For years, Samoa Joe was one of the best wrestlers in the world who had never performed in the WWE.
That all changed last year when he signed a contract with the WWE to perform in its NXT division, a kind of minor leagues where the next big WWE stars hone their craft and get ready to head over to “Raw” and “SmackDown.”
Since coming to NXT, Joe has held the NXT Championship belt and won the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic last year with Finn Bálor, who now wrestles on “Raw.”
amNewYork spoke with the 37-year-old about the industry and how it felt to perform in NYC at The Theater at MSG.
What drew you to coming to NXT?
I knew NXT was really, really gaining a lot of steam, it was kind of exploding and making kind of this tremendous impact on the industry in general. To be there and help further that movement and further that expansion was very, very interesting to me. I’ve had the pleasure of being on the forefront of new brands expanding the industry and building things from scratch and from the ground up, and NXT is very much the same environment. It’s a really awesome environment to work in. You get this crazy opportunity to be on the ground floor of something and really establish it, and make it a bigger presence in the industry. It’s just fun, man. There’s a revolutionary energy behind it and it’s really invigorating for me as well as NXT.
NXT brings in a lot of international superstars. Have you learned anything from those different perspectives?
I feel it’s one of the things I’ve benefited from throughout the entirety of my career, the ability to work with an incredibly diverse amount of talent through all different points in their career. Right now, on the [WWE] Network, I think you can see an early match, in 2000, between me and William Regal and so on and so forth. ... One of the defining characteristics of becoming a better performer is the ability to work with these guys. You pull stuff off of them, bits of their charisma, things that they do, interactions with them, that basically you’re forced to become better. I think that’s part of the impetus of me becoming a part of the brand. We wanted young WWE superstars who are coming up the ranks to get that worldly experience to work with guys who are seasoned.
Did you ever see yourself in a teacher role?
I wouldn’t say it’s a teacher role. It’s more of the way I currently am in NXT, you work to the caliber of your opponent. If I’m a higher-caliber opponent for some of the younger people in NXT, then obviously I’m going to temper them and make them better and stronger. It’s not so much the mindset that I’m an active teacher, it’s you learn and you get better when you work with better people.
Why are Samoans so prevalent in the wrestling industry?
I mean, going back to High Chief Peter Maivia [grandfather of Dwayne Johnson], the relationship between Samoans and Polynesians in general, has been relatively strong. ... It’s interesting. Polynesian athletes, obviously, size plays a factor into it. I think most Polynesian athletes genetically enjoy a big size advantage. It’s weird, I’ve often sat and pondered it and wondered why there’s such a prevalent amount of Samoans in wrestling, and really I think it just goes along with it’s a rough-and-tumble art and the Samoan culture is a rough-and-tumble culture. It’s something that’s appealing to us because it has a very warrior-like connotation to it.
Is it special for you to be performing in New York City?
I think it means something to anybody, having the ability to perform in New York City. It has some of the most famous venues in the world and it goes back to pop culture attitudes — if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. New York crowds, especially for WWE, have classically been some of the hottest crowds that WWE enjoys. ... Any opportunity to get back to New York and wrestle there, it’s always special.
When I interviewed you and wrestler Kevin Nash a few years ago, he said, “Samoa Joe is never going to play a dentist.” But Hollywood has changed greatly since then. What are your Hollywood ambitions these days?
Currently, I do a lot of voice acting in the video game sector, [like] “The Game of Thrones” game. I’ve been involved in the acting world before, I’ve had the opportunity to do a little bit of stunt work for CBS, it’s something that’s definitely there. My energy and my focus is definitely on WWE right now. ... As far as typecasting goes, I won’t be portraying a dentist, but as you said, there’s been tremendous changes in the world of Hollywood and you never know what opportunity might come your way.