“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” It’s an old line and very true as debuts are quite important. Get over well and your career is made. Fail and you just have a harder road rising up. In wrestling, it can be trickier as in the old days, a guy could show up without much fanfare before rising up as a much bigger star. Today, debuts are often preceded by major hype, major videos and other buzz to make a guy a big deal. Sometimes, they can pay off on it…but others can’t and suffer.
For every fantastic and stunning debut of a guy, there is another that falls flat on its face (sometimes literally) and he never recovers from it. There have been slews of cases in both in the history of wrestling and narrowing it down can be tough. But often there are debuts that are fantastic balanced by ones that are terrible. Here are 10 wrestling debuts that were fantastic and well done and 10 that were utterly horrible, which just goes to show how tricky it is to pull this off.
Best: Jake Roberts
Bill Watts’ tenure running WCW is slammed a lot for his old-fashioned ways, banning moves off the top rope and cutting costs with ridiculous rules. But Watts could still pull off some nice booking, as he did for an August 2nd card. Sting was to face Vader for the World title but earlier in the card, Sting interfered in another match. Coming out of the crowd was Jake Roberts, fresh off a long tenure in WWE and his arrival coming as a surprise in this pre-Internet age. Racing into the ring, Roberts attacked Sting with his short-arm clothesline and then hitting him with two DDTs on a steel chair.
It was a huge move to take Sting out, making Roberts a hated heel instantly. It also set up Ron Simmons beating Vader for the title later in the night. The feud would falter, ending in the infamous “Spin the Wheel, Make the Deal” match and Roberts leaving the company immediately afterward but the Snake’s debut was still one of the better moments of the company that year.
Worst: Eric Bischoff
It’s been debated a lot but in the end, you have to come down on the “worst” side with this debut. Yes, the idea of Bischoff coming into WWE as the general manager for RAW sounded like a great deal, something to spark the WWE and shake things up. A child could have booked the idea of Bischoff coming in seeking payback on Vince for putting WCW out of business, organizing his guys and taking it to McMahon hard. Instead, the two embraced on stage together, smiling and happy, no signs of the hate they’d openly expressed for years. On a DVD, Stephanie notes that everyone figured this was just Vince’s ultimate revenge of “having this a-hole work for me.” So to satisfy his petty need to show folks up, Vince ruined a potential money-making angle and Bischoff’s big entrance to WWE wasn’t the massive deal it could have been.
Best: Ric Flair
For years, Hogan vs Flair was the ultimate dream battle for fans, many wondering what would happen if they went at it but believing it never would But in 1991, Flair and Jim Herd had their big blow-out with Flair leaving WCW. Within hours, Vince had him signed on and gave him a big build-up as Bobby Heenan would show up on TV holding a copy of the famous gold belt and boast of the “REAL World’s Champion” coming. Finally, on an episode of “Prime Time Live,” Flair came out in a gorgeous robe and the very sight of him on WWE programming was surreal for the time. His promos were fantastic as Vince smartly knew it was best not to change the Nature Boy but let him continue as his own self to get over nicely. It worked and while the feud with Hogan didn’t live up to its potential, the sight of Flair coming to WWE was a major move for the time and has to rank among the top debuts ever.
Worst: The Ringmaster
Steve Austin was a guy who had “stardom” written over him from the beginning. He’d been rising in WCW until the backstage politics of Hogan and a bad injury combined to get him fired. Moving to ECW, he’d taken off with his great trash talking and seemed ready for a bigger rise when WWE came calling. However, in what could have been a massive bungling, WWE decided to strap Austin into being “The Million Dollar Champion” for Ted DiBiase, with DiBiase doing most of the talking. It neutered a fantastic talent. Austin suffered under these restrictions and having to be more PG for the times. Thankfully, Austin’s greatness could not be stifled as he soon transformed into Stone Cold and gave rise to the epic times of wrestling yet remarkable how WWE nearly ruined him at his start.
For so long, Glen Jacobs had to put up with one bad gimmick after another, from Isaac Yankem to the “Fake Diesel.” In 1997, Paul Bearer was going after The Undertaker with accusations of Taker setting a fire that killed his parents and brother, Kane. When Taker attacked, Bearer claimed Kane was alive and coming after him. At Badd Blood, Undertaker and Shawn Michaels were going at it in the first ever Hell in the Cell match, HBK battered beyond belief and Undertaker ready to win. Then all the lights went off as the eerie organ music played for the first time. The pyro went off as Bearer marched to the ring with the giant masked figure that was Kane. The Undertaker, the man who had been used to freaking out others, looked stunned as Kane tore the door off the cage, entered and attacked Taker, Tombstoming him to allow HBK to win. It kicked off an epic feud, making Kane a monster off the bat and his star still continues today thanks to how Jacobs clicked from his debut.
TNA really has issues with thinking they’re a bigger deal than they actually are and 2005 was no different. At Destination X, Chris Sabin faced Case Stevens and pinned him only to be attacked by Stevens, partner Andy Douglas and manager Chris Candido. Out from the crowd came a masked man in a jacket who beat the Naturals down and the crowd intrigued by the mask. After a pause, he pulled the mask off to reveal Shocker, a rising star in Mexico known for his high-flying and strength. Mike Tenay and Don West gasped in shock, amazed at this figure coming in.
The problem was, the vast majority of American wrestling fans had no idea who this guy was and the TNA audience were just baffled. In later videos, TNA piped in a massive roar from the crowd to sell their “shock” despite how the video clearly showed fans just staring silently. Shocker would get a push for the X Division title but he never lived up to any potential as fans never bought into him as the big deal TNA wanted and thus his “mystery man” debut was a complete waste.
Best: The Shield
As FCW transformed into NXT, it soon became clear three guys were breaking out majorly: Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns, each winning over fans with their skills and look. That they would get the call-up to WWE was no surprise but what was was that instead of singles pushes, the company put them together. At the 2012 Survivor Series, as CM Punk defended his title against John Cena and Ryback, the trio raced out of the stands to beat Ryback down and then hit him with the triple power bomb through the announcers’ table, allowing Punk to win. It was a stunning debut that made all three instant stars and forged the unit that would dominate WWE for the next two years and pave the way for all three to hold the World title. Amazing how well WWE pulled this off to ensure all three men had fan heat from the start to get over wonderfully.
Worst: The Renegade
Rip-offs are nothing new in wrestling but few can be as blatant as this. For several weeks in 1995, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage promised the “Ultimate Surprise” for their matches at Uncensored. The outline of a guy with large hair and tassels was shown, naturally leading fans to believe the Ultimate Warrior was coming. At the PPV, the music hit and out came a guy in the hair, makeup and outfit but quite clearly not the Warrior.
The fan reaction was instant outrage over this obvious bait and switch and Renegade quickly showed he had even less ring skill than Warrior and none of the charisma to cover for it. The guy never had a chance thanks to him seen as such a rip-off and would sink fast for a sad end as trying to debut a guy after such a fake-out was a terrible move for WCW.
Best: John Cena
From such humble beginnings came the man who’s the face of WWE today. In 2002, the new brand split was giving WWE more of a push with Vince doing a promo on wanting guys who had an attitude of “ruthless aggression.” On the June 27th edition of SmackDown, Kurt Angle was cutting a promo on his greatness and challenging anyone in the back to take him on. Out came Cena, a bit different than his OVW persona of “the Prototype” to get in the ring. When Angle asked what made Cena think he could match him, Cena snarled “ruthless aggression” and attacked Angle. They went at it with Cena coming close to getting the upset pin a few times and Angle amazed at his skill.
He lost but then a montage showed The Undertaker among the stars saying he’d done a good job and Vince himself said Cena impressed him. From that start, Cena showed he had the goods to be among the best and pushed the company to a new level.
Even by the bizarre standards of 1999 WCW, this was something else. For several weeks, videos were shown of Dustin Rhodes in white makeup, dressed totally in black and shown peeking into the windows of sleeping children. Yes, WCW appeared to be doing a character that seemed like a child predator. Those were cut down but still some “mystery” around this man. It finally came to a Nitro where Dustin was levitated on wires from the stage to the ring, a pretty impressive stunt with the lights flashing about him. He landed in the ring, took to the mic…and proceeded to call this entire thing stupid, revealing his real name and how he hated this whole gimmick and dropped it immediately. This push and a huge fancy entrance wasted on another of Russo’s “this is all fake” bits, an astounding waste that Dustin didn’t deserve to put up with.
Best: The Radicalz
Some point to it as one of the final nails in the coffin of WCW. Having been pushed around, neglected and slammed for their supposed size and lack of star power, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Perry Saturn and Dean Malenko demanded their releases. Despite a last-ditch effort to give Benoit the World title, the four still walked and WCW just shrugged it off as no big loss. Realizing what they had, WWE pushed them hard as RAW in January of 2000 opened with the four men coming down to sit in the front row, the fans going wild for them. They ended up interfering in the main event, at first faces but then turning heel and all four going onto success in WWE, albeit in different ways. WCW had basically given away four of their best talents and it’s no surprise 2000 WWE was a great year that kicked off with this amazing arrival.
For months on end, fans of WCW programming were shown videos of a guy in a cool looking outfit inspired by Sub-Zero from the “Mortal Kombat” games. He would do a lot of fancy martial arts moves and the line “Blood Runs Cold” made out to be a major deal with fans so they expected something awesome. Finally, he made his debut, the arena in blue lights with “snow” flying about as he took to the ring, leaving off most of his armor. What fans got after that entire wait was a so-so worker whose moves looked incredibly fake, nowhere near a supposed “ninja” fighter and a complete letdown after all the massive hype. Not the first or last time WCW would let folks down with a big debut but still among the most notable wastes of massive promotion ever.
Best: The Nexus
It’s a shame the angle fell apart as it began utterly brilliantly. The first season of NXT ended with Wade Barrett winning after various other guys were cut amid hard antics. On the June 7th, 2010 RAW, as John Cena and CM Punk went at it, Barrett suddenly marched to the ring with Daniel Bryan, Darren Young, David Otunga, Heath Slater and other NXT rookies. They proceeded to beat the absolute hell out of Cena, Punk, Jerry Lawler, Luke Gallows, a cameraman, the ring crew and others. They tore apart the announcers table and even the ring itself, a display that left fans stunned. They proclaimed they were going to take it to WWE and prove themselves and the way they left the ring area in a shambles showed they were serious. The angle sadly came apart afterward but The Nexus debut was one of the best angles WWE ever put out and showed you can still rock fans hard today.
TNA is accused of going to ex-WWE guys a lot but their attempts to build their own stars don’t mean much either. In 2005, they were setting up Trytan, a big beefy guy who showed up in videos with strange symbols to taunt Monty Brown, seemingly a big new guy ready for push to stardom. He debuted at last at Destination X 2005 and quickly showed he had utterly no skill in the ring whatsoever. He was clumsy, botching several moves, clearly out of his depth and Brown was clearly frustrated having to put up with this match. It ended with the lights going out and Trytan vanishing and thus a massive waste of time and talent, even for TNA. You only get one chance to leave a good impression with a talent and clearly TNA seems clueless in how to do that.
Best: The Undertaker
As the 1990 Survivor Series drew close, Ted DiBiase was promising a major surprise for his team with a mystery partner joining him, Honky Tonk Man and Greg Valentine against Dusty Rhodes, Koko B. Ware and the Hart Foundation. As the match began, DiBiase had Brother Love bring out a tall man dressed in funeral clothes slowly walking to the ring. The fans were taken aback as there was something about this guy that just seemed different, an aura about him that made them uneasy. This was the debut of the Undertaker who, when tagged in, showed his stuff by shrugging off every attack on him, hitting back with power blows and a flying clothesline and making Ware the first victim of the Tombstone. He was counted out after going after Rhodes but the impact was made as WWE would have its most loyal worker and a man still a huge star 26 years later.
Worst: Fake Razor and Diesel
WWE themselves approach this with “no idea what we were thinking here.” As the New World Order took off, WWE found themselves pushed hard in the ratings and wanted to do something to hit back. So, after a strange heel turn, Jim Ross began making noise about Razor Ramon and Diesel returning to WWE. Fans were naturally intrigued, wondering if somehow Scott Hall and Kevin Nash were returning from WCW despite their fame there and interest high as we saw two guys looking like Razor and Diesel beating up Savio Vega. On RAW, Ross cut a promo slamming Vince McMahon on various things and how he was going to “bring back” Razor and Diesel. Out came…two guys in the outfits and some same build but quite obviously not Hall and Nash. WWE were trying to say they owned the characters and could have anyone play them but the fans loathed this from the start and it just made WWE look petty and weak. It was dropped with the fake Diesel going on to become Kane but stands as what even WWE acknowledges as a low point of the war.
Best: The Outsiders
It’s the debut that changed the course of wrestling history. Back in 1996, the internet still wasn’t as huge a deal so fans who didn’t go online didn’t know that Scott Hall had walked out on WWE despite promises to resign with Kevin Nash following. Thus, when Hall came through the crowd on the May 27th Nitro, it was a shocking moment for fans. He stood in the ring, talking in his “Razor” accent to promise a big battle and fans were amazed, many honestly thinking Hall was still with WWE and this was an invasion. The ratings spiked immediately as a few weeks later, Nash joined with Hall to declare they were ready to go to war with WCW. Thanks to their amazing star power and the brilliant way WCW set them up to come in as invaders, Hall and Nash lay the groundwork for two years of WCW dominating the business and altering so much of the fandom to boot.
Worst: The Gobbledy-Gooker
On an episode of the “Legends of Wrestling” roundtable show, Gene Okerlund spoke for many fans by asking Pat Patterson “who the HELL came up with the Gobbledy Gooker?” (Vince McMahon, of course). For weeks, fans on TV shows were shown a massive egg with the talk of something big inside it. Buzz was abounding, everything from Sting or Ric Flair jumping from WCW to a returning start or something else. Rumor is that the Undertaker was going to be inside it but it never turned out that way. All this meant was a massive amount of buzz over this, fans wondering what it could be and at Survivor Series, it finally hatched to reveal…Hector Guerrero in a horrible turkey costume. To say this was a letdown is to give it a break as he would dance around as the crowd booed wildly. It’s popped up now and then to more laughs as still astounding just how badly this was bungled and would inspire the famous “Gooker” award for the worst angle in wrestling.
Best: Chris Jericho
Jericho’s WCW career is a sign of the bad stuff of that company. A fantastic in-ring talent who was brilliant on the mic, Jericho was taking off as an arrogant heel and seemingly ready for the next level. But WCW refused to give him that chance and treated him as an afterthought. So Jericho signed with WWE who decided to show up WCW with their mistake. For weeks, a countdown clock was shown, seemingly set for the upcoming MIllenium but intriguing fans. In August, as the Rock was in the ring cutting a promo, the clock showed up on the TitanTron to count down to zero. As fireworks erupted, the screen first blasted the theme “Break the Walls Down” and the crowd erupted as “JERICHO” flashed on it. Jericho came out with his now famous pose to cut a great promo on being the “savior” of WWE and bouncing off the Rock nicely. In 30 seconds, WWE had done more to put Jericho over than WCW had in two years and Jericho’s debut still remains one of the greatest ever to launch him into the big leagues as he deserved.
Worst: The Shockmaster
Oh, like you were expecting anything else? Quite possibly the stupidest moment in WCW history (which is saying something), in 1993, Sting and Davey Boy Smith were on the “Flair For the Gold” interview segment to push their upcoming WarGames about against Sid and the Nasty Boys. As the heels came out to yell at them, the two announced their mystery partner would be a man who was “going to shock the world…the Shockmaster!” No one had any idea who that was so WCW had a blast of fireworks go off as a hulking figure in an open vest, jeans and a helmet blasted through the wall…
And tripped, falling flat on his face, his helmet (a Stormtrooper one with glitter on it) falling off to reveal him as Fred Ottoman, last seen as Tugboat/Typhoon in WWE. The heels managed to keep from bursting out laughing although you can clearly hear Flair’s “Oh God,” in the background. He put his helmet back on as Ole Anderson (in the back and not seeing this) went through a voice-box aided threat despite how the fans were howling. Jesse Ventura couldn’t help laughing with “what a debut for the Shockmaster!” In just two seconds, any potential this character had was flushed down the toilet, an epic feat by even WCW standards and created one of the classic moments of bad wrestling.
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