Kevin Owens already has a hall of fame career. He has wrestled Sami Zayn, Daniel Bryan, Shinsuke Nakamura, Seth Rollins, and many other luminaries at different points in his career. He had already clocked more than a decade on the indies and seemed like the prototypical lifer. Profane, stiff, with a body-type that’s not exactly Vince McMahon ideal, he could’ve spent rest of his career happily working off TV as one of the few non-WWE attractions popular enough to make ends meet. So naturally, it was a bit of a surprise when he signed to the big show in August of last year.
A few months later he was chopping down Sami Zayn for the NXT championship. He defended that championship as savagely as he won it last Wednesday, but that’s hardly the most exciting thing happening for Owens. On May 18, Kevin Owens answered John Cena’s open challenge, powerbombed him to the mat, and held the NXT gold over his lifeless body. It initially felt like a throwaway gag, but WWE quickly confirmed that Owens and Cena would have a match at this Sunday’s Elimination Chamber.
The kid from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu was at the top of the card, just like that.
We talked to Owens about his journey during one of the few mornings he has left before his official first WWE main roster match. Our conversation ranged from Triple H, to NXT’s rising profile and whether or not his kid might be rooting for Cena on Sunday.
Sports Illustrated: Is this the most important match of your career?
Kevin Owens: Absolutely, there’s no doubt. A lot of matches I’ve had over the last five years felt pretty big. There’s been a number of times where I’ve told myself “this is the biggest match of your life.” It was all true, like back in September when I debuted and wrestled CJ Parker, that was the biggest match of my life. Two months later when I’m wrestling Sami Zayn for the title, that was the most important match of my life. It keeps happening, and it’ll keep happening more and more, but this one with John Cena is definitely the biggest one yet.
SI: There’s been some pictures on your Instagram and your wife’s Instagram of your kid in full John Cena gear, any chance there will be a divided household on Sunday?
KO: Yeah I don’t know, he’s a big John Cena fan, he’s been a big fan of his since he was four years old. My in-laws gave him this big John Cena action figure that’s like three feet tall, I think there’s a picture of him with it on Instagram. I don’t know how conflicted he’ll be, but he’s really excited to see me in the ring with him. It’s cool because when I moved here to Orlando from Montreal, I had to remove him from not only his grandparents but also his friends, which is not an easy thing for a six year old. But one of the selling points was that for years I’ve been taking him to WWE live events and he had always asked me when I was going to wrestle John Cena, and I told him that when we moved to Orlando maybe I would get to wrestle him someday. Seven months later, here we are. I’m so proud of it because I want my son to be proud of me.
SI: Who are a couple guys outside of Cena you’d like to work with on the main roster?
KO: There’s so many guys, but off the top of my head I’d have to say Bray Wyatt, I think he does some really interesting stuff. Dean Ambrose, I think there’s a lot of similarities between us. I’d love to go in there with Dolph Ziggler because he’s so talented and I think we’d have a great match. I’ve wrestled Seth Rollins, and we tore the house down back then, so I can’t imagine what it’d be like now.
SI: Between you and Sami Zayn debuting on Raw it really feels like there’s a top-down belief in NXT right now which is kinda unprecedented for WWE. What’s that feel like?
KO: There’s a lot of people behind NXT right now. Why would anyone not? It’s literally growing by the day. In March we started touring outside of Florida. But even beyond that, within Florida itself, I started going to NXT live events in September before I was wrestling on the show and I watched the crowds get bigger and bigger. I hear these stories from the guys who’ve been here longer about how they used to wrestle for 20 people and now we’re up to 300 people every night. 300 people doesn’t sound like much, but that’s the capacity of the entire building. Selling out a 5,000 seat arena in San Jose is amazing, but going from 20 to 300 is almost as big. Now we’re going to Pittsburgh and Columbus in just a couple weeks, not only is the crowd growing but the fans are extremely excited for everyone on the show.
I got here right around the time it was picking up steam, and not to toot my own horn but I think I was part of it picking up steam, same with Finn Balor and Hideo Itami. And obviously guys like Adrian Neville, Sami Zayn, and Enzo & Cass, they built the foundation. You’ve got Triple H at the helm and he’s so proud of this product, and beyond him there are people all over WWE who believe in NXT. Seth Rollins and Cesaro came to the show in San Jose during WrestleMania weekend. They’re busy during WrestleMania but they came because they heard about what was happening here. Shawn Michaels was there that night. Scott Hall was there that night. Sean Waltman was there. Vince McMahon came to that show. If there’s anyone busy during WrestleMania weekend it’s Vince McMahon.
SI: What were your expectations of Triple H and how did they line up with reality?
KO: I really didn’t have any expectations of him. I try not to be that way, that’s one of the things I learned in this industry - “don’t have expectations.” So when I came in I really didn’t know, I expected him to be a nice enough guy, but he’s way beyond that. He’s been incredibly helpful, even beyond the onscreen stuff. We talk about our kids, we talk about life. He’s my boss so this might come off biased but I don’t care, he’s a great guy in and out of the ring. There’s nobody like him. I’ve never worked with anyone with a mind like that. He’s so hands-on with everyone at NXT. He wants NXT to be as good as it can be.