First impressions in WWE can make or break a superstar from the get go. Take both the Shockmaster and Kane for example. The Shockmaster debuted in WCW during a segment featuring some of the biggest stars in the industry, but infamously tripped over, losing his credibility instantly, and this blooper is the only thing he is remembered for decades later. On the other hand, Kane debuted during a match with his ‘brother’ the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, looking incredibly imposing and dominant, and it is still to this day remembered as one of the best debuts in the history of the company, and launched Kane into becoming one of the biggest stars of the entire Attitude Era.
There are two ways in which the WWE likes to introduce a new star to the WWE Universe, and throughout the years both have proven equally effective. The art of the vignette can launch a superstar before they even step foot in a ring through a series of preview videos which aim to give the fans a glimpse into the personality and purpose of the debuting star. Usually, when using this method, the crowd has formed an opinion before we ever meet the star properly, thus making it quite risky. The other carries its own inherent risks, the surprise debut, which assumes the crowd knows the superstar already or will form an immediate connection to the star, most recently used successfully with AJ Styles at the Royal Rumble, and the other members of ‘The Club’ on Monday Night RAW.As seen by Andrade “Cien” Almas at NXT Takeover: The End, the overall goal is to showcase the talent of a superstar.
Here are the 14 best or most impactful debuts in the history of the young, developmental brand.
27 Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa
While most expected the two independent standouts to make it on their own in WWE, it was the tag team debut of Gargano & Ciampa that set them apart as a team to watch out for in the future, with a victory in the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic. While the victory came over makeshift team Tyler Breeze and Bull Dempsey, and they were defeated in the very next round by Rhyno and Baron Corbin, this went a long way in showing what the two talented young men could do, and judging by recent events on NXT TV, they are on a collision course with two-time tag team champions The Revival.
25 Andrade “Cien” Almas
The most recent NXT debut was of Mexican wrestling superstar La Sombra, under the name Andrade “Cien” Almas, and came in impressive fashion against fan favourite Tye Dillinger. Although the fans were more behind the Perfect 10, Almas showcased the talents which made him the hottest name in Mexican wrestling, with several jaw dropping moves, he established himself as a star in the yellow brand, and will no doubt be one of the finalists in the upcoming Cruiserweight Classic. This is lower on the list due to the fan support received by his opponent, a head scratching decision by management, but in time will continue to prove that he is the next Latin star in WWE, who can possibly surpass any in the history of WWE.
23 Apollo Crews
The former Uhaa Nation was lucky enough to make his debut on his birthday in front of 13,000 NXT faithful at the first ever NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, and was successful in impressive fashion against the aforementioned Perfect 10, Tye Dillinger. The ultra athletic Crews put his full arsenal on display that night in Brooklyn, and while he has only competed in underwhelming feuds thus far in WWE, his in ring talent is unlike any the WWE have ever seen, and if his character is built upon, he could be one of the very best talents to come out of NXT in its history.
While Asuka’s first official in ring appearance, an introductory segment with NXT GM William Regal was nothing out of the ordinary, it was the way she was treated by the fans, management and commentary team which made this such an impactful first statement on the developmental brand. She has since won the NXT Women’s Champion from the crowd favorite Bayley and showed why the faith from management in her was well placed, as she has been every bit the dominant ass kicker she was in Japan, being one of the most colorful and intimidating women in the history of the WWE, all while gaining the respect and adulation of her peers at the Full Sail faithful alike.
19 Hideo Itami
KENTA was introduced to the NXT Universe by William Regal in a very official segment on NXT TV, and was shortly interrupted by the dominant duo of Konor and Viktor, the Ascension, who at that time were destroying the competition in NXT. While out numbered 2-1, Itami managed to gain the upper hand on the duo, dispatching them with stiff strikes that he became famous for on the Japanese and North American independent scene, looking every bit the star he was prior to his WWE tenure. While this debut was impactful and immediately made a statement, Itami was able to gain the upper hand in the feud over all, thanks to help from another Japanese wrestling stand out, who is mentioned later in this list.
17 The Ascension
The second installment of this dominant duo that we see on the main roster today were just as intense and intimidating as the first, and while against a no-name talent enhancement duo, they proved that they would be as unstoppable as ever on the developmental brand. While things may have not exactly panned out on the main roster, due to a poor debut which was terribly received by legends such as JBL, the ‘Road Warrior knock offs’ were quite the opposite in NXT, becoming as popular a team as there had ever been at the time, as they looked to carve out their own legacy in a brand filled with stand out talent.
15 Nia Jax
Nia Jax was introduced to the WWE Universe on TV after weeks of vignettes promising a dominant women unlike any we have ever seen before, and upon her first live appearance, did not disappoint. From the moment her music hit and she appeared, Corey Graves and the crowd in attendance were stunned at the physical dominance of the Rock’s cousin, and her power game was put on full display in a squash match, proving she will be an unreal force to be reckoned with in the future. Although it has not all been smooth sailing since, she remains the most dominant heel in the women’s division, and is set for great things in NXT, which was set up by management treating her like a big deal upon debut.
13 Big E Langston
Big E, from the time he arrived in NXT after its rebranding, went on a dominant streak unlike anything the Full Sail crowd had ever seen before, blazing a path of destruction which saw him demand referees count to ‘5’ rather than the usual 3, all which culminated in the domination of Seth Rollins on the way to the NXT Championship. While E has gone onto big things in WWE as the happy go lucky big man as a part of the New Day trio, his original run in NXT from the time of his debut saw him as a dominant big man unlike any NXT has ever seen, making him one of the most versatile wrestlers the universe has ever witnessed.
Any debut involving the daughter of a two-time wrestling Hall of Famer is bound to be impactful, but with Ric at her side, Charlotte proved from day one that she was bound to be a force to be reckoned with in the WWE world, with or without the help of her legendary father. From the moment she arrived at Full Sail, Charlotte was seen as both athletic and physically dominant, the likes of which had not been seen at the time, and the ‘genetically superior’ diva proved management right in quicker time than any in the division. She has been treated like the future and a star ever since she debuted, and has now been tasked with heading the women’s division on the main roster, thanks to her genetics and superior talent.
9 Sami Zayn
Recently after his loss in Dallas, the single most loved and celebrated superstar in the history of NXT made his way to the main roster full time, an entire 3 years after his debut. The debut came on NXT TV, and from the second the theme song we all love to sing along too hit, the NXT faithful were sold on the former El Generico, and that was before he upset Cesaro, which led to one of the best, brand defining rivalries for NXT. His story telling through facial expressions, pure wrestling ability and likeability make him one of the best prospects in the WWE, which all started with an impactful debut on the yellow brand, stressing the importance of first impressions.
7 Samoa Joe
While no physicality came with the shocking debut of the ‘Samoan Submission Machine’, it was still one of the most surprising and impactful debuts in WWE history, because of the ramifications that came along with it. No more would WWE deny working with former TNA talent, which opened the door to stars such as AJ Styles, Austin Aries and Bobby Roode. The debut itself came in the form of a confrontation with Kevin Owens, and although the two never had a blow off match, Joe seemed every bit the intimidating monster he was in TNA with his debut, and has continued to prove that he is one of the most dominating heels in the wrestling world since that time.
5 Finn Balor
As Finn Balor has become a stand out, and one of the major icons that made NXT what it is today, it comes as no surprise that he was treated as an absolute star since day one, being introduced into the Hideo Itami/Ascension feud, he was seen as more than an equalizer in a feud with the most dominant tag team in the history of the yellow brand. After carving out an impressive career in Europe and Japan as Prince Devitt, the newly dubbed Balor was introduced in victorious fashion alongside Itami, and from that point on in his NXT career outshone every other competitor he stepped foot into the ring with.
3 Kevin Owens
While the debut match of Kevin Owens was nothing overly special, it showcased the talent and toughness of the prize fighter, and introduced him to the NXT Universe in a way that was worthy of such an independent stand out, it was what he did in the main event that rocked the entire foundation of the developmental brand to its core. While congratulating long time best friend Sami Zayn on his NXT Championship victory, Owens then surprised everyone by viciously attacking his friend, leading to the top heel in NXT history, and continued one of the most heated rivalries in the recent history of the entire wrestling world.
1 Shinsuke Nakamura
One of the most recent debuts on this list, the first appearance of Nakamura on an NXT show was the perfect storm of emotion, electricity, anticipation and overall in ring quality, as all of this combined to give him a victory over the ‘Heart and Soul of NXT’ Sami Zayn in what is so far the Match of the Year in WWE. The King of Strong Style has been impressive in the months since his debut, knocking off the likes of Elias Sampson, Tye Dillinger and Austin Aries, but it was this incredible debut which silenced the doubters, and proved the Japanese stand out is headed for superstardom in WWE, one which no doubt will ultimately culminate in being a main event player on the main roster in the near future.