Someone noted on Twitter Wednesday night that Kevin Owens is a good composite of the qualities that Mick Foley and CM Punk brought to the table. Like Foley and Punk, he doesn’t have the appearance of a wrestling megastar, that over-inflated musculature, that adorns your kid’s lunchbox. The mere appearance of Owens betrays the flawed idea that a wrestler should turn heads at the airport. To a non-fan, Owens might look like that one fraternity brother that could drink around 80 beers before staggering into the girl’s dorm and puking in a clothes hamper. And we all know that guy, don’t we?
But who cares? Who cares what a wrestler looks like when he’s so utterly convincing at everything he does? Foley’s blood-chilling monologues and blood-spilling ring work put him many cuts above the average wrestler. Punk’s matter-of-fact, well-spoken disdain for the world made him a must-see misanthrope, and his grueling work in the ring reinforced how unique he truly was as a wrestler.
[adinserter block=”1″]There was a time when WWE would have likely passed on signing Owens, based on his billowing physique more than anything else (just as WWE may have with Foley had Jim Ross not gone to bat for him). Back in the era of John Laurinaitis making hires, it seemed as though every call-up was tall enough play small forward in the NBA. Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio, Drew McIntyre, Wade Barrett, Mason Ryan, and forgotten stiffs like Eli Cottonwood and Jackson Andrews decimated the height chart, but a few (particularly the last three) didn’t measure up with any conviction.
When Triple H began populating his NXT with tried-and-true independent and international talent, the former Kevin Steen was a natural hire. His punishing work in Ring of Honor and elsewhere aside, Owens is more than just a Vader-like brawler with convincing strikes and an offense that keeps chiropractors’ schedules full. He’s also a gifted actor, able to captivate with displays of menace, frustration, shock, straightforwardness, diabolical intent, and even slight vulnerability with subtle twists of the dial. When you get past the Package Piledrivers that look about as safe as a Slip-n-Slide over a bed of nails, Owens puts most wrestlers to shame in the subtlety department.
There’s a striking irony in that, that a wrestler who routinely finds his name in the running for fan-chosen Best Brawler awards annually could master the little nuances that make a good wrestler a great one. If you’ve followed him in his NXT run, you’ve probably enjoyed the story between he and Sami Zayn, former friend/enemy El Generico in ROH (and if you followed *that* story, you REALLY enjoyed it).
In a story far too complex to be housed on Monday Night Raw, Owens assaulted Zayn after celebrating his NXT Championship win with him in December, despite the fact that Owens had only debuted less than two hours earlier. Owens was portrayed not as a one-note monster, but as someone that still respected long-time travel partner Zayn, indicating the attack was little more than a professional statement: Owens has a family to feed, and wants the money to go along with being champion. Rather than outright heel it up, Owens walked a tightrope between “I do what I have to do” lunch-bucket hero and dangerously violent fiend, adhering to a personal code of ethics that clash with the happiness of others not in his shoes.
In promos leading up to the February 11 showdown, Owens reinforced his points without resorting to put-on yelling or phony, mischievous laughter. There were no corny utterances of a tacked-on catchphrase. Owens maintained his “it’s just business” goading, casting a slight aura of whimsical negligence; he didn’t take glee in powerbombing Zayn against the apron, but he didn’t feel terrible either. Zayn, himself no slouch in the acting department, answered Owens’ indifference with an intentionally-forced display of verbal heart, a mild-mannered champion promising to kick Owens’ ass. After taking the powerbomb into the side of the ring, Zayn had to convince himself that he could turn back the calmly-callous goon.
The match itself was tasked with keeping a great-match streak alive, following a Finn Balor-Adrian Neville epic and a four-way Women’s Title bout that puts anything the Bella Twins do to shame. The match took on the qualities of a Sting-Vader match from 20 years ago, Steen pummeling Zayn into the ground recklessly, at times effortlessly. The head-game was a nice touch, since Owens is just as dangerous psychologically, and his reminder to Zayn of who the natural aggressor was served to lay the foundation for a deliberately-slow build to the match.
As the match reached a fever pitch, the twist came to the story: Zayn whacked his head on the entrance ramp after a quebrada, and Owens went into overdrive. A pop-up powerbomb couldn’t finish, despite Zayn showing signs of a head injury. Two more against the referee’s wishes couldn’t finish either, but Zayn wasn’t exactly kicking out with authority. Owens then does what comes naturally to someone of his moral stock, dragging his old friend off the mat and landing two more skull-rattling powerbombs before the match is stopped. Even fans chanting “FIGHT OWENS FIGHT” in the early going were silenced at the uncomfortable direction the match had taken.
[adinserter block=”2″]Owens’ unvarnished jubilation in victory culminated two months of how to build an effective wrestler, with enough nuance to satisfy the smarter audience, and more than enough caustic boom to please the Michael Bay end of the fan spectrum.
There will be those who ask, “Why can’t WWE do this with Roman Reigns? Why can’t they give him a character like this, and a story like this, to work with?” I would counter by noting how much Owens brings to the table, after a decade and a half of honing his skills. There aren’t many wrestlers, pushed or not, that can blend these traits into one hefty package, but Owens does, making it look all too easy in the process.
The new Foley? The new Punk? Kevin Owens is more than worthy of his own pedestal, with well-earned days of glory ahead.