Just a few years ago, Kevin Owens was one of WWE’s most decorated villains. With a collection of championship gold and betrayal behind him, Owens embodied treachery; a rare, remorseless brand of it at that. The response to Owens seldom matched his actions though, regardless of how emphatically he portrayed his latest sin. The audience admired Owens. They respected his performance, were captivated by his character. Owens was as evil as modern antagonists get but there was a palpable connection beyond that, one that followed him through on-screen ups and downs.
That’s nothing new either, as for years, Owens has projected sheer villainy to nothing but adulation. Now more than ever, that doesn’t feel like an indictment though, especially with the entertainment value that came with Owens’ work. He was consistently cold too, fittingly callous, abominable to his core. That disconnect rarely wavered though and as a result, an eventual babyface turn became increasingly enticing. With his heel stint complete, that time had finally arrived early last year, as Owens returned from a lengthy absence.
Physically refreshed, Owens seemed set to be unlocked at last, encapsulating a hero seeking redemption. That direction fit Owens’ performance as well as the audience’s perception of him. This was a character that could truly evolve, righting the many wrongs that shamefully stood in his past. Owens had already produced a magnificent career but on the WWE stage especially, this felt like the ultimate fulfilment of his potential. If Owens was regrettably relatable before, he was now providing a refreshingly human perspective: a fighter trying to maintain his renewed moral compass.
That path had my attention and if fully realized, felt as though it could guide Owens towards the absolute top of any brand’s card. Eighteen months later though and unfortunately, it’s hard to be anything but disappointed. In fact, hardly a step of progress has been made, as Owens only now appears to be getting that process truly underway. Sadly, Owens’ new chapter stumbled out of the gate, with yet another betrayal being added to his already stacked collection. That set the tone for what’s followed, with cloudy planning dampening the audience’s anticipation.
Owens was certainly crafting this character to the best of his ability, but the direction didn’t allow much room for expansion. There were almost always other priorities, other stories taking center stage while in the meantime, Owens continued his own transition. That thought is vaguely appealing but in reality, it was often frustrating, immediately muddying the waters of what appeared to be a simple tale to tell. There would be highlights along the way, as opposite Shane McMahon in particular, Owens was able to unleash the passion that for so long, he’d selflessly muted.
That program only led Owens into murkier paths though, and the Seth Rollins conflict was no different. The aforementioned pursuit of redemption was enhanced by that rivalry, earning Owens the WrestleMania moment that had previously eluded him. In its final moments especially, that program seemed to have finally positioned Owens correctly, a flawed but sympathetic figure, suddenly sincere to a fault. That was swiftly proven as another false dawn though, as Owens then floundered once more, unable to capitalize on his recent heroism. WrestleMania should’ve been a springboard for Owens but instead, he found himself stalled.
Until recently, that trend became the defining trait of Owens’ 2020. Owens was aimless and though his weekly performance commanded respect, that very much capped any genuine interest. There was nothing to latch onto, no direct hook placing intrigue around Owens’ future. He was just operating in a vacuum each week, interacting with a cast of characters that consistently seemed set for bigger things. Owens was just a stop along the way, a trusty piece of WWE’s weekly puzzle, entertaining enough in the backdrop that he was never called forward for anything grander.
That’s changed this month though, as Owens steps back into the spotlight, chasing Roman Reigns’ Universal Title. In 2020, this moment is an outlier for Owens, a character that once built his identity on title pursuits. He always had a prize over his shoulder, constantly chasing the gold that could define him. That’s not the case for this incarnation of Owens though, purposely standing in opposition to that prior approach. Owens is no longer defined by championship glory and against Reigns, that positions him as the perfect contrast.
This conflict is a character clash, their interactions just emphasize each difference. Owens once walked a path similar to the one that Reigns currently dominates but now seeks something more earnest, something he can ethically earn. Where Owens was once cold and calculated, he’s now fiery and vibrant, projecting a passion that pours through each performance. It’s palpable, a belief and conviction that even with each stop along the way, keeps you onboard with his journey. We never know how much longer it’ll last either but right now at least, it's going smoother than ever.
Owens is finally positioned prominently enough to truly thrive, matched with a character made for his chase. This is a program about far more than the title between them, a story of two men crossing each other on a familiar track. While Reigns nears the ruthless destination that Owens resided, the old ‘Prizefighter’ is running away from it. He’s striving to be what Reigns was, or his own version of it anyway. Owens doesn’t want to be a hero necessarily, but he’s certainly done being a villain.
In the grand scheme of things, TLC is just another brief return to the headlines for Owens. These moments have come and gone before, but they’ve yet to be capitalized on. This match with Reigns will either start a special portion of Owens’ career or it’ll spark more disappointment, another reminder of what could’ve been. That’ll become clear in the months after Sunday but first, Owens has a point to prove. This is Owens’ chance to reiterate his potential, a shot at securing the role that his skill warrants.
Before that though, Owens has a tale to tell at TLC and in many ways, that may be the most important element of all. This match isn’t Owens’ story, or not exactly anyway, but it’s a necessary step in that direction. After all, if this particular story even approaches its towering ceiling, Owens may be finally trusted to tell his own.