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Muscle Memory, or How Two Decades of Fighting Made Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn Hit Harder

Top turnbuckle brainbusters, package piledrivers, and two decades of violence—how it all added up to a ‘WrestleMania’ masterpiece

WWE/Ringer illustration

You didn’t need to know anything to appreciate the Sami Zayn versus Kevin Owens match at WrestleMania 37. A person who’s never even seen a wrestling bout before could have walked into Raymond James Stadium, watched that match, and understood the story: These are two guys who don’t like each other. More specifically, they’re fighting because one is mad at the other for believing in conspiracy theories. They hurl each other into things recklessly:

They viciously kick and punch each other:

They basically beat each other up until one of them can no longer throw off the other person and the match is over:

The non-wrestling fan doesn’t need to know a thing about wrestling, or about Zayn and Owens, to feel the urgency and excitement and to enjoy the story of two skilled and stubborn men determined to come out the winner.

Professional wrestling is storytelling through motion, and the places where wrestling narrative tends to crystallize are the moves: those distinctive, carefully named forms of attack. The moves of a match are its vocabulary, and one of the wonderful things about wrestling is that a well-structured match can work at more than one level because of the way moves provide deep structure to its story. A match with a simple story line shifts in nuance depending on how you watch it.

A person who knows wrestling, but doesn’t know Zayn and Owens specifically, could see this match and understand the story: These are two men using an increasingly inventive, dangerous, and intricate set of moves to try to defeat each other. This hypothetical fan, one who knows the techniques of wrestling but not the specifics of the wrestlers, would discern powerbombs of various sorts, including the Blue Thunder Bomb:


Frog splashes:

They’d probably be surprised to see brainbusters delivered in various places, especially if they knew WWE doesn’t let many people do them:

If they’re into fairly rare moves, they might recognize an attempted package piledriver:

And they’d be aware that it was a stunner that closed the match:

This fan, the wrestling fan who doesn’t know the participants at all, could enjoy the escalation of increasingly high-risk, skillful moves as each wrestler grew more desperate to win, with the final exclamation point of the stunner, a relatively simple move compared to the more complex ones that came before.

Now consider a person who happens to be focused on either Owens or Zayn’s characters specifically—the fan in the KO or SZ shirt in the audience, say. That fan will quickly understand the story: This is about two wrestlers with long indie careers tapping deep into their repertoire to win. The Sami Zayn connoisseur knows that Zayn has lost faith with his own wrestling over the past couple of years, even giving it up entirely for a while. This fan will note that as the match progresses and Zayn gets more frantic, he starts delivering a flurry of moves from deep in his arsenal to try to win the match. This fan will thrill to see his Blue Thunder Bomb, the move that has always symbolized Zayn’s confidence in himself, and will smile to see his serene certainty that this time it will beat his foe:

They’ll gasp to see him pull out the brainbusters that he’s done so rarely in WWE, because they know these are El Generico’s signature moves, the symbols of a past that Zayn denies and yet stays connected to:

They’ll quite possibly lose their mind when he wearily struggles to do what they know is a brainbuster off the turnbuckle, Generico’s finisher that Zayn has never done in WWE:

And when Zayn goes for the Helluva Kick and it fails to put Owens away, it will be clear to the fan who loves him that Zayn as he is now—sunk in obsessive self-pity—will be unable to defeat the nemesis who is bent on stunning sense into him.

On the other hand, a person who’s deeply invested in Kevin Owens’s career will understand the story being told: of Kevin’s mastery of both his traditional heel and more recent babyface movesets. They’ll recognize the powerbomb as Kevin’s finisher from his NXT and early main roster days, and they’ll know that the variant where the victim is thrown against the apron has marked some of his cruelest betrayals, for example of Chris Jericho and the New Day:

And there’s a decent chance they’ll shriek out loud when he attempts to do the package piledriver, finishing move of the blasphemous and beloved Antichrist of Professional Wrestling, indie legend Kevin Steen:

This fan will also understand what it means when he ends the match on the stunner, the move bequeathed to him by Steve Austin—one of the greatest tweeners wrestling has ever seen—handed on to a new great antihero.

This fan, the Kevin Owens fan, sees the story of a wrestler who’s accepted and integrated his past, embraced his present, and is ready to use everything to defeat his rival.

At the most complex level, there’s a final story being told: not of two single people, but of the relationship and the history between them. Every story told in a ring is about the relationship between two people, but this is a two-person story that spins backward in time for years: the story of Kevin Owens–Kevin Steen and of Sami Zayn–El Generico. To see this story requires being focused on two intertwined careers, so when Owens immediately starts off the match with a pop-up powerbomb ...

… this fan’s mind goes back to TakeOver: Rival in 2015, when Owens powerbombed Zayn four times in a row until the referee stopped the match and declared him the winner.

At WrestleMania on Sunday, Zayn manages to roll out of the ring to avoid the pin, and Owens immediately tries the pop-up powerbomb on the ring apron. That same fan will wince, remembering that it’s a symbol not just of Owens’s many betrayals, but of the specific betrayal that began his WWE career on his debut night, attacking his best friend. From Sami’s frenzied blows to Kevin’s head, it’s clear the memory isn’t far from his mind, either.

As the WrestleMania match progresses, it’s as if the wrestlers are shifting backward through time, move by move. Zayn responds to Owens’s failed powerbomb with that brainbuster onto the apron, the viciously beautiful signature move of El Generico that he was forced to use over and over again to try to keep his bloodthirsty former friend Steen down.

In response, Owens tries to pull out the big guns with the package piledriver, the finisher Kevin Steen delivered numerous times to El Generico—both before they were tag partners and after he turned against and attacked him.

Even more poignantly, the package piledriver and brainbuster put together made up the finishing move that Steen and Generico employed when they were a tag team. Seeing that move—“the Assembly Line”—evoked here on the grandest stage of them all will hit anyone who’s loved their earlier incarnations like a jolt to the heart.

Panicked by Owens’s piledriver attempt, Zayn responds by attempting to go for El Generico’s most brutal and spectacular finisher: the top turnbuckle brainbuster, delivered by dropping his opponent on his head onto the top of the ring corner apparatus. It was a huge spot in their most bloody and agonizing Ring of Honor match in 2010 to finish their year-long feud, and you can see Owens, at WrestleMania 11 years later, shake his head in a panic as he fights to keep Zayn from completing the move:

Owens manages to reverse that as well into a fisherman’s suplex. At this point they’ve gone back as far as they can go, really. They’ve rewound through the nearly two decades of history they share, moving backward through betrayals and shared triumphs, touching on the whole range of emotions they’ve gone through and evoked in others. So it’s time to come back to their current finishers to end the match. Zayn hits Owens with a Helluva Kick, his WWE finisher—and again, those who focus on their career together will immediately recognize the ending of Battleground 2016, the end of their first feud on the main roster, replicated with perfect accuracy.

In 2016, Zayn took a long moment to gaze at Owens with a sort of resolute pity before setting him back for a second Helluva Kick and the win. But there’s no pity in Zayn at this point for anyone but himself: “This is because of you,” he yells at Owens before heading back to deliver another Helluva Kick.

But this time, when Zayn goes for the Helluva Kick, Owens is ready to counter with a superkick, and this time it’s him who has that moment of loving yet merciless pity, staring at the disheveled wreck of his friend and rival. “You did this,” he counters, and finishes the match.

For the fan watching who knows some or all of their history, the stunner at the end is a final wake-up call to Zayn after a match spent running back through old betrayals, old losses, and old agonies as well as old triumphs and old friendships. It’s a match that pushes Zayn through a sort of muscle-memory reliving of his long, fraught history with Owens.

The heart is a muscle too.

There are endless different ways to watch Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn’s match at WrestleMania 37, from childlike wonder at the wild violence of it to the most complex kaleidoscope of past experiences. And here’s what’s great about wrestling as a storytelling form: absolutely none of these ways of experiencing the story is the correct one. You can’t know every single wrestler’s history to this extent—you just can’t, there’s too much information out there. So the match works as the story of two men beating the hell out of each other, and it works as the story of two wrestlers performing some of the most exciting and dangerous moves in wrestling, and it works as the story of a character struggling with despair, and it works as part of the story of two friends who have trusted and betrayed and envied and pitied each other. The more you learn about wrestling, the more a well-constructed match—like great art in all of its forms—will open up and unfold layer after layer, a Russian nesting doll revealing ever more intricate detail the closer you look.

It’s unique and amazing, and Owens and Zayn are two of the very best storytellers the sport has.

J.J. McGee teaches and attends wrestling shows in Japan when not posting GIFs and commentary on Twitter as @Mithgifs.