Full disclosure, this article was originally going to be something very different. It was going to be an article in praise of WWE for booking an incredibly interesting storyline for one of the most talented performers on its roster. When Kevin Owens, exhausted and battered after a gruelling match with Seth Rollins for the Intercontinental Championship, sat in the ring two weeks ago on RAW and despondently uttered the words “I quit”, it seemed the company was embarking on a very special narrative.
That was before this Monday. On this week’s episode of RAW, Owens made his return to carry out a sneak attack on Bobby Lashley who was having a meditation lesson from Jinder Mahal because wrestling is really weird. He beat the ever-loving snot out of Lashley for a few minutes, before hitting him with his signature powerbomb on the apron.
There was no explanation as to why Owens’s retirement was so brief and there hasn’t been a connection between him and Lashley for a very long time. Owens’s best friend Sami Zayn was embroiled in one of the worst rivalries in years with Lashley immediately before his injury absence, but that would be very flimsy justification for a feud, particularly given the potential strength of the angle they sacrificed in order to tell this story.
It seems this is a consistent issue with the booking of Owens. They don’t know what to do with him.
On the face of it, he has all of the tools. He’s an elite level in-ring competitor and also has every skill in the world with a microphone in his hand. His promo immediately prior to the match with Rollins is a prime example. His Canadian heritage had the Toronto crowd firmly on side, only for Owens to turn them completely against him by expressing his desire to win the belt in Montreal instead and trash talking the fans in French. There’s no one on the roster who can control the audience in the way that he can, while also delivering a great match with absolutely anyone.
Since he made his way to the main roster, however, Owens’s booking has been spotty, to say the least. He arrived on fire with a clean victory over John Cena at Elimination Chamber in 2015 – his first pay-per-view appearance. This story looked set to establish Owens as a top heel and placed him firmly within the United States Championship picture, especially because he lost the NXT Championship at the Beast in the East show as his Cena feud continued. However, KO lost the two subsequent matches to Cena, tapping out to the STF at that year’s Battleground event.
The next year or so saw Owens establish himself as a strong force in the WWE upper mid-card, winning the Intercontinental Championship on several occasions before entering a fatal four-way bout for the newly minted WWE Universal Championship, which Finn Balor had vacated due to injury. This led to Owens’s second big missed opportunity after Triple H intervened to win Owens the belt over his previous protégé Seth Rollins. Authority Owens never happened, though, with Triple H never really explaining why he helped KO to the title and certainly never providing him with any sort of rub over the course of a solid, but unremarkable run as champion. He then lost the title to Goldberg in a squash match with no fanfare, closing that particular chapter of his career with a whimper.
Owens’s subsequent feud with Chris Jericho – his former best friend – was well booked from a story perspective, but never really paid off with a great match. He was drafted to SmackDown Live and embarked upon a seemingly endless period of tension with that brand’s boss, Shane McMahon. The feud was initially compelling, with the highlight being a genuinely shocking segment in which Owens busted the septuagenarian Vince McMahon wide open with a headbutt, before viciously laying him out in the centre of the ring. Owens and the younger McMahon battled inside Hell in a Cell later in the year, only for Sami Zayn to turn heel in support of his frenemy, giving the story a new lick of paint.
The next few months, however, were among the worst in Owens’s main roster stint. The feud between him, Zayn and the authorities on SmackDown Live plodded on through a series of ridiculous story contrivances and would have been an entirely insignificant part of the WrestleMania card had it not been for Daniel Bryan’s surprise return from retirement to make the clash a tag team match. The contest had hype but failed to deliver from an in-ring perspective.
He and Zayn continued to squabble with WWE bosses after WrestleMania, struggling for a contract when they were left undrafted. Stephanie McMahon ultimately granted them a spot on Raw, despite the fact Owens had effectively tried to murder her beloved father just a few months earlier. Wrestling bookers have very short memories and enough ambivalence towards the fans that they assume our memories are equally fleeting.
The last few months, since Zayn’s injury, have been taken up by a feud between Owens and Braun Strowman, who won a guaranteed title opportunity at the Money in the Bank event. In a shining example of his commitment to the cause, Owens took a Foley-esque bump from the top of a cage through a ringside announce table at Extreme Rules and elevated a selection of silly segments – remember the portaloo? – before finally being granted something special. At SummerSlam, Owens would have one more match against Strowman, with the briefcase on the line. He lost the bout in less than two minutes, bringing yet another of his storylines to an abrupt and saddening conclusion.
That brings things back to where Owens is at today. Last week, when he appeared to be on the verge of tears after coming up short against Rollins, it felt believable. Owens has been stepped on by the fans and by those in power in WWE, setting up potential for a run as an even more unhinged bad guy or even an anti-establishment babyface in the vein of Stone Cold Steve Austin or CM Punk. When he said the words “I quit”, it felt like the end of the uneven booking that has dogged his main roster career and the start of a new and interesting chapter.
When he attacked Lashley on Monday, though, it seemed like a hastily penned addendum to the same chapter in which Owens has been mired for years. WWE seems content to squander one of its most talented performers in a series of meaningless, directionless rivalries that fail to take into account the brightness of his star. His status as WWE’s nearly man seems more or less set in stone.
All photos via WWE.com