21st Century Trilogy: Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk

The day is June 12, 2004.

Ring of Honor is in Dayton, Ohio—only their second stop in Dayton, and third ever in the state of Ohio after they began seriously touring outside of Pennsylvania a little over a year prior.

Samoa Joe (Credit: Ring of Honor)

The World Champion is Samoa Joe. Since winning the title from Xavier in March of 2003 at ROH Night of the Champions, he has steamrolled through the entire ROH roster and beyond. The list of names crushed in his wake reads like a who’s who of independent wrestling. AJ Styles. Christopher Daniels. Paul London. Colt Cabana. Homicide. Doug Williams. BJ Whitmer. Jay Briscoe. Joe has been champion for 448 days. Anyone who was lucky or skilled enough to get the better of him in tag team or non-title action was quickly dispatched with the belt on the line. In May of 2003, Joe defended the title against The Zebra Kid at a cross-promoted show with FWA in London, rechristening the title the ROH World Championship in the process. But tonight, in Dayton, Ohio, another name is going to step up. A legend of the midwest independents in his own right. His name is CM Punk.

CM Punk
CM Punk (Credit: Ring of Honor)

The night Samoa Joe won the title, CM Punk teamed with trainer and friend Ace Steel in a losing effort against Colt Cabana and Raven. The night Joe defended the title against London, Punk defeated Raven in a Dog Collar match, as their violent and deeply personal feud raged on. That feud saw Punk, Cabana, and Steel reunite as the Second City Saints, a concept and/or nickname Punk would use for the remainder of his career. The night Punk ended the feud with Raven once and for all with a win in a steel cage match, Joe teamed with AJ Styles in an unsuccessful attempt to wrestle the ROH Tag Team Championships from the Briscoe Brothers.

With the Raven feud in his rearview mirror, Punk returned to chasing gold. He racked up wins in singles and tag team competition to earn himself a place in the tournament to crown the inaugural Pure Wrestling Champion at the ROH Second Anniversary Show, where he fell in the finals to AJ Styles. He was similarly unsuccessful in a rematch a month later, with Ricky Steamboat as the special referee. About a month-and-a-half later, Punk and Cabana defeated the Briscoes—a feat that Joe could not accomplish with two different partners—to claim the ROH Tag Team Titles. Punk comes into Dayton with gold already around his waist, and looking to add more.

At this point in history, ROH did not name shows before they happened. After the show, there would be discussions as to the most appropriate title for the show based on what happened that night. This show in Dayton would go on to be called World Title Classic. No one would argue with that designation.

A little over three minutes in, Punk goes to the tool that would be his weapon throughout the contest: the headlock. Punk’s strategy becomes apparent as the match wears on: no one had tried to test Joe’s endurance, and the headlock (and its assorted variants) gives Punk two advantages. First, it lets him keep his wind a little more effectively while wearing Joe down and forcing him to carry extra weight. Second, it keeps Joe from throwing the kind of strikes that are a hallmark of his outings to date. Commentary observes that if Punk is able to keep it on the mat, he likely has the advantage. Joe’s strategy meanwhile seems to be the same as it ever was. Big strikes, and lots of them. Joe has submissions in his arsenal, but all but two of his title defenses to date were by pinfall. Joe is looking for the knockout, and Punk’s headlock strategy is just enraging him; and when Joe does let fly with strikes that connect, it quickly takes a lot of starch out of Punk.

At about the ten minute mark is when the second prong of Punk’s strategy emerges—rope-a-dope. It’s an incredibly dangerous strategy with a striker like Joe. It can (and does) wear Joe out, but Punk’s still the one absorbing the blows. Even with his hands up, some of it still gets through, and as the match wears on, it gets harder and harder for Punk to keep his hands up to sustain the strategy.

As we approach the 20 minute mark, commentary observes that this is the point where Joe usually goes in for the kill, but they’re already noticing that Joe’s breathing heavy. At 20:05, this officially becomes the longest title match of Joe’s reign. And appropriately, the mark passes while Punk has Joe in a side headlock. The hold has kept Punk from absorbing too much damage and has kept him in the game. However, the biggest problem with Punk’s strategy doesn’t become apparent until later: you aren’t winning a match with a headlock. And when Punk gets away from the headlock for too long, Joe dominates in a big way.

The second half sees both men’s strategies pay off. Punk’s headlock strategy allows him to put down Joe with strikes that he would have laughed off in the first ten minutes. Meanwhile, when Punk leaves an opening, Joe is able to hit a series of strikes, or a big suplex, or throw to regain control. Joe also seeks to counteract Punk’s quickness advantage by attacking the knees when the opportunity presents itself. Joe doesn’t necessarily have enough in the tank to put Punk away, because the headlock has worked, but Punk can’t leave the headlock long enough to capitalize. He goes for a sleeper that he thinks will be the coup de grâce, but Joe is able to escape, and then even counter. Punk would later say that this was where he thought he had the match won. But it seems Punk will have to find another way.

At about the 55 minute mark, Punk is finally able to hit the Pepsi Plunge, but Joe’s work on Punk’s knees coupled with Punk’s fatigue keeps him from making a cover. Perhaps as a callback to Raven, Punk hits a DDT with just under 30 seconds left, but when that fails to get a three count, the time limit expires. The Dayton crowd demands five more minutes, but Homicide hits the ring to attack Joe, the referee, and anyone and anything else that gets in his way. For now, at least, the question of the better man remains undecided.

CM Punk and Samoa Joe
CM Punk and Samoa Joe shake hands following their match at World Title Classic (Credit: Ring Of Honor)

Samoa Joe was the unstoppable champion. Prior to this match, only one Joe title defense had gone 20 minutes. Several defenses were even under the fifteen minute mark, and a small handful of challengers were dispatched in less than ten. But it seemed in Dayton that CM Punk had found the answer. He wore down Joe and survived his flurries like no one had before. But he just ran out of time. He clearly underestimated Joe’s conditioning, but there was enough payoff to make him believe the strategy could work. Given a second chance, Punk was convinced he could get the job done.

ROH Joe vs. Punk II Cover Art (Credit: Ring of Honor)

The day is October 16, 2004.

Ring of Honor is heading to Chicago Ridge, Illinois. Samoa Joe has now been ROH World Champion for a staggering 574 days. He has 22 successful defenses under his belt, and shows no signs of slowing. Outside of Punk, only Bryan Danielson has even pushed Joe beyond the 25 minute mark. Joe is scheduled to defend the title against former ECW Champion Steve Corino, but a few days before the show, Corino was pulled from the show by ZERO1 in Japan. Who can step in on short notice and give the people of Chicago a great match? How about the hometown boy who was the closest anyone has yet come to unseating Joe?

Despite losing the tag titles in August, Punk has kept up an impressive win-loss record since the hour draw in March. And since then, fans have been clamoring for a rematch. With the sudden departure of Corino, the main event for the show that would come to be known as Joe vs. Punk II was born.

Punk enters first to a hero’s welcome. Chicago is convinced we’re going to see a title change. He holds serve in the ring with a confidence that is palpable as the champion makes his entrance. The ring announcements make it clearer. They like Joe, sure, but this is an overwhelmingly pro-Punk crowd.

Right away, Joe avoids the lockup, pushing off Punk and keeping him from an opening to apply the headlock. Punk, meanwhile, shows a new wrinkle in his game, going for a flash pin early. Back in June, Colt Cabana pinned Joe with a flash pinning combination, and worrying about flash pins can keep the champion off his game.

Five minutes in, you see the alterations in the strategy from World Title Classic. Joe is far more content to wrestle and conserve his wind; confident his extra mass and strength can neutralize Punk. Punk, meanwhile, is content to go back to the headlock, especially when the chain wrestling isn’t working as well as he’d like. This keeps Punk in control, and quickly raises Joe’s ire every time he finds himself trapped in the headlock again. Punk seems content to stick with the headlock strategy from World Title Classic, with one notable difference. He does not want to let Joe unleash the strikes as he did back in June. Rope-a-dope didn’t weaken Joe as much as he had hoped, nor was it as effective as the prolonged headlock, and Punk took too much punishment as a result. Instead, he’s augmenting the headlock with flash pins. Joe gets free and starts a flurry at about the 14 minute mark, but Punk counters with another roll-up attempt that sends Joe scattering to the floor to regroup. Not only that, but the Chicago crowd seemingly causes Joe to kick the guardrail in frustration as well. It doesn’t seem like the challenger will be baited into a striking battle. And it does seem as though the hometown crowd is getting in the champion’s head.

At about 17 minutes, Punk finally gets baited into a strike fight with Joe, and loses in very short order, rolling out to the floor to regroup. Back in the ring, Punk goes back to the chain wrestling, but you can see a more aggressive side coming out in him during this outing. He recognizes that while the headlock worked, he needs to take more chances if he’s going to get the win this time. This opens up more opportunities for Joe to try to assert his will, but Punk has singled out Joe’s arm, and is using the hammerlock and a wristlock to retain control and dictate the pace as we pass 25 minutes. Joe is still able to use his strikes, but when Punk needs to tone things back down, he goes to the arm or counters and chains his way back to a headlock. But that strategy takes a noticeable downturn when Punk clings to a headlock through the ropes to the floor and eats a back suplex there for his trouble.

As we hit the 35 minute mark, Joe hasn’t abandoned the strikes, but his attack has diversified. He strikes when it’s available, but also spends more time stretching Punk in ways we didn’t see in the first match. He’s also starting to lean into his size and strength advantage to punish the smaller challenger.

At the 40 minute mark, Punk has had to resort to higher risk moves, and more brawling on the floor to get back in control, but Joe puts it to a stop quickly, pendulum swinging Punk into the barricade and continuing the brutality. Punk is able to regain control for a moment here and there, but Joe shuts it down with his power advantage. This isn’t the match Punk wanted it to be at this point, and it feels like the pace has slipped out of his control, but he’s here now, and is doing what he has to in order to survive. This likely puts him right where Joe wants him—reacting instead of acting. Responding to the pace instead of dictating it.

At about 43 minutes, Jimmy Bower (Gabe Sapolsky) and Mark Nulty sign off from commentary, saying that the action speaks for itself.

The last seventeen minutes of the match are largely Punk trying to survive. He’s going for the big blows that worked for him in the last match, like the Shining Wizard, but he hasn’t put in the work this time to make it work. Joe isn’t weakened like he was last time with the headlock, and Punk has absorbed significantly more punishment. It’s not out of strategy this time, it’s desperation. Punk’s able to avoid the big blows from Joe long enough to not get put away, but he can’t sustain an advantage long enough to uncork any big bombs. He cinches in the Anaconda Vice at around 50 minutes, but Joe is able to get to the ropes reasonably quickly. He hits the Devil Lock DDT at about 52 minutes, but Joe is able to kick out. He’s literally fighting to survive, because his hometown crowd and his own pride won’t let him die.

CM Punk and Samoa Joe shake hands after their second hour draw. (Credit: Ring of Honor)

At 55 minutes, Punk finally gets a flurry. He hits the Shining Wizard out of a string of counters. He hits the Pepsi Twist. He hits the moonsault. It’s as close as he’s going to get. But it isn’t enough. As the seconds tick away, he goes one last time for the Pepsi Plunge—the biggest gun in his arsenal. But he can’t hit it. Joe is able to hit a muscle buster off the second rope as time runs out. It just isn’t enough. Two title matches. Two sixty minute draws.

Once again, we would have to wait to find out who the better man was. Punk cut a passionate promo after the match, saying “we can’t do this again” and asking for a third and final match with no time limit. He wouldn’t have to wait long to have his wish granted.

The day is December 4, 2004.

Ring of Honor is in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for the second iteration of their All-Star Extravaganza show. It has been 861 days since ROH crowned its first champion, and Samoa Joe has been champion for 623 of them—an unfathomable 72.3 percent of the title’s existence.

Joe’s reign is the longest since Dan Severn’s four year run with the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship in the late 90’s, and longer than any men’s championship reign in any company in the previous 35 years. Joe has not defended the title since his second hour draw with Punk. The gap of 49 days between title defenses is easily the longest such gap of his reign, but ROH only ran two shows in the intervening time—the Weekend of Thunder double shot featuring Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger making his ROH debut. Night One saw Joe team with his protege Jay Lethal in a losing effort against the pure wrestling dream team of champion John Walters and Nigel McGuinness, while Night Two saw Joe team with Liger himself to defeat the odd couple tag team of Bryan Danielson and Low Ki.

ROH needed a huge main event for a show the caliber of All Star Extravaganza II, and Joe vs. Punk definitely fit the bill. But after two time limit draws, Punk wanted this to be no time limit. Joe was pinned after a Pepsi Plunge back at ROH Scramble Cage Melee in August in a non-title triple threat. But Punk wasn’t the one who pinned him. Homicide was. Coming out of their two draws, Punk insists that he knows the Plunge can pin Joe. Without a time limit, the Second City Saint is convinced he can end Joe’s record-setting title reign. Meanwhile, Joe insisted the point was to beat him, not survive him.

Nonetheless, ROH matchmakers saw fit to sign the rubber match between the two. Punk got his wish in that the match would be no time limit. But Joe also got his wish, in that if he was able to beat Punk this time, Punk would never receive another ROH World Title shot for the duration of Joe’s reign.

Samoa Joe and CM Punk face-to-face before their third and final ROH World Title match. (Credit: Ring of Honor)

Punk wastes no time going right back to the headlock. With the impediment of the time limit removed, he feels safe in trying to extend Joe as long as is necessary. Joe is prepared and has counters in place for the headlock in the early going, or avoids it altogether. With the straight-forward attack failing, Punk quickly baits Joe into losing his temper with a few mocking strikes of his own, and promptly catches the champion in the headlock once again.

The twist in Punk’s strategy this time is not to attack the leg, not to attack the arm, but the head and neck of Joe. This line of attack supports the headlock instead of working parallel to it. Punk also goes to the air with a springboard dropkick, and is throwing significantly more strikes. When Joe finds a way out, Punk uses his quickness and technical prowess to avoid the big knockout blow, and find his way back into the headlock.

Nine minutes in, Joe gets one of his first big strike flurries of the night, but Punk answers back right away, knowing that rope-a-dope won’t work. If you let Joe get rolling, he’s going to roll right over top of you. But then it all goes awry for Punk. He’s busted open following a flurry in the corner, with a kneelift and kick. As Punk makes his way back into the ring, Joe presses the advantage. He still retains a modicum of caution, knowing what an excellent defensive wrestler Punk is, but circumstances have clearly forced a massive alteration of Punk’s strategy. Joe senses his advantage and doesn’t press the situation on the floor, when Punk retreats. He knows the challenger is wounded, and it’s only a matter of time. He doesn’t want to jeopardize his advantage by letting Punk—shown to be an accomplished brawler during his wars with Raven—draw the fight outside.

At the fifteen minute mark, Joe hits the face wash combination in the corner on his first try—something he wasn’t able to do in their first two title matches. Punk dodged the running bootscrape both times, but is unable to do so here. Punk’s technical prowess is out the window at this point. He lashes out with strikes to Joe, but is not the striker the champion is. He isn’t able to hold the advantage for long. He’s able to counter an Ole Kick on the outside, but rather than risk a hurricanrana off the apron—which ended in Chicago with him being swung into the barricade—he chooses a dropkick, which puts down Joe, but also results in Punk’s landing on the floor on the outside. In a state of desperation, Punk is in the “take three to give one” mindset just to survive. He follows it up with a knee off the second rope onto Joe on the apron. Again, Punk takes a spill to the floor to try to damage Joe. He knows he doesn’t have the luxury of time anymore, with the cut on his head a ticking time bomb.

As we hit the 20 minute mark, the new strategy is working. He puts down Joe for a nearfall off a high cross body, and a tornado DDT. But both men known each other so well, that he can’t sustain the advantage for long. Joe counters a Shining Wizard, while Punk counters Joe’s cross-arm breaker for dueling nearfalls. Punk continues to press the advantage, his strategy to throw as many bombs as he is able to, and damn the consequences. It’s not only keeping him in the match, it’s giving him his longest sustained advantage in a while. But his aggression contains a fatal flaw. Joe is able to capture Punk in the choke, and very nearly is able to put Punk away, but the challenger is able to counter into a nearfall of his own to force a break of the hold. With nowhere else to go, Punk resorts to every flash pin combination he can think of. None work. Punk is getting desperate, but as we soon see, so is Joe.

Just shy of the thirty minute mark, Joe scoops a double leg on Punk and goes for a folding press, but puts his feet on the ropes for leverage. Unheard of in the duration of Joe’s reign, it actively draws boos from the New Jersey crowd, that had been heretofore split. But it doesn’t matter.

Joe finally puts the magic combination together. After countering a Punk roll-up into the choke again, Joe strings together a German suplex, a Dragon suplex, and goes back to the choke. Punk’s spirit may be willing, but the body is weak. Referee Todd Sinclair calls for the bell. At 31:33—and 151:33 total—Samoa Joe has finally defeated CM Punk.

With Punk now conclusively defeated, Joe was finally able to look ahead. But his reign as ROH World Champion would come to an end a mere 22 days later, at Final Battle, at the hands of then-four year veteran, and so-called “wrestling machine,” Austin Aries.

Joe would never regain the world title, despite six subsequent shots over the next ten years. He left Ring of Honor in June of 2005, for TNA Wrestling, and made a brief comeback in 2014 before signing with WWE in the summer of 2015, where he remains to this day.

Punk would dethrone Aries in June of 2005, launching the original Summer of Punk. He dropped the title in August of 2005 to James Gibson in a 4-way match, and left for WWE shortly after. He famously left the company—and wrestling—behind in the summer of 2014.

Fifteen years after Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat engaged in a legendary trilogy over the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship, Samoa Joe and CM Punk put a company on the map, made an independent promotion’s world title the most important belt in North America, and delivered what was at the time the pinnacle of professional wrestling. If you haven’t seen these matches yet, go out of your way to do so. If you’re a fan of independent wrestling—or even professional wrestling at all—you owe it to yourself.