Let me start at the beginning.
No, no. We don’t have enough time.
Let me start at the end.
On April 12, 2021, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn faced off in a singles match at WrestleMania as Owens tried to shake Zayn out of his conspiratorial obsessions and bring him back to “the old Sami Zayn.” In the leadup to the match, they both talked in interviews and on Twitter about their long history leading up to that moment. But the sheer, staggering scope of that past can’t possibly be made clear in a short mention, so here’s an attempt at capturing some of the career of this unprecedented pair.
December 11, 2004. Philadelphia. CZW’s Cage of Death. This is the first time Kevin Steen (who will one day become Kevin Owens) and El Generico (who definitely did not become Sami Zayn, according to Zayn himself) ever were a tag team. Mind you, this is over a year after they started crossing paths—they’ve already been in the ring together eighteen times, in singles or multi-man or trios matches, by late 2004. But this is the first time they were ever a tag team. Before the match starts, Kevin explains to El Generico and the audience that they don’t get along in their Canadian home promotion, but he supposes he can work with Generico for this one night. Well, he explains to the audience. Generico—a masked luchador who speaks no English—doesn’t quite get it and hugs him, deciding they’re friends now.
They’re facing Excalibur and Super Dragon, and they lose when Generico eventually gets pinned. Inevitably, a furious Kevin turns on Generico and package piledrives him.
Dec. 18, 2004. Los Angeles. PWG’s Uncanny X-Mas. A week later on the other side of the country, and Steen and Generico—who apparently hasn’t learned his lesson—are teaming up again. Once again they lose. This time Santa Claus comes to the ring after and gives them both presents. This time Kevin actually takes the time to unwrap his new flannel shirt and help Generico start to get into his—before once again package piledriving him and leaving him a crumpled heap.
Feb. 19, 2005. Outside Philadelphia. CHIKARA’s Tag World Grand Prix. A month later and El Generico, surely one of the worst judges of character in wrestling, is teaming again with Kevin Steen. Generico doesn’t seem to have even realized that Kevin keeps attacking him, or maybe he’s just so optimistic that he hopes somehow they can make it work.
And, amazingly, he’s right! This time they win the first two matches of the tournament, and even when they lose, Kevin doesn’t turn on him. Generico is effusively delighted to have a friend. Kevin is… mostly tolerant of Generico. Although they don’t know it then, they will in time become a regular tag team in Ring of Honor and win the tag titles. Five years after that firehouse basement in Pennsylvania, Kevin will at last snap and turn on El Generico to kick off one of the most sprawling, intense year-long feuds in the history of wrestling. And they will both, in some form, eventually find themselves facing each other across the ring at WrestleMania.
But they don’t know that in 2005.
When I first started trying to make sense of their intersecting careers, I watched those three matches in order and frowned to myself. It’s like there’s character development across them: Generico’s sunny optimism and the delight of victory finally wearing down Kevin’s violent temper and making it possible for them to co-exist. But what would even be the point of having character development across three matches in three different indie promotions on two sides of the country? I feel confident there was not one soul in the audience for all three matches, after all.
Until one day I realized: There were two people who were there for every match. The only two who matter for the story.
Because that’s the secret of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens: That they have always built on what’s gone before. Every match they’re in together furthers the story of their characters in some way. Even long after the matches themselves have faded from active memory—and I’m sure three matches from the mid-2000s are not something they remember vividly—the weight of the work leaves its impression in their characters.
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More and more, modern wrestlers seem to aim for that complexity in their character work. Bray Wyatt is, at some level, all he ever was, including the ill-fated Husky Harris of NXT. The babyface Stardust Genius days of Tetsuya Naito carried through and informed his jaded heel work. Matt Hardy has been broken and woken across multiple promotions. But few wrestlers have managed—few have even had the opportunity—to build a character across nearly two decades. And almost none have had the chance to build a character in tandem with another wrestler, to have a constant foil nearby, a North Star to navigate by all through the journey.
Across the years, El Generico evolved from a strange guttersnipe into something sweeter and more noble, a babyface character with an almost uncanny ability to win over a crowd. Over time, Kevin’s character shifted from a cocky asshole to something much more troubling and mesmerizing, a darkly complex heel that evoked fear and pity in equal amount. They wrestled in a staggering one hundred fifty-five matches together before WWE, across more than twenty different promotions—in Germany and Canada and Italy and the United States, many of them unrecorded and lost to history forever, in front of thousands and in front of dozens, and there were only two people who were there for every single one of them. Their relationship developed from the snarky awkwardness of those early matches to a deep friendship, through a tormented rivalry, and finally into something joyously bittersweet before El Generico retired forever and Sami Zayn showed up in NXT.
Fight Then. Fight Now. Fight Forever.
When Kevin Owens debuted in NXT a year and a half later, they started it all again, adding layers and layers of blood and tears, jealousy and love. The years spent as Kevin Steen and El Generico stayed with them as they moved to WWE, giving their characters and their relationship a solid and secret heft, like a roll of quarters hidden in a fist to add impact. Their characters have never merely changed in WWE, they’ve always evolved—Owens from the self-deluding bully trying to hide his jealousy from even himself into the flawed but heroic man who feels regret for his past acts and wants to be better; Zayn from the stubborn underdog hero into the self-pitying wreck lashing out at anyone he can blame for his perceived failures. Their relationship has evolved too, from the pure fury of their first feud, through the manic excitement of their first alliance, into the more ambivalent build to this year’s WrestleMania, with both of them apparently wanting to work together but unable to.
Owens has talked about wanting to bring the “old Sami” back, but that’s a project that’s doomed to failure: Their characters never go backwards, they always move forward. Owens may eventually manage to stun Zayn to a more true-hearted version of himself, but he’ll never be the righteous Sami Zayn of his NXT days; he’ll be something different and more complex, shaped by his experiences of the past few years. Just as betrayals in the past of Kevin Owens form the base of regret and resolve that drive him as a babyface, so the delusions and delirium of Sami’s time as a heel will leave their marks on any possible new babyface turn. The dynamic of their relationship—as friends, as enemies, as a tag team—will always be different, because their characters are always different, coming together over and over again to tell the same story in new ways, asking again and again: What are the limits of trust? And what are the limits of love?
Remember how I said I was going to start this piece at the end and not the beginning? Well, I lied. Just after their WrestleMania match, Sami Zayn posted a picture of himself and Kevin in the ring, trading blows, and wrote simply, “Forever.”
Can we talk about the sheer, unmitigated audacity of this WrestleMania match? I’ve seen people complaining that there “wasn’t enough build” leading up to it, but the point with these two is that there has been seventeen years of build for this clash, that everything is always building to the next thing. It was all laid out in a few weeks of promos and ten minutes in the ring at Raymond James stadium in front of the first live crowd in over a year: The rivalry, the jealousy, the exasperation and the caring. It seemed to lack build because the WrestleMania match—this meeting on the Showcase of the Immortals, the Grandest Stage of Them All!—was part of the build for whatever comes next. Imagine the serene self-confidence it takes to treat a singles WrestleMania match (one of only two non-title matches that night!) not as the pinnacle and culmination of your rivalry, but as the opening of the next chapter of it.
That’s the power of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn: there is no ending.
It’s always forever.