN’s panel of voters for Pro Wrestling Awards includes Josh Barbarotta, Brandon Caldwell, Sach Chandan, Mike Coppinger, Sean Coyle, Andrew Davis, Andrew Feldman, Andreas Hale, Kendall K. Howard, Victor Lopez, Eddie Maisonet, Bob McClellan, Marc Raimondi, Miller Safrit, Joseph Staszewski, Terrance Williams and Greg Wyshynski

Female wrestler of the year: Rhea Ripley, WWE

There’s dominance, and then there’s Rhea Ripley. As the women’s division’s resident final boss, Ripley elevated her game to heights seen by few competitors inside the squared circle, man or woman. She kicked off her year by going wire-to-wire to win the women’s Royal Rumble, then she reached her greatest achievement: taking the WWE SmackDown (now WWE Women’s World title) from Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania in what was easily considered one of the best matches of 2023.

Ripley’s dominant year isn’t only encapsulated by her run as champion or singles star, as she never tasted defeat in a one-on-one match in 2023. It is further evident by her leadership role within Judgment Day, a faction that came in under Edge’s watchful eye, but now is one of the main focal points of Monday Night RAW, all with Ripley as one of the group’s leaders. When the group set out to claim titles across WWE, Ripley frequently saw the vision through as the group at one point held both the undisputed tag titles and NXT North American title to go along with her women’s title.

Ripley’s dominance in NXT and NXT UK foretold of her time as “The Eradicator” of the main roster. Now, she’s without question one of the biggest names in wrestling. — Caldwell

Runner-up: Giulia and IYO Sky, tie

Male wrestler of the year: Cody Rhodes, WWE

“So … what do you guys wanna talk about?

Let’s talk about how Cody Rhodes began the year by coming off injured reserve, having torn his pectoral muscle off the bone and famously wrestling through the injury against Seth Rollins despite gnarly discolored skin. He declared for the Royal Rumble in January, entered as No. 30 and together with Gunther — who entered first overall — put on one of the best “final two” showdowns in the event’s history.

That earned him the right to challenge Roman Reigns for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship at WrestleMania 39. This is where Cody Rhodes earned his status as wrestler of the year: Not for the match, but for the moment — or, actually, not getting the moment. The fans were ready for Cody to finish off Roman’s reign and “finish the story” of his late father Dusty’s failed pursuit of the world championship. Instead, interference by Solo Sikoa led to Reigns retaining and a firestorm of debate about the WWE’s booking decision.

Let’s talk about his feud with Brock Lesnar, who was supposed to be his tag team partner against The Bloodline but viciously turned on him. (We never did find out why.) That beef ended at SummerSlam, with Cody winning cleanly and Lesnar shaking his hand in a respectful torch-passing moment.

Let’s talk about Cody teaming with Bloodline outcast Jey Uso to feud with The Judgment Day, eventually winning the Undisputed WWE Tag Team Championship in the process. Cody was the team leader in the Survivor Series WarGames match against The Judgment Day, which saw him reunited (and reconciled) with Randy Orton, his old buddy from “The Legacy” days. Cody Rhodes was the pivot point for the WWE’s biggest storylines of 2023, the company’s biggest face and a heck of a worker in the ring. Looming on the horizon: another, potentially final, showdown with Reigns to give the fans, and the Rhodes family, the catharsis they want. There will be plenty to talk about in 2024. — Wyshynski

Runner-up: Roman Reigns, MJF and Will Ospreay, three-way tie

Tag team of the year: FTR, AEW

This was a difficult award to choose in 2023. It seemed like tag team wrestling was somewhat de-emphasized in the big promotions, even in AEW which has boasted one of the highest-level tag team divisions seen in modern history. There were some bright spots, like the Usos vs. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens headlining the first night of WrestleMania. But even those two stellar teams were muted in the back half of the year.

One team that always seems to stand out, regardless of the booking, is FTR. Dax Harwood and Cash Wheeler didn’t run away with this award like they did last year after the epic trilogy with the Briscoes. But FTR was the best team in wrestling, once again. FTR vs. Jay White and Juice Robinson from July was arguably the best television match of the year in any promotion. They went 58 minutes and the match never dragged. It felt like a throwback battle from the heyday of tag team wrestling in the 1970s or 1980s.

FTR might have also been in the best Ring of Honor match of 2023, a bloody brawl with Mark Briscoe against Bryan Danielson, Jon Moxley and Claudio Castagnoli from Final Battle in December. FTR might have been missing some of the great stories they had in 2022, but Harwood and Wheeler were still the standard bearers of tag team wrestling this past year. — Raimondi

Runner-up: Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn

Debut of the year: CM Punk, WWE

The WarGames had ended. Cody Rhodes, Jey Uso, Sami Zayn, Seth Rollins and Randy Orton had thwarted The Judgement Day at Allstate Arena outside of Chicago. Fans had been treated to a huge return to the ring by Orton, who got all his spots in and nary a bump against his opponents. The good guys posed and saluted the crowd as music played. On the broadcast, the cameras were zooming out while promotions for upcoming shows were read.

It all felt like “goodnight, everyone” — until the static hit.

Suddenly, CM Punk’s logo was plastered around the building’s screens as “Cult of Personality” played. He strode out wearing a white T-shirt in between the WarGames cages. The fans went nuclear. The internet lit up. CM Punk was back in the WWE.

In an era of fan-service booking and news leaking like a runny nose, actual surprises are in short order. This was a surprise. Every report that had Punk linked to the WWE had a counter-report saying they weren’t interested. Every notion that Punk would obviously return at an event in Chicago was met with skepticism that the WWE — which was absolutely rolling creatively and financially — would welcome back a wrestler whose time at rival AEW ended in a toxic mess of backstage physical altercations and abject disruption.

But there he was. The guy who dropped the “pipe bomb,” taking photos with Paul Levesque, giving “PG Punk” promos on RAW and even visiting younger wrestlers at the WWE training facility. Punk said he “was home.” It’s still incredible they unlocked the doors for him. — Wyshynski

Runner-up: Mercedes Mone

Breakthrough wrestler of the year: LA Knight, WWE

LA Knight’s look is simple: black vest, a T-shirt of his choosing, flashy aviator shades, a pair of jeans and Timbaland boots. He looks similar to anyone walking past you on a city street, yet he becomes a box office attraction with a microphone in his hand. After an initial main roster stint where he was tasked to make a male modeling gimmick work, LA Knight returned to being him and became the hottest name in wrestling in the midst of one of WWE’s hottest periods in years.

After a slow burn as one of the late Bray Wyatt’s final feuds, Knight elevated himself over the summer of 2023, with every mention of his now-famous “Yeah!” catchphrase. He was hard to ignore. The crowd reactions became louder week by week, to the point he’d appear on camera just to talk and elicit the biggest pops of the night. The self-proclaimed “fastest rising superstar” in SmackDown history didn’t luck his way into a major feud with Roman Reigns and The Bloodline; he earned it. His first main event at Crown Jewel, opposite the biggest needlepoint in pro wrestling today, proved he was ready for the stage.

Knight is now positioned as one of the faces of Friday nights, a position few envisioned him having at this point in December 2022. And even as the top gets crowded, he’ll quickly remind people whose game we’re all playing: his. — Caldwell

Runner-up: Swerve Strickland

Promo artist of the year: MJF, AEW

No one in pro wrestling in 2023 could elicit the emotions MJF could on the microphone, whether that be starting the year as a heel or spending the latter half as a babyface. Outside of some cloying babyface interviews in the summer and fall, MJF was outstanding building up his storylines as AEW champion, whether it was a controversial promo about a car crash before facing Bryan Danielson or skewering his fellow young stars in AEW — Darby Allin, Jack Perry and Sammy Guevara — before a four-way match at Double or Nothing back in May.

MJF’s best work was undoubtedly his storyline with Adam Cole, which started out with the two of them as rivals and led to them becoming friends and the Ring of Honor tag team champions. It was their work on the microphone in the ring and in pre-taped vignettes that was perhaps the highlight of the entire year in AEW. When the year started, MJF vs. Cole did not necessarily feel like a marquee main event for All In at Wembley Stadium, which drew more than 80,000 to the iconic soccer mecca. But MJF and Cole sold it and it was the high-water mark of an up-and-down 2023 for AEW. — Raimondi

Runner-up: LA Knight

Match of the year: Kenny Omega vs. Will Ospreay, AEW (Forbidden Door and Wrestle Kingdom)

This one was a tie and an unprecedented one, at that. Omega and Ospreay had two unbelievable matches in 2023 and each one received the most number of votes for this award. And that seems fitting. It was hard to choose which match was better. The first happened way back on Jan. 4, 2023, just four days into the year, at Wrestle Kingdom at the Tokyo Dome. It was a symphony of violence, more visceral than any other match the two have had before. Omega and Ospreay are superlative athletes and a bout of pure finesse and physical marvels was within their reach. There was some of that in the first match, but it was mostly a bloody war of attrition. Omega gave Ospreay everything he could handle physically, it seemed, including some very perilous-looking bumps on Ospreay’s neck.

Ospreay returned the favor in the second match, hitting Omega with a Tiger Driver ’91, which is simply a double underhook suplex where the opponent gets spiked headfirst into the mat. It was almost hard to watch and maybe even unnecessary. But it also fit the story they were trying to tell — that each would have to go into the deepest depths of danger to win. Mission accomplished. Both matches were modern masterpieces put on by two of the best in-ring performers of this generation, and any other generation, to be truthful. — Raimondi

Runner-up: Rhea Ripley vs. Charlotte Flair

Best PPV event of the year: WrestleMania 39, WWE

This is arguably the hardest award to crown, because the work that AEW, New Japan and Impact perform — amongst other top promotions — is all top-notch. Yet, the gold standard is WrestleMania for a reason, so much so that other wrestling promotions cater their programming to revolve around (via the schedule) and near (via proximity) the prestigious event.

WrestleMania 39 saw arguably the best women’s match of the year in Charlotte Flair vs. Rhea Ripley and the best storyline in the game (the Bloodline), main event Saturday (The Usos vs. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens) and Sunday (Roman Reigns vs. Cody Rhodes) night festivities. The backdrop of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California brought the Hollywood spotlight to WWE, which included an epic improvisation by The Miz and Snoop Dogg after Shane McMahon injured his quad during their promo. While WrestleMania 39 wasn’t perfect, it delivered as the industry’s grandest 48-hour run in sports entertainment for the year. We’ll see you in Philadelphia in April 2024. — Maisonet

Runner-up: Forbidden Door 2023

Best storyline of the year: The Bloodline 2.0, WWE

Fans are frustrated by the lack of Roman Reigns on WWE programming in the latter part of the year and the Bloodline storyline being in something of a holding pattern. Boy, are wrestling fans fickle. It was just a few months ago when people were touting the Bloodline as one of the greatest storylines in the history of pro wrestling. All those people were right, of course. Over the first few months of the year, the Bloodline was on fire with Sami Zayn turning on Reigns and Cody emerging as a foil for Reigns, the Usos, Solo Sikoa and “The Wiseman” Paul Heyman. Heck, the Bloodline owned WrestleMania. The Usos vs. Zayn and Kevin Owens headlined the first night and Reigns vs. Cody headlined the second.

The thing that always separates the truly historic storylines with the filler ones in pro wrestling is business. And the Bloodline was massive business in 2023, drawing excellent ratings during its segments on television and big gate numbers at the box office. It’s been the best story WWE has told in decades, despite a relatively lackluster few months of the year.

But let’s be fair here. Did the NWO have any less impact because WCW couldn’t figure out the best way to gracefully end the story? Of course not. And the Bloodline will be remembered in a similar vein one day. — Raimondi

Runner-up: MJF and Adam Cole

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