Few wrestlers in the history of the WWE have sparked as much debate as Kevin Owens. Even with his talent and his achievements on the independent scene, from his debut in Quebec through to match of the year performances on the American scene, there were still industry insiders that predicted that Owens would never get his shot in the WWE. Owens, they said, lacked the “WWE look” that Vince McMahon wants in his superstar roster.
Since his NXT debut in 2014, every passing month has seen Owens shatter through the barriers that the experts felt that he would run up against. Though his most recent win to secure the WWE Universal title is somewhat contentious, the fact remains that the 32-year-old from Marieville, Quebec has wrestled his way to the top of the mountain. His success, though, isn’t a surprise to fans and journalists that have been watching his ascent from his earliest steps down the road to wrestling immortality. Writers like Quebec’s Pat Laprade are now telling us all: “I told you so!” as the rest of the wrestling world is now forced to sit up and take note of the WWE dark horse that has become “the champion of the Universe.”
15 Leaving Jacques Rougeau’s School
In Montreal, the Rougeau name is synonymous with professional wrestling in the same manner that Hart is to Calgary and Von Erich is to Dallas. Owens got his introduction to the business from the former WWE Intercontinental champion, making his debut in the spring of 2000. However, while an association with the former WWE and WCW star helped to open some of the first doors for the young wrestler, Rougeau ran somewhat of a closed camp – not allowing his wrestlers to get ring time outside of his own organization. Even though Rougeau’s International Wrestling 2000 ran only a sporadic schedule, the wrestlers under his banner were forbidden from expanding their body of work.
Leaving Rougeau’s school was a bold move, but one that marked the first step towards carving his own path in professional wrestling. It was the first of many wise decisions. How many other Rougeau students have made it to the WWE?
14 The Dawn of the Rivalry with Sami Zayn
Owens’ first high profile match took place under the International Wrestling Syndicate banner in 2003 and featured him in a triple threat match against former WWE tag team champion Pierre-Carl Ouellet and a notorious masked high flyer named El Generico. The bout was voted Match of the Year in Quebec which was a great benchmark for Owens to build his career upon. However, perhaps the more historically significant detail of the match was that this would be the first of many matches internationally between Owens and El Generico, who would become fierce rivals for the following decade – wowing audiences everywhere they would appear.
Generico would sign a WWE deal before Owens, removing his mask and finding himself re-branded as Sami Zayn. This early main event match wouldn’t be the first time that Owens and Generico would find themselves stealing the show, and wowing the fans with an award winning display of wrestling.
13 Becoming Quebec Wrestling’s “Go To” Headliner
When you hit it out of the park in your first main event opportunity, promoters take notice and that was certainly the case for Kevin Owens. He followed up the 2003 Match of the Year performance by becoming one of the most in-demand stars on the Quebec independent scene. When top stars of the independents found themselves scheduled for matches in La Belle Province, more often than not, that meant they would find themselves across the ring from the rising home grown star. Among his opponents were Christopher Daniels, Steve Corino and Samoa Joe. In professional wrestling, it’s not a matter of who you know, but instead who knows you. By delivering five star performances against each opponent put in his path, Owens was a wrestler that was rapidly becoming known and that would lead to him breaking out into the United States and an even higher platform to get eyes on himself.
12 Another Match of the Year in his U.S. Debut
For many Canadian wrestlers, the U.S. border can be a difficult barrier to breach. However for Owens, who would find himself in Combat Zone Wrestling alongside some of his familiar foes from the International Wrestling Syndicate, it opened the door for his first exposure in front of American audiences. In a four way match pitted against growing rival El Generico, Excess and a fellow countryman that had already appeared for CZW - Sexxxy Eddy, the French quartet emerged from Owens’ debut appearance south of the 49th parallel with a breathtaking performance that was selected as the CZW Match of the Year.
It wasn’t long before the door was also opened to Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Ring of Honor as well. Slowly but steadily, Kevin Owens was continuing his ascent. By 2006, Kevin Owens was not only known on the independent wrestling scene, but the media was taking notice as well, listing him in the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Top 500 wrestlers in the world rankings, introduced at #342.
11 Winning the Ring of Honor Tag Team Titles
Sometimes one’s fiercest rival becomes their most valued ally. When you’ve done battle with a foe so many times, you also build respect for their talent and resilience. While they may have come together reluctantly as partners under the Ring of Honor banner, Owens and El Generico found themselves in championship contention frequently as partners, including advancing all the way to the finals of a 2008 tournament to fill the vacant titles. They would eventually secure the championships and would enjoy a lengthy eight month reign as the kingpins of the tag team division. Their win saw them conquer the duo of Jimmy Jacobs and Tyler Black (aka Seth Rollins).
Not surprisingly while united in success, it wasn’t too long beyond the loss of the championships, the rivalry with his title-winning partner was renewed yet again. Suddenly, a rivalry that began in their earliest ascent in the sport was ignited in one of the top companies in America. The feud would be among the headline conflicts with Ring of Honor, but the politics of Ring of Honor was contributing to a new target for Owens to fixate upon.
10 Winning the Ring of Honor Heavyweight Title
There is some debate about conflict behind the scenes in Ring of Honor as it related to Kevin Owens' livelihood with the organization. While some company officials were behind him, it is rumored that Jim Cornette didn’t believe in Owens – instead favoring Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards as the chosen headliners. When Owens returned to Ring of Honor after a lengthy absence and found himself on a roster with Davey Richards as World Champion, his focus was set. Owens challenged Richards for the Ring of Honor World title and on May 12, 2012 unseated Richards in a Toronto showdown for the championship, becoming the first Canadian to ever hold that title. Despite an aggressive schedule against top challengers, Owens’ reign lasted almost a year.
9 Creating Notoriety on the Microphone
It wasn’t just his performances between the ropes that were building his fanbase and the attention of the media. By 2012, Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine had ranked him as one of the top 20 wrestlers in the world. However, it was also his skill on the microphone that was making the industry take notice. With heartfelt interviews that came off as unscripted and from the heart, some of Kevin’s microphone work made it to the internet and is still regularly circulated.
Perhaps most prophetically, a backstage interview from his days in Pro Wrestling Guerilla has become one of the most frequently re-visited pieces of work. In an obscenity-riddled tirade, Owens declared himself the “Champion of the Universe”. The clip, which featured him backstage alongside Adam Cole and the Young Bucks, is just one piece of footage that reflected his ability to speak. That skill is critical at the top tier of the business, and has been instrumental in the careers of many top stars.
8 Securing the Endorsement of The Rock and Steve Austin
For decades, the WWE built its brand by ignoring all other products outside their own fold. Even when wrestlers would come into the fold from other organizations, their career history was often delicately represented and in many cases their past success went without direct acknowledgement. Coming from this culture, it is rare to see top WWE stars acknowledge anyone outside of Vince McMahon’s empire. It was a great indication of the respect that Owens had developed in the business to be scheduled as a guest on Steve Austin’s podcast prior to being signed to a WWE contract.
Similarly, when The Rock gave props to Owens in 2012, it may have ensured that a new audience was becoming aware of him. Whether the endorsement of Steve Austin and The Rock contributed to the WWE taking interest or not the fact remains that a huge hurdle was about to be conquered.
7 Getting Signed by the WWE
The news was made public on August 12, 2014 that Kevin Owens had signed a contract with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment. The signing defied the wrestling experts that felt that despite his ability, Owens’ look was not a fit for the culture of the WWE. Perhaps he would be sentenced to developmental purgatory until he got frustrated and then be released. However, he had achieved a feat that many that he had met along his 14 year journey in the sport had not. He had made it to the top wrestling organization in North America.
Three months later, Kevin Owens was introduced through a series of promotional videos to hype his upcoming debut, but what fate was in store for Owens? Could he succeed in the WWE? While fans only familiar with the WWE product were curious, fans that had followed his career from the beginning were hopeful to see more of what made Owens an integral part of every organization that he had appeared.
6 Making an Epic Debut in NXT
It was fitting that on December 11, 2014, the night that Kevin Owens would make his debut on the WWE’s NXT brand that his fiercest rival was also on the card. On that evening, the former El Generico, now recognized as Sami Zayn, would headline the event, winning the NXT Championship. As the program drew to a close, Owens made his way down to the ring. For all who observed, it looked as though a touching moment like that between Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero a decade earlier would ensue. Two long term rivals who had surpassed all obstacles to stand were now united under the top banner in the industry. Instead, Kevin Owens took advantage of the visibility to renew hostilities and serve notice on the WWE roster that he would be taking aim at the biggest dog in the yard – the champion. It was a great indication of things to come.
5 Winning the NXT Title
Fans and experts were stunned when just two months after his NXT debut, Kevin Owens conquered the division by taking the championship by force. Within the NXT brand, there were a number of restless hopefuls who had waited for years to be called up and were trying to establish their names in NXT and Owens had just eclipsed their success in a matter of eight weeks. His ascent in the NXT division may have shocked the roster and the wrestling world as a whole. But what would be an even greater shocker is that before his 143 day title reign was over, KO would already have made his earliest appearances on national television for the company’s main roster, and he’d do it on Monday Night Raw. Should this have been our indicator of things to come? Could Owens top his early success, or had he peaked to soon?
4 Focusing the Cross-Hairs on John Cena
Kevin Owens stormed into the WWE in the same manner that he had in NXT, going after the top dog in the company. This time, it was to respond to the open challenge of the WWE’s franchise player, John Cena. Cena had been opening up the title opportunities to wrestlers not often featured in the title picture and that sometimes included standouts from the NXT roster. Owens answered the challenge, but instead of wrestling Cena for the title on television, proceeding to take advantage of the prime time audience to pummel the United States champion and disrespect the title belt. In their first encounter on pay per view, Owens shocked the world by defeating Cena in a non-title match. It wasn’t just the wrestling media that was paying attention anymore. Now, even Rolling Stone magazine was taking note of the brash newcomer and acknowledging him by name.
3 Winning the Intercontinental title twice
As the wrestling world was forced to dismiss any pre-conceived notions in their minds that seemed to point to Kevin Owens not being a fit in the WWE, he continued to see his star rise. Now recognized as one of the top ten wrestlers in the world according to the wrestling media, Owens defeated the highly touted Ryback to win the Intercontinental championship on September 20, 2015. Now holding one of the company’s most prestigious titles, Owens found himself in the mix against top stars like Chris Jericho and Dean Ambrose, with whom he would trade the title back and forth. Owens entered his first WrestleMania as Intercontinental champion less than a year after first setting foot in a WWE ring on the main roster.
A little known fact is that Owens is only one of two wrestlers to appear on every WWE pay per view in their first year with the company – the only other is The Undertaker, who accomplished the feat almost a generation earlier.
2 Securing His Spot in the Universal Title Championship Match
Sometimes opportunity presents itself in the misfortune of others. After Finn Balor had defeated Seth Rollins at the 2016 SummerSlam pay per view to be crowned the first WWE Universal champion, it was learned that he would be forced to vacate the title. Balor suffered a shoulder injury which was diagnosed the morning following the match, requiring him to vacate the championship. Owens was in a position to capitalize. To cash in on the opportunity, Owens would have to get past aerial artist Neville, and with that victory, propel himself into the mix for a four way match featuring former World champions Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, as well as newcomer Big Cass. A new Universal champion would be crowned.
The groundwork was laid for Owens to realize the dream that he had set out to achieve 16 years earlier and reign atop the entire world of wrestling.
1 Owens Joins An Elite Group of Superstars
As the new WWE Universal champion, Kevin Owens joins some pretty elite company while also finding himself in a spot to define his legacy in the business. Owens is one of only four wrestlers to have ascended to the WWE championship from an independent career, winning the Ring of Honor World championship along the way. The three others to have achieved that success are Seth Rollins, Daniel Bryan and CM Punk. While the record books will officially reflect Finn Balor as the first man to win the WWE Universal title, his 24 hour reign leaves the door wide open for Kevin Owens to set the tone for the division, then raise the bar high for all champions who will follow. His journey was not without obstacles and was not without hard work to create his own opportunities. Now Owens will learn what so many before him have – it is one thing to GET to the top, it becomes a whole new challenge to STAY there.