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Double Fantasy: Motifs and Moments in Zayn and Owens v. The Usos
Part of what makes the main event of WrestleMania Night 1 worth five stars is the way two different strands work together.
Part of what’s fascinating about wrestling is that, because you have the same characters telling stories that unwind organically across not just years, but decades, it’s inevitable that there are echoes and references to the past, echoes that only become more complex and resonant as time goes by. In the best wrestling matches, those callbacks aren’t in any way necessary to understand what’s happening in the ring, but they add extra weight and emotion to moments–both for some of the audience and, I believe, for the wrestlers themselves, as they relive the history that’s brought them to this moment. Part of what has always made Kevin and Sami particularly powerful wrestlers is that they use those references for themselves, and the emotion of reliving the past radiates outward to the audience, whether they know those moments or not.
We call them “references” or “callbacks,” but I think traditional narrative methods like books or movies aren't the best metaphor, really. The discrete emotion-laden moments that crop up in wrestling often feel more like motifs in music—a group of notes or a refrain that carries meaning or emotion. In the Star Wars soundtracks, there are motifs that herald characters, like Leia or Luke, or themes, like the Force or Imperial power. In wrestling, moves–for example, a well-timed curb stomp, pedigree, or kamigoye–and moments can become motifs that add depth to a match.
Part of the reason this match felt especially complex is that there are two different sets of motifs unfolding through it: one for the relationship between Sami and Jey, and one for the relationship between Sami and Kevin.
Sami and Jey: Instant Karma’s Gonna Get You
Sami’s Helluva Kick has, over the years, provided a lot of important story beats. The first time we see it used that way, in 2016, it marks the moment that Sami puts away his hatred and closes the door on their bitter rivalry by defeating Kevin. There’s a pitiless compassion in the moment, an awareness that Kevin has brought this loss on himself and has to be defeated for them both to move on.
In the singles match at WrestleMania in 2021 between Kevin and Sami, deep in his conspiracy theorist phase, the same motif shows how changed Sami is with that smirk—no longer aiming for closure but for revenge.
When Kevin superkicks him and repeats the moment minutes later, there’s a finality to it: the repetition creates a feeling of cosmic justice, that Sami did this to himself. This time Kevin is the one with the merciless compassion, closing the door.
A few months later, at their Last Man Standing match, Sami makes explicit what that Helluva Kick is at its base: it’s a cue to reflect on whose actions are the cause of the conflict
Sami lost that Last Man Standing match, because whatever his delusions were, he was the one who had invited ruin, just like Kevin’s betrayal of Sami brought Kevin’s defeat in 2016. That Helluva Kick is a kick of karma, the swift boot of justice.
By the time of last year’s WarGames, the motif has been repeated so many times it’s practically a symphony on its own. There’s the same feeling of finality, of closing the door on friendship, this time mixed with both regret and resolution. And I think it’s striking that in this moment Sami opens up the motif—formerly almost locked into the claustrophobic duo of Kevin and Sami—to include the Bloodline.
He offers up that moment of finality as a gift to Jey… which of course leads inexorably to last week’s WrestleMania match, and Jey and Sami repeating the motif once again.
This time Jey throws it in Sami’s face, mocking him. “This is what they do, Sami!” he says, and while I think his meaning is open to interpretation, there’s an overtone of despair to it: this is what the Bloodline does, Sami, they break you down, they destroy you. “You shoulda never left the Bloodline, bruh!”
But the actual climax of the match is Sami holding Jey up to tell him “you chose this, uce.”
Sami’s said that to Jey over and over, that Jey could walk away from Roman and chooses not to. The karmic kick is the in-match equivalent, driving home the fact that Jey and Jimmy brought this ruin on themselves, just like Kevin in 2016, just like Sami in 2021.
Sami and Kevin: (Just Like) Starting Over
If Sami and Jey were playing out a karmic drama at WrestleMania, Sami and Kevin were playing out a very different set of motifs connected to reconciliation and to grace: a moment where (even temporarily) the endless wheel of karma stops turning.
There was a parallel set of specific story beats running through the match that happened in the story of Kevin and El Generico’s reconciliation a decade ago. For example, the moment where Sami looks up to see that Kevin has somehow gotten up from being put through a table and is actually there on the apron, his hand outstretched.
It’s a moment that harkens back to 2012, years after Kevin betrayed his former friend and tag partner, El Generico, and they nearly destroyed each other feuding. At PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles, Generico was fighting Brian Cage and the Young Bucks on his own, hopelessly outnumbered, when Kevin suddenly showed up to help him, the first sign that there could be a reconciliation between them.
A decade later, Sami looks up in disbelief just like Generico did to see Kevin standing there, ready for the tag: an image that layers themes of hope, new beginnings, and faith onto a simple hot tag.
A few months after Battle of Los Angeles, El Generico found himself teaming with his old partner and enemy Kevin one last time before his retirement at another PWG show. They moved from reluctant allies to full friends across the course of one evening and three matches, with the climax of the triad of matches being Kevin and Generico crawling to each other to talk quietly in the ring while being menaced by the Young Bucks.
In 2023 Kevin and Sami are menaced by another pair of brothers, and have another moment where they seem to pause to recommit to their alliance.
In 2013, Kevin and Generico reconnect through that most universal of motivations, a shared desire to murder the Young Bucks.
Kevin delivers a much more PG version of that battle cry at WrestleMania–and, all joking about the Young Bucks aside, that commitment to facing foes together as a united front is essential to being a full tag team.
In 2013, their reconciliation ended with a loss: El Generico was on his way to another life, so the tag titles couldn’t be theirs. In 2023, Sami and Kevin could finally win the gold that symbolized their renewed friendship and could move forward into the next chapter of their friendship together.
These motifs and callbacks are powerful in part because they’re not necessary to understand the match. At its simplest, Sami and Kevin versus the Usos is a totally accessible story of birth brothers versus chosen brothers battling to see which is strongest. And in fact, like a good joke, putting the possible meanings of these moments into words… it risks sucking all the energy out of them. Pin a butterfly to a board and explain the colors of its wings all you like, but you lose the life within it. These wrestling themes work best unexplained, undescribed, just lending power to the match: the karma of Sami and Jey; the grace of Sami and Kevin, like two strains of music creating an elegant five-star harmony.
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