There was a moment last year, during Kevin Steen’s last Ring of Honor match, when he sat on the top rope, exchanging head butts with longtime friend and rival Steve Corino. Steen looked exhausted, sweat was streaming down his face, and then the crowd started chanting, “Fight, Steen, fight!” Suddenly, Steen found his second wind. He reversed a superplex into a top-rope brainbuster and then coasted to victory. It was a touching sequence, a fitting bow for a man who was a long-shot bet to become ROH champion, let alone a WWE star.
How could a tubby Canadian who wrestles in a T-shirt make it all the way to the top? That chant says it all — it’s not just a catchphrase, it’s a nudge of encouragement. It’s the kind of thing you’d say to a friend, not a pro athlete. And that’s exactly why Steen — now known as Kevin Owens in WWE — is the perfect wrestler for the current WWE moment. He’s one of us — and in pro wrestling, being one with the crowd is the most important thing.
From its earliest days as a “legitimate” sport,1 when All-American blue-chipper Frank Gotch challenged “The Russian Lion” Georg Hackenschmidt for the world freestyle championship, wrestling has been a story of Us versus Them. At the start, pro wrestling’s villains were distinguishable from its heroes by nothing so much as their place of origin. Early pro wrestling — a purely American art form — toyed with jingoism and ethnocentrism to animate audiences. Once that conceit was embedded, and the Territorial Era made wrestling a local game, intra-American regionalism took over. Many top heels were interlopers who swung in from out of town, loaners from neighboring promotions, or full-time itinerants. Sometimes the regional rivalries were subtle, like when the Fabulous Freebirds had the gall to rep Georgia in Mississippi. Sometimes they were expressed blatantly, such as by wearing stars-and-bars face paint in Chicago. But nothing goosed the fans’ parochial ire like billing a wrestler from one of the two most reviled and alien places in America: Hollywood or New York City.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, professional wrestling was a respectable sport on par with boxing. Like boxing, however, it was susceptible to match-fixing, rule-breaking, and self-mythologizing. “Legitimacy” has always been relative. And there was another half of the wrestling world that revolved around carnival sideshows and was just as farcical as today’s product, and that side influenced the modern sport as much as the “legitimate” side did.
For a wrestler to call Hollywood or New York home was the equivalent of being from Parts Unknown — a nebulous place filled with evil thoughts and deeds. The stereotypes were easy and the threat was implicit. But Hollywood had more in common with Parts Unknown than with the Big Apple. It was a cartoon place from which corny, tanned scoundrels emerged, posturing the whole way. There were monsters and foreigners in those days, but no archetype said “Them” like the big-city loudmouth. For most of the territories in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, though, New York was more than the home of the Knickerbocker caricature — it was the seat of the opposition. Even before Vincent K. McMahon took the WWF national in the ’80s, Madison Square Garden loomed as the pinnacle of pro wrestling achievement, the center stage of the grappling world. Every wrestler wanted to make it there, and any wrestler who purported to come from there couldn’t hide his disdain for wherever he ended up.
But when Vince took over the business from his father, the North-South divide became the industry’s defining rivalry. All the territories that survived into the ’80s — Georgia, North Carolina, Memphis, Texas — regarded New York with a sneer. It was a regionalism deeply ingrained in the American psyche — South versus North, Us versus Them. Wrestlers billed as New Yorkers were depended on to inflame crowds. California was still in the mix — a wrestler who put on sunglasses and a silk shirt could easily serve as a lousy poseur. But put on the suit and tie (and sunglasses) of a supposed New Yorker and you were worse than an evil Russian. You were the enemy from within.2 Through the Territorial Era and the Monday Night Wars — and even today, depending on who’s talking — wrestlers and promoters referred to the WWF as “New York” (or “up north”), as if to categorize everyone within the company as a mustache-twirling scoundrel.
The “big city” character wasn’t limited to NYC; the way Ric Flair claimed Charlotte as his hometown was a defiant way to big-time the small Southern cities he toured through.
In the WWF — or New York, as it were — the extra-regional baddie never really took off. It was the melting pot, after all, and the fan favorites were always immigrants from different regions or countries: Jim Londos, Antonino Rocca, Bruno Sammartino, and even Dusty Rhodes,3 who was imported from the South to fight the nefarious “Superstar” Billy Graham.4 When Hulk Hogan took over the spotlight in the mid-’80s, the WWF started to import monsters to draw the battle lines as clearly as possible. The Hulkster’s challengers tended to be foreigners from faraway lands or beasts from the pits of hell. The greatest villain he ever fought was Andre the Giant, who was both foreign and monstrous — and, it should be noted, a complete creation of the WWF, at least in his maleficent incarnation. Hogan’s most notable rivals, Andre, Paul Orndorff, and Randy Savage, were his former friends, bent into duty as heels by story line machinations.
Rhodes unexpectedly died today, according to WWE. The Hall of Fame wrestler and three-time NWA champion was 69.
Billed from Arizona, but working a Hollywood gimmick.
Perhaps it was about this time that “New York” became its own worst enemy. Friends turning into enemies wasn’t a new story line, but in New York, under the WWF and Hulk Hogan’s interminable reign, it became an institution. And fans started rooting for the newly minted villains — the enemies from within, you could say.
In 1997, ECW and the WWF had an interpromotional agreement; the former “invaded” the latter on an episode of Raw, and WWF sent Jerry “the King” Lawler to antagonize ECW fans on their home turf. He adopted Rob Van Dam as one of his cronies, and RVD solidified his heel credentials by adopting the moniker “Mr. Monday Night” — a reference to his belief that he deserved to be working on Monday-night Raw5 instead of on ECW’s Saturday broadcasts. It worked. That was all it took to make fans hate a stalwart and physical specimen like RVD — aligning him with New York did the trick. That he was actually being courted by the big leagues, and that he eventually did immigrate to the WWF, was almost beside the point. Just admitting that he was considering the move was enough.6
Or, alternatively, WCW Monday Nitro; by the time the Monday Night Wars got into full swing, there was little perceptible difference between the two in the eyes of disenchanted old-school fans.
For other examples of indie guys working “New York” gimmicks to keep crowds booing, see Adam Cole, who has frequently been rumored as a WWE target, or Prince Devitt (who’s now an NXT wrestler named Finn Balor) when he was part of New Japan’s Bullet Club, a gang of WWE-style assholes.
Meanwhile, back at the mothership, the WWF began eating itself. The Attitude Era — a period that WWE now touts as a creative zenith — was headlined by heroes who thumbed their noses at the New York machine. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was a Texan who literally threw punches at Vince McMahon. Triple H fronted a group of anarchists bent on making their names by mooning WWF cameras. The Rock was a timeless star who achieved legendary status after wrestling fans rejected his initial “New York”–approved incarnation as Rocky Maivia. (Austin and Triple H also overcame bad McMahonian characterizations en route to stardom.) The only star who rivaled them was Chris Jericho, an irreverent Canadian loudmouth brought in from “down south” — the rival organization, WCW. Obviously, the WWF and eventual WWE supported these wrestlers’ paths to glory, and — perhaps more importantly — McMahon willingly transformed onscreen into a tight-laced caricature of his real self, a cartoon CEO who allowed Austin to Stunner him (repeatedly) for the fans’ enjoyment. But when Vince embraced that part so readily, he unintentionally inverted the Us versus Them paradigm. Gone were the days of the Iron Sheik or Killer Khan; Vince turned the sport’s jingoism in on itself. Villainy started eating its own tail. The company he built became the biggest heel in the business.
A modern version of Van Dam’s “Mr. Monday Night” turn was enacted on the indies in 2005. CM Punk signed with WWE and became a villain by threatening to bring the ROH title belt with him when he left. Amazingly, WWE re-created that story line in 2011, although this time Punk wasn’t the villain, despite being recently removed from a role as a cult leader. 2011 Punk was positioned as a conquering hero for his threat to take the WWE title and leave the company. His opponent back then was John Cena, whose only crime was being perceived as a WWE-endorsed wrestler, whereas Punk was an indie standout whose WWE rise to stardom occurred in functional defiance of the mothership.
By then, of course, WWE had swallowed all of its competitors, so even the fans who once claimed to be on the “WWF side” of the Monday Night Wars — or, further back, fans who had grown up as “WWF fans” as opposed to “NWA fans” — were without a stake in the argument and thus without any reason to support the WWF. These days, rooting for WWE is like tweeting one’s liking for Coca-Cola. There’s no cred in repping the mainstream.
If it wasn’t clear by Money in the Bank 2011, when Punk won the belt and leaped into the arms of a roaring crowd, WWE-the-company wasn’t just a platform for front-office heeldom — it was the Galactic Empire of pro wrestling. To achieve stardom in the modern era, a wrestler need only to fly his X-wing defiantly into the Stamford, Connecticut, Death Star and wait for the sparks to start flying.
Since Punk left WWE last year and Daniel Bryan succumbed to a series of career-threatening injuries shortly thereafter, such sparks have been in short supply in WWE. All of that changed on May 18, though, when John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge7 was answered by Kevin Owens. Owens is the champion of NXT, WWE’s farm team, but he hadn’t been there long. He signed a WWE contract only last August and debuted in the ring at December’s NXT Takeover: R Evolution show. Later that night, he came out to congratulate his longtime indie wrestling buddy Sami Zayn, who had just won the NXT title, then attacked Zayn and immediately solidified his status as the D-League’s alpha dog. (They were re-creating the love-hate relationship that defined their indie run, just like Punk re-created the “Summer of Punk” in 2011.) Owens won the NXT belt in February, and then, five months after his debut, he was staring down Cena on Raw.
His weekly open invitation for anyone to face him in a match for his U.S. Championship, which has consistently been one of the best segments on Raw.
Owens wasn’t the first young talent to answer the call — Zayn himself had done it two weeks before — but Owens wasn’t there just for Cena to give some rub to NXT. When Cena offered Owens some advice about how to conduct himself, Owens shot back: “I’ve been doing this for 15 years. In fact, I’ve been doing this longer than you. The only difference between you and I is that I didn’t get a break until now. So you don’t get to give me advice ever, you understand me?” Owens rejected the U.S. title match, then blindsided Cena and laid him out. The segment ended with Owens raising the NXT belt and stomping on the U.S. belt.
Owens’s ability as a wrestler and a talker can’t be overstated. In the ring he’s an unholy combination of Buzz Sawyer and Raven, and on the mic he’s Jake Roberts by way of Lenny Bruce. It’s also remarkable that Owens has held his own next to Cena from the start. Owens’s belt stomp made official what fans have been whispering for months: That right there in the midst of the Empire, NXT is the new seat of insurrection. After the fall of WCW (and ECW), many disillusioned fans turned to indie wrestling to sate their anti-WWE appetites. But suddenly, WWE had built the best indie promotion in the world right under Vince’s nose. If the company didn’t realize it was creating a pantomime mutiny, then it wasn’t paying attention to its own history. This wasn’t an enemy from within, despite WWE booking Owens as a heel. It was a homegrown rebellion. When Owens powerbombed Cena, it was a declaration of, er, independence.
Owens and Cena squared off at Elimination Chamber two weeks ago, and, surprisingly, Owens won. That night they announced a rematch for Sunday’s Money in the Bank. In about six months, Owens has gone from his NXT debut to becoming one of WWE’s biggest stars. He has three T-shirts for sale on the WWE website, and he’s had as much time in the Raw spotlight in recent weeks as other young stars like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns.
It feels reductive to remind readers that Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns debuted as a faction called the Shield, but it’s worth noting because the Shield was meant to showcase the performers deemed to be the future of the company, and because their backgrounds parallel the Owens-Cena feud. Rollins and Ambrose were indie standouts who came into the WWE system with lengthy résumés. They possessed the in-ring skill and dedication to “old school” craft that indie fans adored as well as the look and charisma that WWE cultivates in its stars. Reigns, on the other hand, was a pure distillation of “New York” wrestling virtues. He was a sports-entertainment test-tube baby, the amalgamation of Vince McMahon’s every ideal into a Frankenstein’s monster. He was positioned alongside Rollins and Ambrose to hide his deficiencies and to learn from their experience. But his place in the hierarchy was clear from the get-go.
Over the past nine months, Reigns’s rise to the limelight has been met with derision from a vocal portion of the fan base for the same reasons that Owens has become so popular.
It’s fitting that while, on Sunday, Reigns is in a position to win the Money in the Bank match and claim the briefcase that signifies a wrestler’s place among the chosen, Owens is churning through a feud with Cena that seems anything but predetermined. Sure, it is predetermined, but in a lot of ways, Owens is as real as wrestling gets. Every time Owens has appeared on the main roster, it has felt like it might be his last, and yet somehow he has kept winning. And although Reigns is perceived to be selected for greatness, as if all of his wins have been handed to him in a fake sport, it has felt as if Owens has earned every opportunity he’s gotten. He has been underestimated since the beginning of his indie career. Even after Owens became a mainstay on the independent scene, he was demoted at Ring of Honor because then-booker Jim Cornette thought Owens lacked star power. And even when Owens signed with WWE, his success seemed unlikely within the constraints of McMahon’s aesthetic. And yet, Owens keeps winning.
As for Reigns, he has found his footing in recent months by keeping a reasonable distance from the championship scene — an unspoken admission by WWE that it was wrong in forcing him on fans. But Reigns will be in the MITB match on Sunday, an arm’s length from the briefcase. And Kevin Owens will get the biggest crowd reaction of the night, even though he’ll be facing Cena, WWE’s biggest hero.
In the title match between Rollins and Ambrose, it hardly matters who wins — those guys are both here to stay. And in some ways, they both mark the way forward. Rollins and Ambrose are neither pure WWE products nor co-opted interlopers. They’re outsiders absorbed into the WWE machine. They’re both amazing wrestlers and entertainers, but the most intriguing thing on the card is seeing what will happen with Owens. (A close second is what will happen with Reigns.) Sure, Rollins is backed by the Authority, the modern-day incarnation of WWE’s nefarious corporate wing. But everybody knows the real villain isn’t Rollins or the Authority.
The biggest heel in pro wrestling is still “New York.” They can keep giving us Kevin Owenses — or Daniel Bryans, or CM Punks — and WWE will never turn babyface. Which is probably how WWE likes things, because the wrestling world always needs a good heel. And fans will keep screaming for their “underdog” favorites, because yelling at the big heel is what wrestling fans do. The biggest rivalry on Sunday isn’t Owens-Cena, or the meta-contest to see if Owens or Reigns gets the bigger push from within WWE. It’s Us versus Them. Same as it’s always been.
John Cena is WWE’s banner carrier, its public face. He never fails to play to the crowd, to try to give them exactly what they want. Yet — just like with WWE — fans are never satisfied. In his promo with Owens, Cena defended the WWE crowd after Owens said that any fans who didn’t know him were “not worth my time.”
“Without all of them there is no Raw,” Cena shouted. “Without all of them there is no WWE. This is why we are here.” In response, the crowd chanted “Fight, Owens, fight!”