'Familiarity breeds contempt.': The bitter history of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens
Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens have been linked together, for better or worse, for more than a decade. Battling out of basements, bars and pool halls in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the two eventually blew up on the independent scene around the world. The best friends, partners and occasional rivals supported each other on their journeys to WWE.
That’s what made the closing moments of NXT TakeOver: R Evolution in December 2014 so special. The sight of newly-crowned NXT Champion Sami Zayn walking out of the arena with Owens, who debuted two hours earlier, provided a vindication of sorts for those who followed their careers since 2002.
Owens changed everything in a split second, though, slamming Zayn into the steel ramp and powerbombing him into the ring apron. The attack, along with two brutal beatdowns in NXT Championship Matches, left Zayn battered and contributed to the shoulder injury that put him out of action for most of 2015.
While Zayn was on the shelf, Owens rocketed to Superstardom, defeating John Cena in his first match on WWE’s main roster before going on to capture the coveted Intercontinental Championship twice. Owens’ dreams of winning the WWE World Heavyweight Title were dashed in the 2016 Royal Rumble Match, when Zayn surprised his former pal by entering the fray and tossing Owens over the ropes. Now, The Underdog from the Underground is back on Raw, and continuing to be a thorn in his former friend’s side.
To learn why things run so deep between Zayn and Owens, WWE.com reached out to the two friends-turned-rivals, asking them the same questions in separate interviews. You’ll see that although they have been so close for years, they’re worlds apart.
WWE.COM: When did you first meet each other? What were your first impressions?
SAMI ZAYN: I met Kevin around December 2002. We never crossed paths early in our careers, because he was exclusive with Jacques Rougeau. Then, I heard of him because a couple of Rougeau’s guys had left and joined the indies. They would always talk about this guy Kevin, how he was the best in Quebec, that he had the most potential out of anyone in Quebec, how if anyone in Quebec was going to make it to WWE, it was going to be Kevin. He was regarded as a prodigy.
KEVIN OWENS: I met Sami in 2002 at a wrestling show that I was competing on. He was in the crowd with some of my friends that I had trained with. Honestly, I remember thinking that he was kind of annoying. He was jumping around, being loud and obnoxious. I got to know him and realized that was just who he was. He wasn’t doing it on purpose, putting on a show or trying to get attention. That’s literally who he is. I guess I learned to accept it over the years.
ZAYN: The Rougeau guys would always tell me, “He’s really, really good, but he’s a jerk.” That’s what I heard about him. Then I met him for the first time at the end of 2002 and we instantly clicked. We got along famously right away. I remember thinking, “Why is everyone saying this guy’s a jerk?” We were pretty much attached at the hip, career-wise, from there on out.
WWE.COM: How did you two grow as friends?
ZAYN: I’d say, from our first meeting, we were very likeminded in our goals and wants, our passion for this. I think our goals were a little different, but very similar. It was all about ending up here in WWE. I think that’s why we were drawn to each other.
OWENS: I’ve often said that we were more brothers than friends. I still feel this way, regardless of what’s going on. You can’t choose who your brother is. You’re born and whoever is in your family is your family. That’s your blood. That’s the way it is.
ZAYN: We were a team, making our name outside of Quebec, breaking into the United States together. I’m not sure that either of us planned to have our names be synonymous with someone else’s, but that’s what happened. As a result, you’re traveling together, these eight-hour car rides, just the two of us. Sometimes, familiarity breeds contempt. Then, there was also a point in our careers where there was a fork in the road. Our careers took slightly different paths, even though they were quite parallel. I devoured this want and need to broaden my horizons internationally, while Kevin got married and had a kid, though wrestling was still a priority for him. Because of our personal lives, our careers started differing a little bit.
We didn’t choose to be friends, we had to be friends.
OWENS: Me and Sami have a very similar relationship in that we didn’t really choose to be friends. We had to be friends, because when we started making a name for ourselves in this industry, we were getting booked on a lot of the same shows. Some of those would be eight or 10 hours away, and Sami didn’t have a car, so we’d take my car. We spent a lot of time together because we had to. Spending that much time together, you can’t help but get to know them and get close with them. Personality-wise, though, we’re probably complete opposites. But, you don’t choose who your brothers are. We didn’t choose to be friends, we had to be friends and we became friends through necessity.
WWE.COM: What is it like being in the ring with each other?
ZAYN: Kevin’s really aggressive. He beats the hell out of you. There’s no question. He’s given me some of the most physical matches of my life. He’s beaten me up worse than anyone. After I’ve been in the ring with him, anyone else seems like cake. I’ve been in the ring with guys that have badass reputations on the independents. Like Low-Ki, everyone talked about how hard-hitting he was in the ring. But after facing Kevin, I was almost desensitized. Low-Ki hits hard, and there are other guys that have reputations for hitting hard, but I almost think I built up a tolerance for it coming up with Kevin and getting used to being beat up so bad. He’s a real intense opponent. You feel like you’re fighting for your life.
OWENS: I’ve always enjoyed fighting him or teaming with him. I think we bring the best out in each other in both cases. We’ve been on the same side and on opposite sides.
ZAYN: As a teammate, it was so natural. There was a unique dichotomy between us, being so different but gelling so well together in the ring. My strengths compensated for him and his compensated for me. We brought out the best in each other and made each other more complete.
OWENS: When [Sami] said that everything we’ve done before in the past was all to end up here, that’s true. Everything we did in the past was with one goal: To come here together. That didn’t work out, because he got here almost two years before I did. But, that’s life, really.
WWE.COM: What was your reaction when your friend signed with WWE?
OWENS: I was very happy for him, personally. I was thrilled for him. It was very well deserved. But, professionally, I was frustrated a little bit, because I wasn’t getting that opportunity. It wasn’t necessarily because I couldn’t come here. It’s not that WWE didn’t want to take a look at me or anything like that. I really didn’t have any contact with WWE at that point. I was in a situation where I couldn’t reach out and see if they were interested in me because I was under contract somewhere else.
ZAYN: As soon as I got my foot in the door, thought that I had the ears of the right people and earned their trust, Kevin was the first person I said they needed to look at. He’s great. I’m not saying I got him hired. He, 110 percent, got himself hired. But I was pulling for him hard.
OWENS: I felt really frustrated with that situation because WWE was always where I wanted to be. As good as I had it at that time, as happy as I was doing what I was doing, when I saw Sami come here, it definitely stung a little, because I wished I could have come, too.
ZAYN: It’s a slow process, getting hired by WWE. First, you get noticed, you’re on their radar. Then you come for a tryout. Then you wait to hear back, there’s the physical. It’s a very long process. I remember being there when the baby steps were coming to fruition, getting on the radar and trying to help him along the entire way, because I was really pulling for him. He was my guy, you know what I mean?
WWE.COM: What were you feeling after the brutality that went down between you two in NXT eventually led to Sami being out of action for six months?
ZAYN: It was a real mess of emotions. There were a lot of feelings, not just one. There’s the obvious sadness. There’s anger. I also got hurt by his attack. There’s a little feeling of being hell-bent on revenge. I don’t know if it’s a male thing, but a lot of our emotions end up manifesting themselves in the form of anger.
OWENS: I can’t say that I was conflicted, because I feel that what I did had to be done. What I did wasn’t personal. It wasn’t because of Sami or anything in our history. It was because Sami simply happened to win the title, and after waiting as long as I did to get to WWE and NXT, I refused to wait anymore. I refused to be patient and “do the right thing,” whatever that means to people. I’m going to take what I think is mine.
ZAYN: I felt betrayed, sad and hurt. But the longer you sit out and stew, it turns to rage and wanting to exact retribution, pay him back and make him feel all the things you felt. A small part of me also felt foolish, like I should have seen it coming, given our history. We’ve been friends, enemies and everything in between. Part of me thought I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t.. That made it worse. Feeling stupid is a terrible feeling. It [ticks] you off. Anger is the most obvious feeling, but it came down to being hurt and betrayed, being made a fool of. I trusted someone when I shouldn’t have. It’s not a good feeling.
OWENS: I’ve been doing this for 14 years. I’ve clawed my way here and fought for everything I had. I know a lot of people say that, fine. But I have two children and a wife that I have to take care of. I have parents that I need to show that all the sacrifices they made for me to get here were worth it. Why would I wait at the back of the line? Once I did what I did, I felt that it was the right choice. It might seem coldhearted when what I did was essentially stab my best friend in the back, but I would do it again. Anyone who says that I was wrong is full of it or just doesn’t have the guts that I do. It was a business call.
WWE.COM: Can the two of you ever be friends again?
I think we’re destined to fight forever.
OWENS: I still think we’re friends. I still consider him a friend. I still consider him a brother. Sometimes brothers get into an argument or a fight and they don’t talk for years. That doesn’t change what we are. I think that’s what we are now. He has a problem with what I did, fair enough. I’ve had problems with things he’s done before, too. It’s made me not want to talk to him, yell at him and be angry at him, but in the end, it came back around and we patched things up. I think, in time, he’ll understand why I did what I did. No matter what happens between us, I’d like to think that he’ll see the bigger picture. I don’t know. I’d like to think that he still considers me his friend. He might not say that now or even know it, but that’s what I think.
ZAYN: It’s very hard to see how that would even be possible now, while we’re in the thick of this. But, stranger things have happened between Kevin and I. We’ve been friends many times and enemies more times than I can count. It’s always one or the other. I don’t see how it could be possible right now, but it wouldn’t be the first time or the last time. I think at the end of the day, when you look at the history between us, I think we’re destined to fight forever.