A full 20 years after he first stepped onto a crimson-colored canvas inside of Philadelphia’s Murphy Recreation Center for a brutal “Fight Without Honor” against Low Ki, Samoa Joe finds himself once again competing for the wrestling company that personified the in-ring action that informed wrestling fans of the 2000s were consistently devouring, one DVD at a time.
Not only is Joe Seanoa still adding to his Ring of Honor belt collection, having dethroned Minoru Suzuki to commence his first reign with the ROH World Television Championship–a title that didn’t exist during Joe’s earliest days in ROH—but he’s also racking up these accomplishments following a chain of events that would have seemed unimaginable at the beginning of 2022.
As 2021 drew to a close, Joe was still contractually beholden to World Wrestling Entertainment, while Ring of Honor appeared to be treading steadily along a path toward nonexistence, having held its annual Final Battle event in December, following the announcement of a hiatus that many fans of the brand feared would be indefinite.
That was when All Elite Wrestling’s Tony Khan swooped in and ensured that 2021’s Final Battle would not live up to its name in a literal sense. Khan completed the acquisition of Ring of Honor the following March, rendering it as the de jure sister brand operating within the AEW ecosystem.
Despite the seismic shock radiating from Tony Khan’s announcement that America’s perpetual no. 3 wrestling brand would be equipped to further its legacy on solid financial footing, Joe was unfazed by the transaction.
“I wasn’t incredibly surprised,” Joe stated during a recent phone call. “If you’re going to be in the wrestling space, I think Ring of Honor is a big part of the industry’s lineage and history. I think its fingerprints are all over AEW and WWE. If you’re serious about being in the wrestling space, you need to acquire the assets that mean something, and ROH is one of those assets.”
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Ring of Honor acknowledges that Joe is almost inarguably foremost amongst the wrestling talents that certified ROH as a ranking asset in the industry. Ironically, Joe’s ROH tenure began when he had scarcely proved to be an asset in his own right. By the summer of 2001, he had barely been performing on the independent wrestling circuit for an entire year—almost exclusively at shows in the Greater Los Angeles region. That’s when he decided to attend open tryouts for outgoing New Japan Pro-Wrestling star Shinya Hashimoto’s new Pro Wrestling Zero1 organization, which were conveniently being held in Southern California.
“I attended, rolled around with [Naohiro] Hoshikawa for a bit, and they liked what they saw and booked me for their upcoming Shingeki pay-per-views, which were kind of a half-shoot, half-pro-wrestling type of pay-per-view,” said Joe. “After that, the rest is history.”
The “history” Joe alludes to includes the instant history he made. Joe debuted in Japan at the premier Shingeki pay-per-view event alongside Keiji Sakoda, and the pair became the inaugural NWA Intercontinental Tag Team champions. Joe’s familiarity with puroresu helped him adapt quickly to his newfound surroundings, while his involvement in the upstart organization helped forge Joe into the striking, suplexing monster he would ultimately unveil in ROH.
“Back then, I was watching anything I could get my hands on, and especially the wrestling coming out of Japan at the time; particularly the ’90s wrestling with New Japan and their junior division, and All Japan’s heavyweight style,” said Joe. “I was getting early UWF-I tapes, or Kingdom tapes from when [Nobuhiko] Takada used to run. All of that definitely influenced me. One of the biggest things for me when you start out on your wrestling journey is where you first go and start doing this for a living, and for me that was Japan. It’s going to have an indelible impression on your style and your approach to what you do in the ring, so Japan was definitely good to me in that respect.”
Joe made a respectable showing at Zero1’s 2001 Fire Festival—that company’s version of New Japan’s annual G1 Climax tournament—while continuing to wrestle against the likes of Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian in U.S. independent promotions everywhere from New Jersey to Alaska. It was in the midst of this run, and in the aftermath of a summer spent touring Japan with Zero1, that Joe was first invited to participate in an event for Ring of Honor, which was less than a year old. One of his standout bouts from 2001 had caught the eye of ROH’s promoter, Gabe Sapolsky.
“Really, Gabe had seen a match at the ‘King of Indies’ tournament that I’d done with Low Ki at the time,” recalled Joe. “It was very different from what you’d seen a lot of. Obviously, lucha libre had burst onto the scene and heavily influenced the style, especially in the Northeast, but it was definitely a rough, very ugly brawl. I’m good at that type of stuff. It was different, and they really liked it, and they brought me in for essentially a one-off, just to have a feature to put on the video for the show. But after that night, I wound up working there for quite a long time.”
It wasn’t long after his “Fight Without Honor” debut against Low Ki that Joe would become the standard bearer for Ring of Honor. It was something that Sapolsky explicitly told him would be in the works, although Joe had already sensed the scope of the investment that the new company was willing to make in him.
“Up until that point, I’d received enough of a good response that it merited bringing me back in repeatedly,” said Joe. “That was a big thing, because at the time the company was in its infancy. A ticket to bring me in from the West Coast was a big deal. It wasn’t cheap. To be the second guy outside of Daniels to be flown in from that distance at that price every month, that was a big investment for them at the time. Gabe pitched the idea to me along with the length of it and what he hoped to achieve with it, and we got the ball rolling and it worked out.”
With all due respect, it was less akin to a ball rolling, and far more like an out-of-control locomotive screaming down the tracks. Following his ousting of Xavier from atop the ROH summit, Joe commenced a 645-day reign as the champion of Ring of Honor. It was a period that was punctuated by Ring of Honor’s championship being elevated to “world title” status. For perspective, the duration of Joe’s ROH World Championship reign dwarfed the reigns of any mainstream, stateside world titleists during the decade of the 2000s. The World Heavyweight Championship defended on WWE’s Raw program traveled from Triple H to Goldberg, back to Triple H, on to Chris Benoit, over to Randy Orton, and right back to Triple H all during the span of Joe’s single ROH title reign. Similarly, the WWE Championship that headlined SmackDown changed hands between Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar twice before migrating over to Eddie Guerrero, and then onward to John Bradshaw Layfield. Likewise, over on NWA’s edition of TNA Wrestling, the top title underwent five official changes in ownership during the period that Joe held Ring of Honor’s most prized gold. Moreover, excluding lengthy heavyweight title reigns in Mexican wrestling companies, where the heavyweight division is tertiary at best in comparison to the middleweight and welterweight classes, only Kenta Kobashi’s 735-day reign as the GHC Heavyweight Champion of Pro Wrestling NOAH exceeds Joe’s stretch of ROH dominance in duration during the decade.
It was during this period that Joe fully ingratiated himself with the hardcore wrestling fans as the biggest grassroots star of the post-ECW era. It’s an occurrence that Joe credits the ROH fanbase for bringing to fruition.
“If you were over with Ring of Honor’s audience, then you were automatically over with the diehard wrestling audience, or at least a good portion of it,” said Joe. “It may not have been everybody, but they made up a good 70 percent of that space, so I’ll take those odds. There are a lot of other companies out there that had their own little followings at the time, and some of which are still going today, but I’d say if we’re talking about the wrestling fans that watched everything, they definitely watched Ring of Honor at the time.”
An integral piece of the formula that caused thousands of wrestling’s most rabid fans to coalesce around the Ring of Honor product was its talented young roster, including many stars that would circulate within the mainstream wrestling world alongside Joe for the better part of the next two decades: CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Christopher Daniels, Homicide, the Briscoes, TJ Perkins, Low Ki, Colt Cabana, Frankie Kazarian, Austin Aries, Nigel McGuinness, Jay Lethal, Roderick Strong, and several others.
“That ROH roster was an extremely tight-knit group, whether you liked it or not,” said Joe. “It consisted of a lot of people who had kind of the same mindset about professional wrestling and what they wanted to do in the ring, so you just had a lot of like-minded individuals who wanted to go out there and give the best show possible to the fans that we had at the time. The fanbase really defined a lot of that because they helped establish that in those early days. The buildings may have been small, but they were jam-packed, and people went crazy. It definitely drove us to be better. There was a universal rule to go out there and try to put on the best live show in the business, and a lot of nights, if you were in those buildings, you know we did.”
It was also during this formative period of Joe’s career that he established the Godzilla theme as the prelude to his ring-entrance music. It was the exact same snippet that plays prior to the opening of Pharoahe Monch’s 1999 single “Simon Says,” which Joe did use as theme music at times, but was forced to modify depending on the environment he found himself wrestling in.
“It was always kind of a gag for me that I always had to have that Godzilla intro, like Godzilla was coming to kick over Tokyo,” laughed Joe. “The Pharoahe Monch track was great, and I loved it, and I would definitely use it, but at the time I was a full-time independent wrestler. A lot of those shows are more family-oriented shows. It’s really hard to have ‘Simon Says’ out there playing uncensored. Even the censored version is kind of rough. When you’re doing a Sunday afternoon matinee show at a local armory or church, it’s a little bit of a rough pitch to do that. But I always tried to incorporate that Godzilla intro into all of my themes.”
Half a year after Austin Aries dethroned him, Joe claimed the Ring of Honor Pure Championship from Jay Lethal. However, it wasn’t long before TNA Wrestling began making overtures toward Joe, and he credits his time in Ring of Honor with affording him the luxury of being able to wait until TNA offered him a contract that was financially attractive enough for him to sign before he became a full-time TNA talent.
“It’s funny to think about, but at the time, I don’t think a lot of people realized that even during my first initial dealings with TNA, there was this industry-wide denial about the influence ROH was having and the bankability of its stars,” recalled Joe. “My first initial offers from TNA were pretty laughable, from both a creative standpoint and from a monetary standpoint. At the time, ROH was doing great business. I had to tell them, ‘I’m making more money now doing what I’m doing. Why would I give that up to take this offer?’ They were saying, ‘It’s TV!’ and I was like, ‘That’s great, but we’re not doing too bad on this end!’”
Joe’s first run in Ring of Honor overlapped with enough trips to compete for both Zero1 and New Japan, along with a memorable bout in ROH against Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Kenta Kobashi, that plenty of fans were left wondering if he would be the next wrestler in line to take up the mantles of legends like Abdullah the Butcher, Stan Hansen, and Big Van Vader, all of whom enjoyed multi-decade runs as headliners in Japan’s top promotions. Joe didn’t believe that was a realistic possibility.
“The industry was so different from the time I started to two years later,” said Joe. “It was just a very different environment business-wise at the time. I don’t think that I personally was going to be made or funded by the current people in power at any of the Japanese companies at the time. I guess it’s possible that it could have worked out, but if you look at the guys who were the top-paid foreign talents at the time, I think that kind of tells you where they were leaning and how hard it would be to be a foreigner and come in and steal that spot.”
Instead, Joe spent the eight-year period from the spring of 2007 to the spring of 2015 as a wrestler who was almost exclusively aligned with TNA. Once freed from his TNA ties, Joe briefly returned to a Ring of Honor locker room that featured a lot of familiar faces despite all of the time that had elapsed.
“If anything, when I went back, I felt like the right people had graduated to the right positions in the company as far as keeping stuff together or being the guys and girls on top,” said Joe. “It still felt very familiar. There were a lot of people in that locker room who I’d shared the room with before. It felt like ROH had been going strong and had just naturally evolved into what it had become at that time.”
Joe’s 2015 Ring of Honor return was short-lived, and he was quickly ushered into the fold of the WWE’s NXT during an era when the caliber and experience levels of the talent on the NXT roster made it seem like less of the developmental system it was intended to be, and far more like a glorified on-deck circle where inbound stars got in their practice swings. In fact, the embarrassment of riches saturating the NXT talent pool during that epoch had several insiders accusing the WWE of modeling NXT after the ROH blueprint. Joe believes that comparison was entirely warranted.
“I can definitely see why the comparison was made, especially when you look at the talent involved, it’s hard not to make that comparison,” agreed Joe. “I think WWE had recognized the market and had seen consistently that the wrestlers from ROH had been able to draw on a smaller scale, all over the world. When they were given a bigger stage and just as big of an audience, it did gangbusters. NXT went from being a developmental brand to selling out some of the biggest arenas around the country. If anything, I think WWE recognized that there was a market to see that type of wrestling and these types of wrestlers, and not just the traditional model of a wrestler that you would typically see in the WWE. I think it’s led to all wrestling companies becoming much more diverse in their talent hiring.”
Now that his career has come full circle, Joe finds himself relishing the opportunity to revitalize Ring of Honor as the company enters its third decade of existence.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s one of the rare opportunities you get to actually get your hands on something that you had a pretty good hand in creating, and being able to help mold for the future,” said Joe. “It’s a rare opportunity and a treasured one. I’ve seen other people have this type of opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it.”
And Joe is not alone for the ride. A wrestler would have a hard time throwing a sweaty towel through the shared ROH/AEW locker room without having it strike the face of a veteran from Ring of Honor’s golden era, yet Joe is not surprised to find himself once again in the presence of so many wrestlers he shared the locker room with back when they were crafting the performance style and standard that still defines ROH.
“It’s completely unsurprising to see those guys there,” said Joe. “It wouldn’t be unsurprising if I hadn’t shared locker rooms with these people several other times in the past in several different companies. There’s athletes out there who always manage to find a way to propel themselves to the highest levels. To be in any company and see the same contemporaries over and over again, it starts becoming less and less of a surprise. You just learn more about how brilliant they are and why they belong there.”
What may come as more of a surprise is what Joe perceives to be the similarities between Ring of Honor during its nascent stages, and the version now being carefully guided into its next era by AEW.
“Outside of the lack of infrastructure and it kind of being a few-person show over at ROH during the early years, and just a lot of people kind of bonding together to get the job done right, there really aren’t any big differences,” said Joe. “At AEW, the talent and what you see in the locker room isn’t very much different. There are a lot of young, exceptionally gifted athletes who have a love for wrestling who are coming together and going out there to try to give their best effort for the audience, and doing their best to put on the best live show they can. I’d like to see the development of those newer talents that are coming up to see what they have to offer and to see what influence they will have on the industry.
“That’s always been Ring of Honor’s greatest strength, which is to find new and innovative ways to do what we do,” continued Joe. “If that innovation and experimentation can continue, and the results of that are awesome, then I more than welcome that being the hallmark of Ring of Honor. If anything, it’s just a matter of getting some good matches out there that people will want to tune in to, and upholding the brand quality of Ring of Honor.”
Time and absence haven’t lessened Joe’s fondness for Ring of Honor, nor his desire to be its champion. Joe would welcome one more opportunity to sit atop the ROH mountain, and especially if he gets to knock off current ROH World Champion Chris Jericho in order to do it.
“We’re out here trophy hunting,” said Joe. “Not only is the ROH championship a very prized trophy of mine, but it’s wrapped around a big, nice, juicy turkey, so I’m more than willing to don that championship again.”
Despite all of his other accomplishments, which include stints as the top titlist in TNA and NXT, Joe has absolutely no problem with fans who tell him their fondest memories of his wrestling career still center around that unforgettable period when he was the foundation upon which Ring of Honor was built during the early 2000s … just as long as you were actually around to see it, and you’re not someone retroactively jumping on the bandwagon of the original ROH. And if you were authentically down with ROH from day one, there are some telltale trinkets that Joe expects to find lying around your domicile.
“There are some streaming service offerings nowadays, but you’ve got to have some DVDs if you want to prove to me that you really watched the stuff,” said Joe. “If you come up to me and tell me that you were really into it, then I’d better see some DVD covers, some box art or something. There are some people out there right now that just read the results and look at the match ratings written somewhere. You need to have watched it. Don’t fake it.”
As long as Joe has anything to say about it, the latest revival of Ring of Honor will be nothing if not authentic.
Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies, and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@Streamglass) and read more of his work at iandouglass.net.