Top 10: Greatest Rookie Years In Pro Wrestling History

John Corrigan counts down the 10 greatest rookie years in pro wrestling history.

The New Era of WWE kicked off with a helluva debut for Finn Balor, whose NXT dominance carried over to RAW this past Monday with a fatal four way win and more surprisingly, a win over the Big Dog, MAGGLE!

Although Balor is a 16-year veteran of the squared circle, he’s now begun his rookie year under the WWE banner. While the first night is usually a good indicator of how the rest of the year will go, there have been notable exceptions to that rule (i.e., Fandango, Eric Escobar, Ludvig Borga, Nathan Jones.)

Only time will tell whether Balor can achieve the same success that these stars did in their first 12 months on WWE/WCW TV.

10) The Giant

In his first match for WCW, The Big Show defeated Hulk Hogan for the World Heavyweight Championship. Ok, well not exactly. You see, the Hulkster was barraged by the Dungeon of Doom, including their newest member (and supposed son of Andre the Giant), The Giant. After shaving off his mustache and crushing his beloved motorcycle, the DOD infuriated Hogan, compelling him to settle the score Giant in a MONSTER TRUCK match before an actual wrestling match at Halloween Havoc. Hulk rammed Giant’s truck off a roof, but hours later, the world’s largest athlete walked down the aisle (unscathed) and beat Hogan via disqualification after Jimmy Hart turned on the Hulkster and the title changed hands.

Confusing, right? Especially when you learn that the decision was annulled and the title was held vacant the next week on Nitro. But still, an impressive first outing for Big Show, who immediately became a main eventer and remained that way throughout his 3-year run in WCW.

9) Sheamus

When the Celtic Warrior burst onto the scene in the summer of 2009, he bulldozed through everyone on the bastardized ECW brand and then moved to RAW, where he won the WWE Championship from John Cena by December, only 166 days since his debut. He held the title until Elimination Chamber in February, but remained a main-event powerhouse, putting Triple H out on the shelf and winning the WWE Championship for the second time in June of 2010 at the Fatal 4-Way pay-per-view.

8) Paige

Twas the night after WrestleMania XXX and all through the house, the Glampire was stirring, AJ Lee missed her spouse. Paige shocked the world by winning the Divas’ Championship in her debut match on RAW, becoming the first NXT star to successfully transition to the major leagues. The gorgeous Brit held onto the gold until the night after Money in the Bank, when AJ turned the tables and won the title back.

The Scream Queen emerged following the loss, attacking the former craziest girl on the block and winning the Divas’ Championship for a second time at SummerSlam. Although she’d lose the belt a month later, Paige had quickly proven she was a fixture of the division.

7) Alberto Del Rio

When brainstorming this list, Alberto Del Rio wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t until I had researched some of the top stars of the past decade that his accomplishments and more importantly, the timely fashion in which he achieved them, sparkled.

Del Rio beat Rey Mysterio in his debut match in August of 2010, following two months of vignettes espousing the virtues of the Mexican aristocrat. The lucha libre star battled Smackdown’s premiere competitors, often in the main event, before outlasting 39 other WWE Superstars in the historic 40-Man Royal Rumble. Unfortunately, he didn’t win the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXVII, but he did capture the Money in the Bank months later and ultimately win the WWE Title at SummerSlam 2011, a week shy of his one-year anniversary on the roster.

6) Charlotte

If you’re going to debut, do it with Flair. In July of 2015, Stephanie McMahon declared the Divas’ Revolution, as NXT stalwarts Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks and Charlotte crashed RAW, forever changing women’s wrestling on a mainstream scale. Of the three newbies, Ric Flair’s daughter naturally broke through as the must-see prospect and became the number-one contender to Nikki Bella’s title, winning the gold one week after Nikki broke the record for longest reign.

Since Night of Champions in September of last year to this past Monday on RAW, Charlotte held the Divas’/Women’s Championship, stealing the show at WrestleMania 32 and ultimately re-defining women’s role in WWE. Regarded as a bathroom break for decades, Charlotte has ushered in an era of respect and anticipation for women’s wrestling, and she just so happened to break Nikki’s record while doing it.

5) The Shield

Perhaps I should have separated The Shield for this list, but Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns debuted on the same night and acted as a team for their entire rookie year so here they are. The Shield is the greatest faction in WWE history, as all three members made an impact that we’re still feeling the effects of.

Cloaked in black like a special ops team, the trio invaded WWE at Survivor Series 2012, aiding CM Punk in his WWE Title defense against Ryback. One month later, they won their debut match against Ryback and Team Hell No, showing the WWE Universe they were more than henchmen—they were a force to be reckoned with. In their first year, they destroyed all the major players: The Rock, John Cena, Randy Orton, even Undertaker.

At Extreme Rules in May of 2013, The Shield struck gold as Ambrose won the United States Championship from Kofi Kingston and Rollins/Reigns defeated Team Hell No for the Tag Team Titles.

4) Yokozuna

The 600-pound Samoan behemoth debuted on WWE TV, Halloween 1992. Accompanied by the Devious One, Mr. Fuji, Yokozuna was dressed as a sumo warrior because he was now Japanese. Sporting a massive kimono while Fuji-san threw ceremonial salt around the ring, Yokozuna terrified fans and opponents alike as his immense frame disguised his impressive agility.

He steamrolled through the roster, winning the 1993 Royal Rumble and then the WWE Championship from Bret Hart at WrestleMania IX. Although Yoko would lose it two minutes later to the Hulkster, he avenged the embarrassment a couple months later at King of the Ring, squashing Hogan for the gold and exiling the Immortal One for nine years.

Throughout the rest of 1993 and his rookie year, Yokozuna stood tall as champion.

3) Kurt Angle

It’s true, it’s damn true: Kurt Angle’s rookie year certainly did not suck. The Olympic Hero won the European, Intercontinental, King of the Ring, and WWE Championship. He quickly ascended from the mid-card ranks to the main event, developing a love affair with Stephanie McMahon, a hilarious union with Edge and Christian and an incomparable rapport with the fans that has only grown stronger.

2) Goldberg

On September 22, 1997, Hugh Morrus walked down the ramp for a regularly-scheduled squash match on Nitro. Unbeknownst to the wrestling world, his opponent, already waiting in the ring like a regular jobber, was Bill Goldberg. A few minutes later, well, you already know the result.
Goldberg spent his rookie year UNDEFEATED. WCW’s only true homegrown star rapidly ascended the ranks, winning the fans over with his combination of explosive power and speed. Goldberg went on to defeat Raven for the United States Championship and then, in front of his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, in a sold-out edition of Nitro, Goldberg pinned “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan clean to win the World Heavyweight Championship.

1) Brock Lesnar

Paul Heyman has a reputation for being a con man, a manipulator, a downright liar. But if the only truth he ever told was that Brock Lesnar was the “next big thing,” then Heyman would die a prophet.

The Beast Incarnate was unleashed the night after WrestleMania X-8, demolishing Al Snow, Maven and Spike Dudley during a hardcore match. The crowd ooh’d and ahh’d as Lesnar powerbombed Dudley over and over and over, quickly realizing that this monster was unlike anyone they’d ever seen. Over the next several months, Lesnar would do the same damage to all his opponents, becoming the last real King of the Ring along the way.

At SummerSlam 2002, five months since his debut, Lesnar defeated The Rock to win his first WWE Championship. He conquered Hulk Hogan and Undertaker after that, before losing the title to Big Show due to Heyman screwing his client. Lesnar sought to regain the gold by winning the 2003 Royal Rumble and pinning Kurt Angle for his second WWE Championship at WrestleMania X-9.

No one in the history of pro wrestling has ever risen to the top quicker than the NCAA, WWE and UFC Champion…the Conquerer…BROCK LESNAR.

John Corrigan
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John Corrigan

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John Corrigan
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