The Quest for the Holy Grail and How it was Found
The story of a fan's hunt for a piece of wrestling history
Every wrestling fan has an origin story—that moment when something or someone seized their attention and their imagination and sent them spinning deeper into that wild alternate world. Maybe a relative took them to a live show. Maybe they caught a glimpse of something on the television. Maybe they’d watched wrestling casually for years before the thing—whatever it was —reached out and grabbed them by the throat. But every wrestling fan has an origin story.
Here is mine:
It’s 2014 and I’m watching NXT’s TakeOver: R-Evolution. I’ve been watching wrestling for a long time, mostly as background noise, without much investment. But I picked up the WWE Network to watch WrestleMania 30, where Daniel Bryan won it all, and after that I started watching NXT now and then. In the fall of 2014 I found myself increasingly caught up in the story of Sami Zayn’s Road to Redemption and his attempt to prove the doubters (including himself) wrong by finally winning the big one. So here I am, watching R-Evolution and hoping Sami—the first wrestler I’ve ever really cared about in years of casual watching—can finally win.
The first match of the night is Kevin Owens’s debut match. I don’t pay much attention to it because I’m so intent on Sami’s title shot. I pick up commentary mentioning that this is an old friend of Sami’s with whom he has a complicated past, but I don’t care much about that. Or at least, I don’t until Sami actually, amazingly, does win the title, and in the celebration Kevin Owens charges to the ring to hug him, blood trickling from the hastily-stitched-up nose he broke in his debut match. They’re both in tears, overwhelmed with a joy so palpably legit that there’s no doubting how much being together in a WWE ring for the first time means to them both. In the tears and the blood I can see the length of their friendship, and I’m charmed.
When, six minutes and sixteen seconds later, Kevin turns on Sami and hurls him to the ramp, I stand up—I literally stand up in my living room—and point at the screen and announce to my startled husband that I intend to seek out and watch every single thing these two wrestlers did together before they got to WWE. In just over six minutes of interaction, these two wrestlers have sold me on the idea that there’s a vast history of love and hate, suffering and joy between them, and I swear then and there to learn it all. It’s a vow. I mean it.
It turns out to be a lot harder than I realized it would be.
Understand, in December of 2014 I only had a vague notion of who “Kevin Steen” and “El Generico” were. I had seen the masked luchador here and there in gifs but hadn’t fully comprehended he had a connection to my beloved Sami Zayn until I went searching for Sami’s history pre-WWE. After some preliminary research, I went to YouTube and typed “Kevin Steen El Generico” into the search bar. One of the first hits, and therefore the very first Steen and Generico footage I ever see, was a video piecing together their last three matches as a tag team and setting it to music. It’s in PWG, their annual tag team tournament, and Steen and Generico beat the Briscoe Brothers and Future Shock (Adam Cole & Kyle O’Reilly) before eventually losing to the Young Bucks. The video sums up the emotional progression of the three matches from hatred—blind tags and misunderstandings—to a cautious alliance and into friendship. Even for me, whose knowledge of the two is “They used to be a tag team and then they broke up,” the story makes sense and is satisfying.
As the music fades out, the video continues, letting the original audio come through. After Steen and Generico lose, there’s a moment where Generico stands in the ring and hesitantly extends his hand to his old enemy and older friend. Kevin stares at it and almost reaches for it, but then his shoulders slump and he brushes past the offered hand, to the boos of the audience and the dejection of the luchador.
And then: a miracle. Kevin wheels around and climbs back into the ring. The audience gasps aloud and goes absolutely silent, unsure if he’s planning to embrace or attack Generico. When he wraps his friend up in a huge hug, everyone bursts into relieved and frankly tearful cheers. Streamers fly. It’s beautiful. I’m enchanted.
I didn't fully realize it at the time, but I began at the ending. This is El Generico’s last interaction with Kevin before going to WWE, and the end of their story together. In my attempt to understand the history of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens before they were Zayn and Owens, I’ve unwittingly read the last chapter of the history first.
Okay, I tell myself as I do some more research and start to realize what’s happened. No problem. I just have to find the feud that led to this moment. How hard can that be? Feuds are usually five or six matches at most, right?
I look up their names together in the Cagematch database and discover that Kevin Steen and El Generico were in 149 matches together across ten years.
A hundred forty nine matches?
I set out to find them all.
It isn’t easy, because most of their key history takes place in Ring of Honor between 2007 and 2012, and the promotion changed hands in 2011. The new owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group, has no interest in making shows from before that time readily available: as a result, much of their tag team run has been totally unavailable. With some luck, I slowly piece together the story across the decade of their history: wary rivals thrown together as a tag team when they came to Ring of Honor, whose prickly relationship developed across a year and a half—gradually, organically, without any overt angle—to real affection as they advanced to eventually win the tag titles. After they lost the titles, Kevin spent almost a year growing increasingly desperate and depressed, until finally he snapped and turned on Generico, brutalizing him and kicking off a bloody and violent feud that left the two men estranged until the PWG tournament I came across, ending with their reconciliation just before Generico ceased to exist.
They were always really good in the ring together, I realize as I watch matches from 2012, from 2008, from 2004. I scour the Internet, I haunt Ebay, I fill the wallets of the people who run Smark Mark Video and Highspots, trying to put it all together. I find the match where they win the Ring of Honor tag team titles. I find the conclusion to their feud. I find the first time Steen and Generico were in the ring together—a three-way match with PCO in their home Montreal promotion, IWS.
The one thing I do not find is their first singles match together.
Oh, I learn the backstory to it, because Kevin talks about it often in shoot videos: how Kevin was attending Jacques Rougeau’s wrestling school and was dying of boredom there, but was sticking with it because he thought it was his only chance to get to WWE. How he got a chance to wrestle outside of the school and learned how exciting free-wheeling wrestling could be. How Rougeau eventually told him he had to choose—either the smooth path to WWE through his school or the wild wrestling in bars that might never take him anywhere—and renounce the other. Kevin had been booked to have his very first singles match with Generico, and begged Rougeau to let him have that one match before he committed. But after that match, he called Rougeau and told him he couldn’t do it, that he had to choose IWS over Rougeau’s school, even if it meant no shot at WWE. And that’s what led to everything else, to their tag team run, to their singles feud, and to WWE at last, on their own terms. Their own path to greatness.
So it’s not just that it’s their first singles match, it was a pivotal event, a moment that changed the course of the future. It seems impossible to me that a match that kicked off so much wouldn’t be available anywhere. It couldn’t just disappear, could it?
For six years, I search in vain. I find a lot of wonderful things that I didn’t expect to ever have a chance to see. Thanks to a furtive tip, for two glorious days I have access to a bootleg Google Drive with almost all of the pre-Sinclair Ring of Honor shows on it, and my computer nearly melts into slag, hard drive whining in protest as I download frantically for 48 hours straight until the link vanishes into the ether. I find a blurry 2005 video of an Italian promotion of dubious validity where Kevin and Generico fought each other in a battle royal the day before the promoter stole Generico’s wallet and disappeared. The clip where Kevin brings his infant son to the ring to pin Excalibur. Generico wrestling Kota Ibushi in a kayak. I become an erratic time traveler, hopping around from 2006 to 2013 to 2004, an invisible audience member carrying with me my secret knowledge of where these two goofy near-children, these two blood-soaked young men, end up. I see and savor almost everything.
But Kevin and Generico’s first singles match together was never put onto a DVD, and any recording that was made has apparently disappeared.
I become increasingly desperate. Someone mentions in passing that they were in the audience that night, and I pounce on them in DMs, demanding details, only to find out they were simultaneously high and drunk and have no memory of the match beyond its bare existence. I become acquaintances with someone who used to work for IWS, and when they mention they have a trove of obsolete video tapes that might include that night, my bemused-but-supportive husband rummages through our attic to find a camera old enough to play that format of video and mails it from Japan to Canada, full of hope. No dice. I bewail my tragic fate on Twitter.
My husband jokes that maybe if enough people know I’m looking for it, someday an unmarked manila envelope will arrive on our doorstep with a tape inside, a precious bit of flotsam from the seas of the past. Kevin and Generico’s first match is my white whale, my Holy Grail. But it’s no use. Eventually I resign myself to never seeing it, accepting that some things must go forever a mystery. It’s better that way, I console myself.
It’s better this way, I tell myself, and I try to believe the lie.
It’s 2021, and I’m in a restaurant for the first time in almost two years, having tea after work with my husband and a co-worker. I pick up my phone to check the time and see a notification flash across the screen.
It’s from Kevin Owens.
Now, although Kevin happens to follow me on Twitter, we almost never communicate. I set myself strict limits: I allow myself to DM him once a year, for a 60-second window between midnight and 12:01 on January 1 only (okay, and after WrestleMania now and then). So getting a DM from him is a world-shaking event. The notification informs me that the message begins with “I saw this tweet of yours a few weeks back so I had my dad find…”
The message preview ends and I blink at it, unmoving.
“Oh my God, are you okay? Is something wrong?” My co-worker is staring at me across the table and I realize that after a year and a half of wearing masks in public I’ve apparently completely forgotten how to control my facial expressions: I’ve gone pale with shock.
“I—no, I— I think—” I look helplessly at my husband, who also looks worried. “It’s a message from… from Kevin in Florida,” I stammer. His eyebrows climb; he knows who “Kevin in Florida” is. “It’s fine, I don’t think it’s… I don’t think it’s a problem.” With an effort, I put the phone away without looking at the message and go back to being sociable, but my mind is whirring: Is it possible? But what else could it be that he “had his dad find”? Wait, it’s 6PM here in Japan, which means it’s 4AM in Florida?! Why is Kevin messaging me at four in the morning?
I walk back to the bus stop with my co-worker, trying to make small talk. I sit down on the bus and wave goodbye; the moment she’s out of sight I scrabble for my phone again.
I saw this tweet of yours a few weeks back so I had my dad find the tape with my first matches in IWS. He mailed it to me in Florida and I bought a VCR on Facebook Marketplace yesterday.
He checked it, he explains, and it had his first singles match with Sami on it. He recorded it by holding his iPad in front of the television as it played, then uploaded it to a temporary YouTube channel. That’s why he wrote me at 4AM, I realize: because he’d waited until his family was asleep and everything was as dark and quiet as possible to record it. The image of Kevin sitting in the dark in the middle of the night, pointing his iPad at the screen to capture the flickering light from an antique VCR, rises up in my mind. There’s a link. My fingers shake as I touch it.
He’s named the video “Holy Grail.”
The match is about 25 minutes long, and it is a wild ride: a nearly non-stop flurry of moves from start to finish. We did way too much, Kevin explains apologetically in his DM. At the time, we thought it would be our only singles match. They kick out of each others’ finishers; the ref gets knocked out; Kevin goes flying off the turnbuckle and Generico utterly fails to catch him. I watch it with tears in my eyes. They thought it would be their only match. They both really thought at the beginning of the match that Kevin would go back to Rougeau’s school, be fast-tracked to WWE, that they might never share a ring again. Early in his career, El Generico used to come to the ring with funny things written on his chest and back in marker: this match he has OLÉ SHIT inked on his chest and I AM HOT carefully lettered on his back, and he’s throwing everything into this match, every single high-flying move and over-the-top suffering sell, wrestling like there’s an audience of millions instead of dozens of rowdy half-drunk fans.
As I watch him, I remember something that’s always bothered me a little. Kevin remembers how, before the match, the IWS wrestlers begged him not to go back to Rougeau’s school. Sometimes he’ll name them: Beef Wellington, Green Phantom. But he never mentions that anyone named Sami or Rami or Generico asked him to stay. As a person who’s made it my life's work to know their history, that’s always made me a little sad (did he not see this match as important?) But watching their match erases that sadness forever, because whatever Generico did or did not say in French or English or Spanish, he’s saying everything in the language he’s always used best, right there in the ring: Stay here and let’s fight forever.
In the end, El Generico manages to get a quick win via rollup, which makes sense since, again, this was going to be Kevin’s last match in IWS until about… five minutes after the match. The referee lifts Generico’s limp, nearly-lifeless hand as he lies on the mat. The two wrestlers struggle to their feet, each of them having to use the ring ropes as support, not looking at each other, and then slowly stagger to meet in the middle of the ring. I know what happens next, because Kevin’s talked about it: as he leaves, the audience, tipped off about the choice he has to make, will start chanting “Please don’t go,” and that will reduce him to tears backstage. He’ll call Rougeau the next day and tell him he wants to stay in IWS, and Rougeau will hang up on him, and that will be that. So I already know what happens.
But I didn’t know that Generico extends his hand to Kevin.
Watching it 19 years later in my living room, I gasp and clutch at my husband. I had never realized—how could I have realized?—that their very last moments together in PWG are an echo of the end of this match. In 2003, El Generico holds out his hand to Kevin, who they both believe is about to leave him behind to go to WWE. In 2013, he holds out his hand again, and this time they both know he is about to leave Kevin behind for the WWE.
It’s a callback to a moment that was never put onto a DVD, that was only seen by the dozens of people there in Le Skratch. And if Generico’s outstretched hand meant Stay here and let’s fight forever in 2003, in 2013 it means Follow me and let’s fight forever.
In 2003, Kevin brushes aside Generico’s offer of friendship. In 2013, he turns around and hugs him, to the joy of the audience. Two goodbyes that became new beginnings, in large part because in both cases Kevin Steen refused to let them be permanent. Because Kevin is the kind of person in 2003 who would walk away from Rougeau’s school to make his own path, the kind of person who in 2013 would apply himself for a year and a half with furious intensity to get WWE’s attention and end up where he always knew he would.
Because Kevin is the kind of person who would track down a tape of a near-mythical match, buy an antique VCR, and sit up at 3 in the morning to record it, so that one lunatic fan could watch destiny happen through tears of happiness.
So that I could, finally, share it with you.
Just a belated comment to say how wonderful this was to read - I think your essays are amazing, and looking forward to working through the whole set.
As someone who has followed Kevin's career since the first time I saw him wrestle in 2003 and even if I was privy to how his split from Jacques Rougeau's tutelage happened, it's beautiful to see that story being told from the viewpoint of a foreigner who didn't have that opportunity.