The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Owens made his main roster debut in grand style, interrupting John Cena and going toe-to-toe against Cena when Cena was still at the height of his powers. Unlike other up-and-comers that have suffered when facing Cena, Owens was presented as Cena's equal, defeating him clean in his first PPV match at Elimination Chamber in 2015. Over the next two years Owens would be one of the biggest players in WWE, holding the Universal Championship for 188 days before getting squashed by Goldberg at Fastlane in 2017.
While he was no longer the champion, Owens still figured to be a major star in WWE, but he was instead inserted firmly in the mid-card. While he worked popular and successful angles with Chris Jericho and Sami Zayn, it was reinforced time and time again that Owens was being booked at a certain level and that level was outside the top names in the company. Last year Owens spent most of the spring and summer feuding with Braun Strowman, constantly losing matches to Strowman and appearing like a lower-card geek. In October, it was announced that he was undergoing double-knee surgery and would be out for several months.
While double-knee surgery is never a good thing, it did give Owens an opportunity to press the reset button. By the time he came back, fans would have largely forgotten how poorly he was booked before he left, and if he jumped into the right storyline, he could get back into the main event picture.
That opportunity would actually present itself when it was suddenly announced on an episode of SmackDown in February that Owens would be facing Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship at Fastlane. The golden opportunity for Owens would end up being a mirage; through no fault of his own, Owens' chance to appear as the popular returning superstar was thwarted by the unexpected rise of Kofi Kingston.
Owens was supposed to return as a babyface, but WWE came up with the disastrous idea to have him return as Vince McMahon's personal replacement for Kingston in the match. This made Owens look like a gigantic heel, even though he was still a babyface and even advocated for Kingston to get the opportunity. The original plan for Owens was for him to face Bryan at WrestleMania, but the way Owens' debut went down took all the momentum he could have had as a babyface and gave it to Kingston.
WWE eventually came to their senses and gave the WrestleMania opportunity to Kingston. That is not a knock on WWE, it was the right decision and in the past McMahon may not have been as flexible in his plans and would have rushed ahead with Owens vs Bryan anyway, which would have helped nobody since the crowd would have just been cheering for Kingston the entire time. However, it did take what should have been a huge return for Owens and wasted Owens' chance to re-establish himself as a major star in WWE.
On SmackDown, Owens teamed with the New Day and was even officially inducted as a member of the stable. That felt like a short-term storyline, and even if it does end up being a long-term story, it feels like a comedy, mid-card angle.
There is no denying that Owens has an enormous amount of talent. He's a very smart and talented in-ring worker, but what really stands out are his promos. Owens has a certain, natural delivery that allows him to feel like an honest and real person while talking, even if that "honest and real" person is a villain, beating people up and powerbombing fools on the apron. The arrogance and attitude Owens displays makes him appear like a badass, even if his physique suggests differently. WWE has a lot of good wrestlers on their roster and they have a lot of big guys with good physiques, they don't have a lot of guys that have Owens ability to portray an attitude through their promos.
That kind of talent has allowed Owens to survive other instances that would have killed-off lesser talents. Getting squashed by an old Bill Goldberg? Saddled with a comedy mid-card act with Sami Zayn and feuding with Shane McMahon? Getting annihilated week after week by Braun Strowman? WWE hasn't necessarily protected Owens lately, he is often seen as the sacrificial lamb to make other, less talented performers look good. Owens' ability in the ring and on the mic sometimes works against him, he can carry a feud with a lesser talent and effectively put that talent over, often at his own expense.
Post-Shakeup Owens still has an opportunity to regain his position as a world champion. Whether he will get that opportunity is to be decided. Kofi Kingston is currently the champion, and it looks like he is going to hold onto the title for a little while, but I don't think WWE sees him as a long-term babyface to carry the promotion.
One thing likely standing in his way is Roman Reigns, as WWE didn't move him over to SmackDown and hype him up as "the biggest acquisition in SmackDown history" for him to be a mid-carder. With Reigns on SmackDown, WWE is clearly paving the way to make him the face on SmackDown and WWE on FOX. The good news for Owens is that Reigns will need heel antagonists to challenge him, which will almost have to be Owens at some point. While that will keep Owens in the main event, the history of WWE's utilization of Owens suggests that he isn't going to be the guy dethroning Reigns, he will be the guy to build Reigns up during his title run.
Owens might be the most talented performer in the company, but sometimes that talent hasn't been to his benefit. Over the last couple of years, Owens' skill has often been taken advantage of. Instead of pushing the most talented guy in the company, WWE has leveraged his talent to try and prop-up management's pet projects in trying to get other performers over. Maybe one day WWE will remember that the most talented performer should probably be put in a premier position in the company instead of being used as a side-character to elevate unqualified rivals.
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