US Champion Kevin Owens and WWE SmackDown rule at Nutter Center

Kevin Owens during ‘Catch WLIVE WRESTLEMANIA REVENGE’ at Accor Hotel Arena, in Paris, France, on April 22, 2016; photo: Jerome Domine

By Gary Spencer

Everyone likes a good underdog story—you know, when a person fights for a goal even if the odds are almost impossibly stacked against them, and in spite of it all achieves their dreams. That is certainly the case for Canadian professional wrestler Kevin Owens. After a dozen-plus years of wrestling in the independent circuit all over the globe trying to make a name for himself and being told that he would never make it to the big stage because of his non-superstar look and unorthodox body shape, the man referred to as KO finally arrived in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and has become one of the company’s brightest stars, and arguably the best villain, in the business. But long before that happened, Owens was just a wrestling fan who had an epiphany about his future career at a young age.

“When I was 11-years-old my dad rented a tape of WrestleMania XI, and that pretty much sealed my fate,” Owens explains. “Shawn Michaels was my favorite wrestler by the time the show ended. [He was] the smallest guy on the show wrestling the 7-feet-tall, biggest guy. I was a small, scrawny kid, so I thought I could do that, too. So, then and there, I decided that’s what I was going to do with my life.”

Whereas most parents would discourage such an unlikely career path, Owens says his family’s overwhelming support got him started on his road to wrestling very early on.

“My dad really cultivated my interest and began buying all the pay-per-views and taking me to all the shows in Montreal,” he says. “When I was 14, we heard about a wrestling school nearby and my mom signed me up.”

KO had his first match on his 16th birthday in 2000. Despite the financial struggles and stress of constant travel, Owens’ family support and his own determination kept him motivated to reach his dream of becoming a WWE superstar.

“For the first 10 years I wasn’t making anything near the money I needed to live,” Owens says. “I worked at a gas station and [would] go off on weekends to wrestle, and things snowballed to where I started traveling all over the world. There were times I thought I might not ever make it to WWE. But my wife was always so supportive and told me to keep my eyes on the goal—and WWE was always the goal. So I wrestled everywhere I could, and that’s what led me to WWE.”

KO had built a reputation for being a brash, backstabbing, trash-talking “heel” (wrestling speak for villain) who could back it up in the ring, capable of brawling, technical wrestling, and flippy, high-flyer stunts usually reserved for guys half his size. Soon enough, WWE talent scouts had Owens on their radar and were showing interest in the wrestling journeyman.

“I had never had any contact at all with WWE—I didn’t know if they even knew who I was,” Owens says. “But then William Regal showed up at one of the independent shows I was doing. I was aware of how influential he was in who gets tryouts for WWE, so I was keeping my fingers crossed. A couple of weeks later, I got invited to a tryout and worked as hard as I could, and a couple of months later, I ended up getting a contract offer.”

KO made his WWE debut in 2014, becoming an instant hit with fans for his smash-mouth wrestling style and attitude. In just three years with the world’s largest wrestling company, “The Prizefighter” has become NXT Champion, two-time Intercontinental Champion, two-time United States Champion, and the longest reigning universal champion in WWE history. Despite what many might consider an unlikely success story, Owens is not surprised at how well he’s done on wrestling’s biggest stage.

“I’ve always known I belonged here,” he says. “Once I got here everything came so quickly. I won the NXT title after only two months, and that was a big deal. When you first come in here, after almost 15 years, on the independents you can’t help but think, what do I need to do to be successful? Then I realized I didn’t need to change anything. Getting the NXT title so quickly was proof to me and a lot of people of who I am. There’s been a lot of detractors who’ve said what I did and how I looked wouldn’t work in WWE, but I proved them wrong.”

KO, currently calling himself “The New Face of America,” is in the middle of his second run as United States Champion. But despite so many accolades in such a short period of time in WWE, Owens is keeping his career aspirations simple.

“The main goal for now is to enjoy as much success as I can and make sure my work is remembered fondly when I’m done,” he says. “I’ll do it for as long as it’s fun, and I’ve been doing it for 15 years and I’ve never not had fun so, so far so good.”

WWE SmackDown Live takes place Tuesday, June 20 at the Wright State Nutter Center, 3640 Colonel Glenn Highway in Fairborn. The event starts at 7:45 p.m., doors open at approximately 6:15. Tickets are $23–$108. For tickets or more information, please call 937.775.3498 or visit NutterCenter.com.

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Gary Spencer
Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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