Forget Seth Rollins’ cowardly connivances or Bray Wyatt’s boogeyman shtick: You want to see some real heel heat? Tune in to Raw whenever Kevin Owens’ music hits and he moseys down the ramp to cut a promo or powerbomb your hero off the ring apron. Since his high-profile debut in NXT late last year, KO has become a phenomenon, jumping to the big leagues and turning the clock back to a pre-Attitude Era by committing himself to being a great, straight bad guy – with no chaser or chance of confusing him for an anti-hero.
Let’s hope it sticks, and that neither the crowd nor controlling interests in WWE coerce a turn toward audience favor, because what pro wrestling needs right now are clear battle lines. And make no mistake: Noted family man and storied indie underdog Owens (formerly Kevin Steen, his given name) is the enemy. Moreover, his breakthrough in the world’s biggest sports-entertainment promotion has helped wake our senses to who the good guys really are.
But that’s all storytelling. What can’t be scripted is the way an individual’s work puts them over. And while Owens had his share of doubters – largely rooted in kneejerk backlash and barbs about his size – heading into his feud with face of the franchise John Cena, his fine-tuned repertoire of modified power moves (he might just make humdrum fallaways and flapjacks obsolete) and ability to shift weight while spinning atop and leaping off turnbuckles has made him more must-watch than Neville. He’s like Yasiel Puig circa 2013, commanding us with his performance without asking that we condone how he conducts himself between the base paths (or, in this case, ring ropes). Point being, it’s OK to admire and admonish our best athletes. The only superstars we adore more than role models are the ones we love to hate, which is far more timeless than the tendency toward hating to love, which is all that so much babyface confusion amounts to.
Though perhaps Owens’ most impressive imprint since joining WWE’s main roster – and if you’re his bosses, it’s the kind of impact you hope for but can’t predict − has been the way he’s elevated not only his own NXT championship, but Cena’s U.S. title. It’s in that shine that you see the veteran he is. Not even Rusev rallied such renewed excitement around the redheaded stepchild of singles straps. Owens’ longtime sparring partner and sometime TV nemesis Sami Zayn caused a momentary stir when he put up his dukes for it on Raw, and Cena himself is owed a tremendous amount of credit for going out there and being a proud and fighting champion. (It almost makes you forget that, technically, his gold doesn’t shine quite as bright as Ryback’s.) But now, heading into Battleground on July 19, all anyone wants to see (Suplex City notwithstanding) is Cena and Owens have their grudge match (did we mention Owens beat the face of WWE fair and square in his debut bout, and looked great doing it?) with something on the line, and whatever’s at stake suddenly has huge significance − no matter who wins.
In a matter of months, the father of two from Marieville, Quebec has not only stared down his potential but surpassed it, becoming a lynchpin of two promotions and building a character inspired by everything it took to get him to this point. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his impact on the first six months of 2015 – or wonder how high he’ll climb by year’s end. It’s wrestling, folks. It’s Kevin Owens.
Best of the Rest of the Half-Year
Runner-Up Wrestler: Roman Reigns
Second-Best Heels: New Day
Most Unavoidable Face Turn: Brock Lesnar
Most Welcome Heel Turn: Tie: Sheamus/Naomi
Least Exciting Heel Turn: Adam Rose
Most Improved Wrestler: Nikki Bella
Silliest Promos: Bray Wyatt
Best Promos: Tie: John Cena/Kevin Owens
Most Improved Promos: Ryback
Worst Entrance Gimmick on Great New Main-Roster Wrestler: Neville
Most Puzzling New Finisher: Seth Rollins, Pedigree
Most Jaw-Dropping Finisher: Neville, Red Arrow
Most Deserved Push: Prime Time Players
Least Compelling Title Challenger: Big Show
Most Stagnated Storyline: Rusev vs. Dolph Ziggler/Lana
Best Briefly Resuscitated Storyline: Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins
Most Unfortunate Injury: Tie: Daniel Bryan/Tyson Kidd
Best PPV/WWE Network-Exclusive Event: WrestleMania
Most Gratefully Non-Future-Endeavored: Woo woo woo! Zack Ryder