Fight Forever is our series where we put classic feuds under review, examining what made these rivalries as great as they are and whether they stand the test of time to this day. In this edition: the extremely physical war of honour that was the feud between Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe!
What’s your idea of perfect storytelling in wrestling? Perhaps you like big, convoluted, soap opera-style storylines ala WWE and AEW—nothing wrong with that when done well. Maybe you enjoy storylines where promos drive the action and the wrestling is almost secondary. But perhaps the purest and most rewarding form of storytelling of all is exactly where it should be—in the ring. And no feud demonstrated that better than the hard-hitting, honour-driven contests between Kurt Angle and Samoa Joe.
Here were two men, one who was beginning to establish his reputation as one of the best straight wrestlers in the world via his work in ROH and TNA, and the other a massive star thanks to his Olympic medal win and his stint as a top-level performer in WWE. He was also known as an excellent pure wrestler, perhaps one of the best in the world, and both men were feared and respected for their physicality.
When Kurt Angle shockingly showed up in TNA in 2006 after being released from WWE over concerns about his physical and mental state, the wrestling world was electrified. Not only did TNA have a bona fide legitimate big contemporary star (certainly bigger than Christian Cage at the time, and fresher than the elder Sting) but they also had a legitimately tough, excellent wrestler on their hands too. With Angle already established, what better way to legitimise Joe further than having the two clash for respect over their reputations as two of the best warriors in all of wrestling?
For the most part, they managed to keep the feud focussed on honour, respect, and the ring, with one noticeable exception as we will see. What we got in return are some of the hardest-hitting, physical matches ever witnessed in a mainstream American wrestling promotion to that point and perhaps even today. This was two masters of their trade going head-to-head to prove who was the best. What more do you need?
I’ve focussed only on the PPV matches here as they were the main drivers of the Angle-Joe feud. I am aware they wrestled several times on TV on Impact and I may come back to those matches in a separate article in the near future.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at the classic fights from the Kurt Angle-Samoa Joe feud!
Genesis (November 19th, 2006)
This was a match all about proving yourself. For Samoa Joe, he had been undefeated in TNA for 18 months and considered himself the best, but ultimately knew he would have to beat Kurt Angle to prove it. For Kurt, he had to prove his worth all over again following his departure from WWE and to do that, he was going to have to beat TNA’s undefeated ace.
First things first: the crowd are insanely hot for this one. They also, quite understandably, couldn’t pick a favourite. It’s a completely split audience, with duelling chants of “Joe is gonna kill you” and “Kurt is going to break you” heard very early on.
The phrase “big fight feel” is used a lot in wrestling, but it really does apply here because this truly does feel like a fight! The intensity is off the charts. Kurt was able to balance his comedy and warrior sides in WWE, but here he is all business and he is terrifying. But there’s other reasons he’s scary to watch too.
Considering Kurt was the bigger star here, he’s generous and smart enough to take a pounding from Joe through the majority of the match. Because this is Kurt Joe was beating, it legitimized Joe even further so that when Kurt did finally win, both men looked brilliant; Joe because he had nearly beaten the great Kurt Angle, and Kurt because he had survived such a beating and was still able to fight on and beat Joe in convincing fashion. It was a win-win situation.
When you watch this match with the fact in mind that Kurt was let go from WWE just short of three months of this match due to the severity of the neck injury he was nursing, you genuinely do worry for Kurt’s life at a few moments. Early on, Joe pulls Angle down by his legs and swings him from the apron headfirst into the metal guard rail. It looks astonishingly painful. Shortly after, Kurt charged at Joe but drive his shoulder and neck into the ring post. Joe then sent Angle to the outside and hit him with a running suicide elbow—fine, until you Kurt bounces back and smacks his head on the guard rail, hard. Outside of these moments looking genuinely nasty anyway, when you think of the state of Kurt’s neck, it really is excruciating to watch.
On the flip side, it goes to show as to what lengths Kurt would go to so as to prove his worth. He was willing to get hurt. He was willing to bleed, which he did here, his bald head a horrible mess of crimson tributaries pouring in down his face. So when Kurt nailed Joe with some superhuman belly to belly and German suplexes before pulling those straps down and screaming, you know how much this match means to Kurt.
The end was beautiful. As Kurt locked in the ankle lock, Joe was able to roll over and kick Kurt down into the Coquina clutch. As Kurt began to fade, he reached down, was just able to grab Joe’s foot and apply the ankle lock once again. Joe sent Angle into the corner but an Angle Slam later, a third ankle lock finally sealed the deal as Joe tapped. The drama is immense.
Now Kurt had Joe’s respect. And this is where TNA was clever. If both men respected each other, where was the feud? So, as the crowd changes “you tapped out! “, Joe took the Mic and said “you’re goddamn right I tapped out. Because I know when I can recognise when somebody on one day is the better man. But cannot Angle, if you’re half the man I think you are, you’ll give me a rematch. “ It was the perfect set-up: the crowd were chanting “one more match! “, Joe had his hand out for the handshake—surely they were brothers in combat now?
No. They weren’t.
Kurt disrespecting Joe by pretending to shake the hand, only to move his hand over his face and click his blood at Joe before nailing back at Joe derisively from the ramp was genius. Kurt had not only given Joe the finger but the crowd too. A second match had to happen now. Like Joe said, “I guess we’re going to have to do things the hard way. “
Turning Point (December 10th, 2006)
So, the feud continued. But it looked like Kurt had decided, at least for the moment, to give Joe his respect and a rematch. The excellent pre-match video really does a good job of selling the seriousness of this match in a way more reminiscent of combat sports than wrestling. Kurt talks about how he lost to another wrestler before the Olympics and he obsessed over it until he got to face the man again in the finals of the 1996 Olympics and beat him. He got a second chance and was redeemed. He feels Joe, after being undefeated for 18 months, deserves the same chance. Joe, meanwhile, says he underestimated Jury’s willingness to win and that his why he lost to Kurt in the end.
Honour and pride. Very simple ingredients but they combine to make an excellent story.
Especially when men will go to desperate lengths to keep their pride, no matter how dishonourable they become. Keep in mind that, before the match, Angle said how the match was keeping him up at night and that he could be paralysed by Joe. He also stated that whatever the result, this would be the last time he would wrestle Joe.
The match itself played perfectly into this story. Kurt took it to the mat to start but soon betrayed his intentions by giving Joe a little tap to the head with his foot on a corner break. Kurt then attacked Joe at ringside and threw him into the steps, an inverse of their first match. Kurt continued to dominate, and it made you wonder if that was because Kurt was hungrier to win this time and cement his reputation or if Joe had lost confidence after losing the previous match.
Certainly, Kurt’s constant and consistent application of the ankle lock in the latter parts of the match shows an awareness of Joe’s weak spot, with Joe’s reversals into the Coquina clutch recalling how he was close to winning with the gold in the first match. This demonstrated the fact Joe had identified a weak spot in Angle in turn and had trained to develop it so that his ankle wouldn’t be as vulnerable to attack.
It looked to pay off near the end of the match as a late ref bump saw Angle tap unseen to the clutch. As Joe released the hold to check the ref, Angle demonstrated that desperation that was hinted at earlier in the match and hit Joe with a low blow. He then got a chair from ringside but missed Joe, the chair recoiling off the ropes and cracking him in his own face. Joe pulled Angle down into the clutch, the ref saw the tap out this time and Samoa Joe had gotten his redemption!
So: Angle had fallen into dishonest and desperation and Joe had been redeemed for his loss in their last match. Kurt wouldn’t take the loss lying down. He’d want a rematch of course. But hadn’t he said that no matter the result, he’d never face Joe again?
Final Resolution (January 14th, 2007)
Of course Kurt Angle wanted another match! His pride wouldn’t allow him to accept the loss to Joe. As Angle said to Joe, “Kurt Angle never taps. “ Unfortunately for Kurt, Joe wasn’t playing anymore. He’d already redeemed his loss to Kurt in their first match and he wasn’t going to risk his redemption on one more match.
The incensed wounded Kurt had no choice but to force Joe’s hand. He went on a rampage, taking his fury out on various members of the locker room before putting someone in the ankle lock, which provoked Joe into finally saying yes to the rematch.
This was a match both men had to win. Kurt to prove that his loss was a fluke and that his rage was justified; Joe to retain his sense of redemption. The stakes were higher than ever for both men. Add in the fact that the winner would get a shot at the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and you had the stage set for a battle of high drama.
While not quite on the level of their previous two matches, this was a still a high-quality encounter with a hot crowd and a definite big fight feel. Kurt supposedly suffered a concussion about ten minutes into things after a Joe suicide elbow saw Angle smash his head into the guard rail. It’s been suggested Kurt wasn’t able to remember the order of sequences thereafter but it doesn’t appear to be obvious when you watch the match. Kurt looks a little tired, understandably, but it’s not like he’s wobbling around lost like The Sandman did in ECW after Cactus Jack hit him in the face with a metal skillet. Kurt still appears to be coherent and in control.
Like a lot of Iron Man matches, there was strategy involved here revolving around conceding a fall early to prevent too much hurt and wear down occurring early on in the match. To this point, Kurt tapped first at the 12:55 mark after Joe locked in the Coquita Clutch. Rather than fight the hold and have nothing left in the tank for the remaining 17 minutes, Kurt tapped quickly to conserve strength and fight on. Likewise Joe, who tapped to the ankle lock.
One of the best parts of the match was the ability of both wrestlers to counter fluidly so as to move into the move they know from previous matches are near-guaranteed to earn a fall. Take Joe’s first fall: Kurt counters a Muscle Buster attempt with a sunset flip, only for Joe to roll through that and lock in the Coquina Clutch for the fall. A second Clutch attempt later sees Angle counter into an Anklelock for his own fall.
Angle used his head to roll out of a suplex attempt and roll Joe up to put him in the lead 3-2 with five minutes remaining. This home stretch beautifully demonstrated Joe’s desperation and anyone’s desperation to win. A Muscle Buster was only ineffective in causing another call because Kurt had his foot on the ropes. So, with a minute on the clock left, Joe tried to lock in the Clutch, knowing it to be effective, but Kurt tucked his body up to block it. Knowing the Clutch was futile now, Joe went for the other move which had been equally effective: Kurt’s own ankle lock. Knowing he must have been in agony, it was impressive Kurt held on, only tapping out when the timer hit zero, meaning he’d wanted to tap but his determination to win had driven him to hold on.
It might not be the best match in the series but it is perhaps the most compelling story the two men told together.
Hard Justice (August 12th, 2007)
After the Iron Man match, both men went their separate ways until they found themselves holding all the good in TNA—Joe with the X-Division and tag team titles and Kurt with the TNA and IWGP World Heavyweight titles. With two blood rivals holding all the gold, it would only be so long before one man would challenge the other to winner takes all. If Joe was behind Kurt in victories against him, then taking all the gold from Angle would certainly prove who the better man was.
It helped Joe’s case that Angle had spent the previous months as champion being a complete a*****e, berating and belittling his wife Karen and their daughter on-screen. Joe used this to his advantage, bringing an exasperated Karen to Impact to announce her intention to leave and divorce Kurt, a move that seemed to send Kurt into despair. No longer was it about who the best man was; now it was really personal.
In all honesty, this is the weakest of the five of Joe and Angle’s five PPV matches. More sports entertainment-based than their other matches. Nothing wrong with Sports Entertainment when it’s done well, but when you’ve got two of the toughest wrestlers in the world going at it, just let them fight. For the first half of the match, the focus is more on Angle being distracted by Karen and her supposed new boyfriend at ringside, having champagne thrown in his face and letting Joe generally beat him up. That’s fair enough, but when you compare it to their other matches, the fire was missing.
I did admittedly enjoy the commitment to the story via the ring entrances; Kurt looking despondent and defeated, Joe coming out with his Samoan dancers and demonstrating his confidence by joining in with the ceremonial dance. I think I enjoyed that more than the Karen Angle shennanigans.
The match definitely picks up in the second half, as Kurt seem to get his fight back, and he and Joe go through a spirited set of suplexes, counters and finishers. Of course, there’s a swerve. The ref gets bumped, Karen Angle goes to offer Joe a steel chair before pulling back and letting Kurt hit a low blow and a hard chair shot for the win and for all the gold. Bah Gawd, it was a setup!
Not the greatest match, but it does set things up nicely for the last chapter of this PPV rivalry…
Lockdown (April 13th, 2008)
Although Joe and Kurt had gone their separate ways in TNA after their last match, there would always linger between them a sense of unfinished business, if only for Joe. Our of the previous four matches, Joe only had one win over Kurt. After such a fierce rivalry, one that had gotten so personal as to involve Kurt’s then-wife Karen and their kids, how could Joe derive satisfaction and closure? Even if he beat Kurt, Kurt would still have more victories over Joe than Joe would hold over Kurt. There would have to be something else to raise the stakes.
That something was Kurt’s TNA title and Joe’s career. Joe vowed that if he lost to Kurt in a cage at Lockdown, he would no longer wrestle for any promotion. His career would be finished. If Joe could beat Kurt on those terms then it would overshadow all of his previous losses. If he lost, there was no way he could come back from it. This would be the final chapter, win or lose…
This is my second favourite match of the Kurt/Joe series. Building upon the stiff combat sport feel of their previous matches and the fact they would be in a cage here, Kurt and Joe leaned further into an MMA approach with this match, and it really worked well, giving the match that big fight feel and adding gravitas to the already high stakes. Kurt even dressed the part, rocking a pair of MMA shorts throughout.
Accordingly, the stiffness of strikes increased here, with Joe, in particular, channelling the spirit of Kobashi, who he wrestled once in ROH, and battering Kurt with a killer lariat that once again awoke those fears about his neck. Kurt, on the other hand, hit hard and heavy early on, throwing some hard kicks at Joe’s legs and throwing him around with big suplexes.
While Kurt went after Joe’s legs with a figure four and the omnipresent ankle lock, Joe focussed on the Muscle Buster and the Coquina Clutch, the latter looking likely to succeed until Kurt showed his desperation grabbing the ref’s shirt and using it to pull himself to the ropes for the break. Sensing Kurt might be ripe for breaking, Joe sent him headfirst into the cage, the only time this happened in the whole match incidentally, and battered Kurt with a massive kick to the head before a big Muscle Buster laid Kurt out down the count and Joe finished the match with his career, pride and honour intact and the Heavyweight title around his waist, proving he was the best in the company.
By raising their stakes to the highest point, Joe risked losing everything. Instead, he gained the world. He could finally truly say he was the better man than Kurt.
In this day and age for wrestling, where New Japan’s Strong Style is becoming more popular with western audiences than ever and the likes of ROH are pushing the idea of ‘pure wrestling’ to the front of their core identity, it’s clear that the still thoroughly modern-feeling fights between Samoa Joe and Kurt Angle paved the way for such styles to become acceptable to a mainstream western wrestling audience.
The sheer intensity and physicality that the two displayed in their five PPV matches is near-unparalleled. The phrase ‘big fight feel’ is one that is perhaps thrown around too easily nowadays, but these fights really do fit the description. Because that’s what these were—fights. Both men put themselves and each other through hell to prove to the world and to each other who the better man was. It’s the simplest story in wrestling and quite often it’s the best.
In the process, the two men opened the doors to more physical, MMA-style matches appearing on mainstream wrestling. All the while, we still talk about the greatness of the matches they have together.
Now, that really is the sign of a legendary, groundbreaking feud.