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2008-2009: Achieving Greatness
Kevin and El Generico put the finishing touches on their characters
To steal and adapt a saying, some wrestlers are born to their characters, some achieve their characters, and some have their characters thrust upon them. Kevin seems to have been born to his character–a cocky, sneering prodigy who happens to be better than anyone else in the room and knows it (Samoa Joe supposedly said of him way back in 2003, “The arrogant little prick is almost as good as he thinks he is.”) El Generico kind of had his character thrust upon him–handed a mask and told to go out and suffer, he delivered so well that the audience fell in love with him and demanded he return, prompting the promoter to inform him, “You do realize, now you’re stuck with the mask?”* But around 2008-2009, both of them are at a point in their careers where they also truly achieve their characters, putting the last pieces in place that make them both the particularly-beloved wrestlers they become.
This is the story of those last pieces.
Steen and Generico win the Ring of Honor tag team titles in September 2008. It’s their pinnacle as a team: well-timed, authentic, satisfying. At the same time, even as they work together and achieve success as a team in Ring of Honor, their lives are starting to diverge outside of it. When not working for RoH, Generico is traveling the world, making connections, getting experience. In 2008-2009 he wrestles in the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, the UK, Portugal, Poland, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and Mexico. Meanwhile, Kevin and his wife have their first child in early 2008 (Owen, seen here in a brief appearance in a PWG ring at five months old, being handed over to his father by a very nervous Generico):
Reluctant to travel far from home, Kevin limits his work outside of Ring of Honor mostly to local Canadian promotions in order to have more time with his family and a second job that might pay the bills. At times he’s barely scraping by–years later he’ll talk about not being able to pay heating bills, and on his show is sometimes visibly frustrated at having to rely on his parents financially for so long:
Looking back in 2013, when it seems possible that Generico is going to make the leap to the WWE and he might not, Kevin talks about how they both started with the same goal of making it to the WWE, but Generico kept his eye on their original goal, while he focused more on his family:
In 2009, their priorities are different, and while Kevin in 2013 will wonder if he should have done things differently (answer from the future: fuck no), he doesn’t regret putting his family first, he regrets mostly that he didn’t get in better shape, that he didn’t make that extra push and sacrifice to work out more. His most common Twitter bio starts first and foremost with “dude with beautiful wife and awesome kids” before anything else, then his current titles or other career accomplishments.
(Then it often mentions he bought his own cars).
As Generico explores the globe without Kevin, whether he realizes it consciously or not he’s starting to hit a sort of wall in his character’s development, and he’s starting to need to answer the question: why does Generico fight? As a tag team the question isn’t as pressing, it’s enough to be aiming for something together. But now he’s often on his own, wrestling singles matches. And Generico’s been gradually growing more and more ethical and good-hearted, moving past his feral roots to–for example–protest when Kevin tries to choke Pac with the ropes:
He’s less vicious, more heroic. Even their tag team’s signature moves usually frame him as the “better” of the two. Kevin tends to do the more active damage, while Generico holds them in place, as with the drop-toehold combo:
Or puts his boot up for Kevin to ram their opponent into:
Or adds more weight for Kevin’s senton:
(In the latter two you can see how Generico tends to suffer even when hurting the opponent; he will usually grab his foot in pain after someone gets tossed into him, and the backpack senton tends to damage him almost as much as the other guy).
So he’s developing from vicious to hapless to something almost noble, and the audience seems to be ready to love him as a heroic figure. But the greatest heroes need a reason to fight beyond personal ambition, right? Generico needs a cause, something outside himself that motivates him.
In early 2009, he acquires an orphanage.
The orphanage shows up for the first time I can find in PWG in January, when Generico is in California without Kevin, feuding with Chuck Taylor. Excalibur announces on commentary that Generico founded an orphanage in Tijuana with the extra money he got from holding his championships, but it had to close without funds, and now he’s trying to win titles to save enough money to re-open it. Chuck Taylor, on the other hand, hates orphans, and thus is trying to keep Generico from winning. The theme shows up in the match itself as well, with Taylor using children from the audience as human shields, knowing that the good-hearted Generico won’t risk harming children:
He attacks Generico while he’s checking on the child’s well-being! Chuck Taylor, no bueno.
This of course eventually pays off in Generico picking a child from the audience to deliver a chop to Taylor that appears to inflict a shocking amount of pain on the orphan-hater.
(That kid in the orange shorts beaming up at them in awed delight is the best thing).
By the next PWG show in February, the orphanage has acquired a name–Los Angelitos de El Generico–and it has definitely become a Thing with the PWG fans, who are 100% ready to grab hold of something that will move El Generico from the realm of “decent guy” to “hero.”
The idea doesn’t spring out of nowhere: masked wrestlers and orphans have a long history in more than one culture. In Japan there was a famous manga and anime in the 60s about a professional wrestler named Tiger Mask who protected orphans:
This led to there being a real Tiger Mask wrestler in New Japan Pro Wrestling (there have been six men to wear the mask so far). Even better, in 2010 people started to donate school supplies and toys to real orphanages in Japan in Tiger Mask’s name.* Similarly, in Mexico, Fray Tormenta was a real priest who wrestled masked until 2001 to raise money for his orphanage.* This eventually got turned into a Jack Black movie on the theme, Nacho Libre, as well as spawning various video game characters based on him. So the idea that a masked luchador would be fighting for orphans is clearly intuitively right, and the PWG audience is completely on-board with it. There are t-shirts:
It isn’t mentioned often, if at all, in Ring of Honor, but it becomes an essential part of his story almost immediately in the hearts of fans cross-promotion. Years later, any conversation about El Generico will almost certainly reference his orphans and the orphanage, and now it feels like surely it was always part of his character from its inception. But no, it seems to have appeared in PWG canon in early 2009, giving Generico the perfect reason for his character to keep fighting at a time when his tag team partner isn’t there to provide motivation. It’s simple: he’s a hero. He fights for his children.
If Generico’s orphanage seems to just appear full-formed out of the blue, Kevin’s development is more gradual and subtle. He never stops being the snot-blowing, mocking jerk he’s always been, but there’s a shift as they approach the titles and after they gain them. He becomes, little by little, more vulnerable and more capable of suffering, more likely to endure through hopeless situations by sheer determination. In the middle of their crushing tournament loss to Age of the Fall, Generico is taken to the back injured, and Kevin fights on alone, limping and suffering and enduring for most of the match, and the crowd loves him for it. Oh, how they love him. Later, after he turns on Generico, he’ll complain that they always sang Generico’s song, but watching those matches today I’ll tell you that the minute the music stops the audience nearly always breaks into deafening chants of “Mister Wrestling,” Kevin’s nickname. It’s part of their entrance in 2008-2009, basically.
In the leadup to their big title win, it’s Kevin who’s laser-focused on gaining the titles, on achieving success. He’s the one who tells Generico to remember their goals, reminds him to never give up. He constantly reminds the audience that they’re going to win the championship:
The will to do whatever it takes, endure any pain, undergo any hardship to achieve his goals, becomes an even bigger, more notable part of who he is in 2008-2009. In a show in his hometown of Montreal, he and Generico are put into a four-way elimination match for the world title against Nigel McGuinness and Go Shiozaki. When Generico is eliminated first, Kevin once again finds himself alone when Shiozaki and McGuinness work together to attack him. He gets another 10-minute showcase of endurance as he brawls and suffers and never gives up and comes this close to finally winning before the world champion manages to prevail.
As their title reign progresses, his long-injured knee becomes more and more of a problem, until eventually even his own submission hold seems to cause him as much anguish to deliver as it dishes out:
And his finishing package piledriver makes him howl with pain when he delivers it:
He gets double-teamed a lot and struggles like hell, constantly being overwhelmed and fighting back despite the odds:
He’s indomitable. He’s the hero that digs deep and finds a way to keep going, aiming for that goal no matter what it costs him.
So there they are at the apex of their career as a tag team, all the pieces in place, fully-formed and complex characters, each of them valiant in their own way. They’ve become heroes–oddly familiar heroes, in fact. One of them is a man who will do anything to try and make a better life for his children. One of them is a man who keeps his eyes fixed on his goal and will endure any hardship to get it, even if he has to do it alone.
Tilt your head. Squint a little. Go back and re-read that last paragraph. Which is Kevin and which is El Generico?
Whether consciously or unconsciously, by accident or by design, somehow what’s admirable about each of them outside the ring has become what’s heroic about the other’s character inside the ring. It’s nothing simplistic, not a mere copy-pasting of a set of traits onto a character, but something more complex and interesting, a fusion of their different strengths at different levels. The character of Kevin Steen takes El Generico’s willpower and ambition and filters it through Kevin’s dogged refusal to give up even when his body fails him and his hope falters; the character of El Generico takes Kevin’s dedication to his family and welds it to Generico’s passion for social justice in the larger world. They’ve become the best of themselves and of each other together, complex and interesting and three-dimensional, and the audience responds to that alchemy and loves them both.
They were born to greatness and had greatness thrust upon them, and now they’ve achieved greatness as well. They’ve clawed their way to the top and won the tag team titles, they’ve become complex characters with depths and motivations and contradictions.
And…that’s it. That’s about as far as they can go as a team. That’s the end of this chapter.
Ring of Honor has two DVDs about Kevin’s early career there and his team/feud with Generico: the first is called Ascension to the Top and the second is called Descent into Madness. The first DVD ends with their tag team championship win… and the second one begins with their title loss to the American Wolves. There’s nothing in between, not one match; it’s as if their actual title reign, all 203 days of it, never even happened. Which seems mystifying, but I’ve found and watched most of those matches and… well, they’re either fun or great or both, but they’re mostly promoting other peoples’ programs or giving new talent a showcase. There’s no feud, no angle, no story. There’s loads of interesting character work, but no progress. They’re treading water, and Kevin remembers feeling it keenly:
It’s clear those DVD titles capture a truth: if you’re not rising up or plunging down, you’re stagnating. Ascend or descend, but fuck plateaus.
Steen and Generico were never quite meant to be a tag team. They came together largely because of accidents and coincidences, and they never quite fit together: no shared gear, no team song, no team name. They flourished mostly because everyone wanted them to so much, and they became something bigger than both of them, something that people were invested in and cared about passionately. And when they’re told that once they lose the titles there are no plans to have them back in the title picture, when they look around and realize that there are no stories left to tell in the Ring of Honor tag division for the amazing interesting characters they’ve crafted–well, there’s only one thing left to do, really, when you’re ambitious and have goals yet to achieve and an undying desire to create more stories. If this is it, if this is to be the end, they will at least destroy their tag team with a tale worthy of it.
In the end, they’ll take all the audience’s love and use it as fuel for a funeral pyre that will burn for years.
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