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Clapping Hands to Balled Fists: Inside Sami Zayn’s quest for redemption in Montreal

If you could see the lump in Sami Zayn’s throat beneath his billowy red beard, its size and quiver would betray two decade’s worth of hard lessons and self-doubt.

With a Monday Night Raw crowd in the palm of his hands, Zayn is delivering one of the best speeches in recent memory. On Saturday at Elimination Chamber, he will challenge for the title at the Bell Centre in his hometown of Montreal, the odds stacked dramatically against him. Across the ring from Cody Rhodes, whose story he finds himself unexpectedly intertwined with, Zayn lays out the mentality a man once dubbed “the ultimate underdog” has to carry with him.

“If you’re asking me if I believe I am capable of beating Roman Reigns, yes. Yes, I believe that,” he says. “If you are asking me if I think I’m capable of becoming the undisputed Universal Champion, yes, I believe that. If you’re asking me if I think I’m worthy of being WrestleMania main event material, yes, I believe that.

“I have to believe that. I have to believe that with every fibre of my being, because if I don’t, no one else will, okay?”

Face red with emotion and eyes welling up, Zayn shares his vulnerability, as only Zayn has come to do.

“But if you’re asking me if I actually think that I’m gonna be the one walking out of Montreal as the new undisputed Universal Champion … I don’t know.”

This is not a truth a fighter is supposed to reveal. Self-belief, even irrational, is paramount in wrestling. You’re not supposed to carry a seed of doubt into the biggest match of your life.

Of course, Sami Zayn was not supposed to do a lot of things. He wasn’t supposed to rise through the wrestling world from an undersized teenager in Laval to win titles all over the world. He wasn’t supposed to turn a short-term storyline into a place alongside WWE’s biggest star, Reigns, and The Bloodline. He wasn’t supposed to capture the wrestling world with one of the most emotional and successful long-term story arcs we’ve ever seen.

“It’s not that I didn’t think it could be this big, because in a way, I kind of did,” Zayn told Sportsnet. “It’s not to say that that the end game was completely unimaginable, because I did imagine it. But the fact that it happened is the more surreal thing because of the number of variables that need to kind of fall into place for things to happen, right. It’s almost immeasurable.”

He’s not supposed to be the guy every WWE fan wants to see main event WrestleMania, WWE’s pre-set long-term plans be damned. He isn’t supposed to be the one to end Reigns’ historic run atop the company, a title reign that will hit 900 days this weekend.

But Sami Zayn has never let “supposed to” dictate anything, believing Sami Zayn was all he ever needed to be. And it’s the genuine, authentic humanity he’s played this character with that has him on the doorstep of one of the biggest moments in wrestling history.

Comply / Resist

“Once thought I drew a lucky hand, Turned out to be a live grenade” – Propagandhi

You can’t exactly walk into a creative meeting and pitch yourself as the key figure in a company’s primary story for the next calendar year. Even if you think it could work, you need to establish a toe in the door and, eventually, a voice in the room. When it comes to stories involving Roman Reigns, WWE’s largest star and its longest-reigning world champion of the WrestleMania Era (1985-present), that’s an especially heavy door.

Before crossing paths with Reigns, Zayn was working as a heel for the first extended period in his WWE career. This version of his character had spent time as a conspiracy theorist, believing WWE was out to get him, culminating in an unexpectedly strong match against Johnny Knoxville at last year’s WrestleMania. He grew to be a delusional and self-proclaimed “locker room leader,” lacking the awareness to realize only he saw himself that way.

Each iteration of the character was entertaining, but it was the locker-room leader version that allowed him to cross paths with The Bloodline. Every successive part of the story from there has taken off more than the last.

“Something I certainly learned, it’s something you already know in theory, but in executing a long-term story like this, I learned it on a much more real level, where the execution on any given week can spiral the story into a whole new direction that you just didn’t see coming, or you could not have predicted,” Zayn said.

The Bloodline consists of Reigns, his cousins and long-reigning tag-team champions Jimmy and Jey Uso, their younger brother Solo Sikoa, and consigliore Paul Heyman. Reigns’ time at the top of the company has seen him evolve into a paranoid mob-boss character of sorts, only willing to trust those directly related to him, and only on the condition that they consistently prove their fealty and “acknowledge” him as the head of the family’s table.

Zayn’s delusions, he, as the leader of the locker room, was a perfect extension of The Bloodline, allowing Reigns an eye and ear into those outside of his own counsel. What began as an occasional backstage aside in April grew as Zayn won over Heyman, Jimmy Uso and, later, Sikoa.

“I think the thing that started turning it a little bit, is that when I got in with The Bloodline, I didn’t change the way I acted,” Zayn said. “I didn’t all of a sudden stop dancing and start, you know, being as serious as they were, or trying to act as cool as they were. I was still me alongside of them. And I think that is what made people start to come around to it, is ‘he’s still him, and he’s not changing, he’s not acting how he’s supposed to be acting right now.’ And I think they find that kind of refreshing and endearing.”

A key part of the character’s charm was that although he wanted badly to be accepted by The Bloodline, he knew no other way than to be himself. He spoke when he shouldn’t. He acted overly familiar. He ignored protests that he wasn’t actually their family, using their last name as an adjective when he was “feeling Ucey.” (Reigns, Sikoa and the Usos are members of the historic Samoan wrestling lineage of the Fatu and Anoa’i families. “Uso” is a Samoan term for brother, and “Uce” is its slang version.)

And because Zayn was so endearing, he became close enough to the group to eventually earn face-time with Reigns and complete buy-in from the audience.

“I think we’re all pretty good performers,” Zayn said. “And then we all have this really good chemistry with each other, both off screen before all of this started, we all have a lot of respect for one another, and then on screen, we all seem to have a great chemistry with one another too. And then the nature of my relation, my character is so off-colour, from the rest that that’s inherently kind of entertaining. So I think that also brings you in easier before you get to the nuance and the complexity and the little touches that we’re trying to do. The sheer contrast of me with these guys is entertaining enough to kind of make you go like, what is all this about? What’s that guy doing there?”

Over the next several months, Zayn’s story was woven in with The Bloodline’s. Zayn consistently took bullets for his stablemates, saving them from harm at his own expense. He passed tests of loyalty at every turn, even as Jey Uso remained steadfast Zayn wasn’t “one of us.”

At Survivor Series in November, Zayn teamed with The Bloodline in a five-on-five, double-ring cage match known as War Games. This was to be Zayn’s final test of allegiance, as literal a “willing to go to war” as there is, and opposite his long-time best friend-slash-worst enemy in Kevin Owens. In the closing moments of that match, Zayn delivered a low-blow to Owens, then his Helluva Kick finisher, before presenting a prone Owens as tribute to the rest of The Bloodline to secure the win.

Finally, after months of Jey Uso as the lone holdout refusing to accept Zayn, Zayn was embraced by the entire group. He was no longer “the honorary Uce,” he was “Sami Uso,” a full-fledged member of the family.

The road this far can’t be retraced

“But I will walk down to the end with you, If you will come all the way down with me” – The Mountain Goats

In reality, this story was born more than 20 years ago in the same place Elimination Chamber will take place. No story of Zayn can be told without Owens, whom he first wrestled in a triple-threat match for Montreal’s IWS promotion in October of 2003. They had their first singles match against each other the following month, and teamed together (officially) for the first time in 2007.

“Kevin’s involvement was a point of contention, as far as how much and when,” Zayn said. “Especially with me and Kevin, because we’re hypersensitive to the fact that we’ve done so much together. We’re delicate about how we’re used together, because we don’t want fans to ever get sick of this. And it’s challenging to constantly keep something you’ve been doing for 20 years, for fans to not only not be to the point where they’re saying ‘this again,’ but to actually be okay with it, and never mind being okay with it, but excited to see it. Even though these are two guys I’ve seen together across the room from each other, literally thousands of times, and you still get them excited, that’s very, very, very hard to do.”

Zayn and Owens — whether by those names or as El Generico and Kevin Steen prior to WWE — are what we mean when we say “fight forever.” (We’ll use their WWE names moving forward for simplicity.) They have fought as tag-team partners or as bitter enemies, sometimes both, in CZW, PWG, CHIKARA, ROH, NXT and now WWE.

In 2009, Owens turned on Zayn after a failed attempt at the ROH tag-team titles, a moment that spurned the 2010 Wrestling Observer Feud of the Year award and solidified Owens as one of the premiere villains on the independent circuit. That story culminated in a brutal ladder match in 2012, with moments that have been called back to time and again during Zayn’s WWE career. Owens won that match, which was Zayn’s send-off to WWE’s developmental brand, NXT.

It was in NXT when Zayn’s (now unmasked and renamed) character was established. A plucky, ska-loving, happy-go-lucky underdog, Zayn navigated a difficult path paved with temptation to take shortcuts to his goals. His crowning achievement to date came in December of 2014 when he declined to take the easy way out and was still able to defeat Adrian Neville (now known once again as PAC) cleanly for the NXT Championship. It was a triumph of spirit as much as skill, with “the heart and soul of NXT” staying true to himself.

Earlier that same night, Owens debuted for NXT. As Zayn celebrated his first major singles championship, Owens joined Zayn in the ring in a gesture of friendship, then proceeded to powerbomb him into the ring apron. It was heartbreaking, and was the beginning of nearly three years of on-and-off battling across NXT, Raw and SmackDown.

Somehow, Zayn found it in himself to forgive Owens when Owens needed it most, saving him from a Shane McMahon elbow drop off of Hell In A Cell in 2017 (no, seriously). It was Zayn’s first turn as a heel but still intensely rooted in his moral code: Owens had strayed too far, as had McMahon, and Zayn had to put aside his feelings because he was the only one who could help.

Those roles are now reversed. As Zayn grew closer with The Bloodline, it was Owens warning him that he was being used, that Reigns was treating him like a pawn, and that he was expendable. After all, who would know better than Owens about keeping a friend close until its convenient to turn on them? Owens couldn’t reach Zayn, certainly not in the War Games match, and unlike Zayn before, Owens gave up trying.

“For 20 years, our careers have been linked to one another,” Owens said at the time. “I don’t want to fight you, I don’t want to team with you, I don’t want to ride to shows together. I’m just done. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Despite their efforts, their paths remained linked. Owens earned a title shot against Reigns at Royal Rumble in January, with Zayn playing a key part along the way. Reigns once again called for Zayn to prove his loyalty by weakening Owens ahead of the match, while Owens played mind games with Reigns by planting the seed that Zayn wasn’t truly loyal.

Reigns was victorious at Royal Rumble. In the aftermath, The Bloodline continued a vicious assault on Owens. When Reigns demanded Zayn participate, his conscience finally snapped into action. Always a good guy, never willing to take the easy way, and unapologetically himself, Zayn couldn’t go through with assaulting a helpless Owens, and he couldn’t let Reigns continue, either.

Zayn blasted Reigns with a chair, sending the crowd into euphoria and opening himself up to an epic beat-down from The Bloodline, as well.

More than just another crowd

If we’re scared of one another, Must be scared of ourselves” – Operation Ivy

Canada is home to some of the greatest wrestlers and wrestling events of all time. Montreal is no exception, nor is Zayn, because Montreal and Zayn are one and the same. A 13-year-old Zayn was in attendance for The Montreal Screwjob in 1997. Zayn made his WWE main-roster debut in Montreal in May of 2015, when Bret Hart introduced him as John Cena’s next challenger. Even his first in-ring interaction with Reigns in this angle took place in Montreal.

There is a little bit of serendipity to this moment. This story was never meant to become as big as it is, and now the last step before WrestleMania happens to run through Zayn and run through Montreal.

The city is now part of the story. When Zayn exploded at Reigns and challenged him for the championship, Reigns agreed on the condition that he could do it in Montreal, at Elimination Chamber, in front of all of Zayn’s friends and family.

“It’s a weird kind of thing going on here, because on the one hand, part of the whole reason we’re doing this interview is to build that excitement for this event,” Zayn said. “But I, personally am trying to curtail that excitement for myself, because I don’t want to bank on it. I don’t want to have overly high hopes. But all signs point to this is going to be insane.”

Reigns may have some of the paranoid traits of the uber-powerful, he’s also held the title for nearly 900 days and hasn’t been pinned cleanly in years. Everyone is gunning for him at all times, because he is that good.

“You haven’t seen what I’ve seen,” Zayn told Rhodes on Monday, equal parts explanation for his self-doubt and a warning in the event Zayn loses and Rhodes faces Reigns at WrestleMania. “I’ve been in the trenches with The Bloodline. I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Roman Reigns for over nine months. … He actually is as good as he says he is.”

Over the past year, Zayn has drawn inspiration from a number of prestige television dramas, like The Wire or Better Call Saul. There is a clear throughline between a Reigns, a Walter White, a Stringer Bell, or a Tony Soprano; none of them got to where they were by accident, and each was eventually successful enough to succumb to the paradoxical pairing of paranoia and hubris.

Reigns called his shot in Zayn’s backyard. Where the crowd support is almost unimaginable. Where Owens lurks. Where Georges St-Pierre won his UFC welterweight title back, where Roberto Duran shocked the world against Sugar Ray Leonard, and where sports and wrestling history have been made regularly for a century. A case of pride coming before the fall, or evidence Zayn is a massive underdog for a reason?

Clapping hands to balled fists

“Fight every fight like you can win.” – Against Me!

At its core, Zayn’s character is aspirational. Whatever shortcomings that go along with it, he believes the best in himself and the best in others.

His two-decade relationship with Owens is littered with instances of Owens breaking Zayn’s heart but Zayn eventually choosing to see the best in his friend once again. He has turned heel to save Owens and turned babyface to prevent harm against him. He has left companies to avoid him and joined companies to be with him. It feels as if there’s a magnetic force to their relationship, one that pulls them each back to a centre that just so happens to be located in Montreal.

This is more Zayn’s nature than that of Owens. The willingness to trust others has led to Zayn being hurt countless times, and yet he finds it in himself to trust again. A cynical view is that Reigns never cared for Zayn and simply saw a means to neutralizing Owens and adding to his muscle, but Zayn wouldn’t have you believe that. It’s that same sincerity that eventually turned Jey Uso from Zayn’s biggest doubter into his biggest supporter, from someone who didn’t want to be around him to someone who refused to pick sides between Zayn and Reigns.

“This man has took so many bullets for me, for you, for the whole Bloodline. Man, my dawg basically bulletproof,” Jey Uso said on an episode of SmackDown before Royal Rumble. “And everybody knows, man, I did not trust you. I despised you, right? But what you do, Uce? Man, you saw the good in me the whole time, and you never gave up on me. That right there, that’s what family do.”

“This is part of the beauty of this storyline, that I only kind of realized maybe a month ago,” Zayn said, likening it to how Better Call Saul rewarded Breaking Bad viewers with an extra layer of story and appreciation. “Part of what makes this such a legendary storyline is that it’s actually not one storyline. It’s three or four really long stories, culminating in this story. You have me and Kevin’s story, you have Jey and Roman’s story, The Bloodline story. And all of that is backed by legitimately decades of real relationships.”

Jey Uso is the biggest loose thread heading into Saturday’s event. Owens has been out injured since the Royal Rumble attack, but we know what side he’s on, if not with Zayn then against Reigns. Jimmy Uso, Sikoa and Heyman have never wavered in their commitment to Reigns. Jey Uso, though, took the long path to appreciating Zayn and sees their friendship for what it is: Genuine.

“I think the character sort of harnesses this thing that we all lost about ourselves,” Zayn said. “Like the ability to trust and the ability to just be, I don’t know, present and trusting. When you’re a kid, you kind of trust everything and everyone around you, and then little by little, that trust gets broken by people in the world, that hardens you. I think it’s very refreshing and very endearing to see someone, when they’ve still managed to preserve that, the ability to still wear your heart on your sleeve, honestly.”

Zayn doesn’t choose to believe the best in people because he’s naïve or stupid. He chooses to believe the best in people because that’s how you turn enemies into partners, doubters into brothers, and sceptics into believers. And it might be how you turn underdogs into champions.


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