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WrestleMania 33 Roundtable Preview

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Instead of me rambling on for 2,000 words about WWE’s biggest show of the year, I thought it would be a good idea to bring a few other wrestling fans from NBC Sports along for the ride:

Jeff Graubart who will be attending WrestleMania 33 and “Easy” Ed Williams who is a big reason why I’m able to have this space to share my thoughts about the world of WWE.

So buckle up and get ready for the ultimate thrill ride before the “Ultimate Thrill Ride.”

Which match are you looking forward to the most?

Darg: Kevin Owens vs. Chris Jericho. This is as close as we’re going to get to an old school, main event level build. Both guys are coming in hot, especially Jericho who is a WHITE HOT (sorry for the gimmick infringement Jeff) babyface. Usually, long builds + over acts X (in-ring veterans who can go) = Four star match, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Jeff: It’s a toss-up for me between Rollins vs. HHH & Y2J vs. KO. Rollins and HHH has been a long time coming and you know they’re going to put on a show. The doubt factor with Rollins’ injury has worked for me and I’m just glad he’s getting an opportunity to take down the “King of Kings” on the biggest stage of them all.

Ed: On paper, the match I should be looking forward to most is Austin Aries challenging for Neville’s Cruiserweight Championship. Especially with the launch of the latest Game of Thrones trailer, I should be on the edge of my seat waiting to see if A Double can overthrow the King of the Cruiserweights, but the fact that it’s on the pre-show takes some of the luster off this potential gem. Yes, the fact that it’s on the pre-show means it may get more time than it would on the main card, but there’s also a good chance they’ll be fighting in front of just hundreds of people. One of the big negatives of 205 Live has been the lack of crowd reaction as people don’t want to stick around after SmackDown Live. Now they’ll face the same problem, except this time they’re going on too early. If anyone can overcome it, though, it’s these two.

On the flip side, especially now that it’s being billed as a normal wrestling match, most people think A.J. Styles vs. Shane McMahon is a total waste of the Phenomenal One’s talents. Of course I’d much prefer to see him face Samoa Joe, Finn Balor or even Luke Harper, but any time a McMahon is in a match, the company sees it as a high-profile attraction. This match had a late start, but the build over the last few weeks has been pretty good. A.J.’s initial beat-down of Shane was great, and the Boy Wonder’s (although at his age, maybe it’s time to retire that nickname) elbow through the table two weeks ago was vintage. At the risk of being put on the List of Jericho, many consider Styles to be the best in the world at what he does, and this is will be his biggest test of that to date. If he can carry Shane-O-Mac to a great match, then his reputation is cemented forever. And something tells me, he’s saying, “Challenge accepted!”

And I think it’s also worth noting that the John Cena & Nikki Bella vs. The Miz & Maryse match has had the best build of the entire card. Everyone was up in arms when the match was announced, since many were clamoring for a Samoa Joe vs. Cena match, but the build for this intergender tag team match has been perfect. It’s had the right balance of humor and intensity. The Total Bellas spoof was hilarious. Cena eviscerating The Miz on SmackDown this week was fantastic, and given The Miz’s character, I wasn’t that upset he just stood there and took it. But with all that being said, I still don’t care about the match at all. The build has made for some great TV, but I don’t think the match will.

What will be the Match of the Night?

Darg: If we’re talking pure in-ring action, it’s gotta be Austin Aries vs. Neville for the cruiserweight championship. Being on the pre-show might end up working out in the end because they should get more time than they would on the main card, but if Camping World Stadium isn’t close to full, the lack of crowd reaction could really hurt the match.

My pick from the main card is HHH vs. Seth Rollins. The non-sanctioned gimmick will really work in their favor. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw blood here.

Ed: As long as it gets enough time, I’m going to go with Kevin Owens challenging for Chris Jericho’s United States Championship. This match has had the best long-term build by far, but it really feels like it’s been overshadowed over the last three weeks or so and has lost some steam. Otherwise this probably would be the match I was most looking forward to. These guys have an undeniable chemistry with each other, and they’re two of the best workers in the company.

It’s amazing what Jericho is able to do in the ring at his age, and his ability to reinvent himself is second-to-none. This run is definitely the best he’s had in years, and you could even argue it’s his best ever (and that’s saying a lot). When a clipboard and the word “it” is over more than the majority of the RAW roster, that’s impressive (or is it…).

Owens has played his role to perfection as well. While Balor was reportedly slated to have a long run at the top before his injury, Owens stepped up in a big way. It was just the boost he needed, too, as he was starting to get a little stagnant. While it’s annoying he relied on interference and heel shenanigans 99 percent of the time, that’s just the nature of the beast nowadays if you’re a heel. These two should have the perfect blend of great in-ring work, humor and psychology to tell one of the better stories on the card.

With Jericho scheduled to go back on the road with his band Fozzy soon, one would think Owens will walk away with the gold. Owens will definitely end up with the belt, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Y2J get the win just to lose it the next night, perhaps, on the RAW after Mania.  

Jeff: I really think that KO and Jericho are going to bring the house down. We all know that KO can put on a solid match with anyone and Jericho is the GOAT, seems like a solid formula. If this is the last match of Jericho’s run, you better bet your ass that I’m gonna drink it in, mannnnnnnnnnn.

Speaking of, who or what will make you mark out maaaaaaaaaan?

Jeff: AJ STYLES – this guy is going to make Shane McMahon actually look like a legitimate wrestler. With no crazy rules or a cage to jump off of, this match is going to be AJ guiding Shane through the best match of his career, just watch.

Ed: If the Ultimate Thrill Ride is brought to a screeching halt by the Broken Matt Hardy, Brother Nero and any other members of the Broken Universe, it will be a WrestleMania moment for sure. There have been plenty of teases that it could happen as WWE and the Broken one himself have been going back and forth on Twitter, but it’s by no means a lock and could easily be saved for the next night or two on RAW or SmackDown Live. They’d be a great fit on the blue brand to feud with the Usos and/or American Alpha.

Since that’s something not scheduled to be on the card, though, I’ll go with Roman Reigns officially turning heel. This is the third-straight WrestleMania the company is trying to push Roman Reigns down our throats, and it’s already rumored he’ll be main eventing next year against Brock Lesnar. He’s going to be booed out of the building Sunday against the Undertaker, and he’ll be booed almost as badly next year against Brock Lesnar if they stay on that path. So, why not just finally pull the trigger and make him a heel? He has shown flashes of a heel persona in the past, and most notably over the past couple of weeks.

The role just seems much more natural for him. He might be the only one in the company capable of getting The Rock booed which happened when the People’s Champ tried to help him celebrate his Royal Rumble win in Philadelphia a couple years ago. The irony of the situation is that The Rock went through a similar situation when he debuted with the company. It got so bad that Hollywood’s highest-paid actor was showered with, “Die Rocky die,” chants. Rather than stay down that path for three years, Rocky Maivia turned heel, and The Rock was born. History needs to repeat itself with his cousin Roman. And Sunday in Orlando is most definitely the time.

Darg: If you’ll let me #FantasyBook for a minute, what if Samoa Joe runs out to help Triple H and Finn Balor makes his shocking return, but instead of taking out Joe, he takes out Rollins and aligns himself with the group of NXT guys that is currently forming around HHH.

Will anyone make a surprise appearance?

Jeff: WrestleMania is the place where anything can happen right? If dreams really do come true, we’ll get an appearance from a very Broken Matt Hardy. Hopefully Broken Matt and Brother Nero get involved in the Raw ladder match for the tag titles.

The other big mystery is Kurt Angle. We know he’s going to be there for the Hall of Fame but is this the time and place for him to debut as the next General Manager of Raw? My gut tells me this will be saved for the Raw after WrestleMania, but a man can dream.

Darg: I’m crossing my fingers and toes that New Day’s big WrestleMania moment will be interrupted by Broken Matt Hardy and Brother Nero. Not everyone in the crowd is going to know why Matt Hardy looks like “Doc” Brown’s cousin or why Jeff Hardy looks possessed, but that’s OK because the pop will be so loud from the hardcore fans that the causals will join in.

Ed: I’d love to see the Hulkster finally make his return to the company, but I think a more likely surprise would be Finn Balor. I know the RAW side, and the company in general, is short on faces, but I think this would be the perfect opportunity for Balor to come back as a heel.

Just picture this. At the end of the Rollins-HHH match, Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens come out for a  3-on-1 beat-down of Rollins, attacking his leg even more. With Rollins’ career in jeopardy, the lights go out, Balor’s music hits, and the Demon emerges. You get the full Demon entrance, which is tailor-made for such a big stage. The crowd is going nuts, HHH, Samoa Joe and Owens look shocked. Balor helps Rollins to his feet. And then cuts his leg out from under him and joins in on the attack. After all, Rollins was the one who knocked Balor out of commission in the first place. So, Balor makes a surprise return, gets his revenge, and completes HHH’s new NXT stable. Dare to dream.

How long will Goldberg v. Lesnar last?

Darg: If we include entrances, the main event will probably last in-between 15-20 minutes, but I‘m not expecting the actual match to last more than 10. I can’t imagine we’re going to get a one-two minute encounter where Brock goes over clean. I can’t imagine Vince closing the company’s biggest show of the year with the equivalent of a flash knockout.

Ed: I talked about this one in a previous question, but I think this one will go at least 10 minutes and no more than 20. So, let’s split the difference and say 15 minutes once you factor in entrances etc.

Jeff: I give this final showdown (thank God) only about two minutes and I think the majority of it will be a staring contest. After that incredibly main event worthy stare down, expect to see a spear attempt turned quickly into a F5. Lesnar fans will then rejoice.

Which titles will change hands?

Darg: SmackDown and Raw women’s, Raw tag team, United States, Intercontinental, Universal

 Naomi received a shocking reaction from the crowd when she returned on Tuesday, so I think she’s going to get a nice hometown pop after winning the match which may or may not be on the pre-show. I think Charlotte will win the Fatal-Four Way after Sasha turns on Bayley. Owens could really use a title. Corbin does as well, even though his feud with Ambrose has been, for a lack of a better term, suspect.

Enzo and Cass winning the tag titles would be a cool moment, especially if Cass lifts Enzo up the ladder to grab the titles. Even though their act has grown a tad stale, the duo gets a nice reaction every week. If they do win, let’s hope their reign lasts longer than Zack Ryder’s did the night after he had his WrestleMania moment.

Jeff: Raw Tag, Universal, Intercontinental, U.S. Title, Cruiserweight, Smackdown Women’s

I think we’re going to see quite a few titles change hands. The Universal title change appears to be the most obvious. Goldberg clearly only signed on to have a few one minute matches and then ride off into the sunset. I think we’re going to see Enzo and Cass take home their first WWE gold. After what I would consider the best run of Chris Jericho’s career, we’ll see it come to its gracious end courtesy of Mr. Owens.

I also think Corbin, Aries & Naomi will walk out of Mania with gold around their waists.

Ed: Raw and SmackDown women’s, Intercontinental, Universal, WWE World, Raw tag, United States

 The logical outcome for the majority of championship matches would indicate a title change, but you can never think logically when it comes to WWE.

I think the Raw Women’s Championship will go back to Charlotte after Sasha turns on Bayley, bringing Charlotte one step closer to breaking her father’s (and now John Cena’s) record for title reigns over the course of just a couple years.

I think Baron Corbin beats Dean Ambrose for the IC title in the match I probably care the least about. When the build for a WrestleMania match makes you think back to the infamous Judy Bagwell on a Forklift match in the dying days of WCW, that’s not a good thing.

It seems obvious that Lesnar will beat Goldberg, and he should. I can’t see them swerving us on that one.

I think we see Enzo and Cass get their first taste of gold in the Ladder Match. Not much else to say about that one unless the Hardys are somehow involved, which I doubt. It also seems obvious that Owens defeats the soon-departing Chris Jericho. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them drag this out a little while longer, but I’ll stick with a title change prediction for the U.S title.

Bray Wyatt needs a win in the worst way in the WWE Championship match, but I have no faith that’ll happen. I think it’s an RKO out of nowhere for Randy. It looks like there should be a lot of heel victories, so this helps balance things out a bit.

The SmackDown Women’s Championship is a tough one as well. Like with Wyatt, I think Alexa Bliss overcoming five opponents (at least) would go a long way in building up her credibility, but I’ll predict Naomi winning to get the hometown pop.

So, I guess that means the only title I’m predicting not to change hands would be the Cruiserweight Championship. Moving the title to Aries seems a little too quick, and since it’s on the Kickoff Show anyways, it makes sense to hold off on a switch. So, that would make seven title changes. Maybe Bray has a shot after all.

Will this be the Undertaker’s final Wrestlemania match?

Darg: Remember two weeks ago when the “Deadman” chokeslammed Braun Strowman? He made an odd face after he slammed Ol’ Brauny to the mat. At the time it just looked goofy, but after I watched it again I thought …hmm… that looks like the face of pain.

Let’s face it, he’s 52 years old. His body is beat up. He’s not going to embarrass himself because he’s a professional, but I’m not expecting his match with Roman Reigns to be memorable, outside of the reaction from the crowd after Reigns goes over clean.

Ed: I’ll never predict that any match will be Undertaker’s last match. He’s the “Deadman” after all. Based on how he’s moved around in the ring in his limited appearances the last few months, I think it might be a good idea for him to hang it up. And I think Taker may go into this match thinking it will be his last (just like he did last year), too.

But even if that’s what he’s thinking now, he could change his mind as WrestleMania season starts to heat up again next year.

Jeff: Yup, this is it and the man to do it will be Roman Freakin’ Reigns. We all know that Roman “can do anything” and burying the career of a legend like the Undertaker seems only logical. The only thing we can hope for is that a long awaited heel turn comes with it.

Will the Wrestlemania 33 set be the greatest ever?

Jeff: It has to be – I mean, they are building a freaking roller coaster. The sets are so lackluster these days that WWE should be splurging on the show of shows. Supposedly it’s the largest and most expensive set built to date so I’m really looking forward to seeing the final product in person.

Darg: From what I’ve seen so far on the Internetz, the set is very impressive, but it’s ripe for Universal Studio ripoff jokes on social media come Sunday. I don’t know if it’ll be better than WrestleMania 24, 26 and 30.

Ed: There’s a roller coaster. So, uh, yeah. Best. Set. Ever.

Will anyone besides Braun Strowman win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal?

Darg: Have you seen the jabronis from SmackDown in this match? With Samoa Joe out of the equation, Strowman could really use a strong showing here and really I don’t see how anyone else will win, unless Sami Zayn finally gets his revenge on Strowman.

Ed: No. In fact, it should be booked so that Strowman eliminates every other competitor by himself. And after he wins, he grabs his ridiculous trophy and smashes it to pieces, screaming that he wants more competition.

Jeff: Who cares? But if I did care, my answer would be simple…ANYONE BUT THE BIG SHOW. Braun Strowman really deserved a high profile match at Mania and I really hope they use this battle royal to have him absolutely destroy two rosters worth of talent. I wouldn’t mind Sami Zayn sneaking in for the win either. It’s to give one of the hardest working guys on the roster a WrestleMania moment.

Will WrestleMania be 33 be too long?

Darg: After last year’s monstrosity (close to seven hours if you watched from the beginning of the pre-show through the end of Roman Reigns vs. Triple H), I would have to imagine this one will finish before or just after 11 p.m.

But then again, there are 13 matches, with a New Day segment and an obligatory performance from Pitbull, so I may end up melting into my couch by the final hour.

Future live look-in at my living room around 10 o’clock:

Jeff: I’m leaning yes. There are SO many matches but this is a direct result of the brand split. Definitely a few matches I have no interest in but I don’t think the length of the show is going to affect the impact of some of these high profile bouts.

Ed: I’ve been a fan since I was three years old. I watch RAW and SmackDown Live (and usually 205 Live and Talking Smack) every week. I read the “Dirt Sheets” and listen to wrestling podcasts. And I even worked there for a couple years. But yes, seven hours (minimum) is too long for this show given the matches on the card. With the amount of talent on this roster, you could have easily set up a card where seven hours would probably fly by (ok, maybe not fly by, but you get my point. If you had Cena vs. Samoa Joe, Styles vs. Nakamura, Reigns vs. Balor, Undertaker vs. Strowman and even kept Orton vs. Wyatt, Rollins vs. HHH, Owens vs. Jericho and RAW women’s match, then you have yourself a card worth setting aside 7 hours for. That being said, I’ll still be watching all seven hours. I may need several adult beverages to get me to the end, but I’ll still stick it out.

What match will make you say, “wow, that was much better than I thought it would be.”

Darg: AJ Styles vs. Shane McMahon. When Styles “told” Shane that he wasn’t going to be able to climb anything or use any weapons and had to face the fact that he was going to step into the ring for a “pure” wrestling match, I laughed out loud because the idea of Shane O’Mac wrestling AJ in a gimmick-less match seems preposterous.

This is AJ Styles we’re talking about though, so anything is possible. I don’t know how he’ll do it, but Styles will pull an entertaining performance out of Shane. He’ll figure out a way to make Shane’s ridiculous offense look acceptable and will tell a story with the in-ring time he’s given.

Jeff: I can’t believe I’m saying this but Miz & Maryse v. Cena & Nikki at least has me interested. The Miz and Cena have been KILLING IT with their promos on Smackdown and I can only hope that it translates to in-ring action, although I’d say that’s doubtful. I think there will be a few entertaining spots, but for a concept that I originally LOATHED, I’m at least a little intrigued.

Ed: I’m hoping it will be the SmackDown women’s match, but I don’t think it will be. I think there’ll be too many moving pieces in this one, and unfortunately, it has cluster____ written all over it. I think Alexa Bliss is a phenomenal heel. Her delivery on the mic is different than anyone else. She has some of the best heel facials of anyone in the company, and she doesn’t have to yell to get her point across. She still has a long way to go in the ring, but the last couple of weeks aside, she has shown steady improvement. Becky Lynch, Mickie James and Natalya are proven commodities in the ring and have to be the glue to hold this one together. Naomi looked good during her return Tuesday night, but will she be just as good when Orlando will be unable to see her glow since it’s during the Kickoff show? Carmella just isn’t on this level yet, but she’s been entertaining in her role with James Ellsworth. Put all of them together (and possibly some surprises), though, and I think this one is better on paper.

So I’m going to go with Brock Lesnar challenging Goldberg for the Universal Championship. It seems weird to pick what is likely to be the show-closing main event, but most people don’t have very high expectations for this one. Their first match went less than 90 seconds at Survivor Series, but I think the reason for that was to save everything for the Showcase of the Immortals. There’s a very good chance this is Goldberg’s last match, and he’s in phenomenal shape. I have a feeling he’s going leave it all out in the ring and do everything he can to make this match an entertaining one. This may only go 10 minutes or so, but this isn’t the kind of match that needs to go a half hour. Brock Lesnar matches are not like other matches. There’s a legitimate feel to them. There’s a sense of danger to them. And given Goldberg’s age, that sense of danger will be heightened even more. Given Lesnar’s past and the fact that Goldberg already busted his head open on a door, don’t be surprised to see some “color” in this one either. It won’t be a five-star match, but I think this one will be much more entertaining than anyone expects.

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