Joe vs. Punk II: A Love Letter

It’s astounding how few things I cared about when I was 15. I didn’t care about my grades, I didn’t care about Pop Culture or current music. I certainly didn’t care how I dressed (a trend that continues to this day), but if you asked me in October of 2004, just a few weeks after my 15th birthday, what I did care about, I would have said “Joe vs. Punk II.”

On October 16th, 2004, Samoa Joe and CM Punk wrestled for the Ring Of Honor World Heavyweight Championship in Chicago Ridge, IL. It would be their second match after going to a 60 minute time limit draw just 4 months prior. At fifteen, it was the absolute most important thing in my life. My Dad, who was always understanding and supportive of my love for pro wrestling, was more than happy to drive me, and even enthusiastically listened as I talked his ear off about why this match was so important.

And it was important.

As I entered and (in the blink of an eye) exited my 20’s, my apathetic nature has waned. I have so many things I care about now. I have a family and a home and a job and all the things that come part and parcel with adulthood, but even on the laundry list of things that take precedence in my life, somewhere on my list of things I care about, ‘Joe vs. Punk II’ still finds its way in there somewhere.

This is my favorite match of all time. And I always go out of my way to recommend it to people who have not seen it. It’s also become the match I like to show people who aren’t into wrestling. I think people have the idea that pro wrestling is always roided up meatheads in big arenas pretending to fight, and have never seen it presented as it was during this era of independent wrestling.

This match has historical implications for two reasons:

1. This was the first match in America in seven years to be certified 5 stars in the Wrestling Observer. The last American match prior to this one to receive this honor was Shawn Micheals vs. The Undertaker Hell in a Cell in 1997, certainly good company to be in. As a piece of trivia, HBK and Undertaker’s 1997 bout would be the last 5 star match in WWE until CM Punk’s title match in Chicago in 2011, some 14 years later.

2. It’s said that this is the match Mick Foley had Vince McMahon watch that lead to WWE signing CM Punk in the summer of 2005. Vince would, at this time, pass on Joe, but The Samoan Submission Machine would go on to be a top star in TNA and find his way to WWE some time later.

If you’ve never seen the match, it’s an absolute master class in story-telling in professional wrestling.

At this time, Samoa Joe was the most dominant champion in all of pro wrestling. While it seemed like the top title in WWE was getting passed around so much it almost felt meaningless, the Ring of Honor title was booked to be top prize in the company, and most fans of ROH recognized it as the most important title in North America, if not the world.

Another staple of then-booker Gabe Sapolsky was that everyone in the company was booked in such a way that it was never inconceivable that they could win the title. The title matches were booked out in advance and special attention was paid to make sure that each match felt like it could be a title change. Everything was done with a purpose, a refreshing change from what was happening with wrestling on TV at this time.

But for Punk it was a little different.

Punk always seemed like the most likely to take the title from Joe. Punk’s meteoric rise from entering Ring of Honor in 2002 until the summer of 2004 was really something to behold. Nearly all fans thought that Punk would be the one to end Joe’s then 18-month title reign when the two met in Dayton in June of ‘04. When that match ended in a time limit draw, there was no doubt in the minds of many fans (myself included) that the October rematch in Chicago would see the title change hands.

The first match in Dayton is definitely worth a watch, for the record. Punk has since said he’ll give you a different answer depending on the day if you ever ask him which of the two he liked the most. The match was so good, it even prompted Ring of Honor brass to name the show ‘World Title Classic” despite the World Title match not even being the main event that night.

The Dayton match told an interesting story of Punk being the first person to go to the rope-a-dope. That is, stick and move, and attempt to tire Joe out. Knowing that others have tried to over power the champion and fail, Punk took a much more cerebral approach and the two told a gripping story in Dayton that night, ending in a great sequence and ultimately a time limit draw. In every way (especially the finish) it was a throwback to 80’s NWA wrestling.

This, of course, set the stage for the return match: October 16th 2004.

I can’t gush enough about this match. The storytelling is unparalleled, both guys move so well, the whole match just flows. From sequence to sequence, this time they tell the story of Joe being the one trying to beat Punk, and the ever-resilient Punker doing everything in his power to slowly wear Joe down. If you’ve never seen a crowd go crazy for a side headlock, you should watch this match. The entire first half of the match Punk keeps going back to the side headlock, taking Joe’s feet from him and slowly wearing him down.

Every time Joe gets his hands on Punk, it feels like the match could be over. This match highlights just how dominant and vicious Joe seemed at the time. Punk avoids Joe as much as possible and takes every chance to get in his own offense. He even takes a second to scold a heckling fan while he has Joe in a side headlock.

I won’t spoil the ending, although if you’re a fan of wrestling, it’s likely you know how the match ends. If you don’t, you should go into it not knowing the outcome, because it will amp up the excitement of the match even further. 

This match has everything a good match should have: drama, smooth wrestling, hard-hitting action, great storytelling and a hot crowd. It really is a shame more people haven’t seen it.

There are a handful of matches I try my best to rewatch every year. Eddie’s title win, the 6/3/94 Misawa and Kawada match, and a few others. But of all the matches I go out of my way to give a look at every year, none are as fun to watch as Joe vs. Punk II.

None are as important to me either.   

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