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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Joe Somebody: NXT Immediately Gets the Samoan Submission Machine

I was certain that when Vince Russo went on his tirade about Vince McMahon's inability to create stars, he was attempting some nuanced mode of irony. Granted, McMahon's track record in recent times of building stars is spotty, but the examples Russo cites include Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, and Neville, who the former WWE crash-TV aficionado claims won't have their debuts remembered in a year. That's more of an 'eye of the beholder' thing, not so much an, "I speak for the group" statement. When you take into consideration that Russo's last tenure with the book did a bang-up job of neutering, in my opinion, one of the most gifted performers that TNA had ever acquired, I really don't think Russo should be talking about the diminished capacity of someone else to build up talent.

It seems all too appropriate at a time where TNA eulogies are being edited and updated that Samoa Joe debuts at NXT's "Unstoppable" special, and like Kevin Owens almost six months prior, is immediately plugged into the main event. More notable than his staredown with Owens is his retention of the 'Samoa Joe' name, when Prince Devitt, El Generico, KENTA, and Kevin Steen didn't hold onto theirs. It's as if Triple H said, "He's so valuable with that name, we'd be doing him an absolute disservice to fuck it up and call him something else."

Joe spent ten years with TNA, and for the first year-and-a-half, he was the sort of unconquerable whirlwind that caught the eye. His matches were great, his performances unflinchingly realistic. His non-plussed demeanor lent an icy menace to his bulbous frame, as if his girth-defiant grace didn't already. The matches with AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, and Chris Sabin balanced out undercards while Christian Cage, Team 3D, Jeff Jarrett, and Sting fortified the apex with their names. It's safe to say that when TNA was at its most viable as a true alternative, Joe stood with Styles at the forefront of the company's 'tomorrow generation' behind the WWE/WCW alumni listed. Appropriately, none of those alumni are with TNA today. For that matter, neither are Styles or Joe.

By the time Kurt Angle arrived off of a tumultuous WWE exit in late-summer 2006, TNA really felt like it was a major player. An Angle-Joe feud was a natural, especially since Joe had yet to be pinned or made submit in his TNA lifetime. In fact, when Russo returned as booker in October, he immediately went in that direction. Since Russo has demonstrated the patience of a six-year-old that sleeps under the Christmas tree, Angle and Joe would wrestle three times at three straight PPVs, rushing through the entire feud in three months.

Joe's undefeated streak was ended in a spectacular main event at Genesis, drawing in the neighborhood of 60,000 buys as he submit to Angle's anklelock. The rematch was immediate, and Joe defeated Angle with the rear-naked choke three weeks later to the tune of 35,000 buys. That should have been alarming, although you could argue that the PPV, Turning Point, was locked into a schedule of five PPVs in five consecutive weeks (Genesis 11/19, Survivor Series 11/26, December to Dismember 12/3, Turning Point 12/10, Armageddon 12/17), plus it was the holiday season, the biggest money draw of the lot. The blowoff, a 30-minute Iron Man match, took place January 14, 2007, with Angle winning 3-2. That too did in the neighborhood of 35,000 buys.

TNA wouldn't see 50,000 buys again until Lockdown 2008, the event where Joe defeated Angle in an MMA-rules cage match to win his only TNA World Heavyweight title. The match was excellent, a homage to the grittier counter-wrestling that mixed martial-arts embodies, fusing that realistic work with the evolutionary American style that both men bring to the table. The 5,500 fans on hand in Lowell, MA represents a number that the later Russo years would willingly lob off appendages to sniff.

Aside from the classic battles with Angle, and Joe's early X-Division work (namely the Unbreakable three-way with Styles and Daniels that earned deserved raves), how much of Joe's time in TNA do you actually remember? Do you even remember Taz being his inspirational sensei? Or that he was kidnapped by a fleet of ninjas in a van? How about his 2011 losing streak (yes, the stone-faced, lionhearted killer was given a losing streak) that spiked with him losing cleanly to Crimson at that year's Slammiversary? You may remember most of the bad stuff, but that's probably because the bad stuff stuck out like a sore thumb. As in, why is Samoa Joe being booked to look like a joke?

Joe's staredown on Wednesday night with Owens is a betrayal of that flavorless carny style that lives and breathes on swerves for the sake of having them. One man glared into the eyes of a chickenshit champion, who dared not throw a clubbing blow at Joe until his back was turned, which didn't come to pass. So Owens, knowing the imminent threat, took a walk. If the two face off three times in the next three months, it'll be because Triple H is a double agent secretly working for Jeff Jarrett or Mark Burnett. That isn't the case, so you can probably expect long-term greatness, so long as Joe remains part of the NXT fold in his kinda/sorta free agent state.

Joe vs. Owens is a dream match, though a rendition of it took place a decade ago in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Times have changed. Nowadays, Owens is WWE's most intriguing villain from a humanized-character standpoint, while Joe is a monster reborn with a new sheen of motivation. It's a star turn for a performer that came from a company that not only struggles to make stars, but apparently doesn't know a star when it's standing right in front of them.

I think it's safe to say that, a year from now, I'm going to remember Samoa Joe's debut in NXT. More confidently, I think I speak on behalf of the group when I say we'll all remember it.

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