WWE

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

Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque opens up about WarGames and returning to the ring at Survivor Series

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This weekend is going to be a busy one for Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque.

On Saturday night he will be behind the scenes producing a match that hasn’t been seen in 19 years at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, which will stream live around the world on WWE Network at 8 p.m. ET.

And then on Sunday he’ll make his televised return at Survivor Series as a member of Team Raw in the five-on-five elimination match against Team SmackDown. (You can stream his return live around the world on the WWE Network starting at 7 p.m. ET.)

I had the chance to chat with HHH about how the return of WarGames came about, what makes the Undisputed Era special, and how long it took him to get comfortable in the ring again during his recent stretch of matches overseas.

Me: There have been rumors of a ‘WarGames’ match under the WWE umbrella for a long time now and after almost two decades we’re now just three days away from witnessing one. Walk me through the process of how we got here.

HHH: “For me ‘WarGames’ has always been a very viable concept. It wasn’t just a name, it was a branding of a match that was meaningful in WCW. It’s something I’ve always had interest in. I’ve always liked the concept as a fan.

As we move forward with NXT, it’s really started to become its own brand. We’ve had opportunities to do different things, whether that is ladder matches, or cage matches. But there was an opportunity that came along, given the weekend with Survivor Series and given the position [NXT] is in to brand something out and create something that NXT could own.

It seemed like the perfect time to bring it out, so I dusted it off. Throughout the years, I was aware of Vince’s feelings about it. There were some things about that match that he liked and there were some things about the concept that he didn’t necessarily think worked, especially in today’s world.

So I brought it back up to him and we walked through the process and I said here’s the way I think we can make this match work for us and he liked it, agreed with it, thought it worked great for NXT and was real happy to do it. So here we are.

When you do this, the goal is not to go backwards. My goal isn’t to make people go, ‘oh is this as good as it was back then?’ I want to put a slightly different spin on it, so that it begins again and takes a life of its own because it can’t be what it was.

I grew up watching it in the Dusty [Rhodes], [Ric] Flair, Four Horseman vs. the world sort of iteration of it and this cannot be that. It has to be today’s version of it. Hopefully it’ll be something that our fan base really enjoys.

I think the NXT fans are going to love it. I know the talent is very excited about it. When we announced the match and word began to spread on the Internet, a bunch of main roster talent came to me and said, ‘oh my God, you’re doing WarGames? Anyway I can do something in that?’

For me, it’s also a cool nod to Dream [‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes]. It’s cool that his vision is able to continue.”

How long did it take you nail down the format of this iteration of ‘WarGames’?

“In terms of creative or …”

More the structure. It’s one of the more complicated matches in the industry in terms of laying it out, so how did you get to a point where you felt comfortable with how the match will work?

“There is some complexity to it, even though there are some people saying, ‘But it’s three teams, it isn’t the same as it originally was.’ The thing is we don’t have the Four Horseman, with a manger, to make a five-man team. It convoluted the concept to me if you hogedpodge things together.

When the stories logically go to the next place and they just kind of connect together, that’s when they’re the best and I feel like that’s how this happened. Once we knew we were going to do it, it organically started to come together. You have Authors of Pain, you have Sanity, you have the Undisputed Era. There’s a three-way thing that is combustible and needs to be solved inside a double cage … what other way would you solve it? (Laughs)

So you organically get there and then there were some logistical ways to figure out the issues that were created by the concept. For example, someone could say, ‘well, why doesn’t the rest of the team just run out and try to get into the cage?’ Well they can’t because they’re in this other cage.

Hopefully this becomes a yearly event. Is this exact iteration of what we’ll see in the future? I don’t know. I hope so, but if there’s something in this that doesn’t work, then we’ll tweak it a little and try to perfect it.

Everything goes through its little changes in the beginning and then where it ends up you just kind of naturally end up and you forget about those little changes that happen over time. When you go back and look at them 10 years later you might go, ‘oh my God, I forgot that they started it that way.’

I’m really excited. I know the NXT locker room is really excited about doing this. There’s something really cool about being a part of something that’s historic, but making it new and making it the future. I think it’s a good opportunity. I think everyone is feeling the weight of that.

The TakeOver events are always kind of special for the NXT talent because they’re not often and they really encompass the storylines together, but this one seems to have more weight than normal, even for the people who aren’t in the ‘WarGames’ match itself.”

And that’s going to make them want to step up their game.

“Absolutely. Fan excitement combined with their excitement all leads to making magic. There’s been a lot of greatness surrounding this match in the past and they want to make sure that they not only live up to that, but also make it their own.”

What have been some of the production challenges that you’ve faced with the unique setup of a show with a ‘WarGames’ match on it due to the presence of the second ring?

“There’s a difficulty to everything because it doesn’t line up the same way. You set up your lighting rig, you set up your ring and it’s all based on centers and everything is structured a certain way and now you add in a second ring to that and you add in a cage that is going to hang and lower around two rings.

We had to build a whole new cage setup. We have to light differently. We had to arrange our ticketing differently. All of it is slightly different that require some logistic challenges.

The great thing about WWE and our team … I’ll go out on a limb here and say … that we have the best live event team anywhere. They see something like this as a challenge and they just go for it.”

The Undisputed Era has been the focal point of NXT since the ‘TakeOver: Brooklyn III’ show. What gave you the confidence in Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly to ‘give them the ball and see where it goes?’

“I think they’re talented guys. You’re never 100 percent sure with anybody who walks in the door, but there are certain talent that you see come in who have an innate ability right away.

Are there things we have to work on with them? Absolutely, they’re learning every day.

The one thing I liked about those guys and why I was confident in ‘giving them the ball right off of the bat’ is because when we spoke and talked about things, they absorbed it. They’re sponges. They’re students of this. They want to learn.

They’re not walking in the door going, ‘I know, I know how to do this.’ They’re walking in the door going ‘Wow, I have this opportunity to work with Shawn Michaels at the Performance Center, or with Terry Taylor, or this person, or that person.’ They can learn TV production from all of these different people. They are wide open to it.

To me, that’s what makes you successful. It’s the guys that walk in going ‘ah, I got this’ that make it difficult. When you have someone who just wants to be a student, wants to learn and wants to, no matter how good they are, just take their ability to a whole other level.

In this business, you constantly have to be willing to morph, grow, and think differently because it’s the nature of the beast. There are guys who have that hunger and desire to constantly evolve and you can see it from the first time you speak to them.”

Shifting gears a bit; you’re back in the ring and have worked quite a bit over the last month. It made me think about the adjustment period athletes, who have been away from their sport for a while, deal with when the bright lights are shining on them again.

How was your adjustment period while working on the overseas tour? Did it hit you as you walked through the curtain after hearing the first few beats of your music, or was it after the bell rang and all of the eyes were on you again?

“When I went to Santiago, Chile to do the first show, I hadn’t stepped in the ring to do anything since WrestleMania. That’s a long time. You think that you remember how to do everything and in your mind, you’re the same as you were the last time you were there.

Just taking that first bump in ring is jarring. It’s like riding a bike, you don’t really forget how to do it and if anything in your mind you go, ‘oh yeah, I still remember how to do this’ and then you get back into your groove. That’s not to say there isn’t rust, but the positive thing for me as opposed to some of the years when I haven’t done this for six, eight, 10 months and is that my first match back wasn’t at WrestleMania in front of the biggest audience that we’re going to have. That’s a whole different world of pressure.

I’m not saying Santiago, Chile isn’t important, but it wasn’t a televised event. There’s a lot less pressure, so you can relax a bit and be yourself a little bit more. If the opportunity arises you can twerk, you can do whatever.”

Or you can work with The Shield and give the fans a once in a lifetime experience.

“Yeah … and I can tell you the one thing that has happened to me this time is that I’m having a different level of fun.

Sometimes when you’re in the throes of getting ready for WrestleMania, it’s fun, but it’s so much pressure. You’ve got the world leaning on you and you’re leaning on yourself. You’re putting the pressure of, ‘man, I hope I can still do this.’

People forget at the end of the day that we’re just people. We’re human beings. No matter what persona you put on, when you go to that ring, you have doubts and fears just like everyone else. Anyone who says they don’t have those things is lying to themselves.

When you can go do it in this environment, it makes you go like, ‘yeah man, this is the coolest gig in the world.’ Yeah, you get beat up and it sucks to knock the rust off, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The five-on-five Raw vs. SmackDown match at Survivor Series has a throwback feel in the sense that there are a lot of fantasy matchups that can be teased. 

What does it feel like knowing you’re going to step in the ring again with Shane McMahon, Kurt Angle and John Cena, and alao have the opportunity to work with Bobby Roode and Shinsuke Nakamura for the first time?

“There’s this crazy part of me that goes through the past few years and thinks about stepping into the ring with Roman Reigns at WrestleMania, someone who came through the [development] system when I was beginning to take it over. And then I think about Seth [Rollins] and now doing this at Survivor Series.

I haven’t been in the ring with Kurt Angle in a long time. Same goes for Shane and even Cena.

I think about the phone conversations with [Finn] Balor about coming in. It’s a crazy thing to think about and it’s something I’m very excited about. You go back to the whole having fun part of the job and this is just cool.

Whenever I’m looking at talent, even when I’m developing NXT guys, I can’t help but look at it from a performer’s point of view. I did an interview a few years ago when Nakamura was first coming in and they asked me if there were guys I would like to wrestle and I was like yeah, I’d like to wrestle him. Am I planning to do it? No, but it would be awesome if I could just fantasy book it in my head. Now I’m going to be able to actually get in the ring with him.

I’m going to get to step into the ring with Bobby [Roode], which I think for a lot of fans there could be some cool moments there, but I think there are also some cool moments for us.

I have a bond with any of the guys and girls who came through our system and to be able to step into what we actually do with them is like a whole other level of cool.”

So, I would say one of the more anticipated matches in a long time is taking place this Sunday when AJ Styles and Brock Lesnar square off. 

The build for the match has taken me back to the root of my fandom as I feel like a little kid again who is excited to see these two meet for the first time. I was wondering if there was a match, and it could be this one, that gets you excited to just sit back and watch it as a fan and not as the vice president of WWE.

“Sometimes people ask me about when we’re booking and writing NXT and in a lot of ways I just book stuff that I want to see [as a fan]. 

Like I go, ‘man that match really intrigues me, how am I going to get there and how am I going to make it even more interesting. Like how cool would that be. Ooh those two will really go at it and stylistically they’ll tear it up.’ This is one of those matches to me.

Brock Lesnar is a once in a lifetime athlete and it’s hard to not say the same about AJ Styles in some ways. With AJ, you go back five years ago and some people never thought he would even be here.

When you ask me about going back to being a fan, I think about a lot of this card that way. I’m excited to watch Cesaro and Sheamus vs. The Usos. I know it’s not the first time ever, but man they always awe me with something new and different.

You go back to the WarGames show, I’m looking forward to Drew McIntyre vs. Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas for the NXT championship. I can’t wait to see that match! I know the level both guys are going to take it to.

I look at the Kairi Sane vs. Peyton Royce vs. Ember Moon vs. Nikki Cross four-way match for the NXT women’s title and even though I’m writing it, as a fan I’m like ‘I can’t call that one.’

In some ways you get into that fantasy booking thing in your head and you just put it on paper and try to make it the best you can make it. To me, it all comes from being a fan.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

WWE Will Celebrate Raw’s 25th Anniversary on January 22nd

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Monday Night Raw is turning 25 next year and on January 22nd, WWE is going to have one hell (yeah!) of a celebration.

Raw will air live on the USA Network from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and also from the Manhattan Center, the venue where Raw debuted way back on January 11th, 1993.

Superstars from Raw and SmackDown will appear at both sites, with Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and other WWE legends scheduled to appear at the Manhattan Center. It should be noted here that the Undertaker and HBK appeared on the very first episode of Raw.

“We look forward to celebrating this unmatched milestone with our fans around the world, but 25 years only marks the beginning of WWE surprising, delighting and entertaining generations to come,” said WWE Chairman & CEO Vince McMahon.

Raw is the longest-running, weekly episodic program in U.S. primetime TV history.

Tickets for both venues will go on sale starting this Friday through all Ticketmaster outlets.