Steve Austin 1998.
Kenny Omega 2017.
Athena wasn’t just the female wrestler of the year. She wasn’t just the wrestler of the year. Athena had, for my money, one of the all-time great calendar year runs in pro wrestling. I’m trying to break my habit of when I see someone I love in Ring Of Honor, saying “Tony needs to put them on Dynamite”. For one, ROH is a growing brand that needs its own acts to attract viewers.
Secondly, it’s often both an ideal marriage between a talent and their spot on the roster that creates the situation for the type of year Athena had. When evaluating who the wrestler of the year is, I understand some fans may hold it against Athena that she wasn’t doing all this on National Television. That’s too small a world for me. If you’re going to exclude Ring Of Honor you’re going to exclude Stardom too. I can’t abide by that.
She entered 2023 looking as dominant as anyone across AEW & ROH and maintained that through all 52 weeks of the year. Athena’s only singles blemish (45-1-0) came in the Semi-Finals of the Owen Hart Tournament at the hands of Willow Nightingale (I was there in Saskatoon to see it live and was as shocked as anyone).
She’d get her win back later that month when she and Willow main evented Death Before Dishonor—the first of two times Athena main evented an ROH pay-per-view with the second being at Final Battle against Billie Starkz.
This leads us to another reason why Athena’s 2023 was so memorable: The Minions In Training angle with Billie Starkz & Lexy Nair. Athena’s well developed ruthlessly overbearing nasty attitude was the perfect backdrop to get the most out of Billie and Lexy.
Not only did Billie and Lexy evolve into more complex, less one-dimensional characters, but more importantly entertaining characters that you care about. Despite everything Athena put them through, you never wanted to see the three of them break up and you delighted when Athena seemed to actually warm up to them. This is a storyline that will echo for years and years to come in 19(!) year-old Billie Starkz’ future body of work, and also feels like Lexy Nair’s career has been put on an exciting path.
No wrestler today makes me question the worked nature of pro wrestling more than Athena. She rarely has a match where there’s not at least one instance that leaves me asking “did Athena just stiff her?” In all honesty, I don’t know how she does it!
Is she just a master of the dark arts of knowing how to make everything look that stiff (dare I say, look like a ‘botch’)? Or does Athena just tell her opponents to suck it up? It’s something I’ve pondered a lot but I’m very okay with never finding out this magician’s trick. I’ll simply continue to wince with sympathy pains for her victims.
Athena uses her stiff-looking offence to great effect not only in title defences but in stomping out threats before they’re even threats. In Proving Ground matches, where her opponent only need survive for 10 minutes to get a title shot, Trish Adora and Rachael Ellering were the only ones that eclipsed 7-minutes. Nobody made it to 6-minutes.
Despite all these short squashes though, Athena’s matches are just such a sprint of powerful offence and so eventful that even in a match like she had against Taylor Rising (a match I was in Winnipeg live for); It only went 3:21 but Athena packs so much action in a short amount of time that when it’s all said and done you think about the back and forth and memorable spots, you figure it must’ve gone 6-8 minutes. Her matches defy relativity itself.
Athena not only had a year for the ages. But her dominance and excellence may have redirected the path of All Elite Wrestling as a company. She’s proof positive that a woman can be the top wrestler in the company and be at the heart of the most compelling story in the company.
Tony Khan has vowed in 2024 to be “very aggressive” in free agency when it comes to female talent. It could be coincidence but without Athena’s emergence, I’m not certain that this sudden shift towards an increased focus on women’s wrestling in AEW happens, at least not yet.
Steve Austin 1998.
Kenny Omega 2017.