For Kevin Owens, it's all a matter of respect

Kevin Owens returned to WWE action after spending time away due to the coronavirus pandemic. WWE, Inc


Ask any performer about that word in the context of professional wrestling, and most will tell you that it's one of the pillars upon which the industry has been built.

Respect comes in many forms -- praise from your peers, care for your colleagues, applause from the crowd -- but actions that are rooted and driven by respect are the building blocks of a legacy.

For Kevin Owens, the majority of his life has been guided by that word, whether it's what goes on inside of the ring or his reaction to the events of the past several months of his life. He gives it, and hopes to receive it in return.


Owens will face Seth Rollins in a "Grudge match" on Monday Night Raw, as part of a night of grudge matches in the lead-up to Sunday's Horror Show at Extreme Rules pay-per-view. While the on-camera hatred between Owens and Rollins seems so palpable, it's only because off camera, they respect the craft and each other so much.

Rollins and Owens battled through the independent circuit for years, traveling the world, earning that "it should be them" status. When they signed with WWE (Rollins in 2010 and Owens in 2014), they achieved great acclaim within its walls. Both became NXT champion, and eventually went on to win either the WWE or Universal championships, the biggest badge of honor you can earn in the company.

If their feud in 2016 felt like a slight misstep, if only for the persistent interference of Chris Jericho, in 2020, Rollins vs. Owens became a good reason to tune in to WWE programming. At WrestleMania 36, the pair put on a terrific match that was certainly one of the best of WrestleMania weekend. In that match, Owens jumped off the WrestleMania sign onto Rollins, who was on a table.

"I was laying there, and I was looking up at Kevin like, 'Oh, this is a terrible idea. This is no good.' And you can hear me physically wheezing because there's no crowd," Rollins recounted to host Corey Graves on the "After The Bell" podcast.

When Owens thinks back to that match, he found motivation by wanting to earn the respect of the limited people who were in the building, working the event.

"Through the years I've kind of grown close with a lot of the crew, you know, the stage managers, the camera people, the technical guys," Owens told ESPN. "I know there's no bigger compliment that can be paid to me than when one of those guys comes up to me and says hey, that match was really great or what you did in that that match or that move you did or that promo and stuff like that, because most of them have been [in WWE] for 20, 25 years. They've seen ... a lot of WWE wrestling.

"So for these people who have seen it all, have been through it all and experienced it all, still come up to me and be able to say they enjoyed something I did, that really means a lot. So I almost started thinking of them as the audience and [wanted] them to be entertained."

The level of respect Owens has built up with his peers and the WWE staff is rivaled only by the way Owens is viewed by the vast majority of WWE fans. That level of respect comes with a certain responsibility when it comes to being in the public eye.

Owens lives near the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, with his wife and two children. WWE has been shooting its programming at the Performance Center since March, but up until recently, Owens had decided to stay home following his match at WrestleMania.

The decision to not wrestle wasn't questioned by the WWE, according to Owens, which has allowed at-risk performers and anyone feeling uncomfortable to stay home during this time. Owens' position was especially understandable with the knowledge that Owens' wife's grandfather died due to COVID-19. Owens doesn't believe his decision will impact his future with the company. In this scenario, respect is actualized once again. Not by the other performers in the business, but those that are signing his checks, because of the way Owens has conducted himself throughout his career.

"I know people, for some reason, tend to assume that that's the kind of thing that would happen, and that's just the way people want to think about certain situations," Owens said. "I've been [in WWE] for five years. I have never once been afraid to tell the company that I couldn't go to a show or something like that because something was happening with my family. They're always extremely receptive.

"The company's never made me feel like my career or my spot or anything like that could be in jeopardy," Owens said. "It's the same here with this situation. I tell them how I feel, they respect how I feel. Even with the mask, that could be seen as something kind of small, right? But it wasn't. I brought them my concern, and it was immediately taken very seriously."

Owens put considerable thought into each step he made towards handling his career and his family during the pandemic. After putting out a self-produced video in which he asked people to embrace wearing a mask, or at the very least not shaming those who wear masks, the option about resuming his in-ring career came into play. Much of Owens' decision to return was a family effort, including many conversations with his wife.

"I wanted to make sure that she's comfortable with me being in the house after I've been around a bunch of people," Owens said. "Honestly, if it wasn't for my wife telling me, 'OK, the company is clearly making efforts, I think you should go to work, see how things are,' I wouldn't have gone back."

Owens returned to WWE on July 6, citing that he felt comfortable with its efforts to create a safe working environment, including conducting testing, a separation of crews and the mandatory wearing of masks when not in the ring. In addition to his own social media outreach, Owens said he has pushed the company to enforce a policy on mask use while not in the ring.

Stricter protocols could be vital for the WWE, as the state of Florida has the second-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and multiple people at the Performance Center have previously tested positive.

Upon Owens' return to WWE, he found himself in a tag team match against Rollins and Murphy. Owens' partner was Rey Mysterio. The pair aren't close friends, but once again, respect is the magic word that holds everything together.

"In my opinion, along with Shawn Michaels, [Rey is] the greatest wrestler of all time," Owens said. "He's a great guy, and anybody in wrestling you talk to will say the same. But it means even more when it's a guy who's achieved that level of success, who's achieved the kind of milestones that he's had. For him to still be around now and to still be just as incredible in the ring as he's ever been, and to still be as humble. ... I think that what has drawn me to him is he's so humble, even though he would have any and all reasons not to be.

"When I heard he was coming back to WWE [in 2018], I was so pumped at the prospect of working with him, the prospect of being around him and just getting to learn. It's not like I'm sitting under the learning tree. I just watch him, the kind of person he is, and I learn because that's the kind of legacy I want to leave behind in wrestling. His son is now getting involved and it's been great to see his son around. He's everything a wrestling veteran should be."

Rey is now guiding his son through the business, passing down that respect from generation to generation. Owens hopes that Dominick understands that the responsibility that comes with being a wrestler at this level, which lies both in and out of the ring.

And whether it's helping the world by using his voice and offering his perspective through the pandemic, or simply reinforcing his "Just Keep Fighting" efforts which aim to support those who are battling physical or mental illnesses, Owens hopes that he can continue to use his platform to make a difference.

"Let's take care of each other," said Owens. "Let's help each other out."