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USA Insider WWE Monday Night Raw

5 WWE Superstars Who Made the Most of Their SummerSlam Debuts

For many Superstars, the road to immortality begins at SummerSlam. 

By Chris Phelan
Split image of Rey Mysterio, AJ Styles, and Roman Reigns

Throughout the history of WWE, SummerSlam hasn't been an annual event home to classic matches and moments – it's been the launching pad of careers. The importance of a WWE Superstar's first SummerSlam appearance cannot be understated – unlike at WrestleMania when the pomp and circumstance of the iconic event can sometimes overshadow the in-ring product, performing at SummerSlam is akin to a spotlight being shown on your wrestling skills. 

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While not all SummerSlam debuts are successful, many are historic in their own way. For many Superstars, their first SummerSlam matches were signs of things to come. For others, their matches were met with stamps of approval from the WWE Universe despite a losing effort. In all cases, countless WWE Superstars used their first SummerSlam match to motivate themselves for the future.

Today, USA Insider looks at the five WWE Superstars who made the most of their SummerSlam debuts!

AJ Styles – SummerSlam 2016

AJ Styles inside the ring

Months after making one of the most shocking Royal Rumble appearances ever, AJ Styles found himself in one of the premier matches at SummerSlam 2016 – against the one and only John Cena. The matchup ostensibly catered to two segments of people: The rabid WWE Universe, who considered the matchup a "dream match," and WWE officials, who clearly intended to use the match as a litmus test. After years of toiling away on the independent scene, WWE wanted to see if AJ Styles lived up to his hype.

AJ Styles blew away expectations at SummerSlam 2016. John Cena was never a Superstar to be caught off guard, but it was clear from the opening bell that Cena was not prepared to battle a wrestler with the skill set of AJ Styles. The sold-out crowd in Brooklyn, New York, was on their feet for nearly the entire match, which saw Styles pick up the decisive pinfall victory after over 20 minutes of heart-pounding action. 

Royal Rumble 2016 was when AJ Styles debuted in WWE, but SummerSlam 2016 is when he arrived.

Rey Mysterio – SummerSlam 2002

Rey Mysterio leans on the rope of the ring

The WWE Universe had waited for a long time for Rey Mysterio to join the top sports entertainment organization in the world, and on a July 2002 episode of SmackDown, they got their wish. But it wasn't until a few weeks later at SummerSlam 2002 that Mysterio finally got to show off in front of a worldwide audience!

As one of the stars of World Championship Wrestling, Rey Mysterio ignited a lucha libre craze throughout professional wrestling in the late 90s. When he finally made his WWE debut, fans worldwide were suitably pumped. At SummerSlam 2002, Rey found himself across the ring from Kurt Angle, and the two Superstars put on a wrestling clinic that has gone down in wrestling history as one of the best SummerSlam matches ever! Although Mysterio shockingly lost the match, he didn't go down without a fight, showing the WWE Universe the power of his never-say-die attitude that would eventually propel him to multiple WWE Champions over his illustrious career.

Roman Reigns – SummerSlam 2014

Roman Reigns walks towards the ring

When the Shield broke onto the scene in 2012, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose leveled everything in their path – as a group. Early in their careers, their success as singles stars was still unknown in the eyes of the WWE Universe. For many fans, the true potential of The Shield as individual Superstars would be measured by how they fare against some of the greatest Superstars of all time. At SummerSlam 2014, one of their members finally got that chance when Roman Reigns took on Randy Orton.

If there was any lingering doubt that Roman Reigns would prove that The Shield was stronger individually than they were as a faction, he speared that notion out of thin air. On this evening, Randy Orton learned firsthand that Roman had bigger aspirations than just being the third member of The Shield – he wanted to go after the top championships in professional wrestling. Unfortunately for Orton, Roman had to make an example out of someone at SummerSlam 2014. Of course, it would be only a sign of things to come for the future Tribal Chief – he's currently enjoying an unparalleled reign as the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship (although that run may come to an end on August 5).

Finn Balor – SummerSlam 2016

Finn Balor stands outside of the ring

In WWE, sometimes stories come full circle. At SummerSlam 2023, Finn Balor is slated to challenge Seth Rollins for his World Heavyweight Championship in a match that has the WWE Universe thinking Rollins' reign may prematurely end. But seven years ago, these two men met at SummerSlam 2016 to crown the first-ever WWE Universal Champion!

Needless to say, Finn Balor made the most out of his first-ever SummerSlam match by taking Rollins to the limit and capturing the Universal Title in the process. However, the championship win came at a cost: Balor suffered a devastating shoulder injury in the match and had to relinquish the title the next night on RAW. It was the last time Balor held a major world championship. Sometimes debut SummerSlam matches set the stage for a Superstar's career – but sometimes, it derails everything completely. Finn will be looking for some long-sought-after revenge on August 5, but Rollins isn't going down without a fight. The WWE Universe is in for a treat at SummerSlam 2023!

Cody Rhodes – SummerSlam 2009

Cody Rhodes walking towards the ring

Long before he made his triumphant return to WWE to "finish the story," Cody Rhodes had an auspicious SummerSlam debut in 2009, tagging with Ted DiBiase Jr. to take on D-Generation X! At the time, Cody and Ted wanted nothing more than to take advantage of their second-generation status and ascend to the top of WWE in short order – but Triple H and Shawn Michaels acted as gatekeepers to the throne!

The tag team match at SummerSlam 2009 was nothing short of thrilling. After nearly 20 minutes, D-Generation X finally outlasted the upstart team thanks to a desperation Superkick from Shawn Michaels. While it was a losing effort for Cody Rhodes, it is an essential chapter in his story – after all, everyone knows that you learn more from your losses than your victories. Cody's SummerSlam debut didn't turn out how he would've liked. Still, fortunately, the defeat was unknowingly setting into motion a chain of events that would eventually lead Cody Rhodes to new heights in WWE by 2023.

You can tune in to Peacock to watch WWE's SummerSlam on August 5. In the meantime, catch up on all things WWE Universe on Peacock as well.