Anything you can do, I can do better
I can do anything better than you
In 2012, El Generico loses, and loses, and loses. He loses key matches in Ring of Honor against Kevin Steen, unable to halt his nemesis’ rise to the top, and then unable to unseat him. He loses or vacates at least four different titles in the U.S. and Japan and Germany. By the end of the year he holds not a single title belt.
In 2012, Kevin Steen wins, and wins, and wins. He seizes the PWG world championship from Generico. Back in Ring of Honor after his year of exile, he starts cutting a swath of destruction through the entire promotion, to the fans’ anarchic glee. He’s unstoppable. He’s clearly aiming for the summit of Ring of Honor, and nothing is going to stop him until he finally reaches that ultimate height.
El Generico doesn’t officially sign with the WWE until January of 2013, but apparently WWE wanted to sign him as early as June 2012. Remember how in a tossed-off line in the last essay I mentioned Generico had a couple of dark match tryouts with TNA in 2011? No, why would you? It was just two matches and led to nothing, except that in May 2012, TNA filed a lawsuit with WWE. As a result, WWE decided not to sign any wrestler who had ever been associated with TNA until the lawsuit was settled. That means for at least six months Generico knew he’d probably be able to sign with WWE, but he didn’t know when. And if he knew in June that they were ready to sign him, he must have known it was likely he’d be going to WWE from quite early in the year.
A strange thing about coming late to wrestling history is that hindsight lets you see stories that weren’t visible at the time. The apparent story of 2012 is of Kevin’s triumphant ascent to the top of Ring of Honor, while Generico falters and loses momentum. Reading a review of Showdown in the Sun, I find the reviewer angry that Ring of Honor isn’t using Generico better: “You’re stupid for not pushing one of the best wrestlers currently alive,” he writes. “You’ll be sorry once EVOLVE and Dragon Gate USA scoop him up for the east coast bookings.” Looking back from the present, knowing that Generico isn’t “getting a push” because he’s in talks with WWE, the feeling of the whole year shifts. Loss takes on a different meaning, and triumph is touched with melancholy. Events that seemed to be a capstone turn out to be a stepping stone; moments that looked like the apex end up being preparation for the next ascent.
In 2012, Generico loses, and loses, and loses. He loses titles like a man divesting himself of his earthly possessions, like a man giving up, one by one, his ties to the world.
In 2012, Kevin wins, and wins, and wins. He becomes PWG World Champion for the third time. He becomes Ring of Honor World Champion, holding the top titles of two of the most prestigious U.S. “indie” promotions simultaneously. He wins like a man with something desperately important to prove, and little time left to prove it.
In March, for example, he defeats Generico and Eddie Edwards to become only the second person (after Generico) to simultaneously hold the PWG world and tag championships, and he hoists them both up and snarls across the ring at Generico:
Two weeks later, he meets El Generico again in Fort Lauderdale, at a Ring of Honor show called Showdown in the Sun.
Kevin’s basic Ring of Honor storyline through the beginning of 2012 is that with each win, he gets closer to getting a shot at the world championship. Jim Cornette throws different opponents in front of him to stall his ascent to the top, and in March the most recent is Generico, back from three months off after being piledriven through a table by Kevin in December and needing time off to recover (apparently Generico recovers from injury by wrestling in Japan, Hungary, Russia, Germany, Denmark and Finland in quick succession). The crowd is delighted to have Generico back; they cheer and sing. And then Kevin’s music hits.
Showdown in the Sun is one of Kevin’s favorite matches against Generico, and thus I assume one his favorite matches overall. Here’s part of why: backstage, just before Kevin’s music hits, Jim Cornette calls out to him, “Tear it up, Kevin!” Buzzed with adrenaline and the anticipation of fighting Generico in front of a Ring of Honor audience for the first time in over a year, Kevin swings around and announces, “Pay attention, I always do!”
Even in the recorded version the reaction is astonishingly loud. Kevin stares at them in amazement, then proceeds to grab and rip up a Jim Cornette sign, to their delirious joy.
Remembering their reaction, Kevin lights up with delight:
“I love when people love me,” says one of the greatest heels in wrestling, and it’s that ironic tension that’s part of why he’s so great at it: he loves getting a response from us, loves when we jump to our feet at the sound of his music, yelling whatever we yell that translates into we’re so glad you’re here to be terrible for us. The saying that “the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference” is nowhere more true than in wrestling; hate is always just a breath away from adoration, and the 2012 Ring of Honor fans have given up even the pretense of disliking Kevin, as Steve Corino wryly notes, looking back.
Generico doesn’t even wait for the introductions to be finished before kicking Kevin in the face, and the match is on.
The crowd is ridiculously hot, cheering for both wrestlers with all their might. They love Generico, but in this match he’s something of an avatar for Jim Cornette, blocking Kevin’s rise to the top of Ring of Honor, and the audience will grant not even the generic luchador the power to stop that. At this point—even more than they know—Generico is like a beloved migratory bird that comes and goes, whose heart isn’t quite with them as wholly as Kevin’s is. Their love for Generico is platonic, pure, chaste. Their love for Kevin is… none of that at all. They switch between chanting for Kevin, singing for Generico, and screaming at the top of their lungs for both of them, until at one point half of the crowd is pounding on the barricade and stamping their feet, chanting “Steen! Steen! Steen!” while the other half is singing Generico’s song. The rhythm and the melody come together, the one that hits you in the guts and the one that makes the spirit soar, becoming whole at last for one breathless moment.
Besides the satisfaction of his perfect comeback to Cornette, Kevin’s favorite memory of the match is a spot in the middle of it where he does a cannonball on Generico in the corner, then rolls backwards and comes to rest neatly on a chair that’s been left standing in the ring.
As the crowd howls its appreciation, Kevin crosses his arms and legs and lifts his chin defiantly at Generico crumpled in the corner, soaking up the adulation (anything you can do, I can do better).
Here’s another reason this is Kevin’s favorite match: when they get to the back after the match, he remembers Generico saying to him in amazement, “What the fuck, dude? I’ve been gone for four months and you come out and you’re Jesus now!” Clearly deeply gratified, Kevin answers “I am Jesus, thank you!”
The finish is a wonky one: Jimmy Jacobs comes to the ring, apparently to save Generico when Kevin is about to hit him with a chair, but then he turns on Generico and gives Kevin the win, and any wonkiness is a small price to pay for how much fun is had with the ending, including one of my favorite moments, in which Kevin and Generico qualify for the soon-to-be Olympic sport of Synchronized Swooning:
It’s the kind of inconclusive finish wrestling fans on the Internet complain about, but the live audience doesn’t care as long as Kevin wins, and Kevin doesn’t seem to care either. When he talks about his love of this match, he doesn’t focus on anything technical about it (though it’s a technically and artistically excellent match), but on the emotion in it and what it means to him personally, specifically that:
The audience loved him and was incredibly into the match.
He showed up someone who disrespects him.
He impressed someone whom he respects.
May we all be blessed with moments where we silence the haters, awe our friends, and are just so fucking good that no one can help but love us.
Even when Kevin stands over Generico on his knees, brandishing a chair and re-creating the tableau of his betrayal, the crowd refuses to want him to lose and just cheers him louder. They want him as champion so badly, they can’t stand waiting another month, another week, another minute.
But they’re going to have to, because Kevin doesn’t win the title until May, two months later.
Anything you can be, I can be greater
Sooner or later I’m greater than you
2012 moves on, and in May Kevin finally has his shot at the Ring of Honor world title, currently held by Davey Richards. Generico is off in Japan for most of May—and very possibly negotiating with WWE about signing details. Kevin wrenches the title from Richards and celebrates with Jimmy Jacobs and newly-reconciled Steve Corino in a group hug as the commentator grimly announces “Evil lives, here in Ring of Honor,” and the crowd couldn’t be happier about this. They want evil to live here in Ring of Honor forever.
Most of the Ring of Honor fans are filled with gratitude that Kevin finally is champion. And it’s that very relief that seems to kind of bother Kevin about the win, looking back: that he became champion not when it would have thrilled and surprised the fans, but when it felt past due and almost over-deserved. They’re not overjoyed he achieved the peak at last; they’re relieved he wasn’t prevented from getting there.
“I almost felt like it was almost… too late,” he says in The Kevin Owens Story as the footage of his victory plays: clearly happy to have won, but as if there was a hollowness about the win. There he is in the middle of 2012, as high as you can get in the indie wrestling world: the climber who set out years and years ago to climb Mt. Denali, and who found himself in a race to the top with his greatest friend and greatest rival. They competed and worked together, sometimes both at once; they taunted each other and inspired each other and scrambled together over every single stupid obstacle put in their way; they bled together and bruised each other as they struggled to make it there first.
And now here Kevin is, at the very pinnacle of the highest peak in North America, his friend and rival nowhere to be found. No one can compare to him now, and he has no one to compare himself to. It’s a triumphant moment for the fans who love him, but looking back from the future it feels different. From 2018, we can still see the victory, Kevin as king of the mountain, undeniable; but hindsight picks out other details. How high above the treeline he is, where nothing grows, surrounded by nothing but windswept barren rock. How thin the air must be. If he yells in triumph he gets only echoes of his own voice back. And of course El Generico receding out of view, far, far below him, not even on the same mountain any more: on his way to the base camp for Everest, the ultimate goal, the true highest peak, just as Kevin finally achieves the top of this one.
Before Kevin’s title match, Generico tweets:
“I will not be far”—the traditional double-edged taunt/promise feels different when you know how far he already is: there’s both more sting to the taunt and more depth to the promise. He won’t be far—if Kevin gets moving and follows him. And Kevin shoots back:
There he is on the pinnacle, triumphant, yelling down. At the top, at last, and all alone.
Next: A dramatic reunion!
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Fantastic. Love the compare and contrast of Owens and Generico at this stage in their careers.
And: "I love when people love me” --such an awesome insight into character!