After spending the better part of the last four months as the glorified punching bag for Braun Strowman, Kevin Owens showed in one promo and one match everything he's capable of as a WWE superstar. He channeled his frustrations about spinning his wheels, about not having Sami Zayn by his side and failing time and again since rejoining Monday Night Raw to do anything of substance.
Then Owens stepped into the ring and had one of the best matches of his WWE career against Seth Rollins, with the Intercontinental championship on the line. Rollins and Owens, the characters, were in a battle of wills to see who would leave Toronto as IC champion. Rollins and Owens, the men, were in a battle to see which one could make their opponents' moves look most devastating. Rollins was the winner in the former, but Owens did the unlikely by outdoing Rollins, one of the best sellers in wrestling today, if only by a hair.
Once Owens lost the match, his dreams of having Money in the Bank, the Universal championship or the Intercontinental title in his possession removed, the now fully-broken man sat in the middle of the ring on a metal folding chair considering his future. After silently contemplating everything that had happened, Owens spoke two words that would mark the end of most reasonable careers -- but in this context, they could be the start of a moment that cements Owens as one of the greatest stars of this generation.
At various points in its history, WWE has found itself with an opportunity to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The most famous example came in 2011, when real contract negotiations with CM Punk opened the door to Punk walking out of the WWE with their top championship in hand. Rather than let Punk haunt the WWE for months on end, dragging out negotiations, defending the title elsewhere or showing up out of the blue at events more than once, CM Punk was back to performing in a WWE ring less than two weeks after his epic win at Money in the Bank 2011.
Though there's a probability of about zero that Owens is done in any way with pro wrestling or the WWE, operating on the fringes is right in his wheelhouse. Before working for the WWE was even a realistic possibility, Owens was locked in a very real creative war with the likes of Jim Cornette and the then-creative powers behind Ring of Honor. He spent more than a year away from the promotion, in conflicts that were both real and manufactured (and nearly led him to quit wrestling altogether), and Owens was ultimately greeted as the conquering hero upon his return.
In his WWE tenure, Owens has deftly straddled the line between chosen one and outsider. He debuted in NXT in December 2014 and in one night garnered a tremendous positive reaction in his victory, followed by a tremendously negative reaction upon turning on his friend Sami Zayn. Within two months Owens was NXT champion, and from there it was off to the races. Within six months of his debut in NXT, Owens showed up on Monday Night Raw and then beat John Cena in the middle of the ring on pay-per-view.
By the end of his first year Owens had become Intercontinental champion, and 14 months after he first stepped into Full Sail University Owens was crowned as Triple H's hand-picked Universal champion. There were highs and lows along the way, but his partnership with Chris Jericho carried a stagnating Raw brand through some dark times and ended with one of the single most memorable moments in WWE history -- the Festival of Friendship. Heck, in an era in which Vince McMahon doesn't make many appearances, Owens got to stand toe-to-toe with Vince in the middle of the ring and then headbutted him.
Even among all of these highs, it often feels as though Owens often gets forgotten in between these big and meaningful moments. He and Zayn got drawn into a long, meandering rivalry with Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan, which ended well but dragged on for far too long. But even in those "forgotten" and wandering moments, Owens has found creative ways to maximize on every second of screen time he gets. Whether it's making what seems to be a throwaway match on Raw or SmackDown feel like the most important moment of the night, or fully embracing his role as the fool to build up someone on the upswing like Braun Strowman, Owens takes no move for granted.
Owens is one of the best in-ring performers the WWE has, he may be the best talker of all, but his most valuable asset is his willingness to commit to whatever he's doing. That also applies to almost everything he does off-screen, including social media. Owens often purges the entirety of his Twitter timeline, and at this moment only two photo-based entries exist -- one of his greatest triumphs in WWE, and one centered around all of the damage Strowman did to him.
In the interim, Owens has even gone so far as to re-open his Pro Wrestling Tees store to play up his "departure" from WWE. For those unaware, that's one of the central locations in which independent wrestlers offer T-shirts and other merchandise for worldwide purchase.
Given a tool as valuable as the moment Owens got on Monday night is an opportunity to cement Owens' status as one of the biggest stars of this generation in the WWE. You can see it in the wild speculation that's risen over the last few days as to what Owens' next step could be. He would never be cleared to appear or perform on a non-affiliated show like this weekend's All In -- but imagine if he did? What if Owens becomes the vehicle by which a group like the Undisputed Era debuts on Raw or SmackDown, and he leads them in on a tremendous wave of momentum?
While Owens performing for a non-affiliated promotion seems all but entirely out of the question, unless WWE is thinking farther outside of the box than it seems, WWE has a network of friendly independent promotions that could provide the perfect backdrop for an Owens match or story in EVOLVE or PROGRESS under the right conditions. Even an appearance or showing up in the crowd could generate major buzz.
Then there's the possibility that Owens disappears entirely for a stretch of weeks, or even months. Stephanie McMahon could put more and more pressure on acting GM Baron Corbin to bring Owens back to Raw, and we could see montages of Corbin or some lackey going around Marieville, Quebec, Canada trying to find Owens. When (and if) he's finally located, Owens could be in any number of states (and states of mind).
Regardless of how this all plays out, absence is often a great way to recharge a WWE character. While the most predominant cause in the world of WWE is often an injury, one need only look at the reaction Dean Ambrose got upon his return to realize how hungry fans were to have him back in the ring. The Owens situation could drag out for months, with Zayn and Owens charging back into action together and into a major storyline -- rejuvenating the Raw tag team division along the way. Or Owens could stay solo and play the conquering anti-hero that the fans embrace to take down Roman Reigns and win the Universal championship.
One thing is abundantly clear. Handled the right way, Owens could be in a position to realize his full potential as one of the go-to stars of the WWE for the next decade. Handled improperly, Owens could find himself back in a port-a-potty or spinning his wheels while waiting for another break to come.