How Samoa Joe rekindled the fire in 2015

With the end of 2015 looming, it is once again time for wrestling fans to consider the long list of potential candidates for wrestler of the year. It has been a plentiful year for good professional wrestling, and as such, the number of individuals who have a valid case for being considered 2015’s best wrestler is extensive.

Depending on how much certain attributes are weighted, legitimate arguments could be made for the likes of John Cena, Jay Lethal, Roderick Strong, Minoru Suzuki, AJ Styles, Kazuchika Okada, Seth Rollins, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Zack Sabre, Jr., and Shinsuke Nakamura. One name that probably won’t appear on a lot of those year-end lists is Samoa Joe. If there is in fact a singular list of the year’s best wrestlers, he certainly deserves to be on it.  

Consider this: On January 31, Samoa Joe had his last TNA match in front of about 4,500 fans in Wembley Arena. He and Austin Aries had a decent but inconsequential match that ended in 7 minutes on a disqualification in the early going of a taping for an episode of IMPACT that wouldn’t air for another two months. While the match was not bad for what it was, it was a mere flicker of what Joe was capable of doing, and it was a strong enough indicator as to how much Joe’s stock had fallen in TNA.

Just 10 months and 16 days later, Joe performed in the same arena in front of more than twice the number of fans in the main event of NXT TakeOver: London. This was a completely different Joe, however; leaner, focused, motivated, and completely revitalized. This Joe appeared to be as hungry as he had been in 2003-05 when he was still making his name in Ring of Honor and TNA. This is because this Joe had found his fire once again after quite nearly having it extinguished by seven years of TNA’s incompetence and indifference. And for having this Samoa Joe, professional wrestling in 2015 was all the better.

To be frank, 2015 will not be considered by many to be the best year of Joe’s career. In all probability, that would have to be 2005, if only for the fact that it was the year in which he was involved in a terrific triple-threat match with Styles and Christopher Daniels at TNA Unbreakable and had his unbelievable match with Kenta Kobashi. It’s much more likely that Joe’s career will be inevitably defined not by a single year, but by the six-year stretch between 2003-2008 that encompasses his 21-month Ring of Honor championship run, his feud with CM Punk, his 18-month TNA undefeated streak, and a memorable series of matches with Kurt Angle culminating at Lockdown 2008 with his only TNA World Heavyweight Championship win. While it may not be his best year, 2015 will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important of Joe’s career, and it is one that adds nicely to that already impressive legacy.

Had Samoa Joe not left TNA at the beginning of 2015, that 2003-2008 run would have unquestionably made up the vast majority of his legacy. Despite being one of TNA’s top draws (two of TNA’s top three PPV buy rates came from shows headlined by Joe vs. Angle), Joe’s standing as a main event star in the company entered a downward spiral from 2009 on and never recovered. His TNA World Heavyweight Championship run was almost completely unmemorable, ending at Bound for Glory 2008 in a match where he attempted a dropkick from a press box onto concrete stairs to horrifying effect. Joe was truly never the same after that bump, and his remaining time in TNA was mostly notable for incomprehensible nonsense such as threatening people with enormous knives and being abducted by masked men only to resurface two months later with no explanation.

Samoa Joe should have been the TNA guy. Instead, he was repeatedly passed over for and politically outmaneuvered by established stars of yesteryear. He would say after leaving TNA that he felt obligated to stay with the company and finish what he had started there, but as it became increasingly clear that he would not be given the opportunity to do just that, it began to feel like he was simply operating on autopilot.

If Joe had left TNA in 2015 and called it a career, he would have nonetheless been lauded as one of the very best of his time. But because he was never able to achieve to the best of his potential in TNA, there would always be that question of wondering what could have been had he tested the waters elsewhere, or what could have been if he had recaptured that spirit from 2005 and translated it on a worthier stage than TNA. Fortunately, the last 10 months have erased that “what if” to a significant degree.

Rediscovering “The Fire”

After the passing of Shinya Hashimoto in 2005, Joe penned a blog wherein he described attending a training session in which Hashimoto explained that the fire in one’s eyes is the single most important component of being a great professional wrestler. “The burning spirit, the unyielding will,” Joe described it, “even in the face of insurmountable challenges.” And, having learned from the man he sought to honor, much of what made Joe such an incredible asset to professional wrestling for so many years was attributable to that same fire. By 2015, however, Joe was only showing that fire from time to time, and it was clear that TNA was simply not providing the oxygen-rich atmosphere that Joe needed to nurture his flame. If anything, they were doing their damnedest to douse it. TNA, it seemed, was Joe’s insurmountable challenge.

By the start of the year, with Joe yet again relegated to little more than a henchman in a cumbersome heel stable, that flame was quite dim indeed. Evidence enough can be found in the fact that the first match on the first episode of IMPACT in 2015 saw Joe defeat Angle in six minutes. This once profitable, once captivating matchup was being feebly replicated in a show-opening segment for the sheer purpose of advancing a larger angle. It was by no means a bad match, but to say that it was a shadow of what the same two men had been able to do nine years prior is putting it mildly.

On February 17, Joe announced that he had at last made the decision to leave TNA. Wrestling had its first major free agent since Alberto Del Rio was fired by WWE in August 2014, and the possibilities for Joe’s new direction seemed at once boundless. Just a week later, Ring of Honor announced that it was bringing Joe back for four dates in March, including the main event of Supercard of Honor IX during Wrestlemania weekend. Before long, he would have independent bookings carrying him all the way through August, and it was being speculated that he was involved in serious negotiations with WWE.

Back in ROH, Joe put on four stellar matches with Kyle O’Reilly, ACH, Michael Elgin, and then-ROH World Champion Jay Briscoe. Just a little over a month removed from his final match in TNA, Joe was leaner than he had been in some time, he had seemingly regained much of that motivation that had been sapped from him by seven years of directionless booking, and most importantly, that fire was alive and roaring.

Then, in spite of Vince McMahon’s seeming disinterest of signing anyone who had been exposed to a national TV audience through TNA, Joe made his NXT debut by interrupting the main event of TakeOver: Unstoppable in May. It came out that Joe had signed a unique, non-exclusive deal that allowed him to continue working on the indies, enabling him to have fantastic matches with Johnny Gargano in Absolute Intense Wrestling and Chris Hero at the Smash Kick ALS show in between his NXT dates. It also left open the possibility that Joe could continue working for Ring of Honor and possibly even take dates with New Japan down the line.

Joe’s deal was also unique in that he was able to debut using the name he had spent more than a decade building; in a company where not even Brian Danielson was allowed to use his own name, this was a significant victory. Samoa Joe was able to get a deal that most couldn’t possibly command, and the success of that deal has since helped pave the way for James Storm and Tommaso Ciampa to appear on NXT television despite their respective histories with TNA and using the names for which they are best known.

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A week after Joe’s debut, Ring of Honor signed a television deal with Destination America, giving them exposure on national cable. This development, combined with the almost immediate sell-out of Joe’s NXT-branded t-shirt, shoulder injuries knocking Hideo Itami and Sami Zayn out of action for the foreseeable future, and Kevin Owens being called up to the main roster for his feud with John Cena, helped secure Joe a full-time WWE contract.

Joe by this point was already booked by ROH to team with AJ Styles against Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian for a June 20 television taping. In the same year where Alberto Del Rio was forbidden from dropping the AAA Mega Title in Mexico after re-signing with WWE, Joe worked this match (albeit untelevised) a mere two days after taping for NXT. And even without the allure of television, Joe’s performance in that match was better than in some of his television work in the waning days of his time with TNA.

What’s miraculous thus far about Joe’s run in NXT is seeing what can be achieved by simply handling him at a level commensurate to his talents. Since appearing at the end of TakeOver: Unstoppable, Joe has been booked like the special performer that he is. Joe has had just 17 matches between NXT television and TakeOver specials. Of those matches, 14 were wins, and his only pinfall loss came against Finn Balor on Wednesday. The announcers didn’t have to remind the audience that Joe had never been pinned or submitted to inform their opinion that Joe is special. Because of the way he has been presented, they already know.

Two of Joe’s NXT feuds were truncated when his opponents, first Owens and then Tyler Breeze, were called up to the main roster. Even still, Joe has never once felt lost in the shuffle. Moreover, he’s fulfilling the dual purpose of making himself an even bigger star while helping younger talent develop their skills. Baron Corbin, for example, has been noticeably improved since his feud with Joe and their match at TakeOver: Brooklyn. Their 10-minute slug-fest helped shake the misconception of Corbin’s ineffectualness in longer matches, and while Joe probably can’t take much credit for tweaking Corbin’s anti-indie-wrestler character, their feud was the catalyst for it.

It’s hard to make the argument right now that there is any single active individual in WWE’s talent pool who is a more complete performer than Samoa Joe. He’s absolutely unlike anyone else they have on the roster, which makes it all the more confounding that he has not been brought up to the main roster and pushed immediately into title contention as a monster heel. Still, if the result of staying in NXT for much of 2016 is Joe putting on more hard-hitting, decidedly un-WWE-like performances like his match with Ciampa on the December 2 episode of NXT, then there won’t be much cause for complaint from wrestling fans.

Whether 2016 has Joe staying in NXT to chase the championship or getting his much-deserved run on the main roster remains to be seen, but it’s pretty clear that Samoa Joe will not accept any kind of regression. After the conclusion of the TakeOver: London main event, the camera cut to a shot of Joe being led up the aisle by officials and facing Balor in the ring. There, with blood trickling from his mouth, Joe’s eyes conveyed a range of emotions: rage, pain, and disappointment among them. There was something else there as well. Something that Joe learned from one of the old masters, and something that makes him one of the world’s greatest: the fire.