Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Top Ten Things: Debut WrestleMania Matches

Welcome to yet another Top Ten Things, here at!

It's WrestleMania season and that means my brain looks for 'Mania-related nonsense to write about.  You can read a few of my previous such lists HERE, HERE and HERE.

Today I'll be talking about the greatest WrestleMania debuts in history.  By that I don't mean wrestlers who actually debuted at WrestleMania; that would be a short list that more or less begins and ends with Fandango (God, they actually jobbed out Chris Jericho to that guy....).  No, I mean the first WrestleMania match of a given wrestler or tag team (or in some cases multiple stars in the same match).  Looking back at the history of this great annual tradition, there have been some quite notable WrestleMania rookie performances.  In some cases a new star was launched right into the main event of the biggest show of the year, something that's basically unthinkable in today's WWE, where WrestleMania is more often than not The Showcase of Semi-Retirees.

But enough complaining; here, in chronological order, are the eleven greatest performances by WrestleMania rookies (plus four honorable mentions).  As noted, there are a couple of entries where I included every participant in a given match due to all of them being 'Mania first-timers.

Honorable Mentions

Ted Dibiase made his WrestleMania debut in the 1988 WWF Title tournament, lasting all the way to the finals and the main event, and coming withing a hair of winning the championship.

Kane's first 'Mania match was a near-show stealer of a semi-main event, as he took his onscreen brother The Undertaker to the limit.

Japanese sensation Shinsuke Nakamura made his 'Mania debut in a very good (not quite great) WWE Title match against AJ Styles, after winning the 2018 men's Royal Rumble.

Former UFC crossover star Ronda Rousey made her WrestleMania debut in 2018 as well, tagging with Kurt Angle to defeat Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, and shining a much bigger spotlight on the women's division.

1. British Bulldogs - WrestleMania 2

Davey Boy and Dynamite became a WWF tag team in 1985 and pretty quickly climbed the ranks, due in no small part to the excellent matches they were having with fellow Stampede Wrestling alums The Hart Foundation.  Their tag team feud was pretty legendary and brought new levels of athleticism to the WWF tag division, which up until that point mostly consisted of informal pairings of singles stars.  The Bulldogs would challenge Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake for the straps at the second WrestleMania, stealing the show in a hard-hitting, action-packed bout that culminated in one of the more unorthodox finishes I can remember; Davey rammed Valentine's head into Dynamite's rock-hard skull, knocking both of them out, and covered "The Hammer" for the win.  It was unusual but it got the job done, and the Bulldogs enjoyed a 10-month reign before being dethroned by their old rivals, Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart.

2. Demolition - WrestleMania IV

Echoing the Bulldogs' quick rise to fame, in 1987 longtime WWF midcarder Bill Eadie was teamed with NWA import Barry Darsow to form a Road Warriors-esque tandem called Demolition.  Ax and Smash, as they were now known, instantly caught the attention of the fans, with their rugged, smashmouth brawling style and colorful, intimidating appearance.  Strong booking and solid in-ring performances helped Demolition stand out from both the other WWF teams and their inspiration The Road Warriors, and by WrestleMania IV they were challenging Strike Force for the titles.  After a 12-minute battle, Demolition's manager Mr. Fuji handed Ax his cane, which was used to knock out Rick Martel and win Ax & Smash the championship.  Their first reign would "smash" all previous longevity records in the tag team division, lasting a whopping 16 months (a record that stood for 27 years) and cementing Demolition as one of the all-time great teams.

3. Nasty Boys - WrestleMania VII

Wow, ANOTHER tag team.  I'm gonna be honest, I never got why Brian Knobbs and Jerry Sags were pushed in every promotion they wrestled for.  I was never impressed with them in any capacity, and in the case of their WWF run I'm sure at least part of it was because of their friendship with Hulk Hogan.  But whatever the reason, Knobbs & Sags became number-one contenders for the tag belts a scant three months after their WWF debut (by winning a tag team battle royal), and at WrestleMania VII they captured the titles from the Hart Foundation, after which Bret and Jim went their separate ways.  The Nastys held the belts until SummerSlam when they ran into a brick wall known as The Legion of Doom.  They'd never win the titles again, and by early 1993 they were fired from the WWF.  But their 1991 rise to the top was shall we say, meteoric.

4. Sgt. Slaughter - WrestleMania VII

I hate that I have to include this one, but fair's fair.  Sgt. Slaughter, a top WWF attraction from the early and mid-80s, returned from a successful stint in the AWA in 1990 as an Iraqi sympathizer who had grown disillusioned with what he saw as the weakening of America.  Attempting to capitalize on the US-Iraq conflict, the WWF quickly shot Slaughter straight to the top of the card, giving him an upset WWF Title win over the Ultimate Warrior, and positioning him to face Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania VII.  Despite ticket sales so stagnant that the event had to be moved from the 100,000-seat LA Coliseum to the 10,000-seat LA Forum, Slaughter's first 'Mania appearance nonetheless deserves inclusion on this list due to it being a main event WWF Title defense.  He lost the strap, in one of the worst 'Mania main events of all time, but no one can take away from him the fact that he's a 'Mania main eventer.

5. Ric Flair - WrestleMania VIII

Another short-term heel WWF Champion, Ric Flair jumped to the WWF in the fall of 1991, in a move that sent shockwaves through the industry.  After a few months feuding with Roddy Piper, Flair made history by capturing the vacant WWF Title in the 1992 Royal Rumble, lasting over an hour in doing so.  That meant that Flair would be defending the championship in his first WrestleMania match.  The only question was, who would challenge him?  Initially it was to be Hulk Hogan, which would've been the biggest dream match in history, but for a multitude of reasons (Hogan taking time off to make movies, the Flair-Hogan house show matches failing to impress, Hogan wanting a big man to work with, etc.) the title match was changed to Flair vs. Randy Savage (much to my relief at the time) and moved to the middle of the card (much to my dismay).  Still Flair-Savage delivered big; a hotly contested 18-minute brawl that culminated in a quick rollup win for the "Macho Man."  Flair would remain near the top of the card and regain the title five months later, but dropped it to Bret Hart in short order before leaving the WWF in January '93.  His first stint in the company may have been brief, but it was anything but uneventful.

6. Yokozuna - WrestleMania IX

For the third consecutive year a new or returning WWF heel would make his WrestleMania debut in a WWF Title match.  Yokozuna, a Samoan playing a Japanese character, appeared on the scene in the fall of '92, destroying his competition in brutal squash matches designed to exploit his massive 500+-pound frame.  He was booked as an absolute monster who had never been knocked down, let alone beaten, and in the 1993 Royal Rumble he put in a short but dominant performance, last eliminating Randy Savage and becoming the first Rumble winner to be guaranteed a WrestleMania title shot.  That meant he'd face new Champion Bret Hart in a bizarre mismatch of styles.  The WrestleMania IX main event was unwieldy and only ran nine minutes, but Bret and Yoko put on a pretty entertaining little match before Mr. Fuji threw salt in Bret's eyes and cost him the title.  Yokozuna was the first-ever heel to win the belt at WrestleMania, but unfortunately for him (and everyone watching) the company booked Hulk Hogan to defeat Yoko in an impromptu match (God that ending sucked), and it wasn't until two months later that Yokozuna's title run began in earnest.  He would hold the belt from June until the following March, becoming the longest-reigning heel champ since "Superstar" Billy Graham before losing it back to Bret at 'Mania 10.  Yokozuna remained a WWF fixture for two years after that until more or less being replaced in the monster heel role by Vader.

7. Diesel - WrestleMania XI

Kevin Nash joined the WWF locker room in 1993 as Shawn Michaels' new bodyguard Diesel (the classic "heater" gimmick) and began a slow climb, first as a midcard heel and then as a fairly accomplished Intercontinental Champion who was fast ougrowing his role as Shawn's sidekick.  By the end of 1994 it was clear the company saw big things for Nash, and in the span of three days they turned him against Shawn (vacating the tag championship they'd won three months earlier) and had him challenge brand new WWF Champion Bob Backlund at a house show.  Diesel upset Backlund in an 8-second victory at Madison Square Garden, shades of Hulk Hogan's abrupt win over the Iron Shiek a decade earlier.  Diesel was now the company's choice to succeed Hogan as the oversized, heroic face of the WWF (a role they'd unsuccessfully attempted with Lex Luger a year earlier).  It only made sense that his debut WrestleMania match would be a title defense against his former friend Shawn Michaels, and in an easy Match of the Night the two locked horns, with Diesel enduring Shawn's unparalleled athleticism for over twenty minutes to retain the belt.  There was one problem though - Shawn was so good the fans began favoring him over the champ they were supposed to be cheering.  Diesel proved to be one of the worst-drawing champions in company history, and even after reuniting with Shawn it was obvious that Diesel wasn't gonna be "the guy."  He dropped the title to Bret Hart that November, and jumped to WCW in mid-1996.

8. Edge & Christian/Hardy Boyz/Dudley Boyz - WrestleMania 2000

The first of two matches where I've included all the participants, this Triangle Ladder Match raised the bar for insane spotfests impossibly high, as three young teams made a huge mark with their debut WrestleMania match.  Edge & Christian had been feuding on and off with the Hardyz for several months, dazzling fans with innovative offense and incredibly brisk pacing not seen since the Harts-Bulldogs feud in the 80s.  Then ECW imports Bubba Ray and D-Von entered the fray, and at WrestleMania 2000 the six men risked life and limb to bring the Ladder Match concept into the new millennium.  This 22-minute war featured a bevy of death-defying spots (including Jeff Hardy's 12-foot swan dive off the top of a ladder that still makes WWE highlight reels), and made the careers of all six men, while inventing the TLC match.  They'd repeat this match twice more (plus another bout that included Chris Jericho and Chris Benoit), dominating the division for the next two years and spearheading a WWF tag team resurgence.

9. Brock Lesnar - WrestleMania XIX

The first (and initially the brightest) graduate of the OVW Class of 2002, Brock Lesnar debuted on RAW the night after WrestleMania X8, kicking off a feud with the Hardy Boyz meant to showcase his uncanny power and deceptive agility.  Only five months later he defeated The Rock at SummerSlam for the Undisputed Championship, which I think is a record for a brand new talent.  Lesnar had a rocket strapped to his back, and despite a very weak feud with The Big Show where he was dethroned, it was pretty obvious he'd be the next new WrestleMania main eventer.  Lesnar won the 2003 Royal Rumble, while Kurt Angle unseated Big Show for the belt, setting the two accomplished grapplers on a collision course at the biggest show of the year.  Their WrestleMania XIX main event still stands as one of the best matches in the show's history, with Lesnar toughing out Angle's Olympic-class wrestling and overcoming a botched shooting star press to win his second WWE Championship.  Lesnar's first WWE run would only last one more year after that, but he made a major splash in a very short time and after a landmark UFC run and return to WWE, is now the biggest PPV draw in history.

10. Charlotte/Becky Lynch/Sasha Banks - WrestleMania 32

Our tenth entry is another instance of all the participants of a given match not only making their in-ring WrestleMania debuts but having an historical impact on the company.  In 2016 the ill-concieved Divas Championship was retired in favor of the returning WWE Women's Title.  Charlotte, the defending champion, would put the belt up for grabs against two of her fellow NXT Four Horsewomen, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, and the three stole the show at WrestleMania 32, putting together an athletic spectacle as good as any main roster women's match the company has ever delivered.  Charlotte retained that night but would spend the rest of 2016 feuding with Sasha, trading the title back and forth, and producing arguably the best rivalry of the year.  This match paved the way for the continued emphasis on the women's division and led to multiple PPV and TV main events for Charlotte and her sistren, and with the addition of Asuka and Ronda Rousey the future was indeed bright for the WWE women.

11. Bianca Belair - WrestleMania 37

One of the few recent NXT call-ups the company has really gotten behind, Bianca Belair won the 2021 Women's Royal Rumble to challenge Sasha Banks at 'Mania 37, and their 17-minute Night 1 main event stole the entire two-night card.  Sasha guided the relatively inexperienced Belair in a fashion worthy of Bret Hart, while Bianca herself demonstrated what a gifted, naturally charismatic athlete she is.  As of now this match ranks for me in the top ten WrestleMania main events in history, a classically booked story of a rising babyface star defeating a vaunted veteran champion to become one of the division's new cornerstones.  The company dropped the ball following up on this match - Becky Lynch would return from maternity leave and defeat Belair in 26 seconds - but they'd put things right at WrestleMania 38 with a similarly show-stealing Belair-Becky rematch.

That'll do it for this edition of Top Ten Things!

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