Kevin Owens doesn't look like a WWE champion, and doesn't have the pedigree or push champions usually enjoy. But he's a champion, all right, and it's great.
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This article was originally published on VICE Sports U.S.
Whatever the plans were for WWE's new title, it was certainly not for it to end up in the hands of Kevin Owens. The Universal title—it had to be named this, because there's no way Raw can ever take a backseat to Smackdown, which hosts the World title—was meant for Finn Balor, Irish hot guy and indie wrestling legend. Balor won it at SummerSlam in a match with Seth Rollins, but wrestling Seth Rollins increasingly means getting injured and, sure enough, Balor is out for months with a torn up shoulder.
On Monday, a four-way bout was set up between Owens, Big Cass, Roman Reigns, and Rollins. Rollins was the hot money coming in, for obvious reasons: former champion, strangely teflon-skinned backstage, and a legitimately good, if perhaps reckless, worker. Reigns would've been a good bet, too; his push has been de-escalated after his drug suspension, but given how much has already been invested in pushing him it's hard to know how long that will last. Big Cass was filler, but good filler, and the expectation was that he and Owens would add some heft to the match before fading to the now staid Rollins-Reigns ending.
And then this happened:
Set aside any grumbling about Owens not winning clean or Triple H inserting himself into the title scene yet again. Owens' win cements WWE's commitment to its New Era as more than just lip service. Despite his undeniable talent, Owens is not a WWE guy. He's barely a Jim Cornette guy. And he's the new Universal Champion.
Owens can talk and he can absolutely wrestle, but he is also—and there's no delicate way to put this—a fat dude. Which is not a problem by itself, heart health aside. Dusty Rhodes is proof of how great (and how significant) a pro wrestler a fat guy can; Arn Anderson is another double-beef, extra-husky legend. But those are wrestlers from another era and another promotion. WWE has, in the Vince McMahon, Jr. era—that is to say, more or less all of it in public memory—has been dominated by muscular men. Even the post-1990s steroid trial had muscular men at the top of the card, with the exception Yokozuna's run.
So hairy, zaftig Kevin Owens is not supposed to be the guy. Owens is so good that he almost certainly would've gotten a run at some point, but based on history and McMahon's tastes, that run likely would have been a transitional run between big babyfaces. This is where Triple H's intrusion in the outcome makes sense: like him or not, the act of handing the title to someone cements the receiver's role as someone important, which is just what Owens is.
Owens is working as a heel right now, although you wouldn't notice by the crowd's reaction when he won. It's more than the fact that we live in an era where we cheer for good heels on the basis of their talent, although we do live in that era. It's more that Owens is just an easy guy to root for no matter what.
Owens is indie to his bones, and young enough that he's not far removed from working National Guard armories for peanuts in front of small crowds. He's one of the sport's feel good stories, a guy who plays an asshole on TV before tweeting pictures of himself with his wife and kids. He goes from menace to pulling on a DAD LIFE t-shirt without a hitch. You can't hide that sort of thing anymore, which is fine: it's doubtful whether Owens would be quite so alluring a character if his startling normality when out of character wasn't so widely and well known.
Owens is the sort of wrestler who makes it seem like you could do what he does, too. That's not at all meant as a slight on his talent; he's one of the best wrestlers in the world today. If anything, it's a testament to that talent—Owens is so convincing that a fan can look at his own paunch and scraggly beard, then look over at Owens' paunch and scraggly beard, and see himself in him. He's physically relatable in a way most pro wrestlers simply aren't, a new Mick Foley without the self-inflicted physical debilities.
This uncanny relatability has been misread as a low ceiling for years. Jim Cornette, the legendary wrestling manager and less legendary booker/thinker, famously said that Owens would never make it to the big leagues because he wouldn't get in better shape or "clean up his look." This misunderstands Owens' appeal on fundamental lines: he's so rad because, deep down, you're rad, too.
And now he's Universal champion. This makes perfect sense while still being surprising. It makes sense because Owens is so good. He has it, that ineffable stuff which the best pro wrestlers have, the mix of charisma, in-ring talent, and swagger which sets him apart from his peers. Yet it's Kevin Owens, the guy who was working bingo halls two years ago. The guy everyone figured only had a 50-50 shot in NXT if they won't even keep Chris Hero around. The beloved Daniel Bryan and Sami Zayn at least work flashy styles which translate to crowd-pleasing stunts. This is Kevin Owens.
Owens is a blue collar wrestler, through and through. Not in his gimmick, which boils down to The Mean Quebecois Guy, but for the way he got here. He ground it out in tiny buildings, bleeding real blood in front of smaller crowds. Kevin Owens is the ur-indie wrestler and the new face of the WWE, and he's a champion. It's a new era, indeed.