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Purpose and Intensity: The Road to R-Evolution Part 4
In early 2014, Kevin becomes increasingly certain he'll be heading to WWE soon, and both he and Sami kick everything up a notch in preparation.
Kevin uploads a new episode of his Weekend Escapades web series on January 1, 2014, covering the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It features the usual shenanigans: Kevin blearily explaining his next few shows in the pre-dawn dimness, filming Colt Cabana taking a shower, wandering around Chicago in the dark, admiring the Christmas lights of Muncie Indiana. Near the end of the video Kevin, sitting in his parked car back in Montreal, notes that he’s recording this on New Year’s Eve to thank everyone for making his 2013 great. As he talks, there’s a sudden rapping on his car window. “Ugh,” he says in annoyance, rolling down the window.
“Uh, excuse me,” says a polite voice from outside the car, still offscreen. “Hi, thank you. Do you know where I can catch the 161?”
Kevin turns away from the stranger, who is still explaining that he isn’t sure exactly where he is but he needs to find the 161 bus, to give us a deadpan look: Can you believe this guy? He swivels the camera to reveal a bearded figure in a flat cap:
“Oh, you’re…. rolling up the window,” the stranger points out in mild surprise a moment later. “You’re rolling up–” His voice gets cut off as the window closes and he’s forced to pull his fingers away to avoid them getting caught.
“Get the fuck away from my car!” Kevin bellows as the man bobs apologetically outside, then flips him off for good measure. The man waves as if oblivious to the rudeness and wanders off. Kevin turns back to the camera, only to have the guy pop suddenly back into the frame, his mouth open to ask more questions. “NO!” Kevin screams, and he finally retreats.
Kevin looks back at the camera and snarls, “fucking douchebag,” but even before the insult is out of his mouth he starts laughing, clearly full of delight at the world, at this new year, at this random red-headed idiot that he’s never met suddenly showing up in his life and refusing to go away for good. I don’t know if people who saw it at the time realized it, but it’s not just a small gift for the fans who helped him get through 2013. It’s also an implied promise for 2014: I’m starting the year with Sami Zayn, and I intend to finish it with him as well.
By early 2014, Sami has been pestering Cesaro for months of NXT broadcasts to face him again. He beat Cesaro on his debut night in May 2013; since then Cesaro has defeated him twice in singles matches, including their amazing two-out-of-three-falls match. Cesaro has nothing but contempt for the scrappy underdog who doesn’t seem to know when to give up. But Sami won’t stop demanding yet another rematch, determined to beat Cesaro and force him to respect him at last. Finally, Cesaro agrees to one more match, on the condition that if Sami loses, he will accept defeat and stop bothering him for one more chance. Sami agrees, and the match is set.
In February 2014, NXT has their first live event, the first live broadcast ever on the newly-launched WWE Network. It’s a momentous test and a huge risk, and the wrestlers they tap to open up this landmark event are Sami Zayn and Cesaro, finishing up their nearly year-long feud. Sami and Cesaro take that responsibility and deliver magnificently, in a match that’s one of the best in either of their careers.
Sami struggles, scratches and claws through the whole match. He’s clearly overmatched by Cesaro from the very beginning–in fact, he might be at an even bigger disadvantage now, because this time Cesaro is ready with counters for his major moves, like here:
He works Sami’s knee, brutalizing him over and over with kicks and merciless submissions.
But Sami simply refuses to admit defeat and just keeps pushing, pushing, pushing. He pulls out every tool in his arsenal: his Arabian Press moonsault, his Blue Thunder Bomb, his exploder suplex. The crowd sings Ole, and Sami just keeps fighting. It’s one of the most classic of all wrestling stories, and it’s rarely been told better–the sneering ubermensch versus the resolute everyman. Sami will not submit, he will not stay down, and as the match progresses you can see Cesaro go from contemptuous to wry:
…to finally disbelieving and almost awed at the depth of Sami’s need to be respected, his imperious refusal to give up.
In the most memorable wrestling matches, there tends to be a moment where the issues and conflicts of the story are resolved before the action moves into the finish. Those moments are often very distinct in matches featuring Sami: putting the NXT title down against Neville; holding Kevin for that long, fraught moment at Battleground; faltering before Daniel Bryan’s pity at WrestleMania. At ArRival against Cesaro, it’s a moment where Cesaro has knocked Sami to the mat and looms above him, demanding that he stay down.
Sami struggles to his feet, and Cesaro knocks him down again. Again he yells “Stay down!”–but this time his voice cracks. Again, he knocks him down. “Stay down! Stay down!” he keeps saying, his voice going from commanding to almost begging. Sami shoves his fist to the mat to brace himself, to push himself to his feet one more time, and when the camera cuts to Cesaro you can see the horrified realization dawning–in his face, in the very way he stands–that he no longer wants to keep destroying Sami.
And this is how Sami Zayn at his very best triumphs–not by a simple win, but by resisting, and resisting, and resisting, until something breaks through: in his opponent’s heart, or in his own, or in ours. Sami’s won the fight that matters here in this moment, although he doesn’t know it yet.
Sami rallies and charges at him again, and the match moves on through a flurry of wild offense and counters, until Cesaro delivers a massive European uppercut to the exhausted, wobbling Sami, then pins him–and Sami kicks out at one.
He hardly seems aware he’s done it, he’s almost out cold, but Cesaro is aware: more than aware, he’s appalled. There’s something close to fear on his face in this moment. He leaps forward and at last hits his finisher on Sami, finally keeps him down long enough to pin him. The crowd applauds, a bit sadly. Sami, barely conscious, manages to prop his back against the ropes. He sits there, struggling to catch his breath, as Cesaro leaves the ring–and then Cesaro turns around and comes back to confront him.
Sami stares up at him, and you can see he wants to summon the strength to get up and fight again, but he clearly has nothing left, either physically or emotionally. He’s lost, he’s failed to force Cesaro to respect him. He’s looking despair in the eye and refusing to flinch.
And then Cesaro drags him to his feet and hugs him.
You know, I felt a little bad, writing this recap, that I didn’t gif the pin and loss or describe them in detail, giving them just a cursory “then Cesaro pins him.” But describing this I realize my intuition to skim over them was valid, because the pin, the loss, the rung bell, they’re all just a set of moves leading up to the actual climax of the match and the actual victory, which is in this moment as Cesaro embraces Sami as an equal, and whispers something in his ear that leaves Sami smiling through tears.
It’s an incredibly satisfying, hard-won moment, and one that has long-term impact on both wrestlers’ characters. The feud and the match firmly establish Sami Zayn’s personality, both the strengths and the flaws: tenacious to the point of obsession, willing to go to any lengths to wrench the respect he knows he deserves from other wrestlers, from the fans, from the entire world.
For his part, Cesaro’s character ends up shifting face for a time, largely due to the momentum from this match and his willingness to admit defeat in the midst of victory and embrace Sami.
The first Network special is a success: Paige is crowned first NXT women’s champ, Adrian Neville wins the men’s title from Bo Dallas in a ladder match. Sami and Cesaro came through and kicked it off right. Backstage exclusive videos show Triple H congratulating a still-tearful, almost overwhelmed-looking Sami.
It’s a great beginning: for the Network, for Sami’s 2014.
Kevin does his last in-depth non-WWE shoot interview at around the same time, in early 2014. It might be the benefit of hindsight, but the tone of this interview feels different from earlier ones: more reflective, more reminiscent. He tells in-depth stories about touring Italy with El Generico; mulls over puzzling booking choices in his career. He states his opinions on a variety of issues rather like an elder statesman aware that he’ll be departing the stage soon.
Near the end of the video, the interviewer asks him if it’s true he’s got a tryout with WWE in March. Kevin hesitates, and the voice behind the camera, guessing the reason for his reticence, reassures him that the video won’t be released until after that date.
The producer interjects that yes, he can promise that, and Kevin relaxes and begins to talk about his upcoming tryout with a barely contained excitement. The interviewer responds to this information with his excitement much more contained—and it’s important to remember here that in early 2014, NXT was not at all considered the playground of Triple H’s “indie darlings.” Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. For example, all new wrestlers, whatever the background, were required at the time to go through exactly the same training. In theory it was an egalitarian system created to treat everyone equally. In reality it was practically designed to bore experienced wrestlers to tears of frustration, as they had to endlessly practice taking bumps, doing forward rolls, and other skills they’d mastered years ago. In addition, some NXT trainers at the time were notoriously hard on wrestlers who came to WWE with previous indie experience, and backstage gossip hints that it was a constant struggle for people like Sami, Neville, and Kassius Ohno at the time—as well as anyone who wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t muscular enough, or just didn’t have the right “look.” The interviewer points out that the American Wolves had appeared on NXT programming for only one week, and that the rumor was WWE would not be hiring any more indie wrestlers. “Do you feel discouraged about your chances?” the interviewer asks. Kevin answers before he’s even done with the sentence, speaking over him:
The interviewer, who I believe is legitimately worried about the fate of talented indie wrestlers in the WWE machine, but whose concern comes off as almost insultingly incredulous at the idea that Kevin could possibly make it there, asks what Kevin will do if they require him to do physical drills. Will he be able to keep up?
“Yes,” Kevin says.
But… what if they tell you you can’t wear a t-shirt, the interviewer wants to know.
“I’m not going to wear a t-shirt,” Kevin laughs. “I’m not an idiot.”
What if they change your name. What if they change your whole character.
Watching this from the future, it’s deeply gratifying to know that he ends up wearing a shirt, that he only loses his last name and it’s for something that’s also meaningful, and that he gets to be… pretty much who he’s always been, just toned down in a way that seems entirely in-character for a person who’s hitting their thirties and starting to wonder if maybe dialing it down a notch–not stopping terrorizing, just finding new and more subtle ways to terrorize–might be a bit of a relief. There’s no sense of severance with the past; everything he was, he still is. I’m always fascinated by the fact that Sami Zayn was created from one of the greatest character disjunctions in wrestling, while Kevin’s character retains its history so completely: both of them doing whatever it takes to make this work, to any extreme of disassociation or continuity.
So that’s where Kevin is mentally as he flies down to Florida in March 2014 to walk into the Performance Center for his WWE tryout. And they do put him through grueling physical drills, so exhausting they reduce him to momentary tears:
He gets through them, and eventually–finally–they also have him cut a promo. The topic he chooses is Sami Zayn and their friendship.
Now, this audition promo, of course, wasn’t released at the time–he wasn’t even signed yet. Yet a year and a half later, talking with Sam Roberts, Kevin mentioned that he hoped it would one day get released for people to see:
So it’s something he considers important. Keep that mind, because we’re going to do some skipping around in time for a bit.
In 2015, after his debut, after he betrays Sami Zayn on the night of his greatest triumph, Kevin sits down for an interview with Michael Cole. Cole, rather naturally, wants to know why exactly Kevin attacked his best friend like that. Kevin blandly insists that it was nothing personal, that it was merely a practical decision to gun for the title in order to provide for his family. He doesn’t harbor any ill-will toward Sami Zayn at all, and he wishes Sami understood that. Cole presses him, saying that doesn’t seem like the truth, and as Kevin responds, increasingly on the defensive, he breaks into a stammer in the middle of a sentence:
Watching that in 2015, knowing nothing of Kevin before WWE, I raise an eyebrow in some surprise: Kevin doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who bobbles many lines. In fact, as I watch more of his work, it becomes increasingly clear he just… doesn’t mess up lines, pretty much at all. So that stammer, it probably isn’t an error by Kevin Steen the actor, it’s a slip by Kevin Owens the character, and as such it hints at some deeper thought or emotion he breaks off to keep from saying. I’m fascinated by this evidence that the character has thoughts, emotions, motivations that the actor is fully aware of but withholds from the audience–and maybe from the character himself, because Kevin Owens is better at lying to himself than he is at lying to anyone else. That’s not just reading a script in a believable way, that’s inhabiting your character completely. That moment, that tiny little bobble, is one of the points where I start to really get interested in the character of Kevin Owens and how he’s embodied by Kevin Steen.
Still, it’s just a tiny stutter. It’s kind of silly to imagine that the actor knows precisely what that stammer obscured, exactly what words KO cut himself off from blurting out, right?
When Kevin’s tryout promo is released as part of his DVD in 2017 and I finally get to see it, I start laughing with complete delight. Look, look, there it is, this is almost certainly what was on the tip of KO’s tongue in that interview with Cole, that this scream of agonized envy is what rests at the heart of the character, carefully buried under a thousand layers of rationalizations and excuses and self-delusions. What meticulous and full-hearted work, to breathe life into a character so completely that it seems not acting at all.
Another jump, chasing down this theme: back to 2015, in Tokyo. Dan and I have just finished watching KO wrestle John Cena, and Dan is going through his photos of the night. We reach one in which Kevin, after taking some move, lies on the mat for a moment:
Looking at the photo, I say without thinking, lost in admiration: “Look at how he lies on the mat, with purpose and intensity.”
Dan looks at me. I look back at him. We look at the picture of a guy lying on his side.
“Look at how he lies on the mat,” I repeat firmly, leaning into the absurdity of it, “with purpose and intensity.”
Because it’s true: Kevin lies on the mat like a person who has betrayed his best friend to get to where he is.
And he slumps against Sami in their Battleground match like a person who fought John Cena like a person who betrayed his best friend to get where he is.
And he jokes around with Chris Jericho like a person who collapsed against their former friend like a person who fought John Cena like a person who betrayed his best friend to get where he is.
He betrays Chris Jericho like a person who joked with Jericho like a person who collapsed against their former friend like a person who fought John Cena like a person who betrayed his best friend to get where he is.
He’s saved by Sami at Hell in a Cell like a person who betrayed Chris Jericho after joking around with him like a person who collapsed against their former friend like a person who fought John Cena like a person who betrayed his best friend to get where he is.
And so on and on, events piling up inexorably, each one added to the next, every one leading to now. Many wrestlers, I think, approach their storylines with a kind of “soft reboot,” coming to each angle and feud fresh and ready to explore another aspect of their character. You’d almost have to: who could keep all the tangle of contradictory motivations that wrestlers collect over the years, the decades, there at once? But other wrestlers seem to try to hold all of the jumble of wildly divergent events together into one character, and Kevin is one of the greatest at it. Maybe it’s a skill he was forced to develop when he was wrestling the exact same match for four months in Jacques Rougeau’s school and needed to find some way to stave off boredom; maybe it’s a talent that he honed in Ring of Honor’s tag division where no one gave him any stories and he had to come up with his own sense of his character’s motivations. But I believe Kevin is one of the best at knowing where his character is going, remembering where his character has been, and putting some of that knowledge into every angle he’s given, whether it involves winning the Universal championship or getting duct-taped into a portapotty.
Kevin Steen is notorious for remembering dates and anniversaries of events (he always marks the anniversary of Dusty Rhodes’ death on Twitter in some way, for example). And because Kevin Steen manages somehow to keep them straight and hold them together, Kevin Owens is always and forever the same person who did every single one of the things he did, each event across 17 years somehow informing and giving weight to everything that happens, like a roll of quarters clutched in a fist to add brutal impact. And I believe you don’t even need to know what those events are–I didn’t, when he threw Sami to the ramp at the end of his debut night. I could feel the weight of them anyway.
When Kevin superkicks Kofi Kingston, it’s with all the deliberate, conscious, accumulated force of the Festival of Friendship, and being Universal champion, and goofing with Mount Rushmore, and watching Sami sign that WWE contract in front of him, and bathing in Colt Cabana’s blood, and winning tag team championships with Generico, and refusing to do hardcore matches as Mr. Wrestling; years and years of experience, all the way back to being Le Kid and walking away from Jacques Rougeau’s school as a sheltered prodigy to be true to wrestling and himself. All of it, everything, with purpose and intensity.
In 2014, Kevin is wrapping up his tryout promo. He ends with a snarled threat at Sami Zayn, but what’s most striking, for my money, is the very last seconds of the video, after the promo ends, after he winks at the camera.
Kevin mentions those seconds on his DVD:
You can see that in his face, how the malice drops away to leave him… not happy or even pleased, but certain. Ready.
Kevin goes to New Orleans a few weeks later for WrestleMania weekend. He does some final interviews for the Kevin Steen Show: with Johnny Gargano, with Cliff Compton, with the Young Bucks. His demeanor in all of them is striking—relaxed, expansive. At ease. His interviewees all seem aware and delighted that they are among the last guests on his show, brimming over with happiness for him. Cliff Compton sets off to tell a story about how a friend of Kevin’s went to a Guns n’ Roses concert with him. Kevin starts the story by explaining that the story is about a mutual friend of theirs, NXT superstar Sami Zayn. Compton laughs, and then shoots Kevin a sly glance and blurts out:
Kevin, who has maintained this boundary zealously across two dozen interviews, almost glares at him for a second–then relaxes and laughs it off.
Compton is constitutionally incapable of remembering which name to use, which very quickly leads to a bizarre situation where it feels like Kevin’s got two separate awkward over-enthusiastic friends hanging out backstage meeting Axl Rose.
As Compton really gets into his story, the names flip back and forth as the events get more and more hilarious:
Now hold up, hold the hell up, who’s this Rami showing up at the last second? Honestly, am I supposed to believe Kevin has three twitchy oblivious red-headed friends? Surely two was enough; three is just getting absurd. Kevin, who seems used to absurdity, who is heading off to attack Sami soon enough, who is somehow also going wherever Generico is, who I assume has plans with Rami for the future; Kevin finally just relaxes and lets Compton tell his story.
Kevin goes to WrestleMania 30 that same weekend. He’s there in the audience when Cesaro wins the Andre the Giant Battle Royal, he’s watching when Daniel Bryan wins the main event. In interviews, he mentions that it was an important WrestleMania for him, because he swore to himself that it would be the last ‘Mania he ever attended as a spectator: from now on, he would either be in the spotlight or not there at all.
As he watches the show, he notices a WWE camera doing a random scan of the audience and realizes he’s going to show up prominently in the footage being taken. He makes a mental note of it for future reference, knowing that it might be valuable someday: for a retrospective, a video package, a DVD. And indeed, when WWE puts his first DVD together, he remembers it, tells them about that moment, and they go to find it and put it into the documentary.
The camera operator doesn’t seem to be aware this audience member is anything out of the ordinary; the camera’s gaze slides by him incuriously. But Kevin gives it, and us through it, a long, level look, and his expression is the same as in the moment his tryout promo finished: composed. Prepared. Ready.
Somewhere in the same arena, we can assume that NXT superstar Sami Zayn is probably backstage, getting ready for whatever comes next in 2014. It’s a year that will feature his Road to Redemption storyline, his rise to the top of NXT and his winning of the NXT championship. It’s a year that will end with his best friend showing up to celebrate with him and to betray him. Somewhere nearby, Sami Zayn is ready with his own purpose and intensity–which is good, because they’re both going to need it, going forward.
Next: Sami wins the NXT title and Kevin arrives in spectacular style to kick off their story in WWE.