Mr. Wrestling Goes To Work: The Kevin Steen Story

Getting your money's worth, and earning it.
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My interaction with independent professional wrestler Kevin Steen began a week before he made his way to my hometown, for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla's show “Is Your Body Ready?" in Reseda, CA. After telling my editor I would be attending the event, I began badgering Steen via Twitter for an interview. Following a witty enough tweet, I got the reply I had been looking for. It came in the form of a loose agreement to meet after the show. This wasn’t enough for me (read: my neurotic journalism mind) and I emailed Steen to set up the meeting. Here’s what I got in return:

Hi. You are driving me nuts. I will be around after the PWG show. Just come ask me and we'll do the interview.

No more emails or tweets!

P.S. Your last name is almost Turtle. I appreciate that. See you Saturday!

Not exactly the best foot to get started out on.

But at least my last name helped me gain the zoo-loving Steen's attention. Nevertheless when Saturday rolled around and it came time to sit down and speak, Steen couldn’t have been more accommodating or sincere. The Kevin Steen I spoke to could not have been more different from the character Kevin Steen that mauls people in ring. They both come from the same place, though: the relentless drive inside the man himself, an attribute most certainly on display for the four hours -- typical indie shows start at 9pm and end at 1am -- that he took up residence at The American Legion Post #308 that hosted the event.

“Professional” can be a misleading term when it comes alongside the words “independent” and “wrestling”, as in: “I went to an independent professional wrestling show where I saw a guy get shot with a staple gun in the head.” Typically, “professional” simply means “paid”, but in sports -- staged or otherwise -- it has serious (and seriously complicated) connotations. In wrestling specifically, its primary function is to differentiate between (amateur) Olympic-style and (professional) carnival wrestling, but after the WWE’s almost four-decade-long reign as THE gateway drug to harder stuff like Japanese Puroresu and Mexican Lucha Libre, the term “professional wrestling” now means something entirely different.

To most, that’s a mix of pyrotechnics, boring squashes of mid-card champions and -- if they’re new enough fans -- a SECOND SCREEN EXPERIENCE THAT IS CHANGING THE WAY WE WATCH TV. It also implies that not only will the show be enjoyable, but that everyone involved will do everything within their power to give the paying customers their money’s worth. In reality, though, independent professional wrestling shows often become less about giving the fans a good show than cashing in on has-beens past glories or exploiting the dreams of middle-aged men and kids straight out of high school for a quick buck.

But, and this works out pretty well for wrestling fans, there are some organizations that manage to use the yet-unfulfilled dreams and determination of their competitors  to fuel their shows towards the ultimate goal of giving people their money's worth. Companies where the two very different worlds of “professional” and “independent” wrestling are exactly alike all at once, forming a glorious mash-up that prominently features the positives of each.

PWG and the 24 independent contractors on their roster are the epitome of this. At the forefront is the aforementioned Steen, who sometimes goes by “Mr. Wrestling” and is always a 250-pound Canadian equal parts lumberjack and bear. He plays an anti-establishment badass who counts among his chief skills safely dropping guys on their heads, along with cradle suplexes and belly-to-back suplexes so crazy they're almost hard to watch. In the best way possible, of course.

***

The show was filled to capacity before the bell was scheduled to ring at 8pm. Dozens more hardcore fans dressed in Barbershop Window shirts lined up outside awaiting the release of standing room-only spots left from the tickets that had gone on sale a month before and sold out in minutes. The makeup of this crowd, like most events of this kind, highlighted the difference between legitimate independent wrestling companies like PWG or Ring of Honor and the “real” sport to which it is most often compared: minor league baseball. Unlike fans at those games, the crowd was not comprised of young families looking for a night out of the house, but serious aficionados  who knew what they were watching.

Everyone reads dirt sheets. Everyone knows who’s got what it takes to make the “big leagues” -- and how much their personas and styles will be changed once they are signed up to play in WWE’s NXT or TNA’s OVW developmental territories. Most of them were present when one of Steen’s numerous “holy shit” moments -- those times in a match when something so crazy happens that it causes the crowd to, well, chant “holy shit” -- occurred. While waiting to use the only restroom in the entire building I spoke to a couple of these gentlemen, (I use the term loosely) who seemed legitimately irritated that they had been forced to wait a whole three months between PWG shows.

I had attended a PWG event in 2010 without even knowing it. I had thought the title of the show -- Wrestlereunion 2010 -- was the name of the organization, and since I had largely gone to see Rob Van Dam, the fact that Kevin Steen was also on the card hadn’t registered until I saw him again, but even then, it hadn’t hit me in the way you'd assume things like that would. Of course, the man I saw wrestle Davey Richards that night was not the same one who grabbed the room by the throat for 25 minutes and held on tight this past Saturday.

In “the big leagues,” matches are short and sweet. Aside from main events on pay per views, most WWE and TNA matches barely reach the ten minute mark. Indie wrestling shows, however, pride themselves on both the intensity and length of their matches. Tonight’s show was no different as the main event saw Sami Callahan -- on his way to the WWE as one of the few and far between -- pay homage to his independent roots by choosing the 60-minute iron man match versus Adam Cole, a wrestling enthusiast’s dream, as his send off.

Of course, while this was supposed to be the best match on the card, Steen and Younger’s barnburner stole the show. Not only in the ring, but with Steen taking it upon himself to play the heel in a match in which he was supposed to be cheered. Younger doesn’t have the ability to turn the audience against him on a whim.

The action took place all over the building, including the 2 foot crevasse separating audience from ring. The highlight of the night for me, was the bump Steen took from the ring apron down on to chairs below. This is all in a day's work for the “Anti-Christ of wrestling;” the next night he was scheduled to do this all over again in Monrovia, Ca. before catching a red eye flight back home to spend Father’s Day with his wife and son Owen.

***

When the doors opened Steen was already at work. His armada of shirts were hung neatly over each of the three ring ropes in a makeshift merchandise wall, along with DVDs and Von Dutch-style trucker hats. In between shirt sales, countless people were asking for photos and shouting “kill Steen kill” at the top of their lungs while passing by. All part of the business for Steen.

“You know, I think a very common misconception is that us independent wrestlers don’t make very much money. That just isn’t true. Some of us are making a ton of cash,” he said. It's clear he doesn't mean to brag when he says that, quickly following up with "of course, the fans' support is the only reason I'm making a good living with wrestling currently."

It's understandable why people think that way, of course. Non-fans (and even some journalists) rely far too much on stigmas portrayed in cult classic documentaries like Beyond the Mat and Card Subject to Change or recent fictitious movies like The Wrestler. Neither of these apply to Steen and his role on the independent scene. Quite frankly, Steen should be the guy getting the call up to the big leagues. He’s aware of his weight “problem” -- although 250 pounds isn’t big for most professional wrestlers and Steen just looks like the stocky bruiser he is, those billed at under six feet (Steen’s 5’11”) usually need to look like all 250 pounds of their pounds are in their biceps and traps if they want to make it in the WWE; see PWG’s own Brian Cage if you want to see what this looks like. It’s something Steen wants to fix. But in true Steen fashion, he wants to slim down not only to be “more marketable” but for a better life outside of the ring. “I want to get in better shape not only for my career but for my family, I am not getting any younger.”

For most, though, his physique takes a backseat to his ability in the squared circle and the priceless, unteachable talent of invoking a reaction from those in attendance.

His previous reign as ROH World Champion is a testament to that, even if his success brings its fair share of loud mouth reaction from smarks. This was the case Saturday, as one vocal fan tried to take the spotlight from Steen and Younger. Like a seasoned stand-up comedian, Steen had absolutely zero patience and nipped the heckling in the bud. This crowd interaction was spot on and his very strong awareness of the crowd’s mood will go a long way in his transition to a star on the grand stage. When I asked him about smart fans and their desire to interject their opinions into a match he smiled and said, “You know, that guy didn’t piss me off at all. He was just being really vocal about cheering for Drake [Younger] and in the end when I looked over at him, he had a smile on his face. That’s what it’s all about for me, sending these grown men home happy.”

That reign in ROH as champ is something he is proud of and looks at fondly, but he also feels responsibility for some of the problems the promotion experienced the night he won the title. Ring of Honor had IPPV issues the night of his win and he feels a sort of obligation to make this right. “The night I won the strap, ROH was having some issues with their online stream. I felt in some weird way as if this was my fault that the company wasn’t able to see not only me finally win the title, but not see the event as a whole. I put the company before myself.”

How this is a good question. But it gets to the very essence of what Steen brings to any promotion that pays him to lace up his boots. This is another way that people use the word "professional," as it turns out: to describe someone very serious about his or her work.

***

Being a successful indie wrestler requires utilizing all the resources possible to build your reputation as well as your following. Kevin Steen is a jack of all trades. Aside from his social media presence, the shilling of his own merch and wrestling four-star matches, Steen also took to commentary during Callahan and Cole’s Iron Man match. His work on the stick is great and following the fight Steen was the first one in the ring to congratulate Callahan on his accomplishments and wish him luck in the WWE.

The role of “indie vet” is something Steen seems to have no problem with, not just because he enjoys the work, but because of the changing nature of recruitment in the industry. WrestleMania heroes like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan spent ample time on the circuit and didn’t reach near the heights that Steen has. For now, he’s something of a mystery: a performer so good, and so obviously worthy, that fans can't help but wonder why he hasn't gotten The Call.

Maybe he never will, but Steen doesn’t base his career on the WWE’s acceptance or approval. Joey Ryan, TNA wrestler, who was featured prominently in PWG at one point, was in attendance Saturday. When I asked him why Steen isn’t working for one of the Big Two yet, he answered simply, “I have no idea.”

He has the respect of his peers, the stroke, the “Steenalizer,” work rate, and time put in to do everything required of him in the professional wrestling world. “I don’t know what the future holds, but as long as I am making a living for my family and able to keep doing what I love, I am a happy guy.”

As 2am rolled around, it came time to head home and back to reality. I took a step back into the realm of fandom and bought a shirt from Steen. Then I got a picture. Journalistic objectivity it obviously was not. But it seemed the right thing to do, to repay Steen not just for the time he spent with me but the work he does in the ring. He and the rest of PWG do it to send people home happy. I left with a smile on my face.


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