Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn worked their first matches together on the same card in Montreal. They rode the same highways and roomed in the same crummy hotels, paying their dues wrestling in front of crowds that could fit into a broom closet.
Through their miles of travel, injuries, and memorable performances, they have realized one thing: they can rely on each other!
The Brotherhood of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn
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 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 certainly paid their dues with one another.
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.
The Early Days
The early days of Kevin Owens and Sami Zayne 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 Montreal for the International Wrestling Syndicate, 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 seeking opportunities outside IWS 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 the 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.
After their time in CZW, they competed for the 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, 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 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 simultaneously demonstrating how much time they had dedicated to being successful as a team and successful at their craft.
Problems Between the Two
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 created narrative felt like a real 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 stipulated 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."
– Kevin Owens/Steen
While Kevin Steen was out of Ring of Honor due to contractual issues, El 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 received a package in the ring. 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.
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 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 Adam Cole.
People didn’t forget the relationships they built with one another, whether they were together or not.
They recalled the preparation that went into making the matches and programs successful.
They remembered 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 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 before 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 celebrated by the entire NXT locker room.
Onward to WWE
It was on that very same night that Steen made his debut for the WWE 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 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 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 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 incapacitated, causing him to lose the title and making Kevin Owens the new champion.
What followed for Zayn was 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.
In April 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.’
In recent years, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn have been at the top of their games, experiencing much individual success in WWE.
Kevin Owens reached the pinnacle of the business by becoming the WWE Universe Champion (along with collecting a slew of other championships in the company). He even got Stone Cold Steve Austin to step out of retirement and compete in his first match in 19 years at WrestleMania 38.
Sami Zayn, on the other hand, has stamped his own success and creates special moments each week alongside The Bloodline, a stable led by Roman Reigns.
They had traveled the roads and trained together in Montreal, and now they’re together at the top of the professional wrestling moment.
They might not have dug coal together, like the two main characters on the TV show “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.
These stories may also interest you:
- The Rock and Steve Austin – Rivals in the Ring, Brothers in Life
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- Stories of Respect in Wrestling: Friendships Outside the Ring
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