Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens
WWE Battleground 2016
24th July 2016
Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
It’s a masterpiece. Brutal strikes, ludicrously ambitious moves (did they really get away with that Brainbuster on the apron?) and expertly controlled pacing are interspersed with clever callbacks to their previous matches: Zayn goes for his trademark tornado DDT through the ropes and Owens superkicks him out of the air.
Particularly great is the way in which short sequences encapsulate their entire feud. Zayn goes for the DDT and gets kicked in the face for his troubles; Owens gets back in the ring and delivers a cannonball as Zayn clings to the ropes; Owens lands a huge frogsplash on Zayn – and has to stop to nurse his injured hand before he can cover his rival. Zayn kicks out, because Kevin’s quest to inflict pain on his rival is ultimately costing him.
In the end, though, what you’ll remember from this match is the finish. Somewhere deep down, these men still care about each other. Owens yells, “Why won’t you stay down? Don’t make me do this!” Zayn fights his way out into a stunning final stretch where it looks like a hard Helluva Kick might finally put Owens down. But it isn’t enough for Zayn. In his face (the face of one of the company’s finest actors), you can trace every single emotion: exhaustion; relief that the Helluva Kick landed; compassion, then pity for the former friend who has collapsed in his arms; sadness that it came to this; and the hardening of his expression as he chooses to end this once and for all. He knows Owens doesn’t go down easily. He props his best friend back up, then hits a second Helluva Kick to win.
How it defined 2016:
This year, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens wrestled at a WWE pay-per-view.
Stop and think about this. Kevin Steen has been wrestling for 16 years. In that time, he’s worked superkick parties in Reseda, California as a PWG staple and blood-drenched, death-defying ladder matches against the likes of El Generico in Ring of Honor. He was dangerous, brutal, responsible for some of the most violent matches we’d seen – and he did not look like a traditional WWE top guy.
El Generico may have gone happily back to Mexico to continue his vital work with orphans there, but Sami Zayn is a more than fitting replacement as Owens’ main rival. It’s hard to imagine where he’d been all that time – apparently he’d wrestled all over the world, but I for one had definitely never seen him before he started his gradual rise to the top of NXT. Weird.
One thing’s for sure: the two have history. Owens turning on Zayn the night he finally reached the top of the mountain was a genuine, devastating shock. Though they never got the chance to have the kind of classic match we knew they were capable of in NXT (Zayn’s shoulder injury, which left him out for months as Owens went to Raw, can’t have helped matters), every time they met felt like a blood feud. When Zayn showed up to eliminate Owens from the Royal Rumble, a train of events was set in motion that led to both men damaging their own careers for the sake of hurting each other.
And then WWE nearly killed it dead. This is a company in the habit of flogging dead horses; it’s not like this was the first time a feud had gone on so long people nearly stopped caring. But it actually emphasised the point that feuding with each other was holding both of them back. Combine this with using their own real photos documenting their friendship and dropping Owens’ son into their promo battles, and this feud represented the most beautiful blending of kayfabe and reality we’ve seen in wrestling for years. Seriously, it’s up there with the CM Punk pipebomb. Stating beforehand that this match would be the last time they fought for some time worked to draw the audience in on both levels.
So, two massively talented indie darlings inexplicably end up in WWE. They build a heated blood feud which leads to some spectacular moments and bizarrely mixes kayfabe with reality. WWE books them to have so many matches the audience almost stops caring.
And if the company gets out of their way for a while, they produce the best match of the year.
How much more 2016 can you get?