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What makes a successful debut in professional wrestling?
It should generate emotion and excitement. It should announce to the world that the man or woman stepping on to the stage is a huge deal and should be treated as such. It can be a surprise or announced ahead of time, but it should result in a massive ovation either way.
The advent of All Elite Wrestling and the departures of stars from one company to the other has opened the door for more debuts and arrivals than ever before, some of which rank among the best of the last decade.
WWE has experienced its own share of monumental and unforgettable debuts over the last 10 years, too, some of which have helped shape an entire era of wrestling.
Which debut from 2012 onwards stands head and shoulders above the rest, though?
Let’s take a look.
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The mass releases that defined WWE in 2021 included former NXT champion Aleister Black, a competitor who most envisioned would achieve big things on the company’s main roster. His dismissal, and the subsequent revelation that he was working under a 30-day non-compete clause as opposed to the 90 days that most Raw and SmackDown stars were, allowed him to debut elsewhere sooner.
And he did.
Black exploded on to AEW television on July 7, 2021, replacing “Aleister” with “Malakai” and delivering a wicked kick to the head of the legendary Arn Anderson. Then to Cody Rhodes.
It was a message delivered loudly and clearly to the wrestling world that Black would have a much larger impact on the state of his new home than he was ever allowed to have on Monday or Friday nights.
He would ride the wave of momentum from the Rhodes assault to consecutive victories over The American Nightmare, including one at the massive AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam event at Arthur Ashe Stadium in September, and he remains one of the most intriguing stars on the company’s roster.
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When Adam Cole’s contract with WWE came up in the summer of 2021, it was only a matter of time before he joined his friends in AEW.
Despite everyone expecting Cole to sign with Tony Khan’s company as soon as the September 5 All Out pay-per-view, his debut still shook the wrestling world.
Cole stepped through the curtain and joined Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, The Good Brothers and Don Callis in the ring for a monster reunion that would jumpstart a storyline that still has legs today.
The former Ring of Honor and NXT world champion was the latest major star to join the company in a one-month span but hardly the last. He was not even the final debut of that show.
More on that one in a moment.
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Kevin Owens’ debut at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution does not make this list for its surprise factor. Everyone knew well enough in advance that the former Ring of Honor star was headed to WWE. It makes the list because of the content of the debut.
Owens squashed CJ Parker in a match that saw his own nose broken. In a physical, emotional bout, Owens immediately established himself as a star who would not be denied in his new surroundings.
It was what happened later in the show that earns the debut its place on this countdown.
Moments after Sami Zayn dethroned Adrian Neville (now AEW’s PAC) for the NXT Championship, Owens joined his friend for a tearful celebration. Then, he slammed Zayn into the entrance ramp, and from there, he delivered a sickening powerbomb on the ring apron.
The fury in his eyes and emotion on his face told the story of a man driven by his own desires, friendship be damned. It was the start of the WWE chapter of the Owens-Zayn feud, one that ranks among the best of the modern era.
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If not for the abundance of excellent debuts over the last decade, Ronda Rousey’s arrival at the 2018 Royal Rumble in Philadelphia would be much higher on this list.
There is no denying the impact Rousey’s debut had on the immediate future of the women’s division in WWE.
The company had already taken steps to elevate its female talent, giving them more time, opportunities, pay-per-view headlining spots and better creative, but Rousey injected the women’s roster with credibility and star power.
The former UFC champion lent WWE the confidence to move ahead with a full-fledged women’s revolution. From it came the critically acclaimed Evolution pay-per-view and the first women’s WrestleMania main event.
None of that is to suggest that Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka and Alexa Bliss were not influential in their own right. They were, and it is no surprise they are among the women fans look to as champions of the evolution of their sport. Rousey’s presence was the emphasis for management to fully embrace women’s wrestling on a grander scale.
Her walking through the curtain and pointing at the WrestleMania sign is hugely significant and a historic moment in WWE history, if only for what it meant to women’s wrestling in the industry’s top company.
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Who knows exactly what the historical significance of Bryan Danielson opting to go to AEW over re-signing with WWE is, or will be, but there is no denying his defection grabbed headlines and made for an unforgettable experience.
Danielson spent just over a decade in WWE and enjoyed one of the great underdog stories in company history, culminating with a world title victory at WrestleMania 30. He was fresh off another ‘Mania main event earlier in 2021, a loss to Roman Reigns in a Triple Threat Match also involving Edge.
He was one of the company’s top stars and a guy who felt like a WWE lifer.
Perhaps that is why his decision to debut in AEW at All Out in Chicago was so newsworthy. Danielson’s arrival at the pay-per-view was the final one in a month of new faces popping up around the company. His was the exclamation point and a reminder that even the most successful stars will jump ship for an opportunity at creative freedom and the chance to be the wrestler they want to be.
It paid off, as Danielson has re-established himself as the best wrestler in the world via classics with Kenny Omega and “Hangman” Adam Page and is on a collision course with Jon Moxley at Revolution on March 6.
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AJ Styles built his reputation in TNA Wrestling. He was the face of that company, the architect of the X-Division and a star many saw as the franchise star of the promotion. He also enjoyed success internationally, rising to even greater notoriety in the mid-2010s with his role as the leader of Bullet Club.
When he became a free agent in 2015, rumors suggested he may sign with WWE for big money, but some still doubted that the guy who had spent his career independent of the biggest company in the world would actually put pen to paper.
Then came the Royal Rumble pay-per-view in January 2016.
Roman Reigns, the No. 1 entrant, stood in the corner of the ring, recovering following a one-on-one with Rusev, when the buzzer sounded and unfamiliar music played over the loud system. The word “phenomenal” flashed across the TitanTron and the fans erupted as Styles stepped through the curtain.
It was a chill-inducing moment and one of the truly great debuts in WWE history. That Styles would go on to enhance his Hall of Fame-worthy career with a series of championship clashes and a match with John Cena that may be the best of either man’s career only served as proof positive that he made the correct decision.
So important to WWE’s current roster is Styles that he recently re-signed with the company, all but ensuring he remains with Vince McMahon’s sports-entertainment empire for the remainder of his career.
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If there were one genuine superstar fans never expected to see in a WWE ring, it was Sting.
For years, he resisted contract opportunities to remain loyal to WCW, then to TNA Wrestling, worried that Vince McMahon and WWE would have a vendetta against him for being the franchise star of their former competition.
In 2014, he finally struck a deal to debut with the company, and at that year’s Survivor Series, he did just that.
Emerging from the shadows late in a high-stakes main event, he stalked to the ring, blasted Triple H with his trademark baseball bat and assisted a beaten and battered Dolph Ziggler in pinning Seth Rollins for the win. It was a magical moment that saw the legendary competitor arrive among a deafening ovation from fans overjoyed to see him
Any doubt he had that he would be accepted by the audience was erased, but his worries about fair treatment seemed to come to pass.
He lost every one of his matches inside a WWE ring, including one to Triple H at the following April’s WrestleMania 31 that still has fans scratching their heads in puzzlement.
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It says a lot about the quality of debuts over the last decade that CM Punk‘s long-awaited return to professional wrestling, and his subsequent debut in AEW, is only No. 3 on this list.
For seven years, fans waited with bated breath for the return of The Straight Edge Superstar to a professional wrestling ring. So much so that it appeared unlikely to ever happen. Then came the rise of AEW, an alternative to the glossy WWE, where wrestlers could be who they wanted without an oppressive creative process weighing them down.
After two years of watching the idea evolve into a revolution, he signed with the company and made his return on the August 20, 2021, debut episode of Rampage. Entering the arena to a deafening pop from fans with literal tears in their eyes, Punk looked like he was at home again.
He would go on to cut a promo about leaving Ring of Honor and professional wrestling in 2005 and returning to it on that night, but he could have merely said “I’m back” and the debut would have ranked high on this list.
A mastermind of wrestling and one of the great performers of his generation, Punk belonged back in an industry that had transformed since his last time in a ring. He deserved that night, the fans deserved it, and the moment easily ranks among the best from any promotion in the last decade.
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There have been so many debuts in AEW since its inception in 2019 that it is easy to forget just how much of a paradigm shift Jon Moxley’s appearance at the conclusion of the inaugural Double or Nothing pay-per-view really was.
Many expected it, but there was something about the unhinged competitor rushing through the stands, hitting the ring and dropping both Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega that generated an unbridled amount of excitement and hope from the fans inside the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas.
Here was a guy dissatisfied with his spot in WWE; a guy who had been pushed as world champion and one-third of the most dominant faction of all time. Rather than re-sign with the company for the guaranteed payday and remain unhappy, he joined the renegade upstart promotion whose ideology matched his.
He was going to be himself, wrestle his style, and he was going to do it by becoming the first major star to defect from WWE. What his arrival meant to AEW in its quest to establish itself as a destination for talent and fans looking for fresh and new was, at the time—and still is—immeasurable.
Moxley changed wrestling by putting his stamp of approval on what Tony Khan, Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and even Jericho created.
He was the hottest star in the business instantaneously, and his arrival intensified the buzz surrounding the company. He continues to be a massive influencer today and is engaged in a storyline with Bryan Danielson that will culminate in what may be his best match thus far in AEW on March 6 at Revolution.
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Moxley strikes again, this time as one-third of the greatest debut of the last decade.
Then known as Dean Ambrose, the Lunatic Fringe exploded on the scene alongside Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins at the 2012 Survivor Series, jumping the guardrail and driving Ryback through an announce table during a high-stakes Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship also involving CM Punk and John Cena.
Known collectively as The Shield, the NXT exports wasted zero time establishing themselves as the new force in WWE.
The buzz from their arrival and the historical significance it had on the next decade of WWE programming, is undeniable.
The trio remained undefeated for seven months, worked with main event stars like Cena, Punk, Randy Orton, Bryan Danielson and Kane, and was presented as a major deal within WWE. When the time came to split the group two years later, all three would go on to be world champions.
Reigns is the biggest star in the industry today while both Rollins and Moxley are main event stars and needle movers in their own rights.
None of that happens without the monumental debut they experienced that November night in 2012, or the manner in which they took ownership over the characters from day one.