Exclusive interview: Samoa Joe on his storied independent career, coming to NXT and his plans for the future
Samoa Joe shocked hardcore sports-entertainment fans around the world when he stepped foot in a WWE ring at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable. For more than a decade, the submission specialist has been one of the top stars on wrestling’s independent scene, where, before they competed under WWE’s bright lights, Joe locked horns with many of today’s biggest NXT and main roster Superstars, including Hideo Itami, Daniel Bryan and WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins. He has built a legendary reputation around the world.
To most fans, the thought of Samoa Joe competing under the WWE banner seemed like it would remain a fantasy. Now that it has become reality, WWE.com caught up with the submission specialist to discuss his amazing career, his unbelievable NXT debut and his plans for WWE.
WWE.COM: How does it feel to finally be under the WWE umbrella and a part of NXT?
SAMOA JOE: I’m over the moon. It’s something I never really thought I would have the opportunity to do. To be here now, it’s an unreal feeling.
WWE.COM: Going back to the start of your career, what drew you to wrestling?
JOE: I had always been involved in athletics throughout my life. I remember after I was done playing football in college, I was looking for something to get into. I had done competition judo as a kid, but Jiu-Jitsu was the hot thing, so I went to a studio to check it out. After the class, there was a pro wrestling school. The instructors said I should check it out [because] they thought I’d like it. I remember after my first class, I fell in love with it. I took to it right away. Within a few weeks, I was training all the time. I would go to the morning session and hang out at the advanced session in the afternoon, even though I wasn’t in the ring, just to learn as much as I could. I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life.
WWE.COM: How did you make your way to the first organization you competed with, UPW?
JOE: I started working a lot around the local independent scene in California. I remember a guy by the name of Brett Wagner was scouting around at local shows and had seen me. He said, “You’re pretty good, young and new. We have this company, UPW, we have a lot of young talent and WWE connections. We’d love to use you in the future.” I remember at the time, they didn’t have a lot of guys that didn’t come from their school. I was one of the first that they brought in from outside their system.
WWE.COM: While in UPW, you also got to work closely with John Cena, right?
JOE: I had the chance to work with John quite a bit in UPW and even beyond that. When John was just getting started, we hung out a lot. Being a trainer at the school, I taught the beginner course. John was the type of guy, who even though he was past the basics, he would come to the beginner class in the morning. I would see him at the advanced class at night, where I would go to train and improve.
Later on, along with Brett Wagner, we got a radio show, “Wrestling 101,” which was syndicated across the country. It was a weekend afternoon pro wrestling radio show. John, for extra money, would come in and be the call screener or a guest, or just sit in on the show. That was in addition to traveling to wrestling shows. There were many long road trips from Southern California to Northern California where John and I sat in the car together. Even back then, he was freestyling in the car, trying to battle rap. That was what we did to keep awake on the road.
WWE.COM: Back then, did you think John Cena would become the star he is today?
JOE: I had no doubt. It’s funny, I’ve been asked that before. He didn’t have to come to the beginner class. He didn’t have to come to all the practices. But John came to all of them; he did all of the work and extra work on top of that. He was so laser-focused on becoming a WWE Superstar, much more than anyone else from UPW who had gotten the opportunity to go to WWE at the time. There really wasn’t a question in my mind that he would become the star he is today.
WWE.COM: From there, how did you end up coming east to work the independent scene there?
JOE: It was a process. I’ve told Jim Ross that one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me was being really, brutally honest with me, and saying, “We know what we’re looking for [at WWE], in terms of talent, and you’re not it.”
I didn’t take that as an insult. It added fuel to my fire. Another opportunity came up to go to Japan. I started with the Zero-One promotion and was living over there. I adopted things from their style and training [while] touring extensively around Japan for a couple of years.
Based on my work in Japan and other stuff I was doing independently in California, Ring of Honor gave me a call. They had just started up and were maybe a few months in. They said they heard great things about me and wanted to bring me in for a one-time opportunity. They thought I could put on a match that the fans would enjoy.
At the time, it was supposed to be a one-time thing, but afterward, they said they wanted me all the time. So, I started with them and shortly after, captured their championship and had a nice run.
WWE.COM: You had a 645-day run as their champion. What does that mean to you, for a young company to put that much stock in you?
JOE: I don’t want to say that I was nervous about the whole experience. I saw it for what it was. ROH was a young company and was building from the ground up. They had a tremendous amount of buzz and top-level athletes from all over the country.
For me, I was working alongside my peers, like Daniel Bryan and CM Punk — all these guys who were top-notch independent talent. To be chosen to spearhead the group was a big honor for me. I knew I had to keep my game up and keep myself at the apex of being the top of the company. Being given that ball while being surrounded by those people, was really cool.
WWE.COM: How did you grow as a competitor during that time?
JOE: The biggest growth that I had was based off the people I got to work with. There was such an influx of talent from so many different places who brought different experiences from their travels around the world. They say steel sharpens steel, and I was working in a foundry. Everyone was good and demanded so much from each other, you couldn’t help but get better in that environment.
It was awesome to learn with people who were just as passionate and hungry as you and destined to do greater things.
WWE.COM: You mentioned competing with Daniel Bryan. Having faced him on many occasions, what was it like being in the ring with Bryan in his pre-WWE days?
JOE: I’ve had the opportunity to wrestle Daniel Bryan through several phases of his career, except for his time in WWE. What I remember is that he was great the first time I wrestled him, and he kept getting better every match afterward. He would push me because he would improve so much. The first time I wrestled him, he had just come from Shawn Michaels’ school and was tremendously gifted. The next time, was after he wrestled in New Japan and absorbed so much over there. He was even better. After he had a stint in England, wrestling day-in and day-out at the Butlins camps, he picked up the nuances in their style and brought it back, and was even better.
You never face the same Daniel Bryan, but you’re going to face a better Daniel Bryan. If you don’t keep up with that, he’ll eat you alive. He’s another guy like John; he really does the work. I knew that, given the right opportunity, Bryan would knock it out of the park and he has. I really hope that he heals up, because I’d love to get in there with him.
WWE.COM: You also mentioned CM Punk, who you faced in a series of three matches — including two 60-minute draws — which stand as classics on the independent scene. As they were happening, did you ever think they would become this revered set of matches?
JOE: No, I really, really didn’t, especially the days of [the matches]. At the time, for two young guys, who really didn’t do much in the way of going that long — especially me; I think my longest match was 40 minutes — it was insane. We just went out there and did it. It was one of those moments where you let the emotion and the crowd click.
WWE.COM: You’ve mixed it up with Seth Rollins as well. What was your experience with him?
JOE: Actually, my first exposure to Seth was at a wrestling clinic I ran in the Midwest. He was only a few months in, but after the clinic, I remember looking at him and thinking, “You’re going to be something.” Later on, I wrestled him [one-on-one] and was impressed.
When I found out he was signed by WWE, it wasn’t a surprise. He’s a handsome kid, amazing athlete and came up with the mindset that he was willing to do whatever it takes to achieve what he wants. It’s funny how many people that I’ve come across in my time that have gone on to achieve great success. It’s good to see that he made my prophecy true.
WWE.COM: Before coming to WWE, you also stepped in the ring with a lot of WWE Legends and Hall of Famers. What has that experience done for you, even though you’ve been performing for a decade-plus, yourself?
JOE: It’s a surreal experience when you’re working with guys like Scott Steiner, Kevin Nash and Sting. They were guys that I grew up watching and I saw the heights that they achieved. To walk into work and see you’re going head to head with these guys, it makes you think you’re doing something right.
One of the most pleasurable experiences I had was with a guy who served as a mentor to me and dropped a lot of knowledge my way, Booker T. It was an invaluable experience being in the ring with him.
WWE.COM: What led to you coming to WWE?
JOE: I’ve had a great career up to this point. I’d pretty much wrestled everywhere in the world. The one place that eluded me was WWE. I had put out feelers to a few friends and confidants in WWE. They did some probing on my behalf. Slowly, but surely, a small glimmer of hope opened up. Talks progressed and the opportunity presented itself.
WWE.COM: Why NXT? Some people might see it as a surprise, since you’ve been wrestling since 1999.
JOE: Without a doubt, NXT has become the most talked about new brand in the industry. That was one of the major things. When I look around NXT, I see so many talented individuals that I’ve known in my journey through pro wrestling. Knowing the quality of wrestlers in NXT, I’m more than happy to compete with these people, because I know they’re world-class and I know they’re literally a designation away from being the hottest wrestlers in the world.
I’ve also had the extreme pleasure of being on the ground floor of building a lot of companies and brands. It’s rare for most wrestlers to get one opportunity like that in their career. After my first visit to the WWE Performance Center and NXT TakeOver, seeing the people behind the scenes and the groundswell of energy for what’s going on in Orlando, I was like, “This is awesome.” I’m going to get another opportunity to be involved in making something catch fire and burst out.
WWE.COM: You’ve been in some independent locker rooms lately. What’s the reputation NXT has outside of WWE?
JOE: The reputation NXT has is hard to describe. It’s this newness, there’s a tremendous hype to it. People are seeing the leaps and bounds that are being made with the types of talent filtering through NXT. Like the women, I watched one of the best matches I’ve seen all year with Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks [at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable].
There’s a lot of hype and I know a lot of guys now on the indies would like to see themselves in NXT. They don’t view it as a B-level, AAA ball club. They see it as an exciting place that people are talking about and love the matches coming out of NXT.
WWE.COM: You went right after Kevin Owens, who you’ve crossed paths with before WWE. Why?
JOE: One thing I’ve learned is that when you walk into a new yard, you find the top dog and smash him in the face, and let him know you’re there. Kevin Owens is the top dog in the yard. I’m going to stay in his face and stay after him until I get what I want. I want to be the NXT Champion.
WWE.COM: Is there anyone else in NXT you have your eye on?
JOE: Absolutely. Finn Bálor is someone I’ve had experience with. I helped start the New Japan Dojo in Los Angeles. I remember seeing him and what he was able to do. And now, he’s No. 1 contender, so if it’s not going to be Kevin, it’s going to be [Bálor].
Tyler Breeze is a tremendous athlete, but he’s far too pretty. It bugs me. Eventually, when he comes back, Hideo Itami, too. We’ve locked up over the years and had our fair share of wars. I’m more than happy to have another with him. There are a lot of unresolved personal issues there. Hopefully, we can get into the ring and sort them out.
WWE.COM: Beyond the NXT Title, do you have any other goals in WWE?
JOE: At some time, I would love to make a trip up to the main roster and wreak my brand of havoc. So many people I’ve come up with have succeeded in WWE. Though I thought the opportunity would never present itself, I’m here now. I’m in the best shape of my career and I’m more than happy to fulfill the destiny that has eluded me for far too long, and that’s to be the WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
WWE.COM: Ultimately, what should the WWE Universe know about Samoa Joe?
JOE: The WWE Universe should always expect one thing from me: When I step in that ring, I am playing for keeps. This will get way too real, way too fast. I cannot wait for whatever opportunity I manage to make. Whatever chance is given to me will be taken advantage of and will be used to its fullest potential.
Watch Samoa Joe on WWE NXT, every Wednesday at 8/7 C, only on the award-winning WWE Network! Click here to view NXT episodes on demand on WWE Network.