The Light on the Leaves: Final Battle 2010

[Warning for intense bloody imagery in this essay.]

Final Battle 2010, the climax of Kevin and Generico’s bloody feud, takes place in the dead of winter, but I watch it many years later in the early spring, when the leaves are that particular luminous green that’s almost golden.

(The leaves are important. We’ll get back to the leaves.)

The year-long arc, from 2009 to 2010, from Final Battle to Final Battle, is Kevin’s story.

I don’t mean just that it’s about him, I mean he is its author. He literally writes the entire feud, plans a yearlong program, books it all himself. It’s dozens of pages’ worth of story, and he types the whole thing up and crams it full of melodrama and psychological horror, black humor and bloody betrayal, a huge emotional arc that ends with El Generico’s triumph over his increasingly deranged nemesis. The result is sprawling and ambitious, a bid to break both of them out of the stagnant tag team division. When Kevin talks about creating it, you can see his goals and his plans for the angle: it’s going to win them feud of the year. It’s going to make them legends. It’s going to launch them straight to the top of the card where titles and main event matches await them.

He gets two out of three.

Kevin sends his story off to the Ring of Honor promoter, Jim Cornette, with whom he already has a tense and adversarial relationship, and Cornette has no feedback, no advice, nothing. Basically, he doesn’t give a damn and sees the whole feud as nothing but a useful way to get some nuisances out of his hair.

Ironically, this ends up helping the story, because Cornette doesn’t care enough about any of the people involved to meddle with it. With no championship titles and none of Cornette’s favorite wrestlers involved, the feud is able to unfold with little interference. The story thrives on this neglect. The wrestlers it’s about, on the other hand, will end the feud in basically the same place on the card they started it—or off the card altogether.

To set the stage, here are the main characters:

El Generico spends the first few months of 2010 a broken man, sunk into a deep depression. He’s barely able to muster the will to tie his own boots, much less confront his faithless friend, as seen here in the background as Colt Cabana explains that he’s worried about him:

Little by little, with an agonizing slowness, he manages to drag himself out of the pit of despair and find the determination to strive against—and eventually defeat—Kevin.

Kevin Steen, having decided to call Generico an “addiction,” spends the year trying to quite literally break that addiction. His behavior takes on increasingly unsettling undertones, becoming a twisted mockery of intimacy, like when he pins Generico against a turnbuckle to nuzzle at him:

Or in a match against a different bearded wrestler, Grizzly Redwood, when he jams the stolen Generico mask onto his head before finishing him off, then drapes himself across the still body and gazes dreamily into the mask’s empty eyeholes.

It’s as if, unable to bear the complexity of his dependence on and affection for Generico, he’s determined to warp and distort it into something simple that he can understand and reject, shove into a tiny box and annihilate forever.

Colt Cabana is Generico’s friend and supporter, a likable, comedic good guy whose horror as everything disintegrates into blood and darkness around him anchors the feud in basic decency.

He stands by Generico and encourages him to stand up to Kevin, to fight for his own survival and identity.

Steve Corino is Colt’s mirror image, Kevin’s evil mentor who inspires him to new and bloody heights. All you need to know about the ECW hardcore legend is that he’s the kind of asshole who dresses head to toe in white for a street fight, for maximum aesthetic effect:

No, wait. You also need to know this: that according to Kevin, Steve taught him how to be a good wrestler and a good father at the same time.

When no one at the top of Ring of Honor gives a damn about this feud, the four of them care enough to make up for it, to carry the whole thing through an entire year. They have violent, brutal brawls in which torrents of blood are shed by everyone–except, thank God, thank God, by El Generico. Catching up on the feud years later as a fairly new WWE fan, unaccustomed to gore, I watch with my heart in my throat much of the time, wincing, clinging to a few things I know for sure:

  1. Generico triumphs in this feud.
  2. Generico stays masked; Kevin takes the mask away briefly, but his face is never exposed.

It’s almost impossible to get cut through a mask, so that means I’m never going to have to see my second-favorite wrestler with his face covered with his own blood, thank God.

(I always tell people that El Generico is my second-favorite wrestler. When they assume that means Kevin is my favorite, I inform them with a blank, unassailable innocence that no, Sami Zayn is my favorite wrestler. I have drawn certain lines, established unbreachable boundaries, to the point that I’m honestly startled, sometimes, when Generico’s voice resembles Sami’s).

As 2010 starts to wind to a close and Final Battle draws near, Kevin and Generico get a phone call from Jim Cornette explaining how exactly they’re going to wrap the feud up. To Kevin’s horror, he casually announces that it’s going to be a “mask versus career” match, and after Kevin loses he will “go away for a while.”

Kevin tries to argue. He knows Cornette doesn’t like him and suspects (correctly) that this will be used as an excuse to try and end his time in Ring of Honor for good. But here’s the awful cruel irony of it all: he’s trapped by the very angle he’s poured all this time and energy and literal blood into.

He’s created a narrative that requires, for the most satisfying end, the utter defeat of the monster he’s played so magnificently.

Like in a fairy tale, such a perfect villain can’t just be beaten; he must be vanquished. Kevin Steen must be banished.

He’s written himself out of his own story.

So that’s how everything leads to New York City in the dead of winter, December 18 2010, to Hammerstein Ballroom where El Generico and Kevin Steen will fight each other to see who remains in Ring of Honor and who goes home to lick their wounds and let the months pass by without tv appearances, without matches, without feuds, without his main source of income. But I don’t know any of this background when I first see the match. I’m unaware Kevin created the story, unaware of his bitter reluctance to leave. If I had known all this, as you do, I would have experienced the match very differently. But I know only that he will lose–as his character deserves to lose–when I sit down on a bright spring day years later to watch the end of this feud.

I could write a factual summary of this match: a recap of moves and lines and moments. I even tried to do that, at the start. I tried over and over to write an impartial record of it; to pry out my emotions, set them aside and write a clear-eyed, accurate description of it and its place in the history of this rivalry. But that would lose what’s true about it, because so much of what’s true about wrestling takes place in the chemistry between the spectacle and the spectator. Who I was that day when I first saw it, and who you are when you first experienced (or will experience) it are different, and our reactions will be different, and that’s frustrating, but also part of the beauty of it. We bring our knowledge and our histories, our issues and fears and fractured hearts to every match, and the truly great ones connect with whatever we are at that moment and create something that belongs to each of us alone.

I can’t write the objective truth of the match in this essay. I can only tell you about the Final Battle 2010 I saw with my eyes and my heart. I can only share my one small truth with you. I can only give you that.

El Generico comes to the ring in black tights, with a black-and-white mask, since Kevin has ripped his familiar red-and-black one away. He’s wearing a heavy dark coat with gold lining which makes him look like a sunbeam trapped in a stormcloud, and when he leaps into the ring all the streamers arc down like a rainbow around him.

And just like that, watching years later, I’m lost. The visuals are so perfect; I am all in on the stakes of the match, on the hope that Generico will be able to cast off the dark shadow and shine again.

Enraged, wronged, filled with righteous fury, Generico starts off on the offense and seems to be getting the better of Kevin right away.

He gets his hands on a chain and assaults Kevin with it, wrapping it around his face and then kicking him. Kevin tumbles out of the ring and comes up bleeding heavily.

Now, Kevin has actually spoken pretty strongly since then about how blood in matches risks breaking the illusion with a modern audience:

I’m a squeamish person, but at a certain level I feel like he’s wrong, at least about this match. My instinctive hindbrain doesn’t care that that the blood’s there because Kevin cut himself, it only knows that blood is dangerous and alarming. I can’t imagine this match without the blood that ratchets up the tension; the way the crowd noise dims and becomes uneasy instead of jubilant. On the other hand, I’m forced to admit that there are exactly two moments during the match where my suspension of disbelief, my total commitment to the idea that Kevin is a monster who needs to be vanquished by the resolute hero, wavers, and one is here, where Kevin comes up fountaining blood, white as a sheet under the crimson, and I murmur “Oh Kevin” in anguish despite myself.

He dispels that flicker of empathy quickly, however, as he revels in his own blood: daubing it everywhere, writing “DIE” on his own skin in scarlet and then licking it off as the crowd reviles and cheers him.

He meets the camera’s eye for a long moment and reaches out with a bloody hand to smudge the lens, like a vicious dark mirror of one of the greatest promos and greatest lines in all of wrestling, when Dusty Rhodes reaches out toward the camera and says directly to the audience, to every one of us watching it any time, always: “I want you to know my hand is touching your hand.”

If Dusty gathers us in, Kevin shoves us away, bloodied and rejected like Generico, who seems to lose his momentum from this point. All too soon he’s thrown into a ladder, then pinned to the mat by Kevin, who takes a moment to write on a squirming Generico’s back in his own blood, making startlingly literal for an instant wrestling as the art of violence on the canvas of the human body.

Streaked with Kevin’s blood, Generico struggles, but the tide has definitely turned against him. The battle goes back and forth for a time, but Kevin has the upper hand now. He grabs one of the many chairs that have gathered over the course of the match and smashes it over Generico’s back. Then he straddles the crawling luchador and begins, with grim determination, to rip open Generico’s mask above one eye.

And here is the second point in the match where the suspension of disbelief fails for me, because I may be a fool about wrestling but I’m not a total idiot, and I know there’s only one reason Kevin could be making sure Generico’s forehead is exposed. The first time I suddenly felt bad for Kevin as well as Generico, but this time the reaction is completely reversed: I jump to my feet in an agonized fury and viciously curse wrestlers in general and these two terrible Canadians in particular, who have betrayed me utterly and are now going to make me witness my second-favorite wrestler covered in his own blood, and I am not okay with this. I am so distressed that I almost leave the room entirely, I almost give up on the match. But eventually I sit back down and grit my teeth: if they could do this to themselves for the sake of a story, the very least I can do is watch the story they’ve made.

Hold on, things are going to get worse.

Generico struggles against Kevin’s mutilation of his mask, trying to push him away. And here’s where my odd position as a sort of time-traveling audience member, a WWE fan watching years later, becomes important, because as Kevin and Generico fight over the mask, it slips askew enough that, more clearly than ever before, I can see Sami Zayn’s face beneath it.

The effect is horrific: my disassociation of the two characters is so total and uncompromising, my connection of Generico with his mask so complete, that it feels like Kevin is trying to peel back the very skin from Generico’s face. It’s a worse violation than the 2010 Ring of Honor audience, than the wrestlers themselves can possibly know, a sudden violent stripping-away of a carefully cherished illusion. My skin crawls and I find myself pushing back from the screen as far as I can, coming up hard against the back of my chair, breath short in my throat as suddenly, uncannily, Kevin is tormenting both of my favorite wrestlers in one body. It’s unbearable.

Kevin sentons a chair against Generico’s head, and soon blood is making a crimson mess of the exposed side of his face, which is no longer quite Generico, but not quite Sami either. He staggers and hangs on the ropes, and the audience, getting a good look at him, goes weirdly quiet.

Kevin, on the other hand, hasn’t seemed to notice yet. He pulls Generico’s old red-and-black mask out from where he stuffed it into his shorts at the beginning of the match and turns it into a hand puppet, taunting Generico in a squeaky little voice.

He punches Generico with the mask, then stuffs it back into his shorts and mimes humping Generico’s face, leering at the groans of the audience. Only then does he seem to realize what the audience has already seen, that Generico is bleeding, and his mouth drops open in delight:

Seeing Generico’s blood unleashes an orgy of gleeful wallowing: Kevin rubs it into his hair, bathes his arms in it.

When he and Generico won the tag team titles, the crowd became a sea of hands thrown in the air for joy; there are hands in the air again as he licks his former friend’s blood from his fingers, but this time they’re appalled and anguished.

Some people in the audience cheer, but most have gone unnervingly still. It’s not the flat emptiness of boredom or disapproval, it’s a truly unsettled silence, full of complex emotion. When Kevin goes so far as to stick his bloody hand up his shorts, they make an awful keening sound of angry horror.

Kevin drags Generico to the ropes to display to the audience like a gory, limp trophy, caressing his bloody face with an almost tender pride in his handiwork, and I truly cannot bear it, I’m only still watching because I feel like I can’t move anymore.

I’ve learned a lot of things about Kevin Steen, and here are some of the things I know about him: that after watching his first wrestling show he spent the next day running around the public pool enthusing about the British Bulldog to a crowd of uninterested children; that he won his only schoolyard fight because he bent to pick up his Steve Austin hat and the other kid broke his hand punching his head; that the happiest days in his life were the days his children were born. I’ve seen him get upset at hearing about wrestling matches that used leeches and lobsters— “That’s animal cruelty,” he complains to Chris Hero. “Yeah, it’s a leech, but still! Jesus, I’m glad the lobsters died before the fucking match, because that’s just fucking awful,” he goes on, looking distressed. The man grieves for the pointless suffering of leeches and lobsters, but as I watch him drag Generico around the ring, I wish with a miserable intensity that a meteor would fall on him, that a black hole would swallow him up. I don’t want him dead, I want him obliterated, I want him annihilated and erased entirely. In this moment he is everyone who has ever sneered at or intimidated or taunted me, everything that has ever made me feel small and scared; he’s the awful thud of something heavy against a door slammed shut just in time, he’s the shadow and the footstep in the parking garage that makes me walk faster and fumble with my keys; he’s my own treacherous heart that lacerates what it loves, and as I watch him prepare to slam Generico onto a propped-up ladder I need him vanquished, I need him vanished, I need him gone.

He pauses, drags Generico in close, and kisses him on the mouth.

There’s nothing tender or intimate about it; it’s an assault, a cruel distorted parody of affection, a mocking farewell. It’s horrible, horrible, horrible. Intolerable.

Final Battle 2010 is 32 minutes from bell to bell, 32 minutes of blood and pain and struggle, and this moment is the center of it. Literally the center; it takes place at 16 minutes in, exactly halfway, and the match leads up to and away from it ruthlessly, unfolding around it like a bloodstained rose with a tiny, intricate and unbreakable clockwork heart within.

Because, of course, this is where El Generico finally begins his true comeback. He reverses the move and it’s Kevin who gets smashed onto the ladder instead of him, and as Generico rises up the crowd starts to sing with all their hearts : Olé. Olé, olé, olé.

The tide has turned again, and Generico in fairly short order unleashes a barrage of moves against Kevin, to the audience’s joy. He suplexes Kevin onto the ladder and onto a chair, he hurls him off the turnbuckle and through a table:

He even does Kevin’s own finishing move to him, package piledriving him before giving him a brainbuster on the apron, and it looks like he might finally be able to pin Kevin, but then Steve Corino shows up and pulls the ref out of the ring, breaking up the count and saving his protégé’s career for the moment.

Corino rummages under the ring and comes up with—of course—the literal exact same chair that Kevin used to hit Generico with at Final Battle 2009. In a match a few months ago, Kevin used Corino’s blood to scrawl his own nickname, “Mr. Wrestling,” on the chair, and Corino lifts it high enough to make sure that the cameras and the audience can all see this is the selfsame chair as he prepares to attack Generico with it.

But before he can, Colt Cabana runs in and saves Generico, grabbing the chair away from Corino and giving Kevin a good whack with it before tossing it down and chasing Corino backstage, leaving Generico and Kevin alone in the ring with the chair.

Bloody and truly weary—the match has gone on for almost a half hour now—Generico and Kevin continue to battle around the ring, running through a few referees before finally, finally, Generico gets him in position to deliver his finishing move, the brainbuster off the turnbuckle. But here things go legit wonky, as both wrestlers are so exhausted that Generico can’t make sure Kevin falls forward into the ring, and instead Kevin tumbles wildly off the turnbuckle and crashes to the floor.

There’s a glimpse of blank shock on his face as things go wrong; years later he’ll mention that this move bashed up his sternum so badly that he was in pain for months. Luckily the match is almost done, as Generico rolls him back in the ring and pins him—and yet Kevin still kicks out.

Stunned, Generico is at a loss, until he finally spots the chair, the chair, because of course Kevin can’t be defeated until events have come full circle, from Final Battle to Final Battle, from chairshot to chairshot, until the cycle is complete.

As Generico picks up the chair and steels himself to deliver the finishing blow, Kevin—on his knees, helpless—suddenly produces Generico’s familiar red-and-black mask and offers it to him.

Generico takes the mask from him, staring at it as Kevin begs for mercy. The audience isn’t going for it: for starters, they know their wrestling and they don’t trust Kevin for one second. They know if Generico wavers it’ll be all over, there’ll be a low blow or a chair shot and Kevin will be triumphant, Generico will be forced to unmask, justice will never get served. And especially after the last half hour, after the last year, they know that wrestling is rarely about mercy. They want justice.

Of all the gratifying moments about this ending, there’s a particular odd satisfaction in the way Kevin’s eyes follow the mask as it drops, the way we can see the very moment when he realizes that there truly is no escape; that no contrition, whether real or feigned, is going to save him now. The chair that he used to try and break Generico’s spirit, that he produced over and over to torment and taunt the luchador, is about to end his career. He carried the means of his own destruction with him for an entire year and ensured that it ended up here in Generico’s hands, about to connect with his head and defeat him.

Too exhausted to stand, Generico has his hand raised by the referee as his music starts to play. Colt Cabana appears with a towel to shield Generico from the sight of the audience. As he comforts and supports his friend and the audience cheers, Kevin rolls, agonizingly slowly, to the side of the ring.

Steve Corino arrives as well and crouches next to Kevin as if to guard him, but Generico and Cabana pay no attention to Kevin: he’s defeated, he’s the past, he’s unimportant now. The story requires that he be ignored completely in this moment of triumph for the end to be satisfying, for Generico to be free. If they check on Kevin, if they acknowledge that he matters in any way, they’ll undo everything they’ve worked on over the last year, unravel the story–Kevin’s story–completely.

So they ignore him.

He lies there, in pain, blood-soaked and exhausted. You can see his shoulders, his whole body shaking.

Generico emerges in his old red-and-black mask, reborn:  the blood wiped away, his identity restored. Colt lifts his hand in triumph and Generico discards the grim and bloody black mask.

The audience lifts up its voice in song: Olé. Olé, olé, olé.

Usually Generico’s song is cheerful, but this time it’s more. It’s full of relief, and hope, and thanksgiving. The first time I try to capture my reactions to this match in words, I reach this moment and I type, almost despite myself: I know now what it sounded like on the first morning of the world, when the angels sang to greet the very first dawn.

I look at the sentence and am vaguely appalled at myself. I erase it.

I look at the screen and remember conversations with other people about this match, the words they use without thinking as they talk about it: Revelation. Epiphany.

I type the sentence again.

I erase it again.

After a while of staring at the blank screen, on some obscure impulse, I search for the origin of the olé chant, and discover that there’s a theory, a possibility, that before it was used in bullfights and flamenco, it came originally from religious dances in Northern Africa. How the dancers would dance all night, and when a dance was truly inspired, touched by the sacred, when it seemed to give the watchers a glimpse of divinity, they would lift up their voices and sing the name of God in thanks and praise for the dance and the dancers:

Allah, they would sing. Allah, Allah, Allah.

When I read this, I stop and slam my hands against the desk; I have to get up and pace the room for a few moments, feeling almost angry at how perfectly right, how fucking correct it is, the chance that this call could somehow arise from religion and curve through dance and blood sport and game until it finally finds a home in the art that is all of these together; until it comes at last to rest with such easy grace on the shoulders of a skinny kid from Montreal who embodies them all so well.

I pace the room a few more times and then sit down and type: Fuck it, it’s angels. Angels and the first dawn.

That’s later, that’s when I try to write about it. As I finish watching the match on that spring day, all I know is that the song is full of joy and relief at the ending of darkness, the return of the light. The crowd cheers and sings, Colt and Generico celebrate, paying no heed to their fallen enemy, and Kevin lies on his stomach with his face buried in his arms, weeping. He’s lost. He’s beaten and battered and bloody and he’s being sent away in defeat. Still crouched next to him, Steve Corino says something to him, then rests his hand on the back of his head, very gently.

And here. Here is where I start to cry.

I’ve felt so many emotions in the last thirty minutes, fear and anger and anguish and joy, felt them all deeply and truly, but I stayed dry-eyed through them all. Until now, when it feels like a spell has been lifted and I remember myself. I remember myself, and I remember this is a story created by the four people in the ring right now, created so that we could have this moment of joyous grace, and I find myself sobbing with sheer, simple gratitude that Steve Corino is there beside Kevin, to put his hand on him so that Kevin is not totally and utterly alone in this moment.

Generico meets Kevin’s eyes one time and waves goodbye, then staggers from the ring in triumph, leaving Kevin staring after him, exhausted and caked with blood.

The audience tauntingly sings “Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye” at Kevin as Generico leaves, but the moment Generico passes through the curtain it’s like the spell has broken for them too, and they realize that this means Kevin is leaving, he’s really leaving, and that they don’t actually want that at all. “Please don’t go,” they start to chant, and then “Thank you Steen.” Kevin staggers to his feet as they plead with him, takes a moment to soak in the cheers, and then responds:

In a perfectly wrestling moment, the crowd bursts into jubilant, raucous applause as Kevin rages from the ring, because deep in our hearts, wrestling fans love it when the wrestlers stay true to the story. Kevin storms out, mauling the Generico mask as his last act, refusing pity or compassion, and the crowd adores him even more for it.

It’s no one’s plan at this moment, it’s sheer coincidence, but at the story level there ends up being a satisfying symmetry in the fact that Kevin tormented Generico for a full year, and as a result loses a full year of his career. He suffers pain and humiliation in Final Battle 2010, he endures a long year of exile; he pays his karmic debt in more than full and so the audience is free to greet him with joy when he returns. It works out with gratifying closure for the narrative and the character.

If only the real person hadn’t had to pay the price as well.

He pauses one last time to stare back at the audience, baffled and wretched, and then he’s gone.

This isn’t one of Kevin’s favorite matches.

When I see him say this, I make an small, sad noise: but really, what did I expect? His experience couldn’t possibly be the same as mine in any way. As I finished the match on that sunny spring day, there was so much I didn’t know: that he’ll be out of Ring of Honor for six months, and then told it’ll be another long six months after that–a whole year of his career in the promotion, lost. He consoles himself with the thought that Generico will surely become a top face of the company after this, but even that doesn’t work out: Generico gets one shot at the top title and then returns to the midcard.

That night in New York City, he gets into a car and drives home to Montreal through the night, with his wife and child sleeping as he drives, his sternum aching and his heart bruised, and he looks out at the night and he thinks: “Maybe I’ll just quit.”

It’s a pain that I think is easy to empathize with for everyone who has ever poured all of their energy and passion into something that was supposed to make a difference and then didn’t, not enough; who’s felt hurt and disappointment corrode the memory of it:

And I think I understand how he feels, at least a little, because I finished my dissertation and picked up the little blue-bound book that I spent two years of my life on, two years of starving and selling my blood to pay the heating bills, and I knew there were passages that limped instead of dancing, there were whole chapters that stumbled and failed; it was never going to get me a job in the Ivy League, it was never going to change anything. It was the best of me and it wasn’t good enough, and I put it on a shelf and I didn’t open it for decades. And no one threw me through a table or hit me with a chair at my dissertation defense, I didn’t walk away battered and bloody, so I understand only the smallest, the slightest amount.

Everyone’s experience of this match is different, it has to be.

But oh, if I could give Kevin Steen just one thing, and if I couldn’t give him health and happiness for everyone he loves; if I couldn’t give him all the money he could ever need or every success he could ever desire, I would give him this:

I would give him the ability to see this match through my eyes, to experience it as I did, to feel what I felt in those thirty-two minutes of anguish and hope. I would give him the way that I sat on my couch for twenty minutes after, silent and stunned and shaking, until Dan touched me on the shoulder and said we had to go.

And I went out into the world, and the sunlight hit me as if it were the first light I had ever seen, and I was dazzled and dazed and full of wonder at it. It was early spring, and all the leaves on the trees were that luminous green that’s so close to gold, and every leaf seemed lit from within with terrible significance as I walked, exalted with blood and song, with grief and joy. Everything felt strange and bright and unfamiliar, and I didn’t know if the world was a different place now because I knew it had such things in it, or if I was a different person now having seen it, and I didn’t know which possibility was more terrifying, or more exhilarating.

I would give him the color of the light on the leaves, and the feeling of a world made new.

Recent Posts

Recent Comments



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.