As Samoa Joe looks to challenge for the WWE Championship at SummerSlam, memories of the sights and sounds of the last fifteen years flood to the mind in powerful volume, followed by the calls of many ardent fans of the business who, even way back when were calling for Joe to be in the spot he finds himself in as we approach August 19th. In the time between, Joe has had a profound effect on the industry, the ramifications of which are evident no matter where you look.
That impact seemed like a far-off fantasy upon his debut at the end of 1999, but even then the seeds were being planted for the performer he’d turn out to be. “I think a guy, especially after I really started in the business”, begins Joe when asked about his early influences, “Was Arn Anderson. He had a real good technical acumen, great timing, incredibly explosive, and was able to kind of project an air about himself despite his stature. He seemed like he was ten feet tall.” Certainly, carrying himself with a unique aura has become one of Joe’s hallmarks, a presentation compounded by a distinctive in-ring style. “Bouncing back and forth, I caught a little bit of UWFI and I remember early Takada matches and seeing kind of the more shoot style of professional wrestling. It was a very mixed bag.”
The intriguing combination led to Joe blazing a trail through Ring of Honor and TNA Wrestling, becoming one of the more talked about individuals in the wrestling world in the mid-2000s. Performing at an exceptional level, Joe embarked on an incredible series of matches with a myriad of opponents, chief among them – his Summerslam opponent, AJ Styles.
Taking a look at the business of 2018 compared to 1999 is captivating, as the influenced has become the influence. The ring style seen in today’s WWE, and largely across the UK and American independent scene, bears a closer resemblance to the work Joe and company were churning out in 2005, albeit with the pace and extremes developing with time. With the downsizing of professional wrestling’s reach with casual fans and explosion of die-hards supporting the industry, the style most frequently used to engage the modern audience doesn’t begin and end with Samoa Joe. But without question, Joe was a major part of the evolution of what fans expect great pro wrestling to look like in 2018.
“I think my biggest thing when it comes to that”, states Joe, “Is that if you found it influenced you or you found that you’ve garnered enjoyment from it, or helped you think about what you do in a different way, then I’m more than happy with that.” Far from basking in reflective self-glory, Joe’s mind quickly moves to critique and humility. “At the same time, I think I’m just not satisfied with doing the same thing. It’s about evolving even more and trying out new things and I think AJ’s been that very same way. The evolution didn’t stop back then and it hasn’t now. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.”
Undoubtedly, wrestling outside WWE is stronger now than it’s been for many years, a situation brought about by the 2000s rise of the internet and growing dependence on companies outside of the mainstream to satisfy the cravings of the niche superfan. With “All In” steadily approaching, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s stateside invasion and PWG as hot as ever on the West Coast, Joe looks at the modern day landscape with hopeful eyes, and first and foremost, through the lens of a performer. “I hope it’s a sustained strength”, offers Joe. “I’ve thought of the independents as a stable industry for a little over two decades, and that’s because I stably worked in it, so I’ve understood it that way. I’m hoping that these companies are looking towards the future and also including their talent in their future plans. You know, understanding the value of them and taking care of them accordingly. I get people all the time that say, “Ah well, they’re an independent, they can’t afford to take care of the guys at this time.” But at the same time, you should still be making your best effort, because it’s those gentlemen that step through those ropes every night who created this industry with their efforts and their abilities. They’re the reason why you see this big flourishing, thriving independent scene. Around the world, in the UK, United States, Canada, Mexico…it’s a great thing to see, and I just hope that they manage this wave accordingly and they get something that’s lasting.”
While his in-ring merits are accepted wisdom, the legacy Joe is paving in 2018 is rather different. Instead, while always considered a strong talker, his promos since his call-up to the main roster in January 2017 have catapulted him to the top of the list of the best promo guys in the company. Between his menacing scowl, self-assured swagger and pitch-perfect delivery, Joe’s verbal efforts have frequently been the highlight of the show. He’s evidently striking a chord with crowds, further cementing himself as a money player in a company short of top-tier talkers. The topic in itself stirs Joe to discuss those he sees as the elite. “I like promo guys for, I’m sure like a lot of people, a lot of different reasons”, he starts. “Obviously, when it came to eliciting a reaction from an audience, especially at the time, I think Ric Flair is the guy who is constantly up there. Especially when you talk about speaking with passion and being able to convey a ton of emotion with his words and his body language. And you know, there’s other guys. I think Mick Foley, Mankind, had a brilliant delivery. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, he’s also got…you know, when people look back and they understand nuanced abilities as far as promos come, he’s one of those guys. But the list is long.”
As he rattles off the names, the focus turns to their impact on Joe’s current speaking style and avoiding the pitfalls of relying solely on the lessons of the past. “Honestly, if you’re a student of this game and you do study and you do look for influences, and honestly they have to be influences”, he says. “You can never be a carbon copy of anybody, but you can probably be the best version of yourself, and I think that’s the biggest thing. I never have gone and said, “Hey, I want to do it like this guy.” When I speak, I speak as I like to speak. It’s just that I’ve watched great orators, both in and outside of the ring, and I understand that words can carry great power if delivered with the proper emotion and cadence. It’s an art form in some eyes, and it’s an interesting approach, but it can resonate with people and convey a message very clearly, and I think that’s the point of everything I do.”
But while the talent was always there, it’s interesting to note how wide-reaching the opinion is that Joe’s promos have never been better. “A lot of it too is being given the opportunities, and guys coming up on the production end to allow me to do what I do”, Joe responds, talking about the machinations that led to that common belief. “They showcase it in the best light. They may shoot things my way, or have a way they like things to look aesthetically, but for the most part, we work hand in hand.”
And so the Samoa Joe of 2018 looks ready to sit atop SmackDown Live as the dominant and convincing lead heel the company sorely needs for the brand, wanted Jinder Mahal to be, and failed to allow Shinsuke Nakamura to be. Of course, what may be his ultimate crowning moment comes with the benefit of working with AJ Styles; as poetic and fitting a situation as anybody could have conjured over a decade ago. Though, as Joe was quick to point out, things have changed.
“I think this is a very different encounter”, he muses. “AJ is a very different athlete than when I last faced him, much more complete. Obviously, anywhere he goes he’s been able to soak up the best parts of that style and make it his own, and he’s done that, he’s gone abroad (to New Japan Pro Wrestling). Going into this, it’ll be a different feel. It’s been a while since we’ve been in something like this – sparks fly, and the fans benefit.”
The scene is set, and with the potential for his best main roster match in his fingertips, he may never have a better opportunity to make a definitive statement about belonging at the very top of the pro wrestling mountain. There, he could well redefine what it means to be a World Champion, just as he did in Ring of Honor long ago, only on a much grander scale.
This reality brings forward an interesting proposition – for all of the talk about Joe’s influence on independent wrestling, the in-ring style, great matches and top-tier promos, we may have merely witnessed the prologue. After years of questioning if Samoa Joe was the right fit for WWE and wondering “What if?”, we now live in a world where, with only one major decision needed to go in his favour, the real legacy of Samoa Joe may be about to unfold.
WWE SummerSlam takes place on Sunday, August 19th from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. It will be broadcast live on the WWE Network.