After 15 arduous years of competing and perfecting his skills in the world of amateur wrestling, Kevin Steen - better known these days as Kevin Owens - has finally realized his childhood dream of reaching the WWE, where he has quickly emerged as a superstar on the rise. As nimble with a microphone as he is in the ring, the Marieville native has taken the WWE by storm, earning high praise from many of the industry's legends in his short time with the promotion. We sat down with the 31-year-old Quebecer to find out how he ended up finding his passion in the ring instead of the rink.
Since signing with the WWE just over a year ago, you've made your NXT debut, won the title, made your debut on RAW, defeated John Cena on pay-per-view and been part of one of the best matches at SummerSlam. That's pretty intense.
KEVIN OWENS: It's pretty intense indeed. It took me 15 years to get to the WWE and during that time, there were a lot of ups and downs. But since I've been here, things have moved so fast that it seems like I've made up for lost time. That's not to say that those years I spent getting here were a waste at all, because I've had some incredible experiences, but it does feel like my progression has been faster than others. I've met other wrestlers at NXT who had been there for three years, just waiting for their turn, and it all happened pretty fast for me, so I definitely can't complain. It's been my dream since I was 11 years old to wrestle for the WWE.
The day before SummerSlam in Brooklyn, you participated in the grand finale of NXT: Takeover, also at the Barclays Center. Is it tough to take part in two major fights within 24 hours?
KO: It's never easy, especially when you participate in a ladder match. There was actually also a show on Friday in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and if you add in Monday night RAW and Smackdown! on Tuesday, it was five events in five days. We work really hard. Again, I can't complain because this is what I've always wanted. It's worth it.
You learned the ropes in independent wrestling federations like the IWS here in Montreal, and you had fights in small venues like Le Skratch in Laval. Do you have any amusing anecdotes to share from that time?
KO: Wrestling in bars can get interesting. I had a lot of fun in the IWS, but there were always people in the audience who were drinking heavily and forgot how to behave. I remember during one of my fights someone from the balcony tried to throw a trash can lid at me but hit another fan instead. It was one of the most insane things I've ever seen. Fortunately, in the WWE, the security staff is very dedicated and very professional. They know what they're doing.
Aside from the obvious perks - the travel, the crowds, the fame - what are the biggest differences between working on the "farm team" of NXT and its namesake show, and the "pros" of WWE's flagship shows like RAW?
KO: There are obviously differences in how they're organized and produced, but Triple H worked so hard to ensure that NXT would basically be an identical replica of RAW and Smackdown! so that when the NXT guys reached the next level, they'd be able to hit the ground running with the opportunity. There are more guys at the top, but because of that, I was already very comfortable on my first night of RAW. The buildings are also a little more full compared to NXT, but the feeling is the same.
Triple H has never hidden that he's been one of your biggest fans since you arrived in the organization. What has your relationship with him been like since you signed with the WWE?
KO: He hired me. When I got my chance to be called up to the pros, the story I heard was that four or five people had a say in the decision. The vote was tied at two, and Triple H cast the deciding ballot. He gave me my chance. I appreciated that he was willing to risk signing me even though I'm not the typical WWE wrestler. Since I started working with him, we've become a lot closer. He helps me as much as he can for shows - like he does with everyone - but we both have young kids at home and we talk about a lot of other things that have nothing to do with wrestling. The fact that he's in my corner is what counts. I watched him fight when I was younger. I went to the Bell Centre to see him live. He's the one who motivated me.
With your busy schedule, do you still have time to catch the odd Habs game?
KO: Honestly, I used to watch a lot more before, but when I started wrestling I had to dedicate myself to the sport 100 percent. I used to love going to the Forum with my parents to watch games. It's been several years since I've been able to watch the Canadiens on a regular basis. I might watch a game occasionally and I love listening to the games on the radio when I'm in my car. Living in Montreal, I'm always aware of what's happening with the team even without trying. (laughs)
Sami Zayn recently said that your longstanding rivalry is a bit like the one between the Canadiens and the Bruins. Would you agree with that comparison?
KO: (laughs) It's a great comparison. The people who support us come from two very distinct groups and they're easy to differentiate. You can tell immediately whether they're Sami Zayn fans or Kevin Owens fans. Just like the Canadiens and Bruins. I agree with his analogy.
Our sources tell us your dad is a Habs fan but your mom is a Bruins fan. What's that household like during a Boston-Montreal game?
KO: The dynamics during the playoffs are special at our place. (laughs) These days, I don't really have time to watch hockey because my family and my career require most of my time, but when the playoffs start, I have to follow them, especially if the Canadiens play the Bruins, because I want to know what will be happening at our house!
Did you play hockey as a kid? What kind of player were you?
KO: I played hockey until I was 13 or 14 years old. We weren't allowed to hit when I was younger. My brother was a great hockey player but I was the opposite. What's funny is that in my last year of Pee-Wee, I was actually the captain of my team. I have no idea how I managed that. It definitely wasn't because of my on-ice talent. (laughs)
Do you think the public perception of wrestling will ever change in terms of wrestling being a sport that's as physical - if not more so - than hockey?
KO: I think when people don't respect wrestling, it's because they're misinformed. It's easy to say wrestling is staged, but when you take the time to look at what goes into our sport, you see how much it takes. Hockey players have two or three months off from games in the summer, but we never stop. We're wrestling about 250 days a year, we're constantly on the road, we'll get two or three hours of rest at night and then if we're lucky, we'll have a day or two off to spend time with our families before it starts all over again.
On September 18 you're set to wrestle at the Bell Centre in Montreal with the WWE for the very first time. How excited are you for that moment?
KO: I can't wait. The last time I fought at the Bell Centre, it was in 2001 in a Jacques Rougeau Gala. I have great memories from that experience, but going to the Bell Centre with the WWE is completely different. I went all the time when I was younger with my parents and grandparents. The fact that I'm making my return with my parents in the audience will be very special. They've supported me since the beginning. My parents were in Brooklyn for SummerSlam and it was a great night for them. But being at the Bell Centre, at home, will be something special.
Even though you're considered a "heel," do you think the home crowd will give you a hero's welcome?
KO: Honestly, I would be surprised if the crowd boos me. (laughs) One of the things I appreciate most about wrestling is the freedom of expression. If there are people who don't like me, I hope they'll do their best to let me know. The same goes for those who do like me. When I started at RAW and Smackdown! I would often fight John Cena and 50 percent of the crowd loved him and the other 50 percent hated him to death. The combination of the two is special. One of my goals is to get a reaction from the crowd similar to his. Obviously it's cool to be a crowd favorite or to be absolutely detested, but being able to do both is incredible.
As a wrestler who made his mark in "hardcore" fights, has it been difficult for you to make a name for yourself in a less "dangerous" WWE today?
KO: It's not more difficult. It's definitely different, but I've always had the skills to be able to make regular matches exciting. I'm comfortable there, too. I have no problem with that. I've always found a way to stand out from the crowd. My philosophy remains the same: I want people to remember me when they leave the arena at the end of the night.
You've said before that you would like to fight Brock Lesnar. If he were to read this interview, what would you tell him exactly?
KO: I would simply say that few people think I have a chance against him. I have the body that I have, and I look like I look and that's just who I am. On the other hand, I know from experience that I'm harder to beat than people think. I'm not saying I'd beat him, but I'd really like to see if I can, or at least how far I can push him.
If you had the chance to face any former WWE star, who would it be and why?
KO: It would have to be Shawn Michaels, for sure. He's the reason I became a wrestler, ever since his fight against Diesel at WrestleMania XI, when I was just 11 years old. At the time, I was actually really small for my age, and Michaels fought Diesel, who was a monster compared to him. After watching his performance, I thought if he can do it, why can't I? Obviously over the years I've gained weight, I've grown up and I'm no longer the same type of wrestler that Shawn Michaels was. (laughs)