After wrestling for 19 years, Kevin Owens is entering the prime of his career. And the most important match in his WWE tenure takes place this Sunday at SummerSlam.

Owens is in the midst of a storyline with Shane McMahon in which if he loses to McMahon at SummerSlam, he will have to quit WWE. The match has the potential to elevate Owens to a new level of stardom in WWE, particularly while working as a babyface for the first time in his five-year run with the company.

The 35-year-old Owens spoke with Sports Illustrated about the current direction of his career, the anguish he endured over being a healthy scratch at this past WrestleMania, and the background behind the SmackDown promo he cut on Shane McMahon that ignited this entire storyline.

Justin Barrasso:Looking at your body of work in wrestling, how did we reach the point where you are now the protagonist?

Kevin Owens: I think it’s just a natural evolution. A lot of it is my need to do something different. I’ve had that gut feeling for a while now, and it looks like things are working pretty good. So far, it feels right.

JB:The SmackDown promo you cut on Shane—was that something you created?

KO: I actually cut that promo a week before to somebody in the locker room, and it got people talking enough that it ended up on TV the next week. It all came from gut instinct.

I’ll always be a fan. I know what I like watching, and I think I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of the audience today, and it all came from that.

JB:There’s only one natural follow-up question to that: who was the person who heard you cut that promo in the locker room?

KO: It was the same person who threw the pie in my face all those years ago. That’s all I’ll say.

JB:Did you want a segment with Steve Austin on the Raw Reunion show?

KO: Who am I to say I wouldn’t?

That would have been great to be in the ring with him and have that experience. I know a lot of people were hoping for it, but the truth is I was at the SmackDownLive live event that night, and that’s always where I was supposed to be.

Steve did an interview after and said that’s not what he felt would have been the right move anyway, and I see his point and agree with him, but it would have been a thrill for me as the huge fan of his that I’ve always been. To share the ring with Steve would have been an honor.

JB:You have wrestled Shane before, most notably in the “Hell in a Cell” match in 2017. What sticks out about that match, and what will make your match at SummerSlam stand out?

KO: This week’s SmackDownLive was in the same building [in Detroit] where Shane and I had the Hell in a Cell match, so it’s all coming full circle. The dynamic is different than it was in 2017, but I also feel there is a lot more at stake now because of the stipulation.

If I can’t beat him, I have to quit. And the fact that we’re in Toronto for SummerSlam, and I have a feeling the crowd is going to be pretty wild, should make for a very interesting night.

JB:Do you have to be cautious regarding what you say in a promo to McMahon considering that his family controls the company?

KO: If I’ve learned anything from being here for the past five years, it’s that the McMahons are more than willing to let you go at them as hard as you want and they’ll come back at you as hard as they can. Everything is pretty much fair game. I’ve never been told to be careful, I’ve never been told to watch what I say. It’s all for the purpose of creating as good a story as possible.

JB:How much of being left off the card at WrestleMania 35 is a motivating factor in your current run in the company as an anti-authority figure?

KO: Missing WrestleMania was such a blow. I don’t think anybody can fault me for saying that. Anybody who misses WrestleMania and isn’t bothered by it probably needs to look at their priorities.

I don’t want to be so arrogant to say it was probably worse for me than it would have been for anybody else, but it was probably worse for me than it would be for anyone else. I’m really obsessed with this. It’s borderline not healthy.

WrestleMania is this thing that I get to share with my family, and this year we didn’t get that moment. And not being on WrestleMania just sucks. But what’s done is done, and it happened for reasons that were beyond my control. I would say it’s fine, but it’s not fine. It’s not fine with me. No one did anything wrong, but it didn’t sit well with me. I’m doing everything I can to never be left off any show that I feel I should be on ever again. That’s the attitude I’m going to take. If missing WrestleMania has taught me anything, it’s that I will survive—and I did survive.

Up until the night before, I was still hoping that they’d come to me and say, ‘Hey, we just didn’t tell you, but this is what you’re doing.’ But that never happened. I flew home Saturday night before WrestleMania to be with my family, and that helped make everything a lot easier. Then the next morning, it was time to move on. From here on out, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that never happens again.

JB:What makes you different than Shane McMahon?

KO: He’s the complete opposite of me in every way. He likes to brag a lot and I don’t. He loves to talk about how much money he has, and I don’t. He loves to call himself “The Best in the World,” and I would never call myself the best at anything.

We’re two very different people brought up in two very different ways. But we do share one thing, and that’s a passion for this industry and a borderline dangerous need to make everything we do in the ring memorable. So Sunday should be pretty interesting, to say the least.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.