Samoa Joe doesn't look like the prototypical WWE superstar, and that's probably why it took him so long to become one in the first place.
Nuufolau Joe Seanoa, 38, first stepped into a wrestling ring in the fall of 1999 and spent the next 16 years wrestling in Ring of Honor, TNA and dozens of wrestling promotions throughout the United States and Japan before signing with the WWE two years ago.
He isn't particularly tall or large or well-built. His attire for years has been nothing more than a white towel draped around his neck, dual-colored shorts and black knee pads that blend into his black boots. He looks more like the bouncer at a Huntington Beach bar than one of the faces of the WWE.
In an industry where books are often judged and discarded based on their cover, the most recent chapter of Joe's storybook career was almost never written although, to his credit, he always believed there would be a happy ending.
"As opaquely egotistical as it sounds, I knew this would happen," he told ESPN. "I knew what I was capable of and I knew the opportunity was there for the taking. I wasn't too worried about getting to where I am now."
Where Joe is now is a main event talent for the WWE. He's headlining Sunday's WWE Great Balls of Fire pay-per-view in Dallas, where he will face Brock Lesnar for the Universal championship. Last month he defeated four former WWE champions -- Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt -- in a "Fatal 5-Way" match that headlined the WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view in Baltimore to earn that right.
While Joe may have believed this day would eventually come, the WWE probably didn't when it initially signed him to NXT, the company's developmental promotion based in Winter Park, Florida. It wasn't even an exclusive contract, meaning Joe was still able to work for other promotions, and there was no guarantee made that he would ever be moved up to the main roster despite his resume. They were interested, but it would be up to Joe and his loyal fan base to show just how interested they would eventually become.
"After I made my initial debut at NXT TakeOver, they looked at the interest and merchandise sales and decided I would be better signed full time than not," Joe said. "I had a pretty full calendar regardless, so for me there wasn't much of an inherent risk in originally signing because there was other work in place if they didn't sign me full time. But it didn't surprise me when it happened as fast as it did."
Shortly after Joe's NXT debut on May 20, 2015, his shirts sold out on the WWE's website and he was a trending topic on Twitter. The WWE signed him to a full-time contract on June 1, 2015. Joe would go on to become the first two-time NXT champion before moving up to the main WWE roster in January.
"NXT was at a really exciting place and transforming in and of itself, and I find it's always good to be around that kind of environment and those kinds of companies," Joe said. "It just felt right. It was a good fit."
When Joe first started wrestling in 2000, he joined the California-based WWE developmental affiliate Ultimate Pro Wrestling, where he feuded with fellow newcomer John Cena. While Cena had the look the company craved and was eventually signed, Joe was told he didn't have a future in WWE.
"It was timing, and possibly his somewhat non-WWE 'look' that seemed to be especially prevalent during that period of time."said Jim Ross, who was the longtime head of WWE's talent relations at the time.
"But when he was signed recently to NXT he delivered in and out of the ring and earned his keep by being a consummate professional," Ross added.
While Joe's WWE dreams initially died in 2001, it was only the beginning of a career that would eventually lead him back to the company that didn't believe he could cut it.
"It didn't so much drive me out of spite, but it made my path clearer," Joe said. "I knew what avenues I needed to explore in order to do this. It was definitely Japan, which was the only other place paying a comparable wage that you could live on and do this for a living."
Joe would head to Japan in 2001 to wrestle for Shinya Hashimoto's Pro Wrestling Zero-One promotion. He returned to the United States one year later and enjoyed successful stints in Ring of Honor and TNA, winning world championships in both promotions as a main event talent. As Joe rose in prominence and recognition, he helped bring the companies on a similar upward trajectory.
"Joe's intensity is what has always set him apart," said Jeff Jarrett, who co-founded and co-owned TNA and worked with Joe in the ring. "His athletic ability for his size is off-the-charts impressive. He's so intense and so agile and these are very rare attributes you combine them. When we debuted Joe to a huge winning streak, the stage was set for him at TNA. And when Kurt Angle debuted for us and they went head up, there was professional wrestling magic instantaneously."
If Joe defeats Lesnar in their first-ever meeting Sunday, he would become the first wrestler to hold a world title in the WWE, Ring of Honor and TNA. When Joe looks around the locker room now, he said he'll occasionally take a moment to appreciate seeing many of the wrestlers he worked with on his way up, like AJ Styles and Bobby Roode -- each of them achieving their dream after similarly long journeys.
"There's no timeline you can put on these things, but that I'm in the main event this quickly is a welcome surprise -- but it's not a surprise that it has happened," Joe said. "When you look around and see how many people I've worked with in former companies that are here now, it's not surprising. Talent is one of the few things that can't be created. It can be enhanced, it can be coached and brought out of people, but you can't deny it."
Jarrett, who worked with Joe, Styles and Roode in TNA, agrees and sees all three of his former wrestlers being main-event mainstays in the WWE.
"I don't think they really knew what they had with Joe or AJ when they first got there," Jarrett said. "Those guys were not groomed in the WWE system, but I think Joe, AJ and Roode will all have nice main-event runs; and super deservedly so. They all have the unique ability to connect with audiences globally."
After waiting nearly two decades to make his WWE debut, Joe simply wanted it to be done right. He didn't mind staying in NXT a little longer if it meant coming up at the right time, and being put in the right program with the right opponent. In his mind, that person was always Lesnar.
"Some people want to be called up as quickly as possible, but I've been around the industry long enough to know that timing is one of the most key and important things," Joe said. "Brock was at the top of my list of guys that I wanted to work with. There are certain special guys in this industry and Brock is one of those special guys, and to be able to go out there and work with guys like that, that's where legacies are built."
Regardless of how Sunday plays out, Joe has arrived as a main-event talent in the WWE. It took a little longer than many of his peers, who often told him he always belonged in the WWE, would have liked, but he's content with the journey he has taken to being a WWE superstar.
"It's more than just whether you belong or not," Joe said. "A lot of it is timing and having a good relationship with certain people in the company and having guys that are willing to go to bat for you, as far as your ability to add something to the company and to the show. I was always told I belonged here but timing is everything -- and the timing is right now."