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Mystery Solved: Who Brought the KO Show Back to Life?

While Kevin Owens and Johnny Gargano tagging on ‘WWE Raw’ may not feel like a big deal, it highlights the renewed focus on Owens from WWE and KO himself

WWE/Ringer illustration

There’s a lot of things that professional wrestlers can look like: undead zombie morticians, tax accountants, Wizards of Oz. Some folks fit the literal Grecian ideal and others look like Dr. Robotnik. There was even once a guy who looked like he was going to Make a Difference.

Kevin Owens looks like a guy who could beat your ass while he’s food shopping. While it’s not Robocop, “dude who would molly whop you in front of your God and the arugula if you pissed him off in the produce section” is at or near the top of the list of aesthetics it feels like one would want for their show about a scripted fighting league.

That he fits the part of an everyman ass-kicker so well while also being maybe the most versatile performer of his generation meant that for those of us who had been lucky enough to watch him work his brutal magic as Kevin Steen live on the indies—whether as a part of Mount Rushmore with Adam Cole and the Young Bucks or with/against his retired former partner/nemesis, El Generico—there was a feeling he might be a headlining star for years to come in the WWE.

And, at least at the start, it seemed like the WWE saw him in largely the same way we nerds did. From his first interaction with Sami Zayn on NXT Takeover: R Evolution, powerbombing his unsuspecting then friend neck first on the ring apron, to taking down John Cena in his first appearance on Raw (as well as defeating Cena in his pay-per-view debut), Owens kicked off his WWE career in pretty much the best way possible. His whirlwind push eventually culminated in a Universal title run kicked off by Triple H essentially winning the championship for him after the Game Pedigree’d both Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins at the end of their four-way elimination title match.

Then sound and fury, signifying nothing (and worse, somehow).

Following his title loss to Goldberg in just 22 seconds after a six-month title reign in March 2017, Owens won (and lost) the U.S. championship three times in the subsequent four months. After playing a game of hot potato with AJ Styles to end his final, two-day-long U.S. title reign, Owens lost 137 of his next 155 matches through the end of 2018. That’s bad enough that, had that trend continued, he’d be bringing up the rear of the roster alongside professional loser Bumass Corbin or working in AEW instead of barreling his way up the Big Board like he has over the last month.

2019 wasn’t much better—his win-loss record was at the level of a very good Miz year, with 38 wins in 78 matches—and it took until the end of 2020 through the 2021 Royal Rumble for Owens to find himself (with a solid, albeit truncated, record of 29-16-1) back in anything resembling serious title contention with the company’s biggest star, Roman Reigns.

However, as was the case for sports and most forms of entertainment, 2020 existed outside of space and time. Numbers were off for every sport, and professional wrestling was structurally altered by the pandemic, with no house shows or even, really, dark matches to shape anyone’s stats or provide a significant sample size. Unlike unscripted athletic competition, the lack of immediate audience response also made it so the choices of promoters lost whatever ability they had to be meaningfully predictive or indicative of their long-term valuation for a performer. In its simplest form, this is how the system is supposed to work: A promoter gives a performer a feud or angle to work, the performer works a given angle or feud—which goes over with the crowd or doesn’t—and then the promoter (presumably) adjusts accordingly. In 2020, with the feedback mechanism removed almost completely, what happened in the ThunderDome (especially in the first year) was, for the most part, meant to stay in the ThunderDome.

This was why—along with his track record to that point—it wasn’t surprising that Owens could not keep the momentum going and saw his winning percentage drop from 62 percent all the way down to 32.7 percent in 2021. This kind of whiplash has been a hallmark of Owens’s career since he joined the main roster in the summer of 2015, as Owens has never had two consecutive winning years in the WWE and only two years in which his winning percentage didn’t significantly shift in either direction (31 percent in 2016 and 29 percent in 2017).

The level to which this was not the case in NXT is almost shocking in retrospect. Less shocking than just how short his run was, though. Between debuting against CJ Parker (who now works under the name Juice Robinson in New Japan) at the aforementioned NXT Takeover where he tried to murder Sami in December 2014 and losing the title to Demon Finn Bálor on the Fourth of July 2015 (in Japan at a show called The Beast in the East, headlined by Kofi Kingston and his greatest nemesis, Brock Lesnar), Owens won over 70 percent of his matches. This is even when including the start of his move to the main roster—where he settled into his transitional role as Cena’s chew toy—in the weeks before the Tokyo show, which accounts for five of his 10 losses in the seven-and-a-half-month period.

In the 35 NXT-sanctioned single matches (i.e., any matches at an NXT house, on TV or a PPV show, or in NXT title matches on “main roster” shows) he had in this timeframe, Owens went 30-2-3. His only defeat before dropping the title to Bálor was a DQ title defense—also known as the second-to-last refuge of the scoundrel—against Bálor at a house show in Philadelphia (which means, whatever Owens did to get disqualified must have been EXTREME). While it’s certainly not to be expected/projected that he would have kept his numbers as high as they were for the first half of the year when he moved up the main roster, a 34-11-3 record somehow ended up a 63-85-4 record over the next five months.

It’s unclear exactly why Kevin Owens’s career has been so filled with fits and starts—though Vince McMahon’s notoriously negative reaction to his match at WrestleMania 33 against Chris Jericho feels like it could be indicative of his general disposition toward Owens—but until two months ago, he was literally as likely to main event WrestleMania with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in TEXAS as to be in an interminable if somewhat enjoyable feud with a guy pretending to be his imaginary brother. (Obviously, I’m with Kevin on the whole “Ezekiel is Elias” thing, as I, too, am French Canadian and I know we’re not fooled easily.)

And, perhaps, that is part of the “problem.” (Not the French Canadian thing— that’s just charming.) Owens’s talent meant that he is a prime candidate for what’s known as the “curse of the good hand.” Because of his ability to thrive in any situation, he often gets put into situations where virtually no one else on the roster would even be able to not actively damage their career, let alone make everyone better around him.

He’s 38 (in the new prime earning/performance years for most professional wrestlers) and last week, he did an impossibly smooth 180° Best Moonsault Ever in the fourth quarter of a great match against Austin Theory that he won, which was a match I had been anticipating since he cut maybe the best promo of the year the week before on Theory. That’s how good Kevin Owens is at professional wrestling: He made me care about Austin Theory. Brock Lesnar, Roman Reigns, and a tractor in the same place at the same time couldn’t make me care about Austin Theory.

And yet, under the previous regime, the idea of whether or not Kevin Owens would ever win another championship was still up in the air. But while it’s easy to blame Vince for things like Owens not holding a title in over five years, or vacillating between being a violent sociopath bully, a cartoon villain cat who is trying to keep a mouse out of the house, and a family-man babyface, at least from Vince’s perspective, Owens didn’t have what he was looking for when he saw a major star on his television shows. We all know Vince’s penchant for “body guys”—the guys like Theory, who are chiseled out of stone—but somewhat weirdly it never seemed like Owens’s problem was an aesthetic one.

Well, not about Owens himself, at least. It’s that Owens’s strengths—the things that make him just as likely to work in a goofy segment with the New Day as to stand toe-to-toe with Roman Reigns—make for the kind of television and storytelling that Vince seems to find boring or, at the very least, harder to market to fans (and by extension, advertisers). While Vince might very well think it’s really cool that Succession speaks to his issues, all signs seem to point to Vince not really being quite sure how to sell that kind of seemingly meandering but deliberately plotted narrative in which threads weave in and out of each other to create specific but fleeting moments of clarity into the human condition.

For Vince, the only television worth producing is what you might call your “magical detective” shows: the Boneses, Castles, Columbo (there’s only one Columbo), and Mentalists Psychs of the greater TV world. Though the crossover between detective mystery fiction and professional wrestling may run deep, at least for Vince, what was most important about this kind of casting and story structure was how deep the gold mines were.

There is, of course, a lot of money to be made centering entire television franchises around charismatic characters who are presented as better than everyone else they come up against while also beating up the bad guys. Writing for those performers becomes incredibly easy, especially if you’re willing to devalue (in moderation) the people around them to boost their star power.

“Hogan poses” wasn’t just a saying; it was a way of life in the WWE for a generation, and although there were moments where the kind of multilayered storytelling made its way onto WWE television, they seem to have been largely exclusive to Vince Russo’s “monkeys touch the monolith” run from the mid-’90s with the help of McMahon’s editing. And even that was mostly about butts and seminaked women or [Checks notes.] [Checks notes again, frantically flipping through pages to see if there’s some kind of winking emoji at the end of them.] race-based gang wars? The kind of storytelling devolution that plagued the late Attitude Era is a problem many a showrunner has encountered to counterbalance running your entire show on rails by creating an open world to explore. Sometimes you get The Leftovers or Watchmen. And sometimes you get The Newsroom.

Weirdly, being a bit character on a show where the star gets over on everyone else all the time is not where a performer like Kevin Owens most thrives. Can he work in a place where he’s expected to exist as commodified beef? Absotutely! (I am very sorry I used that word.) But to get the best out of Kevin Owens, you need to have him hang out with Johnny Gargano.

While we are decidedly in the #CiampaWasRight camp here in the Palace of Wisdom, Johnny Wrestling exists as the perfect representation of the direction that the Triple H era will take in WWE for the foreseeable future. From an in-ring perspective, the match between Owens-Gargano and the Alpha Academy (with some help from Austin Theory), a talented doormat of a tag team, put this in sharp focus.

On one side of the ring, you have Alpha Academy, a team comprising two legitimately credentialed athletes—one a Pan-American champion, the other an Olympian—facing two former independent wrestlers, each one of them a “graduate” of the same finishing school.The end result is a match that is allowed to tell a story that could branch out in any number of directions for Gargano, Owens, Theory, Gable (based on the phone call he received from Braun Strowman), and Otis, either as a group or apart from one another.

This is very much the way the new WWE has been presented, featuring honest-to-goodness mise en scène to tell stories (see: Lumis, Dexter) while fully building out the somewhat parallel universe that the WWE takes place in, like a more permeable Pawnee. And from a lore-building perspective, Owens and Gargano also function as an explicit connection for WWE audiences to the “Black and Gold” era of NXT, a house for which KO laid significant parts of the foundation. He also has at least some history with Owens’s past life as Kevin Steen, indie wrestler.

What’s more important than them having history, however, is that they are—and I can not put too fine a point on how big of a deal this is—allowed to have history. There is, for perhaps the first time since leaving the NWA (and definitely since the end of the Attitude Era), a world of wrestling that exists outside of WWE or its major competitor in the day-to-day minutiae of the show. Independent companies are not just limited to content deals on Peacock for the WWE section but can use real parts of the journey of performers who worked all over the world before making their way to what they believe to be the big leagues.

WWE now seems to realize that it matters not just because it insists upon itself but because professional wrestling is a thing that matters to a lot of folks and a lot of them think WWE is the best at doing it. Kevin Steen is the kind of person who makes professional wrestling matter, in part because Kevin Owens is the kind of character that feels like he cares about the world in which it and he exist.

KO remembers things he’s seen on the television show we all watch and is savvy in a way that doesn’t make him magical but makes him at least as observant as the audience. He appreciates the people against whom he’s fighting in a way that doesn’t devalue them to the audience and honors the legacy of the people who came before him without wallowing in nostalgia. (Which, out of everything, is the least important from a quality control perspective but is also the one that led most directly to him main eventing WrestleMania against Stone Cold, so that seemed to work out for the best.)

Because while it may always be a mystery as to why Vince never saw any (or all) of this in him, thankfully the case is closed on whether or not the WWE finally sees him as the star we’ve all known he can be. Just, like, don’t grab the last spring onion, or at least be prepared to take a powerbomb neck first if you do.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.