Samoa Joe vs Sami Zayn
Two out of Three Falls Number One Contender’s Match
Taped 01/27/2016, aired 03/09/2016
Full Sail University, Winter Park, Florida, United States
(reviewed 01/07/2017) If I recall correctly, this was a VERY polarizing match, as I saw reactions that ranged from “absolutely horrible” to “match of the year”. I’ve been mixed on the Joe vs Zayn matches that I’ve seen thus far, but I’m willing to give this a good, hard look. Things are pretty even early on as both men feel each other out a bit, Joe using his size and strength and Zayn employing leverage advantages when he can get them. There are lots of nice little touches with facials and body language and interacting with the referee early on, real subtle, lowkey stuff. Eventually, Joe is able to slap on a headlock and crank away at it, wearing out the smaller man. When Zayn uses his speed and flying to escape the hold, Joe does well to illustrate just how out of his element he is in that sort of situation, and Zayn goes back to joint manipulation, leverage, and highflying to stay in the game with the big man. After a commercial break, Joe backs his opponent into the ropes and unloads a few kicks, applying his striking ability to regain and retain control. Zayn sells it fairly well and even trades a good shot back himself, but just as with their last match, I wish he fought back a little more, because Joe gives him a lot more room to breathe than he would have a decade ago. Still, Joe shuts him down with a semi-sloppy belly to belly that looks a little dangerous and wild, really turning things up a notch. Zayn makes a comeback with a few great clotheslines, avoiding a Muscle Buster, but he can’t avoid Joe’s corner kick. The Californian continues to wear away at his opponent with his usual offense, taking it fairly slow but keeping things interesting enough to warrant the speed. Zayn, to his credit, plays a big part of that with his great bumping and slightly-less-great selling, and he turns things around by sending Joe to the floor and connecting with an Arabian moonsault. Joe reverses a blue thunder bomb into a crossbody for a two count in a nice callback to a spot from their previous matches, and he’s able to come out on top of a series of reversals, hitting the Muscle Buster to win the first fall. It takes a lot out of Zayn, who isn’t even able to stay on his feet to take shots from Joe at the beginning of the second fall, and it’s pretty compelling selling. He avoids another Muscle Buster and hits a missile dropkick, but he’s barely able to capitalize on it, especially as the referee stops him to check on a cut on Joe’s forehead. Sometimes I feel like the “shoot refereeing” in WWE (and especially NXT) is detrimental to match quality (or at least fan perception of match quality, especially in regards to finishes), but it works marvelously in this match multiple times (earlier there’s a moment where the ref demands a clean break from both men, and it’s good stuff), and it allows Joe to turn things around here. Continuing themes from earlier in the match, Joe applies strikes and headlocks to stay on top and Zayn combats that with speed, and out of desperation, Joe has to toss his opponent to the floor hard to prevent from being overcome. When Zayn tries to crawl his way back into the ring, Joe tosses him right out again and into the ring steps, later hitting an STO on the floor when Zayn again fights his back inside. It works as a quality countout tease, but also as evidence that Joe’s usual methods aren’t going to work and that he’s beginning to grasp at straws. Zayn makes his way into the ring and makes a comeback a little quicker than I’d like, firing off a few wild strikes on the big man before connecting with a suplex that sends Joe to the floor. A tope con giro and Koji Clutch surprisingly earns Zayn a quick fall, evening the match up in a somewhat uneven fashion, if that makes sense. Like, Zayn’s comeback sort of paled in comparison to the offense he endured from Joe, and Joe just sort of tapped to a move that isn’t particularly threatening in this universe and without any injury element at play. I understand that, just as in real fighting, if you get caught in a submission and can’t escape, chances are you’re going to have to tap, but here it feels sort of underwhelming. Back from commercial, these two trade strikes back and forth, fairly realistic fisticuffs before Zayn earns a nearfall from a blue thunder bomb. Joe powders to avoid the Helluva Kick and baits Zayn up onto the ropes, looking for a superplex, but Zayn reverses it into a pretty solid sunset flip powerbomb for a two count. A tornado DDT through the turnbuckles takes a lot out of both men, with Joe barely making it back into the ring in time as the crowd chants “this is awesome”. Joe is able to catch a Helluva Kick, turning it into his classic powerbomb/Boston Crab/crossface spot (the last third of which is usually an STF), but Zayn is able to drape his foot on the bottom rope to escape. Great character stuff from Joe here, yelling “THINK OF YOUR CAREER” at Zayn when he’s wrenching back on his shoulder, staring down the crowd when they ole for their underdog. He puts Zayn down time and again with a series of strikes, with the Canadian valiantly, miraculously rising to his feet before the count of ten every time. The third time, he pops up at like four, face contorted with emotion, and it works real well as a surprising and believable spot, as he’s basically dead on his feet here. Sadly, he sort of tosses that aside as he slaps on a Coquina Clutch when Joe stomps over to him, but Joe is able to get to the ropes to escape his own move. Joe tries to shut Zayn down when he gets back to his feet, but Zayn catches him with a strangely slow exploder into the corner. Really feeling it now, firing the crowd up, Zayn dashes over to hit the Helluva Kick, but Joe ducks out of the way and traps him in the Coquina Clutch for the referee stoppage victory. Great selling from Zayn afterward, and the camera makes sure to linger on his face for a good long while to highlight it. Likewise, Corey Graves makes sure to relate that rear naked chokes took down Holly Holm and Conor McGregor, adding an interesting bit of reality to the proceedings. Good production work from the editing and commentary teams. All in all, I really like this match, though it isn’t without flaws. The lengthy first fall highlights the strengths these men have, working with themes and spots from their previous bouts while creating a unique narrative here. The second fall falters a bit, especially with how abruptly it ends, but the countout teases are really great and add some depth to Joe’s character. The third fall makes sure to stress the exhaustion these two are feeling from this 40ish minute match, especially on Zayn’s end, but his comeback feels a little hollow following some great selling from him just moments before. Still, with lots of overarching themes and slow gameplan changes, not to mention plenty of hard bumps and exciting action, this is a fairly great match that is understated and smart, simmering along in front of a crowd that doesn’t quite know what to make of it before bringing them to a boil in the final minutes. It’s not perfect, but I quite like it.