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Superstar origins: 8 debuts that changed WWE
Everyone remembers the night John Cena made his debut by answering an open challenge from Kurt Angle on SmackDown, but not every future star’s first WWE bout is so unforgettable.
Discover the obscure origins of Hulk Hogan, Batista, Daniel Bryan and more as WWEClassics.com looks back at the opening shots of eight WWE Superstars.
Five years before Hulkamania redefined sports-entertainment, The Immortal One was under the tutelage of “Classy” Freddie Blassie as “The Fabulous” Hulk Hogan. Draped in a golden cape, The Hulkster made his WWE debut on Dec. 17, 1979, inside Madison Square Garden. Hogan’s first opponent was second-generation Superstar and WWE’s first North American Champion (a pre-cursor to the Intercontinental Title), Ted DiBiase.
Initially, Hogan struggled against his gifted opponent. However, the sheer size, raw power and overconfidence of the future WWE Hall of Famer eventually swayed momentum into his favor. Putting a halt to DiBiase’s offense, Hogan applied a crushing bear hug to secure his first-ever victory in WWE.
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin
WWE Hall of Famer “Stone Cold” Steve Austin made a name for himself as a United States and Tag Team Champion during his tenure in WCW. Known as “Stunning” Steve Austin, The Texas Rattlesnake was unceremoniously fired by WCW President Eric Bischoff, who did not think Austin would ever be world championship material.
Determined to prove the world wrong, Austin eventually made his way to WWE as a Million Dollar Man protégé known as The Ringmaster. On Jan. 15, 1996, Austin has his first opportunity to show the WWE Universe what he was capable of inside the squared circle. Battling a young Matt Hardy, Austin dominated the contest, proving he was worthy of the Million Dollar Title and beyond.
Daniel Bryan took the WWE Universe by surprise during his first match on WWE NXT in 2010 when he took Chris Jericho to the limit. However, that memorable contest was not Bryan’s first WWE match. The future WWE Champion’s debut actually took place on Feb. 8, 2003, on Velocity against John Cena. The Cenation leader was becoming a breakout star in the second half of 2002 and was looking to claim the WWE Championship, but on that Saturday in 2003, he faced a young Daniel Bryan and nearly lost the bout.
Bryan was a rising star on the independent scene before he competed in WWE. His bout against Cena was unorthodox and offered a glimpse of the raw talent that would help him find success a decade later. Although he was unable to defeat John Cena that evening, he was successful against The Champ at SummerSlam 2013, capturing his first WWE Championship.
Before he was known as “The Animal,” former WWE and World Heavyweight Champion Batista accompanied Reverend D-Von to ringside as Deacon Batista. Wearing a suit with the sleeves ripped off, the massive Superstar was an imposing sight and offered Reverend D-Von the added security he needed inside the squared circle.
Eventually, D-Von recruited Deacon Batista to be his tag team partner in a bout against Farooq and Randy Orton. On June 27, 2002, the WWE Universe got their first look at the power and brutality of the individual who would become one of the most popular competitors of the early 21st century. Orton — also inexperienced — wasn’t prepared for the intensity of his future Evolution colleague, and Batista dropped The Viper with a spinebuster to claim victory for himself and D-Von.
There’s little room for arguing that Randy Orton was meant to be a WWE Champion. His grandfather was Bob Orton Sr., his father was WWE Hall of Famer “Cowboy” Bob Orton and The Viper was determined to surpass the legacies of both as he forged his own path. On the April 25, 2002, episode of SmacDown, Orton was only 22 years old when he infuriated Mr. McMahon into setting up his first match against Hardcore Holly.
At the time, Holly had a reputation as being one of the toughest Superstars in WWE. Mr. McMahon’s intention was not so much a tryout for Orton as it was to be a beating. Nevertheless, The Viper defied the odds and stunned the WWE universe when he managed to roll up Holly for the first of many victories.
Most fans remember CM Punk’s first battle against ECW original Justin Credible inside Hammerstein Ballroom in 2006 – many also erroneously consider that to be his WWE debut. Initially competing on the independent scene before joining WWE, The Second City Saint appeared twice on Sunday Night Heat in spring 2005. Misidentified as “Chad Collyer,” Punk tagged with Chad Russell Simpson as the oddly named Team of CM Punk in a bout against the duo of Maven & Simon Dean.
One month later, Punk was defeated by Val Venis, but his charisma and talent impressed WWE officials enough to earn the Chicago native a contract. Few knew it at the time, but the longest WWE Championship reign of the modern era was not far away.
Before he was WWE COO and even before he was The Game, Triple H competed in WCW as both Terra Ryzing and Jean-Paul Levesque. Making his way to WWE in 1995, “The Connecticut Blueblood” Hunter Hearst Helmsley let his affluence and snobbery run wild as he aspired to the WWE Championship.
On the April 30, 1995, edition of The Wrestling Challenge, Triple H made his WWE in-ring debut against WCCW and AWA veteran Buck Zumhofe. Although experience seemed to tip the scales in Zumhofe’s favor, Triple H wasted no time in showing the WWE Universe that they were witnessing the first match of a future legend. In a little more than two minutes, Helmsley defeated the veteran and set his sights on greater opponents and accomplishments.
The son of WWE Hall of Famer Rocky Johnson and the grandson of “High Chief” Peter Maivia, The Rock is WWE’s first-ever third generation Superstar. Although The Great One eventually lived up to his legendary lineage and surpassed the accomplishments of his forefathers by a great margin, The Rock’s career began at Survivor Series 1996 inside Madison Square Garden.
Debuting alongside Marc Mero, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and The Stalker in a Traditional Survivor Series Match, The Rock was opposed by four experienced villains — Jerry “The King” Lawler, Goldust, Crush and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Few expected The Rock to accomplish what he did that evening as he won the match as the sole survivor for his team. As The Rock overcame the challenge before him, the WWE Universe witnessed the first glimpse of the greatness to come.