At the peak of the WWE's Attitude Era, few, if any, performers were able to command an audience's attention and elicit emotion at will as well as "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. His persistent anti-authority style made him a once-in-a-generation star, but it's been a long time since a WWE superstar evoked anything approaching that kind of response from fans.
In less than three years on Raw and SmackDown, Kevin Owens seems to be as talented at tapping into that same vein of emotion as anyone has in the last decade. After 15 years of scratching and clawing his way into the WWE on his own terms, a lot of which was spent in a defiantly anti-authority role, he has already laid the groundwork for a prolific career.
Owens has held the Universal championship, NXT championship, United States championship and Intercontinental championship since signing with WWE in 2014. The titles are a big indication of the confidence that's been placed in him, but Owens reached an entirely different level over the last six weeks as he got further and further involved with the McMahon family.
Owens has gone toe-to-toe with Shane McMahon in the ring and beaten him from pillar to post in the lead-up to their match at Hell in a Cell, all the while winning a war of the words to boot. Their pay-per-view main event-to be was made all the more dramatic in a moment that Owens barely could have dreamed possible as a young die-hard WWE fan -- a face-to-face with Mr. McMahon that ended with a head-butt and a frog splash.
"There's a lot of things in my WWE career I'm very proud of, things I accomplished that not many people get to live out in their careers. I've done it in a relatively short period of time, so that's really cool," said Owens during a recent interview with ESPN.com. "But being in the ring with Vince McMahon and the ensuing situation there was definitely at the top of the list of things I'll look back on when I'm older and I'm not wrestling anymore.
"When I was 11 years old, I started watching WWE. He's been the figurehead of this company. He's been the man behind the thing I was obsessed with for years and years and years."
Austin may not have been the guy who instantly appealed to Owens -- "Shawn Michaels is the reason I wanted to be a wrestler," Owens makes sure to note -- but both guys, along with the likes of The Rock, Triple H and The Undertaker, among many others, were able to connect in a way that few in the modern era have.
Modern WWE is a different world and draws a different kind of crowd than it did in those days, to be fair. Top-level guys like John Cena and Roman Reigns get loud reactions at every live event, but it's an entirely foreign experience to what was common two decades ago. They see a split between positive and negative reactions, and Cena's and Reigns' most memorable moments often come with dueling chants between different segments of the audience.
That's an atmosphere Owens came to know and love in the world of independent wrestling, and it's the kind of response he strives to achieve as his career in WWE progresses.
"Whether it's one way or another or a mix of both, I feel like those kinds of reactions are the most interesting," said Owens. "The kind of reactions Roman Reigns elicits. The kind of reactions John Cena elicits. They're the strongest because you can almost have crowds competing with themselves. People cheering 'em, people booing 'em, people trying to be heard louder than the people next to them.
"That creates for this really special atmosphere. That's what I'm striving to, that's what I'm hoping to get one day. I'm well-aware that no matter how big of a jerk I am, some people will cheer me, and no matter what I do, some people will boo me, and that's fine. I just need to elicit emotion. That's all I care about."
Owens can go with the best of them in the WWE, as seen in his many matches with the likes of Sami Zayn and AJ Styles. But even within those matches, the biggest spots are what stand out, and they're the moments people remember.
"Great matches are necessary and everybody loves to watch a great match," said Owens. "Very rarely will people remember a whole match. People remember moments over matches 99 percent of the time."
The bar for in-ring performance has certainly been raised by Owens, Zayn, Styles and the range of superstars who came up in wrestling outside the boundaries of WWE. One need only look at the makeup of the Raw, SmackDown and NXT rosters to see just how many "independent" stars are at or near the top to see how far the changes have come.
"I mean, obviously, there's a very strong independent influence on the wrestlers here, in terms of where a guy has come from," said Owens. "Because 10 years ago, if you'd look at the roster, you wouldn't see as many guys that went up and down the road for years trying to hone their craft, and now the roster is full of them.
"I do think the independent scene does influence the WWE, in terms of in-ring style, a little bit. I don't think that's positive, to be honest. I see guys left and right, doing moves and stuff like that, that they might have seen on the independent wrestling scene, and I don't necessarily think that that's cool. On the other side, if I do watch independent wrestling whenever I have time, which is not a lot, to be honest, I do see guys there doing stuff that you see on WWE every week, so everybody takes from somewhere."
What Owens is pointing to, the adaptation and adoption of moves and other elements that might have been innovated by another wrestler outside the WWE (and vice versa), has become a fairly common issue within the business. But the blurring of the lines between what makes a star has, in some ways, taken away from the originality that great stories and rivalries are built upon.
There are any number of reasons for Owens' success in the WWE, and he doesn't pull any punches about how effective his road to success has been for him personally.
"I try to be my own person, and I think everybody should strive to be their own," said Owens. "Maybe if I had conformed to what their thought of what a professional wrestler should be, maybe I would have gotten here quicker, maybe it wouldn't have taken me 15 years. If I had a nice tan, some nice-looking gear, a nice sculpted body, I guarantee I wouldn't have made it as far as I have.
"Even if I'd been signed 10 years ago and I looked like a million bucks, I wouldn't have had the career I've here. It took me 15 years to get here because of my attitude and because of the way I look. I made up for that lost time in two and a half years, and I've accomplished things that people that have been here for 10 years and that look in the mirror every day and think, 'Man, my biceps look awesome' -- they haven't accomplished half of what I have. That's not a shot on them. That's just saying that I think what worked for me was my self-confidence and the fact that I always knew this would happen."
Being his own man has certainly been a fruitful approach for Owens thus far in his WWE career. Despite having to fight for 15 years to reach this level, Owens now finds himself in a rare position indeed -- one where titles aren't the be-all and end-all in determining his spot within the company. After all, his match with Shane McMahon seems destined to be the main event in the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view over the WWE championship match.
The wrestling business can be fickle, and often performers outside the WWE can escape the paranoia of questionable job security only when they're holding a title. That's never really been an issue for Owens, and it may not be a coincidence that he's been so comfortable in sliding up into such a high-profile position when called upon in WWE.
"I used to say that even on the independent scene, I remember a specific incident where one particular wrestler was really worried about being world champion," said Owens, of not always needing to hold a title. "It's the company that I used to wrestle for on the independent scene, and I remember telling him that it didn't matter who the champion was because no matter how many times he became champion, I'd always be the top guy [there].
"I feel like that's true in WWE as well," Owens continued. "Not that I'm the top guy, but I'm saying I don't necessarily think the WWE champion, or the Universal champion, or any kind of champion, equates to being the top guy in WWE. I think that's determined by performances and attitude. Consistency is very important."
That's not to say Owens dismisses the value that titles can provide, under the right circumstances. There's little doubt that his runs as NXT champion and Universal champion helped establish him as a big-time player within the WWE.
"Obviously, being WWE Champion, or a Universal Champion, is as big as it gets as far as winning titles goes," said Owens. "And that goes a long way to helping somebody become top guy, be viewed as top guy, but I do think that there's a difference between being a champion and being a top guy, for sure. I obviously value being a top guy more than being a champion, but one helps the other; they kind of come hand in hand."
After laying out both Vince and Shane McMahon, Sunday's Hell in a Cell -- a falls-count-anywhere match between Shane and Owens -- has the potential to become a signature moment in Owens' career. Both men are known for their willingness to put their bodies on the line to create moments that echo in the minds of fans.
Shane has been doing it more visibly, in front of a WWE audience, over the last two decades. He's jumped off anything and everything he could conceive of, and created his most iconic moment to date in this very kind of match against The Undertaker at WrestleMania 32. But lest you think Owens won't be able to live up to that kind of expectation, all you need to do is a little bit of Googling for "Kevin Owens" (and maybe "Kevin Steen" as well) to realize just how far he's willing to go.
"That kind of environment, it just leads to people taking more risk, and that's just the way it is," said Owens. "I don't constantly go out there and think, 'We need to make this as crazy as possible,' or anything like that. It just kind of happens. I do feel like I thrive in that kind of match, and I'm looking forward to Sunday."
The most memorable moments of Owens' career have come against motivated opponents, most notably Zayn, but the legacy of Shane McMahon's daredevil approach seems to indicate the possibility of real magic happening at Hell in a Cell.
When it comes to leaving fans with a lasting memory, and a moment that could further catapult Owens up the WWE hierarchy, he seems willing to do whatever it takes once that cage is lowered.
"I'm rarely in those kinds of matches with people that are always willing to take as many risks as I am, so in this particular match, it's gonna be a spectacle, for sure," said Owens. "There's no way we're not gonna walk out both very banged up. That's just part of what we do. It's Hell in a Cell -- it's no time to chicken out or anything like that. Whatever Shane does, I'm willing to do, and whatever lengths he goes to, I'm willing to go to, as well. It should be an interesting night, for sure."