Nothing beats a good pop if you’re a wrestling fan.
That audible excitement immediately after a wrestler’s music hits for a big debut or long-awaited return is what fans pay for when they attend a wrestling event in-person, and it instantly makes those watching at home jealous of those inside the arena.
Those pops were frequent in 2021 amid an amazing time in the world of professional wrestling, whether you see it as a result of audiences returning to WWE events or the rise of AEW as a legitimate contender and competitor in the industry.
Fans were able to watch CM Punk return to the business after a seven-year hiatus, major debuts at AEW All Out in September, and some high-profile returns at two of the WWE’s “Big Four” pay-per-views throughout the year.
But, which wrestler can take pride in the fact that they got the biggest pop of 2021 when the calendar switches over to the new year?
These five across AEW and WWE, without a doubt, have the best case for that throne:
5. Brock Lesnar
For years, wrestling fans wanted Brock Lesnar off their screens. In 2021, they couldn’t have been happier to see “The Beast Incarnate” back in the ring.
After Roman Reigns retained his Universal Championship by defeating John Cena in the main event of SummerSlam, Lesnar shocked the world by showing up at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to confront the champ.
Complete with a ponytail and jeans, the lumberjack-looking Lesnar had fans popping like crazy to end one of WWE’s biggest nights of the year.
It wasn’t the loudest of the year, but definitely a top-five moment around the professional wrestling scene.
4. Bryan Danielson
Putting Bryan Danielson’s AEW debut in the fourth spot on this list seems like a hot take, but it just goes to show how insane the top three truly were.
Some of the shine from Danielson’s debut was taken away by the pop that had come a few minutes prior (we’ll get into that in a second), but it still generated a massive reaction from those watching live in Chicago.
Seeing a former WWE champion like Danielson, let alone just a few months after he had main-evented WrestleMania with the likes of Roman Reigns and Edge, was crazy enough.
Add in all of the excitement from CM Punk’s in-ring return and the other surprises AEW gave fans throughout a massive All Out pay-per-view, and it felt like the roof was going to pop off the NOW Arena that night.
3. Adam Cole
You know it’s all about the BOOM!
When the lights went out following Kenny Omega’s successful AEW World Championship defense against Christian in the main event of All Out, many likely thought that it was time for Bryan Danielson to make his long-awaited AEW debut.
Instead, fans in attendance were elated to see Adam Cole’s name pop up on the big screen, very shortly after his contract with WWE officially expired.
The pop Cole got was MASSIVE, likely making the jump from his status as a pillar of WWE’s NXT brand seem like a worthwhile decision right out of the gate.
Fans were incredibly invested in every step Cole took, even helping the former NXT champion out with a raucous rendition of his signature “Adam Cole BAYBAY!” catchphrase.
The fact that he aligned himself with his heelish friends from “The Elite” was a nice surprise, as well, but nothing can top the pop that Cole received on that September night.
2. John Cena
John Cena is responsible for two of the biggest pops I have ever heard in my time watching professional wrestling.
The first came during his surprise return at the end of the 2008 Royal Rumble, where he shocked the world by returning months earlier than expected after undergoing pectoral surgery in 2007.
The second came a whopping 13 years later, when one of the WWE’s greatest of all time treated a live crowd in Texas to one of the best returns in recent memory.
After Roman Reigns took down Edge in the night’s main event to retain the Universal title, the champ hopped on the mic to tell everyone around the world that they should “acknowledge” their Tribal Chief.
One person didn’t take too kindly to that statement, and it created arguably the best moment of WWE’s 2021 “season.”
Cena’s music began blaring throughout the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, but you almost couldn’t tell because of the ear-shattering reaction that his return created.
Had the top pop on this list not occurred just one month later, this would’ve been a clear-cut favorite for the best of the bunch in 2021.
1. CM Punk
If a non-wrestling fan asked you to define what a “pop” was, you would show them the video of CM Punk’s AEW debut in August of 2021.
After a seven-year hiatus following his infamous walkout from WWE in 2014, the “Best in the World” made his long-awaited return to the world of professional wrestling in front of a hometown crowd in Chicago.
His return was arguably the worst-kept secret in wrestling history, considering the hints that Punk was dropping in the weeks leading up to the big day, and how AEW marketed that Friday night as “The First Dance.”
But, taking away the surprise almost made it that much better, as AEW kicked off its August 20 episode of “Rampage” with the moment everyone had been waiting almost a decade for.
Fans in attendance were chanting Punk’s name before his music even hit, and when Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” began playing throughout the United Center, seven years of anticipation poured out of fans like a waterfall.
Fans couldn’t control their excitement for five minutes, and cameras even caught one fan sobbing at the sight of arguably the greatest WWE champion of the 21st century.
Punk’s return was the ultimate payoff for the patience that lasted longer than many would’ve liked, but the crowd reaction alone made it all well worth the wait.