They say that to make a name for yourself, you go after the biggest dog in the yard. In the WWE universe, they don’t get much bigger than John Cena, so it was clear that a statement was being made when Kevin Owens made his main roster debut on the May 19th 2015 edition of Raw during Cena’s weekly US Open Title Challenge. Owens didn’t immediately take Cena up on the Challenge, but he did leave the 12-time WWE champ lying thanks to his signature pop-up power bomb.
In the few weeks since, the former Kevin Steen has become appointment viewing on weekly WWE TV, thanks to an impactful arrival that included a clean win over Cena at the Elimination Chamber and some seriously heat-generating promos. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who followed Owens through an extensive indies career that featured stops in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) and Ring of Honor (ROH) or that has watched his rapid championship ascent in NXT, but there are surely some fans wondering who this heavy-set dude that has owned Super Cena of late.
More often than not, WWE employs an even-steven booking tactic that limits the ceiling of all but their absolute cream of the crop superstars. This is especially true of main roster rookies, who are often afforded some momentum as a means of making a favorable first impression but usually have to pay their dues along a long, slow path towards the top of the ladder.
Owens can now count himself among a small, select group of rookies who weren’t subject to that slow, gradual learning curve. Yes, he paid plenty of dues during a long trek through the indies, but rare is the WWE rookie who owns feature segments and cuts promos on Day One (not to mention beats Cena). In honor of Owens’ taking the WWE by storm upon his arrival, here are the 10 most explosive debuts in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment.
10. “The Narcissist” Lex Luger
Long before the advent of spoiler-laden wrestling blogs, there was a palpable excitement that stemmed from any mysterious reveal that was known to be forthcoming. So at the 1993 Royal Rumble, there was some anticipation building to Bobby Heenan announcing his latest client. That client was revealed to be the arrogant, heel “Narcissist” Lex Luger, who took to preening in front of mirrors after victories. It wasn’t until he turned into the babyface all-American hero that Luger got a mega-push, but the PPV-based debut was a pretty auspicious start.
9. The Great Khali / Giant Gonzalez (tie)
These two behemoths (who both became Undertaker chow) share much in common, including some pretty emphatic debuts. Both The Great Khali and the body-suited Giant Gonzalez got over on their size and the sheer visual shock of seeing them emerge, arriving to much announcer hyperbole and immediately announcing their intent to target the Deadman. Both were also booked as the monsters that their size suggested, destroying ‘Taker with a memorable, eye-opening emphasis.
The WWE may have botched Tazz’s injury-shortened run with the company, but they absolutely nailed his debut. With his arrival being teased through his own logo that was familiar to ECW fans, knowledgeable fans at Madison Square Garden were knowingly ready to erupt as he debuted against Kurt Angle at the 2000 Royal Rumble. The 5’9″ tough guy from nearby Red Hook beat the previously undefeated Angle by forcing him to pass out in what looked like the launch of a promising WWE career. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t get much better than that night at MSG.
Critics of the WWE have long held that the company’s writers don’t execute long-term angles any more. That wasn’t the case in 1998, when Paul Bearer spent months warning ominously of the pending arrival of the Undertaker’s long-thought-dead brother. At the October In Your House PPV Badd Blood, Kane finally appeared, attacking his brother during a main event match against Shawn Michaels and even hitting him with his own Tombstone finisher. This may sound like a play out of the “make a name for yourself by attacking Undertaker” playbook, but Kane’s link to ‘Taker was indelibly linked from Day 1.
6. The Shield
The benchmark for the modern ‘make your mark’ debut has to be the trio of young NXT alums collectively known as The Shield. Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins arrived as a forceful, intriguing unit at the 2012 Survivor Series, using a unique triple powerbomb to take Ryback out during a triple threat title match that also involved Cena and CM Punk. The momentum established from that memorable night has carried through to today, where the unit is no longer, but babyfaces Reigns and Ambrose and particularly heel champion Rollins are all in main event positions thanks to their hot start.
With a standout afro, a confusing name (he was initially monikered “Carlito Caribbean Cool”) and teeming with charisma, Carlito burst onto the scene with a debut that was – and remains – largely unparalleled. The man who, oddly, “spit in the face of people who don’t want to be cool” won the United States Championship over Cena on his first night on the main roster. It’s tough to find many other examples of debuting title winners – Santino Marella being the rare exception. Although he also won the IC title upon his Raw brand debut, Carlito accomplished little else of note in his four-year WWE career.
4. The Undertaker
He’s already been referenced a number of times in this blog as a star-maker who other debuting superstars can target to jump start their careers, but don’t forget that Undertaker had a pretty formidable unveiling in his own right. At the 1990 Survivor Series, Ted Dibiase introduced ‘Taker as the mystery member of his heel Million Dollar team. While he didn’t win the five-on-five match, he served up a dominant showing that included quick eliminations of Koko B. Ware and Dusty Rhodes, as well as the debut of his devastating Tombstone.
3. Bill Goldberg
New talents are often treated to an undefeated gimmick to begin their wrestling career, but few are gifted with the alleged (and disputed) 173-0 record that Goldberg boasted upon debuting in WCW. Much of his identity was tied to the streak, including a “Who’s next?” catchphrase. He was already a known entity when he made his WWE debut in 2003, so he was greeted with immediate fanfare and placed in a feud with The Rock. Everything that made Goldberg a special attraction in WCW, from the locker room-to-the-ring camera shot to the catchphrase, carried over to make him an immediate main event player.
2. Brock Lesnar
Lesnar was a varsity athlete and OVW standout when he announced his presence on a 2002 episode of Raw, looking like an absolute beast in a vicious assault on Al Snow, Maven and Spike Dudley. The Paul Heyman-anointed “Next Big Thing” introduced a brand of devastation that included some awe-inspiring high impact offence and the unique, forceful F5 finisher. Within six months, Lesnar had climbed the ladder to beat the Rock at Summerslam and become the Undisputed WWE Champion.
1. Chris Jericho
It takes a special talent to be entrusted with a mega-push coming out of the gates, but it takes an extra special brand of superstar to be handed a mic on night one. WWE’s high level of faith in “Y2J” Chris Jericho was made evident when they allowed him to go toe-to-toe on the mic with the Rock, one of wrestling’s premier talkers, on his first night on the main roster. Jericho masterfully handled the Rock’s usual brand of putdowns and made the memorable “Raw is Jericho” proclamation. Matching wits with the Rock probably did more for Jericho than even the most emphatic of squashes could have.