Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk - The Next Chapter

Originally published at Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk - The Next Chapter

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the time limit has expired, and the official decision is a draw.”

Those were the closing words of the night by Bobby Cruise on October 16, 2004, capping off the second sixty-minute draw between Samoa Joe and CM Punk in a match that achieved ROH’s most significant notoriety up that time.

There is a reason matches and feuds are remembered over time and it’s a combination of influence, stakes, and what it meant to the foundation of the performers involved.

For Samoa Joe and CM Punk, an inextricable link was formed over three matches in 2004 where nineteen years later, the announcement of their first singles match in nearly two decades has the attention of the wrestling base this weekend.

While the two have shared a ring six times in a 1-on-1 scenario, it is the three matches of 2004 that are the defining ones with the emergence of Punk as a threat to the dominant champion’s reign.

In 2004, Samoa Joe had taken the ROH Championship to a height few expected and had placed the company on the map for providing state-of-the-art wrestling on a monthly basis with the best-kept secrets in the business converging in Rec Centers, Fieldhouses, and Metroplexes to hundreds of fans in the Northeast.

Those secrets would become revelations in the decades to come with those Rec Centers turning into stadiums and the hundreds becoming tens of thousands, the Northeast pocket expanding to an international scope, and the hot underground Indie becoming the template for the national product.

If CM Punk needed a CV of his wrestling experience, there is no doubt that one of his places of education was IWA: Mid-South performing in front of fans that could be in the two digits.

It was here that Punk was cutting his teeth in small venues around Indiana with the likes of Tracy Smothers, Chris Hero, Colt Cabana, and lesser-knowns like Mean Mitch Page, Cash Flo, and Paul E. Smooth.

But, it was there that Punk was able to experiment and test the limits of the audience as they flew blindly and unafraid by hitting the hour mark, and in one special case, 92 minutes and 15 seconds.

Punk’s dance partner in many of these expeditions was Hero with the two pushing one another through a series of endurance tests. Suddenly, thirty minutes became unlocked and set themselves toward forty-five, then the illusive hour that defined many of their mentors’ marks of distinction.

After a sixty-minute draw near the end of 2002, the two returned for their most ambitious match to date and one that placed them firmly into the wrestling ecosystem and alerted a fan base to just what was happening in IWA: Mid-South. On February 7, 2003, in Clarksville (population 22,000), the two went 92 minutes and 15 seconds.

From the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that week:

In what to my knowledge is the longest pro wrestling match in several years, Chris Hero (Chris Spradlin) won a 2/3 fall match over C.M. Punk on 2/7 in Clarksville, IN for IWA Mid South which went 92:15. Hero won the promotion’s world title with the win. The bout was billed as having a 90:00 time limit, but each man had won one fall and they agreed to an overtime. Fans didn’t appear to be bored at all with the length of the match, as they were popping for near falls in the last ten minutes.

During an era where the national wrestling audience was in the hangover period of the Attitude Era and “Crash TV” ruled the day, the notion of two undiscovered talents going nearly the run time of an edition of Raw was jaw-dropping.

The match earned national attention through newsletters, websites, and ambitious tape traders.

It set the tone for years to come where this was an audience craving quality during a dire time on the national scene and willing to expand their attention spans as these performers pushed the limits.

The Samoa Joe championship run in Ring of Honor remains one of the great title reigns for a North American promotion of the past two decades and solidified the title and the company as the new “go-to” destination for high-quality talent and matches.

Joe was the dominant monster with the adoption of MMA techniques, an influence of Shinya Hashimoto, and presenting a look so counter to the cookie-cutter image that led to fans of ROH adopting him as their baddest man on the planet.

The story of Joe and Punk was an intricate one and sewed the seeds for the end of the company’s legendary title run of Joe, although with a different opponent in mind to unseat him at the end of the year.

Joe and Punk had two meetings the previous year including an ROH contest in the summer of 2003 that was won by Joe in under fourteen minutes.

Despite the assumptions of the era, Joe’s big ROH title defenses were not long epics with few matches even flirting with the twenty-minute mark, much less exceeding that length. So, when Punk comes back around in June of 2004, the limit he pushed Joe is already a moral victory and sets the stage for the two follow-ups.

The first of the trilogy occurs on June 12, 2004, in Dayton – twenty-four hours after Punk and Hero had their latest 60+ affair.

The match sees the maturation of Punk throughout that hour going from light-hearted moments, amateur antics, fan interaction, and head games into a fighter in the middle of his Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed moment. The audience progresses with the action and evolves from the “opponent of the month” into a viable threat to the unbeatable monster.

Due to the rarity of testing the time limit, the audience is wrapped up in the notion they are witnessing something out of the ordinary with few understanding the seeds being planted for blossom that year.

It was an attention-grabbing match with two modern performers going Broadway and an achievement that so many Hall of Famers would hang their hats upon completion. It didn’t hurt that WWE had just released an outstanding DVD set on Ric Flair, which was a tremendous seller for the company and bringing back the series of matches from  1989 with Ricky Steamboat into the public consciousness and a performer in Flair, who was routinely hitting the hour mark.

Moments after the draw, it is Homicide that attacks Samoa Joe to set up the next month’s challenge, but the last memory was the champion and challenger laying flat on the mat with the audience clamoring for “five more minutes”.

They would get much more than that before the end of the year and the biggest rematch in company history was set for October 16 on Punk’s home turf at the Frontier Fieldhouse in Chicago Ridge.

The setting and anticipation are diametrically opposed to the match in June. Now, it’s Creed vs. Balboa II after the underdog went the distance and has the attention and somewhat begrudging respect of the champion. Simply marketed as “Joe vs. Punk II”, it was matchmaker Gabe Sapolsky’s positioning of this rematch like a legendary boxing or MMA rivalry with the story picking up where it left off months earlier.

The intensity is there from the start of the rematch, Punk understands he can hang with Joe and has the partisan crowd in his back pocket with Chicago being a backdrop for many major moments that were in store for the then-25-year-old.

While it’s a minor element in the presentation, years removed, it still stands out where the announcers – Jimmy Bower a.k.a. Gabe Sapolsky, and the late Mark Nulty – abandon their post out of sheer exhilaration for what they are witnessing that the two wanted to go enjoy this match as fans. It was so out of the box to have the final twenty minutes left to the audience to provide a soundtrack and a technique that would be replicated for arguably the company’s most famous match one year later when Joe faced Kenta Kobashi.

This match broke convention on several fronts with the key being the audience under the impression that after seeing the one-hour draw, this is the match where Joe gets the win. Even as the minutes add up, and the sixty-minute mark is closer and closer, there is the thought that while the time limit will be teased, there is no way they’ll end it without a winner. When the time limit expires, it’s instant gratification as the two have managed to raise the stakes higher for one final showdown.

In the fall of 2004, it became the biggest match ROH had presented and the first five-star match awarded to a U.S. promotion in over seven years:

From the Wrestling Observer Newsletter:

The match really exemplified the upside of ROH, which is, to their niche audience, the booking of the championship as the main characters. The story here was as old as wrestling. Samoa Joe played world champion, who is respected but plays very subtle heel, only because the challenger, Punk, is a local product. What made the match was, in 2004, they got the audience to totally buy into the idea that the belt is a meaningful world title.

The rematch drew so much attention to the performers and the company with the October 2004 encounter ranking third for ‘Match of the Year’ in the Observer behind Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama and the WrestleMania 20 event of Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit. The June match in Dayton ranked seventh.

In the final singles match between Joe and Punk (until this weekend), they returned on December 4 in what would turn out to be Joe’s last successful defense of the championship.

This was the match where they went all out from Punk bleeding a gusher, all the near-falls and teases of a Punk title victory with the audience ready to explode at the sight of the historic title run ending in front of their eyes. At 31:33, they threw the audience for another detour as the crowd in Elizabeth, New Jersey, sat back anticipating another marathon chapter to the story, instead in the third and final act with the challenger succumbing to the Coquina Clutch and the champion prevailing.

It was an added touch to have Ricky Steamboat seated ringside while luminaries Bobby Heenan and Jim Cornette were in the building that night for their own segment. Steamboat got involved by stopping the timekeeper from ringing the bell, noting Punk’s arm had not gone down for the third and final time and he still had life.

The win by Joe was a pyrrhic one as he lost the title in his next defense on December 26, to Austin Aries. An added layer to the story that CM Punk could not unseat the champion in three attempts, but wore him down to the core left him vulnerable for the next challenger and thus, ending the nearly two-year-long ROH Championship reign that put the promotion on the map.

Nostalgia is a powerful tool and professional wrestling rarely capitalizes on its full potential with competing interests, new generations to showcase, and an audience that was taught for years to ignore the past. It’s a different generation of fans today, who grew up buying DVDs, seeking out the names they read about online, and attaching this era of ROH to salvaging a fleeting fandom decimated with the loss of two national promotions at the start of the decade.

Joe and Punk have taken drastically different paths over the last nineteen years to arrive at Saturday’s match, which is the biggest that has been present in the short history of AEW Collision.

In 2004, the metrics were DVD sales and the hope of ticket sales in the high hundreds. Today, they’ll be judged on demo ratings, quarter-hours, and the median age group that watches on a Saturday night.

These two have remained linked throughout their careers with few believing they would share a ring again. Nineteen years ago, they set out to change the independent landscape and appeal to a more discerning palette of sophisticated fans. Years later, the underground movement was adopted and repackaged with many of the same players from that 2004 era.

On Saturday, Joe and Punk perform for a company that was born out of that influence and fanbase with the two typifying the notion that styles evolve, mindsets change, and the wrestling business is not bound by rules or handcuffs but rather a crossover of respect between performer and fan that understands the two work best in concert rather than in opposition.  

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