I t’s a story Kevin Owens loves to tell, a slice of professional wrestling life, where great big men have to bring other great big men down to size, where there’s room for giants but not outsized egos — at least not behind the curtain. It goes back to 2014, when Owens first signed on with WWE and reported to the company’s performance centre in Orlando. He had already worked his way up through smaller circuits and paid his dues when he was introduced to Terry Taylor, a wrestling lifer who started out in the ring back in the ’80s and worked in all aspects of the game. When the two met, Taylor was a trainer for NXT, the college of hard knocks that develops new arrivals to the company and keeps the supply chain of talent moving. Owens was trying to make a good impression — WWE had always been his goal.
Taylor sat Owens down for a heart-to-heart. “Triple H sees something in you,” Taylor told him. But before the flattery went to Owens’s head and let him feel too special, Taylor attached a qualifier, his expert opinion: “I don’t see it.”
It gets a laugh every time Owens tells it, and not just because he has since gone on to become a key talent in the WWE universe. It also gets a laugh, because it’s easy to understand how someone, even a veteran like Taylor, might miss that hard-to-define something that Triple H, the WWE vice-president in charge of Talent, Events and Creative, spotted. Owens is a decent size for a pro, but he’s not one you’d pick out of a lineup to become a WWE superstar. He’s not exactly leading-man material, no candidate to star in his own action movie. With his bushy beard, his round face and a body sculpted seemingly from butter, you’d cast him as a bouncer, maybe a biker. On looks alone, he’s hard to pigeonhole as either face or heel.
Taylor made sure the younger wrestler understood that even if he couldn’t see the end goal, he was committed to getting Owens there. “It’s my job to make sure Triple H gets what he wants from you,” he said. To this day, Owens feels indebted to Taylor. “Terry’s very honest and I appreciated that,” he says. “We worked together so I could learn the WWE way of doing things.”
If skeptics couldn’t pick up on that something in Owens back then, they could never have foreseen the arc of his career. He’s been a major player in WWE since 2015, when he came out of NXT and burst onto the mainstage like no other: In his debut match, he pinned 15-time world champion John Cena in the Elimination Chamber, an upset that left the crowd slack-jawed and gobsmacked. Owens gained instant cred not only with his ungainly acrobatics off the top rope and turnbuckle but also with some acid smack talk, taunting Cena during the match and then on the mic in full gloat.
In the hierarchy of talent, Owens might not rank up there with Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns, the pay-per-view headliners. He is, though, at the very front of the next rank, and has earned the respect of peers for his ability to bring the maximum heat out of matches. A lot of the time Owens’s work outstrips main events. A prime example was his epic Last Man Standing match versus Reigns for the Universal Championship at last year’s Royal Rumble. The marathon bout strayed out of the ring to backstage at the ThunderDome, where Reigns blindsided Owens with a speeding golf cart and Owens later commandeered a forklift for a two-story somersault table splash.
Owens’s star will reach another level at WrestleMania 38, one that even Triple H couldn’t have predicted when recruiting him. While Reigns versus Lesnar is the top of the card, there’s every chance fans are even more eager for Owens’s match, given he’ll stand in the ring across from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the WWE icon’s first appearance since his farewell classic against The Rock at WrestleMania 19. Diehard fans who go back to Austin’s glory days in the ’90s had long ago given up any hope of the Rattlesnake coming out of retirement. Not that Austin’s comeback at age 57 needs any sweetening but even though Owens will be hosting the KO Show on Saturday night, given that it’s playing out at Texas Stadium, this will be the ultimate road game for the Quebec-born star.
Since accepting Owens’s challenge, Austin has talked about longing to get into the ring again and the weeks of training to get himself ready for the match. For Owens, in contrast, it’s a career-shaping opportunity that he’s been preparing for all his life. Win or lose, pin or submission or DQ, his place on the card as the man selected to fight a legend constitutes a victory, an immense show of respect from those who craft the storylines and book the matches. He has reached this status in large part because of his willingness to learn from Taylor and other vets, and because of a piece of advice casually offered by Austin when Owens was trying to get established.
A lot of WWE Superstars have backgrounds in other sports — football, basketball and amateur wrestling are standard in the biographies. Kevin Owens, né Kevin Steen, played a bit of hockey growing up in suburban Montreal, like his father Terry had, like his older brother did, but he got the bug as a grade-schooler back in the ’90s, watching the rivalry between Bret Hart and Ric Flair and, later, the superstars of the Attitude Era. “I was like eight or nine and I wasn’t a big kid [for my age],” he says. “I saw Shawn Michaels was by far the smallest guy on the show and by far the best. I thought, ‘If he can do it, then maybe I can.’”
Terry started paying for pay-per-view shows and watching them with his son. At 13, Kevin decided he didn’t want to play hockey anymore. He wrestled with friends — someone had set up a rickety ring in a barn. “We had the barn for a month that summer,” Owens says. It was more than enough to whet his appetite.
Barely a high schooler, he talked his parents into taking him to the wrestling academy in Montreal owned and operated by Jacques Rougeau, a retired pro best known as The Mountie. As Owens remembers it, Rougeau laid out two options, each carrying a price tag of $2,000: He could take three classes a week for three months or one class a week for nine months. “I thought there was no point in even staying,” Owens says. “My parents weren’t rich by any means. My father installed security systems. My mother worked in a chicken-processing plant. I figured there was no way we can pay for this.”
After meeting Rougeau, Terry and Suzanne took Kevin to a Chinese restaurant, where he presumed they planned to let him down softly. It turned out to be a false finish. “I remember it so vividly, like it’s ingrained,” Owens says. “It was a place called Buffet Supreme in Chambly, about ten minutes from our house. I was quiet. In my head, I was so broken up, thinking ‘This is not happening.’ They told me that they had supported [my brother] playing hockey, they’d find the money if this was going to be my path. They told me they couldn’t afford the three-times-a-week training but they’d find a way to come up with the money for the nine-month plan so I could follow my passion. I couldn’t believe they were going to pay for it.”
As it turned out, Kevin wound up on the intensive schedule. “My parents would just send me three times a week because they could see just how much I wanted it,” he says.
Kevin first climbed through the ropes on May 7, 2000, his 16th birthday, on a Rougeau-produced show. His entry onto the local scene didn’t start with the same kind of breakout as his WWE debut. One humbling moment stands out for him: “We had a show in a community centre in Montreal and had 200 people come out and thought, ‘Okay, it’s a start,’” he says. “A few months later, we had another show at the same place and 23 people came out. I probably knew all of them. That’s how big of a draw I was in my hometown.”
Wrestling as Kevin Steen, he moved up the ranks on independent shows — with a crowd of 23 people, you suppose, there was no direction to go but up. He paid his dues, putting in years with the Montreal-based International Wrestling Circuit, and later Pro Wrestling Guerilla in California where he worked with, befriended and, as necessary, feuded with El Generico (square name Remi Sebei, these days better known as Sami Zayn). And Steen was with Sebei when a chance encounter with a passenger at the airport made him rethink his approach to the craft. That passenger was, of course, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
As the story goes, Steen and Sebei were looking for a cheap flight to a show in Los Angeles and found a considerable savings by driving from Montreal to Albany then grabbing one that hopscotched across the U.S.: Albany to Chicago, Chicago to Dallas, and Dallas to L.A. In the waiting area in Dallas, they spotted Austin. They worked up the nerve to talk to the legend and introduced themselves — they might have come off more as fans than peers, given they were excitable 21-year-olds and a long way removed from the bright lights of WWE. Steen catalogued all the moves he’d been working on, planchos cribbed from luca libre. Austin shrugged off the list.
“Just keep running your mouth,” he told them. “Just never stop running your mouth. Forget those crazy moves — they’ll kill you. You gotta learn how to cut a promo.”
From the Rattlesnake’s lips to Steen’s ear. He had the ring skills down but not that critical bit of business, mic work, where wrestlers build their personal brand, generate heat and sell their next fight. Austin had been the greatest smack-talker of his era — three decades later, Stone Cold’s shot at Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, “Austin 3:16 says I kicked your ass,” is still moving merch at shows.
Steen didn’t just take the advice to heart, but he put it to immediate use — in his very next fight he defeated AJ Styles for the PWG title, trash-talking the whole way. Thereafter, he poured himself into the theatre of the game and, despite the occasional sputter or surfacing of his French accent, he made it his trademark on the independent circuit. This was no small feat considering that Steen had spoken French at home and learned English mostly through watching WWE broadcasts.
Later Steen landed with Ring of Honor, where he reigned as ROH’s world champion from 2011 to 2013. He had been in the game a full 14 years before he was tapped by the WWE. It might look like a journeyman’s progress but, then again, he was barely 30 at that point. When a lot of future WWE Superstars were still going to high-school dances, Steen was putting in hundreds of hours of work in the ring with pros. Early in 2014, Triple H sent William Regal, then manager of NXT, to scout a PWG match between Steen and Johnny Gargano. Steen knew Regal was in the house but didn’t read too much into it. “I just thought he was there to scout everybody that had potential,” he says. “Triple H told me later that [Regal] was there specifically for me.”
Just weeks after he had bought a ticket to get into the stadium in New Orleans to watch Wrestlemania 30, Steen landed a WWE tryout and passed his audition, signing with the company in the summer of 2014. When he reported to NXT development, Steen changed his handle to Kevin Owens, a tribute to his son Owen, whom he named after the late Owen Hart. It didn’t mark a makeover nor a change in character but rather the drawing of a distinct line between his work with ROH and PWG and his run with WWE.
It might have seemed an unnecessary transition stage to start a 14-year veteran in NXT — really, at what point are you done developing? The indignity of a veteran in the company of prospects was built into the KO storyline — the fact that, out of desperation to provide for his young family, he’d do anything, take anything dealt out, and still keep coming. It doesn’t sound like much of a gimmick or, really, a gimmick at all, but it exercises a powerful, maybe even irresistible pull on fans. “As corny as it may seem, I’m just the guy who refused to give up, even though there was a lot of obstacles in the way,” Owens says. “When I was starting out wrestling on the independent scene back in Canada, there was this song called ‘Headstrong’ by a band called Trapt that was popular. A lot of people would always tell me they’d think of me when that song came on. And ‘headstrong’ is the word I could kind of associate to my character and who I am in life and in the ring as well.”
In his NXT debut, Owens suffered a broken nose from a palm strike from CJ Parker, a legit injury that wasn’t scripted but in retrospect fit the “resilience” storyline perfectly. That readiness and willingness to do whatever it takes to win and get over in NXT included turning on those he had befriended along the way, namely Sebei, now working as Sami Zayn. Not even two months into his run in the outfit, Owens won the NXT championship, brutally power-bombing Zayn until his onetime bestie couldn’t see straight. Later feuds with Finn Bálor and Samoa Joe also generated heat that made it plain that Owens was more than ready and worthy of a shot at the main roster. And his upset of John Cena in his main-roster debut officially confirmed that, just as Triple H had estimated, he had something.
T erry Taylor says he wasn’t surprised by Owens’s ascent or his continued run, though he’s a little sheepish when he finds out Owens has been telling the “don’t see it” story. “I have a sarcastic sense of humour and, on occasion, people can take it the wrong way,” Taylor says. “As people get to know me, they understand the humour. I was kidding when I said I didn’t see the something that Triple H saw.”
Taylor suggests that Owens was no project when he signed on with WWE. If Owens was an underdog, it was mostly a mindset that carried over from his early days — not that a wrestler wouldn’t be affected by having to look out at a crowd of 23 people. “We all knew who Kevin was and what he’d done in the business [on the other circuits],” Taylor says. “He came to NXT with quite a respected body of work. The NXT brand was created to groom talent on how to be WWE Superstars. Kevin already was a star. He just needed some guidance on how WWE approached the business. He was a quick study.”
It’s tantalizing to imagine any number of WWE Superstars in the ring with Stone Cold at WrestleMania, but wholly understandable to Taylor why Kevin Owens is the one who was tapped. He has earned trusted-worker status. Professional wrestling is a tough line of work at the best of times but working with an iconic 57-year-old, well, there’s no playbook for that. “One of Kevin’s strengths is his intelligence,” Taylor says. “He sees what needs to be done, figures it out, and then does it. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever trained. This is proven every time he gets a microphone on WWE TV.”
In fact, if you were to draw up a list of Owens’s career highlights in WWE, any number of matches would contend for top spot: a win over Seth Rollins at WrestleMania 36 would be in the running; a 17-minute epic victory over AJ Styles for the United States Championship at Battleground 2017; and, of course, the colossal upset of Cena that announced his arrival. Yet you could make a case that his finest moment came not in the ring but on the mic: an epic takedown of Shane McMahon, a cri de coeur that sounded too wounded not to be sincere.
“Now I’ve sat back and tried to be a good guy, a good company guy, and not piss anyone off for too long, and I’m done with that because it didn’t get me anything,” Owens said. At that point, the preening Shane O had the staff cut the mic, but then Owens went around the arena floor finding any announcer’s mic still live. “Hey, guess what, idiot? There’s more than one microphone and I’m not done,” he continued. “You know, every time you call yourself the best in the world, that is an insult and slap to the face to every single person in the back, in the locker room, who break their backs week in, week out, on TV, on the road, around the world, to be WWE Superstars, and it makes me sick.”
Words on the screen really can’t put across how compelling the moment was. Promo had once been an afterthought but here Owens was conducting a masterclass. Those who can’t talk the game have to rely on gimmicks, but because of his ability to run his mouth, Owens can be that rarest of workers, the anti-hero whose lapses into pure villainy are forgiven.
Owens’s mic skills have maybe never been more evident than in the run up to the match with Stone Cold. He hasn’t tried to make it about himself, instead poking at the Hall of Famer’s trademarks. On Raw in Chicago last month, Owens opened the show by walking into the ring wearing a joke-shop bald cap, beat-up cut-off jeans and clunky knee braces — and of course, a vintage Austin 3:16 t-shirt. “Are you all ready to see Kevin Owens open a can of whoop-ass on Stone Cold at WrestleMania?” he goaded. “Give me a ‘Hell yeah!’” Boos and hell no’s rained down, but the spot was only starting. Owens managed to clumsily fumble two cans of Stone Cold’s Broken Skull beer that were tossed to him by a stagehand and when said stagehand handed him a third, Owens gave him a stunner for his trouble.
The hysterical spot earned Owens the ultimate compliment from his opponent at Wrestlemania 38, the legend he had watched on pay-per-views with his father and who, years later, offered him a career-shaping piece of advice. “Kevin Owens is a student of the game and now he cuts one of the best promos in the business,” Austin said on The Rich Eisen Show last month. “He’s a guy that’s had the career that many would love to have. He’s been in it 20 years.”
Austin also noted, ruefully, that Owens’s career at this point has lasted longer than his own before he retired. And though Austin talked about the contentment and comfort he found in retirement, he admitted that Owens’s trash-talk reached a part of him that had been dormant for almost 20 years. Owens was “the right person” for him to come back against, he said, and his only regret was that a worthy foil hadn’t come along sooner.
Any wrestler that could coax him back into the ring at 57 no doubt had something.