The untold truth of Samoa Joe

In the world of pro wrestling, there are few superstars who cut a figure as intimidating as Samoa Joe. With two decades of experience working for nearly every major wrestling promotion in the world — and holding championships as a top star in virtually all of them — Joe has made a career embodying the idea of the most hard-hitting, no-frills fighter in a world of theatricality and gimmicks.

Joe's talent for pro wrestling goes far beyond just his physicality, though. He has a sharp mind for the business side of pro wrestling, a keen grasp of his own worth as a performer, and a wealth of knowledge that he's passed down to younger wrestlers. As a result, his career has been a journey that's very different from the road to in-ring fame that most other wrestlers have taken, from the legit judo background that led him almost accidentally to the world of pro wrestling, to being the target of one of the goofiest promos ever filmed. Here's the truth behind Samoa Joe.

Samoa Joe's family business...

On April 7, 2019, Samoa Joe made his first appearance at WrestleMania, WWE's biggest event of the year, successfully defending the United States Championship against luchador legend Rey Mysterio in front of a massive crowd of 85,000 people. For most wrestlers, that kind of crowd size would be intimidating, but for Joe, it might've seemed like it was just another day at the office. After all, he'd performed in front of a bigger audience before. 

That happened back in 1984 when Joe — then just a 5-year-old Joe Seanoa — was a part of the family business. His parents, Pete and Portia, had founded a Polynesian dance company called Tiare Productions all the way back in 1965. Back then Pete was working as a Polynesian dancer at Disneyland, a career that wound up lasting 28 years. The dancing was an extension of his family's desire to maintain a connection to their roots after Pete emigrated to California. That desire, and the family's rise to fame as entertainers, also led to him carving authentic tikis for display in the Lion Country Safari park and, once the park shut down, displaying them in his own front yard in Huntington Beach. By 1984, Tiare Productions was big enough that when the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles, they performed as part of the opening ceremonies, dancing in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a crowd of over 93,000. 

Joe's career, of course, would go in a bit of a different direction, but he certainly kept up with the craft between bouts in the ring, and even brought the family business with him to the world of pro wrestling. In 2005, TNA's first-ever Bound For Glory — their somewhat smaller-scale equivalent to WrestleMania — opened with an entrance that included Joe dancing with his family's troupe before taking on, and defeating, Japanese legend Jushin Thunder Liger.

...but not THAT family

The fact that Samoa Joe's family has a long and prominent history in the world of Polynesian dance is notable for a reason that goes beyond their success in that arena, and into a common misconception among some wrestling fans about Joe's origins. He's frequently mistaken for being a member of the Anoa'i family, a prominent but completely different Samoan family.

That might sound like a simple example of the kind of casual racism that leads people to think that all members of a particular ethnic group are related — and it is — but to be entirely fair to those mistaken fans, the assumption isn't entirely baseless. Calling the Anoa'i family prominent is underselling things quite a bit: they're one of the most prolific wrestling dynasties — if not the most prolific — that the business has ever seen. The extended family includes a staggering number of wrestlers, including brothers Afa and Sika, known in WWF as the Wild Samoans, along with former WWF Champion Yokozuna, Umaga, Rosey, WWE Hall of Famer Rikishi, multiple-time WWE Tag Team Champions Jey and Jimmy Uso, two-time Women's Champion Naomi (via marriage to Jimmy Uso), Sam Fatu (who wrestled as "The Samoan Savage" in WCW), and three-time WWE Champion — and one of the company's biggest current stars — Roman Reigns. Also, according to WWE and other sources, Afa and Sika's father considered "The High Chief" Peter Maivia to be a "blood brother," meaning that their extended family also includes him, his son-in-law Rocky Johnson, and his grandson, who wrestled for a while as Rocky Maivia before becoming the biggest movie star in the world under his real name, Dwayne Johnson. And those are just the Anoa'i family members you've heard of on TV. 

The family does not, however, include Samoa Joe, a fact that he joked about on an episode of the Notsam Wrestling podcast, telling host Sam Roberts, "I'm sure if you ask any of my cousins if they're related to the Rock, they'd be like, 'Oh, the Rock? Yeah, you mean Dwayne? Oh, DJ? Oh, you're talking about DJ, we call him DJ.'" Still, it's a good lesson for fans about stereotypes and making assumptions.

Samoa Joe: The accidental wrestler

Once you know that he didn't have the family connection to the business, you might start wondering how Joe made his way to a career in pro wrestling. The answer? It kind of happened by accident.

One of the reasons that Joe's style has such an edge of hard-hitting realism to it is that he has a strong background in martial arts, winning the California State Junior Judo Championships as a teenager and going on as an adult to train with UFC Champion Bas Rutten, among others. In between those two events, though, Joe was working as a mortgage broker in the early 2000s, a job that might actually be the exact opposite of mixed martial arts. In an interview on the Art of Wrestling podcast, Joe talked about how he called up a gym in California one day in order to get back to training, looking to take up Jiu-Jitsu. After telling the gym owner that he was just looking to work up a sweat, he was told that if he was really looking for an intense workout, he should stick around after the Jiu-Jitsu class for "when the pro wrestling guys come in." 

Needless to say, he took the owner's advice, and found a whole lot more than an intense workout. Joe's background, athleticism, and dedication to putting in the work gave him a knack for pro wrestling, leading him to quit his mortgage broker job after a year of training to go full-time. 

Samoa Joe, not Johnny Thundermountain

In addition to the intense workout he was promised, the new career, and an eventual path to worldwide fame and accolades, Joe's time training in pro wrestling gave him something else he didn't expect: a name that would stick with him for the next 20 years. 

As he told Sam Roberts, "There were two dudes in the gym named Joe, and of course, instead of calling the other guy Caucasian Joe, all the sudden I'm Samoa Joe. [...] I was pretty decent at this wrestling thing, and promoters started asking for Samoa Joe, and I got so terrified of changing my name because I liked the work. I couldn't show up the next week and be Johnny Thundermountain. The next thing you know, I was hired full time in a company, they were calling me Samoa Joe, and I might as well trademark the name. And here I am." 

 That trademark is worth mentioning for a couple reasons. The first is that most wrestlers you see on television don't actually own the names you know them as. Instead, those names represent "characters" that are owned by the company — WWE owns "Seth Rollins" and "Roman Reigns," for example, the same way that Warner Bros. and Disney own "Batman" and "Spider-Man." That can make it difficult for a wrestler to maintain their momentum if they leave the company to work elsewhere, as they have to do so under a name that fans might not recognize. The exception, of course, would be wrestlers who perform under their real names, like John Cena or Shinsuke Nakamura, but those are few and far between in an era where getting a new, pre-trademarked name is as much a part of arriving in the company as getting a new pair of boots. Samoa Joe, however, has made that name a part of his brand, and is on a short list of wrestlers alongside CM Punk and AJ Styles who have made it to WWE without being given a new ring name. 

Samoa Joe was Ring of Honor's 60-Minute Man

In the early phase of his career, Samoa Joe spent some time in WWE's developmental system, helping to train fellow wrestlers, and even wrestling a few matches against John Cena back in the days before Cena became pro wrestling's biggest star. That first brush with WWE didn't go too well, though — Joe was even told by Jim Ross, who was both an on-screen personality and WWE's executive in charge of talent relations, "We know what we're looking for in terms of talent, and you're not it." 

With that, Joe decided to make a name for himself elsewhere, and the first place he did that was Ring of Honor, a Philadelphia-based company heavily inspired by Japanese puroresu that would eventually become the biggest indie wrestling promotion in the country. It was the springboard to nationwide fame for wrestlers who would eventually find themselves at the top of the card in WWE, like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, and more, and it was where Joe, nicknamed the Samoan Submission Machine, was one half of the first American wrestling match to earn a five-star rating in seven years.

Only five months after he joined the company, Joe won the ROH World Championship, kicking off a title reign that would last for 645 days — nearly two years at the top of the company. He was a fighting champion, too, making 30 successful title defenses in that time. For most fans, though, there were three that stood out well above the rest: a trilogy of matches against ROH's other top star, CM Punk. What makes them so notable? The first two both finished as a 60-minute time-limit draw. It was the second one, at a 2004 show appropriately titled Joe vs. Punk II,  that wrestling critic Dave Meltzer gave the five-star rating, an honor he hadn't bestowed on an American match since the first Hell in the Cell match between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker. He wasn't alone, either — Joe vs. Punk II is often considered to be one of the best wrestling matches of all time

The fact that Joe and Punk managed to go for a full hour without ever losing the crowd's interest is a testament to how good they both were at pro wrestling, and how hard they were working. Despite the scripted nature of pro wrestling, doing any sort of intense physical activity for 60 straight minutes is difficult even before you take the fact that they're managing to entertain an audience while you're at it. Joe and Punk did it twice, and they did it so well that the audience was left wanting more both times, telling a story that bridged all three matches. Oh, and that third one? It went 31 minutes before Joe choked Punk out in the middle of the ring, cementing himself as one of the best wrestlers in the world — not just on the indies, but anywhere.

Samoa Joe in the X Division

While ROH was well-known to the kind of hardcore wrestling fans who knew where to look for matches beyond what they could see from WWE each week, it still didn't have the reach that other promotions did. Total Nonstop Action, however, was a company with a weekly show on international television, and while it had its share of well-known and, frankly, older stars at the top of its cards, it was also building a big part of its reputation around a roster of exciting younger talent. It was a roster that Joe fit into very well.

At first, Joe was featured in the company's "X Division," where those younger wrestlers with a high-flying, high-risk style gave TNA its most thrilling matches. Before Joe's arrival, the X Division was thought of as something like WCW and WWE's Cruiserweight or New Japan Pro Wrestling's Junior Heavyweight divisions, full of the smaller wrestlers and their flippy, acrobatic moves. Joe, however, is not a small man. He's 6'2", and his weight is usually billed around 280 lbs, which would put him pretty solidly in the Heavyweight category. The thing is, Joe had incredible conditioning — the kind of thing you need when you're wrestling 60-minute main events — and was capable of explosive speed and power. In other words, he could keep up with the smaller wrestlers while still throwing them around like he was Godzilla.

More than anyone else, Joe exemplified the X Division's oft-repeated tagline, "It's not about weight limits, it's about no limits," something that was proven when he got a shot at the X Division championship in the main event match of TNA's Unbreakable in 2005. Along with his opponents, AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, Joe earned yet another one of Dave Meltzer's five-star ratings for this match — and is the only match in the company's 17-year history to get that rating. 

The numbers don't lie!

Samoa Joe spent a full ten years with TNA/Impact Wrestling, a time that saw him being featured as being undefeated for a full 18 months after he debuted, and winning pretty much every title and accolade that it was possible for him to win. Believe it or not, though, his most notable moment in the company might not have happened in the ring. In fact, it didn't even happen with him onscreen.

In 2008, Joe was booked in a match against Scott Steiner and Kurt Angle at an event called Sacrifice. The match didn't happen as planned — Angle was injured and replaced with Frankie Kazarian — but nobody really remembers that. The only thing they remember is the infamous "Steiner Math" promo that Scott Steiner cut in the run-up to the feud, which went viral well after the event. The entire promo is incredible, but the short version is that Steiner worked out that he had a "141 ⅔ percent chance of winning" because "I'm a genetic freak and I'm not normal." 

It's regarded as one of the funniest promos in wrestling history, which makes it a marked contrast to Joe's super-serious onscreen persona. When he was asked about it on Sam Roberts' podcast, though, he said that he was watching it from off-camera cracking up the whole time, and that they had to keep starting over because Steiner's protege, Petey Williams, kept breaking out into laughter while they were trying to film it. 

Samoa Joe: Mr. NXT

In 2015, 13 years after Jim Ross told him that he wasn't what the company was looking for, Samoa Joe signed with WWE and made his debut as part of their NXT brand. While NXT was considered to be a developmental promotion — a sort of "minor league" show where newer wrestlers could be refined before being brought onto the main shows  — it also played host to well-established international stars who were acclimating to the distinct WWE style. 

That led to what many fans considered to be an absolute dream match: Joe taking on Japanese superstar Shinsuke Nakamura. Like Joe, Nakamura also had an MMA background that he'd combined with more traditional pro wrestling to become the "King of Strong Style." "Strong Style" is a style of pro wrestling pioneered in Japan by Antonio Inoki that can best be explained by saying that when it looks like the wrestlers are hitting each other really hard, it's because they are. The big difference was that while Joe had always been the straightforward badass, Nakamura combined his hard-hitting style with charismatic flair inspired by Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson. 

The two wrestlers provided a pretty great example of Strong Style when they clashed over Joe's NXT Championship at Takeover: Brooklyn II. At the end of that match, Nakamura hit his finishing move, a running knee-strike to the face, and, well, see above. Joe suffered a legit dislocated jaw after the first knee strike. Yes: first. After the first one dislocated his jaw, the match went on for another two minutes, during which Nakamura hit two more knee strikes, one to the back of the head (knocking Joe's jaw into his own hand as he was checking the damage) and another one right to the face. It's not often that you can see a guy get pinned to lose a title belt and feel relief for him, but if you want that experience, that match exists.

The Samoa Joe merchandising machine

With his 15+ years of experience performing at a top level, worldwide fame from working the indies and Japanese promotions, and a string of hard-hitting matches in NXT, it was never really a possibility that Samoa Joe wouldn't be called up to WWE's main roster sooner rather than later. If there was even a shred of doubt, however, it was obliterated within about a week of his debut in NXT.

In an interview, Joe told the story of meeting with Triple H, WWE's Executive Vice President of Talent (and occasional wrestler with 14 world championships under his belt) shortly after he was hired and getting a congratulatory handshake. "He says 'Hey, you're #2 in merch last night.' I went 'Oh, #2 in merch for NXT? That's pretty good.' He's like 'No, for the company.' I was like 'Who the hell was #1 then, man?!'" 

Clearly, that long road from the '84 Olympics, through Japan, the indies, Ring of Honor, and TNA had paid off.