Kevin Owens and the Beer City: How he earned that pop at NXT Milwaukee

July 14, 2012: Ring of Honor makes its long-awaited debut at Turner Hall, a well-worn and well-respected concert/wedding/bingo hall in downtown Milwaukee, WI. Having had some success at hosting wrestling shows thanks to the locally-grown Mondo Lucha wrestling/burlesque variety show (which has boasted the likes of Matt "Son of Havoc" Cross, Zach Gowen, and Shockwave the Robot), Turner's taken a flier on America's biggest indie promotion, hoping that Milwaukee's wrestling fans will come through. Sure enough, the 1000-capacity venue (if you grease the fire marshall's palm) is rocking for a stacked card featuring an insane main event, in which ROH World Champion Kevin Steen teams with Jimmy Jacobs against the Briscoe Brothers. The Brew City faithful become positively unglued when Mark Briscoe takes a suicide dive off the Turner Hall balcony, crashing down onto a prone Steen on a table in the ring--a spot Milwaukee wrestling fans refer to in an "I was there when..." context.

That table spot must have left more than just a physical impression on Steen, who in the ensuing years makes several return trips to Turner with ROH, prompting him to eventually list the hall as one of his favorite wrestling venues in a Reddit AMA in early 2014. Meanwhile, the attendance at ROH shows at Turner only grows, to the point where I'm pretty sure I saw the seams coming apart at the walls during last November's Survival of the Fittest '15 show. Of course, at this point Kevin Steen has become WWE's Kevin Owens, adding the Intercontinental and NXT titles to his trophy case.

Speaking of NXT, 2015 sees WWE's upstart developmental brand hitting the road, playing smaller venues around the country and even overseas, leading Milwaukee's wrestling fans to wonder if we could land NXT at Turner Hall before the promotion outgrows smaller venues (NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, while one of the best shows of the year, gave us all pause here in Brew City with regard to our chances of landing an NXT house show). While there were rumblings around town that one of Turner Hall's talent buyers, a huge wrestling fan and Kevin Owens mark in particular, was trying to make it happen, it was pure speculation for nearly all of 2015.

But sure enough, cut to January 14, 2016. Turner Hall is bursting at the seams once again as NXT makes its debut. The crowd is red hot early for a Realest Guys/Mechanics tag title tilt, and Bayley makes young girls and middle-aged men alike weep openly through the sheer force of her personality (it was just dust in my eye, I swear). The crowd hits a fever pitch after intermission as Sami Zayn and Tommaso Ciampa absolutely tear the house down with a barn-burner of a match that features loud dueling fan reaction for both men (Ciampa having recently bought a home in Milwaukee, becoming an instant hometown favorite). The audience is already primed and hot when Sami picks up the mic for a post-match promo, pointedly putting over Turner Hall by saying "a few years ago, somebody once told me that Turner Hall in Milwaukee was their favorite building to work in America." Pandering line to get a cheap pop by a top babyface?

Skip ahead to 2:20, and Guess again.

That explosion at 2:55 when KO's music hits has to be the biggest, loudest pop I've ever experienced at a live wrestling show on this level (even louder than that Shockwave pop from the video linked earlier). And when Owens puts mic to mouth and starts in with his praise for Turner? "So, a few years back, someone told you this was the best building to perform in? That. Was. Me." Knowing the context of that comment -- knowing what Owens has done in this room with ROH, seeing his comments online -- hearing Owens say "I insisted on being here tonight" was a moment of beautiful shoot commentary in the midst of an epic promo by the best heel in the game. And yes, it's because he's the best heel in the game that he's able to take that element of truth, of genuine sentiment, and use it to stick the knife in our backs and twist it mere seconds later by saying "I take it back." But you don't fool me, Kev. I see through your dastardly heel tactics!

Now, full-ish disclosure--Milwaukee is a small town where everyone involved in local arts and entertainment knows each other. I've played Turner Hall with my small-time local bands, and I've gotten beaten up in a wrestling ring in this room while operating in my role as local roller derby announcer (thanks for that, Mondo Lucha!). So while I would never claim to having a front-row seat for the negotiations that brought NXT to our little town, I'm pretty comfortable in saying it's probably a more difficult road without Owens' past experience with the room. I keep watching and re-watching this video clip because knowing the full story of what built to this moment, where the former indy champ who made it to the big time and performs in front of ten thousand people a night comes back to a small room where he planted roots, because being there for NXT's debut was specifically important and meaningful to him...

That's what you call a pop that was 100% earned.

From now on, when I have to try to explain to a non-believer how transcendent wrestling can be as a piece of performance art, I'll show them this clip and tell this story, and maybe they'll get it. Maybe. This promo is wrestling magic made tangible, and I'm forever grateful to he Turner Hall staff, NXT, and especially Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens for such a great gift.

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P.S. Thanks for reading my first fanpost! If you're interested in a full rundown of the Milwaukee card, I posted a comment in this post with a quick recap of the night's action.

The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Cageside Seats readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Cageside Seats editors or staff.