From the moment it was announced that Brock Lesnar would have his first Universal title defense at Great Balls of Fire, most viewed it simply as a stepping stone -- some unfortunate schlub fed to the beast on his way to a more meaningful match at SummerSlam.
Those thoughts seemed to be validated, in a way, when Samoa Joe, the only one of five participants without a WWE world title to their name, won the Fatal 5-Way match at Extreme Rules to become the No. 1 contender. Sure, he'd done great things prior to WWE, and at NXT, but he'd been floundering a bit since failing to appear on the WrestleMania card.
But over the past month-plus, as Joe tore down pillar after pillar of the Raw roster down to size, he became far more than he started out with. He beat Roman Reigns. He beat Seth Rollins. He took out Paul Heyman physically, went toe-to-toe with Lesnar and then choked out the champion. Joe became every bit the intense beast of the past decade that made him a star everywhere else in front of the eyes of the WWE Universe, and on Sunday night at Great Balls of Fire, at a few different moments, he seemed to have the Universal title within his reach.
It might not have ended the way that a vocal portion of WWE fandom might have wanted, but in this particular loss -- one that was made out to be fluky and perhaps unearned -- Joe established himself as a main event talent on Monday Night Raw.
It started before the bell, as Samoa Joe attacked Brock Lesnar before Paul Heyman could finish his introduction. Joe laid Lesnar out at ringside, and then got him up with a Urinage that sent the champion through the Spanish announcers' table.
Lesnar took several minutes to re-establish himself and get back into the ring, which eventually triggered the bell to ring. Joe hit an elbow in the corner, followed by a bicycle kick and more strikes, and Lesnar hit a bunch of knees to the midsection out of desperation to slow Joe's momentum down.
Lesnar kept lashing out with violent motions, such as shoulder strikes to the midsection, and knees, but Joe hit a head-butt and locked in the Coquina clutch near the ropes for the first time. Lesnar used the leverage to send Joe's head into the top turnbuckle, but still the challenger would not be stopped. Finally, Lesnar slipped away and finally got himself right where he wanted to be -- behind Joe. He hit a German suplex. A second, and then a third followed. The fourth was countered by Joe grabbing the ropes, and the challenger re-established control with a low-blow as the official's line of sight got blocked.
Another Urinage earned a two-count, and Joe locked in the Coquina clutch again. Lesnar fought with everything he had, turning pink, then purple, by throwing back elbows and anything else he could think of. A sidewalk slam eventually did the job and broke the hold.
Lesnar missed a spear, going shoulder-first into the ring post, but crawled backward through Joe's legs. A couple of German suplexes followed, and as Joe went up into the F5, the air went out of the crowd. But Joe slipped out, bringing fans back to the edge of their seats. One last Coquina clutch effort looked to be the deepest yet, and Joe actually wrapped his legs around his massive foe, albeit as they went to the corner.
Lesnar ultimately slipped out, hit an F5 and finished off the match. Would another five minutes or a kickout on the F5 improved the match? Perhaps. But the out-of-nowhere finish gives Joe a leg to stand on going forward, no matter who's next for him. He might not be champion yet, but if the flashes he showed against Lesnar are any indication, that future might not be a pipe dream anymore.