Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn is the fire many WWE fans hope never dies.
Stellar chemistry and realistic storytelling have merged to create a powerful rivalry. Zayn and Owens have been telling a classic friends-turned-foes tale since before they even used those names. Weaving in the past with the present, reality with fiction has made for a midcard feud with growing momentum.
The Owens vs. Zayn story, though, isn't without its pockmarks.
Much of the electricity that is surging through that feud only just began to crackle. WWE waited until Payback 2016 had nearly arrived before exploring this narrative the way it should have weeks ago.
That timing and the dulling of Owens' claws are the two biggest negatives about a rivalry that has offered plenty to praise.
Rather than reconstruct a narrative anew, WWE wisely built Zayn vs. Owens on a foundation that already existed.
Those two rivals have been colliding since they were both wrestling for Ring of Honor. When they found themselves at NXT at the same time, WWE kept up the bad blood. And now as part of the main roster, the battle continues, complete with references to the past.
WWE aired a video package on Monday's Raw that summed up Owens and Zayn's animosity and friendship. It showed them as babyfaced young men palling around. It showed Owens smashing Zayn's back against the ring apron at NXT TakeOver: R Evolution.
Will Pruett, writer for ProWrestling.net, saluted the storytelling in the video:
It most certainly elevated the rivalry. The personal nature of this fight rose to the surface, and it resonates in part because it folds in some reality.
As Jim Ross wrote on his blog, "Some of the best storylines are rooted in varying degrees of fact as is this one highlighting the duo's Montreal roots and the early days of their careers."
Zayn and Owens did spend their early careers together as friends. They did wrestle with and against each other in a number of non-WWE places. Using that as ammo for an angle is a no-brainer.
Blending that with a scripted jealousy from Owens, portraying him as a cold-hearted predator willing to incinerate their relationship in the name of success has resulted in a dynamic that compels.
Add Owens and Zayn's excellent chemistry, and WWE has a recipe for a winning feud in its hands. It hasn't been with its minor misfires, though.
Owens is not nearly the monster he was when he first charged into NXT and bashed CJ Parker with blood dripping from his nose.
The WWE version of Owens is arrogant and indignant like his NXT persona, but he hasn't been as aggressive. There haven't been enough moments like him powerbombing Zayn through a table backstage.
And he has been more susceptible to losing.
Owens, per CageMatch.net, has gone 3-5 from WrestleMania on, with two of those wins coming on little-seen Main Event. He has four straight losses on Raw dating to March 28.
By contrast, he was undefeated both times they met in NXT. He was the leviathan the audience was unsure Zayn could topple. That's not the case today, and it takes away some of the bite of the feud.
WWE could work this into the angle by having Owens grow frustrated with how his run with the company has gone so far. Let him grow more angry, tear apart more equipment at ringside and leave enemies lying.
That would make Zayn's task of taking down the bruiser feel more daunting.
WWE left the Zayn vs. Owens story unattended for too long. Yes, the video package highlighting their past was near-perfect, but the timing sure wasn't.
As Sean Ross Sapp of Wrestling Inc. pointed out, this was long overdue:
The company just assumed for so long that fans had seen the NXT work or else believed it didn't matter that people didn't know why these guys were so mad at each other. For a company that recaps what happened 10 minutes ago on Raw, it was bizarre that it didn't get to fleshing out this rivalry sooner.
Zayn attacked Owens on March 7.
The babyface furiously pounded on the former intercontinental champ. WWE didn't fully explain why. If you didn't see their NXT story, this new one felt hollow and unfinished.
They clashed in various matches afterward, but it wasn't until the video package aired on April 25 that casual fans finally got to see what these two were fighting about. That's a lot of wasted time in between.
Imagine how red-hot this feud could be if WWE had moved things along quicker. Zayn and Owens could have had all those extra weeks to fan the flames. WWE may still turn this into a feud for the ages, but it began this leg of it with a string of missed opportunities.