Before his WWE debut in NXT back in 2014, videos began to air in which the former Kevin Steen unveiled his new name. Kevin Owens took up the name of his oldest son as his new surname, and even before we heard him speak, we could tell from exactly where his motivations radiate. In one package, Owens, dressed in black shorts and a tee with the sleeves cut off, the front emblazoned with the word “fight” in a hand painted style, stands under the ring lights. As pictures of him and his family fade in and out, an echoing narration in his voice lingers:
“I realized a long time ago that the best way for me to provide for my family wasn’t to work in a warehouse or an office, but to fight people. I have fought tooth and nail for 14 years to get to the WWE. Now that I’m here, I will fight anyone and everyone because that’s what I do best. People have been betting against me since the beginning of my career, and, if anything, that motivates me. I love proving people wrong almost as much as I love fighting people and that’s why I’m here.”
A few weeks later, Sami Zayn was due to battle Adrian Neville for the NXT Championship at Takeover: R Evolution. Neville was in the midst of a 286 day reign, while Zayn had already challenged Neville for the championship twice, unsuccessfully: once in a Fatal Four Way match, and once in singles. To earn another title shot, Zayn put his livelihood on the line in a title vs. career match.
Zayn and Neville battled for almost 30 minutes. Near the end, after the referee was momentarily incapacitated, Sami found himself with the championship belt in his hand and an opportunity to use it to bludgeon the king of NXT and save his career. Instead, Sami passed on the opportunity to win the wrong way. Moments later he hit Neville with the Helluva Kick for a second time to win the NXT Championship.
After such a long road to a WWE title, Zayn was left in the ring to celebrate with a raucous crowd, joined eventually by a number of superstars from the locker room. Among this crew was Kevin Owens, still bleeding from the nose following his debut match, an encounter with CJ Parker (the current Juice Robinson). Owens, highly anticipated, won a straightforward match after entering and exiting to huge applause. This was a man the fans wanted to see, a man who was here to win respect and earn a better life for his family. Fourteen years of hard wrestling brought him to his dream job, and the fans were more than happy to support him.
After a six-minute well deserved but lengthy jubilee, and under a snowfall of glitter, Neville returned to the ring, seemingly to confront Sami. After a few tense moments, they embrace, and Sami is (for the second time) raised on the shoulders of the other wrestlers in the ring. The moment is wonderful: Sami has spent over a decade earning this celebration, and there is no more pure face than the character of his NXT run. Even the toppled heel champion felt the need to acknowledge it. The presence of Kevin Owens here is impossible not to notice. Not only had the two been inextricably linked on the indies but they are both Canadian-born and with similar paths to WWE. While Sami made it to WWE first, there was no denying that Owens was looking in on his future.
Eventually, almost ten minutes after the end of the match, with the show seemingly about to go off air, the ring clears. Sami Zayn, exhausted, exits the ropes, and sits down on the ring apron. Kevin Owens returns. He shares a hug and a few words with his long time rival and friend.
And then KO really debuts.
On May 18th, 2015, Kevin Owens, now holding the NXT Championship that formerly belonged to Sami Zayn, showed up to respond to John Cena’s United States Championship open challenge. After a brutal apron powerbomb on Sami Zayn to end his debut night, Owens firmly established himself as a heel. Despite debuting to applause, and wrestling his first match cleanly, there was never even a real swerve needed to align Owens as a bad guy. He came out, and would continue to come out night after night, and did exactly what he said he would do in his opening promos: he was there to fight and make money, and when he answered Cena’s open challenge he made that point again. He wasn’t there to wrestle on Raw. He attacked Cena and pushed for a match on a bigger stage at the pay-per-view Elimination Chamber, a match that he would win.
Owens’ debuts in NXT and on Raw laid important groundwork for his years on the main roster of WWE, where he would later hold a world title in the Universal Championship, as well as numerous turns each with the Intercontinental and United States championships. Wrestling personas are fictional characters, and can therefore be changed or overhauled at a whim, but the best versions are worn with credibility, grounded in some real aspects of the wearer’s personality. Owens has been part of many different stories, involved with different feuds, but he has managed to keep his core traits the same: he fights for his wife and children; he fights for a living; and, he fights because he likes to. There is a simplicity in this that allows Owens’ character to adapt and remain flexible. He can turn face or heel, betraying friends or enemies alike, without it feeling unearned, as it never requires the betrayal of himself. That has allowed fans to connect with him in a way that is often difficult to achieve. Booing or cheering, people feel like they know KO’s character because no matter the angle, he has always maintained some level of consistency in who he is.
Achieving a good turn, be it face to heel or vice versa, is difficult. Often, whether laziness, lack of creativity, or both, characters are turned simply to get a story moving. This feels unearned or nonsensical because it frequently involves a betrayal of some core character trait in order to catalyze the change in alignment. Owens has been able to play both roles because that brutal prizefighter persona he invested in from day one can go both ways. He comes across as authentic. He wants to win, so we become invested in who wins his matches. His debut night in NXT took him from the second most loved wrestler in the building (after Sami) to the most hated. He has been able to ride up and down like a sin wave, pitching highs and lows to the crowd as a face or heel as the story has demanded. The best example of this on the main roster was his run with Chris Jericho.
On and off for a lot of the year, Jericho and KO had quite a few interactions before uniting as a tag team in the summer of 2016. They had great chemistry. Owens and Jericho, who is another master of a good face or heel turn, easily got themselves over organically. Owens had championship aspirations (and would carry the Universal Title for most of his time paired with Y2J), while Jericho became sillier and devoted more to the friendship than the competition aspect of the team. The run is immensely entertaining, working as a concept precisely because they could never work as a team. Owens the wrestler craves fire and blood, title shots and earnings. Jericho demands adulation, not caring if it comes from a championship victory, the spotlight of a talk show, or the attention of his best friend. Jericho frequently stepped on Owens toes, interfering in matches on his behalf, and later accepting a challenge that Goldberg laid out to KO.
As the pairing built tension, Jericho attempted a grand gesture in the form of The Festival of Friendship: a celebration that included gifts, decorations, and dancing in honor of the two men’s friendship. There was an incredibly sweet level of goofiness to this segment, endearing Jericho to the viewers even more. Then, Jericho received a “gift” from Owens – a new list first visible to the audience (who were audibly gasping) as The List of KO, with Jericho’s name printed on it. He has only a second to process before Owens lays him out. Jericho, even as a true friend, had become a distraction to Owens’ single-minded pursuit of championship and career success. Owens had again been able to get the audience onto his side in order to best break their heart.
Owens, now several cruel turns in, had established himself firmly as a bad guy, and someone not to be trusted. This lesson would be hammered home again (a brief stint with the New Day before attacking Xavier Woods) and again (turning on Dolph Ziggler after losing a chance to earn a tag team title shot). So how, then, did someone that even in the best of times teeters on the edge of being unhinged, end up as a face for most of the past few years?
Kevin Owens mostly comes across as a jerk to other wrestlers. As a heel he is a danger to everyone. As a face he is frequently exasperated, even with kindness directed towards him. But, if we look back to his debut one more time, we see that the roots for everything to come over the next half decade were there. We all thought, at first anyway, that this guy was someone worth cheering, a good guy here for his family. He wanted to win, he wanted to take care of his wife and kids, and he wanted to live his dream. Then on night 1 he dismantled perhaps the most popular face NXT has ever had, a man that many fans knew as Owens’ friend outside of the ring. Despite this, Owens was telling the truth. He really was in WWE for all of those wonderful reasons he described.
What has changed lately is that his ire and all of his challenges have been directed in a new way. His attacks are no longer bullying, they’re justice. He has feuded with Roman Reigns, who is on a hot heel run and provided a necessary counterpart to KO. Owens was also gifted the finisher of arguably the hottest face WWE has ever had in Stone Cold Steve Austin. Even more, what has been different about this time and KO’s other, much briefer, turns as a face has been that this time he had a chance to make amends for something, actually proving his humanity by hitting Logan Paul with a stunner for the crime of disrespecting Sami Zayn (even after Sami himself had repeatedly disrespected Owens). Then, proper to his character, Owens didn’t quite forgive Sami for how he has been lately. He also did not apologize for what he had done in the past to make a name for himself. KO stood up for a former friend without conceding anything.
It all works because of the intelligence of Owens as a performer and the dedication he has given to his character. He has made a complete and organic face turn entirely on his strengths as a performer, and we buy it as viewers because we can watch him wrestle, watch him fight, and see that this is the same person he was when he premiered. That’s why we can feel his need to beat Sami again, but this time because he wants to help an old friend and make things right. We saw him cheated in matches with Roman Reigns, and can give him sympathy. Kevin Owens is still the prizefighter, looking to make things better for his family, but this time we’re all a part of that family.