The first time I ever saw Samoa Joe it was in an issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I thought he looked like someone, but I just couldn’t place the resemblance. Still never have. At the time he was working in UPW, I think, but everything about him seemed kind of fake. Maybe it was that nebulous facial recognition resting on the tip of my tongue, or the Akuma-esque necklace he wore that gave off a very Capcom fighter vibe, but nothing about him appealed to me.
The first time I ever saw Samoa Joe live was at my first Ring of Honor show, Tradition Continues, back in October 2013, six months into his legendary ROH World Title run. He wrestled two matches that night, the opener against Prince Nana (non-title) and the main event against a younger, less hirsute Jay Briscoe. Before the opener, I was openly booing and heckling Joe, for no real discernible reason. Maybe I was still salty that he had pinned Paul London (one of my then favorites) three months earlier. Maybe I was just an idiot. By the end of that match (and certainly by the end of the night) he had completely and totally won me over. From the way he handled himself in the ring to the way he seemed so in control on the mic, to the way he worked a crowd, he was a champion.
He was our champion.
For a very important period of my life, Samoa Joe was maybe my favorite wrestler in the entire world. I spent more time watching indie tapes than Monday Night Raw, spending money I’d previously earmark for WWE house shows on bus trips to New Jersey and Philly with my best friend to see ROH on the road. Watching Joe take the ROH Title and elevate it to World Championship status, all the while having great matches and maintaining a classy aura was breathtaking. Between his classic title defenses (including the CM Punk trilogy) and his genuinely likable demeanor (from shoot interviews and promos), he was impossible not to like. Some of that was me being excited to have a fellow ethnic fat guy to root for, but it was more than that.
I didn’t get to grow up with Ric Flair or Bruno Sammartino, but Joe felt close. There was a traveling man, prize fighter vibe about him as a pro wrestler that none of WWE’s superstars could match. He was The King of The Indies, an honorary title held and claimed by wrestlers before Joe (Corino, Punk) and after (Danielson, etc), but to me, he was The Man.
You can forgive me, and many fans like me, for thinking Samoa Joe’s presence in TNA was going to elevate the fledgling WCW successor to Monday Night War levels of competition with WWE. Alongside Kurt Angle and AJ Styles, Joe continued the work he was doing on the indies but on a grander stage with a wider audience. The sky seemed the limit for him, but a depressing litany of bad creative and business decisions that would come to define TNA slowly ground Joe, and the viewers, down. It’s tragic how far his star had fallen and largely because of the apathy working for a promotion as misguided as TNA seems to engender.
Lucky for all of us, Samoa Joe is a free agent again. Having reportedly left TNA for better money and a change of pace, his future is currently up in the air and the matter of a lot of fan conjecture. We’re all tripping over each other to add credence to any number of fantasy booking situations ranging from Triple H bringing him into the NXT fold, to him joining New Japan or Pro Wrestling NOAH. The current pro wrestling landscape is such that almost any promotion that can afford Joe will find a good use for him, and there’s no shortage of fresh opponents and dream matches to be had. My current personal fantasy is Joe in Lucha Underground going after Alberto El Patron, or having twenty minute slap fight with Tomohiro Ishiii in time for this year’s G1 Climax.
This level of speculation isn’t new to the internet wrestling news cycle. When Chris Hero was released from NXT and when AJ Styles left TNA under similar circumstances, the two former indie vets hit the ground running, popping up on cards across the world with a refreshing ubiquity. Hero, while still very talented, hasn’t quite made good on the promise of his return. While he’s had some great matches and is a welcome presence on any show, he hasn’t showcased himself with the same prestige AJ Styles has managed, with two IWGP Heavyweight Title runs and some of the best in ring work of his career.
It’ll be interesting to see where Samoa Joe goes, not just in terms of locale, but intent. If he just wants to blow off steam, he can pop crowds in Reseda for PWG on a semi-monthly basis and no one will complain. He can return to ROH and help put over new talent or rekindle his old Briscoe feud. These would be fine avenues for Joe, no argument there, but this feels like a second chance. When he left for TNA, there was that sense he was going to set the world on fire. Here, as a free agent, there’s a second chance to remind people just how great Joe has the potential to be. If he’s truly got that belly fire back and wants to squash the game, we’re all in for a treat.
Wherever we see him next will be a blessing. Samoa Joe has a reset button in his hands. Let’s hope he uses it wisely.