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"I Don't Know Any Kevins": On Identity, Continuity, and R-Evolution
In mid-2014, Kevin says farewell to the indies, says goodbye to being Kevin, and becomes, uh... Kevin. (He is always Kevin).
On November 25, 2019, almost five years after his WWE debut, Kevin Owens cut a promo on Seth Rollins where he summarized his bedrock continuity across the years:
“I have known who I am since the moment I first laced up a pair of wrestling boots, twenty years ago!” he said, looking into the camera—not just at Rollins, but at anyone who might doubt him. “I have known who I am my entire time here in WWE. I have never, ever, tried to be something I’m not.”
It’s the truest thing about his character: that he has always been faithful to the core of himself, whether behaving monstrously or heroically. All of his experiences in the past, of wrestling in dirty bars and drained swimming pools and a million dingy armories, of being rejected and being acclaimed, of all his triumphs and failures, he has carried them all across the years to create a character of such solidity that his reality is undeniable. He has never jettisoned his past, never started over anew as something else. He’s always been himself.
Here’s a little look at how he managed that feat as he jumped from the indies to WWE, during a time when it was almost unthinkable.
The summer of 2014 is basically Kevin Steen’s Farewell Tour. He wrestles for a huge range of promotions: he loses to AJ Styles in House of Hardcore, to Trent Seven in Fight Club PRO, to Marty Scurll in RevPro; he beats Chris Sabin in AIW; he loses the Squared Circle Wrestling tag belts to the Dudley Boyz at the Jefferson County Fair in New York; he beats Tyson Dux and loses to the future Matt Menard in his last two indie Canadian matches. He’s tying up loose ends, saying his goodbyes. He doesn’t know what awaits him in Florida; he doesn’t even know who he’ll be. At this point, indie wrestlers entering NXT always lose their names and are re-christened with a WWE-approved name.
The days of wrestlers keeping their names and identities—Shinsuke Nakamura, Candice LeRae, Samoa Joe—are going to start soon, but Kevin doesn’t know that, and he certainly doesn’t know he’ll be part of the wave that pushes that door open at last. For all he knows, he’ll end up a Siberian lumberjack, or a circus lion-tamer, or a time-traveler from 1910; he might be [author hits a random name generator page] Morcant Davis or Donovan MacQueen or Jesse Simon. Hell, for all he knows, he’ll end up a beer-swilling, animal-hating, rabid sports fan.
The one thing he definitely won’t be is Kevin Steen. So this is a farewell—less all-encompassing than El Generico’s, but with equal finality.
Kevin’s final matches in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, one week apart in July, both start with the audience hurling so many streamers at him that he decides to roll around in them, coming up with his limbs flailing like a rainbow Abominable Snowman.
The biggest difference between the two matches is his opponents. In RoH he faces Steve Corino, his former mentor, factionmate, and rival; in PWG it’s young up-and-comer Trevor Lee (who recently became Cameron Grimes in NXT, another victim of the WWE renaming bug). He defeats Corino but is beaten by Lee, and when the Reseda crowd chants “bullshit” he grabs the mic and chides them: “What just happened here, Trevor Lee beating me… that’s not bullshit, that’s the future.” He puts away the past but puts over the future, each match serving a different purpose and type of closure.
Each match is full of callbacks and references. The RoH match against Corino is of course already the capstone of his time there, the denouement to his feuds and his faction with Corino and Jimmy Jacobs, SCUM. He throws in an allusion to Colt Cabana too:
In PWG he comes to the ring in his Young Bucks gear so they’re there in spirit, and does the same Cabana reference to boot , though Lee manages to dodge where Corino did not .
I’m sure there are more that I, with my very scattered and imperfect knowledge of this era, don’t catch. The people who matter, the people who lived it with him, do.
But there’s no missing the El Generico references, for the spirit of the luchador is there in both matches, from beginning to end.
In the Ring of Honor match, the ring announcer, reading Corino’s speech for him, lists off the many former RoH greats that Kevin now goes to join beyond the promotion: Austin Aries, Sarah Del Rey, Claudio Castagnoli, Colt Cabana, Eddie Edwards, Tyler Black, Samoa Joe, C.M. Punk, Bryan Danielson. El Generico is saved for last, and when the crowd hears the name they’ve been waiting for, they immediately start singing. For his part, Kevin gestures to the camera, telling the operator to close in on his wrist tape, where he’s written “Olé,” in much the same way he always wrote his grandfathers’ initials on his wrist tape before he got them tattooed on his knuckles (he has yet to get an olé tattoo, as far as I know). He carries the luchador with him, here at the end.
Early in the match, he makes this even more clear. After scanning the crowd, he takes a moment to call out to a person wearing a Generico mask, asking them to hand it over to him. When they do, he puts it on and proceeds to wrestle as El Generico, as if wearing the mask has granted him access to the luchador’s spirit. He does Generico’s signature kick with the uncanny accuracy of someone who has watched the move countless times, right down to the jaunty little starting hop:
Kevin puts his hand in the air and the crowd goes nuts at his summoning of his rival and friend back from Tijuana or Florida or the grave to be there with them. Generico once told a PWG crowd, “You are El Generico,” and there’s always been a weird magical feeling that the luchador’s spirit lives in anyone who believes in him.
By that standard, there’s almost no one in the world more worthy of being El Generico than Kevin.
A week later, the theme continues at the end of his PWG match, where Kevin picks up the mic and starts his final address with “To be honest, and to tell you all the truth…”
They’re the same words El Generico said in his farewell speech at PWG, a year and a half ago. Kevin smiles, the audience laughs and sighs at the memory; he’s poking a little bit of fun at Generico’s earnest goodbye, but at the same time he’s not. At the same time, when he says “My name is El Generico,” it’s just kind of true: El Generico evolved into a sort of collaborative creation, the boundaries of his heroism defined by the shape of Kevin’s villainy.
So this, really, is El Generico’s final goodbye.
Kevin leans into that, explaining that he got a call from Generico, panicked because the orphans were out of control, begging Kevin to come help him.
So Kevin is packing up his wife, his son, his daughter, his cats and his dogs, and uprooting everything to go and be with Generico again. It’s a perfect melding of the story and the reality, true and false at the same time like the best of wrestling.
Both farewells have tiny uncanny moments that end up serving as foreshadowing. In Ring of Honor, it’s when the wrestlers bring balloons, champagne and gifts to the ring for him, including, of all things, a John Cena action figure. Tommaso Ciampa hands it to him as the crowd boos this token of what they don’t know will turn out to be Kevin’s first main-roster feud.
In PWG it’s when Kevin, listing off the many members of his household, reminds Excalibur that his son has pinned Excalibur in the ring. The crowd erupts into a laughing chant of Kevin’s son’s name: “Owen! Owen! Owen!”–and it feels for a second eerily like they’re cheering for the WWE wrestler who doesn’t exist yet.
But at the time these little things don’t mean anything to the audience, or to Kevin. With the future unknown before him, he leaves Reseda, goes back to Montreal, packs everything up and drives to Florida to sign with WWE.
Kevin posts one last video in his Weekend Escapades series, recording his family’s vacation in Florida, with trips to Disney World and Gatorland. It includes an Easter egg, a reference to an earlier video in which a red-headed stranger asked a hostile Kevin for directions in Montreal. In this video, the roles are reversed: Kevin gets lost and asks for directions from a passer-by. This time, however, things go differently. Kevin stares at the person giving him directions, then reaches out almost tentatively to touch his arm.
The gangly stranger stares at him without a flicker of recognition and asks what his name is. When Kevin tells him, he delivers deadpan the most absurdly fantastic line:
And he walks away, though not before taking a moment to quietly reassure Kevin that his destination is nearby: “You’re almost there,” he says.
Back in 2014, Kevin declares him a “douchebag” once again and the vignette ends with this scene and its note of surreal truth—because maybe Sami doesn’t know him; or maybe he doesn’t know any Kevins, because Kevin almost certainly isn’t going to be Kevin soon.
Indeed, at this precise moment—August 2014—Sami and Kevin’s paths seem to be only fleetingly intersecting. Sami looks to be on track to move up to the main roster soon. And if that happens, they might never interact at all in WWE, because Kevin has been told that he’s unlikely to ever graduate from developmental, that his career will probably peak and end in NXT.
Kevin’s rise through NXT turned out to be so meteoric that it’s hard to believe now, but when he arrived at the Performance Center he had little reason to believe he’d be wrestling John Cena on the main roster within a year. An unspecified someone at the Performance Center, in fact, went out of their way specifically to inform him not to expect to ever get to the main roster.
So it seems reasonable that Kevin and Sami might both have feared that Kevin had arrived too late, that Sami was about to move on and leave him behind. Obviously, whoever that unspecified someone was, they were spectacularly wrong about Kevin. But that’s not unusual, people in charge being wrong about Kevin.
After TakeOver: R-Evolution, where I see Kevin for the first time and vow to know everything about his career and how it intersects with Sami’s, I am scouring YouTube for videos: about Kevin, about Sami, about whoever this “El Generico” guy who keeps cropping up is (my ignorance is vast and deep). While looking, I come across an odd interview with Kevin, recorded in October 2014, after his signing but before his debut. He’s talking about a lot of different topics, and he’s wearing Sami Zayn’s first (at this point, only) shirt. At one point, the interviewer notices it:
Kevin seems almost unprepared for the question—maybe he thought the interviewer would just let the winking reference pass unremarked on? “Of course!” he says without seeming to think about it, and then you can see what almost looks like a sudden doubt cross his face. Because… wait, what is his relationship to Sami Zayn the character going to be, if they get to interact at all? Will they be old friends? Old enemies? Total strangers, restarting their story from scratch?
He goes on to talk a little bit about Sami, since the topic is on the table, but he stresses that they’re not actually particularly good friends.
When I finish the video, I feel rather crushed. I had gotten the impression from their interactions when Sami won the NXT title that there was something unusual there, something with a lot of weight, and it turns out I was wrong? Apparently they know each other, but in the same kind of way that Sami knows, say, Bo Dallas or Curt Hawkins: a friendly working relationship, but not much beyond that.
Dan notices I seem discouraged. When I tell him why, he starts laughing.
“I mean, you don’t believe that?” he says, doing a double-take at my chagrin.
“It’s a totally shoot interview,” I point out. “What reason would he have to be misleading?”
“What reason—?” Dan breaks off and shakes his head. “He’s a wrestler. Misleading is their default state.” Apparently I look unconvinced, because he goes on: “And there’s probably a seed of truth in it. Sami was traveling all over with the main roster that fall, right?” It’s true: in between Full Sail tapings, Sami is off having matches in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, even Montreal. He’s wrestling at main roster house shows, he’s appearing on Main Event, he’s even in a tag match on Raw in early September. “So Kevin probably used that as an emotionally honest grain of truth to backpedal and say they’re not that close.”
“Or maybe they’re not actually particularly close,” I say. “Maybe it’s really simple.”
“Maybe it’s really simple,” Dan echoes me. He’s grinning. “You are going to be a lot of fun as a wrestling fan.”
When Kevin talks about this time, the overwhelming impression is one of uncertainty. He doesn’t know what he’s going to be; he doesn’t know what his name will be; the future is entirely opaque. He remembers for his first photoshoot being told to “wear your gear” and having no idea what “his gear” was—should it be the singlets he wrestled in through his early career? The shirt and shorts he prefers but which wrestling purists turn up their noses at? He buys expensive new singlets, wears them to the shoot and hates them, switches at the last second back into his shorts and shirt. Then he realizes he can’t wear a Guns n’ Roses shirt in official material, so he turns it inside out. Now he’s just in a blank black shirt and shorts. Frantic to get something distinctive into the pictures, he borrows a paintbrush from Finn Balor as Finn paints his face for his own photoshoot, dips it in white paint, and starts to scrawl on the shirt his catchphrase, “Fight–”
Well, it was “Fight Steen Fight” before, but it can’t be that anymore, and he still doesn’t know what his new name will be. So just “Fight” it will have to be for now. You can still see the shirt in a few shots in his earliest entrance video, the challenge written there before his name existed.
My favorite story from this time—maybe my favorite story about Kevin in a career full of great stories—happens just a few days after he arrives at the Performance Center. Sami shared it after Dusty Rhodes’ death–apparently Dusty was notoriously bad with names, getting them breezily wrong either on purpose or by accident, no one could tell.
For some reason, Dan and I find this story utterly hilarious, and for weeks after hearing it we riff on it, tossing the scene back and forth between us, embroidering the details to make each other laugh. Surely Dusty gave a whole speech about how he was about to call up one of the most promising wrestlers of his generation, a genius on the mic, to cut a promo. At first we imagine it happening within the fictional world, with Kevin-the-character sitting and seething with jealousy at whoever this “Kip Stern” is, plotting the demise of this snotty upstart who dares to upstage his debut! He even has Kevin’s initials! The nerve!
But it’s even better as the reality, with Kevin-the-person sitting politely in the audience as Dusty waxes eloquent on the brilliance of this mysterious Kip Stern. We imagine him sneaking glances around the room, wondering how he missed meeting this Stern guy, as Dusty goes on about this fantastic wrestler, this rising star, this silver-tongued wonder. Sitting there for ten full seconds of silence, waiting for this astonishing prodigy to stand up and reveal himself. Waiting–
I break off in the middle of our yarn-spinning. “Oh,” I say, my voice breaking unexpectedly. “Oh, why didn’t he know Dusty was talking about him?” Surely it would be natural to assume that hey, the elderly legend got the name slightly wrong? How could someone find the sudden existence of an entirely unknown wrestler more plausible than the American Dream complimenting him and calling him up to cut a promo?
“It’s not right,” I say, almost angrily. “He should have known Dusty was talking about him. How could he not have known? It’s not right.”
Soon enough, it comes time for Kevin to get his new name. They bat around a lot of possibilities: he wants to keep his KS initials at first, so “Keller Stevens” was on the list, but it just doesn’t sound right. So he suggests “Steven Keen,” as a sort of aural reverse-echo of “Kevin Steen,” and for a while it looks like they’ll run with that.
But at the last second, Triple H suggests they go with something more personally meaningful to Kevin, rather than trying to capture the sound of his original name. Since arriving at the Performance Center, Kevin has relentlessly focused on how important his family is to him, so it’s suggested that he adapt his son’s first name into a new last name: Owens. Since his son is already named after one of his favorite wrestlers, Owen Hart, this means the name captures two of the most relatable parts of his personality: his love of his family and his love of wrestling. Then they wrangle over what to make his new first name for a while, until Triple H finally shrugs and says “Why not just keep ‘Kevin’ and be KO?”
Kevin, who didn’t think this was even a possibility, is thrilled to keep his name, and so Kevin Owens is born.
Kevin debuts in WWE at TakeOver R-Evolution, Dec. 11 2014. He’s in the opening match against C.J. Parker. The main event is the climax of Sami Zayn’s Road to Redemption storyline, the conclusion of months of storytelling in which Sami’s faith in himself wavers as he feuds with his friend Neville. Neville has been cooly dismissive of Sami’s chances of beating him, because–as he claims–Sami lacks the vicious edge necessary to be a champion. Sami has doubted himself, has grown frustrated and despairing. Finally, he’s sworn that if he doesn’t become champion at the end of the night, he’s quitting NXT–just as Kevin arrives at last! To fans that knew their history, that must have seemed a particularly terrible prospect.
I don’t know any of that history. In 2014, still totally ignorant of Sami’s indie past, I’m laser-focused on my need to see my first favorite wrestler win the title (I’ve watched WWE casually for years, but before 2014 I’ve never had a favorite wrestler, never had that person that I need to see with the gold that they deserve around their waist). So I don’t know anything about Kevin Steen, Kevin Owens, or Kip Stern for that matter when his music hits for the first time; this is just a match to get through on the way to the one that matters.
I am a simple fan with simple needs, and what I love are babyfaces. Yeah, I said it and I’m not ashamed: I’m a 100% mark for a pure-at-heart hero, preferably a scrappy underdog who struggles with self-doubt but perseveres. It’s always been astonishing to me that I came to like Kevin Owens so much, but writing this it occurs to me that maybe part of the reason I could is that my very first impression of Kevin was as a face. Because when his music hits and he walks out in front of the Full Sail audience, as he lets himself fully take in the fact that he’s about to have his first WWE match, his eyes are full of wonder, close to tears.
He’s all business by the time he gets to the ring, setting aside his awe with a neck-roll and shrug, but in pragmatic terms he’s debuted as the babyface that we won’t see again for years after this night.
The match starts with a flurry of offense by Kevin–a cannonball and then the somersault plancha he pulls out for the biggest matches. He soars over the ropes, lands hard on his hip, and comes to his feet to stretch his arms out as if he’s holding that bright sign in his hands, the “Revolution/Our Evolution” wordplay never more fitting.
The crowd bursts into a chant of “Holy shit!” Kevin stops to take that in, then turns to beam at the camera, which catches his voice for the first time: “This is just the beginning.”
With these prophetic words, he gets back into the ring with Parker–and then the match takes the Kevinnest of turns. Because C.J. Parker rallies, delivers a palm strike, and snaps Kevin’s nose on the spot.
It’s an awful injury. With less luck, there’s a chance it could have been fatal–a startling reminder that some of the most dangerous moments in wrestling can happen with some of the least flashy moves. Even Parker doesn’t emerge unscathed, as Kevin’s nasal bone slices almost all the way through his palm like a knife. Blood starts pouring from Kevin’s nose, splattering his face and hands. The camera’s gaze tries to wince away from the carnage as much as possible, but there’s not much to be done: it’s difficult to avoid showing the face of a wrestler in a live broadcast match.
Two minutes, two minutes into his first match in the most famously family-friendly, PG-rated, blood-averse promotion in the world, and Kevin’s face is drenched with his own blood like some kind of horror-movie serial killer.
The match ends quickly after that–probably not by design, but because it has to. Kevin gets in his very first WWE pop up powerbomb, and it’s over. It’s a shame the match was likely shorter than it could have been, and it’s a horrific and incredibly painful-looking injury… but you also can’t help but think, holy shit, this establishes Kevin’s character immediately, and in the most electrifying fashion, all the joyous violence and unflinching brave brutality of him. Four months ago it was unclear who Kevin Steen was going to become, if he’d be recognizably himself in any way, if he’d even be a Kevin. The future was wide open, full of possibilities–both good and awful. Now, though, everything is narrowing down. He’s gone from a totally opaque future to something recognizable and concrete. His path is fairly clear now, and there aren’t many unknowns left.
The one key unknown remains his relationship with Sami Zayn.
I’ve written more at length about Sami’s Road to Redemption, that long climb full of self-doubt and resolve to the height of NXT, and one of the best stories in wrestling. At the same show Kevin opens with his debut, Sami and Neville are the main event, fighting for the championship after months of emotional storytelling. It’s a beautiful match, and it ends with Sami coming through it all and finally capturing gold as Full Sail bursts into tears and song.
The locker room clears out to come celebrate in the ring with him, but before anyone else can reach the ring Kevin comes charging down the ramp, putting on a burst of speed to make sure he gets to Sami first. Again, it’s impossible to overstate just how little I knew about Kevin and Sami’s past career: blinded with tears of delight for my favorite wrestler, I barely even notice that Sami is not exactly certain what Kevin’s motivation is as he leaps into the ring.
He steps backwards, uneasy, but Kevin barrels straight into an embrace that knocks him backwards into the turnbuckle–deliberately or not, this first hug between Kevin and Sami echoing Kevin and El Generico’s very last hug.
Relieved, the crowd cheers even harder. The force of Kevin’s hug has ripped the hasty stitches in his nose open, and blood starts running down his face again, dripping onto Sami’s shoulder.
The other wrestlers enter the ring and lift Sami up on their shoulders, celebrating. Kevin retreats, leaving the center of the ring to the new champion in another echo of El Generico’s farewell.
That’s nearly the end of Kevin’s debut and Sami’s first WWE title win, except for the parts we all know, the parts that will show up on hype videos for the rest of their career: the attack out of nowhere, the powerbomb on the apron, the blank and blood-stained stare. It’s history now, this debut Kevin’s been dreaming of since he was a teen learning to wrestle in a barn in Quebec.
There’s just a tiny bit more.
In late 2017, WWE releases a collection of Sami Zayn’s biggest moments, with commentary by Sami in between them. When they get to his NXT win, they let his voice run over footage of the aftermath.
I’ve watched that celebration… uh, let’s say more than most people have, to the point where I literally know every camera angle and every shot by heart. As a result, I jump with shocked delight when I realize there’s footage in this version that I’ve never seen before. It’s not much, just a split-second where they fix the mistake of cutting away at the moment Kevin hugs Sami, using instead an angle that shows the whole interaction.
And then, at the very end, there’s one more addition.
It’s while the wrestlers are clearing out of the ring, leaving Sami alone to celebrate just a little bit longer. In a few minutes, Kevin will return to help Sami out of the ring, to support him up the ramp, and to betray him. In this video package there’s a scrap of footage that they didn’t air, in which the camera briefly catches Kevin on his way to the back with the other wrestlers. The camera zooms in on him, and we see a glimpse of his face as he looks back at Sami one last time before their story truly begins.
I pause the video, suddenly stricken by his expression in that moment. There’s pride and joy in his face as he looks backwards at Sami holding his championship belt, but there is, I think, a terrible grief there as well. His distress is so palpable, in fact, that Buddy Murphy and Wesley Blake both clasp his shoulder reassuringly as they walk by him. It’s not an in-character moment—I have no proof of that, and you never really know with Kevin, but I feel irrationally certain that’s not Kevin Owens looking back there; it’s Kevin Steen’s unguarded emotion for a split-second. Here in this moment where he’s found his place, and found himself, he looks unexpectedly at a loss.
I don’t think it’s that he’s unhappy his character is going to attack Sami, not exactly. I can’t imagine a blistering, deeply personal feud with your friend and current NXT champion to open one’s WWE career is something a wrestler would be unhappy about. But it’s always bittersweet when a long-cherished dream becomes reality, when a wide-open future of possibilities narrows down to just one. Somewhere—in his mind, in a computer file, in paper notebooks—I feel certain Kevin has a hundred possible scenarios for what he and Sami might be in WWE, imagined and embellished over the years: their storylines, their feuds, the road to their main event at WrestleMania. In this moment, as he turns away and walks backstage, all of those other scenarios are fading out of existence, being erased: the version where they start off as a friendly tag team together and the tag titles are their first titles in WWE, a shared triumph; the version where he’s the supportive babyface friend of the NXT champion and avenges his loss by beating the heel who takes the title from Sami; the version where they’re strangers and only slowly become friends; a hundred other variations and alternatives, all vanishing as reality takes their place.
There can only be one reality, one specific and concrete road that will wind away from this moment into the future, with all the hills and valleys and odd detours that unfold in it. I love this reality, all the highs and lows of it together, this continuing evolution of the piece of lifelong performance art that is Kevin Owens; the weird dynamic collaborative story that is Kevin and Sami. I wouldn’t have any other. But I can still feel a pang of loss for all the other versions of him that we could have seen, knowing he would have made each of them real and true as well. My greedy imagination refuses to accept the limitations of finite time and space, and I can wish now and then to have it all, even if it’s impossible.
Kevin’s face is still paused on my screen, captured in that moment of joyful sorrow.
I press play again and let all of those other paths fade away.