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The Marks That Persist
In which Kevin saves his friend via run-in in 2012... and 2017... and 2023...
Wrestling is palimpsestic, which is a fantastic and utterly useless word to know. In ancient Greece and Rome, a palimpsest was a wax tablet that people wrote on over and over, smoothing the wax to erase the writing before. However, the marks of the previous writings would remain slightly visible, persisting beneath the new writing like a ghost or an echo. Now it gets used in literary theory to describe texts where previous versions—that can contradict, replicate, or build on each other—can be glimpsed “beneath” the new ones.
Wrestling—in which not much seems to be remembered for more than three months and yet nothing is ever fully erased, either—is a perfect postmodern example of this. Wrestling personae change but are rarely totally forgotten—Dolph Ziggler’s past as cheerleader Nicky is almost never mentioned, but it still apparently happened, and there are weird references to it now and then. The Demon Kane gets connected to dentistry here and there, a bewildering theme unless you know that the same person played the evil wrestling dentist (!!!) “Isaac Yankem” for a while. If you’re the kind of person to get obsessed with hidden Easter eggs and obscure callbacks, wrestling is a treasure trove.
With their incredibly long history and their notorious attention to detail, Kevin and Generico (and then Sami) are the pinnacle of this kind of wrestling writing: intricate and reference-heavy, with the marks of previous matches, feuds, stories persisting in unexpected places. Paying attention to their work can sometimes be almost maddening, as you start to wonder if you’re becoming the wrestling equivalent of this guy:
But it’s fun, too. I mean, at least we’re not arguing the earth is flat or something.
At PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles 2012, a variety of different pressure points start to converge. On night one, Brian Cage interferes with Kevin’s tournament match, costing him the win. Kevin returns the favor on night two, jumping in to cost Cage his own match. Cage, infuriated, starts to beat Kevin up, and the Young Bucks—damn it, here they are again, those annoying little bastards—run in and attack Kevin as well. Then the crowd pops like mad when Rick Knox, the fan-favorite referee, runs out to try and settle things down. As Kevin rolls out of the ring, Cage and the Bucks shift their focus to Knox, who is saved in turn by El Generico.
At this point Knox, goaded beyond bearing by years of Young Buck shenanigans, grabs a mic and challenges the Bucks and Cage to a match that very night, enlisting Generico to help him. Generico is willing, but it’s not a very fair setup, because it would be three on two, and Knox isn’t even a wrestler. So Knox turns to the last member of this standoff: Kevin Steen, standing on the apron and looking… surprisingly hesitant.
Knox appeals to Generico and Kevin to put aside their differences and work together just for this one night. To the audience’s delight, Kevin walks toward Generico, who drops the chair he’s holding and looks about ready to hold out his hand… until Kevin flips him off and walks away laughing, escorted by the disappointed boos of the crowd.
When the match comes along, Knox and Generico are up against Nick Jackson, Matt Jackson, and Brian Cage. It’s two against three on paper, but in reality the situation is even worse, as Knox isn’t an active wrestler. Plus Brian Cage is—well, his nickname is “The Fucking Machine” (as you would expect, commentary never gets tired of the fact that the meaning shifts depending on which word you stress) and he’s gigantic and jacked, he looks he’s got, like, two other wrestlers’ worth of muscles stuffed into his skin, so it feels more like five on one at this point.
The match is, not surprisingly, a total slaughter of El Generico. Generico respects Knox and is willing to tag him in against the Bucks, where he does actually hold his own moderately well. But he’s less willing to let Knox face off against the monster Cage, so he insists on staying in the ring and not tagging out. Meanwhile, the Bucks continue to be agonizing gadflies, interfering and triple-teaming the luchador while Knox stands at the turnbuckle, yelling at the actual active ref to pay attention, how are you not seeing what they’re doing?
I have to admit there’s a certain pleasure to watching a wrestling referee experiencing what bad refereeing is like, as so many wrestlers and audiences have in the past: Ha, now you know how we feel. But that pleasure is painfully counter-balanced by how terribly Generico is suffering, he’s just getting brutalized. In fact, by the time he realizes he’s in way over his head and he has to tag out, he’s too battered to make it back to his corner, leading to a desperate sequence of failed tags:
And when it looks like he finally might make it there after all, one of the Bucks yanks Knox off the apron to the floor, out of the match. Now there’s no one at all for Generico to tag in and he has no choice but to keep getting pummeled. It’s a worst-case scenario and everything seems bleak.
At which point Kevin Steen comes charging out of the locker room to the ring.
The crowd actually doesn’t pop incredibly hard at first! They react with gasps and cries, but it’s a little hesitant, as if they’re not sure if he might just join Cage and the Bucks to destroy Generico. But as Kevin pauses, looking down at the fallen Knox and up at the action in the ring, the crowd starts to realize that this might not be a disaster after all. They remember that Kevin has plenty of immediate reason to hate Cage and the Bucks, and a desperate chant of “Help, Steen, Help!” breaks out as he jumps up onto the apron and—unbelievably—holds out his hand for Generico to make the tag.
Dazed with pain, struggling to get away from his tormentors, Generico lurches toward the outstretched hand—and stops dead as he realizes whose hand it is.
It’s an amazing moment. Generico stares up at Kevin and—
(Wait, I say out loud in 2018, hitting the pause button. Wait, what the actual fuck—)
It isn’t until I’m re-watching the match for this essay, shortly after reviewing their 2011 match in Steen Wolf, that I realize that this moment perfectly mirrors what I called “the worst moment in wrestling,” in which Kevin mockingly holds out his hand for his opponent Generico to tag and Generico tries to make that tag, only to get beaten up more. It’s the same venue, the same fucking ringpost, the same camera angle, everything is the same—except for the expression on Kevin’s face and Generico’s hesitation.
All those hundreds of hot tags as teammates, all those vicious cruel acts as enemies, they’re all faintly visible, written under the surface of this moment, here as the Reseda crowd screams in breathless hope.
They seem to pause there forever: Generico staring around wildly, Kevin just waiting. When Generico overcomes his doubts and fears and makes the tag, it’s one of the best moments in wrestling, almost exactly one year after the worst moment in wrestling.
Kevin charges into the ring and demolishes the Young Bucks as they plead for mercy in incredibly satisfying fashion:
He gets all three opponents on the floor and prepares to do a somersault plancha onto them—only to be interrupted by an angry Generico, who explains with gestures that he’s going to do the move instead. The two of them square off in a fury and it looks like things might fall apart, but then Knox jumps in and interrupts them, leading to all three doing simultaneous planchas while Excalibur has one of his finest moments as a commentator, erupting into a squawking shriek of delighted shock as the audience screams.
The match ends when Kevin gets Matt Jackson wrapped up for a package piledriver. He looks behind him and realizes Generico is in position for a brainbuster. They exchange a fraught look and then perform the first Assembly Line in almost three years in front of a delirious and disbelieving Reseda crowd:
Knox gets the pin, and Kevin and Generico get their first win together since Kevin turned on Generico. They stare at each other, and the crowd responds with a welter of calls: “fight” and “shake” and a few optimistic “hug it out”s. Kevin extends his hand, but flips Generico off again when Generico goes to shake it.
This time Generico returns the favor, to Reseda’s delight, and Kevin exits, still laughing.
It’s a double rejection, but there’s hope of something more. They were able to work together, at least: surely that’s progress. That one transcendent moment of connection, that has to mean something.
It’s August, 2017. Japan’s morning is North America’s evening, so I’m in the middle of my breakfast scone at my habitual coffeeshop when wrestling Twitter goes mad: incoherent shocked messages streaming onto my timeline: Kevin and Sami? Montreal show teamup? What?!!?
We all start to sort the reports out, piece together the freaked-out tweets and the blurry cell videos. Sami had a match against WWE champion Jinder Mahal, and came to the ring accompanied by local legend and first Intercontinental champion Pat Patterson. Mahal, for his part, brought along the Singh Brothers, his two flunkies who constantly interfere in his matches. The Singhs helped Mahal get the win and started to beat down Sami, then began to harass Patterson, who had jumped up onto the apron to confront them.
And then Kevin showed up at the top of the ramp.
The crowd’s cheers crescendoed as Kevin ran down the ramp, jumped into the ring, and destroyed both of the Singh brothers. Sami finally got to his feet and found himself face to face with Kevin in a tense standoff that looked like it was going to break down into violence—until Mahal tried to jump them, only to receive a beautiful twinned kick to the face and then a simultaneous attack that knocked him over the ropes. As one of the crumpled Singhs staggered to his feet, Sami Helluva kicked him, then looked back over his shoulder at Kevin.
The crowd went berserk, because they could all suddenly see what was going to happen, how these two finishing moves, Sami’s kick and Kevin’s powerbomb, could fit together into one ending. When Sami tossed Singh into Kevin’s powerbomb, everyone jumped for joy; and even though there was no reconciliation, even though it ended only in Kevin backing off and walking away, still. Still.
I marvel about this all through the day, this unexpected gift, this random bit of hope. And then my phone buzzes again: a DM from my friend Rajeev.
BOLA 2012. Kevin saved Sami like he saved Generico then. It’s echoing that. Look at it look at it.
I pull up the Battle of Los Angeles file and re-watch it, and as I do I realize slowly, with a dawning, bemused excitement, that Rajeev is right, that in fact you could argue the parallels are a even more detailed than that. I line them up, side by side, shaking my head. Look:
Our Hero is outnumbered, struggling to protect a beloved local icon from a burly guy and his sidekicks, a pair of brothers. The bad guys menace the icon:
Kevin miraculously shows up to make the save. First he lays waste to the two brothers:
Then Kevin and the hero come face to face for a tense moment before—okay, this doesn’t match up as well and I hope no one was eager to see 76-year-old Pat Patterson take a dive over the ropes—but the visuals are strikingly similar:
The scene ends with Kevin and his former friend delivering their finishing moves in tandem to one of the brothers (which means this Helluva Kick/Pop-up Powerbomb combo has to be Kevin and Sami’s future tag team finishing move, right?)
And teasing a moment of reconciliation before Kevin walks away and leaves his ex-partner alone in the ring.
We talk about it on Twitter and Tumblr, all of us who have decided to make it our mission to find these traces, these little marks of the past. Is it a sheer coincidence—would any two random run-ins have enough parallels you could force? I mean, there are only so many ways to knock down two smaller wrestlers, right? Is it a sort of private in-joke; are the Young Bucks laughing knowingly somewhere, but we weren’t really supposed to catch it? Most unbelievably, was it a deliberate callback to a match from five years ago, a gift to the careful watcher willing to piece it together? We talk about it, this small community of people: the ones who followed Kevin and Generico’s feud in real time; the ones with meticulous time stamps of each NXT match and promo; the ones with careful lists of Ring of Honor Video Wires cued to Steen and Generico’s promos; the ones with a gift for catching visual details and the ones skilled at spotting emotional nuance. Are we imagining that? we ask each other. And we answer each other, as always:
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
We have no idea: we wouldn’t put it past them, but we also wouldn’t put it past ourselves to read patterns into chaos. It doesn’t really matter, though; it’s a fun game, this searching for the ghosts and echoes of texts lurking underneath. A friend of mine makes art of Sami and I write her and say “I like how you put a stylized version of Sami’s SZ logo behind him as a frame.”
And she says “No, that’s…. that’s a mask…” and we stare at it and go “OH” as the optical illusion clicks into place, as we can suddenly see the mask written underneath the logo.
It never ends, this hunt for clues, this infinite quest. In poetry, perhaps, the moving finger having writ moves on, but in wrestling it writes again and again, tracing the same loops and whorls with slightly different ink. Kevin runs out to stop the Bloodline’s beatdown of Sami in 2023 and Montreal goes wild again as they did in 2017, as they always will. Two old friends, two bitter enemies look at each other, and the olé chants rise up around them, carving the text into the wax once again.
The cadre of earnest archaeologists gathers around to study this text, this tablet with Sami and Kevin’s story being written on it. We see the traces of the layers below it and we debate what they could mean: Was that a G? Or was it a Q? I don’t know, I think maybe we’re imagining it this time. How much of what has been erased can we re-construct? And is it possible that this new layer somehow deliberately includes the traces of the layers from before: a doodle of a mask re-worked into someone’s initials; a line from one story transmuted into a line in this new retelling? We’re not sure, but we love the idea that this is something intricate and layered, that we can see an author’s hand and not just random shapes and squiggles on mute wax.
None of this is necessary. No one needed to see the Steen Wolf match to be thrilled when Generico tagged in Kevin: the show is structured so that someone could have walked in off the street, oblivious to every scrap of their history, and still be electrified by that moment. The Montreal run-ins, both in 2017 and 2023, were magic for every person in the audience who had never even heard of El Generico. But we still thrill at the idea that there might be rewards for the sharp-eyed and dedicated. And oh, we are dedicated. We puzzle over each new text, each moment, peering to find extra layers, entranced by the mystery and the challenge of it. We dig in; we don’t give up.
We are the marks that persist.
Later back in 2017, still idly prodding at the BOLA/Montreal connections, I do some date comparisons. From Final Battle 2009 to Battle of Los Angeles 2012, from Kevin’s betrayal of Generico to this fleeting teamup, was 988 days: just over 2 years and 8 months.
From Kevin’s betrayal of Sami at Takeover R-Evolution in 2014 to this fleeting teamup in Montreal was… 968 days, not quite 2 years and 8 months.
I type in another set of dates, from Battle of Los Angeles 2012 to DDT 4 2013, where Kevin and Generico teamed up for the tournament and had their final reconciliation. There’s four months and ten days between them.
For that parallel to work, Kevin and Sami would have to be teaming up again by the end of 2017, which is clearly an impossibility. They’re not even interacting much right now; Sami is feuding off and on with Aiden English, while Kevin is in the U.S. title picture. Their paths are clearly continuing to diverge. That’s okay; I can persist.
Well, I appreciate the callback, if it was even meant to be one, I thank Kevin and Sami mentally. Four days ago, Kevin lost his rematch for the U.S. title to A.J. Styles in a wonky match where the referee failed to notice his foot was on the ropes, and Daniel Bryan announced Shane McMahon would be the special guest referee at another rematch at SummerSlam. Not every scratch or scribble has meaning, however fun they are to spot. I take a moment to laugh at myself for the ridiculous notion that this might hint that Sami and Kevin could be aligned by the end of the year.
Sometimes a mark is just a mark.
Next: The end of the story in Ring of Honor