There are two primary ways that a WWE superstar makes a debut on Raw or SmackDown. Sometimes, it happens with a lot of fanfare or lead-up time, as was the case recently with weeks of video packages and an announced debut date for Asuka. That instills in the audience a certain sense of importance, but also spoils any surprise that might have otherwise been achieved.
The other, more common means of debut in the WWE, is for outsiders or NXT talent to show up unannounced and make an immediate impact. This was the way that, in the days following Survivor Series, five women previously competing under the NXT banner moved themselves into the spotlight on Raw and SmackDown.
On Monday, former Divas champion (and NXT women's champion) Paige made a shocking return in the midst of a No. 1 contender's match for the Raw women's championship with Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose in tow. The newly formed trio, who would come to call themselves Absolution, laid out the top contenders, then sent a similar message backstage to champion Alexa Bliss.
The following night on SmackDown, Ruby Riott approached Naomi backstage and introduced her compatriots in the Riott Squad -- Sarah Logan and Liv Morgan. In consecutive weeks, they've put two former SmackDown women's champions, Naomi and Becky Lynch, out of commission, and sent a similar message to current champion Charlotte Flair.
These dual, seemingly unrelated invasions, have breathed fresh energy into both Raw and SmackDown's women's divisions, and quickly changed the lives of five women with overlapping, yet unique, journeys to the stage they all hoped to reach throughout their careers.
Over the course of the last two weeks, ESPN spoke to all five of the new Raw and SmackDown superstars to learn more about their life-changing weeks.
Riott, who would come to lead the SmackDown contingent, spent less than a year in NXT between the time she signed with WWE and when she showed up on TV on that fateful Tuesday. Most of her major battles were fought before she put ink to paper.
"For a long time before I got signed, I didn't feel like a girl like me would ever be able to work for the WWE because I look so different," said Riott. "Then I got to the Performance Center and then I still kind of had that feeling. [But then] I debuted for NXT about two months after I got there, and ever since, I've been involved in matches with some of the most incredible women I've ever stepped foot in the ring with."
Rose's road to SmackDown was quite different. After participating in fitness competitions, and winning the 2014 World Beauty Fitness & Fashion Bikini Championship, Rose applied to and became a contestant on the 2015 edition of WWE's "Tough Enough" reality show. She didn't win, but soon signed a contract and quickly found herself on another of WWE's reality shows.
"Ever since Tough Enough, and getting put on Total Divas right away, it was kind of like I never stopped," said Rose. "I was like, 'Okay, now I need to get to the Performance Center.' I needed to train and get the wrestling down. Once I started training at the Performance Center, getting in the groove of the schedule, and really getting used to that, I really loved it because I'm big with routine."
Morgan, the youngest of the five women who debuted at just 23 years old, also spent the longest stretch at the Performance Center. She had a lot to learn, but picked up quite a bit by watching the likes of Flair, Bayley, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch, who were all coming into their own when she first started training.
"When I arrived at the Performance Center, I was 20 years old," said Morgan. "So I was like the baby of the building. I definitely wasn't mature as I should have been. Definitely wasn't as responsible as I should've been. But they were really patient with me."
For Logan, the path was not linear by any means. She made a couple of one-off appearances in skits on WWE TV, and competed in several NXT matches before she'd even signed with the company, as far back as 2015. After more than five years of training and working towards the WWE, Logan signed her contract in 2016.
"As the days unfolded, you hear rumors and you hear things flying around. You don't wanna believe anything until it's set in stone, because it's the entertainment industry at the end of the day and things change. Come Monday, around 3:00, 3:30, I found out what I was doing."Sonya Deville
She was the only one among this group of debuts to participate in the Mae Young Classic, and aside from the prestige of participating, it was a moment for her to reflect on her career and those who were most important in it, just a few months before Logan would ultimately make her SmackDown debut.
"Four days after I graduated high school, I got on a plane for the first time and flew to Japan. Mia Yim was there with me, and we watched out for each other," said Logan. "My first round match was with her, and to wrestle her in the Mae Young Classic on that big stage, it was too good to be true. Then the match we had was amazing."
When it came down to the weekend in question, some of the women who would ultimately have their lives changed on that Monday or Tuesday were already on the road in Texas, while others were back in Orlando continuing to train at the Performance Center.
"I was flying out Thursday to Austin, Texas for an NXT tour -- I wrestled in Austin, and then the following night in San Antonio," said Deville. "I think, right before the show in San Antonio, I had gotten word that I would be going to Raw and SmackDown, but of course, didn't think anything of it. I just said, 'Oh, maybe I'm just going to hang out or whatever. Seems like a cool opportunity.'"
After two live events, Deville was set to face off with Riott in Houston, in an NXT TV taping just before the start of the TakeOver: War Games. Even then, neither knew exactly what the next few days had in store, though they each committed to another in a series of hard-hitting matches.
"My main focus was the TV before War Games, and putting on a really great match," said Riott, "Then, when we were told that we would be staying around, there was a lot of uncertainties, I think, and a lot of speculation and everything until we finally found out what our future had in store for us."
Rose was part of the collective back at the WWE's Performance Center in Orlando, and had her mind in a drastically different place before she got a message that would change things in a big way. "I actually wasn't in Houston for NXT, I was home in Orlando," said Rose. "I was ready to actually go home a little early for Thanksgiving, since we didn't have any Florida shows. But I received the email that I'd be going to Raw and SmackDown, which was really exciting news, but I had to change all of the travel stuff. Was this going to be me just kind of showing my face, or just maybe... I really didn't know what to think. I thought about all different scenarios."
Morgan had a similar moment.
"I received an email saying that they were going to fly me in to do a dark match -- an un-televised match on SmackDown," said Morgan "So I was like, 'Okay, cool.' I was super excited for the opportunity to wrestle in front of a bigger crowd. So I just packed my bags under the assumption that I was just going to have a dark match."
Riott and Deville kicked off an electric night of action in Houston, but as the weekend progressed, it slowly became clearer that something big was happening.
"As the days unfolded, you hear rumors and you hear things flying around," continued Deville. "You don't wanna believe anything until it's set in stone, because it's the entertainment industry at the end of the day and things change. Come Monday, around 3:00, 3:30, I found out what I was doing. I think I'm still in disbelief. I don't know if it's really set in yet."
Deville and Rose were first up on Raw, and joined up with the returning Paige to disrupt things on Monday nights. At the same time, the women who would come to wreak similar havoc on Tuesdays found out what was to come in their lives.
"We get to Raw and we kind of get pulled aside in a room and we're told that we'd be going to Raw or SmackDown," continued Morgan. "I didn't expect it at all. I was completely surprised and, of course, I'm so emotional and such a baby. I started crying. I grew up a little poor girl from New Jersey. I shouldn't be here, but somehow, in this universe, I made it here in the WWE"
After attacking Naomi and Lynch backstage, the Riott Squad ran out and interrupted a SmackDown women's championship match in progress between Flair and Natalya -- and it was simultaneously incredibly intense and everything Riott and Logan had ever wanted.
"It was a very emotionally, overwhelming weekend, but it was really, truly amazing," said Riott. "My heart had never beaten so fast in my entire life. This was the moment that seven years of hard work at culminated to, showing the world on a different platform who I was and what I came there to do, and then to be able to do that because we had our sights set on two of the top women in the division. It was a really incredible experience. You know, to hear them chant NXT, to hear them chant Ruby Riot, it was amazing."
Logan echoed Riott's thoughts.
"That was my dream ever since I was a little kid watching wrestling with my grandma," said Logan. "That was the moment in my life I always worked for. When it's there, you start questioning if you're ready to make that step. Are you ready to have your life change forever? When you're out there and the lights are on you, you have to feel at home. I felt like that was where I was supposed to be."
Lest you think these two trios were three random women thrown together, each has a very close friendship at its core that should serve as glue to the entire operation. Deville and Rose hit it off as Tough Enough contestants, signed with WWE at similar times and have been thick as thieves ever since.
"I think one of the best parts about this entire journey is that me and Mandy got to share it together," said Deville. "We started together about two and a half years ago on Tough Enough, on the reality show where some odd thousand number of people tried out and me and Mandy were just two of those thousands applying for an opportunity to change our lives, never thinking it would come to this... We've tagged together in NXT, we fought each other in NXT -- it's just been this crazy rollercoaster ride that I've gotten to take with my best friend. It's the best possible scenario I could ever ask for."
"We hit it off from day one," said Rose. "I don't know if it was because we were both from the Northeast, but we automatically became best friends. We were there for each other, and we've been there for each other ever since. We live together. We do everything together. We drive to shows and train together. Finding out that we were both debuting the same night, and moving to Raw together, it was just insane."
Though their similarly-themed debuts are bound to tie these two trios together for right now, their compositions should ultimately lead down very different paths now that their part of the Raw and SmackDown rosters. While Rose and Deville will learn under a veteran in Paige, Riott and Morgan have lengthy independent records and a friendship that should serve them well in defining themselves among the already established stars of SmackDown.
"Being in there when Charlotte Flair, Natalia, Naomi... being in NXT, you strive to get yourself in a position where you're a threat to them or you can stand your own inside a wrestle ring with them," said Logan. "[Being able to] do it with Ruby and Liv, especially Ruby -- we go back, I've known her my whole wrestling career -- me and her are best friends. It was amazing getting to share that with her and to be in the same stadium as those girls that are on SmackDown -- and to hold our own was amazing.