A thinner, baby-faced Samoa Joe poked his head out from WWE developmental to step into the ring on TV for just a moment.
His arms jutted out of a sleeveless brown shirt. Rust-colored hair topped his head. He received no fanfare, little attention from the announcers and not even a proper entrance.
Essa Rios, who after this match would soon leave WWE for Mexico, stood across the ring from him.
Fans reacted to Rios, not to Joe. They knew the luchador as a light heavyweight champion and Lita's former partner. They knew little of the bigger man on the wrong end of Rios' dropkicks.
Their short bout was the pinnacle of Joe's first experience with the company. It was the precursor to Joe's highly successful stint with Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame-worthy run with TNA, and long before he confronted Kevin Owens at NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable. His loss to Rios happened 14 years ago, to be exact.
Joe isn't the same performer today as he was opposite Rios. He was just a sprouting seedling then. After blossoming into one of the more intimidating and captivating performers in the industry, he has since returned to WWE, fists at the ready.
The experience will be vastly different this time around.
He's sure to stick around longer, for one. And the developmental system has evolved into an entirely new animal in his absence.
Learning the Craft in California
Ultimate Pro Wrestling welcomed Joe in 2000. The promotion and wrestling school was a WWE developmental affiliate at the time, nothing like the sleek, well-promoted machine that NXT is now.
Los Angeles, the promotion's base, was just an hour outside Joe's hometown of Huntington Beach, California. He was in his early 20s, green in the ring and not nearly as powerful-looking as he is today.
Many of the men and woman toiling in the ring there didn't make much of a name for themselves.
Few wrestling fans know who Mickey Henderson or the man known as Drunken Irishman is, for example. UPW did, however, have a megastar to be: John Cena was one of Joe's chief rivals and friends there.
At one UPW show, Cena (then known as The Prototype) called out Joe for a fight, only to get Damien Steele instead.
Joe and Cena would often ride together, impromptu battle raps unfolding during their long drives. They trained together and grew close.
In an interview with Slam! Wrestling, Cena said, "When we weren't on road trips, we would be at his house, and his mom would cook us Samoan BBQ, and we would eat so much we would pass out."
Fan Noya Perez shared a picture of Joe and Cena during their UPW days:
Cena, of course, would stick with WWE, becoming its cornerstone for years to come. Joe's path veered off in a much different direction.
And while Cena's debut on WWE TV was a momentous one, a game effort against Kurt Angle, Joe served in an enhancement role.
Joe wrestled just one match for WWE proper. On March 3, 2001, on an episode of Jakked, Joe stepped in front of the cameras to face Rios.
The bout was meant to showcase Rios. The high-flyer was the established wrestler of the two; Joe was to be his patsy.
The Samoan Submission Machine didn't get much offense in, but even when he did, it went unnoticed. The announcers, Michael Hayes and Jonathan Coachman, didn't bother talking much about what Joe did in the ring.
An upcoming XFL game and The Radicalz's internal issues were the more pressing topics.
Joe suffered kicks to the back and chops to the chest. In the match's biggest moment, Rios flipped over the ring ropes onto Joe, who stood out on the floor.
The lone highlight on Joe's end was a belly-to-belly suplex with plenty of snap. It was not something anyone would have really noticed at the time, as it was just one great move lost in a glorified squash bout. Armed with hindsight now, though, it seems to have been a harbinger of Joe's excellence.
WWE didn't see enough in the match to keep Joe on TV. The developmental system awaited him again.
Given the Gold, Shown the Door
Less than two weeks after battling Rios, Joe defeated Christopher Daniels for the UPW Heavyweight Championship.
Daniels would end up being one of the other most famous UPW stars. Luckily, later he and Joe continued their series of battles as part of TNA and often created magic together.
When Joe knocked off Daniels for the developmental belt in 2001, that title's history (h/t Wrestling-Titles.com) was not a who's who of wrestling greats. However, Joe's fellow UPW alum, Cena, had won it a year before he did.
Joe was tasked with being UPW's top champion for most of 2001. A year later, he was still wading through the developmental system, with WWE not yet convinced he was ready for the big time. Not long after losing out to Daniels as he attempted to begin his second reign, he was gone.
WWE brass didn't see a promising future ahead of him.
Joe told WWE.com that Jim Ross said to him, "We know what we're looking for [at WWE] in terms of talent, and you're not it." The powerhouse would then go on to compile a resume that made his doubters look foolish.
Japan awaited him after the split with WWE, and so did a burgeoning Ring of Honor and later TNA. Titles, critical acclaim and awards came flooding in.
Fast-forward to 2015, and Joe is now a part of WWE again, no longer sporting the rusty-blond look, no longer an unknown grappler. He outdid his previous stint by just showing up at NXT and staring down Kevin Owens. Next on his to-do list is improving his WWE win-loss record and continuing to prove his doubters wrong.