When longtime indie-wrestling standout Kevin Steen made his NXT debut at last December's TakeOver: R Evolution, barely anyone batted an eye when the broadcast team introduced him as Kevin Owens.
That's owed in part to the dirt sheets having long since tipped-off the name change, but it's also long been common knowledge among Steen fans that he has a seven-year-old son, Owen, so named after the late Hart Family great. Mostly though, it's testament to what a convincing transition KO (as his T-shirts dub him) has made from Ring of Honor et al to WWE. In little more than five months, the Canadian native – who possesses a Brock Lesnar-like hybrid of size, speed and strength – has made good on a 14-year journey by conquering fellow Canuck and old friend/foe Sami Zayn for the NXT championship. And in the process, he's helped elevate their saga to new heights of performance and popular interest. That story culminates – for now – when the pair headline this Wednesday's NXT Takeover: Unstoppable (WWE Network, 8 p.m. ET) and go to war one more time over the brand's top singles title.
Two days removed from writing the latest chapter in NXT's most personal feud to date – and mere hours before powerbombing John Cena to hell in a well-guarded debut Raw appearance (he neglected to mention it to us) – Owens talked about co-authoring a timeless rivalry, smacking down his peers on social media and being the mayor of "Chinlock City."
How has the wear and tear of several months in NXT compared so far with the rigors of indie life?
One of the big advantages of NXT for me was I get to sleep in my own bed every night almost. For years, I was on the road with the indies two, three days a week, and it got to the point where I'd wake up not sure which town I was in. Which, honestly, I kind of liked. That's part of being a wrestler. But when I signed with WWE and moved to Orlando, my wife and my two kids came with me. That's been great. My daughter just turned one a couple of weeks ago, so I get to be there for a lot of the landmarks I didn't necessarily get to see with my first kid. That said, I do look forward to getting back on the road when the time is right.
So there's no trepidation about uprooting that time you have at home when you get called up to the main roster?
No, because my wife's incredible. She's the backbone of our family and, since the moment we met, knew how passionate I was about this. It's all I can do. I wouldn't be able to hold a nine-to-five. That's no knock on anybody who does it. I just don't think I'd be able to, so for her to be supportive is great. And obviously, the baby's a little less aware of what's going on, but my son's seven now, and he's very proud of everything. That's a big part of why I always wanted to make it here. Once I had a family, the thought did cross my mind that maybe this wouldn't happen for me. But when I saw he was into wrestling and WWE, I wanted to make it here for him so he could be proud of me, and he is, so that's a great feeling.
In the wrestling business, family can provide both a conflict and your greatest motivation.
Yeah, it really does. Being away from the people you love is never easy, but it's kind of an investment, really. If you're successful at this, you can secure a future for your whole family. All it comes down to, really, is how supportive my wife is, because without her I wouldn't be here. Back home, even when I was on the road with the independent scene, we had a great support system with her family and my parents. It's actually a big team effort from everyone that allows me to be able to do this as a career.
When you signed on with the WWE family, was your immediate future with the company laid out for you?
I was never promised anything but an opportunity to make my time here count. I got the tryouts, and when I was offered the contract, it wasn't like, "Oh, we can't wait to have you. Please sign with us." They offered me a deal, and all the fanfare and the name I'd garnered by my independent work, it obviously helped me get the tryout, but they didn't offer me anything with a promise attached that I would ever go to the main roster or be featured on NXT even. With that said, I think I've done pretty good so far. [Laughs]
Has it been easy for you to adapt your persona from the indies to NXT?
I think so. I had a bit of a struggle at first with thinking, "Who do I want to be here? What part of myself do I want to tap into so I get on NXT television as quick as possible?" Then I realized what I'd been doing for 14 years had worked because it had gotten me here. So there were little tweaks, maybe clean up the language a little, but besides that I think I've been pretty true to myself. And I think that's a big part of what helps me be successful. I'm genuine, and I think people can see that when they watch. I'm just gonna keep going that way and see where that takes me.
You're very much yourself on social media. How do you approach having such a sense of humor on Twitter while maintaining stoicism in the ring?
I think the main difference is that when the bell rings, I live for the match and what I'm about to do, as opposed to paying attention to the crowd. But when I'm outside of the ring or on Twitter or anything, I'm just me. If there's something funny to be said, I will say it. I'm not gonna hold back just because I have to be this serious persona now. From bell-to-bell, there's just a different way of doing things, and I think I've meshed those two sides of me pretty well. It's still a learning process obviously, but so far so good.
Was your notorious Twitter war with Alex Riley all impromptu one-upping?
Well, it's not really a one-up game, cause I don't think he can hold my banter. I never started any of it. Our issue was out on TV and this is where it belonged, but then he's sending tweets at me and tweeting about me, and I would come out with knockout punches every time. He was pretty resilient. I'll give him that. But it goes back to if there's a chance for something good, I'm not gonna move away from it. If it hurts his feelings, well, you kinda started it. [Laughs]
So just to be clear, those were not scripted and sanctioned tweets.
No, no, no. I wake up at 10 a.m. one day and I see that Alex has been tweeting about being on the beach at 4 a.m., and how can I not challenge him to a splash fight?
And in your feud with Sami Zayn, how have you sought to distinguish it from your guys' previous rivalries?
I haven't done anything in particular. We have been who we are, and I speak for Sami Zayn here as well. In that aspect, we are very alike. A lot of people have doubted us throughout the years, we know we can make those people come around. We've never faltered from that, so why try to be different here? And we haven't tried to be different and it's been working very well, so I think that says something not only about the faith we have in ourselves, but about people being true to themselves. I think that's important in this day and age. With social media around, people can see glimpses of who we are there, so why shy away from it in another environment? All around, we've been true to ourselves for years, so why change now?
Has the feud been a good simulation of what it might be like to execute a long-running rivalry on the main roster?
Everything I do here's gonna help me once it's time to move up. I don't even like that term by the way, move up. NXT's become such a phenomenon, and I like to say I'm just gonna move somewhere else. Obviously, everybody's aspirations are to go to Raw or SmackDown, but NXT's so special, and I experienced it [at recent live events] in Philly and Albany. Those are special moments we're creating, and fans would tell you the same. With that said, when the time [comes] to move to the main roster, everything here is gonna help me, from TV to live events to the critique and advice I get from guys like Matt Bloom and Dusty Rhodes and Robbie Brookside and Billy Gunn and Norman Smiley and Triple H and Sara Del Rey.
Hard not to smile when you mention Norman Smiley.
Yeah, you know, not only is he an incredible trainer, but that's what he does at the Performance Center: puts smiles on peoples' faces. Everyone there now is such a positive source.
What has being in NXT made you realize you can improve on?
Actually, all the names I just mentioned, [and] I didn't mention Terry Taylor, and I'd be remiss not to. He's my main trainer, and he's got an incredible mind that I was not aware of before. We'll watch matches and peoples' body of work, and his outlook on everything and the way to create emotion is fascinating. That's been probably the part where I've grown the most: learning to get the most out of everything I do. And that's definitely come from Terry. Communication is obviously very important in this industry, and Dusty Rhodes is the best at that, and I get to sit in with him every week and listen to his advice, so that's been huge as well.
So as you head into Unstoppable, does this feel like an appropriate end to your and Sami's story, or is it one that can continue at the next level?
I really think the story between us can be told at any point on any stage, but of course I'm looking forward to making moments and history with other people, whether on the main roster or at NXT. NXT is very special, and everybody who turns in for Unstoppable is gonna see that. Me and Sami bring the best out of each other, and we're gonna do that again.
And can we count on six powerbombs this time?
I think last time the count was five, so I guess I gotta take it up a notch. Six or seven sounds about right.
Maybe you can create your own answer to Suplex City.
For what it's worth, I've been working on a pretty mean chinlock lately, and in Albany, I did get some "Chinlock City" references, so maybe that'll show up too.