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The Acute Angle: Kevin Owens

KO doesn’t always win, but can WWE keep a great heel down?

WWE/Ringer illustration

It’s hard to quantify a WWE superstar’s worth. The company is notoriously opaque about whatever proprietary formula determines who puts asses in seats, and to the extent that its preferences are discernible—“Bring me an army of Dwayne Johnsons!” one can imagine Vince McMahon saying—they’re often at odds with what the most vocal fans root for. And to the extent that “worth” is dictated by the fans—WWE’s nightly test market—there’s sometimes a chasm between the average tuner-in and the diehards who chant on live TV. That makes it awfully hard to second-guess (or hazard a first one regarding) how individual performers are booked from week to week. Not that this stops fans and the commentariat from offering theories and criticism, which in turn only motors round-the-clock interest in the product.

So in an attempt to figure out what’s really going on with these larger-than-life figures—what the real story line that we should be paying attention to is—we’re going to take a deep dive into some of WWE’s top (and bottom) performers, one at a time, in a new semi-regular series. Each installment will focus on a particularly compelling superstar’s current essentialness, and how their role foreshadows something specific about WWE’s future. Welcome to “the Acute Angle.”

To that end, we kick things off with a closer look at someone who might be a living testament to the timeless notion that there’s nothing better than a really great bad guy.

The Superstar: Kevin Owens
Years Active on WWE Roster: Three as of May 2018
Number of WWE Titles Held: 6
Finishing Move: Pop-Up Powerbomb
Signature Catchphrase(s): “This is the Kevin Owens Show!”;“ Yep!”

What’s the Angle? Is Kevin Owens Proof That You Can’t Keep a Great Heel Down?

First, a Little Background ... Kevin Owens’s real name is Kevin Steen. He wrestled under that name for the majority of his nearly 15 years on the independent circuit beginning in 2000, highlighted by world championship runs with Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla. Owens has also long been attached at the hip to good buddy, fellow Canadian, and current onscreen WWE bestie Sami Zayn (who competed alongside and opposite his pal under the masked alias El Generico prior to their joining WWE). Owens was hotly (and rightly) tipped as a throwback body type who could cannonball and frog splash around the ring like someone half his weight while whipping up a crowd and psyching out opponents with deadpan dickishness, but his detractors saw a portly, poor man’s CM Punk—a mouth without a WWE future. But WWE gave him a shot, and by the time he showed up at NXT and decimated frenemy Zayn—subsequently winning the developmental promotion’s title in short order and serving notice to John Cena in his Raw debut in under half a year—Steen was already hot on fellow ROH alum Daniel Bryan’s heels as a smark-tested, mark-approved free agent du jour.

Since Arriving in WWE, Owens’s aforementioned encounter with Cena was legendary (and more than echoed Cena’s own initial impression on viewers circa 2002), and his clean win over the 16-time champ at that spring’s Money in the Bank was no less auspicious. But Owens took the reins from there, fast-tracking his path from NXT regular testing the waters on Raw to an undeniable main-roster attraction. By the summer of 2017, he’d already been crowned Universal champion, Intercontinental champion (twice), and U.S. champion (three times). These things don’t happen by accident—but they don’t happen by careful design either. Despite being scripted, pro wrestling is in some ways a meritocracy, because you have to be good to get the crowd behind you, and WWE can’t successfully strongarm crowds like it used to be able to. Timing and talent rule, and Owens seized his moment by committing to the part of unrepentant heel, shameless and vicious, manipulative and disloyal, just badass enough to come away unscathed after playing the lame-duck foil (see: his seemingly endless 2017-18 rivalry with SmackDown GM Shane McMahon). Even as his title heft has flagged, KO’s carried stretches of prime time. His oddball pairing with Chris Jericho produced months of comedy gold, highlight-reel matches, and a classic slow-burn betrayal that was the story of Tuesday nights. He reunited with Zayn—an endlessly compelling combination—first as enemies and then as villains-in-arms. Even after he and Zayn’s foregone WrestleMania 34 loss to McMahon and Daniel Bryan led to their jumping from SmackDown to Raw, where Owens has since fallen short against IC champ Seth Rollins and Braun Strowman, his relevance has never been in question. Which is precisely why he was the perfect choice to supplant Jinder Mahal this past Monday in a Money in the Bank qualifiers match and weasel his way to a win. Anything less would have been our loss.

His Signature Moment was probably kicking Cena’s ass and standing over him with the title in his debut. But his humiliating beatdown of ex-BFF Chris Jericho (h/t to a gamely helpless Y2J) is a close second.

All Things Considered—with apologies to loved/hated Brock Lesnar and an ascendant Samoa Joe—Owens is almost certainly the most memorable, unwavering villain of the past half-decade. NXT and WWE haven’t so much refined him as they have kept out of his way. KO’s success is largely his own, whether it’s what we see and hear in the ring and backstage or how he sticks to his smarter-than-thou instincts on social media and at heightening his gimmick at house shows. Owens’s tack is a roadmap for wannabe renegades entering the wrestling business and a life support for WWE itself, which has struggled to sell some of its biggest names exactly as envisioned (Roman Reigns, Bray Wyatt, et al.) under the scrutiny of fans’ wizened eyes. For more than three years running, Raw and SmackDown have often been The Kevin Owens Show.

The Finish: Is Kevin Owens Proof That You Can’t Keep a Great Heel Down?

Yes, but they don’t churn them out in developmental like this every day.