To Resist Despair: Final Battle 2009
In which Kevin betrays El Generico, and I fall in love with an indomitable cockroach of a human being.
There’s a quote by Edmund Burke that I came across in college. For years, a copy of it in careful violet-ink handwriting was taped to my computer, where I would see it every day: Never despair. But if you do, work on in despair.
It’s… not the most uplifting of inspirational quotes, I suppose. The bright assertion of the beginning (Never give up! Hustle, loyalty, respect!) is undermined by the resigned weariness at the end: well, anyway, just keep going, okay? But it touched something in me, somehow.
What follows is about despair, and resisting it, and about how I came to love the character of Kevin Steen at the absolutely least-convenient moment.
One of the most striking things about Kevin is how willing he is to talk about the many times he he flat-out despairs in his career. He almost gives up after his very first day at wrestling school; he has a hard time taking bumps and when his mother asks him how it went:
In 2010, forced to take a year off from Ring of Honor, he almost walks away again:
When his friends are getting signed to NXT and his contract with Ring of Honor won’t be up for a year, he remembers being upset that time was passing him by:
Even once he gets to NXT, he remembers having a crisis of confidence over his look: he’s been wrestling in a shirt and shorts, but he knows that’s frowned upon in WWE.
No matter how matter-of-factly and simply they’re mentioned, these are all pretty discouraged moments. And yet he keeps going: he gets up and goes back to wrestling school, he heads to the next PWG show, he keeps wrestling, he puts on a shirt and goes to the photoshoot as who he really is. He does what he has to do to keep going anyway; he works on in despair until he finds a way out of it. He’s pretty much my inspirational quote in human form.
I don’t really know this, though, when I first watch Steen & Generico’s final match as a tag team at Final Battle 2009. I’ve just started to watch their older matches; I’ve gotten my hands on Kevin’s first two Ring of Honor DVDs, Ascension to the Top and Descent into Madness, but I know only the roughest outline of his pre-WWE career. I know Final Battle 2009 is where he turns on Generico, but not much else about the match. At this point I’ve seen a lot of young, brash, cocky Kevin on the first DVD; I’ve seen him win the tag titles with Generico. The DVD skips forward about seven months to them losing the titles, and then there’s another roughly seven-month time skip. So when I hit this match for the first time, I’ve lost about a year of Kevin’s career. It’s a year when he admits it feels like he’s been spinning his wheels, treading water: his old knee injury bothers him and he can’t seem to lose weight. Since losing the titles he’s grown increasingly gloomy, impatient with Generico and himself.
But I haven’t seen any of this gradual development, so when I first see him I’m shocked. “Oh, Kevin,” I say, for possibly the first time ever. He’s a mess: limping, shaggy, his beard unkempt and his eyes mournful. If his hero, Shawn Michaels, once famously lost his smile, Kevin has lost his sneer.
He doesn’t attempt to start the match, but just cedes the ring to a baffled Generico:
Even when he puts out his hand for the tag he seems resigned about it, like it doesn’t matter. Generico seems reluctant to let him wrestle at all, but finally tags him in:
He’s clearly struggling to get through the match, and I find myself aching for him: I’ve admired and respected him before, but now for the first time I like him, for the first time I feel an awful, wrenching pity for him.
“Wait, what?” I yelp in horror as I suddenly remember which match this is and what happens at the end of it. “No. No, no, no, no, no.” Could there be any worse time to actually find yourself empathizing with Kevin Steen? But there’s no avoiding it, either: he wrestles with a desperate melancholy, like he knows in his bones that he’s not good enough and that everything is coming to an end. I hunch down, wretched for him despite myself, watching as he reacts to his opponent kicking out:
Or fervently tries to get the increasingly-unnerved audience’s support by urging them to sing Generico’s theme:
The Young Bucks are the perfect counterpoints to his mood—they’re young and arrogant and annoying, little superkick dynamos that you yearn to swat. They bounce around the ring, seemingly untouched by pain or injury or exhaustion as Kevin struggles to keep up, limping along on sheer willpower. Worst of all, they seem to be having fun wrestling, something Kevin and Generico most definitely are not.
Eventually they wipe out Generico and then hit Kevin with their aggravatingly flippy finisher, the one no one has ever kicked out of; they both pile on top of him for the pin and Kevin kicks out anyway, as if he doesn’t know how to quit even though maybe he should:
Astonished, the Bucks just start superkicking him. He wobbles and goes to his knees, staring at them blankly, unable to either fight or fall, until they both kick him simultaneously and he goes down in a heap, blood at the corner of his mouth.
This time he stays down for the count, Generico can’t get there in time to save him, and the match is over. The Bucks celebrate briefly and then evaporate (for such flashy little punks, they have an odd gift for conveniently evaporating after key matches), leaving Kevin and Generico in the ring.
Kevin eventually manages to get to his feet. He humbly accepts the applause of the crowd, gets a microphone, and starts to speak.
The crowd grows still, then increasingly agitated as he starts to deliver a note-perfect retirement speech.
He looks back over his and Generico’s careers in Ring of Honor. He admits that lately he’s been struggling:
He effusively thanks everyone who ever helped him in Ring of Honor, with just enough snark (he thanks all the shitty wrestlers he worked with who inspired him to be better, for example, before thanking all the great ones who taught him so much) that it feels authentic. He thanks the Briscoes and Nigel McGuinness, with whom he’s had bitter feuds, and you can feel the crowd’s collective heart start to break, because he would never thank his enemies if he weren’t actually leaving, right? He thanks the fans: both the ones who supported him, and the ones who didn’t:
Thanking the audience for investing their emotion in him is such a perfect phrase–not technically out of character, but the kind of thing you rarely hear a wrestler say unless things have gotten very, well, real. His expression is sad and vulnerable; it’s as if he’s removed the mask of his character to let us see his genuine self at last, here at the end. The crowd can hardly help but respond; they’re in anguish, calling out that they love him. “Don’t go!” rings out a lone, desperate voice during a pause in the speech.
Kevin smiles sadly, wistfully.
(Years later, when Generico gives his last speech to the PWG audience, he will tell them that they deserve to know who he really is and what his real name is. Into the nervously expectant silence, he will pause dramatically and say “My name is El Generico. I was born in Tijuana…” The crowd will burst into relieved laughter at this mercy; Generico will not be taken from them. Generico keeps the mask on to be true to the audience; years before, Kevin removes his mask to lie to them).
Finally, he turns to Generico and gives him the sweetest, most heartbreaking smile.
His voice trembling, he manages to say “And last but not least, to you, I just want to say–” before Generico jumps up and throws his arms around him, interrupting him. They stand in the middle of the ring, both of them sobbing so hard that you can see their bodies shaking with emotion.
(Watching nearly a decade later, I already know what’s going to happen! It’s history–in wrestling terms, it’s ancient history, it’s in a thousand gifs and videos, it’s written in black and white on Wikipedia pages, splashed all over the Internet. There’s no secret or mystery here, but I find myself miserable for Kevin, poor brave authentic Kevin, struggling so hard against his injuries, looking despair right in the eye.
Oh, you perfect liars, I think, grieving despite myself. Lie to us forever).
If I’m crushed for Kevin with my perfect foreknowledge, the poor Ring of Honor audience doesn’t even know what hit them. In tears, they applaud mournfully, saluting Kevin and his friend as they say their farewells.
And then Kevin rears back and announces through his tears:
The crowd makes an utterly indescribable noise. It’s a mix of horror, shock, sorrow and a hint of wry laughter: “oh, you worked us, you bastards.” And underneath it, way, way down deep, there’s another emotion.
Kevin leaves the ring and picks up a chair. He comes back and looms over Generico for a long, awful moment. On his knees, Generico just stares up at him in silence–and if you want to talk about strength of will, imagine not budging one muscle as someone brings a chair down on your head. Not flinching, not lifting your shoulder even one iota to absorb any of the impact. To simply keep staring as though you absolutely can’t believe this is happening. As if, once you accept it is, it doesn’t even seem worth defending yourself. As if the world is over.
The crowd makes that same noise again, a groan of horror and sadness mingled with irony. And down beneath all that, there’s another emotion–a deep, vast, raw relief. Because Kevin isn’t leaving them, this isn’t goodbye, they haven’t lost him. It’s as if they realize in this instant that Kevin loves them so much, is so devoted to staying with them, that he will murder his best friend rather than give in to despair and leave. Whatever it takes to keep going, he will do it. He will kick down any dead-end wall and claw his way out of any emotional prison to keep going. He’s never going to give up: not on himself, not on them.
In this moment, when he is literally at his very worst, deep down in their hearts their previous affection crystallizes into a bedrock-deep, unshakeable devotion.
That devotion won’t get a chance to kindle for a couple of years; not until after he’s barred from them, which they know now he would never do of his own free will. When he comes back from his exile, nothing will be able to stop them from turning him into their conquering hero. In the end, the only thing that can take him away is something they can’t deny him after today’s act: the chance to be with Generico again, El Generico no matter what he’s calling himself in NXT, and bring everything full circle once more. All of that is set in motion when Kevin turns on Generico to resist despair and prove his determination to stay with them.
But that’s all in the future still; right now their love is like a deep underground river that most of them aren’t even aware of yet. Right now, they’re pretty fucking angry up at the surface of their hearts. They’re angry for Generico; they’re angry at being tricked into feeling badly for Kevin. As Kevin makes his triumphant exit, strolling by Generico’s crumpled body, they scream and flip him off in a fury. He pauses on the ramp to look back at their seething rage, grinning with malicious glee, all the sadness and weariness gone from his face. Years in the future, I watch this character, this unstoppable human cockroach who will consume anything to keep going, who will fuck up every good thing in his life rather than give up, who will slip away and mock you from the shadows if you’re unwise enough to care about him. My heart hurting for Generico betrayed, I shake my head in amazement at this improbable but undeniable fact: I love this indomitable monster.
He blows the audience a laughing kiss, then steps back from the light into the darkness and is gone.
Up next: Kevin becomes a monster worth standing up to.
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