Image via WWE/Youtube

Eight years ago and counting, Samoa Joe was done—or at least it seemed that way.

He had been doing great. As the world champion of TNA (later Impact Wrestling, and now Global Force Wrestling), he was headlining one of the biggest shows in company history—the Bound for Glory 2008 pay-per-view event held at the Sears Center outside Chicago—wrestling Sting in the main event. With a crowd topping 5,000 fans and the TNA crew’s unique ability to make four-figure arena crowds look far larger than they actually were, it felt like a massive success for a growing company. When Joe and Sting brawled into the crowd, it looked great, but then … this happened.

Sting was standing on the steps in the stands that led up to the concourse gate. Joe went up to the concourse level, got a running start, and dropkicked Sting, very obviously landing back-first on the steps in the process. There was no way to do that safely, and, sure enough, Joe was limping as soon as he stood up. Out of nowhere, his in-ring performances declined, and one of the best wrestlers in the world was suddenly just a guy. He had quite literally slowed down, and the TNA creative staff didn’t help matters by giving him nothing interesting to do. The buzz was gone. Having made good money in TNA as one of the company’s signature stars and succeeded at investing his earnings in real estate, it seemed inevitable that he would retire when his contract was up, or after doing a retirement tour on his terms.

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Instead, in 2017, a 38-year-old Samoa Joe is headlining this Sunday’s Great Balls of Fire pay-per-view/streaming network special event for WWE. Against Brock Lesnar. One of the last dream matches left in wrestling and one that fans have clamored for going back to at least 2003, it’s also one of WWE’s best-hyped matches in recent memory, to the point where it feels like Joe, originally planned as a one-and-done challenger, could take Brock’s title.

How in the world did THAT happen?

When Samoa Joe first started to pick up a buzz in 2001-2002, it was as one of a new breed of wrestlers who helped push something of a boom period on the independent scene at a time when fans were looking for alternatives after ECW and WCW went out of business within a two and a half month period in 2001. As a heavyweight when big indie wrestlers—much less big ones who could perform well—were rare, he stood out instantly. He was at least nominally on WWE’s radar before he even had a following, as UPW, his home promotion in southern California, had a loose talent-scouting affiliation with the dominant promotion. Even as a guy without much of a look who worked in t-shirt and track pants, Joe appeared on WWE TV and lost a competitive match to Essa Rios (Mexico’s Mr. Aguila).

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His first real break came when a new promotion with solid financial backing, Pro Wrestling Zero-One, launched in Japan, and looked to UPW to help book American talent. Joe got to become a regular, and it was during this period that he developed the persona that wrestling fans know now, the guy who you believe is a badass because of how he carries and projects himself. That Joe did not usually show up in Zero-One, as before long, he was instead booked to be a more “traditional”—read, stereotypical—Samoan wrestler, dubbed King Joe and working as part of the King Samoans tag team. He was clearly learning, though, because the Joe that showed up stateside while he worked for Zero-One was patterned after the promotion’s boss and top star, Shinya Hashimoto.

Hashimoto was the biggest draw in Japanese wrestling in the back half of the 1990s, drawing the highest TV ratings of the era and headlining numerous packed stadium cards, including a run in 1997 where he was in the main event of four dome shows in the first eight months of the year. While not nearly as immediately impressive as his more athletic, slim, and outwardly charismatic peers, Keiji “The Great Muta” Mutoh and Masahiro Chono, he became the biggest star of the three because he projected the most “real” tough-guy aura of the three.

When Hashimoto died of a brain aneurysm, 12 years ago this coming week, Joe wrote about what he had learned from his former boss in a blog post on LiveJournal. “Hashimoto had foregone the pomp and circumstance of wrestling and simply sought to be the embodiment of an ideal,” he wrote. “The ideal that was the founding principle of the dojo that produced him which was derived from the centuries old warrior customs of his culture. Hashimoto embodied Toukon, The Fighting Spirit.” At a training session, Joe got a taste of Hashimoto’s pro-wrestling philosophy when the superstar asked all of the foreign wrestlers what “the most important aspect” of the business was. “Answers sprung forth pleading a case for ‘Technique’ and ‘Psychology,’ but Hashimoto simply pointed at his eyes and said ‘The Fire,’” wrote Joe. “The fire, the burning spirit, the unyielding will, even in the face of insurmountable challenges. With a simple gesture and the most intense stare I had ever seen, I understood all these things that I have just listed and nodded in compliance.”

The new and more focused Samoa Joe became the centerpiece of Ring of Honor, then the foremost “super indie,” a promotion based heavily around flying in recognizable unsigned names rather than relying on a local base. The idea behind ROH, which launched in February 2002, was fairly simple: Initial parent company RF Video had become wildly successful thanks to a deal with ECW, taping most events (where they always had a vendor table) themselves and having the rights to resell everything that they didn’t shoot themselves. ECW going bankrupt and folding cost them their signature current wrestling product, not to mention their biggest outlet for in-person sales. Various Northeast indies were added to the company’s tape catalog, but few even with an influx of new talent on the scene, cards were rarely deep.

Samoa Joe won the ROH title just a few months into his stint in the company by easily dispatching Xavier, who riled up the fans by acting like a traditional heel in a promotion where the fanbase wanted “serious wrestling.” While the third man to hold the title, Joe was the first to properly fill the role of champion. He was dominant, if not quite invulnerable, and his aura was helped by the fact that not only did he not work for that many indies, but the ROH champion became someone who didn’t lose when he did take dates in other groups. Between the unbeatable aura, Joe’s presence, and the great matches, the ROH Title was greatly elevated above all other indie belts. Joe’s reign lasted the better part of two years, and even after he lost the belt to Austin Aries, he remained the company’s signature star.

Eventually, in 2005, it was time to move on, as Joe and best friend/favorite opponent CM Punk were both being wooed by WWE and TNA. Joe ended up in TNA after rumors circulated that WWE was picking him up just to beat him relentlessly on TV and devalue him, while Punk, who had a public distaste for TNA, went to WWE. TNA picked up where ROH left off, giving Joe an unbeaten streak that topped a year … only to be ruined by having him lose to Kurt Angle in Angle’s first pay-per-view match with the company. The good news was that it was TNA’s biggest pay-per-view to date, but with Angle as the promotion’s new shiny toy, Joe fell to the wayside.

Eventually, at least for a little while, TNA got their shit together, and in early 2008, Joe was set to face Angle for the company’s world title in a main event cage match at the Lockdown pay-per-view show. The idea was to promote the match the same way UFC hyping its major fights at the time, with fighters Frank Trigg and Marcus Davis involved in the presentation for good measure. The result was a strong crowd of 5,500 in Lowell, Mass. and a new company-record pay-per-view audience watching Joe win the title in brilliant match filled with MMA influences. Angle, slimmed down to probably the best shape of the back half of his career, did a great job elevating Joe. He was finally made—or at least it seemed that way until he seemed to utterly destroy his back in the aforementioned title loss to Sting six months later.

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While it would be a bit much to call Joe a complete nonentity for the next seven years, the man who had once been a hardcore favorite, and hell, one half of the best match I’ve ever seen live (against Japanese legend Kenta Kobashi) was not what he had been. He moved more slowly, he gained weight, and he just looked disillusioned with TNA as a whole. He wasn’t the only one.

When Joe left the company in 2015, though—cashflow issues led to the promotion losing much of its marquee talent—everything changed. Between weight loss and a noticeable increase in his energy in the ring, he seemed like the old Samoa Joe again. Given that he was well-known for having wisely invested and saved, what seemed to make sense was a light schedule on the booming indie scene, which would allow him to give his body a rest while still making good money and winding down his career on his terms.

There was one thing that threw off that theory, though: For some of his independent bookings, Joe was charging in the low three figures plus transportation expenses. For a star and indie legend of his stature, it was such a bargain that it was suspicious, indicating that he was mostly working the shows for fun and to get into better ring shape.

It therefore wasn’t necessarily a big surprise when Joe showed up in NXT, the WWE brand that mixes prospects with veterans while targeting hardcore fans in a way that eventually made it akin to WWE’s own ROH. Initially, he was to keep his independent schedule on non-conflicting dates, but that changed within a few weeks. Earmarked at first as someone there to help teach the younger NXT talent in the ring while being a good headliner for live events, he was eventually brought up to the main roster on January 30th, debuting on Monday Night Raw. Fans immediately demanded a match with Lesnar, especially once the latter won the WWE Universal Championship at WrestleMania, and for Lesnar’s first title defense, we’re getting it.

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Even in a company that’s often very scattershot in the creative department, the buildup for the match has been perfect, with Joe presented as at or even above Lesnar’s level. While WWE sometimes tries too hard to eschew traditional hero/villain narratives, this is a time where both wrestlers are best not being shoved into a specific box. With a simple yet brilliant storyline—they want to fight, Joe wants the belt, and Joe isn’t afraid of Lesnar, so he actually gets the better of the champion sometimes—the match is the most anticipated in WWE in a long time, with the YouTube and Facebook videos of the first Brock-Joe confrontation exploding as the company’s biggest viral hit in a long time.

But … will it deliver? It sure feels like it. While Lesnar went through a long stretch of boring, repetitive matches, his recent feud with Bill Goldberg helped him regain a lot of goodwill. They were short, high-energy, clash of the titans-style matches where two superheroes butted heads. Joe, meanwhile, thrives in the hit or be hit style match that Lesnar loves. As long as nobody over-thinks this, Joe has an opportunity this Sunday to become a new level of star in the biggest match of his career. Not bad for a guy way past the wrong side of 30.

David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.