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We're Gonna Get to Know Each Other Pretty Well: The Road to R-Evolution Part 2
Sami debuts, and Kevin chases ducks and ghosts in 2013.
Putting together the beginnings of Kevin and El Generico’s story is like assembling a crazy quilt: scraps of cloth in a dozen different colors and shapes that sometimes don’t fit together quite right anymore because some of the pieces have gone missing. So many snippets and loose ends, such a challenge to piece them together.
2013-2014 are a different kind of challenge. Kevin and Generico’s story is over; Kevin and Sami’s story hasn’t begun yet. Sami’s in NXT; Kevin’s in Ring of Honor and PWG and just about everywhere except NXT. Their lives, stories, careers seem totally separate at this point: two long unbroken pieces of cloth, each whole and complete unto itself. But there are places and points where colors bleed across, where patterns repeat in interesting ways.
I lay the two stories down next to each other and see where they match up. I make a few cautious stitches here and there. Let’s see what happens.
Watching old NXT episodes years later is often a surreal experience: characters you’ve come to know like old friends show up, but they’re usually just a bit… off in some ways. Tyler Breeze shows up with precisely Tyler’s walk and look… but his voice isn’t quite right, and his pout is not exactly what we’re used to. Sasha Banks starts off almost unrecognizable, then suddenly her delivery and nonverbals snap into place, but the hair and outfit are all wrong for a long time still.
Charlotte Flair is way off at first: an athletic, cheerful volleyball player who seems a bit bemused by everything, rather than the imperious queen she will become. It’s all kind of like watching very skilled cosplayers working from a detailed description of a character they’ve never seen, struggling to embody a still-hypothetical image.
Sami Zayn is, from his first appearance, remarkably close to his final form as he slides into a backstage promo with Renee Young, all charming awkwardness (the way his sleeve sticks into the frame as he jitters just off-camera, overly eager to get into the interview!) and slightly-snarky earnestness.
Jarringly, his voice in this interview is ever-so-slightly off, maybe a half-pitch too high: probably nothing you’d notice if he weren’t one of your favorites. It is, in fact, so very close that it’s weird, the Uncanny Valley of Sami Zaynness. But by the time he actually appears in Full Sail, a week later in-canon, things have settled into place. Some of that is probably because he has a chance to wrestle a match in the Full Sail ring before he addresses the audience: Sami seems like the kind of wrestler who finds his sense of self in the ring more than in promos, and the more he wrestles the more solid and real he becomes.
He faces Curt Hawkins in his debut match–not yet Losing Streak Curt Hawkins, in 2013 he’s a former tag team champion showing up in NXT for some easy pickings.
Instead, he gets Sami Zayn.
On the episode that airs on May 22, 2013, Sami enters Full Sail for the first time with an unusual expression on his face, something caught between pride and self-consciousness, as though (for some reason) he’s not used to people seeing his face as he comes to the ring.
“Hello, it is me, and my face!” his raised eyebrows telegraph, and a smattering of happy Ole chants break out as he comes to the ring to take on Hawkins.
The match is short, a scant four minutes and fourteen seconds, and the end is unexpected: Sami Zayn pins Hawkins clean. The audience is gratified, already half in love, though not entirely won over. Sami pauses on his way up the ramp and looks out at their applause–happy but not delirious–and he announces: “We’re gonna get to know each other pretty well!”
He’s right–and sooner than Full Sail expects, too. Because in the very next match, Antonio Cesaro, recent US champion, shows up. He makes short work of his opponent and launches into a rant about the inferior quality of wrestlers in NXT and the lack of actual competition. His character at this time is given to switching into one of the variety of languages Cesaro is fluent in, the time-honored method of gathering heat, and tonight is no exception: soon he breaks into German and harangues the audience angrily.
A polite but insistent voice from the ramp interrupts him: it’s Sami Zayn, who has taken some offense to being described as an inferior wrestler and decided to face this jerk down.
“Maybe you don’t need to look too far for some competition,” Sami suggests. Cesaro points at him, incredulous, and Sami smiles and says what was translated for me as “You wanna fight?” in slangy Syrian Arabic.
Cesaro looks blank. Sami feigns surprise: “You speak a bunch of languages, right?” He turns to the audience and says laughingly to them, “Oh, I guess he doesn’t speak Arabic. Let’s change this, here.”
Then he says–in French–“You speak French, right? You can understand what I’m saying?” As Cesaro nods, Sami switches back to English and says “Maybe you’ll understand this: if it’s competition you want, it’s competition you’re gonna get, homeboy.” Incensed and offended, Cesaro invites him into the ring; Sami bounds in and the match begins.
Okay, wait. Let’s take a moment, back up, unpack these few minutes and talk about the astonishing trajectory they set Sami Zayn’s character on.
First and most simply, what an amazing choice, to have a wrestler who has spoken exactly zero languages fluently in public for over a decade come out and speak three languages fluently in his first promo in front of an audience.
Second, to have him do so as a babyface. Because in wrestling, speaking a language other than English is a time-honored way to telegraph that you’re a bad person–an elitist or a foreign menace or both. Yet Sami Zayn rattles through English, Arabic and French and is still clearly, 100% the sympathetic figure. It’s deftly done, and one of the keys is when he turns to the audience and says “I guess he doesn’t speak Arabic. Let’s change this, here.” He could have continued addressing Cesaro (“Oh, you don’t speak Arabic. I’ll change this, here”) and the content would have been identical. Instead he turns to the audience, widening his statement, including them as if they all understand it’s no big deal to speak a few languages–neither a reason to be arrogant nor a mark of “foreignness,” but just a fact of life for many people in this world. Which, of course, it is.
“Let’s change this.” That let’s is a framing that shows up a lot in Sami’s statements. After he wins the NXT title, he comes to Full Sail and one of the very first things he says is, “let’s talk about what this means.” “Let’s” is in the hortative form, a term which comes from the Latin for “to urge earnestly.” It’s a grammatical structure that opens up, that turns outward, that includes a wider audience. It’s not unheard-of in wrestling, but at this point in Sami’s career it’s distinctively his, this earnest invitation to be part of a larger, more open-minded world.
His match with Cesaro is hardly longer than his match with Hawkins–seven and a half minutes in, Sami gets a rollup on the startled Cesaro and the bell rings.
Sami is overjoyed, the crowd is thrilled. Horrified at being defeated so handily by this debuting “unknown,” Cesaro beats him down while Full Sail yells in anger. Sami’s first feud in WWE is on in earnest.
Here’s one of those tentative stitches between Kevin’s story and Sami’s at this odd time: about a month after Sami’s debut, Kevin starts posting a series of “life on the road” videos to Youtube, called Kevin’s Weekend Escapades. They’re fun, slightly goofy looks at life as a professional wrestler, full of wrestlers hanging out, bored and jittery and killing time. Most episodes begin with a dashboard shot of Kevin behind the wheel of his car, usually exhausted in the early dawn, mumbling about where he’s going this weekend. It’s as if–a very delicate stitch here–he’s used to having someone with him on these long, boring drives, distracting him, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself anymore.
There’s a touch of melancholy running beneath the goofiness, like a moment where Kevin decides to befriend some ducks, which flee from him into the lake. “Don’t go!” he calls after them, “I’ll come in the water with you, I don’t care.” He turns to the one duck remaining, which slowly gets into the water, trying to catch up with the others. “You’re leaving too, huh,” Kevin says, then gets angry at the other ducks for leaving their friend behind. “Wait for him!” he yells after them, then mutters, “those three are jerks, not waiting for their buddy.” The camera follows the three ducks as they move further and further away from their friend, and from Kevin, left alone on the shore.
If it were a movie, we’d say the symbolism was too on-the-nose: Kevin’s empathy for the slower bird struggling to catch up while the others move on into the deep water without him. I know, I know, it’s just a guy goofing off with some ducks, but it’s not surprising we read some sadness into it as well, whether it’s intended to be there or not.
The Weekend Escapades are immensely popular–despite the careless and casual tone, they’re deftly edited and paced, giving us glimpses of a relatable, likable Kevin Steen. There’s also a strange touch of magical realism to the videos–under the relentless mundanity of the hotel rooms and Dennys and endless highways lurk hints of a continuing narrative. Because Kevin Steen breathes narrative like oxygen and suffocates without it; give him a supposed slice-of-life video series and the next thing you know there are themes and motifs popping up. When he goes to the Highspots headquarters, he wanders through the warehouse and comes across a Generico t-shirt on a shelf. “Huh!” he says, nudging it. “Whatever happened to him?” Then he strolls on, whistling.
He’s there that day, June 29 2013, to shoot the next two episodes of the Kevin Steen Show, with Eddie Edwards and Jay Lethal. They’re enjoyable episodes: he’s relaxed and comfortable with both of them, swapping stories about Eddie’s time in Japan, Jay’s experiences with Ric Flair, Kevin and El Generico’s tendency to bicker over calling matches (“Though 98.5 percent of the time Generico’s right,” he admits to Jay).
Early on with Eddie, though, he takes a moment to stop and address his listeners directly. “At the end of the first Kevin Steen Show, I said I was really gonna try to get in better shape. And I’ve been asked by people, like, How’s that going?”
He says it lightly and jokes about it a bit, but considering the earnestness with which he announced he was going to get in shape back six months ago in January, and considering he seems to feel that his weight is one of the only things holding him back from making it to WWE, it can’t feel good to admit that. Later, when talking about the incredibly strict training regimen Eddie faced in Japan, Kevin says that he kind of wishes he’d been trained more rigorously:
It’s a gesture that crops up again and again in the shoot interviews Kevin does in 2012 and 2013: a quick wave of the hands to simultaneously take in and dismiss his own body.
It happens often enough that it gets painful to see it coming if you’re binge-watching shoot videos, doing a review of his career (that is, if you’re me). I grimace and hiss between my teeth softly each time. It makes me sad, it wears me down–and I at least know what the future holds, I know this is the future NXT champion, future two-time Intercontinental champion, future three-time US champion, second-ever Universal champion! If it wears me down despite my perfect knowledge of the future, how much does it wear down Kevin Steen in 2013, even with his own perfect knowledge of his brilliance?
Sami’s feud with Cesaro turns out to be one of the best things in NXT in 2013. The two of them play off each other beautifully–Cesaro the urbane, unflappable, contemptuous powerhouse, and Sami the earnest, stubborn gadfly that will not just let it go and admit Cesaro is superior. Oddly, this feud also ends up, like Kevin’s Weekend Escapades, haunted by the specter of El Generico, because Cesaro joins an ultra-patriotic stable called the Real Americans (yes, he’s Swiss. It’s complicated) and proceeds to attack Sami for supposedly being ashamed of his identity and hiding his face beneath a mask in the past, implying that he was an illegal immigrant. Generico is never mentioned by name, and the angle was clearly meant to be a clever nod to the past–and it is, but it’s also got obvious racist overtones that are difficult to watch then and maybe more difficult to watch now. Which is a shame, because Sami gets to deliver some passionate denunciations of that brand of closed-mindedness:
As well as establish clearly who he is: an awkward red-headed Syrian-Canadian who loves punk and demands respect, a full human being and not a “gimmick” in any way.
Their feud culminates in a Two Out of Three Falls match which is an eye-opener about what both Sami Zayn and NXT can be. It’s perfectly paced–Sami comes out hot and wins the first fall fast, followed by an agonizing sequence where Cesaro slowly crushes the breath out of him, grinding him in a chinlock submission until Sami has no choice but to tap out, even as Cesaro refuses to relinquish the hold.
It’s a showcase for one of Sami’s greatest strengths as a wrestler: his ability to portray suffering in ways that are hyper-realistic, emotionally involving and heart-rending. Cesaro’s flawless strength and skill work perfectly with Sami’s rubbery-legged, wild desperation. They both look amazing, and when Sami almost manages to get that last pin, only to be snatched out of the air and tossed into oblivion by Cesaro, hearts break all over Full Sail. The crowd chants “match of the year!” and it’s clearly one for the history books, even though Cesaro remains contemptuous and Sami will keep demanding his respect for months until the feud reaches its true climax next year in 2014. It’s immediately obvious that this is a match that will seal the image of Sami Zayn in people’s minds and start to shift the image of NXT from developmental to the NXT it has become today.
The match between Sami and Cesaro takes place and is recorded on July 11, 2013. It won’t actually air for over a month, not until August 21, 2013. But it seems pretty likely that Kevin Steen would have immediately heard about how well it went from any of his various friends who were in NXT at the time, even though he hadn’t had a chance to see it yet.
On July 26, fifteen days after Sami’s match with Cesaro, Kevin is driving down to Providence, Rhode Island. He’s late, and he points out that he got in the habit of being late from traveling with El Generico. “I don’t know how he’s doing these days, with the orphans,” he says. ”I don’t know if he’s on time for the orphans.” From there the show progresses as usual: bored wrestlers hanging out, Eddie Edwards showing up to say “Hi Eddie,” a long discussion of Adam Cole’s grotesquely inflamed elbow. After the show, Kevin is hanging out with some wrestlers in a parking lot after a show, the same as usual–when things take a sudden left turn into the surreal.
As the wrestlers chat, Kevin’s attention is suddenly drawn to a couple of people walking by the car he’s in. They’re wearing luchador masks, one of them a very familiar red and black. “Is that… Generico?” Kevin says, his voice wavering slightly. “It looks like it!” the other wrestlers chime in as Kevin jumps out of the car. “It has to be! It has to be him!”
He grabs the luchador in shock and rips his mask off to reveal–well, we don’t know what El Generico looked like, but Kevin doesn’t seem to recognize the person beneath, who stares at him and then bolts off into the night, leaving Kevin holding Generico’s empty mask, confusion in his eyes.
The lighting and video quality are so poor it’s almost impossible to get a good look at the man’s face, but in the next scene, in the car driving home, Kevin notes, “I got to meet Curt Hawkins, as you were able to witness.” Which would seem to imply that was Hawkins wearing the Generico mask… Hawkins, who was, of course, Sami Zayn’s first opponent at Full Sail.
It’s a startling intrusion of fiction into the mundanity of the videos, a sudden slip from the casual chatter about daily life into a deliberately choreographed, scripted moment. Interestingly, you can see in that moment how Kevin’s Weekend Escapades may have provided inspiration for Being the Elite, the YouTube series made later by Kevin’s friends the Young Bucks, which features those same dizzying shifts between reality and fiction.
Since coming to WWE, Kevin has mentioned in interviews that there was a period of time when he stopped watching NXT altogether. Remembering it on the Sam Roberts Show, he talks about the weird whiplash between doubt and certainty he was living with: “It was really odd. I’d go from thinking maybe it wouldn’t happen to knowing that it would eventually happen. I’d have days where I’d be like ‘This might not happen, you gotta accept it,’ to the next day I’d be like ‘No, this is happening.’” He remembers specifically seeing Neville wrestle and getting so upset that he stopped watching NXT when it aired (pre-Network) in Canada.
He’s careful to explain that it wasn’t exactly anger he seemed to be feeling at the time, but something more internal, more bewildered than enraged:
He doesn’t say when exactly that was, so it could be anytime between when Neville starts to appear on television and when the Network comes into existence–that’s from June 2012 to February 2014, a pretty huge time period. It could be anywhere in there.
But if I had to hazard a guess, if I had to make one more stitch between these stories, I think there’s a good chance it was around July 2013, with Neville starting to aim for the NXT championship. With Sami wrestling Cesaro in career-defining matches.
With Kevin chasing the ghost of El Generico as it slips away into the shadows without him.
Next: Kevin has a difficult conversation and is visited by his fairy godvillain.