MONTREAL – Thirteen years ago, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn started to make a name for themselves. Often, they were in the same promotions, perhaps teaming or wrestling each other. Both were told they were never going to make it to the big time. Tonight, at the Bell Centre in Montreal, is proof that those naysayers were wrong.
Owens and Zayn will be in the same match for the very first time in a WWE ring. It’s another step in their long rivalry/friendship.
It all started in September 2003 when Kevin Owens (real name Kevin Steen), left Jacques Rougeau’s promotion to wrestle for the International Wrestling Syndicate. Already there was Sami Zayn (Rami Sebei), a young, skinny, red-haired masked man wrestling under the name El Generico. They were put together in the ring for the first time in October of the same year in a three-way dance with former WWE tag team champion Pierre-Carl Ouellet. The match was voted match of the year in the province of Quebec. The following month, they were having their first singles bout. And as they say, the rest is history.
Twelve months later, they were getting their first chance in the U.S., first with CZW, then with JAPW and PWG. Ring of Honor would follow not long after, and it was clear at that moment that Quebec wresting had something special, the kind of talent you maybe see once a generation.
Because they were coming from the same place, they were more often than not booked together, first as opponents and then in a tag team.
There was friendly competition between Owens and Zayn, and both had set their goals high.
“I don’t think that Kevin or myself would be in WWE if it wasn’t for each other and the fact we always tried to outdo each other in some ways,” Zayn told SLAM! Wrestling. “He did this before me, but then I did that. And then he did that and then I did that. It was always like a one-up thing. Even getting signed by WWE. And then I got on the main roster and then he became a champion. He really debuted before me in a way and did better than me and I’m just trying to get back and trying to outdo him. So I think having each other to measure up against the other is what’s gonna keep us going, maybe until the end of our careers, but it definitely helped us going thus far.”
For Owens, the level of competitiveness they have between each other will be a huge factor in their careers.
“Despite what many people thought of us, we always believed that we were going to make it one day and that we would both have a major impact,” Owens told SLAM! Wrestling. “In some ways, I’m proud of the fact we are both here now, on the main roster, but at the same time, there’s that competitive spirit that takes over. For 10 months now, I’m the only Quebecer on Raw and SmackDown. Now, there’s going to be two of us and we will be compared all the time. I want the fans to realize that I’m the best. So it will force us to give our best all the time.”
And Owens being the guy he is, is not scared of competition.
“It was always like this. I went to Japan before him and he was sad about it. Then he went to Europe before me and I was sad. I won the PWG title first, but he won a singles title in ROH first. It was always like that, up to now. He signed with WWE before me … but then, I lost him in the shuffle,” Owens added, twisting the knife with his unique sense of humor.
When Zayn was signed by WWE in February 2013 and assigned to NXT, Owens continued to work the indies until his turn came, almost a year and a half later. Because of their history together, especially in ROH where their feud was one of the best the company ever had, it was only normal they would feud in NXT too. On the very first night Owens started on TV, he attacked Zayn after the latter had won the NXT title. Owens beat Zayn for the title two months later.
In May 2015, Zayn wrestled on Monday Night Raw in Montreal, answering John Cena’s U.S. title open challenge. In a lot of ways, that match would change everything: Zayn was injured and two weeks later, Owens made his main roster debut, and never looked back.
“Actually, to be perfectly honest, watching Kevin making his Raw debut and staying there was the toughest part of being sidelined with my injury,” said Zayn. “Part of me was really happy for Kevin — we’ve been through so much together. But part of me felt that it might have been me if I would’ve not got hurt. If I didn’t get hurt, it was me and Cena and who knows what would have happened. I don’t know. We’ll never know because I did get hurt. And that was hardest part. The feeling of being leapfrogged, and passed by, it really stinks.”
On this week’s SmackDown, Zayn and Neville both said that they were challenging Owens for the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania. Even though things could change, that’s a pretty good hint that both Zayn and Owens will be in the same match on their WrestleMania debut.
But before that, Zayn will have another high profile match, when he’s going to wrestle against the debuting Shinsuke Nakamura on NXT TakeOver.
“I’m very excited for that. Nakamura is very very good,” said Zayn. “I’m a big fan of his. It’s just going to be a huge weekend for me. And there’s a chance this might be my last match in NXT.”
If it is indeed his farewell bout in NXT, Zayn will be remembered as one of the building blocks to the promotion’s success over the last couple of years.
“NXT wasn’t really anything when I first got there. I remember myself saying that if I was gonna be here, I wanted this place to be good, to be hot, for people to be interested in it,” explained Zayn. “And I think I really helped back in 2013 with guys like Neville and Cesaro and then in 2014 with Neville, Tyler Breeze and Tyson Kidd. We were doing a lot of stuff that really built NXT. That’s the thing I take the most pride in, it’s seeing how big it’s gotten and knowing that deep down, whether I’ll get credit for it or not, I don’t care, because I do know that deep down I had a lot to do with that and it makes me very proud.”
Right now, even though both are on Raw and SmackDown, their goals are a little different, pretty much because Owens had a head start, being there for almost a year. If Owens has his eyes set on the biggest prize, the WWE World title, Zayn hopes that this time will be the right one.
“Within 10 months, I was a two-time Intercontinental champion, I main-evented Raw, SmackDown and many live events, so my next goal is to do a PPV main-event and a year from now, to be the WWE champion,” said Owens, a native of St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu. “It might sound like a giant step, but I really believe that I can make it happen.”
“It’s very interesting because this time I think it’s gonna stick,” said Zayn. “The guys in Chicago on Raw were joking with me, asking me how many debuts I had now! I appeared on Raw in 2014, I appeared on Raw in 2015, I appeared at the Royal Rumble in 2016, and now I appear on Raw again, and every time I appeared with the main roster, it was always sort of like, ‘Here’s an opportunity, we don’t know what’s gonna happened for it, but here’s an opportunity.’ When I did Raw with Cena, I thought okay, this might mean I’m staying but to this day I don’t know. Every time I had a chance it was only a chance, I never knew if it was a definitive called-up. This is the first time that I’m called up and actively involved in a storyline, which means I’m going to be sticking around.”
Tonight, Owens will defend his Intercontinental title against Zayn and Dean Ambrose, in a three-way match, at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
Not only it is a homecoming for both of them, it is a virtual graduation ceremony after spending years wrestling in smaller buildings, community centers and bars.
“This show is so important to me. I feel like it’s a real coming of age story and that this is like a full circle,” said Zayn. “Because I started wrestling with Kevin in some very small buildings all over Montreal and Quebec and now we’re main-eventing. Well, I know Brock Lesnar is there and it’s the first time he’s there in 12 years, so that’s a huge deal. But I think the other big deal of the show is that these two guys who started in Montreal and wrestled all over Montreal are coming back and they are going to go at it, at each other. So if you’re a fan in Montreal it should be a huge deal too, because you have two guys from there making noise. I think it’s a very exciting time to be a Montreal fan. And if the only thing bigger than my match is the Brock Lesnar match, I’m okay with that!”
Although he shares these thoughts as well, being the prize fighter that Owens is, something else is important for him tonight.
“I can’t wait to be in Montreal tonight since it will be my first time here as Intercontinental champion. The last time I wrestled here, it was my first time with the WWE and it was two days before I beat Ryback to win the title for the first time,” said Owens. “Actually, it was one of the things that hurt me the most when I lost the title, to think that I would never have the chance to defend it in Montreal. The match will be intense for sure. I have a good rivalry with Ambrose for months now and it always provides good matches. My rivalry with Sami doesn’t need any explanations, so I think we have a pretty good chance of stealing the show, but I will leave the Bell Centre still the champion!”