Since the death of WCW in 2001, wrestling in the United States has lacked something. That something is a huge star jumping from one show to another, firing shots at their former employer as they made their competition stronger and added a new chapter to their career.
Since WWE became a monopoly in 2001, the chance for a huge surprise debut became less and less. There were so few stars outside WWE, and no company that came even close to WWE’s popularity, that anyone who did come in would not be immediately familiar to the audience.
Whilst Ring of Honor and TNA tried their best to become a challenger to WWE, they never managed to truly compete with the big boys. Luckily in 2019 Tony Khan and The Elite began to expand their empire with the start of the new wrestling promotion, All Elite Wrestling.
AEW brought one thing back that had been sorely missing from wresting – surprise debuts. Disgruntled WWE wrestlers now had somewhere else to go. They had a company that they could help build up and become a genuine competitor to WWE, backed by the billionaire owner of the Jacksonville Jaguar’s and Fulham FC.
A number of wrestlers jumped ship from WWE, or other promotions, to create huge waves in wrestling in AEW. Here are the top 10 surprise debuts in AEW history.
AEW surprise debuts
10. Awesome Kong
Awesome Kong is one of the greatest women wrestlers in history. In TNA her battles with Gail Kim were legendary, and the pair regularly eclipsed anything the WWE Women’s Division could do.
Despite a brief spell in WWE which was curtailed by a pregnancy and eventual medical issues, she was a still a huge name in women’s wrestling. When Awesome Kong was revealed as a surprise entrant in the women’s Fatal 4 Way match at AEW Double or Nothing 2019, the crowd exploded.
Kong’s run in AEW was brief, due to TV commitments and injuries taking away a lot of her time. However, her debut was one to remember and the first on this list of the great AEW surprises.
Whilst it didn’t go as far as some people would have hoped, KENTA’s AEW debut was the first sign of the forbidden door being opened. Prior to his debut on AEW Dynamite, NJPW refused to work with AEW at all after feeling hurt by Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks leaving them to form the promotion.
However, the Forbidden Door was blown wide open when the former Hideo Itami ran in after an AEW Dynamite main event, hitting Jon Moxley with a GTS before removing his hood to reveal the enormity of his actions.
KENTA would wrestle only once in AEW, in a tag team falls count anywhere match in the main event of AEW Dynamite. He would tag with former IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kenny Omega to take on Jon Moxley and Lance Archer, both of whom had competed for the IWGP United States Heavyweight Championship at the past years Wrestle Kingdom show.
KENTA’s AEW run was short but it was the first time anyone had stepped through the Forbidden Door from NJPW to AEW. Other wrestlers like Minoru Suzuki and Tomohiro Ishii have since made their AEW debuts, but that would not have been possible without KENTA’s surprise AEW debut.
Miro, or Rusev as he was called previously, was one of the most underutilised superstars WWE had and a huge get for AEW.
Miro was revealed on AEW Dynamite as the “Best Man” for the wedding of Kip Sabian and Penelope Ford. Whilst his following gimmick of a gamer was not great, his debut was the perfect blend of excitement and curiosity that AEW so well.
He has since had a fantastic run as the AEW TNT Champion and looks set to be a main event player for AEW when he returns from injury, some time later in 2022.
Nobody who tuned in to watch AEW Winter is Coming 2020 thought that they would wind up seeing one of the biggest legends in wrestling history make their surprise AEW debut.
However, when Sting showed up the arena went absolutely crazy as the 61 year old WWE Hall of Famer fought off Team Taz, teased a match with Cody Rhodes and showed early glimpses of his alliance with Darby Allin. It came just a couple of years after Sting was forced to retire due to neck injuries, and had been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame prior to his release from the company.
Sting had been largely wasted in WWE. His only Wrestlemania match came against Triple H, who for some unknown reason decided he should beat The Icon in Sting’s first WWE match. When all was said and done, Sting only wrestled four times in WWE, his last match against Seth Rollins causing the neck injury that forced him into retirement.
Sting’s career in WWE did not end on his own terms, and the legendary wrestler was determined to go out his own way. He has tagged with Darby Allin on a number of occasions in AEW, and the pair are currently one of the top ranked teams in AEW. But whatever he does in AEW, nothing will compare to the snow falling inside the arena as Sting returned to TNT for the first time in nearly twenty years.
Ever since their days in NXT, fans wished for one of the best tag team dream matches of all time – The Revival vs The Young Bucks. Two teams with vastly opposing styles and vastly different outlooks on wrestling with one goal – to prove they are the best tag team in the world.
For years, The Revival were stuck in WWE, somewhere the Young Bucks refused to go. The Young Bucks turned down millions of dollars offered by Triple H to go to WWE, partly due to the horrible treatment of the Revival and the tag team division as a whole. As lovers of tag team wrestling, they stayed away and almost shut the door on the dream match between the two teams.
However, The Revival were eventually released by WWE and took on a new name – FTR. Formerly meaning “Fuck the Revival” and used as an insult by the Young Bucks on Being the Elite, they took it as a badge of honour and looked to finally their match against their long time rivals.
However, FTR began life in AEW as faces. They made their debut by driving a truck into Daily’s Place on the AEW Dynamite after AEW Double or Nothing 2020. They ran in to save the Young Bucks from an ambush, fighting off their opponents and finally sharing a ring with the Young Bucks. Fans were beside themselves, going crazy seeing these two teams share a ring after years of thinking it was a dream match that would never happen.
The two teams would eventually wrestle, but FTR’s debut was one of the best debuts in AEW history.
5. Adam Cole
Former NXT Champion Adam Cole (BayBay) made his incredible AEW debut at the end of AEW All Out 2021. Cole came out to the ring after Kenny Omega defeated Christian Cage, and teased tension between the former Bullet Club members.
However, they soon hugged and Adam Cole was revealed as AEW’s newest signing and newest member of the Elite.
Fans are hyped for his eventual turn and Elite civil war that will ensue.
4. Brodie Lee
For months, Luke Harper, or Brodie Lee, begged for his release from WWE. He wanted to get out of the company as he sat on the shelf, not being used as his career wasted away.
Knowing that his life would end not one year into his AEW career makes this an even sadder tale. However, in the run he did have in AEW, he showed just what an incredible wrestler he was and how he could have been a World Champion if given the chance.
He debuted on the first pandemic-era show in AEW history. The event was meant to take place in his hometown, but due to COVID-19 was moved to it’s long-time residence in Florida. There, along with Matt Hardy, he debuted on AEW Dynamite in front of an eerie crowd of zero.
Brodie Lee debuted as the leader of the evil group known as The Dark Order. He was their “Exalted One”, who led the cult-like stable and struck fear into all that he faced. His debut reveal reveal as The Exalted One showed a new side to the former Luke Harper and inspired fans to think that he could be a huge star in the company.
Sadly, he passed away on Boxing Day 2020 from a lung condition. His death sent shockwaves across the wrestling industry, especially after having one of the best debuts in AEW and an incredible run afterwards.
3. Jon Moxley
The first shot was fired in the war between AEW and WWE when Jon Moxley made his surprise debut at AEW Double or Nothing.
The former WWE Champion shocked fans as he emerged from the crowd after the main event of the show, attacking both Chris Jericho and Kenny Omega to stamp his authority on All Elite Wrestling.
Moxley had only been out of WWE for a few weeks, and few fans expected him to debut in another major promotion so soon. He soon became one of the biggest stars in the promotion and a huge loss for WWE.
He had recently been the focus of a special “The Shield” live event in WWE, where the final match involving Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns took place. He wasn’t part of Wrestlemania that year due to his contract expiring, but was still one of the biggest stars in WWE.
It was one of the biggest and most surprising defections from one company to another since Kevin Nash and Scott Hall invaded WCW in 1996.
2. Bryan Danielson
When Daniel Bryan lost to Roman Reigns to banish him from Smackdown, there was a real fear that he could retire for good. WWE did their best to keep him contracted, even offering to let him wrestle in the G1 Climax to keep him locked down to a WWE contract.
However, he let his deal expire and in May 2021, Daniel Bryan was a free agent in wrestling for the first time in 12 years. So, the former WWE Champion simply took some time off to spend with his wife and his children, not wrestling whilst able for the first time since he was 18 years old.
It was a strange time. Fans were excited by the chance of coming to AEW, but it was impossible. He was a WWE fan, a friend to Vince McMahon and his wife was a WWE Hall of Famer. He was never, ever going to sign to AEW just so he can wrestler whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted.
Except after Adam Cole made his own surprise AEW debut at All Out 2021, Bryan Danielson interrupted The Elite reunion to shock the world and make his surprise debut in All Elite Wrestling,
He has since once again proved himself to be the best wrestler in the world. His matches against Kenny Omega and Adam Page are among the best AEW matches ever and he shows no signs of slowing down.
1. CM Punk
There has not been a surprise debut or return in wrestling for a long, long time that compares to CM Punk. If ever.
CM Punk walked out on WWE at the 2014 Royal Rumble, not being seen inside a wrestling ring for another seven years. In those years, fans speculated when finally their hero would return. Could he go back to Ring of Honor, where he made his name? Maybe even go to New Japan, as he said in his famous Pipebomb promo?
Instead, he stayed away. And as time went on and CM Punk aged, fans lost faith that their straight-edged saviour would return to save wrestling. But then, AEW started up and quickly became the hardcore fans wrestling company of choice.
One by one, favourites of the internet fans made their way from WWE to AEW. From Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley to Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson, wave after wave of former WWE star decided to call AEW home.
Soon enough, the rumours began. AEW had booked a show, their second ever episode of AEW Rampage, in a huge arena in Chicago. Nothing was booked for the show, nothing was announced. Fans sold out the arena, based simply on a whisper and rumour that CM Punk, Chicago’s favourite son, might be returning to wrestling.
When the first few notes of “Cult of Personality” hit, the fans went wild. They had been chanting his name for what felt like hours prior to the show, and it was a wave of relief and excitement when CM Punk made his AEW debut and had one of the greatest surprise returns of all time.
Words can’t do it justice, you’ll simply have to watch it below.