Karma: On Kevin Owens and the Psychology of Injury

During Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn’s match at Hell in a Cell, Zayn did his tope con giro—a flying leap over the top rope—to knock down Owens. Owens came up from the move clutching at his left arm, and spent the rest of the match in visible pain, having to get through with only one arm available as the other one dangled, agonizing dead weight. It was a tour de force in gutting through a match despite physical anguish, a terrible reminder that wrestlers are the masters of forcing their bodies to obey them.

Or it was a tour de force of psychology and selling, because there’s every chance that Kevin Owens’ arm wasn’t badly hurt at all and his apparent injury is part of his continuing feud with Sami Zayn.

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At the narrative level, it’s cruelly beautiful that he might have injured his shoulder, because that’s the exact same shoulder he took credit for injuring on Zayn six years ago—a legit injury that cost Sami almost a year of his career, during which Owens rocketed to the main roster and started winning accolades without him. It is, in fact, so narratively perfect that Zayn might have injured Owens in the same way, derailing his momentum and possibly costing him his chance at that Money in the Bank briefcase, that it’s suspicious. When wrestling karma is so on the nose, usually it’s a sign that we’re being worked.

I’m arguing it’s a work, but not because I want to make light of the worry and concern anyone has felt about Owens’ possible injury. One of the painful joys of wrestling is the ability to be emotionally invested, to care intensely about these openly avowed carnies, liars, and con artists. And if that means potentially sitting on the floor in the dark at 4AM, watching the sky turn gray with dawn and wondering if you can bear to see one of your favorites out with a shoulder injury for nine months, well… that’s the risk we take.

Not that I would ever do such a thing. Ha ha! No, I am a smart and cynical fan. Ahem.

Let’s move on, shall we?

I’m arguing the injury is a work, not in order to say “don’t get invested,” but because I want to take an admiring look at the technique that Owens may have used to make his shoulder injury convincing and trick people into accepting that he could be badly hurt.

The Psychology of Injury

We all know the term “in-ring psychology” and specifically how it applies to creating the illusion of injury. It’s the idea that the story of a match often revolves around wrestlers “working” a particular body part and “selling” damage to that body part, to the point where the ending makes sense because of that. For example, if Bianca Belair’s legs have been attacked over and over, she might not be able to lift her opponent high enough for the Kiss of Death backbreaker move with which she finishes a match. Wrestling fans learn over time to keep a sharp eye out for what parts of a wrestler’s body are being targeted in order to tell a story. There’s a reassurance to it: if we can keep an eye on that, we’ll know where the match is going. No nasty surprises, no sudden disjunctions.

Which is where the trap is.

The “psychology” of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn’s Hell in a Cell match was clear from the beginning: just two days prior on Smackdown, Commander Azeez had hit Owens with two Nigerian Nails—a thumb to the throat that causes intense suffering and breathing problems in its victims. As Zayn came to the ring, a replay of those attacks ran, reminding everyone of Owens’ damaged throat and Zayn’s glee as he watched it. “There’s no way Kevin Owens is anywhere near 100 percent,” Michael Cole informed the audience as Zayn mimed hitting his own throat and saying “He can’t breathe!” in delight. Within a minute of the starting bell, Owens was stopping to dramatically rub at his throat and wheeze for air. “Did you hear that?” Cole said gravely, “Kevin Owens was coughing a moment ago. You have to wonder if he’s going to have problems breathing.” “Is that blood?” Pat McAfee chimed in helpfully. “Is he coughing up blood?” At this point, anyone who knows much about the craft of wrestling may well have been saying “Okay, we get it already! The throat is the key to the match!” It was about as subtle as… well, a thumb to the throat.

Five minutes into the match, Owens was on the floor outside the ring and Zayn launched into a picture-perfect tope con giro, soaring over the ropes to land on Owens, sending them both tumbling. As Owens got to his feet, he staggered away from Zayn, his left arm hanging limp at his side, almost colliding with a camera operator in his haste to get away and regroup. He pulled himself back into the ring and went to the corner, clutching his arm so tightly his grip left pale imprints in his flesh. As the referee checked on him, it was clear he was struggling for breath—not in the exaggerated and melodramatic way he had been earlier when emphasizing his “throat injury,” but the way a person in pain struggles to breathe through their anguish. For his part, Zayn charged at Kevin and had to be waved back by the referee—which is exactly what a wrestler is supposed to do to keep the action from stalling out when their opponent may be actually injured.

This was not the story of the match as it was laid out by every framing device the audience is used to in wrestling, from the hype video to the commentators to Owens’ actions. The story of the match had been clear, it had been simple, it had been communicated to us in the most heavy-handed fashion over and over: Owens’ throat injury is the key. As a result, this sudden shoulder injury was a horrific shock, crushingly heavy in the way reality is. The audience wasn’t prepared for it, they had no narrative in place for it, and as a result it felt absolutely legitimate and genuine. For fans who care about Owens, the rest of the match went from look at how he’s selling that throat to tell a story to How bad is that shoulder, oh God, how long is he going to be out. Which is exactly the state in which a fan should be spending a match: full of excitement and anxiety, hanging on every motion in the hopes of being able to tell if a wrestler will be okay or not.

Back to the Throat.

The end of the match followed the story established at the beginning: Zayn kicked Owens from behind, causing him to land throat-first on the bottom rope. Combined with the previous throat injuries, this left him in too much pain to dodge Zayn’s Helluva Kick or break the pin. If the ending had revolved somehow around Owens’s injured shoulder, it would have been a reassuring hint that the shoulder injury was a pre-planned part of the match. Instead, the damaged shoulder had no part in the ending. What could a savvy fan, aware of the narrative structure of wrestling, conclude but that the shoulder injury was spontaneous, unplanned, and legit? That he had somehow managed to dislocate—or worse—the exact same left shoulder Zayn had struggled to rehab after Owens himself took credit for damaging it?

If indeed Owens isn’t seriously injured (and if he is, boy am I going to feel terrible when the surgery footage is released), one can only applaud his masterful use of psychology—and I mean the mainstream sense of “psychology,” not the wrestling sense. Knowing that most modern wrestling fans are well-aware that a specific body part will be “worked” through a match, Owens and Zayn overtly played up the throat injury in order to lull the smart fan into a false sense of security, a belief that they knew where the story was going. To a hypothetical fan that had no idea of the constructed nature of a match, the throat injury and the shoulder injury are roughly equivalent in weight, two terrible things.

To an “enlightened” fan, the throat injury was of no real emotional consequence—which made the shoulder injury even more convincing, even more crushing. It’s not the first time Owens has used fans’ knowledge of the inner workings of wrestling against them, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. He’s like a magician who tells someone to keep their eye on the hat in his hands. The person who’s wise to his tricks knows that means the important thing is anything but the hat… and will now be looking elsewhere even as he slips a shiv between their ribs. The smarter they are, the harder they fall.

In the end, maybe the karma that comes for us all isn’t the karma that Sami Zayn rants about, but fact that the more we try to armor our hearts against caring, the more easily a canny wrestler can use that same intellectual knowledge and startle us into emotion despite ourselves.