This review was commissioned by Pierce over on my Ko-fi account.
It’s not what it was.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that the first really major indie rivalry I got to follow in real time as a fan was Kevin Steen vs. El Generico. I began really closely following ROH around 2010, and a big reason was following the break up angle between Steen and Generico. Those tag matches with Cabana and Corino, and to a lesser extent the singles matches between these two in ROH, are pretty foundational to my fandom and my love for the independents. It’s the kind of thing that’s so iconic at this point, that it already has pale imitations of itself. And I say this with mostly love, that includes the work they did together in the WWE.
That’s not entirely Sami and Owens’ fault here either. They’re coming into the WWE and that instantly takes away a lot of the tools they utilized on the independents. No mask ripping, no blading, less crazy gimmickry available.
In this match, this seems to affect Kevin Owens far more. That makes sense as Owens is the fresher face in the WWE system. It’s with Owens where I get a greater sense of what’s lost between these two. It’s not a bad performance he puts in here, but it’s one that feels caged up. He’s edited out a lot of those big freak of nature bombs that made him so captivating on the indies and he’s replaced it with some stock standard WWE-isms like chinlock and headlock control segments which have never been his particular strong suit. He’s also leaning more on striking against Zayn, which again, is not what I’d call one of his greater strengths in the ring.
Lucky for everyone involved then that Sami Zayn’s just so fucking good in this match. He spends much of this on the sell, and he’s masterful at it. All those years of learning to sell with a mask means that the man’s whole body goes into the effort here. He doesn’t sacrifice adhering to the almighty Steamboat Rule either, often swiping at Owens trying to find a way to escape. Sami’s also mastered the pacing of these more WWE-style matches to ensure that all his biggest spots feel like such delightful spikes in intensity. That big tope at the start to cut off Owens’ stalling, the moonsault to the outside down the stretch, it’s all brilliantly done by Sami here.
It’s the latter that really elevates what had been a mostly good but somewhat subdued title match into something great though. While going for the big split legged moonsault, Sami ends up bouncing his head on the steel ramp. It’s such a smooth bump too, perfectly believable that it’s an actual accident that might take out Sami, and it basically costs Sami the whole match. His equilibrium never recovers from the bad landing, it keeps him from steadying himself for the Helluva Kick, and Owens swarms him with punches and powerbombs to get the stoppage finish. The stoppage is a clever choice too, adding to the feeling that not only was Zayn robbed, but so too were the fans who can’t even enjoy a cathartic “one, two, three” pinfall.
It’s a brilliant little twist, one I’d actually forgotten about from this title match. Between the tragic landing and the powerbombs for the finish, this has that same flavor of something like Vader vs. Sting from the ’92 Bash. It never quite reaches those same heights, but it’s a formula that works extremely well. Zayn/Owens is not what it was, but what we get here still rules.