Ranking CM Punk and the 10 Best WWE and AEW Debuts in 2021
The WWE and All Elite Wrestling landscapes changed dramatically in 2021, with so many talented performers becoming free agents and others joining the SmackDown and Raw rosters from NXT.
The return of live crowds made a lot of these moments much more meaningful than they might have been without them. The sheer excitement in the arena that accompanied most of this year's debuts simply can't be replicated.
Even those who debuted without a crowd in attendance still managed to shine and leave their mark wherever they wound up. A successful first impression in any promotion can lead to big things for that individual, regardless of whether they're a newcomer or a seasoned veteran.
Not everyone can be so fortunate, though, as evidenced by Karrion Kross' badly butchered arrival on Raw over the summer. He never managed to recover from that and was later released from the company all together within a matter of months.
This year also saw several familiar faces wrestle for the first time, most notably Omos at WrestleMania 37 and Sting at Revolution 2021. Since both men had already appeared on WWE and AEW programming prior to January 1 (as well as the returning Finn Balor and Austin Theory), they won't be included in this list ranking the best WWE and AEW debuts of 2021.
These were the stars who made the biggest impact upon arrival.
There were a few people who made their AEW debuts in 2021 without actually signing a contract, and Kenta was one of them. After waiting months to get his rightful shot at the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship, he popped up on the Beach Break edition of Dynamite and laid out then-titleholder Jon Moxley with a devastating GTS. That marked the beginning of an exciting working relationship between AEW and New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
Minoru Suzuki was another notable name from NJPW fans were hoping to see surface in AEW eventually, and it finally happened at All Out on Sept. 5 when he interrupted Moxley's victory celebration. That led to the two having a brutal battle days later on Dynamite, followed by a Lights Out tag team match in New York City.
The five Labors of Jericho that MJF set up over the summer was a clever idea and gave Chris Jericho a batch of new opponents to work with, including GCW's Nick Gage. The deathmatch legend stayed true to his promise of delivering the most violent main event in Dynamite history by taking Jericho to hell and back.
Sammy Guevara had the internet buzzing on the same night he captured the AEW TNT Championship, when he called out then-free agent Bobby Fish as his first challenger the next week on Dynamite. Fish had a strong showing in defeat and looked like a man reborn following his abrupt exit from NXT.
Although her move to the main roster seemed to come out of nowhere, Aliyah certainly turned heads with her first official match as a member of the SmackDown brand on Nov. 12. She pinned Natalya in a six-woman tag team match to a noticeable ovation, though she hasn't been involved in much since.
Jamie Hayter originally appeared for AEW two years ago but wasn't signed to a deal until returning to the United States in August and debuting on the premiere episode of Rampage. She ended the night aligning with Britt Baker and Rebel and has since gone on to be a standout in the women's division.
The former Piper Niven was rechristened as Doudrop in June when Eva Marie introduced her as an insurance policy of sorts. She made quick work of Naomi and was immediately established as a dominant force in the Raw women's division.
The mystery entrant of this year's Casino Battle Royale at Double or Nothing saw Lio Rush make his shocking AEW debut and fly around the ring like a madman. He'd later put pen to paper on a deal with the company in September. Although brief, his run so far has produced a handful of fun matches.
10. Hit Row (WWE SmackDown, October 22)
Hit Row were among the handful of NXT talents that debuted on WWE's main roster this year and were later released without reason. However, unlike Karrion Kross, the group consisting of Isiah "Swerve" Scott, Top Dolla, B-Fab and Ashante "Thee" Adonis was actually handled well their first night in.
It was only in May that Hit Row came to be in NXT. Right away, they found their footing as a unit and connected with the crowd because they were so different from everything else on the show at that point.
They were still embroiled in a feud with Legado del Fantasma at the time of the 2021 WWE draft, so the fact that they were selected by SmackDown in the third round on Night 1 was certainly surprising. It was seen as the ultimate endorsement of a stable that had quickly shown their mettle.
Following a few weeks' worth of vignettes, Hit Row arrived on the Oct. 22 edition of the blue brand and introduced themselves to the WWE Universe through rap. Swerve and Top Dolla proceeded to win their tag team match against a pair of local athletes in decisive fashion.
Their eventual fate was shocking, unfortunate and unjustified, largely because their debut was so well received. They may no longer be with WWE, but the impression they left on the audience during their brief stint on Friday nights will not be forgotten.
9. Shotzi and Tegan Nox (WWE SmackDown, July 9)
With WWE one week away from returning to the road and being back in front of fans again for the first time consistently since early 2020, the company was looking to bolster the blue brand's roster in a major way. That led to the abrupt arrivals of Shotzi and Tegan Nox on the July 9 edition.
It was as sudden as could be considering both were involved in significant storylines on NXT at the time. Shotzi was still feuding with Raquel Gonzalez and teaming with Ember Moon, while Nox was fresh off her return from injury.
There was no rhyme or reason why they were put together, but they had chemistry as partners from the get-go and answered the open challenge issued by Natalya and Tamina that night. The match wasn't anything special, but it was a huge deal for the newcomers to knock off the WWE women's tag team champions in non-title action in their debut.
The teams met a further two times, and Shotzi and Nox won those matches as well. It appeared they'd be next in line for a shot at the belts before they were unceremoniously split up in the 2021 WWE draft, with Nox going to Raw and Shotzi staying on SmackDown.
Nox was inexplicably released in November, but Shotzi remains a bright spot on the blue brand and recently feuded with Sasha Banks.
8. Christian Cage (AEW Revolution 2021)
AEW has recruited a slew of stars to its stacked roster in recent months, but it's easy to forget that the company's first major acquisition of 2021 was none other than Christian Cage.
Christian started out the year making a surprise appearance in the 2021 men's Royal Rumble match in WWE. He hadn't wrestled a formal match in nearly seven years, so to see him back inside the squared circle and holding his own for as long as he did was an emotional moment for many—including Edge, who shared a hug with him in the ring.
It was widely believed he'd sign with WWE and have one more run there, but talks fell through and that was what led him to AEW instead.
On the final edition of Dynamite ahead of Revolution in March, Paul Wight teased there would be a debut of a Hall of Fame-worthy competitor at the pay-per-view. Speculation ran wild and, ultimately, it was revealed to be Christian.
Fans setting their hopes a bit too high hindered the excitement slightly, but it was still surreal once it started to settle in. Not only was Christian cleared to compete, he was ready to wrestle full-time again, and he's had a terrific run since.
7. Jay Lethal (AEW Full Gear 2021)
The idea of Jay Lethal in AEW would have been a pipe dream even two months ago, but news of Ring of Honor's impending closure led to the Forbidden Door being broken down again and Jay Lethal making an emphatic entrance into the company.
Minutes before the main event of November's Full Gear PPV was set to take place, Tony Schiavone announced that AEW had signed yet another top free agent on the market. Fans waited with anticipation to see who it would be and reacted favorably when Lethal's name was said.
In addition to officially declaring he was "all elite," he accepted Sammy Guevara's TNT Championship open challenge for that Wednesday's edition of Dynamite. The two went on to have an excellent match that saw Guevara emerge victorious.
Lethal's debut played out similarly to Christian Cage's, but the biggest difference was that his wasn't foreshadowed in advance. There were no reports in the days preceding Full Gear indicating he was AEW-bound, making the moment that much cooler.
The former ROH world champion brings a wealth of experience and nearly two decades' worth of experience. He'll prove to be a valuable asset to the roster going forward, and he's already off to a solid start.
6. Damian Priest (WWE Royal Rumble 2021)
Following his loss to Karrion Kross at NXT's New Year's Evil episode at the onset of 2021, it was apparent Damian Priest was headed to either Raw or SmackDown imminently. Sure enough, he was a surprise entrant in the men's Royal Rumble match later in January.
He didn't appear in the matchup representing NXT; rather, his involvement was meant to mark his official debut as a member of the main roster.
Priest wasted no time taking the fight to everyone else in the ring and eliminating the likes of Elias, The Miz and John Morrison with the help of award-winning rap artist Bad Bunny. He also stood toe-to-toe with Hall of Famer Kane and threw him out in impressive fashion.
All in all, The Archer of Infamy lasted 15 minutes before being eliminated by the destructive Bobby Lashley. His interactions with The Miz and Morrison gave him his first feud on the main roster and culminated at WrestleMania 37 with him and Bad Bunny beating the Dirt Sheet duo.
The only thing missing from this moment was the genuine live crowd reaction due to happening in the ThunderDome prior to the return of fans. Otherwise, it was an excellent introduction for the eventual United States champion.
5. Ruby Soho (AEW All Out 2021)
One of the many causalities of WWE's "budget cuts" this year was the exceptionally talented Ruby Riott, who many would say never got a fair shake on the main roster.
For nearly four years, she was positioned as a tag team player on Raw and SmackDown but never once held the WWE Women's Tag Team Championship. The closest she came to securing singles gold was when she unsuccessfully challenged Ronda Rousey for the Raw women's title in early 2019.
Of course, WWE's loss proved to be AEW's gain.
The timing of her release couldn't have been better as her 90-day no-compete clause expired days before the All Out PPV over Labor Day weekend. That allowed her to enter the second-ever Casino Battle Royale for the ladies as the joker and win the whole thing.
Although the Chicago crowd could sense it was coming, it was still a memorable moment and a satisfying conclusion to the contest. The rechristened Ruby Soho came off more like a star that one night than she ever did in WWE and set the stage for the latest chapter of her career.
4. Rhea Ripley (WWE Royal Rumble 2021)
Rhea Ripley was in a similar situation to Damian Priest at the 2021 Royal Rumble in that she was ready for prime time at that point and had finished up her run in NXT a few weeks earlier.
The Nightmare was a shoo-in to not only participate in the women's Rumble but also potentially come out on top and punch her ticket to WrestleMania 37. She entered at No. 14 and immediately cleaned house by eliminating everyone in sight.
From Alexa Bliss and Toni Storm to Mandy Rose and Dakota Kai, no one was safe from Ripley's wrath. She scored a measure of revenge by getting rid of her rival Charlotte Flair before barely being eliminated by Bianca Belair.
It can be argued that her official Raw debut didn't come until two months later when she resurfaced on the red brand and challenged Asuka to a Raw Women's Championship match at The Show of Shows. She took the title, reigned as champ for over three months and won the WWE Women's Tag Team Championship with Nikki A.S.H. in the fall.
Regardless of which moment you consider to be her debut, she was positioned as a star straight out of the gate and has had quite the rookie year on the main roster.
3. Malakai Black (AEW Dynamite, July 7)
Aleister Black was released from WWE the same day as Ruby Soho, and no one could understand exactly why. He had just re-debuted on SmackDown with a new gimmick and was set to feud with Big E heading into the summer, but it apparently wasn't enough to spare him from being let go.
Of the many promotions out there, AEW felt like the best landing spot for someone of his caliber. Like everyone else who was cut from the company on June 2, his no-compete clause was expected to be up in early September and he could have debuted at All Out, too.
Instead, the former NXT champion shocked the world by showing up on the July 7 edition of Dynamite, which just so happened to be the first back in front of fans, and attacking Cody Rhodes and Arn Anderson. The crowd couldn't believed what they were seeing when the lights came back on and Black was standing in the middle of the ring across from Cody.
A debut like that tends to be spoiled in advance, but that wasn't the case here at all. AEW somehow managed to keep it under wraps, which is nearly unheard in wrestling in this day and age.
He had no trouble fitting into the AEW landscape and went over strong in his debut match against Rhodes, sending the message that his future knows no bounds.
2. Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole (AEW All Out 2021)
AEW's level of momentum was at an all-time high heading into All Out as even with the blockbuster debut of CM Punk, there were rumblings more exciting arrivals were on the way, most notably Bryan Danielson.
All signs seemed to point to it happening following Kenny Omega's successful defense of the AEW World Championship against Christian Cage. When the lights went out with The Elite in the ring, everyone assumed Danielson would appear, but Adam Cole emerged instead and the Chicago crowd went wild.
Cole was fresh off a self-imposed exit from WWE and had just seen his contract expire a little over a week earlier. He felt like a natural fit in AEW, but there was no telling when the company would have him show up.
Given his history with The Elite, Cole joining them at the end of the event made perfect sense. The audience then got sent home happy once Danielson walked out and blew the roof off the building for a second time in a matter of minutes.
The art of a double debut is difficult to master, but AEW nailed it with these two. They wind up on the same spot in the rankings because they were essentially the same and it wasn't as if either of them was overshadowed by the other.
Rather, the execution was pure perfection.
1. CM Punk (AEW Rampage, August 20)
CM Punk had been gone from wrestling for so long that many had come to terms with the likelihood of his return never happening. The closest he came to signing with AEW was when the promotion first started up, but once that fell through, the ship seemed to have sailed.
Then, almost exactly 10 years removed from his career-altering WWE title win at Money in the Bank 2011, Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful broke the news that Punk was in talks with AEW for a return to wrestling.
It didn't feel real until his arrival approached and AEW announced their largest arena show ever in Chicago weeks out from All Out in the same city. It wasn't a reality until the first notes of "Cult of Personality" hit and the crowd came unglued.
You never know how a long-awaited, highly anticipated moment like that is going to go until it actually happens. No matter whether you're a fan of his or not, it's easy to understand how important Punk's return was to wrestling based on the raucous reaction alone.
His hometown crowd roared with approval, showered him with adulation and shed tears of joy. That was all before he even muttered a word, and once he did, it was apparent that he was speaking from the heart.
No one interrupted and no one needed to. Punk gave the people what they wanted and even went so far as to put over the future of AEW and set up his first opponent in Darby Allin for All Out.
With the circumstances surrounding it being just right, this debut, return, piece of magic or whatever you prefer to classify it as will go down as not only the best of the year but also one of the greatest ever.
Graham Mirmina, aka Graham "GSM" Matthews, has specialized in sports and entertainment writing since 2010. Visit his website, WrestleRant, and subscribe to his YouTube channel for more wrestling-related content.