Not long after making his first appearance on Monday Night Raw and just days before he has his first pay-per-view match in World Wrestling Entertainment, Kevin Owens is in the mood to talk about firsts.
Owens, born Kevin Steen in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., in 1984, has, after all, experienced his share of firsts in his now 15-year career that last year brought him to World Wrestling Entertainment when he was signed to its NXT brand.
To say he’s made the most of his first opportunity with the biggest wrestling company on Earth would be a severe understatement. In nine short months, Owens has dominated NXT, winning and currently holding the NXT championship, and has fast-tracked his way to the main roster after debuting and decimating the company’s biggest name, John Cena, whom Owens will face Sunday at Elimination Chamber.
On this day, Owens takes time to look back when asked about the first time he was affected by the business he now calls his career.
“My dad rented a tape of WrestleMania 11 when I was 11 years old and I watched it with him,” Owens said over the phone, “and that was it. I saw Shawn Michaels wrestle Diesel and that kind of sealed the deal for me. I knew that that’s what I was meant to do.”
Fast forward just five short years and Owens was standing inside the squared circle, about to have his first pro match.
“It was on my 16th birthday in 2000,” he recalled, without a hint of hesitation. “I wrestled a guy by the name of Gorgeous Mike in L’Assomption, Quebec, in front of about 1,500 people.
“I had 60 family members in the crowd. My brother cried and my grandfather, who is not with us anymore, but was such a big fan of mine and was always so supportive of my wrestling endeavour — he would take me to WWE shows when I was a kid — he was just so proud. I remember as I was walking to the back, he was by the rail, and I went to slap his hand but he grabbed it and pulled me in for a big hug. That’s actually a moment I’ll probably never forget and this was 15 years ago now and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
For the record, that match would produce the first of countless victories.
“I was victorious,” Owens added, “and I believe I did a People’s Elbow in that match actually.”
What followed that debut were nearly two decades of blood, sweat, tears, hard work and wrestling in front of crowds of no more than a handful to audiences in the thousands. Owens wrestled thousands and thousands of matches, in every bingo hall, arena and gymnasium fathomable, all with an eye to eventually making it big in wrestling.
There were many ups and downs along the way, Owens said.
“I once had a show in my hometown, in my hometown, where I thought people were going to come out and see me, and 23 people show up that night,” he said, the disappointment of that night resurfacing for a split second. “But I’ve also wrestled in front of 10,000 people. And this Sunday at Elimination Chamber, I’m wrestling John Cena, who’s the top name in this industry and has been for the last 10 years really, on the WWE Network in a huge arena in front of thousands of people and millions watching at home so you’re right when you say that I’ve really hit both ends of the spectrum.”
Asked if he remembers the first time he wasn’t sure he was going to make it to the big time in wrestling, WWE, Owens recalled a trip with fellow Canadian and NXT star Sami Zayn.
“I remember a conversation I had with Sami Zayn, it must have been around 2003,” Owens offered. “We were travelling to a little show in Quebec City, which is about two hours from Montreal so we were somewhere between Montreal and Quebec City at a restaurant and he was telling me how wrestling for WWE was his dream. And I told him, ‘Yeah, well me too, but it’s not really a dream, it’s a goal.’
“And he was like, ‘What do you mean by that?’
“I said, ‘Dreaming of something is nice, but having it as a goal I think is different. I know it’s going to happen.’ I told him that. I said, ‘I know I’m going to get there.’
“And he was kind of blown away by that perspective and that outlook on it,” Owens said, adding that it would take him another dozen years to come good on that guarantee.
“Throughout those years,” Owens said, “there was a time that I thought maybe I wouldn’t get here, but not necessarily because I didn’t think I was good enough or anything like that, it was more a matter of life. My wife was pregnant and we had our son, and I didn’t know if that was the best life and the best way to go about things. After that, it became clear that, yes, to provide for my family and to provide as good a future as I could, going to WWE was the way to go.
“So yeah, you know at one point, maybe there was a bit of doubt on whether or not I would get here, but it wasn’t really a matter of making it here, it was a matter of would it ever work out. And it did.”
Owens, who rattled the wrestling world over the last two weeks by attacking United States Champ Cena and performing Pop-Up Powerbombs on him, before standing on his U.S. title, even remembers the very first title he held in wrestling.
“It was a title in Quebec City for this company called Elite Wrestling Revolution, EWR, and I won their, I guess you could call it their heavyweight championship or whatever. It was the only title they had. That was in 2004.”
Owens is reflective when asked about the first person he called after he signed his first contract with WWE.
“I called my dad and my mom,” Owens said. “They were both at home, so I told both of them and then immediately told my wife obviously. I couldn’t not tell my parents first because they’re the reason I’m here.” His family values shine through even over the phone. “If it wasn’t for them, not only would I not be at this level, but I don’t where I would be in life in general. I know a lot of people say it, and of course everybody believes it when they say it, but I have the best parents in the world. I can’t say enough good things about them. I had a great childhood. They’ve supported me through everything. They never once told me, ‘Well, you know, maybe wrestling is not the way to go,’ or ‘Why don’t you try to do something more stable with your life?’ They were like, ‘You want to do this, go, let’s do it.’”
Owens again thinks back to that fateful aforementioned day on which his father altered the course of his son’s life forever.
“You know, my dad wasn’t a huge wrestling fan or anything,” Owens said. “He was at the video store one afternoon and he figured, ‘Oh maybe we can watch this together’ and he rented it. He wasn’t an avid fan or anything, but then when we watched it and I obviously became an avid fan. I was sold.”
Within weeks of renting that life-altering video, the young Owens knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. And his parents, he said, had his back the whole way.
“(My dad) saw (how much I liked wrestling). A couple of weeks later, there was an In Your House pay-per-view and I remember in my head I was like, ‘Man, I really wish I could see the pay-per-view, but it’s $20 and I can’t ask my dad for that.’ And he came up to me and said, ‘So you really like this wrestling now, eh?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I like it a lot.’ And he said, ‘OK, well there’s the pay-per-view tonight, do you want to watch it?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And he was like, ‘OK I’ll pay for it, so make sure you watch it, it’s $20. I don’t want to pay for it if you’re not going to watch.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m going to watch.’ And that was it. For years, every month, he would pay whatever the price was so that I could watch the pay-per-views. And that was it.
“Without them, I literally wouldn’t be here.”
Thanks to his loving and supportive parents, Owens’ dream – his goal – came true last summer when he got the call from WWE. His first encounter as an incoming member of the WWE was an unforgettable experience.
“My first day was pretty interesting because I got the call that I was hired,” Owens said. “I was going to start full time August 25 at the Performance Center, but my first day was actually before. A couple of weeks before, they brought me in so that I could visit the Performance Center, there was an NXT TV taping that week so I stayed for that. I had to find a house, so I found a house for my family to live in in Orlando.
“My first day was technically not an official first day, it was just more a bit of a sample of what I could expect. I got in the ring with Norman Smiley in his class. And of course there was the NXT TV taping, I saw that whole process. I met Triple H and I met Stephanie McMahon. It was just a really surreal experience because those are people I’ve been watching for years and years and years. To now get to see them and to get to talk to Triple H, who was basically welcoming me on board. He’s telling me, ‘Thanks for coming, thanks for accepting the invitation, thanks for coming on board.’ In my head, I’m like, ‘Well thank you for hiring me.’ That was pretty cool.”
In the months that followed, Owens showed WWE brass what he’s been showing fans and other wrestling promoters and companies for a very long time, that he’s a special talent.
Less than a year after putting ink to paper on his first WWE contract, Owens got the call from NXT to Monday Night Raw, WWE’s flagship program and the stuff of dreams for anyone who ever laced up a pair of wrestling boots.
His first Raw experience, Owens said, was nothing short of surreal.
“It felt great. It was a surreal moment,” he said. “Really surreal. (It was) something I’ve waited for for so long.”
Again he referenced his family. “I knew my wife was watching, with my son. I knew my parents were watching back home with a bunch of family members at the house. It was a really incredible experience.”
Before he went out in front of thousands to make his Raw debut, Owens got a pep talk from Triple H, a wrestling legend, executive and the man behind the wildly popular NXT brand. And the guy who signed Owens to his current deal. It was a gesture that Owens said he’ll never forget.
“You know, I feel like I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with Hunter throughout these last few months,” he said. “It goes beyond the ring. We’ll talk about our kids, we’ll talk about life. He’s very good to me. To have him take time out of a very busy day, he’s busy on Raw, and he took the time to tell me to just make sure you are who you are. And I know that’s kind of the advice he gives everyone, but to hear it from him, it really means something because ‘Make sure you stay who you are’ means that who I am, he’s got faith in. That’s a big thing.”
As Owens walked down that ramp to a big ovation and into a ring where a living legend stood, it wasn’t himself he was thinking about, despite his 15-year journey to the big time. Instead, he was thinking of others, namely his family and the guy who has afforded him this opportunity.
“I wanted to make my kids proud, I wanted to make my wife proud, I wanted to make my parents proud, and I wanted to make Hunter proud because he took a shot on me. I’m not the typical WWE superstar,” Owens said passionately. “He hired me anyway and he saw something in me. And I want to deliver for him. I want to pay him back for that by delivering the way he thinks I can and I think I did.”
Looking back, Owens admits he did get caught up in the moment standing inside the ring with one of the biggest names in wrestling history.
“That whole moment was so surreal. I remember being in the ring at one point, I was face to face with John Cena, and I remember it was almost like a bit of an out-of-body experience where I was kind of surveying the whole situation and thinking like, ‘Holy crap, you’re on Raw right now, man!’ But at the same, I must say, I felt I belonged. I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be.”
As he prepares for easily the biggest moment in his professional wrestling life on Sunday at Elimination Chamber, Owens both appreciates the significance and the opportunity and feels vindicated at the same time.
“There’s no denying how big it is,” he said of his match with Cena. “There’s not a whole lot of people that walk into WWE, show up on Raw, lay out the top guy in the industry for the last 10 years and get to wrestle him two weeks later at a major event like Elimination Chamber, but I get to do that. That will literally never be taken away from me, no matter what happens from here on out.”
Owens can’t help but remember his detractors and doubters.
“The people who told me, whether it was in high school when I was a kid and I was telling them about my dream, whether it was teachers that thought I was silly, or whether it was people in the industry that didn’t think I had what it took, that didn’t see ‘it’ in me, those people will always be wrong now. That feels amazing and that will never be taken away.”
And, of course, there’s his family.
“Like I said, no matter what happens from here on out, my parents, my wife, my children, my friends, and all the fans that have believed in me for so long, they get to have that too. It’s obviously extremely exciting, a bit nerve-wracking sure, but like I said, I feel like I belong here. I remember when I signed with WWE, I was asked who’s the person you want to wrestle the most, and I said John Cena. And I knew I’d wrestle John Cena one day. I didn’t know it would be this quick, but here it is and I’m fine with it, I’m confident, I’m ready. This Sunday at Elimination Chamber is going to special for many reasons and it’ll be something I’ll remember forever.”