Never Be the Same (Five Turns and a Redemption)

Wrestling is repetitive. At its worst, it’s a frustrating experience, full of dead ends and pointless loops, events that pile up without a story to tie them together, jolting along until they merely stop without closure. But there’s promise and potential there, too. Given enough time and patience, some luck and stubbornness and inspiration, you could put all those repeating patterns together into stories that echo and resonate off each other, like bells that never quite touch.

Or little bits and pieces of something sharp and beautiful, fragments combining in endless variations. A mosaic of tiles that catches the sun; chips of colored glass that stain light into glory.

Look. Let me pour a decade of them out between us to share, a shifting kaleidoscope of moments: the jade of ambition, the crimson of addiction, the azure of friendship and the rare bright gold of redemption. Betrayal, freedom, loss, triumph and despair, arranged and re-arranged to tell a different story every time. Look.

In 2005, El Generico betrays his tag team partner to be with Kevin. Kevin and Beef Wellington are brawling; Generico tries to stop the fight and Kevin yells at him in a fury that he has no part in this story: “It’s not between you and I!” Generico flinches, recoils in disbelief.

The most unacceptable thing, to imply that he doesn’t have a role to play in Kevin’s story.

(He recoils just the tiniest bit when Shane says “…and I’ll take care of me,” because of course he does.)

For whatever reason, whatever instinct or impulse, he abandons the person who expects his support and throws in his lot with Kevin, welding their stories together:


(He hurls himself away from Kevin to attack / he leaps forward to save Kevin; two irrevocable acts done with what seems like no forethought at all, just sheer impulse and damn the consequences).

Kevin doesn’t seem to have expected this. Both times he seems at least somewhat surprised; after Sami saves him at Hell in a Cell he stares at him in astonishment and disbelief. But he’s happy to take advantage of it, and a partnership is formed, based on betrayal and a sharp, fierce, deliberate dependency (nothing without you) that will both lift them up and destroy them.

It’s a disturbing, fascinating story of friendship gained at an unknown cost, of two people setting themselves up against the rest of the world, of shifting loyalties. Stop for a moment and enjoy the unease and the promise and the worry that this may not end well. Then break the story up into little pieces.

Put them back together again and make it new.

Kevin turns on El Generico in 2009 after years of friendship. Just before the sudden turn, he’s in the middle of seemingly giving up. His knee injury, his weight gain, his inability to regain the tag team titles (or, eight years later, Sami’s fizzled feuds, his lack of opportunities, his drifting in the midcard)–it all adds up to what is clearly a deep despair about his career and his future.  Is he just treading water?  Is he doomed to mediocrity?

(To resist despair is what it means to be free. The lyric doesn’t promise that we’re going to like what must be done to resist despair).

Despondent about his career, desperate, trapped, Kevin puts his arms around Generico and in that moment has a sudden revelation, a total mental break with everything that’s come before: he realizes he hates El Generico.

(Despondent about his career, desperate, trapped, Sami watches Shane about to destroy Kevin and has a sudden revelation, a total mental break with everything that’s come before.)

Kevin’s betrayal of Generico is another action, like Generico’s original turn to be with him, that’s done with no calculation or forethought; Kevin insists that until the very moment of the embrace, he was planning to retire.

Moments of clarity crop up over and over again in these stories, revelations that leave you stunned, re-evaluating everything you thought you ever were, leaving you in free fall, exhilarated or sickened or both at once:

When we see Kevin after his attack on Generico, he’s backstage eating an apple and… uh… okay, if there were a Slammy for “Orgasmic Apple Eating,” Kevin would have a lifetime achievement award.

(After watching his turn and the promo after, I wake Dan up in the middle of the night, shaking him and explaining disjointedly that I get it, he’s eaten the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, see? Kevin’s always been bad, but he knows that he’s evil now, he’s embraced that and it’s freed him. There’s bits of Cain and Abel in there too, Kevin’s got the Mark of Cain on his brow, which means no one can hurt him now, but he’s walked out of paradise all on his own and he can never go back. I have further things to say about angels with flaming swords barring the way, but Dan convinces me to go back to sleep and in the morning, fully awake, I’m amused at this absurd flight of fancy.)



Okay, all right, you know what? It’s still absurd, but wrestling’s absurd; if there’s a literal portal to hell under the ring, we can at least have some fun with this. So let’s take the little razor-edged chips of stained glass and shake them, toss them out on the table and see what new patterns they make.

What if the angel with the sword was your guardian angel all along? If he stands aside, can you just… go back to how things were? And (here’s a worrying question) the Mark of Cain brands you outcast, but it also means no one can make you suffer while you bear it. If it gets erased, does that make you vulnerable once more?

But that’s the future, that’s nothing to worry about right now. We’ve got enough upsetting things to deal with in the past, where 2009 Kevin is filled with manic joy. He explains to his horrified and furious friend, Colt Cabana, that he’s finally free. He’s been dependent on Generico too long, to the point where (still happily gnawing that apple) he frames their friendship as a literal addiction:

Now he’s cut himself loose from responsibilities, duties, and burdens, and is finally free to not care anymore. Colt’s blank, baffled expression as it dawns on him that something has completely given way in the person he used to be close to stands in for the audience’s reaction:

(Pry a tile out of the mosaic, flip it over and use it again as the centerpiece of a new work. You could get so tired of responsibilities and duties that you could hurl yourself headlong back into something like an addiction, just because it makes you feel good and you need that so much right now, in a world that seems to be nothing but struggle and anguish. There could be a freedom in that, in letting go of everything but the thing that confirms you and is there for you no matter what. You could throw yourself into it like a plunge from a height, chairshot your own soul to give yourself some numbed peace. So this thing, this addiction, this joy, it ended up hurting you in the past: so what? Everything’s hurt you recently; at least this makes you feel good, too.)

This is a good story too: about dependency and despair and freedom, about doing anything to free yourself from whatever obstacles were holding you back, whether it’s a friendship or the lack of it.  About walking away from paradise and about rebuilding it.  Pause here for a moment and appreciate this moment of freefall, of horrible hopeful freedom.

Then it’s time to break the story into pieces again.

Put them back together, make it new.

The very first thing Kevin posts on social media after Hell in a Cell is a picture of him and Generico hugging: not from early in their career, not when they win any of their titles, but from PWG’s DDT4 in 2013, their last match together, the tag team tournament where Kevin and El Generico reconcile.

Kevin wants us to connect these two events, these two coming-togethers: the pure grace of Reseda with the paradise he is going to rebuild on the main roster and haul Sami into. In the ring after Hell in a Cell, Kevin frames the afterlife in terms of Heaven and Hell, with Heaven a cartoon-simple image of Pearly Gates and St. Peter, eager to proclaim him worthy and send him back to where friendship awaits him, the friendship we sense he’s been craving so intensely for years. His indie career post-Generico was marked by collecting friends with a fevered intensity: Jimmy Jacobs and Steve Corino, the Young Bucks and Adam Cole. On the main roster after his turn on Sami, he seemed impervious to friendship, but once he stumbled into being friends with Chris Jericho he threw himself into it whole-heartedly until the abrupt and bitter end. There were moments with Jericho where you could get the impression that Kevin was desperately copying behaviors that he remembered his friend Generico doing for him, back when they got along.

After he turns on Chris, Kevin is quick to remind him that Chris was never his best friend, that it was Sami that was always his best friend. As 2017 goes on, he becomes more and more convinced that maybe everything could just pick back up where they left off, if Sami could just somehow forget all that… stuff that happened.  When asked in August on Facebook if he and Sami could ever team up, for example, he says they’d probably make a great team:

And then just a few weeks after that, when Sami admits that sometimes he can’t remember why he hates Kevin, Kevin visibly lights up with hope: reconciliation without the whole annoying penance thing? What’s not to like?

So fast forward just a few more weeks and here they are, reunited. Kevin wants to believe this is a continuation of his perfect redemption with Generico, that the years in between are nothing but an odd aberration, a blip that we all (especially Sami) can just ignore and move past.

I’m not so sure. Maybe those priceless gold tiles of redemption are part of this version of this mosaic too. I fan them out on the table and give them a dubious look. I think grace would feel better, somehow. I think redemption would shine more. This story is fun in a lot of ways (when, you know, it’s not an agonizing rollercoaster of doubt, but that’s another essay), and that’s great, but it doesn’t feel like a redemption story yet. I’m so often wrong about wrestling, though. I rub at the gold, unsure whether I’m trying to polish it brighter or reveal its falseness, hoping I’m wrong this time too.

Reseda and its scarlet streamers, the flash of Las Vegas: these two Festivals of Friendship, the gold and the gilt. They’re great stories, full of shock and surprise, redemption and rejection. They’re both so good you almost hate to move on, to say goodbye to Generico, to wave farewell to Chris Jericho and his List.  Pause as long as you can before time sweeps on and everything must get broken into little pieces once more.

Put them back together, make it new.

We jump from Kevin’s last hug with Generico to Kevin’s first hug with Sami Zayn:  2014, NXT. Followed immediately by another moment of terrible clarity: after tearfully, joyously celebrating with Sami in the ring, Kevin abruptly turns on him and throws him down to the ramp.

Kevin hurls Sami down / Sami lifts Kevin up; surely Sami Zayn is one of the only wrestlers in the world who could turn heel by helping someone.

When talking about Kevin’s attack on him, Sami notes more than once that his celebration with Kevin until that moment was 100% genuine:

And in part what he means is that once again, this is a sudden shift, something snapping into place–or out of it. Kevin will claim later that this was a calculated, cold-blooded decision, but in that moment, staring down at Sami’s crumpled body, destroyed at his hands, he seems more dazed and stunned than anything else.

(Three years later, Sami’s blank astonishment after Hell in a Cell as he looks down at Kevin’s crumpled body, saved by his hands, mirrors Kevin’s almost perfectly.)

Kevin destroys Sami, takes his title, and rises to the main roster of the biggest wrestling promotion in the world; later Sami pursues him, and they find themselves there at the top at last, two best friends turned bitter rivals, locked in a tableau of hatred together, no way out. It’s a good piece of art, but in the end it’s just raw material for the next one. Sweep the pieces off the board with a moment of clarity and start again; never be the same.  Shatter the story and start over.

Break it into little pieces, put them back together again, and make it new.

One more time. A hundred more times. Whenever and wherever. Then, now, and forever.  We’re here waiting, and watching, and feeling; we are part of the story.


Break us into little pieces.

Put us back together again.

Make us new.

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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.