2017 was a wild year in the world of professional wrestling, but it's finally drawing toward a close. Over the course of 12 months, the WWE on ESPN staff has watched hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of wrestling programming, and we've seen the best (and worst) of it all. In recognition of the greatest achievements inside of the squared circle in 2017, we've gotten together to make our picks in 10 different categories, covering individual performances, teams, rivalries and shows.
Our "Best of 2017" kicks off, appropriately enough, with the best debuts, covering a wide scope of first impressions across several companies and brands.
There were some incredible debuts in the WWE in 2017, and even though I'm giving Samoa Joe's explosive debut on Raw the edge, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it beat out The Undisputed Era's invasion at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III by just a hair, at least in my estimation.
After becoming the first-ever two-time NXT champion in Toronto in late 2016, Joe lost the title back to Shinsuke Nakamura in Japan and had a grand total of two more NXT matches, before diving head first into the deep end on Raw. On Jan. 30, 2017, Triple H made his first appearance on Raw in five months to respond to Seth Rollins calling him out the previous weekend at NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. Following a heated promo, one of the best Triple H had cut in years, Rollins finally came out to seek out his revenge against his former boss, only for Joe to come charging out of the crowd and lay him out moments before he could achieve retribution.
Joe picked Rollins up by the hair, held him in Triple H's face, and then Triple H departed, his trap set. "You belong to me know," proclaimed Joe, and that's when he made his true debut statement. Joe rolled Rollins back into the ring, landed a trio of splashed and then locked in a coquina clutch to choke out the former WWE and NXT champion. Rollins, unfortunately, suffered a knee injury during that moment, but Joe's debut ultimately helped to make the WrestleMania match between Rollins and Triple H all the more emotional and heated.
Samoa Joe proceeded to do big things in his first year in the WWE, though he inexplicably found himself off the WrestleMania card entirely. He quickly proved just how big a mistake that was and how big a star he could be going forward in a pair of Universal championship matches: first with a one-on-one match against Brock Lesnar that far exceeded expectations, and then with an incredible Fatal 4-Way showdown at SummerSlam that also involved Braun Strowman and Roman Reigns. In just one year, Joe has accomplished a great deal on Monday Night Raw -- and he shows little sign of slowing down anytime soon. (Tim Fiorvanti)
After he lost his NXT title rematch to Bobby Roode at Takeover: Orlando, many figured that Shinsuke Nakamura would be on his way to the main roster. With the crowd mimicking and singing along to his now-signature theme music, "The Artist" made his debut on SmackDown Live two nights after WrestleMania 33 -- signaling a new start for the former IWGP and NXT heavyweight champion. New feuds with Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin and Jinder Mahal propelled Nakamura into the WWE title picture in the summer and fall months.
Although he did not come out on top in his feud with Mahal, Nakamura won matches decisively over John Cena and Randy Orton to earn two opportunities at the WWE championship. Nakamura's unique presence and his signature set of maneuvers, most notably the Kinshasa running knee strike, have the Japanese superstar poised to work his way back into the WWE title picture in 2018 as a fan favorite. (Andrew Davis)
Despite a brief run at the United States title, Tye Dillinger's main roster run hasn't had much meat to it thus far. But his entrance into the 2017 Royal Rumble was perfect. His "Perfect 10" gimmick in NXT had caught fire, not just during his matches, but anytime there was a 10-count for somebody outside the ring -- they were all tens. After the Big Show came out at nine, the crowd got what they wanted in Dillinger. He had a solid run, although only for about five minutes, trying to be part of a group to eliminate Braun Strowman. It was hard to maintain that momentum, but I think that crowds are ready for a serenade of "tens" again. (Matt Willis)
Some debuts are a shock. Some debuts come after an extended build up and vignettes that get fans ready.
Some debuts are long overdue and offer a feeling of excitement and appreciation. At the 2017 Royal Rumble, everyone was wondering who would be the surprises in the field. As No. 10 approached, it really only made sense. Tye Dillinger's music hit and the crowd erupted with 10 fingers in the air as the "Perfect 10" finally made his main roster debut after an NXT stint that had nearly run its course. Now, Dillinger hasn't really found a place on the main roster since, but to the NXT faithful, his emergence and a few minutes in the Rumble had made the night. (Andrew Feldman)
Celebrity appearances in wrestling can often come off as desperate, especially for a struggling promotion like Impact Wrestling. So when the tag team match featuring Eli Drake and Chris Adonis vs. Moose and the NFL's DeAngelo Williams was announced, wrestling fans expected more of the same failed celebrity experiments from years past. Instead, Williams had one of the most impressive debut matches of anyone ever, including non-celebrities.
Williams looked like a natural in the ring. despite only having trained for three days. He pulled off flying shoulder tackles, code breakers and, best of all, a Samoan-drop-standing-moonsault combo that most vets can't even execute. His lone mistake was jumping too far on a frog splash off the top rope to end the match, which led to the table not breaking. But that's hardly a knock on him; it's amazing he even attempted a frog splash from the top rope through a table in his first match. Unfortunately, Williams has said the match would be his first and last ever, but at least he gave fans something to remember for a long time. (Michael Wonsover)
Aleister Black's NXT debut earlier this year was spectacular. After video packages hinting at his arrival, Black debuted at TakeOver: Orlando on WrestleMania weekend with an immediate aura about him. His entrance alone was worth the price of admission, as he rose up from the ground to his cryptically awesome theme song and slowly made his way to the ring. His performance that night and those in the months that followed were anything but slow. That night, he defeated the current NXT Champion, Andrade "Cien" Almas, in a very good match full of athleticism and stiff strikes -- catching on with the NXT audience right away. Despite his dark persona, it was evident that evening that Black's future was bright. And he has continued to put forth top-notch performances. Black's actions do his talking, for the most part, but his future screams NXT champion. (Sean Coyle)