When AJ Styles made his debut at the Royal Rumble in January, fans wondered how WWE would handle his booking.
Styles was the biggest star in professional wrestling to have never competed in the company full-time. He had been the face of TNA, a former ROH standout and the IWGP Champion in New Japan. But there was still anxiety over whether the company would respect his legacy or treat him as an afterthought.
Less than eight months later, Styles became WWE Champion and is now the top superstar on the SmackDown Live brand. The Gainesville, Georgia native is having one of the best first years in WWE history. But he’s not the only superstar to find immediate success with the company.
Here’s a look at some of the best first years in WWE history.
Before putting together the greatest streak in WrestleMania history, the Undertaker was a mysterious character who debuted at the 1990 Survivor Series. During his first WrestleMania match, the Deadman defeated “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka and feuded with the Ultimate Warrior shortly after. Undertaker won his first WWE Championship at the 1991 Survivor Series, one year after making his debut.
Yokozuna made his television debut on Oct. 31, 1992 as a monster heel sumo wrestler. After dominating his competition, the 500-pounder defeated Bret Hart for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania IX, before losing it to Hulk Hogan minutes later. But the first-year star won the belt back two months later and held it for 280 days.
Kevin Nash had a handful of forgettable gimmicks during his first WCW run. But his Vinnie Vegas character caught the eye of Shawn Michaels, who told Vince McMahon to sign him. Nash eventually became Michaels’ bodyguard and both the Diesel character and the Kliq was born.
Diesel made his official debut in June 1993 and won the Intercontinental Championship 10 months later. The momentum from his first year carried over to a WWE Championship 17 months later.
Of course Brock Lesnar was pushed to the moon during his first year. What else would you do with a manbeast on your roster? Lesnar made his official WWE debut in March 2002 and defeated The Rock for the Undisputed Championship at SummerSlam five months later. The former NCAA wrestling champion held the title for 84 consecutive days before losing it and reclaimed the belt a little more than a year after his initial debut.
You’ll notice a theme here. Like Lesnar, John Cena was a former OVW trainee in the early 2000s who was hot-shotted to success on the main roster. It was the perfect storm of WWE recruiting top talent and needing to replace the aging stars of the Attitude Era. Cena started as a smiling babyface in June 2002 before developing a heel rap gimmick several months later.
He emerged as a popular act in his debut year and eventually worked against the likes of Lesnar, The Undertaker and many other top SmackDown stars. Cena eventually turned babyface and won his first United States Championship against Big Show in his WrestleMania debut in 2004.
Few expected rising star Sheamus to defeat John Cena in a tables match for the WWE Championship at the 2009 TLC pay-per-view less than six months after his main roster debut. But the Irish superstar shocked the world and held the belt for 70 days. He added a second reign just before his one-year anniversary as a main roster competitor, which solidified him as one of the company’s top stars early.
Kevin Owens entered his main roster run with a similar outlook to Styles, as far as fan anxiety of how he’d be used. He was an internet darling who excelled in almost every independent promotion. But Owens had a successful NXT Championship run and a huge endorsement by Triple H to his credit. The former ROH Champion defeated John Cena clean in his first match and went on to hold the Intercontinental Championship multiple times during his first year. That success made him a top heel and put him in line for his current reign as WWE Universal Champion.