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On Dreams and Goals (And Pride): The Road to R-Evolution Part 3
In which Kevin has an epiphany and some fun.
When people talk to me about the wrestlers they love, one of the emotions they mention over and over is pride: a deep, suffusing pride.
“When he looks out at the audience chanting for him and his face lights up, I just feel so proud of him.”
“When she walks to the ring with that swagger, I’m just so proud.”
“When they held up those titles–their faces–I thought I was going to cry, I was so proud of them”
These statements are often made with a touch of embarrassment, or are followed up with self-conscious backtracking:
“It’s kind of ridiculous, it’s not like I had anything to do with their success.”
“I don’t really even know her, so I don’t quite know where that’s coming from.”
“He’s ten years older than me but I want to kiss him on the forehead and tell him ‘well done.’ That’s weird, isn’t it?”
We feel awkward about our pride, because pride is possessive. Pride is a term generally reserved for achievements that we feel we had a part in, somehow. That’s why parents can be proud of their children, but it sounds a little odd to be proud of a stranger. If an actor I admire wins an award, I feel happy for them, but pride implies a certain amount of kinship and connection that we don’t have. That’s why Johnny Gargano’s eyes flicker when Tommaso Ciampa says he’s proud of him for winning the North American championship: because it implies he’s taking some credit for it. It’s presumptuous to be proud of someone else’s accomplishments. We don’t really know wrestlers–we’re not their friends, not their family. We don’t have the right.
And yet, there it is.
Pride in a stranger’s success isn’t uncommon in this world where, thanks to social media, we feel weirdly close to celebrities. But I suspect it’s especially strong in wrestling, where part of what fans are buying, to be blunt, is the feeling that we have some say in a wrestler’s success. That’s part of why we pay to go to live shows, part of why we buy shirt after shirt: because we feel like our cheers, our boos, our open wallets make a difference. Our passionate support is part of the experience, to the point where we feel almost as if somehow, in some weird way, it can bend time and space itself and touch the past self of a wrestler. As if our love has somehow torn time asunder, reached into the past to put a hand on the shoulder of that young woman in clown school, the boy devouring mythology books in an Irish library, the teen on the streets of Cincinnati, and say: Fortune and glory wait for you, ten thousand voices screaming your name wait for you, we’re waiting for you. You can do it. Irrationally, illogically, we can almost feel as if the fierceness of our support in the here and now helped back then. We know better. And yet.
When I first find and devour the various Kevin Steen Show episodes, back in 2015, I know almost nothing about wrestling outside of WWE. As a result, these interviews are in many cases my very first exposure to most of these wrestlers. Adam Cole, Jay Lethal, the Young Bucks, Tommaso Ciampa, Johnny Gargano, Jimmy Jacobs: I’m completely clueless about almost all of them.
One episode begins not in a hotel room, or the Highspots studio, but in an apartment, where Kevin and his interviewee sit on a leather couch together, the traditional Kane mask propped up in front of them. And about ten minutes into the interview I pause the video and say to Dan in distress: “Oh, this poor man, this poor man, I have to find out what happened to him and whether he’s doing better and if anyone was ever able to help him.”
“This poor man,” as it turns out, is Nigel McGuinness, legendary Ring of Honor champion and one of the most esteemed wrestlers in the world, but I’m a clueless dope and I don’t know that. All I know was that whoever this person is, he was in a very bad place when this show was recorded. Everything about him screams of mental pain: he spends large chunks of the interview wedged backwards against the couch arm, as if trying to get as far away from Kevin and the camera as possible. His voice is flat and affectless most of the time, except when bitterness seeps into it. He seems uncaring of the camera, uncaring of himself. He’s in agony, and I feel agonized just looking at him.
Later, I’ll learn about Nigel’s history, so dramatically tragic that WWE will one day film an entire documentary about it: after a lifetime spent with a fixed, determined goal of making it to the WWE, a lifetime of rigorous devotion to the art of wrestling, he finally received the call. But when he was honest about the fact that his bicep had been injured in the past, he was told that WWE would not hire him unless he had surgery to repair the bicep.
The former Ring of Honor world champion couldn’t afford the procedure.
Frustrated, certain that he could prove that his arm was fine and get that contract, Nigel worked in TNA for a while. But then, just as he felt like he was getting somewhere, he contracted hepatitis, almost certainly through exposure to blood in the ring. And by the time he was cured of that, TNA had let him go. WWE did not call again. Somehow, through no fault of his own, the window of opportunity had been slammed in his face. Unwilling to go back to Ring of Honor as a wrestler, Nigel stepped back from active wrestling and did commentary with them for a while, but by the time Kevin shows up on his doorstep in 2013, he’s stopped doing that as well.
When the interview begins, Kevin notes that he’s surprised Nigel even agreed to meet with him at all. Nigel (and the Highspots director) seem a little surprised as well.
As the interview unfolds, it feels like Kevin has in part shown up here in an attempt to reach out to him—over and over he urges Nigel to reconsider, to come out of retirement and wrestle again. Nigel rebuffs him every time: “No one wants to see me wrestling anymore,” he says at one point, to Kevin’s horror and disbelief.
So Kevin’s here in part to try and help Nigel. But of course, Kevin’s brought his own demons with him. He’s pretty much hit psychological bottom at this point: so many of his peers and friends are tearing it up in NXT and on the WWE main roster, he’s still under contract for Ring of Honor for another full year, and he hasn’t gotten even a hint that WWE might be interested. He’s in a lot of pain as well, and one gets the impression Nigel has agreed to see him only because he cares about Kevin and wants to help him.
The Nigel McGuinness episode of the Kevin Steen Show is an absolutely amazing two-hour showcase into watching two men who care about each other desperately trying to help each other despite the fact that they’re in such totally different places that they can barely even understand each other.
When Kevin looks at Nigel, he sees someone who at least has nothing to be ashamed of: he’s one of the greatest wrestlers in the world and he did absolutely everything to get to the top, everyone knows he deserved to be at the top—and right now, in his darkest moments, Kevin seems to be wondering if maybe, after prioritizing his family and failing to do the work to get in shape, he simply doesn’t deserve that shot.
When Nigel looks at Kevin, he sees someone who still has a future, who hasn’t had his opportunity cruelly ripped away by chance and fate. Kevin hasn’t failed–and at least if he does, he will have failed due to his own choices, and not due to a random, meaningless roll of the dice. (Which is exactly what Kevin hates the idea of, that he controlled his own fate and might fail anyway).
Their situations are complete opposites; the only thing they have in common is their despair—and their desire to help their friend.
At times in the conversation their worldviews are so much at odds that you can almost see them struggling not to get angry with each other. Like, for example, when each of them shares their lowest moment in their careers. Nigel’s was when a promoter in England had him impersonate Kane for a comedy bit: blinded by the mask, Nigel hurt his back and staggered through the match while everyone laughed. Kevin’s was finding out, the same night he had a main event title match with Nigel himself, that a wrestler named Ruckus, who Kevin likes but thinks is… not his superior, made twenty-five dollars more than he did at the show.
Kevin can’t understand why Nigel would react so badly to a meaningless moment of comedy.
“I felt like it was disrespecting the art form of professional wrestling,” Nigel responds, but it feels like there’s a personal level to it as well. In turn, Nigel can’t understand why twenty-five dollars could be so important to Kevin, why finding that out would make him want to quit wrestling completely. Kevin, groping to explain, says that he feels like they’re actually very similar experiences, but can’t really articulate why:
“Your back was hurt, my back was hurt,” Kevin starts off strong, then somewhat less coherently: “You had a Kane mask, Ruckus was making more money than me…”
Nigel starts laughing at the ridiculousness of the comparison, but Kevin’s quite serious, and there’s a snarl of annoyance in Nigel’s laugh, a glint in his eye like he’s tempted to just take a swing at Kevin. He’s mad at how obtuse Kevin’s being, and Kevin’s frustrated that Nigel refuses to see it.
Here’s the funny thing: weird as the comparison seems on the surface, Kevin’s right, these two lowest moments are similar, even if they don’t look it. He does even manage to articulate it belatedly near the end of the exchange, when he stammers, “I felt like… I felt like I deserved way more than I was getting.” Because it isn’t just about the money or the mask; they’re both moments when it became clear that the promoter, the person who makes the decisions about your career, thought that the idea of them making it to WWE was a ludicrous one. The promoter who stuffed Nigel in a Kane mask thought that made great comedy because it was hilarious to think Nigel could ever be mistaken for a WWE superstar. The promoter who paid Kevin less than the midcard wrestler—even after a main event title match!—was basically telling Kevin that the match was a fluke, he was not fundamentally main event material, he was never going farther. Both experiences made them want to quit wrestling, both memories sting even now, because they made a mockery of Kevin and Nigel’s hopes to ever wrestle in WWE.
Around and around the two of them go, talking about feuds and blading and British wrestling, but that issue is a black hole they keep circling and coming back to: is it worse to fail because of circumstances totally beyond your control, or is it worse to fail because you could have done things differently and didn’t?
Kevin talks more about himself than in any of his other interviews, at times almost seeming to forget there’s a camera on them, intently focused on explaining himself to Nigel and to himself. I can’t even count the number of times he says “you know what I mean?” to Nigel, over and over, unsure if he’s making sense (just in the clips I’ve giffed for this essay he says it three times). He’s a knot of regret at this point: if he’d prioritized his career over his family or focused more on getting in shape, he’s sure he’d be at the top by now. And since he doesn’t regret putting his family first, he’s painfully bitter about his perceived physical failings, and failure of focus and will–especially compared to El Generico.
When Nigel asks him to imagine that, five years from now, he’s retired from wrestling completely, having never made it to WWE. Kevin winces slightly as Nigel asks him: if that future version of you could speak to you right now, what would he say?
There’s pride mixed in with the regret: he’s fully aware that he’s achieved great things, and feels extra pride that he achieved them on his own terms, as his own self. He mentions that some people disapproved of him as Ring of Honor’s top star because he didn’t “look right,” but that just makes his reign sweeter:
Kevin constantly badgers Nigel to come out of retirement and wrestle again, to at least come back to commentary in Ring of Honor. He even suggests Nigel send his work to WWE for a shot at being a commentator there. Nigel doesn’t see the point: he’s done all he can outside of WWE, so if he can’t wrestle there, it’s time to move on from the whole thing. And this touches on part of Kevin’s distress, beyond his concern for Nigel as a friend. If there’s nothing left but to stop wrestling if you don’t make it to WWE, is Kevin also staring the end of his career in the face?
They’ve both reached the pinnacle of what they can achieve without making the jump to WWE; there’s nothing left to compare themselves to, no further room for improvement in their craft. When Nigel talks about comparing himself to other wrestlers and trying to reach where they are, Kevin admits he doesn’t do that anymore, because there’s nowhere left to go for him. “Where do you want to be?” Nigel asks, and Kevin says “Well, I’d like to go to WWE one day.” He starts explaining that he feels like there’s nothing left to improve but his physical conditioning, but in the middle of it Nigel cuts him off:
“One day” basically means never, Nigel’s saying. “One day” is what you say about a fantasy that you don’t really think will come true. A dream.
Okay, hold up. Let’s stop here for a second.
If this were a movie, this would be the moment where we would cut to a Dramatic Flashback that reveals why this is exactly the wrong—and exactly the right—thing for Nigel to say to Kevin. But since this isn’t a movie, I’m going to have to do my best to create a Dramatic Flashback with words.
That flashback is to a car in Quebec in 2004, where a teenaged Kevin Steen has given a ride to Sami Zayn, a wrestler who he barely knows. Their conversation turns to what they expect for their futures and if they might ever make it to WWE.
Kevin makes a distinction between having a dream and having a goal, because a dream is just something you hope might happen, but a goal is something that you’re actively working toward, something you believe you can make happen.
We don’t know much more about the conversation, but it seems to have been important, a moment where both of them realize they’re going to make this more than a dream, and that maybe they can push each other toward that goal together. We know it’s important because Kevin remembers it vividly, even a decade later.
We know it’s important because even though Sami Zayn never mentions the specific conversation, that distinction between dreams and goals comes up many times when talking about how he managed to get to WWE.
When asked in an interview what advice he has for aspiring wrestlers from the Arab world, it crops up:
When remembering Kevin’s time of self-doubt while in Ring of Honor, it’s there again, though Kevin’s parents get the precise words:
And at a panel at San Diego ComicCon 2015, when a fan asks for advice on how to achieve their dream of being a wrestler, once again Sami talks about that gap between dreams and goals.
So obviously this was a pivotal conversation, one that meant a lot to both of them, one that drives them both.
And in August 2013, there in Nigel McGuinness’s living room, Nigel has just told Kevin that it sounds like his goals have become nothing but dreams, like he’s failed to live up to that conversation.
Clearly legitimately stung underneath his faux-temper tantrum, Kevin defends himself, reminding Nigel that he’s still under contract to Ring of Honor for another year.
It’s generally risky for wrestlers to talk about possible jumps in promotion, often a contract violation. Kevin’s been dancing around it for months, using vague generalizations and euphemisms wherever possible. Now, pushed beyond endurance by Nigel, he says it clearly and simply:
There it is: he wants that tryout the day after his Ring of Honor contract runs out. A goal, not a dream; not “one day,” but a specific date. There’s a feeling of no going back about such a blunt statement. It’s crossing a line. It’s important.
Nigel mentions it seems like Kevin’s in the same place he was in just before he retired, with no one left to compare himself to, no way left to improve.
“Right,” Kevin says, sharply focused on Nigel, the camera almost entirely forgotten. “I feel that way. I feel that way.” He starts laughing a little self-consciously, as if he’s embarrassed to have gotten so intense, and blurts out, “Help me. I don’t know what to do!”
Nigel just laughs, this time not bitterly but affectionately. He’s got his own story in this conversation, one that I don’t know his career well enough to be able to trace, but which leads, eventually, to the commentary table at WWE and (one hopes) some kind of peace. “You know exactly what to do!” he says in 2013 to Kevin.
And there’s that have fun again, the same thing Adam Cole mentioned months ago in the same context, telling Kevin he should enjoy the journey. Stay healthy, stay sharp, don’t burn bridges (Kevin laughs wryly that “the not burning bridges stuff is hard”) and have fun.
You know exactly what to do.
This conversation with Nigel takes place, based on cues from the conversation, the same weekend as PWG’s tenth anniversary show on August 9.
Exactly three weeks later, Kevin is back in Los Angeles for the next PWG show, Battle of Los Angeles.
Two wonderful things are going to happen for Kevin there.
2013’s BOLA tournament gets people chattering all over Reddit and Twitter. Not just because it’s PWG and therefore damn good, but because William Regal is spotted standing at the backstage curtain, watching the tournament. The Internet, naturally, erupts with speculation about which indie wrestlers he could be there scouting. Kevin’s got a match with Johnny Gargano, and they decide that they had damn well better pull out all the stops. Remembering the match a few months later on the Kevin Steen Show, they laugh about how they played every single spot to the corner where they know Regal is watching, hoping to show themselves off to best advantage.
They go as hard as possible, playing every major move and submission so that side of the ring gets a good view of their faces. Look at them completely ignoring the camera and playing right to the backstage curtain:
Kevin executes every move as if he’s yelling “I HEAR YOU’RE LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO TORTURE YOUR SCRAPPY, PURE OF HEART BABYFACE” at the top of his lungs, and by the time he finally submits to the Gargano Escape, they both look like a million bucks.
Looking at the Reddit threads about Regal’s visit, we can read people taking guesses about who he was there to check out. The most common names (and all, as it turns out, very good guesses) include Kyle O’Reilly, Rich Swann, ACH, and Johnny Gargano—the last based on the fact that Regal seems to have watched both of Gargano’s matches especially closely.
No one bothers to mention who exactly Gargano was wrestling in either of those matches.
No one, in fact, suggests Regal was there to look at Kevin Steen at all. Kevin is mentioned exactly twice in the two threads. Here are the two mentions:
Kevin himself doesn’t seem to have thought it likely that Regal had any intention of giving him a look. The way he talks about BOLA—with Johnny, on his DVD, during My Child is a Superstar—seems to indicate that he was just desperately hoping to possibly pull Regal’s attention away from the wrestlers he had actually come there to see. Maybe, maybe, if he performs brilliantly enough, Regal will notice him.
One of my favorite moments on Kevin’s DVD is after he explains how much he hoped that he might catch Regal’s eye. The camera cuts to Triple H, who’s laughing in disbelief.
The same little pivot is captured again in My Child is a WWE Superstar, from Kevin’s point of view—Kevin recalls a conversation with Triple H where he’s grateful he was so lucky as to wrestle in front of Regal. Again, Triple H makes clear: Kevin was the focus of Regal’s visit.
I use fairy tale phrasing a lot in talking about Kevin and Generico and Sami, and I’ll use it again here: Kevin has been visited by his secret fairy godvillain, and he doesn’t seem to have had the faintest clue.
So Kevin’s been eliminated from the tournament. Basically, as far as he knows, he’s had his chance to catch WWE’s attention, and he’s either made it or blown it. He did his best, he gave it his all, and that’s it.
Here’s the second wonderful thing that happens to Kevin at BOLA 2013: he has fun.
After watching Adam Cole and the Young Bucks being villainous and hilarious together, knowing that Regal has seen him wrestle, knowing he’s still got eleven months on his Ring of Honor contract, Kevin goes to promoter Super Dragon and begs to be allowed to team up with Cole and the Bucks.
Super Dragon points out that Kevin and Adam’s characters despise each other. He notes that Kevin and the Bucks have five years of bitter, vicious history in which they have never been on the same side. But one gets the impression Kevin has decided it’s time to take Adam’s advice and enjoy the journey, it’s time to take Nigel’s advice and have some fun.
When the tournament ends and the winner, Kyle O’Reilly, is about to accept the trophy, Adam Cole and the Young Bucks interrupt. Chaos breaks out, and in the middle of it Kevin suddenly leaps up from the commentary table to attack referee Rick Knox and piledrive Candice LeRae, to Adam and the Bucks’ astonished delight.
So begins the stable called Mount Rushmore, which is one of the most deeply beloved in PWG, mostly because everyone in it seems to be having so much fucking fun. They cut ridiculous promos.
Kevin dresses in Bucks-style fringe.
They superkick everyone and hug a lot and just enjoy themselves.
On that BOLA weekend, Kevin seems to have felt like he’s rolled the dice and now there’s nothing to do but wait until they come to rest. As it turns out, he’ll get that WWE tryout in 2014–not on August 2, the day after his RoH contract expires, but five months earlier, in March.
You know how that all works out in the end. Kevin doesn’t, as he leaps into the ring to heel it up with his friends.
But he’s enjoying the journey anyway.
Remember that San Diego ComicCon interview in 2015 where Sami talked about dreams and goals? Let’s go back to it. Kevin’s at the table too. He’s just lost the title for which he destroyed Sami to Finn Balor, who’s on the far end of the table. Sami and Finn have taken turns teasing and sparring with Kevin through the panel, to the point where it’s clear Charlotte has been placed between them to try and keep some peace. It’s an NXT panel, but Kevin’s feuding with John Cena on the main roster and it’s obvious he’ll be there full time very soon, leaving both Sami and Finn behind for now. After Sami finishes up his discussion of goals and dreams, he adds:
It could apply to all of the wrestlers at that table, and at some level certainly is meant to. But it’s also, without a doubt, a specific reference to that conversation a decade ago in a car in Quebec, with two teens just setting out toward their goals.
“We did it,” Sami says as Kevin watches him impassively, and I feel it once again: that rush of delighted pride, unwarranted and undeniable. As if I somehow had anything to do with it, as if my fierce admiration ripped a hole in time and space and deposited me on the side of the road in Canada in 2004, where I flagged down a car and pounded on the window until someone rolled it down and so I could yell into two startled faces: Yes, this is important, remember this conversation! It’s great, you’re great, everything’s great, keep up the good work! We are all so proud of you!
And then run off into the night laughing, leaving them bewildered behind me.
Next: Sami feuds with Cesaro and Kevin has a tryout.