Ranking All 24 WWE Debuts & Returns In 2023

Edwin  - CEO December 17, 2023
Updated 2023/12/17 at 4:09 AM
33 Min Read
CM Punk returns to WWE ring
CM Punk returns to WWE ring

Every return & debut ranked



NXT call-ups, new hires and returning superstars bolster Raw, SmackDown.

by Scott Carlson


If consistent, steady booking and quality wrestling are the backbone and lifeblood of a successful promotion, then fresh faces and surprise returns are the adrenaline shots that gets fans’ hearts racing at intermittent points.

It’s no secret that the debut or return of a superstar often provides a jolt to the audience – an entrance theme either completely unknown or one not heard for a long time suddenly rings out, and fans get to their feet in unison. Viewers rush to social media and suddenly that surprise superstar is trending and WWE is the conversation.

But a debuting or returning wrestler is so much more than just that initial pop. Once the newness wears off, it’s what WWE does afterward that dictates whether that person’s (re)introduction is a success, a failure, or just one big “meh.”

This year saw the return of several superstars who were victims of Vince McMahon’s hatchet to the roster in 2020-22, while several NXT wrestlers finally found their way to the main roster. Along the way, WWE welcomed back a handful of legends and Hall-of-Famers who had been away from the company for quite some time.

And then of course, WWE dropped a thermonuclear return at Survivor Series, proving the point of this list.

Some of these were fantastic, while others have been complete flops. Several callups have received an incomplete grade at this stage. But where do your favorites rank?

A quick caveat: Returning from injury doesn’t count. Otherwise, this list would get out-of-hand.

Let’s get to it…

24. Odyssey Jones


CM Punk Trish Stratus



It’s unfortunate, but someone has to occupy the lowest spot on the list, and Odyssey Jones is the runaway “winner” for this slot.

Jones was part of the rather large NXT class drafted to the main roster in May, joining the Raw brand… and then he promptly was never heard from again.

That isn’t hyperbole. Odyssey never so much as wrestled a Main Event taping or dark match for Raw. He had a handful of dark matches over the summer – on SmackDown shows. His last match – period – came in September at India’s Superstar Spectacle house show, where he lost to Bron Breakker.

Barring a major change these last couple of weeks, it’s safe to call Jones’ 2023 a complete waste.


23. Alba Fyre & Isla Dawn


CM Punk Trish Stratus



If it wasn’t for the fact that Odyssey Jones hasn’t had any TV exposure since being called up, Alba Fyre & Isla Dawn would have been a likely candidate for the bottom spot on this list.

The duo was drafted to SmackDown as the reigning NXT Women’s Tag Team Champions, defended the titles once, and then lost them to the then-WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions, Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler, unifying the titles and nixing the NXT straps.

And that was the last televised match Fyre and Dawn have had… and that was in June.

The creepy duo showed up on NXT Halloween Havoc, and they’ve created a running gag that they are responsible for the women’s tag titles being “cursed,” but other than that, they’ve been non-factors on SmackDown. A handful of dark matches throughout the fall helped keep them out of the basement slot.


22. Indi Hartwell


CM Punk Trish Stratus



In NXT, Indi Hartwell was a central character in the women’s division and very likely was the masked attacker who took out several wrestlers, before her April callup forced them to change direction and make Blair Davenport the culprit.

Hartwell was drafted to Raw as the reigning NXT Women’s Champion, relinquishing the title before being carried off the developmental brand by her storyline husband, Dexter Lumis. She would appear in a few backstage segments, but she didn’t wrestle on Raw until July (though she was recovering from injury).

Since then, Indi has wrestled several times on Main Event and grabbed an NXT Women’s Championship match against Becky Lynch in October. The match wasn’t great, and Hartwell has yet to win a bout on Raw, making her little more than cannon fodder at this point.

By virtue of her pairing with Candice LeRae, Indi should always have a chance to be a challenger of the week for the WWE Women’s Tag Team Championship, but this still was a very disappointing callup for someone who was an NXT champion at the time of her promotion.


21. Cameron Grimes


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Cameron Grimes felt like a can’t-miss wrestler when he was drafted to SmackDown this spring. He fits the mold of a modern-day WWE superstar perfectly: huge character, good promo work, solid in-ring work.

So why is it late 2023 and he’s only wrestled eight matches on TV, losing his last six bouts and winless since May? Grimes went from a superstar headed “to the moon” to a roster-filler, losing to Grayson Waller and Austin Theory in three minutes in separate matches this fall.

Cameron still has a big upside, so he could make a surge at any time, but it’s also conceivable that he ends up “lost in the shuffle” for the foreseeable future.


20. Katana Chance & Kayden Carter


CM Punk Trish Stratus



NXT’s resident party girls have become the resident punching bags on Raw since being drafted to the red brand in May.

Kayden Carter and Katana Chance are a talented tag team, but they’ve never been little more than enhancement talent – proverbial space-fillers – since their callup. They lost to the WWE Women’s Tag Team Champions Ronda Rousey and Shayna Baszler in their debut match in June, then defeated Chelsea Green and Sonya Deville two weeks later.

Since then, KC-Squared has lost five tag matches, including three multi-team bouts to determine number one contenders. They’ve showed up in a few backstage segments as well along the way, but they have yet to make anything even remotely approaching an impact.

Carter and Chance are flashy enough that they should have a spot on the roster for a while and always continue to get looks, but their smaller stature might prove to be a hindrance. Hopefully, their talent will lead to them getting a better shot in 2024, but this was not a great debut year for the duo.


19. Indus Sher


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Rating a trio that has been up and down in WWE during the past year is difficult. Whether it’s Veer vacillating between Raw and NXT, Jinder Mahal going down to developmental to re-form Indus Sher, or Sanga getting called up to the main roster for the first time, there has been a lot of moving parts here.

The result is an imposing duo that has only had fleeting moments on television – three Raw tag matches this spring and nothing since – but also hasn’t been buried or booked to look incompetent.

In fact, Indus Sher made their return to Raw this fall in backstage segments and looked just as imposing as ever. Of course, there’s always the “…and then the bell rang” problem facing this group, but they’re at least positioned to make an impact should Triple H need heel monsters to serve up to the likes of the Creed Brothers.


18. Lita


CM Punk Trish Stratus



How do you rate a WWE Hall-of-Famer who won a title more than 15 years after she retired?

Unfortunately for Lita, her two-match run on Raw this year was little more than added fuel for WrestleMania season. She joined former nemesis Becky Lynch to topple Damage CTRL for the women’s tag titles, then added Trish Stratus to the mix to pick up a six-woman tag victory at Mania.

And then that was basically it for Lita. She appeared on Raw a bit more, but she got taken out by Trish and hasn’t been seen since. Her entire run existed to juice the WrestleMania card and to set up Stratus’ ill-fated heel turn.

This was a completely forgettable run, if not for the tag title victory providing a nice moment.


17. Trish Stratus


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Similar to her bestie Lita, had it not been for one moment – that steel cage match – Trish Stratus’ 2023 run would have been a case study in damaging legacies.

Stratus inexplicably turned heel on Becky Lynch, costing her the tag titles and kicking off a never-ending feud that disappointed at nearly every turn. Maybe it could have been considered a noble failure, but the writing and booking was abysmal. Trish cut horrendous promos, and her segments were among the most skippable on Raw each week.

It wasn’t until they got to her steel cage match against Lynch at Payback that fans saw an upside to this entire run. To be fair, everyone’s expectations were at an all-time low headed into that match, but Becky and Trish far exceeded even the most optimistic fan’s projections, leaving the promotion on a high note.

In the aftermath, Zoey Stark parlayed her increased TV time into an actual push, to the point where she’s become an integral part of the women’s roster on Raw. Trish deserves some credit for that, further bolstering this otherwise disappointing run.


16. The One-Offs


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Perhaps the most difficult thing to measure is the impact (if any) that wrestlers who make brief cameos have on the product.

Their appearances pop live crowds, and if announced ahead of time, they could juice ratings somewhat. But overall, these one-offs typically have no real lasting impact on the product other than making year-end lists and maybe a cool video clip.

No moment better encapsulates this entry than Raw is XXX. The 30-year anniversary special in January was a lot like previous anniversary programs, in that it featured a ton of Hall-of-Famers and WWE legends. Unlike previous specials (such as the 25th anniversary show), they actually booked this one well. Superstars such as Shawn Michaels, Undertaker, Kurt Angle, Ric Flair, X-Pac, Teddy Long, Hulk Hogan, Ted DiBiase, IRS, Lita, Alundra Blayze, The Godfather and Diamond Dallas Page appeared.

D-Generation X put over Imperium as a serious threat during their in-ring segment. Undertaker had a passing the torch moment with Bray Wyatt that sadly was never realized. And of course, Ron Simmons said “Damn.”

Other one-offs, such as Pat McAfee’s sporadic appearances, can also be lumped in this entry as inoffensive moments that can’t be ranked as disappointments, but also didn’t have lasting impacts on the product.


15. The Rock


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Although it was the definition of a one-off, The Rock’s surprise appearance on SmackDown in September, cutting Austin Theory to pieces, was a magical moment in WWE programming.

Rock’s first showing in WWE since before the pandemic was a tremendously fun moment for fans in attendance and generated huge numbers on social media. Ultimately, this one-off was all about the shock, the pop and the buzz, but all of that was truly seismic for that one night and in the days after.

Rock’s appearance also got fans talking about whether the Great One would have that long-rumored WrestleMania match against cousin Roman Reigns, so that in itself was an accomplishment.


14. Beth Phoenix


CM Punk Trish Stratus


Beth Phoenix’s blink-and-you-missed-it return this year consisted of one match and lasted less than a month, but it was so short and inoffensive that it merits decent placement on this list.

Phoenix returned at the Royal Rumble to back up her husband Edge in his feud with the Judgment Day, spearing Rhea Ripley to level the playing field. She and Edge challenged Finn Balor and Ripley to a mixed-tag match at Elimination Chamber, where the married couple emerged victorious.

Edge would go on to defeat Finn in a Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania 39, while Phoenix would step out of the limelight. If anything though, her brief return reinforced the notion that she would be an ideal Hall-of-Fame opponent for Ripley if WWE decided to pull the trigger.


13. Ivy Nile


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Had she been called up a couple of months earlier, it would be easier to give Ivy Nile a more complete ranking for the year.

But based on sheer potential alone, Nile should excel on the main roster. Despite having less than four years of in-ring experience, Ivy has showed her capability of holding her own in matches and flashing a unique personality in her offense. That’s something that can take years to develop, so she’s already ahead of the game there.

As part of Diamond Mine, Nile has a built-in way to get increased screen time seconding the Creed Brothers, even if she isn’t booked that night.

Consider this ranking a splitting of the difference between potential and a lack of empirical evidence.


12. Carlito


CM Punk Trish Stratus



At this stage, ranking returns and debuts gets a bit bunched, with several wrestlers being considered modest successes to slightly varying degrees.

When Carlito made a surprise run-in during Backlash this spring, it was a legitimate freak-out, feel-good moment for longtime fans. He ostensibly joined the LWO in helping Bad Bunny overcome Damian Priest and the rest of the Judgment Day in a San Juan street fight, then disappeared for several months.

Carlito returned in October at Fastlane to once again assist the LWO, but shortly after, tensions formed with Santos Escobar, leading to a fracturing of the group. With Rey Mysterio on the shelf with an injury, it will be interesting to see what kind of role Carlito will play.

The real test here will be whether fans will accept him as a regular character again, or whether it will be proven that he should be relegated to a guest spot, showing up periodically to get a pop, and then disappearing for a while. For now though, Carlito deserves a ranking smack in the middle.


11. Kairi Sane


CM Punk Trish Stratus



The re-signing of Kairi Sane has the potential to be a tremendous move for WWE, particularly if it leads to a real, impactful women’s stable that the earlier iteration of Damage CTRL wishes it could have been.

Sane left WWE more than three years ago during the pandemic to return home. She made her shock return to the company at Crown Jewel, immediately paying dividends by helping Iyo Sky retain her WWE Women’s Championship and joining Damage CTRL.

Her appearance and everything that has followed has put stable leader Bayley on her heels, generating actual interest in the group after it felt like it was languishing for quite a while.

None of this touches on what Kairi brings to WWE in the ring, providing another high-quality wrestler to a women’s division that can always benefit from another strong performer. This ranking could prove to be low in the coming weeks, but as of this writing (just after Survivor Series), Sane rates right in the middle for what could be coming soon.


10. Pretty Deadly


CM Punk Trish Stratus



What a debut year 2023 could have been for Pretty Deadly had it not been for an unfortunate injury.

Elton Prince and Kit Wilson were tailor-made for the WWE main roster, as any NXT fan would know, so their callup this spring felt like it couldn’t fail. And in many ways, it didn’t. It was Prince’s shoulder that failed during a July match against the Brawling Brutes, sidelining Pretty Deadly for three months and sidetracking their momentum.

Despite that, Prince and Wilson proved that they belong and that they will be successful on the main roster. One has to look no further than the absolutely hysterical video depicting Elton’s rehabilitation.



The injury might have delayed Pretty Deadly’s ascent, but all the pieces are there, and it’s only a matter of time before they realize their full potential on the main roster.


9. Grayson Waller


CM Punk Trish Stratus



One would think a wrestler who has lost more than half their matches since being called up to the main roster and regularly showing ass on SmackDown would be deemed a disappointment, but then that would ignore Grayson Waller’s entire purpose.

Waller has been referred to as the next generation’s version of Miz, an Australian upgrade from the Awesome One, albeit a better wrestler with a more entertaining shtick. Since being drafted to the blue brand this spring, Waller has been a regular fixture on SmackDown, and the Grayson Waller Effect has been a reliable segment that has garnered time during PLEs as well as television.

More recently, Grayson has teamed with another young project pegged for big things, Austin Theory (though this pairing has exposed the former United States Champion’s shortcomings alongside Waller).

Although the won-loss record doesn’t seem to indicate it, it’s pretty clear that WWE is betting on Waller to be a perfect midcard heel for them, and he remains well-positioned to fill that role. Call this a solid debut for Grayson, with good things on the horizon.


8. Creed Brothers


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Based on their late October Raw debut alone, the Creed Brothers should be on the fast track to becoming one of the biggest tag teams in WWE.

But even with Vince McMahon out of the creative picture, this still is WWE, so that rocket Julius and Brutus seemingly were strapped to when they defeated Alpha Academy veered into the comedy zone rather than heading straight to the top. The Creeds have won their first televised bouts in impressive fashion, but they’re already participating in backstage “comedy” segments.

Still, that shouldn’t derail this duo. Many great acts in WWE have had to go through their humor paces while establishing themselves. Maybe it’s a new kind of hazing ritual. Regardless, the Creeds have all the potential in the world, evidenced by how quickly they outgrew NXT and all but demanded a call-up without saying a word.

Given the showcase debut, the fact Triple H doesn’t hate tag teams like Vince did, and the sheer talent they possess, the Creed Brothers are extremely well-positioned for success.


7. John Cena


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Technically, John Cena shouldn’t qualify for this list since he’s always been under WWE contract, but given how long it’s been since he had a run involving multiple matches (nearly five years), his return to the company this fall deserves consideration.

Cena wrestled a poorly received match against Austin Theory at WrestleMania 39, losing to him in a United States Championship match that did him no favors. When Cena returned to WWE this fall during the actor’s strike, it wasn’t just a vanity project to keep him on television, but an opportunity to wash that bad taste out of everyone’s mouth.

Although Cena only wrestled two matches during this two-month run, he spent a considerable amount of his airtime doing something he never really did with Theory: putting someone else over. He gave LA Knight his due and endorsed him as a guy to challenge Roman Reigns for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship.

Cena also put over Solo Sikoa as a killer, allowing the Samoan to repeatedly spike him into a pool of quivering jelly on his way out of the company at Crown Jewel. That’s a feather in Solo’s cap in a way that it never was for Theory.

For the future Hall-of-Famer to come back and give two main roster stars a pretty good rub, that’s a really successful return.


6. Nia Jax


CM Punk Trish Stratus



There was every reason to believe that Nia Jax’s return to WWE this year was going to bomb horrifically. She was never booked well during her initial run and was little more than women’s division poison by the time she was released in 2021.

But after a decent run in the 2023 Royal Rumble, Jax returned full-time in September and immediately upended the Raw women’s division. She attacked several wrestlers in short order – Raquel Rodriguez, Zoey Stark, Shayna Baszler and Rhea Ripley – setting up several offshoot feuds for down the line and connecting everyone for future matches, uniting the division in a way that it never has been before.

And honestly, the women’s division has changed a lot since Nia was last in WWE. Ripley, Rodriguez and Piper Niven are all credible challengers who can match Jax’s size and strength, while wrestlers like Baszler, Stark, Becky Lynch and Natalya all could conceivably hang with her and beat her with a lucky shot.

Against all odds, Jax is a revelation to the women’s division this time around… so far. All it takes is some bad booking, an injured opponent or poorly received matches to tank this return.


5. JD McDonagh


CM Punk Trish Stratus



What can you say about the Judgment Day’s favorite punching bag?

McDonagh’s run in NXT was marked by good-to-great matches coupled with weird promos and uninteresting angles. When he was called up to the main roster, it felt like he’d be lost in the shuffle, a “good hand” who lost a lot and became a faceless opponent.

Several months later, and JD still loses as lot, but it’s as part of the biggest, most important stable in WWE at the moment, the Judgment Day (sorry, but the Bloodline is only truly relevant when Roman Reigns is around). McDonagh went from strange errand boy trying to catch on to full-fledged member during the course of several months, earning his stripes and becoming the perfect cannon fodder troop for the group – capable of having excellent matches, credibly battling top stars while still taking the pinfall when needed.

Whenever Judgment Day folds up tent, McDonagh could find himself lost in the shuffle, but he’s made the most of his rookie year on the main roster.


4. Zoey Stark


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Another NXT callup who felt like they were bound to get lost in the shuffle, Zoey Stark’s fortunes changed dramatically when she hooked up with Trish Stratus as a disciple of the Hall-of-Famer.

That sounds odd when you consider that Trish’s run was so abysmal, but that was because it was a downgrade for her. For Zoey, the ongoing angle with Becky Lynch meant exposure, purpose and focus to a run that to that point was at best meandering (Stark was tormenting Nikki Cross in backstage segments prior to this run).

Stark got to compete against Lynch multiple times, beating her once, and she completed a needed face turn by putting Stratus down at the end of her run with the company at Payback.

Since becoming a fan favorite, Zoey has held her own and become a fixture on Raw. Her talent alone should make her a main roster mainstay for years, and a title win is most likely in the cards for her.


3. Chelsea Green


CM Punk Trish Stratus



When Chelsea Green returned to WWE at the Royal Rumble – and was promptly eliminated – it produced an eyeroll moment. Did WWE really bring Green back to be little more than a jobber who can’t get it done in the ring?

In a manner of speaking, yes. And it’s actually worked really well. Green’s “Karen” character felt very forced and fake initially, but she’s refined it throughout the year and played off Adam Pearce, her various tag partners, and her opponents extremely well, portraying an entitled, delusional champion who repeatedly talks herself into trouble and is forced to either have her partner bail her out or take her medicine.

Chelsea gets high marks because of the camera time she steals every week and the fact that she’s one of only two wrestlers on this list to win a title during their return or debut this year. Regardless of what one thinks of the Women’s Tag Team Championship, that still merits some consideration.


2. Dragon Lee


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Dragon Lee’s callup to SmackDown this fall is a great example of how to showcase a truly significant talent in a way that doesn’t overexpose him too quickly, nor does it diminish his aura or potential.

Lee arrived on the main roster two months ago and has wowed audiences with his effortless style. He’s received an endorsement from Rey Mysterio as the future of lucha libre. His matches are treated as special occasions by the announcers, rather than just run-of-the-mill contests.

While Lee has won most of his matches so far, they’re mostly competitive bouts that show off his talents – see his two SmackDown matches against Cedric Alexander – rather than quick squashes to just give him meaningless wins. In other words, WWE is letting Dragon’s actions in the ring do the talking.

His loss to Santos Escobar at Survivor Series could be viewed as a setback, but when you consider that this was a high-profile PLE match in front of 17,000 rabid fans – who were chanting his name – that in itself was a victory. And you have to have faith that WWE is not going to screw this one up.


1. CM Punk


CM Punk Trish Stratus



Realistically, the moment “Cult of Personality” rang out at the end of Survivor Series, the top spot on this list was locked up.

For better or worse, CM Punk is a game-changer, a needle-mover, the conversation piece in professional wrestling. His return to WWE nearly 10 years after walking out on the company is nothing short of miraculous.

Of course, things could go south in record time – look no further than Punk’s AEW run and his comments about WWE as recently as two years ago – but up until that possible point, the Second City Saint will be a major player in the company and a focal point, both for storylines and for fans.

His return set the wrestling world on fire, so that alone merits top placement on this list… until the wheels fall off.


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