There’s a story Kevin Owens has told multiple times. In 2005, when first trying to break into ROH as Kevin Steen, Owens got some pushback about wrestling in a t-shirt, something that he has said he just feels more comfortable working in. As Kevin tells it, booker Gabe Sapolsky wasn’t crazy about how it would look, nor were wrestlers CM Punk and Austin Aries. Owens ended up forgoing the t-shirt and wearing just a singlet, but before one ROH event Punk got on the building’s PA and said “Kevin Steen, this is God, you’re a pro wrestler, don’t wear a t-shirt.”
At one point Owens had a match and returned to the ROH locker room, catching Punk staring at him. Owens, having just worked sans shirt, decideed to remark “You happy now?” In his telling, Kevin says it was intended as a lighthearted comment, but Punk took it differently and yelled at him in front of the entire roster. In every telling of this story Owens downplays it as no big deal, something he even immediately apologized to Punk for.
Watching the main event of night one of this year’s WrestleMania, I remembered that story. I remembered it because at that moment Kevin Owens was simultaneously doing two things CM Punk had famously wanted in his career but was never given the chance to do: main event a WrestleMania and wrestle Steve Austin. And he was doing it wearing a t-shirt.
I thought that was kind of an amazing fact, an example of how things can come full circle in life. So I tweeted about it. Big mistake, as it often is.
All those years ago CM Punk mocked Kevin Owens on the indies, made fun of him for wearing a t-shirt. 17 years later Kev is getting Punk's unrealized dreams: main eventing WrestleMania. A match with Steve Austin. And he's doing it in his t-shirt.
— Trevor Dame (@TrevorDame) April 3, 2022
It spread quickly. A lot of people took it as an attack on Punk. Hell, Punk took it as an attack on Punk. I can’t blame anyone for doing that, there’s a lot of extra context and detail to a story like that, and I’m the lug who tried to fit it into a couple hundred characters. At its root, the t-shirt story is a minor anecdote about two guys having a misunderstanding, yelling at each other for a minute, and immediately moving on. It’s not a major story on its own. Owens has said it was overblown at the time, Punk has said he’s happy for Kevin. It’s only interesting in how it links two men, one who managed to achieve two of the only unchecked boxes on a very long list of goals made by the other.
insane after all these years people still can watch that video, listen to Kev tell that story about Gabe making him wrestle in a shirt, and blame ME for Kev coming back into the locker room and yelling at ME. I’m super happy for him right now, but that doesn’t fit your narrative
— player/coach (@CMPunk) April 3, 2022
The thing that people (understandably) got mad at the most was the implication that I thought Owens had succeeded where Punk had “failed”. That couldn’t be more wrong though. I actually think Punk could’ve achieved one of those unachieved dreams, if not both, had he stuck around in WWE. I also think that would have been an awful move for him and he made the right decision in leaving. In fact, as I watched night one of WrestleMania, I thought about Punk and I thought about Owens. They had something in common: they didn’t let their dreams control their lives.
CM Punk was not the only person in wrestling who didn’t like that Kevin Owens wrestled in a shirt. Far from it. It wasn’t just ROH booker Gabe Sapolsky that had reservations, but ROH booker Jim Cornette. It was newsletter writers and fellow wrestlers and fans.
Many were well-meaning. Wrestling after all is a cosmetic business to some degree and although we can all point to everything from Dusty Rhodes’ physique to Punk’s basketball shorts and natural body as proof that you don’t have to fit a bodybuilder template to be a star, tons of talented wrestlers have had their careers hampered because they didn’t meet that standard. Some people that were even Kevin’s fans thought a promotion as frequently body-focused as WWE would never touch him as long as he had a sizable stomach draped with a tee. I’ll admit, I was one of them.
Happily, we were wrong.
In talking about that failed first run in ROH, Owens has said that’s where he learned that he wasn’t a guy who could just go out there and wrestle with no context, no direction on if he was face or heel, just moves. He talks about how it was only in his final match in that short first stint where he showed more of his smartass personality and in doing so got some of the best reactions of that run. If the lesson Owens learned from that was that who he was in the ring was more important than what he did in the ring, and who he should be is himself, I’d argue he’s never gone against it since.
Looking at Owen’s career, it’s frankly amazing how consistent it’s been. Sometimes he’s been a face, sometimes a heel, but ever since that early period he’s always been himself. Most wrestlers go through at least one gimmick change in 17 years. Owens has not only not done that, he has hardly even changed his look. Sometimes he has a beard, sometimes he’s a little heavier or lighter, but for all that time he has always been that guy in the t-shirt.
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It’s all the more impressive when you consider where he worked, often with people who had biases/instincts that made them hesitant to push a guy who looked like him. Yet he’s always succeeded. In Jim Cornette, he worked under a guy who actively disliked so many of his aesthetics, yet Owens was so undeniably over he had to be pushed anyway. He went to WWE, the most hardbody lusting promotion ever, and he worked his way to the top of cards, first in NXT, then on the main roster. He has been with the same company for eight years and never found himself in a position where he was forced to drastically change who he was to freshen up and keep his spot. That’s an amazing achievement in the modern era of wrestling.
Maybe that’s why at this year’s WrestleMania, Owens found himself in the plum spot most dream of, in that main event. By always being the same, Kevin has become the reliable option, the safe option. You know what you’ll get with him because he’s been the same thing for nearly two decades, and it’s worked for nearly two decades. He’s been himself. When the time came for an aged and battered veteran to have one more go, Owens was the guy you could trust to put him in with. By never changing, the kid who grew up on WWF, who learned English from watching Raw, got to wrestle its biggest legend.
CM Punk’s Dreams
The triumph of CM Punk isn’t that he achieved every dream he had, it’s that he didn’t.
Punk has always struck me as a very goal-oriented person. Every interview I’ve heard from him paints him as a guy focused on the next thing rather than lingering on past victories. Maybe the best example of that was when he said he felt his final unachieved WWE goal was to main event a WrestleMania. Punk was so desperate to check that box, he said he was willing to be in an elimination three-way with the Rock and John Cena and get eliminated almost immediately, just so he could say he had done it. You wonder at that point, if that’s how it played out why would you even want that, such a big achievement blown off in such a trivial way. But for Punk it was the thing in WWE he hadn’t done. It was what was left.
Most people would kill for CM Punk’s career. Peaking as the number two star in the biggest promotion in the world behind only Cena, it’s hall of fame worthy. Millions made, worldwide fame, influenced many in the next generation, a boatload of great matches and promos to his name. But Punk always had a chip on his shoulder. He didn’t want to have a great career, he wanted the best career. He didn’t want to do a lot, he wanted to do everything. It’s that mindset, that drive, that unwillingness to settle, that fueled a skinny unnatural athlete to work his ass off to become one of the defining stars of his generation. It is also, by Punk’s own admission, what left him at the end of his WWE run, physically, mentally, and spiritually unwell, so burnt out on wrestling that he needed seven years away to return to it.
If Punk had just hung tough in WWE, had he not left in 2014, he probably fulfills at least one of those two last unobtained goals. WWE has had such a problem creating new stars and has relied so heavily on aging existing ones, a Punk who spent the last eight years in WWE probably doesn’t have one Mania main event, he probably has two or three. Maybe it’s him facing Austin this year instead of Owens, the other white whale he could never harpoon. But at what cost? What physical shape would he be left in? What mental state would he have been in by 2022 if by 2014 WWE had made him lose his love for wrestling?
There are people so driven to be the best that they’d make that trade, that they’d become miserable to be at the top. It sounds like near the end of his WWE run Punk had flirted with being that guy. But the Punk you see in AEW isn’t. He’s the one that talks about not losing yourself so much in wrestling that you can’t enjoy life. He’s the one that still is cutting great promos, still having great matches, while seeming more content and at peace than he ever was before.
Some say Punk is missing a little something, that intangible chip on his shoulder that almost pathologically drove him to be the best. But that’s possibly also the Punk that cared so much about the promotion he represented he’d complain to an undercarder about a t-shirt. The one that had to main event Mania at all costs. The one who loved wrestling so much he made himself hate it.
Happy for Kev. Happy for Cody. VERY happy for Steve. Also happy for Sting. Happy for myself. Happy for Bryan. This isn’t controversial. Fuck Eddie Kingston. Oh, happy for Edge!
— player/coach (@CMPunk) April 3, 2022
The CM Punk we have now is amazing. His promos are still top-notch, his in-ring is as good as it’s ever been and he brings so much nuance and little detail work to his matches and angles that so many in AEW, and wrestling in general, don’t. No one else in AEW can quite fill the gap Punk fills. As a career-long fan of his it is a special joy to see him enjoy this in a way he never has before. Sure, sometimes even I miss the old snarky CM Punk, but if this week has taught me anything, I can just make an ill-conceived tweet and he’ll personally visit me.
CM Punk was a guy obsessed with fulfilling goals, with dreams. The fact that he was able to let the last couple go is why we still have him now. I’ll take that trade any day.
Dreams are important to have. They give us purpose and push us to grow. But holding onto a dream at all costs can make you miserable, even destroy you. Kevin Owens could’ve driven himself crazy trying to change everything about himself to reach his, but instead he stayed true to who he was and got there in time. CM Punk climbed to the top of the business dream by dream, but he knew when to stop chasing just before it drove him to destruction and now seems as happy as he ever has been. In wrestling, as in life, the dream isn’t the thing, it’s where it takes you.