Montreal independent wrestler Kevin Steen will make two debuts over the next month: on Saturday, February 19th he will make his ROH debut during Do or Die 4, and on Tuesday, March 15th he will make his Japanese debut at the legendary Korakuen Hall in Tokyo during the ZERO1-MAX US-E Style show.
In an era where getting a shot with the big show, the WWE, is based on your size and despite your skill, rather than because of your skill and despite your size, for most independent wrestlers a shot at performing in Japan and for ROH would be perhaps not the full summit of their ambitions, but the summit would be visible from there at the very least.
The question is - How do you get there? How do you go from being a student of wrestling to performing at the highest levels? How do you go from regional obscurity to being booked all over the world?
The answer is circular of course: you get booked because you can sell tickets; for most wrestlers you sell tickets by putting on great matches; to put on great matches you need to be able to wrestle a lot against the very best; in order to wrestle you need to be booked and in order to be booked you need to prove that you can sell tickets. And like a dog chasing its tail we are back at the beginning.
It is the great Catch 22 not just for independent wrestling but for many crafts: to prove that you belong, you need to be a member of the club, but to be a member of the club you need to prove that you belong.
Some solve the problem by hard work, some by knowing the right people, some by years of effort, some by astonishing flukes of good fortune… and for some, for some it takes a series of seemingly random events that examined in detail afterwards would seem almost to be the actions of… a conspiracy.
When We Were Marks The Kevin Steen Conspiracy
I am a member of a conspiracy. It is a conspiracy that has never met. Most of its members do not know each other. Those who do know one another – do not for the most part like one another. The members of this conspiracy have never discussed their plans or their strategies with one another. And yet as a group they have acted with a unity of purpose towards a common goal as though every member was working off the same blueprint - reading off the same script. The only thing that the members of this conspiracy all have in common is wrestling, wrestling and Kevin Steen.
As a result of this conspiracy (and it should be added the not inconsiderable talents of one Kevin Steen) Quebec’s Mr. Wrestling stands poised to make his debut in both ROH and Japan within a span of thirty days. It seems hard to believe, but just a few short years ago, Kevin Steen was described in Quebec as the best wrestler that you never got to see.
At the beginning of 2002, Kevin Steen was called “Le Kid” and was considered Jacques Rougeau Jr.’s best student and possibly the best high-flyer in the province of Quebec. The problem was that as one of Rougeau’s students, Kevin almost never wrestled, performing only during one of Jacques’ rare “Gala Famille” that happened two, three times a year at most. So people’s enthusiasm for Kevin’s skills were tempered by the fact that you almost never got to see him display his skills… and when you did you were watching a match that for all you knew had been practiced on for six months, so it had better be good.
Then Kevin blew out his knee…
While Kevin had surgery on his knee and endured the long excruciating rehabilitation that it would take to get him back to the ring, his two mentors, Jacques Rougeau Jr. and Pierre Carl Ouellet were having a difference of opinion that would change wrestling in Quebec… and Kevin’s future. Jacques Rougeau Jr. believed that to promote wrestling successfully in Quebec, you had to concentrate on a few well promoted shows that were guaranteed to be a success. Pierre Carl Ouellet believed that if he was to have any chance to return to the WWE, that he had to get in shape and stay in shape by wrestling as much as possible.
By the middle of 2003, Pierre Carl Ouellet made the decision to walk out on Jacques Rougeau Jr. and take bookings anywhere that would have him. In the wake of PCO’s departure, Jacques Rougeau Jr. made a remarkable decision: he told his students that they were allowed to do what he had forbidden PCO – take other bookings. So, by the time Kevin Steen was ready to wrestle again, he found himself able to wrestle every week rather than only wrestling twice a year as he had before.
The first promoter to book Kevin was PCP Crazy F’N Manny of the International Wrestling Syndicate (and not incidentally, my boss) who quickly saw the possibilities in the dream match-up of Kevin Steen against ExceS (another mat based wrestler with a high-flying background) and booked it for the IWS’ biggest show of the year Un F’N Sanctioned. Strictly speaking, Kevin had other matches prior to this one, but this was the first match of his to be announced and the most eagerly anticipated.
(This is also where I first entered Kevin’s story. As the IWS’ publicist, I quickly became Kevin’s publicist as well. I had to remind people how excited they had been in the past to see Kevin during the rare Rougeau galas. At the same time, at Kevin’s request I had to bury his old nickname “Le Kid” for good and I had to prepare people for the fact that as a result of his injury his style had changed from high-flying to a more mat based style.)
The match with ExceS was a huge success. On a night when depending on your taste, there were four different matches that could have been described as Match of the Night, Kevin and ExceS came closest to stealing the night outright with a match that started on the mat, and picked up the pace as Kevin became frustrated that he couldn’t get a fast pin on ExceS. It also worked great as a form of counter-programming on a night where the focus was on the main event, the hardcore spot-fest, Fans Bring the Weapons.
To follow-up on the success of that match, the IWS bookers basically booked a completely random three-way dance pitting Kevin Steen against his mentor Pierre Carl Ouellet and against El Generico. There was no story line leading to the match, nor plans to follow up on the match, just the gut instinct that it would be a pretty good match. In booking terms, it was the equivalent of jumping out of a plane without a parachute, having your fall broken by a conveniently located haystack and emerging from the haystack unhurt and holding the pin concealed in the haystack… which happens to be attached to a winning lottery ticket. Because the match was more than just pretty good. It was the first and only time that I have ever seen fans surround the ring after a match and pound the mat to declare the match to be “Match of the Year!”
It was at this point that an unlikely conspirator entered the picture: Don Callis. A promotion in Montreal called CWA had been booking Don Callis against PCO in a feud that benefitted pretty much everyone involved in wrestling in Quebec except the CWA itself, who at this point couldn’t draw flies. PCO gave Don Callis a fan cam of the three-way dance. On the basis of that tape, PCO got a stint working for NWA-TNA under a mask as “X”. Suddenly, Kevin Steen was on a tape that had led directly to PCO getting a gig with NWA-TNA. Even though Kevin was not offered a job himself, his stature had been raised.
This match was also to lead to the IWS getting a Pay-Per View deal with Aaron Weiss of Pro Wrestling Superstars, which would result in Kevin being featured on Pay-Per-View across Canada on three separate occasions in four different matches.
(This match also has an odd urban legend attached to it; a story that is most likely not true, but that people want to believe so badly and that has been repeated so often that it has become accepted in Quebec as fact. Rather like the story about Beef Wellington revolving around a visit to El Generico’s hometown of Tijuana, Mexico where Beef was given a “Mexican Terrier” as a gift – only to discover to his horror on his return to Montreal that his Mexican Pet was not in fact a puppy, but an overgrown rat. Never happened, but people like to tell the story anyway.
The story told about the three-way dance is that when it played across Canada on Pay-per-View, Bret Hart saw it and declared that this Kevin Steen kid might be the next “Excellence of Execution”. With urban legends like these, it is always more interesting to consider why people want to believe it to be true, rather than whether it is true or not. In this case, people probably repeat the story because with Bret’s career cut cruelly short by Goldberg’s errant kick, fans want, maybe even need, a successor for Bret and there would a form of poetic justice if that heir to Bret’s mantle came from Montreal, the city that changed Bret’s career so much. Personally, I think that the wrestler Kevin Steen most resembles is not Bret, but his late brother Owen.)
The following IWS show, the fans of the IWS joined the Kevin Steen conspiracy in a major way. In Kevin’s previous matches, he had been getting some muted “Mr. Wrestling” chants. (Perhaps prompted by my remarks that Kevin no longer wanted to be knows as “Le Kid”) During his match with El Generico, these chants became thunderous and it became clear that the fans had chosen Kevin’s new nickname.
(To this day, fans outside of Quebec fail to understand Kevin’s nickname. They complain that it demonstrates incredible arrogance on Kevin’s part to choose the name “Mr. Wrestling.” As any IWS fan will tell you, “Kevin didn’t choose the nickname ‘Mr. Wrestling,’ we chose it for him. And we chose it for him partly because he is that good, and partly because he is an arrogant prick and the name suits him!” Proving I suppose that your average Quebec wrestling fans can believe six impossible things and a dozen contradictory things before breakfast.)
Prior to Kevin’s next match against Sexxxy Eddy, Jacques Rougeau Jr., furthered Kevin’s career… by trying to sabotage it. In brief, Jacques came to Kevin with good news and bad news: the good news being that Jacques had gotten a promise of a dark match try-out during Raw for two of his students; the bad news being that to get this match Kevin would have to agree to cancel all of his bookings and return to exclusive bookings with Jacques. The try-out would happen the next time that the WWE passed through Montreal. For Kevin, it was bit like being a minor league baseball player being offered a try-out with the Yankees in six months… but with the try-out being conditional on not playing baseball for those six months.
Kevin made the difficult decision to refuse the try-out, to honour his bookings around Quebec and to continue to improve as a wrestler by wrestling as much as possible against the best opponents possible.
At which point, a decision by Quebec wrestling legend, Sunny War Cloud, was to indirectly give Kevin Steen all the competition he could ever hope for. Sunny War Cloud began his wrestling career in the days when the Quebec territory was one of the best in the world, boasting of wrestlers like Dino Bravo, Meng, Abdullah the Butcher, the Gilbert brothers and the Rougeau brothers amongst many others. When Vince McMahon raided the Quebec territory, Sunny War Cloud was tapped to take his Indian gimmick to the WWF, but for personal reasons could not make the leap to the WWF when they were ready for him – hence Tanaka. Sunny is one of the great might-have-beens of Quebec wrestling.
Sunny War Cloud was also the owner of CCW – Canadian Championship Wrestling – a fed based out of Quebec City. To properly understand Sunny, you have to realize that he is more old school than most wrestlers who worked during the territory years, and he ran Quebec City like a territory. Anyone stupid enough to try and run in Quebec City was lucky if they found themselves tarred and feathered and locked in their own car trunk on the outskirts of town. But by late 2003, Sunny had had his fill of uncooperative venues and working 24/7 just to keep business from slipping. Sunny decided to sell the territory. The eventual buyer was Eric Picard aka Nightmare Manson, one of Sunny’s wrestlers. Manson paid a little bit less than what Sunny was looking for, in part because Manson did not want to use the CCW name or belts, but wanted to start a new promotion from scratch.
Manson eventually settled on the name EWR: Elite Wrestling Revolution, and after a tournament crowned his first champion, Kevin Steen, becoming the first promoter to make Kevin his champion. Manson’s next business decision would be characteristically gutsy: Manson decided to import the Fallen Angel Christopher Daniels in early 2004 to face his champion.
The ensuing match has a legendary place in Quebec wrestling, crowned on the spot as the 2004 Quebec Match of the Year with three quarters of the year to go. Part of what made it special was the crowd with a quarter of the crowd driving up to Montreal (or farther) to root for Kevin Steen, and the rest of the crowd rooting for Christopher Daniels. Both wrestlers fed off the boisterous crowd, with Daniels as an example torquing harder on his arm bars the louder that the crowd chanted for Kevin, until Kevin was practically begging us to shut up so that he could get the advantage back.
Some neutral observers have suggested that the fans of Quebec overrate this match, which is probably true, but for most fans this match is essential. Before this match, we knew that Kevin Steen was good, but we did not know how good he was. It was possible that he was like a golf club pro, better than all the club duffers, but placed against a PGA tour veteran all of his weaknesses would be revealed. After this match, we had a measuring stick. We knew that Kevin Steen was good enough to keep up with Christopher Daniels.
Sometimes an otherwise disastrous show can further someone’s career. In a misguided attempt to duplicate the success that Nightmare Manson had by importing Chris Daniels, Montreal promoter Mean Malaka brought in Jerry Lynn to face Kevin Steen under the banner of Canadian Wrestling Entertainment. Mean Malaka is one of the nicest guys in Canadian wrestling… and probably the worst promoter. Most wrestling fans consider it the worst show of 2004. The only saving grace was the match between Steen and Lynn and again Kevin Steen impressed, showing that he deserved to be in the ring with a veteran like Jerry Lynn.
The next man who helped Kevin Steen’s career (and did so in the most bizarre and unexpected way) was Sid Vicious making his return to active wrestling during the IWS’ 5th anniversary show after shattering his leg in 2001. Sid’s presence backstage visibly distracted his friend and IWS champion Pierre Carl Ouellet, leading to a flash pin of PCO and title change by El Generico. This, in turn, led to Kevin Steen using his status as Number One Contender to challenge El Generico to a title match on the spot, essentially stealing the IWS title away.
They say that three wise men followed a star to the manger at Bethlehem. It must have been a particularly bloody star that led three hardcore warriors to accidentally assist Kevin Steen’s career: John Zandig, the Arsenal, and Sexxxy Eddy. John Zandig is the owner of Combat Zone Wrestling in Philadelphia, a independent wrestling fed which, like the IWS in Montreal, features high-flying, mat wrestling, strong style wrestling and a rather unique attempt at emulating Mexican lucha libre, but the bloody beating heart of CZW is hardcore and every year CZW fans gather in Delaware to baptize themselves in the most violent wrestling possible during the Tournament of Death.
For 2004, John Zandig made the decision to feature twelve wrestlers in the Tournament of Death, four from CZW, four from IWA-MS and four from the IWS. Sexxxy Eddy immediately got himself over as a heel with the CZW faithful by dragging Zandig’s wife from ringside and having her help him strip down to a gold lamé thong. Eddy advanced to the semi-finals of the Tournament of Death to face fellow IWS wrestler The Arsenal in a match where light-tubes were attached to the ropes. Ironically, this caused problems for Eddy and The Arsenal because they are too well trained.
One of the features of Montreal death matches is that the wrestlers build the foundation of the match on wrestling and only then add weapons, almost always trying to do so within the context of wrestling moves. In the case of this match, Eddy and The Arsenal ran the ropes like normal, but every time they did so they tore open their arms and torsos on the light tubes attached to the ropes. Only making matters worse, Eddy and the Arsenal have fought each other so many times, that they know each others strengths and weaknesses perfectly. In other words, the two men were in the process of beating each other into a bloody pulp. It was at this point that Eddy realized that at some point, probably while running the ropes, he had punctured his arm and blood was shooting out of his bicep like in a Toshiro Mifune film. Lesser mortals might have fainted or called for an ambulance or ended the match early. Eddy showboated. In a moment never to be forgotten, Eddy flexed his arm to increase the height of the blood spurt and to squirt the blood into his mouth.
At that moment, every CZW fan at the show suddenly realized that Eddy wrestled death matches in a thong; that he was the craziest man that they had ever seen; that he had no fear; that he was their hero. Within one match, Eddy went from despised heel to the most over face in Philadelphia and Delaware.
How does a freak injury to another wrestler at a show you weren’t even at help your career? Well, after the Tournament of Death it was clear to CZW that they needed to book Sexxxy Eddy as often as possible. They also quickly realized that for the same price to fly Eddy to Philadelphia, they could ask him to drive… and bring more IWS wrestlers with him. Which is how Kevin Steen made his CZW debut.
Meanwhile back in Montreal, legendary Quebec wrestling trainer, Marc le Grizzly, was preparing for one of his bi-annual “Madness” spot shows: Mid-Summer Madness.
(Jacques Rougeau Jr. is the one everyone outside of Quebec thinks about as the best wrestling trainer in Quebec, but the guy who actually trains the best wrestlers or who finishes or fixes the training done elsewhere is Marc.)
For his main event, Marc decided (like Nightmare Manson and Mean Malaka) to take a risk and bring in the current reigning Ring of Honour champion Samoa Joe. His opponent? IWS and EWR champion, Kevin Steen. Once again, Kevin Steen proved that he belonged in the ring with his more famous opponent. That said, the match was built along more classic heel/face lines than Steen’s matches against Daniels and Lynn. Samoa Joe beat the crap out of Steen, but was never able to put Steen away, and every time Joe let his guard down, Steen took furious advantage. The two men ended up battling to a grueling twenty minute draw, the draw forced by interference from Franky the Mobster and Chase Ironside resulting in an impromptu tag match between Joe and Steen vs. Franky and Chase.
(The match between Joe and Steen is the only one that seriously threatens the match between Steen and Daniels as the 2004 Quebec Match of the Year – heck probably the 2004 Canadian Match of the Year. The match between Joe and Steen was stiffer and probably told a better story. The match between Daniels and Steen had a more satisfying conclusion and has the virtue of being the first match where fans of Kevin Steen knew that he belonged in the ring with men with the experience and talent of a Chris Daniels.)
(I should also mention that there is some small controversy as to whether the Steen vs. Joe match should be considered a title defence by Samoa Joe for his ROH title. I argue that it should be because the match was advertised as champion vs. champion. Both men brought their titles to the ring with Steen taunting Joe because he had two titles to Joe’s one and Joe responding that his one title was worth more than both of Steen’s combined. Not to mention that Joe did successfully defend his ROH title even if he did not win the match outright, and the more times that Joe defended his title during his nearly two year run with the title, the more impressive that his title run is.)
The match between Samoa Joe and Kevin Steen also had a rather unexpected result that furthered Steen’s career as he did something that no wrestler in the IWS had ever done before.
In January 2004, Fat Frank the promoter for Jersey All Pro Wrestling announced on the JAPW message board that he was looking for new talent for his promotion. I immediately started shilling the IWS to him as a pool of talent for him to choose from. Frank was astonishingly patient with me, even as he reserved judgement on a group of wrestlers that he had never heard of.
By late summer 2004, Frank was planning the JAPW Seventh Anniversary show and deciding that he needed something extra for the show, began taking my shills seriously. By this time, the IWS were getting raves on the internet for their matches in CZW. Of more importance no doubt was a more personal recommendation: Samoa Joe’s. Asking Joe if these IWS guys were any good, especially Kevin Steen, Joe supposedly replied, “Kevin Steen? Yeah, he’s good. Book him. The arrogant little prick is almost as good as he thinks he is.”
Which is why Ray Sager, Fat Frank’s booker called me to invite the IWS gang to Rahway, New Jersey and how Kevin Steen became the first IWS champion to defend his title outside of Canada first against ExceS and a month later against Roderick Strong.
Kevin Steen’s appearance at the JAPW Seventh Anniversary show led like one domino landing on another to a series of bookings. After meeting Super Dragon and well befriending him is the wrong word, let’s say not immediately pissing him off, Kevin Steen was invited by Super Dragon to come wrestle for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in California which led to other California bookings with Pro Wrestling War and a spot on the roster with PWG.
Usually the careers of wrestlers are propelled by their feuds. In the case of Kevin Steen, it is the feud that he did not have that helped advance his career again.
During the summer of 2004, Sunny War Cloud made a visit to the EWR to see how his old territory was doing. It was not a good visit. Sunny had been very critical of decisions made by the EWR management and when he came to watch the show with his family, Kevin Steen attacked him both verbally and then physically. An in-ring confrontation seemed inevitable. Only before a one on one match could happen, Sunny was diagnosed with phlebitis, a disease which causes blood clots in the legs which untreated can lead to heart attacks or strokes. The normal treatment is a blood thinning medication. While taking this medication, doctors normally recommend that wrestlers do not wrestle or that if they do wrestle that they do not bleed.
Of course asking Sunny War Cloud to wrestle without bleeding is like asking most of us to walk without breathing – a profoundly unnatural act. We are after all talking about a man who takes unprotected shots from metal shovels and wooden chairs. So, Sunny did what any old school wrestler would do in the situation. He made his doctor give him a note saying that he could not wrestle for six months… and then he posted the note on his web-site.
Sunny said that he was posting the note from his doctor so that no one would think that he was afraid of wrestling Kevin Steen. In other words, Sunny War Cloud, a wrestling veteran with more than thirty years of experience was worried that people would think that he was ducking Kevin Steen, a lighter, shorter wrestler with barely one tenth the experience of Sunny. By definition, Sunny was declaring to the world that Kevin Steen was someone to be feared. For a main stream comparison, it would be not unlike Hulk Hogan declaring that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to wrestle Billy Kidman, it was that he couldn’t and he had a doctor’s note to prove it.
Most wrestlers get an opportunity when a wrestler cancels his appearance and they replace him. Kevin Steen gets opportunities when his opponents cancel and are replaced. During the fall of 2004, EWR’s Nightmare Manson scheduled Kevin Steen to face Christopher Daniels in a rematch of their earlier encounter. For personal reasons, Daniels found himself unable to make the booking, so Manson placed a call to Winnipeg native Steve Corino asking him to return to Canada.
Once again Steen impressed against a wrestling veteran, but it was not just the crowd he impressed, it was also his opponent…
In Steve Corino’s own words, “I was… against Kevin Steen. I have heard and read about Kevin for the last few months and everyone was putting him over as the next big thing. Now I have been around long enough to know that most “next big things” are either just wrestlers that end up believing their own hype and fizzling out or they just write the hype about themselves (see any Pro Wrestling Illustrated family magazine). I fully expected Kevin to be the first one. But once I met him and talked with him for a while I realized that this kid has a good mind for wrestling and then we got in there and wrestled for about 30 minutes and he was as good, maybe even better, then people have been saying. I think he might only be 20 or 21 but this kid has a huge future. I definitely think he would be a perfect fit for ROH.”
By an astonishing coincidence, it was shortly after Steve Corino publicly praised Kevin Steen that I was told in confidence that Kevin would be making his ROH debut on February 19th. Between then and now, Kevin Steen fought Austin Aries for the ROH title in Montreal during Marc the Grizzly’s New Year Madness show, making him probably the only wrestler in the world who can boast of wrestling for the ROH title twice before making his ROH debut.
On March 15th, less than a month after his ROH debut, thanks to Steve Corino, Kevin Steen will be standing backstage at Korakuen Hall waiting to make his Japan debut.
As he waits for his music, will he think of all the little random events that brought him there? His injury, the fight between his trainers, a fan chant, a gush of blood, Sid Vicious painting a midget, a recommendation, a doctor’s note, a cancellation, a note of praise… Will he think of all the men who conspired and took risks to give him his opportunities? Manny, Manson, Malaka, Grizzly, Eddy, Zandig, Fat Frank, Super Dragon, Daniels, Joe, Strong, Corino… (amongst many, many others.)
No, somehow, I don’t think he will. I know Kevin Steen a little bit after writing for him for two years and I think that backstage at Korakuen Hall, Kevin Steen will shake his head back and forth and say to himself, “I belong here. I deserve to be here.”
And then his music will hit and Kevin Steen will walk out and prove that he does deserve to be there. And when he does all of us who have conspired to get him there will each in our own way, will celebrate, will, well for want of a better phrase… mark out.
Excellent treatise, young Llakor. I printed it to read at lunch as I usually do, but then had a meeting at lunch. I read it after putting the little rugrats to bed, though. It sounds like an astonishing meteoric rise for Steen and I hope he does well in his next big shows!
As for your line about Quebec wrestling fans and breakfast, that's a lot of stuff to believe before you eat!
I remember being exposed (so to speak) to Sexxxy Eddy and Kevin Steen for the first time at one of the CZW shows. I was VERY impressed by Steen, even though his first match also featured great wrestlers like Super Dragon and Excalibur.
I'm glad that Zandig has continued to use Sexxxy Eddy and I only hope that he can get Steen to make more appearances in the future in CZW.
I also forgot that there was this amazing spot in the Jacobs/Castagnoli match where Castagnoli tossed him up and European uppercutted him on the way down and it was as good as you can imagine that ending up.