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5-Star Match Reviews: Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk – ROH Joe vs. Punk II (Oct. 16, 2004)

This is the match that not only put Ring of Honor on the map, but also saved it from certain doom. In 2004, the ROH experiment faced an uncertain future. No one knew if the company would sink or swim, in spite of its deep roster of talented wrestlers. Luckily, the brand was saved thanks to the legendary rivalry between Samoa Joe and CM Punk. And today we’re revisiting their magnum opus together.

It was one of only seven matches to receive a 5-star rating from the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer during the entire 2000s decade. It’s such a legendary match that the Pay-Per-View that hosted it was named after them. Over fifteen years have passed since this iconic match took place, so let’s see how well it holds up to time.

Today we look back at the second world title match between Samoa Joe and CM Punk from ROH Joe vs. Punk II.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

Samoa Joe was on a tear as ROH World Champion and had defeated many different challengers, including Punk. Punk faced Joe earlier in the year and failed to win the title but later earned another shot which led to this match. But sometime between Punk earning his second shot and this match, something important happened. Punk’s friend Colt Cabana scored an upset win over Joe with a quick roll-up.

Thus, going into this match, Punk strategized with Cabana in the hopes of finding a winning formula this time around. Punk had already proven he could go the distance against Joe, but if he added an additional element of surprise to that formula, could it lead to a win over the most dominant champion in ROH history?

The match

This match originally took place on October 16th, 2004. It’s for Joe’s ROH World Championship and has a 60-minute time limit. They lock-up and Joe overpowers Punk to set the tone. This happens again and on their third lock-up Punk takes Joe down with a drop toehold and floats over into a crucifix pin for two. They trade headlocks until Joe gets an armlock in, but Punk wrestles out with a fireman’s carry, leading to another standoff. They trade lock-ups some more until Joe gets another break in the corner. The technical exchanges continue as Joe uses his power advantage to maintain a hammerlock and apply pressure on Punk’s arm. Eventually, Punk wriggles his way out in a corner and gets another clean break as the fans applaud.

They chain grapple some more until Joe lands a drop toehold into a deep camel clutch. Punk escapes into a headlock but Joe gets to his feet soon after. Neither man budges on a shoulder tackle, Punk ducks a chop and takes Joe back down to the mat for a quick two-count. Punk tries to wear down both Joe’s neck and his arm but Joe quickly counters into a neck scissor. Punk tries to escape so Joe butterfly locks his arms while still cranking the neck. But Punk still manages to escape into another headlock, only for Joe to power out. He goes for a back suplex but Punk lands on his feet and once again goes to a deep grounded headlock. Watching this I feel like I’m re-watching Kobashi vs. Akiyama XIII from four months earlier because that match was all headlocks and chain grappling during the early portion.

Joe starts doing the Ric Flair counter by rolling Punk over into some pins but Punk powers out at two while maintaining the headlock. He powers up again and gets Punk against the ropes, lands some shoulder tackles and applies a chinlock. Punk counters quickly and chain grapples into various head-and-neck-targeting holds but Joe still gets to his feet. He gets Punk in a corner and lands some hard chops to Punk’s chest. Punk gets whipped into a corner but he does the Misawa avoiding spot and goes back to the grounded headlock once again. Joe powers up again so Punk does almost a Spike Dudley-style Dudley Dog from the corner but uses it to maintain control over Joe’s head. Joe musters his strength to counter with a backdrop suplex but Punk maintains the headlock despite the impact. Neither man budges on a shoulder block and then Joe dares Punk to hit the ropes. Punk bounces off of Joe again and gets pie-faced. He tries another shoulder block but the same thing happens. He goes for a third, then misdirects and goes for a forearm but Joe dodges and slaps the taste out of Punk’s mouth. Joe lands a hiptoss but Punk bounces up and we get an indy-style quick move exchange that ends with a Punk roll-up and another two-count. Joe escapes to the floor as the crowd cheers loudly.

After some recovery time, they lock-up again and Punk somehow takes Joe down with a waistlock takedown. That leads to some more great technical grappling that ends with Joe slapping Punk’s back. They do a Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Joe wins with head-butts followed by a flurry of strikes. Punk fires back with the same strike flurry but eats a high kick for his efforts. The fans chant for Joe as Punk recovers ringside.

After another tense standoff, Joe gains the advantage with another knuckle lock. Punk tries to counter with a head scissor but finds himself in a pinning predicament so Joe tries for pins. Punk struggles to maintain control with a just stomach throw but Joe’s power advantage is too much. Desperate, Punk does a William Regal-style grounded escape and starts targeting Joe’s left arm. An arm drag gets Punk a two-count and he follows up with a dropkick to that arm. They trade chops in the corner – with Joe using the bad arm seemingly without any ill effect – until Punk takes Joe down with a hammerlock. Punk maintains control with an arm wringer and then pulls off an Undertaker Old School ropewalk but with a legdrop to the arm instead of a chop. That was cool.

Punk applies a chinlock and another hammerlock but Joe fights out, only to walk into another arm drag. Joe tries different strategies to shake Punk off but Punk hangs onto his arm with all he can. Punk switches into a keylock-type hold to further weaken Joe’s arm and therefore take away his power advantage. Punk goes for some arm wringers but Joe escapes with stiff elbow smashes. He lands a snapmare and goers for his chop/kick combo but Punk catches his leg and applies a, you guessed it, headlock. Joe tries several times to get Punk off but Punk just keeps reversing everything Joe does to get back into the headlock to wear Joe down. Desperate, Joe charges out of the ring and they both fall out but Punk’s still holding on. Suddenly, Joe lands a big back suplex on the exposed floor. Brutal landing for both of them but especially Punk. In the ring, Joe pins but only gets two.

Joe lands his snapmare/chop/kick combo despite Punk’s attempts at another block and drops a knee across his head for another two-count. He lands jabs and chops in a corner followed by facewashes but Punk dodges a big running facewash and fires back with forearms. He whips Joe into a corner and steals a page out of Joe’s playbook with a successful running facewash for two. A Jun Akiyama-style diving neck kneedrop gets Punk another two-count as Joe gets his foot on the ropes. Punk goes for a hook kick but Joe catches his leg and counters into a hybrid STF/dragon sleeper hold. Then Joe switches into a hangman neckbreaker hold and cranks Punk’s neck as much as he can. Punk escapes with elbows and sends Joe into a corner. He goes for a corner crossbody but Joe walks off and Punk eats canvas. Joe lands a back suplex backbreaker and a 20-second delayed vertical suplex for another two-count.

Both men get up and Punk fires back with chops. Joe tries to sweep his leg but Punk dodges and dropkicks Joe’s face. Punk tries to go back to the arm. Joe takes him down with a low sweep. Joe locks in a Boston crab. Punk starts crawling to the ropes. Joe grabs higher and sits even deeper. Punk somehow reaches the ropes. Joe sends him into a corner and Punk hits it hard. He followed with Kawada-style stepkicks to Punk’s head. Punk answers with a bitchslap out of nowhere. They go back-and-forth until Joe drops him with an uppercut for another two-count. Punk goes down hard off another Irish whip into a corner. Joe taunts Punk as the ref checks to see if he can continue. Punk starts stirring so Joe kicks him incredibly hard in the chest and back. Joe lands his facewash combo successfully and then gets in the ref’s face as the ref admonishes him for pulling Punk by his hair. Punk struggles to stay on his feet as Joe lands more stiff strikes and gets another two-count off a mocking pin. Joe lands more stiff elbows and whips Punk into a corner but Punk counters a charge and lands a diving hurricanrana out of nowhere. Joe ends up out of the ring. Punk answers with a suicide dive out of nowhere. The crowd erupts in cheers.

Punk chops Joe into a chair located ringside and then lands a big running Olé kick. Not satisfied, he lands another, even bigger kick as the crowd is now behind Punk once again. Joe gets to his feet as Punk gets onto the apron. Punk goes for a running hurricanrana but Joe counters. Joe smashes Punk neck-and-shoulders first into the steel barricade. Ouch. Joe is furious as he sets up his own seated Olé kick. Joe charges…but Punk gets up first. They brawl some more. Joe gets the upper hand and chops Punk into that same chair. Olé kick connects successfully.

Forty minutes have passed as both men struggle back into the ring. Joe sends Punk into a corner but Punk counters with a headscissor. Punk charges but Joe counters with a one-arm STO slam for another two-count. Punk staggers as he counters another Irish whip and ends up on the apron. He goes for a shoulder check but Joe dodges and kicks Punk in the head. Joe follows with a Misawa-style elbow suicida. Crazy move, especially for a man Joe’s size.

Joe gets up first and goes for an apron Exploder suplex but Punk fights back so Joe answers with an apron DDT. Joe goers for a suplex over the ropes but Punk lands on his feet and dropkicks Joe’s knee. Punk charges but Joe lands a spear for another two-count. Joe slams Punk and goes to the top rope. Diving splash…misses. Both men get to their knees and start trading forearms. Joe teases a powerbomb. Punk escapes with different kicks, including a flurry of hook kicks to Joe’s face. Punk charges. Joe counters with a powerslam that gets two and sits into a cross armbreaker. Punk reaches the ropes quickly and escapes a powerbomb with a hurricanrana and a big boot. One, two, no, Joe kicks out. Corner hangman’s neckbreaker by Punk. Joe kicks out again. Punk tries a tornado DDT but Joe pushes him off. Punk ducks a big lariat and connects with that tornado DDT and then locks in the Anaconda Vise, but this time Joe reaches the ropes.

Punk goes for a suplex but Joe counters, only for Punk to land behind him. he goes into the ropes but Joe drills him with a bug running lariat. One two, Punk survives again. Joe lands a fireman’s carry gutbuster and another kick to the head. Joe follows with a Brainbuster. One, two, no, Punk kicks out yet again. Joe charges for another lariat. Punk ducks and counters with a hammerlock DDT for two. Punk goes for an armtrap lariat. Joe counters with a folding powerbomb that gets two and then locks in an STF. The fans rally behind Punk like crazy so Joe switches into a crossface. Punk gets his foot on the ropes forcing a break.

Joe applies a full nelson but Punk elbows out and dropkicks his knee again. He charges again, Joe goes for a counter, but Punk counters that into a sunset flip for two. Punk follows with a Shining Wizard. That has to be it. One, two, no, Joe grabs the rope. Punk lands the armtrap lariat and goes to the top rope. Snap moonsault connects. One two, thr—no, Joe survives. Joe gets a sudden second wind and lands some big slaps and a pumphandle slam of sorts. He goes for a lariat but Punk doges and jumps onto his back with a sleeper. Punk falls backward and Joe starts fading. The fans are screaming for Joe to tap. But he doesn’t; instead, Joe lands a Backdrop suplex. But Punk gets to his feet right away. Double running lariats. Both men collapse.

Punk goes to the top rope for his Pepsi Plunge (diving Pedigree) but Joe keeps fighting. They struggle and struggle on the top turnbuckle. Punk hooks one arm. Then the other. But Joe still has some fight left in him and lands more forearms. But Punk’s resolve is stronger and he tries again. This time Joe head-butts his way out and lands a superplex. The crowd boos loudly ads Joe goes for the Muscle Buster. But Punk explodes with forearm strikes, desperate to survive. They brawl on the turnbuckle some more. Suddenly there’s ten seconds left in the match. Joe fights out of another Pepsi ‘Plunge and lands an avalanche Fisherman Buster. Joe crawls over to pin but the bell rings. Time’s up, the match is over.

STILL ROH World Champion due to a 60-Minute DRAW: Samoa Joe

Post-match, the fans chant for the ref to give them five more minutes. But the referee’s decision stands and the crowd boos very loudly. After a tense staredown, Punk hands Joe the belt and they shake hands.

 

Review

This match was legendary when it first came out and I think that reputation remains largely unchanged. Point blank, this is one of the greatest ‘indy’ matches that I have ever seen. It was a genuine war of attrition filled with focused psychology and lots of brutal, high-impact bombs. But what makes it stand out so much as an ‘indy’ match is that, unlike most modern indy matches, this wasn’t a total spot-fest because there was an actual story being told.

Punk controlled the first twenty minutes or so with some awesome technical wrestling and chain grappling. He focused on Joe’s head and neck to wear Joe down as much as he could. That’s why there were so many headlocks during the first third of the match; Punk had a strategy and he wasn’t going to falter from it. He also tried to take away Joe’s power advantage by also attacking Joe’s left arm, while Joe also tried attack Punk’s neck and legs whenever he could early on to take his speed advantage away. It was a bit of a slow start, sure, but it helped set the tone for the rest of the match. Both Punk and Joe knew that going the full hour was a challenge in itself, so they both resorted to a logical, gradual philosophy instead of firing on all cylinders from the opening bell.

From there, the match really went into an unpredictable war whereby any fall could’ve conceivably ended the match. Both men went to incredible lengths to wear each other down. They hit each other as hard as possible. They dropped each other with high-impact bombs. They stretched each other out with brutal submission holds. Punk kept going for quick pins because that had worked for his friend Cabana. Joe threw Punk around like a ragdoll. The entire second half was tense as hell and the rabid Chicago crowd helped create a much more exciting atmosphere. When all was said and done, Punk looked like the most valiant challenger ever and looked like a much better wrestler overall. At the same time, Joe left the match with a lucky win and also looked like a much better-conditioned athlete than people might’ve thought.

But the best part of this match was how successful Punk and Joe were. Not at winning or losing, but at keeping the fans invested in their match the entire time. Most people went into this match expecting another sixty minute match. Knowing that ahead of time is risky because it can lead to fans not caring about the early stuff (Bret vs. Shawn from WrestleMania XII is a perfect example). Luckily, that wasn’t the case here. Punk and Joe wrestled their match so meticulously and maintained such an airtight and focused narrative that it was impossible to turn away. Watching this match you had to stay focused because the match could’ve changed dramatically at any moment and it did.

But is it a genuine 5-star classic? No, and for a bunch of reasons.

First, there was the length. I understand that they were going for a trilogy, but this match didn’t need to go a full hour, in spite of how well structured it was. But because it did, both wrestlers spent a lot of time on the mat selling/recovering or stretching sequences out to bloat the length. Sometimes the action in a 60-minute match is so airtight and exciting that these things don’t get noticed. That wasn’t so here. The final fifteen minutes seemed to go on forever. The match’s pacing faltered and then fell apart towards the end. Much of the tension dissipated because both guys spent the closing moment setting up laborious high spots that weren’t justified once they were done. Because of that, they could’ve shaved off a quarter of the match and quickened the pace up a bit and the match would’ve been much better and not as taxing to get through.

Secondly, there was also one fatal flaw in how this match was presented: there was no warning of time left as the match wore on. I watched this on an ROH DVD and the commentary ended at the forty-minute mark. After that there was only the noise of the wrestling and of the fans. The only time there was any indication that time was running out was when the announcer suddenly said ‘ten seconds left’. That announcement came out of nowhere and didn’t add to the match at all. The way the wrestlers were fighting it looked like they still had a lot left in their respective tanks.

This is a flaw that really hurt the match, especially considering how other companies handle time limits. In both AJPW and NJPW, the announcer calls the time in five-minute increments. This gives the fans watching an idea of how well-conditioned the wrestlers must be to fight so hard for so long. But if there’s a time limit – such as in a tournament match or in a title match – the announcer also counts down when time is remaining (i.e. “three minutes left”, “one minute left”, “thirty seconds left”). That helps to add more tension to the ongoing match and helps make every pin attempt or submission hold count. It was such an easy thing to add to the match that would’ve upped the tension and excitement to another level. Instead, time passed without anyone knowing how much time there was left. Because of that, the action during the final third felt a bit rudderless, with only the final minute or so really amping up the tension and excitement.

Thirdly and most importantly, there was the blatant no-selling towards the end. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine when wrestlers devote so much time and effort into working a limb or showing off psychology early in a match, only for that stuff to be ignored towards the end. I’m a firm believer in consistency and I think the best matches are the ones in which stuff that happens early on is either returned to or plays a role towards the end of a match. And in this match, both Punk and Joe were guilty of no-selling what each one had done to the other.

In Joe’s case, Punk spent around twenty minutes working his head, neck, and arm. By the end, Joe barely sold like any of those body parts were causing him any trouble. He was exhausted – as any wrestler would be in such a match – but there was no realism in how he sold that Punk’s early submission work had, well, worked.

As for Punk, he had both his arm and one of his legs worked over but barely registered any of that. Maybe the limbwork got lost in the larger narrative of the match, but such blatant lack of attention to detail makes the match come across as a tad sloppy and less dramatic than it could’ve been. it would’ve been so much better had Punk fallen over or clasped his leg off one of his kicks or that Shining Wizard. Or if Joe clasped his own arm off a lariat or dropped to one knee due to the damage in his neck from all of Punk’s earlier work to wear him down. Instead, the final third of the match ventured a bit into typical indy territory with lots of high impact moves that ignored things that were already established earlier on.

Final Rating: ****1/2

Despite a few noted flaws, this match really does stand out as one of the most unique independent matches of the last twenty years. Both Joe and Punk fought incredibly well here and made their mark on wrestling history with this hour-long epic. With early-2000s wrestling in North America being something of a barren landscape, these two helped put ROH on the map with this match. This was a wrestling classic with more modern wrestling elements infused into it. And while it doesn’t really hold up compared to earlier and later greats, it still has value on its own.

It’s definitely worth re-watching, especially if you’re a fan of either Punk’s, Joe’s, or ROH’s.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.