Role Reversal: How Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn Flipped Their Babyface And Heel Dynamic
NXT’s fifth TakeOver event (subtitled Unstoppable) went down on May 20, 2015 at the brand’s home arena of Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. The main event of that show featured NXT Champion Kevin Owens defending his gold against former champion Sami Zayn. The two men were very familiar with each other, and met in the ring many times outside of WWE. But on that night in Full Sail, things were different. The tension between the two men was palpable, and it was clear that they wanted to beat the hell out of each other. Which is exactly what they did.
Sami Zayn And Kevin Owens: The NXT Years
Owens had debuted on NXT the previous December at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution — the same event at which Sami Zayn defeated Adrian Neville (aka, PAC) for the NXT Championship in a Title vs. Career match for the NXT Championship; had Zayn lost, he would have voluntarily left NXT. After that match, Owens came to the ring to congratulate Zayn before powerbombing the new champ onto the ring apron.
Sami Zayn was the loveable underdog champion who had the fans behind him. Owens was the bitter bully who resented wrestling audiences as much as they resented him. On that night, the kayfabe parameters of WWE’s long-term Zayn/Owens booking had been locked in. For the time being, at least.
Barely two months after the TakeOver: R Evolution incident, the two men clashed in the main event of TakeOver: Rival. Those aforementioned booking parameters were reemphasized when Owens won the title by “technical knock-out” after hitting Zayn with numerous Pop-Up Powerbombs. Zayn was unable to continue, but he didn’t give up. Owens showed no remorse, and gloated despite capturing the gold in a un-sportsmanlike fashion. It was clear that Owens was being groomed to be one of the company’s top heels, and that Zayn had a bright future a top WWE babyface. After the main event of TakeOver: Rival, it was impossible to imagine any other outcome.
There was no conclusive end to pair’s Unstoppable match. Well, there was certainly no bell. The two men roughed each other up all over the arena before Owens eventually got the upper hand. Referees and officials came out to prevent Owens from injuring his former friend beyond all repair. But the damage was done. No contest. Owens retained. (Then Samoa Joe made his WWE debut and Owens turned tail and ran. But that’s a separate story).
Kevin Owens And Sami Zayn On WWE’s Main Roster
Flash forward to the present day. Six years have passed since the events mentioned above, and the two men in question are in very different positions. Kevin Owens is arguable the biggest babyface in the industry, while Sami Zayn is killing it as a paranoid, arrogant bad guy. Of course, it’s not uncommon for pro-wrestlers to switch back and forth between paragon and villain, but there are very few people in the industry who can portray either role so well and so convincingly.
On October 8 2017, Sami Zayn turned heel for the first time in his WWE career when he interfered on behalf of Kevin Owens in the main event of Hell in a Cell. Zayn helped Owens defeat Shane McMahon, which set up Zayn and Owens as a heel partnership which lasted until the following year when Zayn was written off TV after he had surgery to repair both of his rotator cuffs. Zayn returned on the April 8, 2019 episode of Raw, and but despite a positive reaction from the crowd, his attitude hadn’t changed. In fact, it seemed as though he resented the WWE Universe more than ever before. The man who at one time was gearing up for a run as the company’s top good guys, was now one of its biggest renegades.
Whereas Sami Zayn’s switch from good guy to bad guy was very cut and dry, the transition of Kevin Owens the ultimate villain into Kevin Owens the relatable family man who everyone wants to cheer for was a little more erratic. KO’s face turn began when on the February 26, 2019 episode of SmackDown Live when he returned from injury with a new positive attitude. Plans were quickly changed when Daniel Bryan suffered an injury and new WWE Champion Kofi Kingston needed a bad guy to beat. So Owens became a heel again and served as fodder for Kofi Kington. He then turned face again by hitting heel authority figure Shane McMahon with a stunner on the July 2, 2017 episode of SmackDown Live.
The WWE story of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens came full circle earlier this year when the two men went one-one-one at WrestleMania 37. Much like their TakeOver matches Owens came out on top, only this time the audience was on his side.
Because nobody wants to boo Kevin Owens.