Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, as rookies, worked their first matches on the same card in Montreal, for the International Wrestling Syndicate.
In the FX crime drama Justified, the show’s hero, US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) returns home to rural Harlan, Kentucky, where he faces off for six seasons against his friend-turned-arch-enemy, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). The characters have known each other since their childhood and spent time together underground doing hazardous work mining coal.
Throughout the show, when the nature of their relationship is mentioned, the characters fall back to those days deep below the surface of the earth to explain the nature of their winding, often-rocky friendship.
"We dug coal together."
That’s how it has been for WWE superstars Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. They might not have dug coal together, but they rode the highways together and roomed in the same crummy hotels. They paid their dues, sometimes wrestling in front of large crowds, and other times performing in front of crowds that could fit into a broom closet. The miles of travel, the injuries, and the nights of performing led them to understand that they could rely on each other.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn became something more than friends–the business of wrestling had transformed them into brothers.
As native Canadians, the two–both of whom had grown up as wrestling fans–found a place to train in Montreal. They learned their fundamentals under the watchful eye of Jacques Rougeau, a former WWE world tag team and Intercontinental champion who may best be remembered as "The Mountie."
Kevin Owens wrestled under his own name, Kevin Steen until he was signed by the WWE. Zayn took a different path with his character, debuting as the "Generic Luchadore," a gimmick that eventually morphed into El Generico on the indie circuit. Zayn, whose real name is Rami Sebai, would drop the mask once he signed with WWE and debuted in NXT.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn — the Early Days
Their early days saw both men simply seeking an opportunity. Their passion for wrestling meant they weren’t concerned about wins and losses–it was more about moving along the path to their future aspirations. In other words, they were thankful for the opportunity in IWS, but they were each looking ahead to where their careers might take them.
Neither man looked the part of the typical WWE wrestlers they watched while growing up. Initially, they were seeking to find themselves as singles wrestlers. However, it was as a tag team that they would create a buzz that became impossible for promoters to ignore. They began to get booked on more and more shows.
Their first stop in seeking opportunities outside International Wrestling Syndicate was in the United States for Combat Zone Wrestling. In September 2004, Steen and Generico were unsuccessful against SeXXXy Eddy as part of a fatal four-way that also included Excess 69, in what was heralded at the time as the CZW Match of the Year. After competing for the promotion in singles action, Steen and Generico came together to form a unit. The chemistry between them was so natural, as trust had been built just as much behind the curtain as in front of it. Despite being friends, they would battle over the CZW championship in 2005, with Steen coming out victorious.
Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn tag teaming.
After their time in CZW, they competed for Southern California promotion, Pro Wrestling Guerilla. In 2006, they once again came together on a quest to capture the PWG tag team championship. A year later, they defeated the reigning champions Roderick Strong and PAC (who has competed for several years in the WWE as Neville) to capture the titles. They held the titles for three months before losing them to Super Dragon and Davey Richards during the promotion’s tour of Europe.
Even though he lost a match that he said meant he would leave PWG, Steen returned in 2007 to once again team with El Generico, this time defeating Joey Ryan and Scott Lost in a match that wasn’t originally planned. The tandem also made history as the only duo that, as part of PWG’s Dynamite Duumvirate Tag Team Title Tournament, defended their championships in each and every one of their matches. After they lost that championship, though, Steen left Pro Wrestling Guerilla to join Ring of Honor. However, Steen’s departure didn’t mean the end of his relationship with Generico. The two had worked together in Quebec, CZW, and PWG, so it only made sense that these long-time friends would come together in Ring of Honor, as well.
In 2007, Steen, with El Generico by his side, faced off against arguably the cornerstone of the tag team division in Ring of Honor, Mark and Jay Briscoe. Throughout the year, Steen (Kevin Owens) and Sami Zayne challenged every other team in the promotion, such as the Irish Airborne. However, their rivalry against the Briscoe Brothers lasted the better part of a year.
As their alliance together continued to forge ahead, they competed in a tournament to determine the new Ring of Honor tag team champions. While they were successful through the majority of the tournament, they lost in the finals to the team of Tyler Black, who now competes as Seth Rollins in WWE, and Jimmy Jacobs. After unsuccessfully challenging Black and Jacob’s faction Age of the Fall on several occasions, it all changed for the tandem from Montreal when they defeated their rivals and captured the Ring of Honor tag team championships in September 2009. They held the titles for just a couple of months before losing them, but while it may have been a short reign for the friends, they had finally captured a championship while at the same time demonstrating how much time they had dedicated to being successful as a team and successful at their craft.
The Team of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn ends:
Like most good things, their team would come to an end. On Ring of Honor’s Final Battle pay per view, Steen ended their relationship by turning on Generico and aligning with Steve Corino. The narrative being created felt like a realistic story unfolding before fans eyes. Over the course of the next year, Generico and Steen engaged in a feud that had the feel of a betrayal between family members, not simply a disagreement between friends. Whether it was their match during Death Before Dishonor or a double chain tag match against one another, which featured Steen’s unmasking of Generico, the duo didn’t pull any punches against one another. Their feud culminated with a match at the place where it began a year earlier, at Final Battle 2010. It was here where the two men squared off against one another in an unsanctioned street fight. The match had the stipulation that if Steen lost, he would leave Ring of Honor. In the end, Generico walked away victorious, forcing Steen to have to ‘leave’ Ring of Honor. The match and feud were heralded by Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer newsletter as the feud of the year as voted on by its subscribers.
"You want me to explain why I attacked El Generico? You ever ask an alcoholic why he was sick or what was wrong with him? Or why he went to rehab? He probably said to heal. To get better. What I did tonight was exactly that. I was sick! I had a disease."
While Steen was out of Ring of Honor due to contractual issues, Generico continued to compete in various matches and feuds. Ultimately, however, their hotly contested rivalry would once again play a part in their careers, as Generico would once again face Kevin Steen after he was reinstated in March 2012, this time in a Last Man Standing match. The result was a disappearing act by Generico after his loss in the match and Steen’s emergence as the Ring of Honor world champion. Though on October 13, after a successful defense of his championship at Glory By Honor XI, Steen would receive a package in the ring, and when he opened it he discovered that the contents were nothing more than a mask, the mask of his long-time rival and former ally. Once again, the two would come face-to-face with one another, this time at Ring of Honor’s Final Battle 2012, and made history when their rivalry was again considered the feud of the year. The match was for the Ring of Honor world championship, and Steen retained. This would be the last time El Generico would appear for Ring of Honor, a bittersweet moment, but Generico’s departure wasn’t necessarily a goodbye, but rather a ‘see you again’ towards Steen.
For nearly two years, the two men weren’t together in the same promotion. Generico joined WWE’s NXT brand and was rebranded as Sami Zayn. Kevin Steen, on the other hand, became a focal point for Ring of Honor, and either held the Ring of Honor World Championship or contended for it against current WWE NXT talent, Adam Cole. People didn’t forget the relationships built with one another, whether they are together or not. They recall the preparation that went into making the matches and programs successful. They remember the times on the road, the camaraderie with one another that allowed them to cope with being away from their wives and children as they strove for something greater, professionally. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn always had that. They traveled together and competed all over North America for the same promotions, either with one another or against one another. They were committed to making anything they did together successful.
Zayn began establishing himself in NXT, the young upstart brand that the company was using to develop talent. While he was there, with no mask nor Steen by his side, he built a new fanbase solely on what he was doing there. Many were familiar with his matches prior to coming to WWE, however, what he would do in NXT led fans to be united in their admiration for Zayn. Meanwhile, Steen was taking part in feuds in Ring of Honor that showcased just how imperative it was for him to be successful on his own. Often referred to as an underdog, or someone that couldn’t win the big one, Zayn finally captured the NXT championship on what was to be his last opportunity, as he defeated Adrian Neville in a moment that was celebrated by the entire NXT locker-room.
Steen Becomes Kevin Owens and Betrays Sami Zayn
It was on that very same night that Steen made his debut for NXT brand. However, he would now be known as Kevin Owens, Owens being derived from his son’s name, Owen, having named him after Steen’s favorite wrestler, the late Owen Hart.
After Zayn captured the title, the two embraced in the ring, and the emotion of that moment, the admiration being displayed for what had just been achieved, was incredible. However, as Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn walked away from the ring and up the ramp, history repeated itself. It was as though it was the clock had turned back to December 2009, and Ring of Honor’s Final Battle had replaced NXT Takeover. In an instant, a friendship was betrayed. Kevin Owens threw Zayn down to the ground, causing the new champion to hit the back of his head on the steel rampway. Fans looked on in absolute shock and couldn’t believe what they had just seen. The overwhelming sense of glee was replaced with complete betrayal once again. The narrative being told was similar to what fans had seen before, but to those in the NXT audience that were unfamiliar with these two’s storied past, they didn’t anticipate this result. Owens then picked up Zayn and power bombed him onto the edge of the apron, leaving him incapacitated and prompting medics to rush to the aid of the new NXT champion.
The story for the two of them this time around had nothing to do with someone holding the other back but was essentially founded on a parent doing whatever he needed to do in order to provide for his family. What Kevin Owens did to his friend wasn’t personal, but rather because his friend achieved something that he wanted to have happened to him first. This was the beginning of the prizefighter mentality of Kevin Owens. He wouldn’t fight Zayn unless there was a stipulation and that stipulation was that the new champion would defend his title at the next NXT Takeover event. Zayn was angry and hurt like anyone who had been betrayed would feel. When they eventually met in the ring, Zayn’s anger got the better of him and Owens’ motivation was clear. Zayn was beaten so badly that he was rendered incapacitated, causing him to lose the title and making Kevin Owens the new champion. What followed for Zayn were a series of injuries, including a separated shoulder that made settling the score with Kevin Owens impossible. Owens was moved to the main roster while Zayn was recovering from injury, thus making them settling the score in NXT virtually impossible. Owens was now part of the Raw roster and moved on to different storylines while capturing various championships.
Then, at the 2016 Royal Rumble, Zayn entered as the twentieth entrant. The look of complete shock on the face of Kevin Owens, as he was face-to-face with his rival, quickly became anger and the two engaged in an all-out slugfest in the middle of the ring, trading punches until Zayn eliminated Owens from the Rumble. A few months later, Zayn joined the main roster permanently, and the long-awaited feud between them that fans had been hoping to see came to fruition. After four months of feuding with one another, it would finally come to an end. Even as fans shouted, “Fight forever!” the feud culminated with Zayn being victorious. The two have since had battles with one another in the ring, but there was little story behind those matches, no real motivation for their desire to defeat each other.
Related: The Arrival of Sami Zayn in WWE
Sami Zayn saves Kevin Owens Even After the Betrayal
In April of 2017, during the Superstar Shakeup, both Zayn and Owens were moved to the SmackDown LIVE brand. They never feuded with one another there, and again had random matches against one another here and there, but eventually, their roles in their new brand would connect. During the 2017 Hell in a Cell pay per view main event, Zayn came to the aid of Owens, pulling him out of harm’s way as Shane McMahon came crashing down onto the announce table from the top of the Cell, leaving Shane unable to get up. Zayn had emerged as Kevin Owens guardian angel. After all, he had been put through, during his time in both NXT and on Raw, he came out and saved his ‘brother.’ They had traveled the roads and trained together in Montreal, and now they were once again reunited. This reunion has shown that, despite whatever ill feelings two people may have towards one another, you can come home again.
They might not have dug coal together, like the two main characters on Justified, but the ties that bind Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn were forged early and deep–and they’ll continue for as long as the two men continue to wrestle.
Maybe even beyond that.