Last month, everybody made a big honkin’ deal about AJ Styles’ much anticipated debut at the Royal Rumble. Truth be told, AJ got lucky. He got off light. It could’ve been an awful, degrading ordeal for AJ Styles.
These days when WWE wants to establish a fresh face as a regular cast member, that individual gets an at least modest but respectable push to start out. Remember when Adam Rose had an entourage, and won most of his matches? Or when announcers acted as though Brodus Clay was destined for anything other than the midcard? That’s because they were new and therefore kind of exciting! But back in the day, especially during its time as the “WWF,” the WWE liked to discourage that which was new and exciting by saddling it with intensely stupid gimmicks and/or embarrassing, painful beatings.
You’ll note that the majority of the names on this list went on to some degree of notoriety, which is why they’re famous enough for internet writers to know who they are and therefore include on their “top whatevers” lists. This state of affairs only further demonstrates the extent to which WWE used to go to hinder and punish their own future stars.
Herein lies the 25 worst debuts in WWE history. Though many would achieve riches and accolades in other lives, on these nights, we all wept for these warriors of the squared circle, for they were made to look foolish and/or weak.
24 Jeff Hardy
First of all, for some strange reason, Vince McMahon and “Macho Man” Randy Savage refer to the Charismatic Enigma as “Keith Davis” throughout his match with Razor Ramon. Second of all, the then 17-year-or-thereabouts-old Hardy was barely allowed to get any offense in against the onetime “Bad Guy.” Hardy’s first match wasn’t a very effective way to introduce the future World Champion and top babyface to the WWE Universe, that’s for sure.
23 Kofi Kingston
Was Yokozuna really Japanese? No. Was Muhammad Hassan a genuine Arab-American? Of course not. Yoko was born in California and Hassan was Italian. We know from bitter experience that when WWE bills one of its competitors as hailing from a certain location, they're telling us a filthy, bold-faced lie. Nonetheless, it’s a little tiresome when the company plays up the supposedly Jamaican origins of a guy we all know grew up north of Boston.
While technically a perfectly fine-and-good debut match, it’s kind of a bummer how Jose Estrada broke his neck. It wasn’t Edge’s fault, of course. It’s not as if he could’ve changed direction in midair, or even had time to look down and see Estrada’s head was positioned directly under the Rated-R Superstar's incoming leg. Still, it was nonetheless a bummer! Also, it’s kind of amusing seeing Edge stomping around with his old “tortured soul” persona, considering the directions his character ended up taking over the next handful of years.
Am I the only one who thinks 3-Minute Warning was a clever gimmick? The name was just inside baseball enough to appeal to smarter fans, while simultaneously, the team itself was a meat and potatoes, tried-and-true “Two Big Samoan Guys” routine. So it worked on two completely different levels, and Eric Bischoff calling Jamal and Rosie in to do his dirty work hearkened back to Paul Heyman’s bygone tendency to call 911. The debut isn’t bad isn’t itself bad, but it is bad that Jamal got switched to the far-less versatile Umaga persona.
20 Damien Sandow
Sandow’s first WWE appearance suffers from some of the same problems as Jeff Hardy’s first romp. Clearly, WWE doesn’t learn from its mistakes. Not only is Sandow constantly called “Aaron Stevens” by the commentators, but he didn’t get to show off his Elbow of Disdain, regale the crowd with his massive vocabulary, or perform any of the feats that make Sandow, Sandow. Shame on WWE, for waiting another 10 years years before ceasing to stifle the Savior of the Masses.
19 Dean Ambrose
What would you think if Dean Ambrose lost a match to Joey Mercury on WWE TV in 2016? You’d think it was presumably a part of some nefarious plot by the Authority, and Ambrose certainly came out looking like the tougher of the two hombres despite the loss, yes? Turns out, according to this Velocity footage of Ambrose’s first WWE encounter, Joey Mercury can beat Dean Ambrose up pretty easily! Who’da thunk it? Now all he has to do is pin Roman Reigns and Joey Mercury will be able to claim he’s beaten the entire Shield.
18 Hulk Hogan
This bout from 1979 holds up about as well as you’d expect an early round of Hogan vs. Ted DiBiase to hold up - not very well. But it is kind of interesting to see the soon-to-be Million Dollar Man attempt to inspire the audience’s adoration, given he spent the rest of his career doing the opposite. The contest also disproves anyone who believes Vince McMahon became obsessed with muscles in the ‘80s. As it appears, he was also obsessed with muscles in the '70s. Vince McMahon loves muscles. Big, big muscles.
Phantasio wins his first and last WWE match by removing his opponent’s boxer shorts, without removing any other garments from said opponent. Keep in mind, this was back when WWE storylines were planned out a year in advance, so it’s entirely likely someone thought “The Underwear Trick of Doom” would’ve made an effective finisher more than once - even though its first showing would also be the last time such a maneuver would surprise anyone. Phantasio was not a very well thought out plan. Although it’s odd that no one called out James O’Barr for stealing his mime face paint for The Crow.
16 Becky Lynch
In an early preemptive attempt to undermine the Divas Revolution, WWE creative forced Becky Lynch to perform a ridiculous, and kind of demeaning Irish jig-type dance-ish thing throughout her matches, in order to embarrass her and distract fans from her outstanding wrestling abilities. Luckily, Sheamus - unaware of the long-term plan to kill the Divas Revolution - threw a temper tantrum upon discovering someone else on the roster was using Irishness as their “thing.” Lynch was then banned from ever mentioning that she was from Ireland ever again, which worked out great for everyone, except for the people of Ireland.
15 Mick Foley
Legend has it that The Dynamite Kid deliberately roughed up a young Mick Foley during Foley’s first foray into WWE television. Today, Mick Foley is a near-universally beloved icon, happily retired, and probably a millionaire. So things worked out in the long run for Foley, but it’s still a drag that Foley didn’t get a halfway decent WWE match until his redebut as Mankind years later.
14 Samoa Joe
Before he was the Samoan Submission Machine we know and fear, Samoa Joe had a sorta surfer-type motif happening and lost a pretty okay Velocity match to Essa Rios. Joe would obviously rise to bigger and better things over the years. Meanwhile, no one has any idea what happened to Essa Rios. It’s likely that Joe tracked him down and murdered him to extract vengeance for ruining his first WWE match, and forcing him to spend almost a decade in TNA. It’s also possible Rios is simply wrestling for a different company under a name other than “Essa Rios.” One of those is the thing that is happening.
13 Brutus Beefcake
We understand mid-’80s WWE wasn’t exactly Lucha Underground and it would be unfair to expect a high-octane contest from Brutus Beefcake’s loss of TV wrestling virginity, but sheesh, this is a very, very boring match. Beefcake knows how to do a forearm, a headlock, and a goofy-looking sit-down splash. That’s it. Worse yet, he has nowhere near the charisma to pull off the cocky heel persona he’s shooting for. He’s like an even dumber incarnation of Lex Luger. How did this man hold down so many jobs in professional wrestling for so long?
12 Matt Hardy
Granted, getting trounced by Razor Ramon must’ve been a drag, but at least Jeff Hardy can say he got killed in his WWE debut against a cool vintage wrestler, instead of a long-forgotten also ran like Nikolai Volkoff. Sure, Volkoff may be a Hall of Famer, but so are Kevin Nash, Drew Carey and The Ultimate Warrior, so it’s not as if the Hall of Fame is that hard to get into. Also, the announcers cared so little about Hardy and Volkoff’s match that they spent most of it putting over a barely-related Undertaker storyline.
11 The Gobbledy Gooker
What could possibly be left to say about The Gobbledy Gooker that hasn’t already been said? Should anything ever have been said in the first place? No. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you, and The Gobbledy Gooker embodies all that is rotten at the core of professional wrestling. But let us keep in mind that Hector Guerrero, who had the misfortune of wearing the costume, was already part of a legendary wrestling family in 1990 and his brother grew up to be Eddie Guerrero.
To introduce Ron “The Truth” Killings to the WWE Universe under his new pseudonym “K-Kwik,” the writers thought it made sense to have him interrupt a Road Dogg match, in order to insist that Road Dogg stop fighting,and start rapping. Killings has never been as good as a rapper as whoever tells him to keep rapping thinks he is. He’s ostensibly a subscriber to the school of thought popularized by DMX, in which rapping and yelling are interchangeable. Nonetheless, R-Truth is still a better rapper than Road Dogg, who is awful at everything, especially writing SmackDown.
9 Sin Cara
When the people tuned in to see the first version of Sin Cara, they wanted one thing, and one thing only: Botches. Lots of ‘em. Really, glaring, humiliating mistakes. All kinds of profoundly dangerous slips and miscues. Blatant, irrefutable evidence of the scripted nature of “the business.” But in his debut match against Primo, Original Sin Cara only really messed up once right before the finish, and it’s even a little difficult to tell whether it was he or Primo who slipped on the top rope. Luckily, Sin Cara V.1 was able to deliver the goods with many, many botches later in his career.
8 Diamond Dallas Page
Why take one of WCW’s most popular wrestlers and waste all the good-will he’s built up with audiences over decades on an, especially in retrospect, ill-conceived angle with the Undertaker involving a woman Undertaker wound up married to for about another six months afterwards? Wouldn’t it make more sense to built DDP vs. UT up as the dream match fans might’ve considered it a few years prior, instead of what was essentially a squash match for one of WWE’s tried-and-true top draws who clearly didn’t need an additional establishment of his near-invincibility? The answer to these questions is Vince McMahon’s irrational hatred for WCW.
7 Glenn Jacobs
As we know, The Undertaker once thought his baby brother Kane had perished in the funeral parlor fire that also ended the lives of his parents. But that wasn't true, and Kane kept a low profile for years, plotting his revenge. To better conceal his identity, he went to dental school, opened a practice, and happened across a patient named Jerry "The King" Lawler, who was in need of a big violent dumb guy to help him beat up Bret Hart. Knowing Undertaker wouldn't recognize him as an adult, Kane assumed the identity of Isaac Yankem, DDS, and lay in wait, for the perfect moment to strike.
6 Buff Bagwell
It was a sign of things to come when Buff Bagwell’s first WWE appearance against Booker T went over about as well as a pair of undocumented Jewish/Arab immigrant woman attempting to marry each other while chanting "Black Lives Matter" in the middle of a Trump rally. Whether that’s Bagwell’s fault for his underwhelming performance or WWE’s fault for awkwardly shifting gears and turning Monday Night Raw into a half-cocked edition of Nitro is anybody’s guess, except the winners get to write history so, no, it’s not anyone’s guess, it’s all Buff Bagwell’s fault, and now he spends the night with old ladies for money, because he messed with Vince McMahon by working for WCW.
Dave Bautista did fine in his first WWE appearance. But all he really had to do is stand around looking menacing while D-Von Dudley yelled about religion. Perhaps somewhat unfairly, Buh Buh Ray Dudley gets credit for being the best talker of the tag team that will overshadow both he and D-Von’s individual careers no matter what either of them accomplish in singles competition. We emphasize “somewhat unfairly,” because the truth is, neither of them were ever really that great of an interview. Saddling D-Von with a new gimmick that required lots and lots of talking was a mistake. Luckily, soon Batista would be matched with Evolution, which included at least two other members who could do his interviews for him.
4 Battle Kat
Today, we know cats are tough, brute creatures who do nothing but lift weights and kill people and eat adorable protein shakes made specially for kitties. But back in the early ‘90s, everyone was stupid and didn’t understand any of that. Cats were not thought to be the threatening, terrifying creatures we know they are today. At that point, saying a man had something in common with a cat did not indicate that he was difficult to beat up, and therefore, this was a problematic gimmick for the surprisingly influential Brady Boone. Turns out he helped inspire Rob Van Dam to wrestle! Oddly, RVD had an awesome WWE debut when he killed Jeff Hardy.
3 Bret Hart
First of all, some disrespectful slackwit spelled the Hitman’s name wrong before the match. And before you find typos in this list and call me a hypocrite, remember that person only had to spell a few words that night, instead of the 2,500 I'm working with. Second of all, this was way back when Bret Hart first started in 1984 and he was terrible at promos, so they shouldn’t have made him do one of those. And thirdly, Bret Hart looked really awkward and off-putting early in his career. Our guess is his fellow wrestlers were encouraging him to conduct himself in such an uncomfortable way, as they were jealous of his clearly superior in-ring abilities. Regardless of the reasons behind its failings, this is a bad debut.
3. The Rock
It’s a little too easy to point out what an absurdly reductive waste of potential it was for WWE to package The Rock as whitemeat babyface “Rocky Maivia” - an elongated version of his real name, “The Rock.” However, had Rocky Maivia not fallen flat on his face, would The Rock have grown frustrated enough to disregard the WWE creative team, and embrace his destiny on his own? The answer is, of course he would’ve. If WWE had gotten out of The Rock’s way earlier on, they would’ve made even more money off the Most Electrifying Athlete in wrestling history.
Was there anyone, anywhere, on the planet whose last name isn’t McMahon who wanted to see Triple H beat Sting at Wrestlemania 31? Absolutely not. Would there be a followup or rematch of some kind where Sting could extract revenge? No. After this moment, the last vestige of WCW and the biggest star who had never, until that point, competed in WWE did nothing but confess admiration whenever the subject of Triple H came up. And it’s all Sting’s fault, really. He should’ve signed a lifetime WWE contract 10 years earlier, and maybe then he would’ve been introduced as Trish Stratus's secret stalker or some such nonsense. Vince really hates WCW.
1 “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
Now that I think about it, I didn’t immediately understand the double entendre of “Ringmaster” when I first heard it. “Why doesn’t he have some some sort of circus motif? Where's his top hat and lion tamer's whip?” I thought. Then again, I was a baby at this point, and very easily confused. In hindsight, the only reason to call Steve Austin The Ringmaster, even in his pre-Stone Cold phase, was because Vince McMahon was trying to instill a false sense of confidence in WCW. That way, when he eventually squashed WCW out of existence, his victory would be all that much sweeter, and the pain would be all the more unbearable for World Championship Wrestling and everyone associated with it.