On February 19, following the main event of the Elimination Chamber Premium Live Event in Montreal, WWE Chief Content Officer and Head of Creative Paul Levesque (better known to wrestling fans as Triple H) ruined my column. Apart from using a title that treats an adjective as a noun Triple H said the quiet part loud when discussing Sami Zayn’s rise to the main event against Roman Reigns as part of the current Bloodline story arc. Following Zayn’s loss to Reigns (itself a rhyme that would make Lanny Poffo weep with envy), Triple H opined:
“[Sami Zayn is] just a really special performer that in some ways, not in all ways, but in some ways reminds me so much of a Mick Foley in that his connection to a crowd.
One minute can make you laugh, the next minute you can have so much sympathy for him. He’s just, he connects on such an emotional level that I think it’s hard to put it in words and that makes it something really special.”
As a performer who was ‘made’ a champion in his own right during his feud with Foley Triple H knows whereof he speaks. He also voiced an idea that I’d been mulling for a while but was admittedly too cowardly to raise until this week. Argh. But the fact is, Triple H got it right.
Since starting his campaign to join the Bloodline last Spring, Zayn has transitioned from a cowardly heel conspiracy theorist best known within WWE for making non-wrestlers look competent to a sympathetic ‘outsider’ babyface trying desperately to find allies and bring down a dominant faction headed by an unpopular corporately anointed champion.
If you followed wrestling the last time it was hot, this should be familiar territory.
Before joining WWE Zayn worked primarily under a mask, winning fans across the indy scene and most notably in Ring of Honor as the masked Generic Luchador El Generico. Zayn debuted in Montreal 20 years ago, first gaining notoriety with the International Wrestling Syndicate and elsewhere in Canada (I caught an early version of his act alongside Kevin Steen in Mississauga’s much-missed UWA Hardcore Wrestling promotion). Within a couple of years, he was working for ECW heir Combat Zone Wrestling, building his ‘extreme’ street cred. From 2004-2013 he was a mainstay with Pro Wrestling Guerrilla-a California-based promotion known to mix great pro wrestling with snarky, self-aware humor as well as Chikara-a Philadelphia outfit that combines American, Mexican and absurdist wrestling styles.
Sami joined NXT in 2013 leaving his luchador mask and persona behind. He would win the NXT Championship in December 2014 but lose it soon after as part of his ongoing frenemy feud with Kevin Owens, which has carried through virtually every promotion where the two men have worked, alternately tagging and beating the pulp out of each other before rapt audiences worldwide.
Zayn’s main roster run has always felt incomplete. Maybe it has to do with his introduction in 2015 as one of John Cena’s US Open challengers, where he injured his shoulder early and was shelved until December. After an appearance at the January 2016 Royal Rumble where he attacked Kevin Owens, Zayn would return to the main roster full-time in March, continuing this eternal feud and collecting mid-card wins over the likes of the Miz and current Chosen One/WrestleMania main eventer Stardust.
Until recently this was Zayn’s spot-a capable wrestler who would be used to put over more heavily pushed talent whether face or heel. He would be the glue for Triple Threats, Fatal Four-and-Five Ways, Six Pack Challenges, Royal Rumbles and Elimination Chambers and Money in the Bank matches since he could work with anyone and was good for an insane flying spot or two.
Zayn himself would turn heel in 2017, reuniting with Owens as a hot tag team on Smackdown which would lead to (in my opinion) his most interesting WrestleMania match to date-a featured contest alongside Owens vs. Shane McMahon and a post-concussion Daniel Bryan. He would go on to hold the Intercontinental championship three times and form his own short-lived stable as the mouthpiece for Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura in the Artist Collective. This role would evolve into more of a conspiracy theorist character.
At WrestleMania 36 Zayn would successfully defend the Intercontinental championship against fellow underdog Daniel Bryan in their second WrestleMania meeting.
In 2022 Zayn fine-tuned his conspiracy theorist persona, leading to a critically-panned but fan-favored match against Jackass Johnny Knoxville at WrestleMania. ‘Real’ wrestling fans were appalled by how Zayn’s talent was squandered, but to me, it made a weird kind of sense. Zayn works safely and is unselfish in-ring. For all of the slapstick in that match (and there was plenty of it) the program gave him a platform to grow as a character, expand his promo work and branch away from a higher-risk style which had caused long injury layoffs earlier in his career. I liked the program for that reason alone. As much of an artist as Zayn can be in the ring, similar styles hampered Daniel Bryan and Mick Foley’s later careers and, in Foley’s case so far, have diminished the quality of his post-wrestling life. I’ll take silliness ahead of CTE any day. I didn’t know it at the time but Zayn’s work with Knoxville showed that he could also effectively build a program by himself, which has made him indispensable to the Bloodline given Roman Reigns’ and Paul Heyman’s more limited schedules.
Most importantly, it helped bring out the absurdity of Zayn’s role in wrestling. As a Quebecois Luchador Zayn’s work has always bordered on the ridiculous. On the indy scene, the shock was how good he was in-ring despite his gimmick and promo skills mostly limited to leading “Ole” chants. In WWE he was mostly portrayed as a serious underdog with a knack for getting into feuds where he would lose but try desperately to redeem himself. One particularly masochistic program saw him trounced repeatedly by monster heel Braun Strowman. Zayn was great in the role, but he was less fun and over time less interesting.
Zayn’s current run began on the April 22 episode of SmackDown. Distraught over his loss to Knoxville and acknowledging the toll that feud had taken on his stature as a ‘serious’ wrestler, Zayn began looking for approval from World Champion Roman Reigns and the Usos-already positioned as a strong heel triumvirate. Zayn made himself useful, interfering in matches and showing up for promos. He became an ‘Honorary Uce’ in late May, although he maintained a fractious relationship with Jey Uso and impliedly was unlikely to become a full-fledged Uce since he was not part of the Anoa’i-Fatu dynasty. Throughout the summer Zayn would continue to participate in multi-member matches like the Money in the Bank Ladder match and a fatal five-ways, often with the goal of playing spoiler to advance the Bloodline’s interests as much as to seek glory himself.
On September 23, Reigns would officially declare Zayn an “Honorary Uce”. This would prove short-lived. WWE started teasing Zayn’s defection from the Bloodline ahead of Survivor Series although he proved his loyalty by setting up Kevin Owens’ defeat with a low blow. By January of this year, Zayn figured into an epic “Tribal Court” promo war on Raw, with inconclusive results. Zayn’s direction became clear this past January at the Royal Rumble, where he refused to join another beatdown of Owens (now channelling Stone Cold Steve Austin in his one-man assault on the Corporate-sanctioned champions) and was finally expelled.
Zayn would start charging the ring clad in a black hooded sweatshirt, delivering blistering promos and trying to recruit Jimmy and Jey Uso to his side. As these efforts failed, Zayn would also challenge Reigns for his championship in Sami’s hometown of Montreal. A series of vignettes hyped the match unheard of for a relatively minor pay-per-view in advance of a locked-down WrestleMania main event.
The build for this match was so expertly done that even longtime fans like myself had to admit the slight possibility of Zayn becoming the Ultimate Underdog from the Underground, and beating Reigns for his title. Underscoring the significance of the match, Zayn (who had previously guarded his privacy jealously) introduced wrestling fandom to his wife and child, who sat ringside for his match against Reigns. If that’s not a callback to the Mick Foley vs. Rock feud highlighted in the documentary “Beyond the Mat” I don’t know what is. Unlike the events of that night, where Foley’s children were traumatized after the Rock beat Foley bloody with a chair, Zayn was saved from the worst of a post-match beatdown by Owens.
Zayn’s role in the Bloodline’s story has drawn comparisons to Mick Foley’s improbable WWE Championship runs and to Daniel Bryan’s crowd-led push to the WrestleMania XXX main event. I’ll flatter myself to say I started picking up on the similarities back in the summer but dismissed them. Turns out I’m far from the only one. Zayn, Foley and Bryan’s followings all exploded organically, but none of them were overnight stars. All three men spent the better part of a decade on the independent scene before being signed to meaningful WWE contracts (Foley and Bryan had previous stints as enhancement talent, but I’m not counting those) and suffered from directionless periods treading the mid-card waters while higher-ups scratched their heads over what to do with them. All three men shared a distaste for the barber-their unkempt looks framing their opposition to well-baby-oiled, color-coordinated corporate machines. None of them have the physiques that WWE has long preferred for its headliners. Foley is a big man who has acknowledged struggling with his weight. Bryan is small by WWE headliner standards and Zayn is tall but rangy.
They also share an off-kilter charisma which is enhanced by being surrounded by more serious characters and storylines. In the Bloodline, Sami found the same straight men as Foley did with the Corporation (notably the Rock) or Bryan did working opposite Triple H and Evolution. All three men look out of place amid the spray tans and tattoos and buzz cuts and six-packs of modern wrestlers. In that way, they serve as proxies for the audience sitting at home in our own states of dishevelment. All three men have credibility as wrestlers and stunt performers, but really got over with audiences by embracing the sillier parts of their personalities. Foley has semi-jokingly complained that he abused his body for years, only for fans to rally around a poorly-drawn sock puppet. Bryan’s ‘Yes’ catchphrase was born when he copied hyper-intense UFC fighter Diego Sanchez and gained traction when he turned it into a ‘No’ chant as a heel, then parleyed that into an unintentionally hilarious tag team with Kane. Zayn’s ‘Ucey’ contribution to the wrestling lexicon stems from his repeated attempts to crack up Bloodline members when they’re on TV. They may be placed in serious roles and deliver strong in-ring performances, but these lighter touches suggest that all three men in their prime runs were actually having a good time. Audiences like that and we respond in kind.
Zayn has acknowledged the comparisons directly. In a podcast ahead of his Elimination Chamber match, Zayn said:
“I think the commonality there is just that it’s something that the audience kind of did on their own. I think any time you have the audience driving the emotion and not the creative direction driving where they’d like that emotion to be, it’s just a much deeper connection when they’re the ones choosing it and not being told hey, choose this. I think they just appreciate it more and get into it more.”
Zayn continued, going so far as to reference Foley’s autobiographies:
“Mick Foley was the guy, I read that book cover to cover I can’t even tell you how many times. There’s a kinship there. I do get a lot of comparisons to him with regards to the type of appeal he had and the type of appeal I currently have, which is just kind of a weird charisma that you can’t quite put your finger on because it’s not like conventional wrestling star, movie star good looks, or supreme physique. It’s not the conventional makeup of a wrestling superstar or whatever. I’ve gotten that comparison a lot and I’m flattered by it because I think he was tremendous.”
On Saturday, March 4 Zayn received a rematch for Roman Reign’s Undisputed Universal Championship in Toronto…not quite the hometown hero, the crowd here was more evenly split between the challenger and the increasingly popular anti-hero champion. The match itself was a late switch from what was originally booked as a tag team contest between Reigns and Solo Sikoa vs. Zayn and Kevin Owens. The match largely replicated Zayn and Reigns’ Elimination Chamber main event, complete with a low blow-into-a-spear finish.
The fact that Zayn didn’t win the title in Montreal (or Toronto) doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his story. Like Foley and Bryan before him, Zayn’s good guy persona is framed as an underdog-his merch says as much. Reigns has been established as a dominant champion for years now, while Zayn had spent most of that time making the likes of Shane McMahon, Logan Paul, Johnny Knoxville and Wee Man look better than they should. And wrestling is funny in that when booked properly, the loser of a match can become a bigger star than the winner. Stone Cold Steve Austin’s position in WWE was cemented at WrestleMania 13 when he lost to Bret Hart (also one of the best double-turns ever). Hulk Hogan had already extended his career with his nWo heel run. He lost to the Rock at WrestleMania 18 but a rabid and independently-minded Toronto crowd treated him like a hero in defeat. Some see this more as a testament to Hogan’s ability to manipulate and get himself over no matter the intended result. Zayn has continued to be a focal point on Raw and Smackdown instead of an also-ran.
For organically popular champions who aren’t necessarily career main eventers, a little goes a long way. The longest of Foley’s three WWE title reigns unofficially lasted 26 days; the shortest was a single day. Daniel Bryan clocked four title reigns (at least one of which was artificially shortened due to injury). Only his last run (as an environmentalist heel), which ended at the hands of fellow sentimental favorite Kofi Kingston lasted more than three months. Dusty Rhodes’ three NWA reigns rode similar waves of intense popularity-the fans exploded at his wins over Harley Race and Ric Flair, then he promptly dropped the strap back to the next heel champion since Dusty was worth more chasing the gold and overcoming the odds than being the odds himself. In 2000, Tommy Dreamer won the ECW World Heavyweight championship only for it to be yanked away the very same night.
I would argue that title runs like Foley’s and Bryan’s (and Dusty’s and Dreamer’s and others) occupy a niche in pro wrestling history.
WWE fans are used to the idea of shorter title reigns, often held by heels as a way of conveying the belt from one long-term babyface champion to the next without inadvertently turning one viable babyface heel (the perils of babyface vs. babyface title matches was best illustrated in the WrestleMania VI main event, where Hulk Hogan was supposed to pass the torch to up-and-comer Ultimate Warrior but was so gracious in defeat that he came out better than if he’d won the match). Old school fans can point to shocking wins by heels like Ivan Koloff, Stan Stasiak or the Iron Sheik-none of which lasted more than a month, and each of which served to bridge to the next world-beater.
Alternatively, you could look at the hot-potato reigns of the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression Eras, which favored a charismatic babyface chasing and often beating a heel champ, only for the belt to change hands at the next TV show or pay-per-view. This period introduced a different metric. Instead of evaluating wrestlers by how many years they would hold a belt, we started counting the number of title reigns. Either way, Bret Hart, Ric Flair and John Cena are impressive; but the number of reigns invites champions like Edge to the table, whose 11 combined reigns barely bring him to a year as champ.
I suppose you could argue that this shift in booking philosophy made for a more interesting main event scene and introduced the idea of ‘starter’ title runs: short-lived experiments that could result in longer reigns down the line if the audience accepted an unproven wrestler as champion: Triple H, Big Show, Edge, CM Punk, Jack Swagger and most recently Big E’s first reigns would all seem to fall into that category with varying degrees of success.
Cases like Foley and Bryan stand out in part because they represent an audience response that is so overwhelming it changes the course of otherwise predictable booking. In other promotions or territories, I imagine this is more common. Ric Flair was known to drop titles abroad to increase his chances of getting out of hostile arenas alive. But WWE is big business, and one of the major knocks against it has been a formulaic approach to booking which all but ignores acts that get over without pre-printed t-shirts and rap CDs and Michael Cole’s endless insistence of said wrestler’s greatness on commentary. Foley and Bryan’s title victories are more than fan service. They are rare vindicatory moments for fans and temporary deviations from booking norms. I would call them cathartic champions for the way they reward their audiences.
The NWA of the late 1970s and 1980s used this formula to break up long-term reigns by the likes of Harley Race and Ric Flair. In some cases, the catharsis was more real-Kerry von Erich’s win over Flair at the inaugural Parade of Champions telegraphed the result by making it about older brother David’s passing. Flair has stated that Kerry would otherwise have been in no condition to perform at that event, and the NWA quickly had von Erich lose the belt back to Flair. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat’s victory in 1989 was the culmination of over a decade’s work as a sympathetic babyface against his most frequent dance partner. Both men’s work in these matches was exceptional. ECW chose even bigger underdogs as its champions, awarding title reigns to the likes of a late-middle-aged and crazy Terry Funk, and Buffalo’s favorite son Mikey Whipwreck.
In other cases, would-be cathartic champions are crowned and swiftly forgotten as the result of backstage politics (see Tommy Rich’s four-day title run or Ronnie Garvin’s single defense) or an attempt to broaden the market. Ron Simmons was a career mid-carder in WCW before he upset Vader. He would go on to hold the title for five months. Simmons reveals one of the pitfalls of the cathartic champion-fans rallied behind his initial victory, but his run was undermined by lacklustre feuds that followed and WCW booker Bill Watts’ insistence on labelling him the first Black World Champion (Bobo Brazil, among others, might have something to say about that) at every opportunity-which made Simmons, who is a great wrestler and solid promo appear to be a beneficiary of affirmative action in front of a primarily Southern US audience.
How it all plays out for Zayn remains to be seen. In the near term, at least, it seems that Sami would be an unlikely world champion even if the belts were once again split between brands. The March 8 edition of Monday Night Raw ended with a transparent attempt to transfer some of Sami’s shine to anointed World title contender Cody Rhodes who saved Sami from a Bloodline beatdown (in full suit and tie, no less) and would appear to set Sami up for a tag team or six-man match alongside Kevin Owens. WWE may be extra hesitant to put a unified strap on Zayn, who is a practicing Muslim working for a company with an abysmal track record when it comes to representing people of Middle Eastern descent-real or imagined (see Iron Sheik, Muhammad Hassan and even Sgt. Slaughter). Zayn is also politically outspoken on his social media and has opted out of working cards in Saudi Arabia, which are hugely lucrative for WWE. This stands to appeal to and alienate international audiences by turns.
With news that WWE is exploring the possibility of legalized betting on match outcomes, it would seem that unpredictability would have to increase in order to make a new revenue stream worthwhile. One of the knocks on WWE TV has long been the certainty of match and program outcomes, which might encourage a certain class of bettors but would dissuade actual sportsbooks who make their money on odds-setting. If everyone knows who will win, what’s left to bet on? Reigns is nearly three years into his current heel championship run. I would argue that since he was first pushed into the title picture in 2014 as a nominal good guy, audiences have consistently seen him as the kind of establishment-backed heel they have been conditioned to boo since Steve Austin started flipping us off. That’s a long time and begs for some kind of release.
For all I know WWE sees Cody Rhodes as the catalyst for this catharsis, but to me, he seems too polished in his own right. It’s not fair to compare Cody’s charisma with the everyman charm that his father had…but while Cody’s considerable gifts may make him WWE’s choice for the champion, his father’s innate charisma made him a legend. Rhodes Sr. may just be the template for the agent needed to bring about the catharsis I’m describing and to make pro wrestling interesting enough to stake cash on. Dusty’s improbable runs inspired Foleys’ and Bryans’…and maybe one day soon they’ll be seen as precursors for Sami Zayn’s championship reign.
TOP PHOTO: Roman Reigns (w/ Paul Heyman) vs. Sami Zayn for the WWE Undisputed World Championship at the WWE Elimination Chamber show at Centre Bell in Montreal, Quebec, on Saturday, February 18, 2023. Photo by Minas Panagiotakis, www.photography514.com. More photos in our gallery.