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31 Days of Wrestling (12/29/17): Kevin Owens and Shane McMahon Inside Hell in a Cell


Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2017 produced for us.

When Shane McMahon and Kevin Owens were put in a Hell in a Cell match, no one could have predicted that it would end the way that it did. Nor could anyone have thought that it would become the lynchpin that connects so many fates to what is already shaping up to be one of the most exciting stories of 2018.

The roots of this rivalry can be traced back as early as SummerSlam, when Owens lost a second rematch against AJ Styles for the United States Championship, with McMahon as the referee. He lost again at a SmackDown Live when McMahon unintentionally distracted him after the SDL Commissioner took over referee duties after special guest referee Baron Corbin walked out.

Owens’s loss invoked a clause barring him from further U.S. title shots as long as Styles was champion. This did not deter Owens, who demanded another title shot, only to receive a beatdown from McMahon after he went a step too far and insulted Shane’s children.

The Prizefighter’s decision to bust Vince McMahon’s head open after the latter threatened him not to sue WWE before fixing a HiaC match between him and Shane further solidified the stakes in the main event.

If McMahon won, he would complete another cycle of a reactive hero triumphing over a villain, Owens, who attempted to disrupt the peace of “the land of opportunity” for his selfish needs. If Owens won, he would get the belt and as the proactive hero, and conquer the son of a despot who sought to maintain the status quo.

And make no mistake: both men see themselves as the hero. McMahon is the nominal hero, the man looked at to bring sense and objectivity against the egomaniacal Owens. Owens, who firmly believes in his purity, saw McMahon as a spotlight-stealer who gifts opportunities to a select few—just like his dad.

Before HiaC, however, was a match between Owens and longtime frenemy Sami Zayn that ended in a no-contest after Owens mauled the latter. And even when Owens had all the selfish reasons to punish Zayn, he still couldn’t get the job done completely.

On any other night, Owens can sweep Zayn off this story, like McMahon tried to do so when he brushed off Zayn’s warnings about Owens (“You take care of you and I'll take care of me.”).

But Owens—desperate for help—tried to reach out to Zayn, only to be rejected: once, by rejecting the possibility of working for Owens, twice by rejecting the chance to referee instead of Corbin, and thrice by trying to get Zayn to completely forget about all the times Owens betrayed him.

Help did not come to Owens come Hell in a Cell, nor did he actually need it. For 40 minutes, Owens consistently attacked McMahon, grinding his face into the steel cage and yelling at Shane’s kids to treat him as their role model instead.

The mounting offense lead to McMahon escalating the action by cutting the lock of the Cell. Legitimately scary moments trooped by one-by-one once they climbed the cell, including Owens almost putting McMahon through the cell with a pop-up powerbomb, and himself falling to an announce table after McMahon ripped him off the cage.


Just when victory seems within McMahon’s grasp, the hubris inherent in his blood took over and he took to the cell again for a Leap of Faith that would have ended it all—

...If Sami Zayn hadn’t pulled Owens to safety.

The following night on SmackDown, Zayn told a bewildered Owens that he was his brother. He also said a bunch of stuff that’ll get covered later, but all Owens needed to hear was that. Zayn, after years of not forgiving Owens, finally came back to Owens after the latter survived Hell.

What the WWE Universe was treated to was summed up in a paragraph by the great Sami Zayn-El Generico-Kevin Steen-and-Owens essayist Mithen:
“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.”
Years. Chris Jericho comes to mind easily. In the indie scene, there was Jimmy Jacobs, Steve Corino, the Young Bucks, and Adam Cole, when the need for friendship was intense and a certain luchador with red hair was no longer there.

But, as noted in the same essay above, the craving circles back to Zayn, and it grew stronger in Owens the weeks leading up to HiaC. Owens knew, though. He knew, deep beneath his delusion, that he’s far from redemption, that Zayn acutely remembers all the times he was stabbed in the back.

Which is why Owens looked almost as shocked as Zayn himself when Zayn did what he did.
However, only Zayn and Zayn alone could have chosen to do this, to give in to the impulse that draws him to Owens—to give in to the dark thoughts he’s harbored in his head since he entered the WWE.

Zayn succumbing to these thoughts was a huge part of why the stunt was so effective. His whole career in the WWE had been about inspiring hope, to win by doing things right even if the odds were insurmountable.

He proved this when he refused to win the NXT title off Neville in any way but the “fair” way; risked his career to stand up against bullies like Braun Strowman, Samoa Joe, and Stephanie McMahon; and teamed up with Tye Dillinger after attempts at Money in the Bank and the U.S. Championship.

Yet none of this ever felt as good as winning.

“Winning feels good! It does. It does,” Zayn said in a backstage interview after he and Dillinger won against Mike Kanellis and Aiden English. “I’m not saying winning is everything, but it feels really good.”

Besides, what did being one of the only true babyfaces in the WWE do for Zayn? While Owens won title after title, Zayn suffered an injury and bounced between opportunities, never quite grasping anything. While Daniel Bryan was rewarded for his suffering, Zayn, as he himself pointed out, got nothing but dirt.

“These people just didn’t uphold their end of the agreement!” Zayn told a disbelieving Bryan, “They didn’t uphold their part of the unspoken contract, where I come out here and I work hard and I do it with a smile and I do everything that’s right, and in return they cheer for me so loud and so hard that they make me undeniable to management, just like they did it for you!”

So why wouldn’t he abandon the fans, from whom he’s received nothing but empty support, and focus all of his energy, his positivity, on making it happen for himself?

As if to further absolve Zayn of guilt, Owens, who remarked that people like him go to heaven for what he did to the younger McMahon, called him a guardian angel. Fitting, seeing as Owens is almost like a devil who tempted the ultimate idealist into entering his delusion. That Zayn he can hold onto his principles—Resist Despair—while eschewing responsibilities—giving the fans hope—without losing himself in the process.

After all, Owens did it all those years ago, and look where it got him.

Two months after HiaC, the Owens-Zayn friendship is in full swing and became the catalyst for another great story that breaks down the normal action-reaction formula of a wrestling rivalry—as recapped here.

For as Zayn let go, so did McMahon. Seeing as Owens and Zayn will do anything to turn SmackDown—his show, his pawn in his ongoing feud with Stephanie, as evidenced by Survivor Series—into the Sami and Kevin/Kevin and Sami Show, McMahon turned reactive to proactive.

In his eyes, Shane believes he’s still justified, he’s still the hero—why would the crowd cheer for him otherwise?

So he punishes Owens and Zayn again after their humiliation at the hands of Orton and Nakamura, and aimed to remove them permanently at Clash of Champions before the pair can outpace him again.

Not only does this appall Zayn and Owens, it appalled Bryan too. Bryan was nothing in this story pre-HiaC, but with McMahon slipping to the moral wayside like his foes, he’s left to teeter between his role as a general manager and a guard of pro wrestling. He knows well not to fully inhabit either role, yet come 2018, he may no longer have a choice but to fall to one side and hope for the best.

All of this feeds back to the first paragraph of this article: Owens and McMahon’s Hell in a Cell is the turning point that lead to Bryan’s predicament, to the corruption (liberation?) of Zayn and McMahon. It is the lynchpin to all stories, the point where the past is shattered and these four men are called upon to “put them back together, make it new.

No one knows where this story will go, but where it will go, many will surely follow.

(Mithen puts her PhD in rhetorical theory and tenure as a media studies professor {in Japan} to good use by writing compelling essays on the history and character dynamics of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens and their various incarnations on Spectacle of Excess. She also keeps a gif account where she analyzes various storylines and tracks amusing and/or insightful wrestling moments.)


*****

31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2017.

Read our previous entries:

1. The Okada/Omega Trilogy
2. Roman Reigns vs. The Undertaker (WrestleMania 33)
3. The Mae Young Classic Finals
4. Billy Suede vs. Jake De Leon (Wrevolution X 2017)
5. WarGames
6. Prince Puma vs. Pentagon Dark (Ultima Lucha Tres)
7. Fatal Four Way for the WWE Universal Championship (SummerSlam 2017)
8. Manami Toyota's Retirement
9. Jinder Mahal Wins the WWE Championship
10. Roman Reigns Tries To Take The Torch (No Mercy 2017)
11. Hanzello Shilva vs. Aldrin Richards (MWF Balikbayan 2017)
12. Tetsuya Naito vs. Kenny Omega (G1 Climax 27 Finals)
13. The Implosion of #DIY
14. Ubusan ng Lahi (PWR Vendetta 2017)
15. The First (and Second) Women's Money in the Bank
16. Cody Rhodes Wins the Ring of Honor World Championship
17. The Beginning of the Zo Train Era
18. Killshot vs. Dante Fox, Hell Of War (Ultima Lucha Tres)
19. The 16-Time Champ is Here
20. Kenny Omega vs. Tomohiro Ishii (G1 Special)
21. Kurt Angle Joins The Shield for the TLC Main Event
22. Tyler Bate vs. Pete Dunne (NXT Takeover: Chicago)
23. The Festival of Friendship
24. Christopher Daniels Wins His First World Title (At 47)
25. John Cena vs. Shinsuke Nakamura (SmackDown Live!)
26. Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyori Shibata (Sakura Genesis)
27. Billy Suede vs. Chris Panzer (Bakbakan Sa Bayanihan)

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