Samoa Joe's career taking a new turn with Transformers, AJ Styles and SmackDown Live

Samoa Joe is excited to get back in the ring with AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan and others on SmackDown Live. Vaughn Ridley for ESPN

For 16 years, Samoa Joe made himself one of the biggest names in the world of professional wrestling without ever setting foot inside a WWE ring. He garnered a level of attention that few outside the company could've ever hoped for in the 2000s, and yet, Joe spent two decades having his tremendous matches in TNA and Ring of Honor rather than the WWE.

As time rolled along and opinions and approaches within the WWE changed, Samoa Joe finally got a chance. He still had to fight his way up through NXT and Joe ultimately tore it up there as well, becoming the first-ever two-time NXT champion while building tremendous rivalries with Finn Balor and Shinsuke Nakamura. When he made it to Raw, Samoa Joe immediately got involved with Seth Rollins, and then went on to be involved in two of the best matches Brock Lesnar has had during his current WWE run.

Though injuries and circumstances beyond his control have ultimately kept him off the WrestleMania card over the past two years, Samoa Joe has cashed in on most of the big opportunities he's been given. After wrapping up a year's worth of hostilities with Roman Reigns on Sunday at Backlash, Samoa Joe is excited for his move to SmackDown.

"My expectations of the WWE before I entered the company [compared to] now, I think those expectations and those preconceptions are vastly different," said Joe to ESPN.com. "For the majority of my career I worked everywhere but the WWE. You come into contact with people who had worked there formerly and people that work there currently, and you kind of base your ideas on what it's like there off of their experiences -- what they share with you.

"At the same time, I've always been a firm believer in [that]... I judge and I deal with people, companies, based on our business -- and honestly the WWE has been extremely professional in all my dealings with me, astonishingly so."

Even though Joe was out of commission for a few months at the start of 2018, he remained busy with another major step forward in his life and career with his biggest voice-acting role to date.

After lending his voice to the Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series and Dota 2, Samoa Joe took on the role of Predaking in Transformers: Power of the Primes. Joining a cast of heavy hitters that includes Mark Hamill, Ron Perlman, Jaime King, Wil Wheaton and Judd Nelson, among many others, Samoa Joe slipped naturally into a role that he was seemingly destined to play.

"I grew up watching Transformers," he said. "I think it was one of the first cartoons that I started watching as a kid. It was awesome. I would set my clock every morning before I went to school. It was a big part of my childhood.

"It was easy to throw myself in the character, it was fun," Joe continued. "As a child, I think everybody imitates their favorite cartoon character in some form or another when they're playing. To find themselves as a grown adult -- getting that chance and having it actually become part of that cartoon is a real cool thing."

Transformers: Power of the Primes, which debuted on Tuesday on go90 and tumblr, allowed Joe to channel the most villainous elements of his character while embracing passions from his past. He'll have a similar opportunity after Sunday once he settles into his new home on SmackDown Live, with familiar faces and new opponents alike.

"Shinsuke Nakamura, Randy Orton, Rusev -- these matches that I think a lot of people would have wanted to see over the past five or six years, and now that I'm on SmackDown those matches have a real possibility of happening. I'm excited about it. A lot of fresh faces, a lot of new opponents, and a lot of good fights to pick, so I'm looking forward to doing it."

The most exciting possibilities, both from Samoa Joe's perspective and for fans who've followed his career, lie with two opponents who helped define his career. There's Daniel Bryan, who had three legendary Ring of Honor world championship matches with Joe and hasn't been in the ring with him in nearly a decade, and there's one more name that stands out further still. A man with whom Samoa Joe built a legacy that carried both men to greatness.

That would be AJ Styles, who just so happens to be WWE champion right now.

"I think at this point it's beyond potential, and it's something that's gonna happen," Joe said on Tuesday morning. Hours later, he'd confront Styles for the first time on SmackDown TV. "People talk about the Kevin Owens/Sami Zayn relationship and how they'll be fighting forever, but in reality when it comes to me and AJ Styles, I defy anybody to find two guys who have been battling against each other longer than us."

To put it into perspective, Styles and Joe have been in the ring together in matches in at least 29 different states (plus Puerto Rico) and seven different countries. Along with Christopher Daniels, Styles and Samoa Joe had the only 5-star rated match in the history of TNA Wrestling in 2005, and each helped carry that company through their contributions to the X-Division and as world champions.

There's a mutual respect that exists between the two men, who have each pushed each other to some of the best matches of their careers.

"AJ, his moniker speaks for itself. He's a phenomenal athlete, he's been a fantastic champion and a superstar for WWE," said Joe. "A lot of the wider WWE universe hasn't been able to experience what Samoa Joe-AJ Styles is, and if there's one thing that we've always known about each other it's that whenever we get in the ring, things get a little bit more intense. There's just a little bit extra 'oomph' with everything that happens. That rivalry was started over a decade ago, and rest assured it will continue in WWE."

From their first few matches in late 2003, it was clear that Joe and AJ had something special together. No one could've predicted it would still be going 15 years later, but like a lot of the most memorable and iconic stories in pro wrestling, it couldn't be manufactured.

"Obviously, it's nothing you really plan for and I think that a lot of guys who work in the industry know this too," said Joe. "If you find type of success and critical acclaim, usually that comes with finding these opponents who you just mesh with -- and when you guys get into a ring it all clicks and it makes for some epic encounters.

"Rarely do you find that guy or predetermine that person, it's more as you get along in your career, you start working in different places and around the country and maybe even around the world, you find that natural rival," Joe said. "You find that person that whenever you guys get in the ring it's fantastic --and AJ is one of those guys. He's one of those guys in my career that consistently, wherever I went, wherever I traveled, I saw AJ Styles. He was right there with me. [If] I went in and I found success, AJ Styles found success there."

Aside from a dark match for Ring of Honor in which they teamed up in mid-2015, Samoa Joe and AJ Styles haven't faced off since 2013. After nearly five years away, Styles once again stands as the one man standing in the way of Samoa Joe being the top guy. Whether they hop right into it after Backlash, or there's more to be done with Nakamura (for either Styles or Joe), there's nowhere else that Samoa Joe would rather be.

"I think that's another hallmark of what that great rival is," Joe said. "No matter where you go and as you succeed in your career, you're going to look across that locker room and you're going to see them sitting right there next to you. It starts out [with being] natural rivals and then it builds into something greater than that.

"I think that is the best way to describe the process of finding that grand rival, is that it happens naturally. Its almost Darwinistic in nature. All the bad opponents, you'll see them start to drop off shows. As you continue to ascend in your career, then what's left -- the cream of the crop, and the guys that you know are worthy opponents."