In 2012, the WWE realized that they needed to make new stars, as Randy Orton, John Cena and the likes were all aging, or leaving the company like Batista, and to solve this problem, they created the Performance Center, and under the guidance of Triple H they created their very own promotion which we know today as the fantastic NXT. That has gone from a show in front of 200 people at Full Sail University to a travelling promotion that often sells out live TakeOver events and tops the main roster PPVs it rivals, and along with that the performers have become stars before making their way to the main event.
The company has done a great job of making their own stars at the Performance Center, as well as bringing in the top independent talent from around the world, all with the goal of making it on the main roster. People like Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins have all gone on to become stars on the main roster, as well as contributing to 90% of the women’s roster we see today, so it’s safe to say that the developmental promotion is doing its job. They say that first impressions always leave a lasting impression, so today we will look at said first impressions, rating the 10 best and 5 worst main roster debuts of NXT performers in history.
15 BEST: Tye Dillinger
All wrestlers that get to the peak of the industry speak of how hard it was, and that hard work pays off, and no wrestler personifies this more than the Perfect 10, Tye Dillinger, who has been working hard for little recognition over the last 10 years, but due to the reinvention of NXT and him being given creative freedom as a character, he is now on SmackDown ready to become a huge babyface star. His popularity may be based on the "10" chants that have swept the WWE Universe, but in between the ropes, he is a very capable performer who can tell amazing stories, and his has a likeable quality that would make him a great United States Champion. His debut came on the SmackDown following WrestleMania 33, where he debuted against Curt Hawkins to a thunderous ovation, and with Kevin Owens, Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin playing the main heels in the midcard/upper midcard, Dillinger could have a phenomenal year.
14 BEST: Enzo And Cass
Enzo and Cass began as nothing but talkers in NXT, but after Enzo Amore returned from his severe leg injury, the team was given more chances to improve in the ring, and as their characters became more developed, the fans caught on and they became one of the most popular acts in all of the WWE. The team never rose to the top of the division to taste championship gold, but they developed into main roster level performers. The night after WrestleMania 32, they debuted to oppose the Dudleys, but instead of wrestling them, they out-talked them, much to the delight of the crowd. Their characters have now become nothing more than a few catchphrases, but they still have potential, and their debut was one of the most electric and entertaining things the main roster had seen in quite some time.
13 WORST: Tyler Breeze
Tyler Breeze worked incredibly hard in his many years with WWE’s developmental system, and that work finally paid off, as he had the chance to wrestle Jushin “Thunder” Liger in his only appearance with the WWE, and then graduated to the main roster. But that was the end of the positives. He was presented as a unique, important and somewhat fresh character for a few months, but following that, his win/loss record has been horrendous, and he is now doing nothing of note on SmackDown. It’s very unfortunate to see, because the character was one with potential, and Breeze worked hard to get where he was from as a white meat, Shawn Michaels ripoff in FCW to the popular Tyler Breeze. But from the moment of his main roster debut, Breeze has been dead in the water.
12 BEST: The Revival
NXT has brought in many stars from the independent wrestling world like Kevin Steen, El Generico, Prince Devitt, KENTA and even the likes of Johnny Gargano and Asuka, but the point of the Performance Center is to develop stars from within the system, and there is no better example of that than the team of Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson, The Revival. The two were struggling to find success on their own, and even when they came together, they didn’t find success, but once they found their unique characters and gained the confidence, they quickly became stars. They’ve had amazing feuds and matches against Enzo and Cass, American Alpha and DIY, and the night after WrestleMania, the two made their debut against The New Day, and after defeating the longest reigning Tag Team Champions in WWE history, the duo could be stars in the tag team scene for years to come.
11 BEST: Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch & Charlotte
The women in the WWE have always been treated fairly poorly from an in-ring, equality perspective, but with the emergence of NXT, the women have come a long way, and when Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Charlotte arrived on the main roster, it marked the end of that treatment on the biggest stage the WWE has to offer. Although the storyline of three teams of three went on forever and wasn’t a very quite way to present them, but the night that the three of them arrived will be remembered as a historic one in the history of women’s wrestling. Even now going back and watching that night will give you goose bumps (despite the illogical Stephanie McMahon doing the introductions), and it immediately showed that these three would be revolutionary performers in the companies near future.
10 WORST: Dana Brooke
It’s obvious why Vince McMahon was interested in bringing in a hard working, muscular woman like Dana Brooke to the main roster, but the way he did it was just plain boring, as her and her partner, Evil Emma, just appeared on an episode of RAW, in a backstage segment no less. After Emma's injury, Brooke stayed in the spot light alongside Charlotte, and she is now out on her own to show her potential as a performer. With the experience of Emma, Alicia Fox and Mickie James on the roster, she has good veterans to help that process. She may go on to become a Champion in the women’s division in the next few years, but that doesn’t change the fact that her initial appearance on the main roster wasn’t memorable in the slightest.
9 BEST: Shinsuke Nakamura
Shinsuke Nakamura, the King of Strong Style is one of the most charismatic and unique men to ever enter the wrestling business, and after the 13 year veteran of New Japan announced he was coming to the WWE, fans were cautiously optimistic that he would become just as big a star as he was over there. He arrived in NXT a year ago, and after classic matches with Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Austin Aries, Samoa Joe and Bobby Roode, he came to the main roster, and his debut was just as electric and unique as he is. He didn’t surprise attack anyone, he didn’t cut an electric promo and he didn’t have a match, he simply came to the ring with his music playing, being serenaded by the sold out crowd, but for Shinsuke, it was perfect, and now the WWE Universe know he is a big deal.
8 BEST: Bayley
Three quarters of NXT’s famed Four Horsewomen made their debut in 2015, but the less experienced Bayley was left down in NXT, and it was definitely to her advantage, as she was able to have history making matches with Sasha Banks, as well as some great bouts with Nia Jax and Asuka. After losing to the Empress of Tomorrow twice, it was time for the Hugger to follow her friends to the main roster, so the RAW following SummerSlam, Mick Foley presented Charlotte her new challenger. The match itself that night against Dana Brooke was nothing but average, but it was the electric energy in the building and the deafening reaction to her arrival proved to the WWE that they had a new star on their hands. She has since won the RAW Women’s Championship, and defended it successfully at WrestleMania, so her debut must have done something to show the people backstage that she is the real deal.
7 WORST: Apollo Crews
The night after WrestleMania has become famous for surprises, mainly returns for big stars and debuts of the best NXT performers, and most of the time, the fans can predict what stars will be called up. Still, no one saw Apollo Crews coming. Instead of it being a big shock which the fans went wild over, it was more of a deflating segment, as he never showed his personality, and never developed a following in his time with NXT, meaning he was still relatively unknown. His career hasn’t gotten any better since that debut either, as he still lacks the charisma necessary to make it as a star on the main roster. Despite his fantastic in-ring work, the fans just haven’t been invested in him, and I’d expect him to be released before WrestleMania next year (or at least sent back to developmental).
6 BEST: Finn Balor
The whole idea of WWE’s developmental system, the Performance Center and NXT is to create main roster stars for the future, so when they graduate to the main roster, the WWE should aim to present them as main event stars, so being drafted as the number 5 overall pick, number 3 for RAW in the recent draft exemplifies this idea. His official debut on RAW came a week after that, and NXT’s longest reigning Champion won a fatal 4 way and pinned Roman Reigns clean in the same night to earn his spot in a match to crown the first ever WWE Universal Champion. He ended up winning that night too, so in the space of a month, Finn had gone from NXT graduate to WWE Universal Champion, not a bad start.
5 BEST: Samoa Joe
Samoa Joe came to NXT in 2015 after making a name for himself in the past 15 years on the independent scene, and the fans thought that someone of his caliber wouldn’t be there for long, but it took until the beginning of 2017 for him to finally appear on Monday Night RAW. Fans almost rioted when it was Roman Reigns who emerged at #30 in the Royal Rumble instead of Joe, but the WWE had other plans, as he emerged as Triple H’s destroyer a night later, and he took out Seth Rollins, immediately established himself as a main event player. His debut was impactful as any NXT graduate, and if the way the company has presented him in the past few months continues, he will be a WWE Universal Champion in no time.
4 WORST: Carmella
When Enzo and Cass made their main roster debut, it surprised them, as well as their fans from NXT, to see that Carmella wouldn’t be joining the brash duo. Instead, she was held down in NXT so that she could improve on her own in-ring abilities, which she has done drastically. The brand split draft was then announced a few months later, and alongside Alexa Bliss and Nia Jax, The Princess of Staten Island found her new home on Smackdown, and although her character has developed well and become a joy to watch, her arrival wasn’t exactly received too well. Her first appearance was a throw away segment on Smackdown, where she was overshadowed by the far more popular Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss, and her first match wasn’t too memorable either, but she has potential as a heel and a babyface when she rejoins Enzo and Cass, meaning this debut won’t hurt her career too much.
3 BEST: Kevin Owens
Kevin Steen was one of the biggest stars on the independent scene, and he came to the WWE, following his rival El Generico (Sami Zayn) to NXT with huge hype around him, quickly becoming the biggest star that the young, developmental promotion had ever seen. He took over NXT, and destroyed Zayn on the way to becoming NXT Champion, and after Sami squandered his main roster promotion due to a severe shoulder injury, Owens was next in line. The Canadian appeared on Monday Night RAW to an electric reaction, confronting John Cena, and thus his first match on the main roster was scheduled to be one-on-one against the Face that Runs the Place on PPV. He may have lost the feud, but Owens defeated Cena clean, which was virtually unheard of at the time, in his first main roster match, which would have been number one on the list, if not for a certain vigilante group.
2 BEST: The Shield
The Shield consisted of developmental talents Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns, and they were one of the most dominant forces in the history of the WWE, and their debut was certainly indicative that they would be portrayed as such. The trio of at-that-time fairly unknown stars turned up at Survivor Series 2012, and dismantled John Cena and Ryback, allowing CM Punk to take the victory and retain his WWE Championship. They ended up being so great that they broke away from the CM Punk story, and became their own unstoppable force, becoming quite possibly the biggest trio in history. For the company to get behind three unproven guys and thrust them straight into the main event storyline, it was a big deal, and the heartbroken reaction fans had when Seth Rollins turned on the Shield shows that the faith was well-placed, as they are now among the biggest names in the business.
1 WORST: The Vaudevillains
While most of the entries under the ‘Best’ category came as surprises, they happened on the biggest televised shows of the year, but that was the complete opposite of how the former NXT Tag Team Champions were presented upon their arrival. The team of Aiden English and Simon Gotch were quite successful down in developmental, as they had a unique gimmick that connected with the crowd, but their debut on the main roster came unannounced on an episode of SmackDown (before the brand split when SmackDown was revitalized) and they won a match to little fanfare. They then went on to become number one contenders to the WWE Tag Team Championship, but their arrival was uneventful and unimpressive, which is how the rest of their career together in the WWE went before Simon Gotch was just recently released.