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This is Ours
Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens Head to WrestleMania... Together
It’s 2016, and Kevin Owens has just won the Universal Championship, the highest title on Raw. Sami Zayn has been watching the match backstage, staring up at the screen in a kind of numb shock as he sees his old friend (and in the story, current bitter enemy) achieve the pinnacle.
Kevin comes through the backstage curtain and goes straight to Sami, pushing aside his respectful applause and sweeping him into a hug.
He tucks his head into Sami’s shoulder and says something unintelligible, then adds, his voice muffled by tears and cloth and Sami’s body, “This is ours.”
The scene is captured on the 2017 DVD WWE released, Fight Owens Fight: The Kevin Owens Story. Two things struck me immediately, the very first time I watched it:
The first is Sami’s reaction. We only see him from behind, but you can see in the very line of his shoulders and neck that Kevin’s words have a physical impact on him as he tightens the hug. Watching it, I feel an uncanny certainty that this phrase has a private and powerful meaning for these two men, an extra resonance even beyond the idea of a shared triumph. There’s a history here.
The second is the careful framing of the scene. If there’s any backstage footage included in a WWE production you can be sure it’s been deliberately chosen, because that curtain is never drawn back casually. They didn’t have to show the moment at all; they didn’t have to include the audio; they didn’t have to subtitle it to make sure no one missed this particular phrase. Someone, whether Kevin, Sami or the producer of the DVD, wanted to make sure we saw this utterly kayfabe-breaking exchange. It was important it be entered into the official record, this moment that’s both intimate and public, this thing we are simultaneously not meant to see and called to witness.
The kind of thing a nosy and inquisitive researcher couldn’t help but keep returning to, worrying at, wondering about. There’s a history here.
This is ours.
Professional wrestling is all about secret cooperation. One of the things that made me fall in love with wrestling is summed up in a Bret Hart quote: “To me there is something beautiful about a brotherhood of big, tough men who only pretend to hurt one another for a living instead of actually doing it.” Obviously we can now add tough women to the list, but the hidden solicitude that enthralls me remains the same. Backstage and in secret, wrestlers are working together to protect each other, and sometimes the greatest enemies are the closest friends.
Despite that, the top prizes, the championships that define the art, are held by single people. Bayley and Sasha Banks are the best of friends, and they crafted their stunning match at Brooklyn in 2016 together, but at the end of it Bayley stood alone as champion. There’s no sharing a title in wrestling. The few times there’s been a co-championship, its narrative purpose has been to highlight the friction between the apparent equals, to make clear there is no true shared triumph, only competition. When Layla and Michelle McCool won a handicap match for the championship, for example, they claimed to be co-champions, but McCool was listed as the official champion. For all their loud protestations of eternal friendship, it was inevitable they would break the belt in two, because a single title cannot belong to two people.
When Sami and Kevin become allies in 2017, they never become a tag team. They gun for the tag titles once on a large house show, but then they remain singles competitors who team up sometimes as they enter the program that will eventually bring them into conflict with a returning Daniel Bryan. Their alliance is… uneasy. On the surface they are overjoyed to be together, but beneath that delight squirms uncertainty, insecurity, rivalry. They’re desperately trying to be a unit, but the very nature of singles wrestling is making it impossible.
For a while they attempt, like LayCool before them, to become co-champions and win the WWE championship from AJ Styles together in a handicap match. When Sami manages to pin Styles in a non-title match beforehand, there’s an astonishing moment backstage where Kevin tries to praise him and Sami roars back that there’s no division between them, no praise that can go to Sami that does not also go to Kevin:
Within the context of singles wrestling, this is clearly wishful thinking on Sami’s part, and when they fail to capture the championship everything implodes, their attempt at union fragmenting back into me and you instead of we. They fundamentally don’t trust or respect each other yet, and as long as there’s only one title to be fought for, it’s almost impossible for them to do so. Eventually they drift into separate programs—Sami against Bobby Lashley, Kevin against Braun Strowman—and their alliance falters and fails until Sami disappears for double shoulder surgery. Kevin wistfully reminds everyone that their union should have been unstoppable:
But it never really re-materializes. They’re on separate brands for years, passing by each other now and then, sometimes meeting in the ring, never really connecting.
Give Kevin the chance to talk about his Universal title win, and he’s likely to mention that phrase again in some way. In an interview right after his win, before the DVD was released, he didn’t name Sami, but it was clear who he meant when he talked about who he met first coming through the curtain: “The first one, I don’t want to just say who it is, but I think people can figure it out. It was very emotional because in a lot of ways, we both achieved this. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s our title, in a way, if that makes any sense.”
More recently, here he is remembering that night:
In the leadup to Survivor Series last year, in an interview with Fox Sports, he mentions it again: “I said to him at that time, I told him, 'This is ours.’ We both just worked really hard to get to where we were, and a lot of the work we did and the journey we went through we did it together. So, that night was special to both of us I think, and I'm really looking forward to the night he wins, whether it be the Universal Title or whatever title that he might win, and I get to share that with him as well. I'm sure it's gonna happen sooner than later.”
It’s not just Kevin, either: doing an interview in French shortly after the DVD came out, Sami stressed that same pronoun, that our.
Or when reminiscing about TakeOver R-Evolution, where Sami won the title and Kevin had his first match:
As if he were finally fully debuting himself because Kevin was there. It was the debut of the two of them.
Our story. Our debut. Our title.
I’ve watched Sami’s NXT title win against Neville in 2014 maybe a hundred times. It’s not just the win itself, triumphant as that is, but the celebration after, when the newly-debuted Kevin Owens charges to the ring to wrap Sami up in a huge hug, ripping open the stitches on his recently-broken nose and dripping blood all over Sami as everyone cheers.
Sami, transported with triumph, kisses Kevin over and over on the forehead. When the hug breaks, he steps back, then lurches forward again to wrap Kevin up once more. But this is Sami’s moment, not Kevin’s, and so Kevin eventually moves back to a corner to watch as Sami is lifted up and celebrated by his peers, by Pat Patterson, by the loving audience. The first dozen or so times one watches this scene (I watch this scene), the eyes are most likely caught only by Sami, that greatest of underdogs, alight with joyous victory. It’s only later that I take the time to notice how Kevin, there in the corner, is wiping tears and blood from his face, gazing up at Sami.
Much, much later, I finally watch not Sami or Kevin, but Sami and Kevin. That’s when I realize that Sami, who I’ve long taken to be calling out to the audience, is actually making urgent eye contact with Kevin. He’s pointing back and forth between Kevin and the title, and he’s saying something. It’s impossible to hear him, impossible to read his lips, but I know, I know what he’s calling out to Kevin, Kevin who made it to NXT two years after Sami, who in that moment probably fears that Sami is soon heading up to the main roster without him, that they’ll be eternally out of sync now.
This is ours.
Tag team and trios divisions are the only place in wrestling where triumph can be openly shared. It’s the only place where you can stand side by side with a friend in the ring and be equal winners. That’s why so many characters are enriched by a jaunt through the tag division, where individual wrestlers can have a shared motivation. It’s where relationships are created and deepened. A promotion without a thriving tag team division struggles to build relationships that an audience can invest in, especially between babyfaces. Heels band together in factions, but babyfaces nearly always stand alone, unless they’re in a tag team.
Kevin and Sami started off as singles wrestlers in Quebec, decades ago. It was only once they were signed by Ring of Honor that they really became a tag team. Both the characters and the real people behind them have explored, almost obsessively, the same questions over and over in their career: Must we be separate to succeed? Can we be stronger together? The theme recurs constantly in their work: for example, in Kevin and El Generico’s last interaction before El Generico leaves him to become Sami Zayn, where Kevin informs his friend through tears that “I would be nothing without you,” his voice cracking wildly on the nothing as El Generico wipes his eyes through the mask.
Or in 2008, where Kevin has just won a shot at the top Ring of Honor title. El Generico, then still his tag team partner, leaps into the ring to wrap him up in celebratory hugs. Kevin takes the mic to give a speech. As he does, Sami (you can see his eyes behind the mask, they’re Sami’s eyes, considering impact, reading the room) realizes that he’s in camera range along with Kevin and starts to back up, out of the spotlight. To give Kevin his moment. But Kevin sees him backing away and abruptly develops a limp. “Come here,” he barks at his friend, “I need a crutch.” Having invented a plausible excuse, he pulls Generico, pulls Sami in close and keeps his arm around him so they can share the moment together.
A voice in the crowd yells out, “Are you his bitch?”
Because that’s the thing about sharing triumph, it’s considered unmanly, emasculating. That fan wanted to make it clear: we must know who is on top and who is inferior, who leads and who follows, who’s the boss and who’s the bitch. If Kevin is number one contender, his tag partner obviously is less than him now. You can’t share these things. Real men stand alone, they don’t show any reliance on others. Ask a lot of men which is more risky, hurling yourself off a WrestleMania sign or leaning on a friend, and there won’t be any hesitation in that answer. The tag title, which involves some level of interdependence to win it? That’s never going to be seen as equally valuable to a singles title. Terms like participation trophy or consolation prize are always going to be slung around when people discuss them, because it’s just that hard to believe that a victory shared means as much as one where the winner stands alone.
Having found that moment in NXT, at the peak of Sami’s victory, I still feel like that’s also a reference, not the original. It feels like there’s an older version out there. I’m not sure if I can find it, but I keep an eye out for it, and of course it turns out that it’s been staring me in the face all along.
During his feud with Sami in NXT, Kevin Owens—bitter, filled with jealousy and hatred—mentions more than once that Sami signed his WWE contract right in front of him while they were out at dinner together, as if this were some kind of particularly cruel thing to do, as if it were a taunt. I can’t imagine Sami—either the character or the real person—being at all taunting during an exchange like that. What did he say, I wonder, that Kevin-Owens-the-character could use as fodder for envy and competition?
When I finally remember and go to check, I feel stupid: it was right there in the same Fight Owens Fight documentary, I just didn’t realize it because it happened earlier than the Universal championship win and the celebration that caught my eye. Talking about the moment he signed the contract in front of Kevin, Sami explains why he’d been careful to do that:
They’re words that could be taken for a taunt—except they weren’t, they were a challenge and promise. A challenge because he knew Kevin would be there eventually, a promise because he went to NXT and immediately started hounding Dusty Rhodes, William Regal, Triple H, anyone he could find, to take a look at Kevin. He said words that would echo at his winning the NXT championship and then at Kevin winning the Universal championship, moments where they asserted in semi-public that they consider every achievement shared, every title co-held.
This is ours.
For years, but especially recently, whenever someone has asked either Kevin or Sami if they could become a tag team, the answer has always been an almost impatient “yes.” In August 2022, Kevin says “There are a couple of guys I could see myself winning the Tag Team Titles with, obviously, Sami is at the top of the list. That would be the ultimate good moment for us, to achieve that.” A year earlier, Sami was even more matter-of-fact: “It feels like it’s got to happen eventually, right? It has to happen. It has to, yeah.”
In May 2022, Kevin and Sami had a reunion on Smackdown that went sour when Kevin critiqued Sami’s attempts to join the Bloodline, which had started just a few weeks ago. Kevin warned Sami that the Bloodline didn’t care about him, and what had started with hugs and happiness ended with glares and bitterness.
The next Raw, the Usos came to the ring to fight Riddle and Nakamura. As they posed with their titles, they noted that they didn’t care about anyone, not the fans, and especially not that one particular Kevin Owens fan they saw in the crowd.
Watching them laugh, my eyebrows went up. Kevin’s feud with Roman was long over. He was in a different division than the Usos. Out of all the wrestling shirts in the audience, why pick KO’s shirt to mock? Unlike a house show, almost nothing said on television is casual or random. Was it possible—
I tamped myself down severely. It was ludicrous to leap to any conclusions about angles based on a throwaway line. Plus, I didn’t want to look like a fool again. I’d been predicting a tag run for Kevin and Sami for seven years now and nothing had ever really come of it. As the Usos wrestled on the screen, my brain ran back over every mortifying time I’d anticipated the thing that never happened.
As far back as 2016, I was in the SummerSlam audience and watched Sami team up with Neville and Kevin team up with Chris Jericho. They’d just achieved some level of closure a few months ago—that long pensive final moment before the ending of Battleground—so it would be the perfect time for them to start inching into the tag division, using Neville and Jericho as foils to tell a story about friendship, possibly ending with Sami and Kevin in a tag team… Or so I thought, but that very night Finn Balor was injured winning the Universal championship. Kevin won the vacated title a week later and spun off into his legendary run with Jericho that culminated in the Festival of Friendship, and I was both thrilled and crushed. Now that Kevin had achieved the heights, wouldn’t Sami always be seen as his sidekick? Would they never be equals again?
In 2017, Kevin lost his Universal title, then played hot potato with the US title between him, Jericho, and AJ Styles for a while. Sami grew increasingly frustrated with his own lack of title, finally turning heel to ally with Kevin. Surely this alliance had to eventually solidify into a tag team run, right? There was even a moment just before the handicap match for the WWE championship where Sami talks about the upcoming match. In a voice full of emotion, he says:
He seems to be talking about the WWE title, but he’s not. Winning the WWE championship wouldn’t complete Kevin’s grand slam, because the grand slam isn’t the US, Intercontinental, and top two titles. It’s the US, Intercontinental, one top title, and the tag titles. That one match, that one championship that Kevin still needs is not the match Sami seems to be talking about. It’s the tag titles. And Sami knew when he said that line that he would be there at Kevin’s side for his grand slam, because they were never going to win the tag titles for the first time with anyone but each other.
But then, somehow, after Mania they drifted apart into separate singles programs until both of them took time off for surgery, leaving the fans not only with no tag titles, but with no Kevin or Sami at all. 2018 was a bleak year.
In 2019, Sami and Kevin came back from rehab at the same time: an excellent sign! Kevin came back a babyface and Sami a bitter, miserable heel. Perfect: Kevin, the root cause of Sami’s misery, could become the force that pulls Sami back into being a babyface by teaming up with him and redeeming both of them. It had been two whole years since Kevin had held a title by then, so he and Sami were much more equalized. As 2019 came to a close, it seemed so plausible: Sami’s faction-mates, Cesaro and Shinsuke, turning on him, Kevin reluctantly turning up to make the save, leading to… Leading to the pandemic, actually. Leading to Sami and Kevin getting frozen in their alignments and almost never interacting at all.
Through 2020 and 2021, Sami won gold three times, while Kevin stayed title-less. Kevin spent the Thunderdome era talking a lot about how he had made mistakes in the past and alienated his friends, and how he hoped to redeem himself.
Surely the best redemption would be for him to repair his friendship with Sami as soon as there were audiences, to team up and break Kevin’s gold drought together! As the build to the 2021 WrestleMania began and Sami and Kevin started to feud, Kevin talked about how he wanted to stun sense into Sami, how he wanted to bring back the old Sami that he loved and respected, the Sami that he would be happy to team up with.
But after the WrestleMania match, while Sami did abandon a lot of the conspiracy theory talk, he and Kevin never reconciled. The program led to a last man standing match, which Kevin won, and then they were on separate brands again. Separate brands! Again!
And that was the last straw. I gave up. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me continuously for five years, really, shame on me. Kevin turned heel again in late 2021, went on the Bump and said that his long struggle to make up for his past mistakes had been a failure, and I couldn’t help but empathize. All of my predictions of Sami teaming up with Kevin–none of them had mattered. It had been a foolish waste of time.
Why should I keep hoping that this alliance would happen? It wasn’t going to happen. So when the Usos mockingly called out that KO fan in 2022, I covered my ears to try and block out the ridiculous, hopeful voice that said “But maybe…” I didn’t want anything to do with the idea of Kevin and Sami as a tag team, ever again. I’d been hurt by it too many times. Put it away. Stop hoping. Like Kevin, I was just… done.
Maybe—hear me out here, humor me—maybe I wasn’t always totally wrong every time I thought the story was heading toward a reunion, a reconciliation, a tag team redemption? Maybe I wasn’t always being a fool? And if I was right even half the time, I ask you to consider that maybe this is true:
That the arc of Sami and Kevin’s career is long, but it always, always, always bends toward the tag team titles.
As 2022 went on, as Sami struggled to get into the Bloodline, as Kevin suddenly turned face again and then inexplicably didn’t get into any major feud, just helped out Johnny Gargano and then floated program-less, as if waiting for something… That little voice started to get louder and louder, By Survivor Series it was a rattling klaxon. And by now it seems clear that the Bloodline story was designed as a year-long angle to climax at WrestleMania between Kevin and Sami and the Usos, a story that got extra energy and attention because of Sami and Roman’s immense talent and chemistry. It’s going where it was always meant to go, toward the conclusion it was meant to have, a conclusion that raises again the old question: Can we be stronger together?
In wrestling, the answer to that question is a pendulum that swings perpetually between “yes” and “no.” But the times when the answer is “yes”—Yes, we can be more than the sum of our parts; yes, our reliance on each other is a strength—those periods are not filler or wasted time. They are the vital heart of a long-term story—a career—like Kevin and Sami’s. They are the most hard-fought and hard-won victories of all. And as Sami finally figured out, it’s that connection that matters most of all—more than any vendetta or title.
What Kevin needed to hear was that Sami valued him for himself, not as a tool to help him bring down the Bloodline. What Sami needed to say was that their friendship mattered to him: that their sorrows are shared sorrow, that their joys are shared joy.
In two weeks, Sami and Kevin will stand on the grandest stage of them all to battle for the titles that symbolize dreams shared, goals achieved together. They will enter WrestleMania side by side as equals. And if they win the titles, they will be able to say one more time the thing that Sami has said to Kevin, and Kevin has said to Sami. This time, they can finally say it together to the world.
This is ours.