WWE

WWE Weekly Recap: Samoa Joe is here to stay

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The night of the Royal Rumble was not one of my finer moments since I’ve been given the opportunity to write in this space. In the days following the Rumble, I couldn’t help but think that I was just another fan shouting about what the company had gotten wrong that night.

Specifically, the handling of Samoa Joe.

I yelled from my soapbox that night because I thought it was the perfect opportunity to introduce Joe, but in hindsight I realize that it would not have been nearly as good as the way he debuted the next night on Raw.

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If he entered the Rumble match at say number 17, it would have broken up the string of mid-carders and given Joe a brief moment of shine, but he would have felt like just another jabroni when Brock Lesnar, Undertaker and Goldberg made their way down to the ring.

Instead, Joe was inserted as a main event player right away by “attacking” Seth Rollins and aligning himself with HHH as Hunter’s personal hitman. Even though it’s terrible that Rollins legitimately tore his MCL during their scrap, the reality of Rollins’ injury helped the aura of Joe’s character.

The portion of the crowd who is unfamiliar with Joe’s work around the world and in NXT had a reason to hate him when his music hit during the opening segment on Monday night. Rather than being positioned in the midcard with 99 percent of the roster, he has been placed in the upper echelon of performers.

Not only did he cut a superb promo in the opening 15 minutes, which was incredibly impressive considering the microphone isn’t the strongest weapon in his arsenal, he was given the main event slot against the guy Vince is continuing to push as the company’s next John Cena.

Going into his match on Monday against Roman Reigns, I was worried that Joe would get placed in a 50/50 match against him, which is not how someone gets over with the crowd during their first appearance in the ring.

Thankfully, Joe “beat down” Reigns before the bell rang and then controlled a good chunk of the match before Reigns made his inevitable comeback.

If you want to complain about the finish (Braun Strowman stormed down to the ring when Reigns was in position to vanquish Joe), I’m not going to stop you, but no one should be upset that Joe was given a pinfall victory over Reigns in his first match on the main roster.

It’s clear that Joe is viewed as an asset during the company’s biggest time of the year, which is key for him after WrestleMania. When the part-timers go away and the full-timers are called on to handle the bulk of the shows week in and week out, Joe will be one of the featured attractions on Raw.

Who knows what he’s going to do at Fast Lane now that Rollins is out until WrestleMania and his spot at Super WrestleMania Sunshine appears to be just as murky now that we can piece together a good chunk of the card (HI FINN BALOR), but whatever spot he’s given, the crowd will react appropriately because the company is telling us that we should take him seriously.

Especially when he’s wearing a suit.

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The prettiest GIF you’ll see all day

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Time to “Go Home”

– So is Baron Corbin beginning to make a face turn? Last week he was positioned on commentary with The Miz, but I didn’t think anything of it because Miz has such a big personality when he has a microphone that anyone who opposes him in that space is going to come off as a face.

But during the AJ Styles-Dean Ambrose match last week in which Miz and Corbin were on commentary, Baron kept putting over both guys during the match. Then, this week on SmackDown he interrupted Miz during the opening segment and the crowd cheered for him because he was once again positioned in a spot where they were going to pop.

Ambrose and Styles eventually made their way down and had a very, very good fatal four way match, but let’s rewind for a second. Ambrose could have been positioned in the spot to interrupt the Miz because Dean is a face. Styles would have been next and then Corbin could have been last and declared that he didn’t care who was in the Elimination Chamber because he’s going to run through everyone.

Whatever the case, I’m really digging how they’re pushing Corbin now. The creative team on SmackDown has done a great job with him and Alexa Bliss; two people that never reached their full potential in NXT and are now beginning to thrive on the main roster.

– Was anyone else shocked at how Styles took the End of Days? I thought it would look so much better.

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– Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho and Bill Goldberg had quite the entertaining segment on Monday. It began with Y2J putting Tom Brady on the list for people calling him the G.O.A.T and it ended with Jericho putting Owens in a title match against Goldberg at Fast Lane.

It is a bit of a bummer that Goldberg is going to walk into WrestleMania with the Universal title considering how well the “best friends” angle between Owens and Jericho has gone, but the idea of Goldberg facing Brock Lesnar for the red strap at Mania will appeal to the casual viewer who resurfaces for the company’s biggest show of the year.

– At first I was not a fan of the Braun Strowman’s push because it felt like Vince was once again forcing a big dude on the crowd when he wasn’t ready to take the ball, but now I’m sad that he’s going to get fed to the Roman Empire at Fast Lane.

Strowman has gotten so much better in the ring. Sure, he’s still reckless at times (he dropped Roman right on his head during the powerslam through the barricade spot this past Monday, the link below has the spot queued up), but think about how green he was last July. Kudos to him for improving this much in seven months.

– While the Natalya-Nikki Bella segment started off a bit awkward, it ended with a bang. I was pleasantly surprised that the idea of John Cena leaving Nikki for Natty was suggested by Natalya.

– There were quite a few good to great matches this week: Joe vs. Reigns, Zayn vs. Jericho, Styles vs. Ambrose vs. Corbin vs. Miz, the 12-man tag team match on SD, Cena vs. Orton, but none were better than the Fatal Five Way elimination match on 205 Live between TJ Perkins, Cedric Alexander, Mustafa Ali, Noam Dar, and Jack Gallagher.

– For the first time since the cruiserweights were reintroduced on the main roster, this is a match worth seeking out. It was physical and high-flying.

– The Ascension got a win?!?!

– Quit teasing us Mauro by name dropping Kurt Angle during an American Alpha match.

– Also, this was a rough week for Mauro. He called the Elimination Chamber the “Hell in a Cell” twice and had quite a few slip-ups on commentary. No one is going to be robotically perfect in this role, but Mauro can make so many mistakes at times that it wouldn’t surprise me if making mistake becomes his gimmick. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen.

– So Lesnar and Paul Heyman showed up after Raw for a dark match segment with Big Show. Got it.

– I thought the duel contract signing segment on SmackDown was very effective. Mickie James, Becky Lynch and Alexa did an excellent job with their promos, especially Lynch. Naomi still has some work to do on that end, but the head kick she delivered to Alexa over the table looked really good.

– The finishing sequence to Akira Tozawa’s debut on Raw was pretty slick. The snap German suplex got a nice reaction.

– So Sasha is definitely costing Bayley the title next Monday, right? Does that mean we’re going to get Nia Jax vs. Charlotte at Fast Lane?

– Don’t get on Cody Rhodes’ bad side:

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Paul “Triple H” Levesque on Shinsuke Nakamura’s transition from NXT to WWE’s main roster

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I had the chance earlier in the week to chat with Paul “Triple H” Levesque about multiple topics including the Mae Young Classic (story coming next week), the evolution of NXT over the past few months, Samoa Joe’s road to the main event of SummerSlam (you can watch SummerSlam live around the world on WWE Network this Sunday, August 20 at 7 p.m. ET) and about Shinsuke Nakamura’s somewhat difficult transition from NXT to the main roster.

Here’s what Mr. Levesque had to say about Nakamura:

“I cannot over-emphasize the difference WWE and any place else and I mean any place. While Nakamura had success and you can talk about Japan. They do a stadium show here and there, but it’s just a totally different world. It really is. How we approach it, how we do it, while he’s a big star in Japan, the level of what we do and the global nature of what we do is a big transition.

I say this a lot to the talent who are down in NXT and you don’t have to be a football player to get it, but people talk about the difference between college football and the NFL and man it’s just a different game. The speed of it, the way it’s played, all of it. Some guys can make the transition and thrive. Some guys it takes them awhile to acclimate and some guys never do and it just falls apart for them. They go from being this college phenom that becomes the number one overall pick in the draft, but then three years later they’re not in the NFL anymore.

It takes time, but the greats will rise and I think that’s what you’re seeing in [Samoa] Joe, I think that’s what you’re seeing in Nakamura. When fans ask ‘why does somebody like that have to go to NXT?’ because that’s the transition point. They have to learn that. If they went straight in [to the main roster] it would be overwhelmingly difficult and guzzle them. Anybody that’s come through and done it has stated the same thing.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Samoa Joe’s long, strange journey to the main event of SummerSlam

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The concept of “pushing” a talent to the main event or top level in a form of entertainment where the outcome is predetermined seems rather simple because a performer can just be booked to “go over” their opponent and be positioned as a character the audience should be invested in.

But it’s not quite that simple because as we’ve seen with numerous acts in the world of professional wrestling, just because a company wants the audience to care about someone it doesn’t mean that the people will play along.

If you followed Samoa Joe throughout his career, prior to his debut on WWE programming, you were aware that he was capable of being a main event level talent. Joe was an integral performer for the then second biggest wrestling promotion in the country during what many would consider the best time period for TNA/IMPACT/GFW.

Before Joe made his way to the Impact Zone in Orlando to work for TNA, he was a key member of an absolutely stacked Ring of Honor roster that included the likes of Bryan Danielson, Claudio “Cesaro” Castagnoli, Chris Hero (Kassius Ohno), Austin Aries and CM Punk (which if you haven’t seen any of Punk and Joe’s matches from ROH, do yourself a favor and watch them ASAP).

The WWE is a different animal than the other wrestling companies in the United States because there are many casual viewers who don’t pay attention to the other numerous promotions that can be viewed right now on your phone, tablet, laptop, smart TV and fridge, and probably even a fidget spinner.

When Joe appeared for the first time on Raw this past February after working in NXT (WWE’s developmental “territory”) for 19 months, he received a nice reaction from the section of the crowd who were familiar with his journey to WWE’s main roster, but a big chunk of the audience watching at home and the casual fans in the building wearing a John Cena shirt instantly thought to themselves:

Those people had no idea what to expect from Samoa Joe. His in-ring style isn’t flashy. It can be downright brutal at times. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t athletic because he can move around at a pace of a cruiserweight, but he isn’t going to do a springboard forearm or a 450. His punches, kicks, and power moves are the reasons why he comes off like a legitimate badass in the ring.

Joe’s time in NXT was very different than his run in TNA/IMPACT. Before Kurt Angle left WWE and signed with TNA Wrestling way back in 2006, Samoa Joe was, in storyline, getting a push similar to Goldberg/Brock Lesnar. He didn’t “lose” a one-on-one match for his first 15 months on TNA television, but Angle, a legitimate WWE superstar with plenty left to give the business inside of the ring, went over Joe in Angle’s first match with the company.

The two went on to headline two of TNA’s most successful Pay-Per-View events in terms of buyrates. Sure the draw of Angle’s first in-ring appearance with the company helped hype for their initial match, but the MMA-style battle between the two at Lockdown 2008 was a major success for the promotion and it was a year-and-a-half after they locked up for the first time.

Joe’s character in TNA took a major turn in 2009 when he returned to television. He was noticeably heavier and had a face tattoo that looked like one Mike Tyson probably passed on.

This was the beginning of a turning point for Joe’s character. His aura began to fade. Despite the company’s attempts to heat him back up, their terrible booking couldn’t save Joe’s starpower. This is where I must mention the storyline in early 2010 when Joe was “abducted.” The storyline was dropped without a resolution.

Joe became just another guy on the roster who was wasting prime years of his career wilting away in a company that was the size of a small jet ski on a similar trajectory as the Titanic.

When I asked Paul “Triple H” Levesque about Samoa Joe’s road to the main event of this year’s SummerSlam (which can be streamed live around the world on WWE Network this Sunday, August 20 at 7pm ET), he began his answer with this vocal paragraph that made me think about the setbacks Joe had during a good chunk of his run in TNA/IMPACT.

“When you’ve been doing this a long time, and Joe has, there’s things that come up and then there’s opportunities and what you do with those opportunities, how you reinvent yourself or refresh yourself and not get in a rut and avoid the status quo of going through the motions and doing your job. It happens to everybody, it just does.”

Joe left TNA/IMPACT in February of 2015 and then debuted in NXT three months later when he “confronted” Kevin Owens. When Joe signed his contract with WWE, he was still allowed to appear on independent shows, which is highly unusual for a WWE performer. After Joe’s NXT debut, his merchandise sales reportedly blew up and he was quickly signed to full-time deal.

Finn Balor “passed the torch” to Joe in NXT after Balor was called up to the main roster, but it was really more of Joe taking the torch from Balor. Even though Joe’s first few months with NXT were a bit shaky at times due to his feud with Owens that wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been, his “heel turn” on Balor and set of matches with Finn represented another key moment in Joe’s career.

“I think he’d been in just cruise mode for a long time in his career. NXT was fresh for him and he was excited about it and he really liked it,” Levesque said. “He would talk about it all of the time about how excited he was, not even looking at doing anything else, just to be in NXT because he felt like he was launching and being on the ground floor of something really exciting.”

After his feud with Balor ended, Joe clashed with Shinsuke Nakamura in a series of matches that were a lot of fun, outside of a stunningly mediocre match in Japan. Joe was way over with the NXT audience, but I seriously thought that Joe may struggle to get a similar reaction on the main roster due to how previous NXT standouts had been presented on Raw and Smackdown.

In order for Joe to seem like the badass who could beat up the toughest guy in the room, he was going to have to be in the ring with guys who could make his offense look hellish.

He “attacked” Seth Rollins on his first night on the main roster, but Rollins suffered a legit MCL tear during the skirmish and their match that was rumored for the Fast Lane PPV was postponed. If Joe’s push was a flame, Rollins’ injury was like a gigantic wet blanket being thrown on top of it.

Even though he was positioned as Triple H’s right hand man in storyline, Joe was put in a mid-card feud with Sami Zayn after Rollins was put on the shelf. This was a step down for Joe. Sami was coming out of a feud with Braun Strowman that greatly helped BRAUUUUUUNNNNNNN, but did little for Zayn, which was by design.

Zayn is one of the best sellers in WWE, so he made Joe’s strikes seem deadly, but after injuring Rollins in his first night on the main roster, it seemed like “The Samoan Submission Machine” toned down the impact of his offense just a bit, which is a big deal for a character who needs his striking to look dangerous.

Even though WrestleMania was a seven hour marathon, Joe didn’t appear on the show. He watched backstage with Finn Balor who was still recovering from a serious shoulder/arm injury he sustained at SummerSlam:

Joe would eventually get his match with Rollins at Payback in May, but their encounter failed to help either guy as they wrestled a forgettable match with a questionable finish. Both guys were then placed into a Fatal-Five Way match at Extreme Rules with the winner getting a shot at Brock Lesnar’s Universal title at Great Balls of Fire.

There were reports that Lesnar was scheduled to work with all five guys in the match throughout the rest of the calendar year. Out of the five performers in the match (Joe, Balor, Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, Seth Rollins), Joe instantly stood out because his program with Lesnar would not only be fresh for the character, but it was one of the final dream matches that hadn’t happened yet.

In many ways, Brock Lesnar is the perfect opponent for Samoa Joe. Lesnar really stands out when he has someone to brawl with and well, if you made it this far in the column, you know that someone like Lesnar is a great foil for Joe in the ring. However, you probably didn’t realize just how great Paul Heyman and Joe would work together on the microphone.

The brawling between Lesnar and Joe was always going to look good because Joe is a veteran and a professional, but the intensity Joe showed while storming the hallways to “fight” Lesnar in the interview room got him over with the casual audience and more importantly, Lesnar himself.

“Joe coming up to the [main] roster was just the opportunity and the thing that needed to happen to him in order to re-light that fire in him. It took him awhile. We talk about it all of the time, he’s a great guy, I love working with him. When the timing came for the opportunity on the main roster it was like, while NXT had lit that fire in him, the opportunity on the main roster was like pouring gas on him.”

 Paul “Triple H” Levesque

 Here’s a guy in Joe who, in storyline, isn’t scared of Brock. He can step into the ring and credibly stand across the ring from Lesnar, which garnered a big reaction from hardcore fans who were aware of Joe’s past. This keyed the casual audience to pay attention because something important was about to happen.

When Lesnar pinned Joe clean with one F5, it was a bit concerning. The match and especially the finish felt rushed, but when the opening beats of Joe’s music hit the next night on Raw, the halo effect from being in a competitive match with Brock Lesnar immediately appeared.

The “Joe, Joe, Joe” chants from the crowd immediately caught on and you can tell Joe noticed the decibel level of the crowd because he snaps his head and raises his eyebrows before starting his promo:

According to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, the main event for SummerSlam was at one point going to be Lesnar (C) vs. Strowman, but then it was changed to Reigns vs. Lesnar (C), which was originally scheduled to be the main event of WrestleMania 34, but then the main event was changed into a Fatal-Four Way between Lesnar, Reigns, Joe and Strowman.

Now at one point, it was clear that the Raw women’s championship was building towards a Fatal-Four Way, but then it was changed to Alexa Bliss vs. Bayley (before Bayley suffered a shoulder injury). Now this is speculation on my behalf as an educated viewer, but there has to be a correlation between the match styles changing for the women and men.

There are already quite a few multi-person matches booked for SummerSlam, so it makes sense to switch one in order to switch another, but why did this change happen?

Was it that Lesnar expressed his desire to fight Jon Jones and Vince McMahon decided to change the next nine months of main event storyline plans and then that eventually led him down a path where he just mixed the four guys in the two most important feuds on his main show?

Or is it that Samoa Joe took the ball when it was given to him and made the best out of a great opportunity to propel himself in the eyes of the fans and the decision makers backstage?

(Side note: Braun Strowman has also “taken the ball” and succeeded, but his situation is a bit different than Joe’s. Strowman is Vince’s long-term pet project.)

It’s likely a combination of both, but there are people behind the scenes trying to help Samoa Joe’s stock. SI’s Justin Barrasso reported that Heyman has literally advocated for Joe to win the Universal title at SummerSlam.

But this is Vince McMahon we’re talking about here, so you just never know.

Whatever the case, Joe is in a position to win one of WWE’s world championships and cement himself as a legitimate main event player because as Triple H told me:

“He’s been Samoa Joe.”

Simple enough.

Twitter: @ScottDargis