With his 'Extreme Rules' win on Sunday, Samoa Joe has a chance to be seen as a main eventer on a global stage. It may be his last.
Any discerning pro-wrestling fan could be forgiven for having stifled a shudder at the prospect of the multi-man main event of Sunday's Extreme Rules. Matches with more than two competitors tend to be a bit of a mess even at the best of times, and that usually means just three people are involved. This one had five men—Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Finn Balor, Bray Wyatt, and Samoa Joe—vying for the privilege of losing to Brock Lesnar at next month's inexplicably named Great Balls of Fire.
Multi-person matches tend to follow a thoroughly unsatisfying formula, regardless of which promotion is putting them on and who's wrestling in them. Three or more wrestlers get in the ring, there's a bit of a brawl, and then the ring clears except for two people. Those two people go at it until there's a small break in the action, whereupon one of the wrestlers on the outside knocks one of the two active wrestlers to the outside and we repeat the process. The net effect is usually something that feels overly scripted, and in doing so disrupts the "is it or isn't it?" tension on which pro wrestling thrives: why isn't that wrestler running back in right now, why is that one standing by the turnbuckle so obviously waiting for a cue, and so on.
Mercifully, the Extreme Rules main event defied those expectations and turned out to be one of the few multi-person matches that clicked. The meta-gimmick of Extreme Rules is that each match has, well, extreme rules. No disqualifications, kendo sticks, cage matches, and the like. This year's pay-per-view toned it down, and fewer than half the matches had traditional hardcore stipulations—but not in the main, where anything went.
So it was that we got some cool moments like the sight of Wyatt and Joe holding a set of steel steps, slowly circling the ring like a sinister two-seater Zamboni, hitting the other three men with the improvised weapon to satisfying thuds. The spot of the night, and maybe of this year's post-WrestleMania run of pay-per-views, was Roman Reigns spearing Balor and Joe through a barricade, while Rollins delivered a splash through an announcers table to Wyatt a few seconds later. It was, more than anything, a busy match, with very little of the obvious cue-watching that can mar these types of things.
Samoa Joe won, which is a big deal. It's also slightly unexpected: he has not precisely caught fire with the crowd after moving from NXT to Raw. He's far from unpopular, but the raucous reactions that greeted him when he was with TNA and Ring of Honor are noticeably absent. Tossing him to Lesnar next month in the slow, inexorable grind of a build to the almost certainly guaranteed Reigns vs. Lesnar main event at next year's WrestleMania—the only two men to beat the Undertaker at that show!—seems like a waste.
Joe is a legend of the indie scene. He came up as a fat guy who could move (his WWE bio currently lists him as 282 pounds). That's been done before—witness Bam Bam Bigelow, who was happy to dropkick, dive, and do cartwheels while weighing nearly 400 pounds—but rarely with the amount of violence with which Joe pursues his craft. The fat-guy wrestler invariably occupies a space between threatening and comedic, and often alternates between the two rapidly and without much logic as to why he's one or the other; one minute you're a barely restrained killer in the ring, the next you're dancing in a diaper.
Joe has only ever been scary. His face radiates displeasure at all times. He seems, simply, angry at everyone he encounters, his surroundings, and the crowd. This doesn't really change much when he's working as a babyface—he's the guy whose onscreen role as hero or villain is primarily about who the subject of his ire at the time is.
That served him well coming up through Ring of Honor and the indies, where his style meshed with the scores of men willing to bump for him. When a masochist like, say, Necro Butcher worked with Samoa Joe, you ended up with the type of car-crash magic that is the lifeblood of a certain type of pro wrestling fan (I am that type of pro wrestling fan).
In his prime, Samoa Joe could do it all. The decades-old pro wrestling line of "I can't believe how agile he is for a big guy" and its variants were not bullshit here. Joe was fast, nimble, strong, big, intimidating, and, above all else, he could wrestle. Had WWE kept him in 2001, when he made an extremely brief appearance there—and honestly, had WWE been a different, more adventurous company back then—Samoa Joe could have been transcendent.
Now he's getting another chance on pro wrestling's biggest stage, but the fact is that Samoa Joe is no longer in his prime. This is not a slight, as he is still very good, but it is true. He's slower now, and he gets gassed a little more easily. His brow is creased with the beginnings of middle-aged wrinkles, those faint lines you get when you've spent a lifetime scowling and age 40 is right around the corner.
At 38, Joe is part of a generation who ruled the indies and brought WWE through its post-Attitude Era doldrums to today. They're the last gasp of Generation X's dominance over pro wrestling, from The Rock, Steve Austin, and Triple H down to John Cena, Randy Orton, and Edge. Cena is 40, A.J. Styles is 40, Nakamura is a relative baby at 37, and CM Punk is both 38 and long gone. Maybe that's why Joe's first match for a top WWE title feels so meaningful.
We know that there are indie wrestling fans backstage at WWE, not least Triple H. This is Joe's chance to be seen on a global stage as a main eventer, and it may be his last. It would be deeply wrong to suggest that the upcoming match against Lesnar is an unearned sop to Joe, but there does seem to be a measure of respect being shown to him and his fellow wrestlers who toiled in Japan and the indies for 15-plus years, waiting for their opportunity. There's a sense that everyone knows time is running out. And, frankly, we can already begin to count the number of main events featuring this generation of pro wrestlers as it dwindles from countless dozens to the final 30, the final 20.
Samoa Joe will lose to Brock Lesnar—another man who's a hair under 40—because the story will demand it. Other wrestlers will come after, and the next generation is already ascendant. Joe can't have too much more time in the spotlight, nor can Styles or any of the others. So savor these last few years. We won't see another Samoa Joe any time soon.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.