Kevin Steen and El Generico: A Prologue
The beginning of Kevin and Sami's story lies in Montreal in 2003.
[So you want to know more about Kevin and Sami’s little 20-year history? Well, pull up a chair! I’ll be covering the whole thing in installments over the winter, with a new segment every Friday. These are adapted from essays originally posted at the magnificent Spectacle of Excess.]
Once upon a time seems a good way to start this story. It’s a story almost too narratively perfect to be true, a story which includes forbidden wrestling, miraculous moonsaults, emotional breakdowns and epiphanies, and ambition renounced for art. It’s the beginning of one of the greatest friendships, and rivalries, and stories in wrestling. It may even be the beginning of two of the greatest friendships, and rivalries, and stories in wrestling, if you adhere to the heretic belief that El Generico and Sami Zayn are one and the same.
The story begins in 2000, when Kevin Steen started training with Jacques Rougeau. Rougeau had wrestled with the WWF as the Mountie, and as a result his school was considered the best chance a young wrestler had to get a tryout with the WWE. Young Kevin had been obsessed with wrestling since he saw a video cassette of WrestleMania 11, and his parents, delighted by his determination to become a wrestler, were willing to pony up the money for this elite training.
Kevin picked up wrestling really fast, he was bright and athletic and could also do a 450 splash. Here is a very young Kevin showing off!
As a result, he was Rougeau’s star student, his favored one.
Rougeau in fact refused to book Kevin to lose, because anyone who could do a 450 splash obviously should never, ever give up a win.
Kevin won consistently for three solid years. Favorite pupil of a former WWE star with connections, this all sounds great, right? At first, young Kevin was thrilled:
But there was one problem:
The wrestling Rougeau trained them to do was boring as hell.
Rougeau wanted to make sure that his wrestlers did exactly the match he wanted them to do. He would plan every match from start to finish and train his wrestlers to do exactly that match with no deviation, and they would do that exact match over and over and over again. For months.
His ideal was to have his wrestlers never be caught speaking to each other in the ring. There was no communication between wrestlers and no interaction with the audience. It was entirely choreographed, and entirely emotionally sterile. But it was, for a time, all Kevin knew, because Rougeau also banned his students not just for wrestling, but from even attending any shows by other promotions. So Kevin spent from 2000-2003 wrestling these entirely mechanical, emotionless matches, winning and winning and winning, with a gnawing feeling like there was something he was missing.
This is where IWS enters the picture. IWS was a small Montreal promotion that wrestled mostly in bars, a much more grungy, hardcore operation. A few of Rougeau’s kids had already jumped ship to IWS, and sometimes some IWS wrestlers would come to Rougeau’s shows. This is where Kevin first met the kid who was also El Generico, and decided from this brief meeting that he didn’t like the weirdo. (Not the most auspicious of first meetings.)
But in 2003, a friend of his showed him a tape of an IWS show, where the rowdy crowd banged on the ring, brawls ranged out into the audience, and the action was raw and improvised. Kevin immediately knew he had to find out more.
Remember, Rougeau banned his students from attending other shows. So Kevin stealthily sneaked into an IWS show in July 2003:
And that’s where he saw El Generico wrestle for the first time, and he remembers very distinctly that Generico did a moonsault off the ropes and out of the ring, and that Kevin promptly flipped out:
Does Kevin’s statement that “you can see him” mean that perhaps video footage of this moonsault exists? Going through a stack of IWS DVDs from 2003 reveals that yes it does:
There he is! There he is in the third row, leaping to his feet and throwing his hands above his head to applaud, shifting and craning his neck to try and get a better view of the posing Generic Luchador.
What’s that? What is Kevin doing there, Chris Jericho?
There is something infinitely charming about seeing Kevin there as a fan first, just caught up in the moment and in awe of this wrestler’s physical skill and connection with the crowd.
So now Kevin had seen a show and discovered that weird kid with no respect for personal space and a lot of opinions about how a match should go also happened to be a wrestling prodigy in a promotion that was everything Kevin had ever hoped wrestling would be. He came away from that show knowing that he had to wrestle there.
And by coincidence, that summer Rougeau was ill and had to stop having shows, so he told his students that for at least a little while, they were free to wrestle elsewhere. In August 2003 Kevin cut a promo at an IWS show, and in September he had his first match there, against Sexxy Eddie, and fell head over heels in love with this free-wheeling, improvisational style. For three wonderful months, he had a lot of matches in IWS and other local indie promotions with a lot of local wrestlers.
What he did not have was a one-on-one match with El Generico. They were supposed to have a match together, but at the last second the promoter added another wrestler to the match, to their surprise. It was still an incredible match, but nevertheless Generico and Steen had yet to face each other alone in the ring. Finally they were booked to have a match together, just the two of them, on November 22, 2003. And then disaster struck, disguised as opportunity.
The week before the show, Rougeau announced that the WWE would be coming to Montreal sometime in 2004, and in preparation for that, he was starting his shows back up. He told Kevin that as his star student, of course he would get him a dark match and a tryout with the WWE! But that meant no more outside wrestling. To get that tryout, Kevin had to forswear the IWS and go back to the robotic wrestling he loathed.
Looking back now, Kevin suspects it was silly to think Rougeau could actually get him into the WWE. But at the time, he truly believed that this was his big break.
It was the whole reason he’d put up with the boring wrestling there, after all–to grab that brass ring and a chance for his big break. And after three years, it was so close at last! All he had to do to get it was to quit wrestling in the way that made him happy.
Agonized and uncertain, he asked Rougeau to please let him at least have his one on one match with Generico:
(Look at the way, I think unconsciously, he shifts into the nonverbals of a nervous 18-year-old boy speaking to a WWE superstar: the nervous shifting, the eyes cast up in pleading, the uncertainty).
Rougeau agreed: one last show. If he wanted that WWE tryout, that would be the end of his career outside Rougeau’s.
The night before the IWS show, Kevin worked his part time job at the gas station all through the night, then went to Rougeau’s school and taught a class there. He knew he had a match that night and he should try to get some sleep, but
He wrestled that match against El Generico on no sleep, assuming it was his last IWS match. The match was recorded, but never put on DVD, and for decades was assumed lost—the story of how it was eventually found is another essay, but suffice to say it was a wild match. At the end, the IWS crowd, tipped off to the fact that this would be Kevin’s last match, begged him to change his mind:
The next day, Kevin told Rougeau that he couldn’t do it, he simply couldn’t give up wrestling for the IWS, not even for the chance at a WWE tryout.
So eighteen-year-old Kevin followed his heart rather than his head, and luckily this is a wrestling story, because that’s almost always the right choice in wrestling, after all. Shortly after that, Kevin cut a promo for IWS, talking about his decision and how he turned his back on that tryout in order to stay true to his passion. Here’s how it ended:
And that’s how the story began. And depending on how you choose to parse it, the story either ended satisfyingly in 2013, or it continues to this day and shows no sign of stopping.
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