“I Could Do This Forever”: On Hate, Love, Live Wrestling, and Kevin Owens

I am hating Kevin Owens.

I know the grammar sounds wonky there, but believe me, it’s accurate.  It’s early 2015, I am in the passenger seat of a rental car driving down the Florida coast, and I am consciously, deliberately, and actively hating Kevin Owens.

From the driver’s seat, Dan listens patiently as I list once more the new NXT champ’s offenses:  assault, title-stealing, repeated powerbombing, gloating, and generalized friendship failure are only the beginning of the list.  I’m on my way to my first-ever live wrestling show in Fort Pierce, Florida, and my reason for attending, Sami Zayn, is in Dubai, and this is also Kevin’s fault.  The sunlight through the windshield is fiercely merciless, and I have a headache because I’ve been crying off and on for a couple of days.  This is also Kevin’s fault.

Dan reminds me, with exasperating reasonableness, of some facts about Kevin and Sami’s nonfictional relationship outside of the ring, but those facts have no power over me right now.  “He didn’t even look happy,” I snarl.  “If he’s going to take Sami’s title, he should have the decency to actually look happy, but he just looked mean and angry and mean, and I hate him.”

I will refuse to re-watch the match where Sami lost his title for over a year, and when I finally do again and reach the end, I will burst out laughing, because of course Kevin looks happy.  He mostly keeps it together for a while, clutching and licking his very first WWE title with evil glee.  But then he gets on the turnbuckle and points to his family in the audience, and his whole face just falls apart:

He weeps steadily with joy as he carefully positions himself so that his fallen opponent is there in the frame with him in his moment of triumph:

And he has to visibly struggle to eventually get his sneer back in place:

“He didn’t look happy,” I complain into the vicious Florida sun, and I mean it with all my heart.  Even if I could have seen it through my tears, I couldn’t have seen it through my anger and sadness.

We stop and buy cupcakes in Jacksonville.  Cupcake shops weren’t a thing when we moved abroad, and they don’t have them in Japan; I find them difficult to pass up.  “I can’t believe I have to watch Kevin Owens main event at my first wrestling show,” I mutter direly around my cupcake.  “It’s not fair.”  We have somehow gotten front row ringside seats tonight.  Maybe I’ll say something rude to Kevin.  Or at least glare at him.  He better watch out.  Yes, I’m the most dangerous middle-aged English teacher angrily consuming a cupcake in Florida at this moment, I’m sure of it.  

Northern Florida, at the very least.

“At least you’ll get to see Adrian Neville fight Kevin tonight,” Dan says.

I’m not mollified.  “Don’t think I’ve forgiven or forgotten what Neville did, either,” I snap.  “He doubted Sami, he disrespected Sami, he made Sami unhappy, he is not okay in my book.”

Dan looks a little unsure whether we’re working at the fictional or nonfictional level at this point.  We’re switching back and forth pretty quickly and I’m not always sure myself.  He decides to go with the fictional.  “Sami forgave him,” he reminds me.  And it’s true!  After their championship match, Sami held out his hand to Neville and Neville kicked it away to hug him instead.  

“Well, Sami is a better person than I am,” I say, and as there is no arguing this point, that ends the discussion.

The long, barren east coastline of Florida slips by as I sulk all the way to Fort Pierce.

Inside the Havert L. Fenn Center in Fort Pierce, floodlights are shining right in my eyes, making my headache worse.  Dan points out that there’s a friendly-looking older couple being shown around by WWE staff.  They’re speaking French.  “I think Kevin’s parents came from Montreal to see him wrestle as champ,” Dan says.

“That’s sweet,” I say.  “They deserve a better son.”

Dan looks at me reproachfully.  I punch the barricade in front of me a couple of times.  Fortunately it’s heavily padded, so there’s no risk I’ll bruise my delicate, angry hands.

The show starts.

There in the front row, I do what I usually do when confronted with a new and uncertain situation:  freeze and smile uneasily, gathering information with ferocious concentration.  Blinking against the harsh lights, I watch my very first match with squinty, intense focus. There’s definitely something about being there in person: to be able to hear and feel the thump of impacts on the ring, to be able to look anywhere and not just at what the camera tells me to look at.  Neither of these two wrestlers has ever been on tv yet, so I don’t know them at all, but the winner has a beautiful smile, charmingly floppy hair, and moves with particular grace and assurance. I make a mental note to look him up later–Chad Gable.  I like him, whoever he is.

Everything is so interesting.  It’s fun to watch the wrestlers negotiate with the crowd, connect with them.  Still frozen, I smile uneasily as a who’s who of future champions and favorites on the main roster goes by:  Sasha Banks, Tyler Breeze, Bayley, Becky Lynch, Baron Corbin, Enzo and Cass.  I notice for the first time, but not the last, the counter-intuitive fact that everyone is more attractive in person than they appear on television.  There’s something distinctly different about being there physically, something I can’t easily explain.  Everyone’s so much more real.  They’re right there taking up space in front of me, breathing the same air.  I applaud politely, intrigued and enchanted, my headache forgotten.

Then the main event begins and first the challenger, Adrian Neville, and then the champ, Kevin Owens, come to the ring.

It’s important to confess here that as of this point I still have only a fuzzy understanding of “the indies,” and the different ways wrestlers can come to the WWE.  Of the wrestlers I’ve seen so far this night, nearly all of them have between 50 and 250 matches’ worth of experience.

Kevin Owens has had 758 matches in his life at this point.  Adrian Neville has had 958.  I don’t yet fully comprehend that they’re literally at least three times more experienced than almost any other wrestler I’ve seen tonight.

I remember nothing at all of their match.

That’s not exactly true: I remember there’s an audience member who’s transcendently angry at Kevin for something that happened at a signing, who screams incoherently at him until Kevin cheerfully yells back “I can’t understand a word you’re saying, but thank you!” I remember Neville attempting a Red Arrow.  But the rest of it I forget as soon as it’s over, as you might have a hard time remembering being caught in a landslide, or struck by lightning, or some other event that rips the world out from under you.

The show ends and we go back to our hotel room.  I sit down on the end of the bed and look at the wall for a long time without saying anything, without even thinking anything.

I feel a vast blank bewilderment.

The next day is Valentine’s Day, and by sheer luck the WWE main roster is in Tampa, so we have decided to attend that show as well.  We drive across the flatness of Florida, and I look out the window in silence.  

“Is something wrong?” Dan asks.


“What are you thinking about?”

“I’m… not sure.”  I seem to have a lot of mental processing to do, and there’s not a lot in central Florida to distract me from it.

The arena in Tampa is huge compared to the center in Fort Pierce.  We’re sitting far away from the ring this time, surrounded by a flock of pre-teen children who jitter impatiently in their seats.

To my delight, they announce that the first match will be an unannounced matchup of two NXT superstars, and I’m even more delighted when Adrian Neville’s music hits and he comes to the ring.  It’s not his first main roster house show, but it will be one of his last before he’s officially called up.

I’m debating how long that will be with Dan when Kevin Owens’ music hits, and with no warning or transition at all I find myself on my feet, announcing to everyone in our section, in the arena, in Tampa, that oh, we are all in luck, everyone look, we get to see Kevin Owens’ first match on the main roster, everyone needs to pay attention, this is important, these are two of the greatest wrestlers in the world and we’re so lucky, so lucky, so lucky…

The kids boggle at me, and I sit back down as Kevin makes his way to the ring with his title (Sami’s title) on his shoulder.  I feel embarrassed and awkward and not even a tiny bit abashed.

The match is great: the whole show is great.  It’s Sasha Banks’ first main roster match as well, and Randy Orton comes back from a long hiatus and the crowd goes nuts, and Cesaro and Chris Jericho tear it up.  I get to see the Miz work the crowd into a frenzy live for the first time.  After my initial failure, I join the kids around us in cheering for the faces and booing the heels.  It’s fun.

The main event is Roman Reigns versus the Big Show, and when Roman Reigns’ music hits, the boy next to me–he’s maybe 10 years old–goes completely fucking insane with joy.

“Roman!” he screams, “Roman, Roman, Roman!”  He clambers up on his chair and jumps up and down, delirious.  “That’s my boy!” this small child calls out. “Oh Roman, that’s my boy!”  He throws his arms wide as if to embrace the arena, the city, the amazing and magical world that somehow impossibly holds both him and Roman Reigns within it.  “I could do this all night!  I could do this all night, I could do this forever!” he cries, incandescent.  Transcendent.

Then he catches himself and for a moment looks uncertain, worried that he’s been rude in his total abandon.  He looks down at me and smiles sheepishly, apologetically.  I shake my head and smile up at him, and with his worries relieved he goes back to cheering, his body nearly vibrating at the intensity of the love he’s pouring out, yearning toward his hero with all his might.

I watch him and I know how he’s feeling, I know that bright rush of emotion like an epiphany that lifts you up when your wrestler comes out, the wrestler that your heart chose for their strength or their courage, their wit or their skill, for any and all of a thousand reasons.  Maybe it was a single line, or a glimpsed smile, or one graceful move that made the breath stop in your throat.  And maybe you’ll never know what it was, maybe you don’t even realize it until the moment you hear music and your heart leaps up and drags you with it, singing:

Yes, this is the one, the brave or beautiful or brutal one that my heart is set on, who’s somehow–unbelievably, miraculously–here in the same world with me, here where they can hear my voice calling out to them, see my hand reaching out.

I could do this all night.  I could do this forever.

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I'm an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.