Whether someone grinds through the indies or is signed right into WWE’s Performance Center, it usually takes years before the company is comfortable enough to promote them to more prominent spots on TV. Thousands of wrestlers have passed through their halls, most of whom had forgettable to average careers, while a select few were able to put together Hall of Fame resumes through decades of hard work.
Many of those Hall of Famers start quick by putting together a fantastic rookie year to help them get off to a fast start. Again, it’s a big deal to be given titles at a young age, as WWE prefers to keep those to wrestlers who have proven themselves over time. This list will go over those who were given the ball immediately. Some were able to keep the momentum up as the years went by while others were not.
The criteria for this list is based on the first in-ring year (give or take a month or so) a wrestler worked on WWE’s main roster. Development will not count in this one. If it did, someone like Chad Gable would surely be on the list, as he exploded on the scene with his charisma and in-ring work and captured the NXT Tag titles with Jason Jordan.
So, let’s get right to it and check out WWE’s finest rookies ever!
15. The Undertaker
With one of the better debuts, Undertaker was unveiled at the 1990 Survivor Series as Ted DiBiase’s mystery partner, starting the trend of scaring pretty much every child in the crowd. For months, Undertaker looked incredibly dominant, no-selling much of his opponent’s offense, which was extremely rare in the wrestling world. He had a solid showing at the 1991 Royal Rumble by eliminating Bret Hart and Texas Tornado; even though he got eliminated about halfway through, it took both Legion of Doom members to get rid of him.
After squashing Jimmy Snuka at WrestleMania VII, he took on (and typically got the best of) The Ultimate Warrior, which at that time was unheard of, especially for a rookie. This led to Taker taking on Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship at Survivor Series, which Undertaker was able to win. Hogan was still incredibly popular at this time, so losing in any fashion was a surprise, kids in the crowd cried tears of sadness at this turn of events. Also, at the time, this big win made Undertaker the youngest WWF Champion ever.
Few wrestlers win a title in their debut main roster match, but that’s exactly what Paige was able to accomplish, when she made a surprise appearance on Raw to give AJ Lee props for defending her title at WrestleMania XXX against thirteen other women. AJ not really needing love from a newbie, gave Paige a nice slap across the face, and challenged her to a match right then and there.
In a fairly quick match, Paige was able to get the win over AJ, who had previously held the title for 295 days, which was the longest until Nikki Bella broke that record. At 21, Paige became the youngest woman to ever hold the title, losing it back to AJ about three months later. At SummerSlam the two women went at it again and Paige came out on top, winning the title twice in her rookie year. During this time she became one of the most popular wrestlers in the division, helped get Naomi over as a heel, and kick-off The Diva Revolution, which could be good or bad, depending on how you look at that era.
13. Kurt Angle
If Brock is considered the best rookie, Angle’s name is usually not far behind at the number two spot. To be clear, Angle had little pro wrestling training before getting to the WWE, he spent only five months in their development, before getting moved to the main roster and receiving a major push. After obtaining a “winning streak” to build some credibility, Angle was able to win the Intercontinental title away from Chris Jericho and the European title from Val Venis.
Becoming one of the WWE’s top heels, Kurt was incredibly good on the microphone (“American Hero” and “The Three I’s”) with a natural charisma that just couldn’t be taught. Ultimately, the dual champion went up against Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit at WrestleMania 2000, defending both of his titles and losing both to each man, respectively. Even though he dropped both titles, his amazing first year propelled him to the main event scene the very next year, where he became WWE Champion.
Charlotte’s big main roster debut came once Stephanie McMahon called for a Divas Revolution; this brought her along with Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch out to the party. Ultimately, Charlotte aligned herself with Lynch and Paige, initially known as “Submission Sorority,” which was promptly changed to “Team PCB” after a simple Google search of the first name would bring wrestling fans to porn sites.
Winning her first title, Charlotte defeated Nikki Bella at Night of Champions, ending her record breaking title reign of 301 days. Handling the division since winning the title, Charlotte was included in the greatest women’s WrestleMania match, retaining her title against Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. Becoming the top heel in the division, Charlotte has had no problem throwing anyone in her way to the curb, including former friend, Becky Lynch and her own Dad, Ric Flair. With almost a full year on the main roster in the books, Charlotte is still the WWE Women’s Champion with a potentially huge match against Sasha Banks coming up at SummerSlam.
11. The Shield
Forget rookie year, The Shield’s entire story from start to finish is one of the best booked groups in the history of wrestling. Starting things off with a bang, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins interfered in a triple threat match for the WWE title between John Cena, CM Punk, and Ryback. Booked with incredible dominance, the group was initially hired guns that watched out for Punk for a number of months.
They went into a long undefeated streak from January until May defeating pretty much every big name WWE had, building an incredible amount of credibility very early in their wrestling careers. Eventually, all three members had title runs, with Ambrose as the U.S. Champion and Rollins/Reigns as the Tag Team Champions. Also during this run, Triple H hired the trio to take out Goldust and Cody Rhodes, which may not strike you now, but this was one of (if not the) hottest angles in 2013.
10. Brock Lesnar
We might as well continue with the wrestler who most people consider WWE’s best rookie ever, Brock Lesnar, a guy who exploded on to the scene in 2002. Coming out with his then manager (now advocate) Paul Heyman, Lesnar was touted as “The Next Big Thing” and this was one of those times when WWE came through with not only the hype, but the execution, as well. In his first official feud, Lesnar went up against one of WWE’s most popular acts at the time, The Hardy Boyz.
From there it was achievement after achievement, winning the King of the Ring tournament and the 2003 Royal Rumble match. At SummerSlam, he defeated The Rock (clean) for the WWE Undisputed title to become (at the time) the youngest WWE champion at age 25. As the year went on, he feuded against some of WWE’s biggest names, Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Big Show, and Kurt Angle. To cap off his rookie year, Lesnar defeated Angle (again, clean) at WrestleMania XIX for his second title reign, yes, this was the match where he nearly broke his neck pulling off a shooting star press.
Debuting in September of 1992, Yokozuna was brought right into the main event scene by not only being the favorite to win the 1993 Royal Rumble, but actually win the whole thing, lastly eliminating Macho Man. You might remember this moment when Savage tried to pin Yokozuna in a Royal Rumble (there are no pins!) and when Yokozuna kicked out, Savage launched himself over the top rope, down to the floor, effectively eliminating himself.
At WrestleMania IX, he challenged and defeated Bret Hart for the WWF Championship, soon after Hulk Hogan came to the ring, was challenged to a match, and ended up defeating Yokozuna for the title. Even though Yokozuna had an embarrassing reign, he got another shot at Hulk at King of the Ring and got his second title reign in a single year. Hogan also left the company after this match (for nine years), so Yokozuna was able to tout that he “ended” Hulkamania, making him one of the top heels for the company.
This one is a bit of a cheat because when Sable first started with the WWE she was pretty much a manager to Marc Mero from 1996 until early 1998. During this time, she became increasingly popular with the fans, so much so that Vince decided to break her off as a solo act, getting into the ring on a more regular basis.
She first feuded with Jacqueline and Marc Mero in a number of matches including winning the Women’s title off of Jacqueline at the 1998 Survivor Series. As champion, Sable began to have huge cross-over appeal doing some acting as well as gracing the cover of Playboy, making it one of the highest selling issues ever for the company (she appeared yet again, a few months later). Thanks to all of this love from outside companies, she turned heel with a “Hollywood” persona that went over well with crowds. So, even though her true rookie year was pretty uneventful, once WWE let her get in the ring on her own, Sable took the ball and ran with it.
More recently, Sheamus had one of the finest rookie years by spending the first few months as a vicious heel that usually got over most of his opponents. His first big break came when he won a battle royal that would name the next contender for the WWE Championship. The champion at the time was John Cena and the two met up at TLC where Sheamus was able to put Cena through a table and beat him cleanly to win the title.
In one of the shortest times to go from debuting to WWE Champion, the first Irish-born champion didn’t slow up as he took out Randy Orton, eventually losing the title during an Elimination Chamber match. Sheamus then feuded with Triple H where he was beaten so badly (storyline) that Triple H was written off TV for ten months. Sheamus then won back his title at Fatal 4-Way to become one of the few wrestlers to win WWE’s major title twice in their first year of competing.
Again, we’re going to stretch rookie “year” a little bit here, as Diesel technically debuted in June of 1993, for the most part he just accompanied Shawn Michaels, with a match here and there. Thing really took off at the beginning of 1994 when Diesel was involved in the Royal Rumble, eliminating seven other wrestlers in just under eighteen minutes. A few months later he won the Intercontinental title from Razor Ramon and then won the tag titles with Michaels, becoming a rare dual rookie champion.
Diesel lost the IC title back to Ramon at SummerSlam and had to vacate the tag titles when he and Michaels went their separate ways, but bigger things were on the horizon. Diesel literally squashed then WWF Champion, Bob Backlund in eight seconds to become the new WWF Champion. This made him the third Triple Champion for the promotion, and impressively, collected all three titles in the same year!
5. Ken Shamrock
Shamrock was brought right into the spotlight for the WWE, first as a referee for a match between Bret Hart and Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13. He then returned to wrestle against some of WWE’s top names at the top like Vader, Bret Hart, The British Bulldog, Shawn Michaels, and The Nation of Domination. He initially won the Intercontinental Championship from Rocky Maivia, but due to holding onto his ankle lock submission after the bell rung, the decision was reversed.
While technically, this time period would have been the end of his rookie year, soon after he was able to win the King of the Ring tournament, defeating The Rock in the finals. He then competed in an eight-man tournament for the vacant Intercontinental Championship, which he also won, defeating X-Pac in the final match. Even though “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” only spent about two years with the WWE, he had a highly effectively presence, winning titles and almost always working in or around the main event scene.
4. Alberto Del Rio
For hardcore wrestling fans, Del Rio was already a known commodity by the time he got to the WWE in 2010, so a big push early on was not a big surprise. He feuded with people like Rey Mysterio and Christian, while also captaining a Survivor Series team against Mysterio. He then pursued the WWE title, initially losing a fatal four-way match at TLC, he was able to win the 2011 Royal Rumble giving him a shot at the title once WrestleMania rolled around, Del Rio took on Edge for the World Heavyweight Champions, but came up on the losing end.
At Money in the Bank, Del Rio won yet again (becoming the first wrestler ever to win the Royal Rumble and MITB in the same year) capturing the briefcase that would yet again give him a shot a WWE title. The cash-in came at SummerSlam after CM Punk defeated John Cena, Punk was clearly worn down from the match, making it an easy win for Del Rio to cap off a fantastic first year.
3. Bobby Lashley
Debuting on TV in September of 2005, Lashley got off to a fast start cleaning out most of the low and mid card competition that he was put up against. He had strong showings at Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble when it took both Big Show and Kane’s power to eliminate him. He then won a Money in the Bank ladder match at WrestleMania 22, followed up by a finals appearance in a King of the Ring tournament.
After feuding with King Booker (the man he lost to in the KOTR finals), Lashley went on to battle JBL, winning the United States Championship away from him. Even though he lost the title soon after and was sidelined with some heath issues, Lashley’s rookie year had a major impact on the higher ups. When he returned, he was brought to the ECW brand and immediately won the ECW World Championship, becoming a major force in the brand for the next year.
Tatank is an interesting case as he never won any titles with the WWE or had any other really big achievements aside from having a ridiculously long winning streak on TV. Debuting in early 1992, he wouldn’t suffer a televised loss until October 30th, 1993 against Ludvig Borga, you remember him, right? Borga actually had to cheat big time by using a steel chair on Tatanka (while the referee was distracted) to pull off the big win.
Tatanka did have a number of draws and losses at house shows, but his record during 1992 was an incredible 166-14, those are numbers that only guys like Hulk Hogan or John Cena have after a full year. Even after his rookie year, Tatanka went an improved 171-12 in 1993, which showed his booking wasn’t just some fluke. He flirted with a number of championships, but could never win the big one throughout his five years with the WWE.
1. Curtis Axel
Finally, we have Curtis Axel, who technically wasn’t a rookie when he came out under this name, he was previously known as Michael McGillicutty. Awful name aside, he was included in the The Nexus stable for just over a year before being sent back to NXT for some repackaging. Curtis Axel debuted in May of 2013 where he was now managed by Paul Heyman, touting that he was a third generation wrestler, most notably the son of Mr. Perfect.
Axel’s “first” match came against Triple H where he actually got the win via knockout when Triple H collapsed outside of the ring with “concussion-like symptoms.” The incredible push didn’t stop there as Axel got two count-out wins over John Cena, a win over a distracted Chris Jericho, and two more wins over Triple H in one night! Barely a month after debuting, he won the Intercontinental title and held it for 155 days before dropping the strap to Big E at Survivor Series. Afterwards, he was demoted to the tag division (with Ryback) and slowly dropped down the card as the year went on. The second half of Axel’s rookie year was not so spectacular, but it’s hard to leave him off the list with how amazingly things started out.
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