Stop us if you’ve heard this one:
An independent wrestling standout arrives in WWE with very little pomp and circumstance. Powers-that-be consider this wrestler to have been “a big fish in a small pond” and nothing he did prior to WWE matters – he has to make his own way and prove his worth in “the big leagues.”
While the wrestler has his fair share of support, it takes years upon years for him to actually get the bosses to take him seriously. In fact, they only did it because the audience forced them to. Because finally, something clicked. Maybe it was a match, maybe it was an interview, or maybe it was both. Maybe, just maybe, it was fate. Maybe that’s what was always supposed to happen and it was just finally time. But something happened; something changed. And now, that big fish in the small pond has become King of Atlantis and WWE is forced to take notice.
That above description could be applied to countless wrestlers; from Bryan Danielson, to CM Punk, to Kevin Owens, and more. But it may apply the most, and the best, to Sami Zayn.
Sami Zayn was never supposed to be here. You’ve heard the before too. He came from ‘The Underground’ and for years, even before his WWE debut, he was considered an ‘Underdog.’
Certain rumors suggest that Zayn used to perform under a cape and cowl and, if those rumors are true, than Zayn proved himself to be an incredible wrestler who was never afraid to get a little silly.
His (alleged) friendship and feud with Kevin Steen throughout the independent wrestling scene was the stuff of legend.
“He’s coming here with this great reputation, but reputations mean for nothing when you walk through the door here, in NXT or the WWE” William Regal said of Zayn during Zayn’s first match with NXT. “You have to prove yourself all over again.”
And so, that’s what Zayn did. He very, very quickly became the star of NXT. In his first match, Zayn defeated the former Edge-Head, Curt Hawkins. That same night, he defeated Antonio Cesaro in what announcers called a major upset.
Sami Zayn vs Cesaro would be the feud that put NXT on the map. It was the first time NXT had truly great matches. Zayn and Cesaro put on an excellent 2-out-of-3-falls match on NXT TV and then, the two put on another absolute classic at NXT Arrival.
NXT had truly arrived and so, too, had Sami Zayn.
It wouldn’t be long before Zayn was battling for the NXT Championship, at the time held by Neville (Pac). The conscience of Sami Zayn, which would present itself again in a different story 9 years later, was on full display. Neville criticizes Sami of never winning the big one because he always chose to “do the right thing.” Finally, in a match at NXT [R]Evolution, Sami had the chance to hit Neville with the NXT Championship belt and win the match. But he chose not to. In doing so, he almost lost the match. But he ended up winning the match, and the championship, with his conscience in tact.
“That’s mine?” Zayn asked the crowd after beating Neville. It was almost as if he didn’t believe it, that he didn’t deserve it.
But he did.
And that’s when the next chapter of his friendship/rivalry with Kevin Owens (formerly Steen) took place. After Owens came out to congratulate Zayn on winning the NXT Championship, the prize fighter turned his back, once again, on his best friend. On his brother.
Owens would eventually defeat his former and future best friend to win the NXT Championship, and he would take it to Raw to battle John Cena. But Sami Zayn also faced John Cena on an episode of Monday Night Raw and the reaction that Zayn got that night in Montreal was the first real glimpse into who Sami Zayn could be, into what he could be.
The reaction that Montreal gave him will only be rivaled by the reaction that he gets at Elimination Chamber. They treated him like the superstar that he was and though he lost to Cena, he showed the world that he was exactly where he belonged.
Zayn earned that reaction. He deserved it.
While making his entrance, he dislocated his shoulder. It could have been an anti-climactic ending to the biggest moment of his career. But he told the ringside doctor that he wanted to compete. And compete, he did. Zayn gave John Cena one of Cena’s best matches and he did it with one arm.
Zayn would stick around NXT for a little while, bowing out after an absolute dream match against the debuting Shinsuke Nakamura. Following that loss, Zayn was main roster bound and it was there that he would experience all of the ups and downs of being in ‘the big leagues.’ He was now the big fish in the big ocean and, for years, he floundered.
This was through no fault of his own. Night after night, Sami Zayn took what WWE officials gave him, and he made it work. In doing so, he won the WWE Intercontinental Championship on three separate occasions. He competed in matches of the night, every night. He fought, and forgave, his best friend Kevin Owens. Eventually, the two would team up and, for quite some time, Sami Zayn would portray himself as a bad guy, as a victim, as a conspiracy theorist.
And maybe he wasn’t wrong. Maybe there was a conspiracy against the guy. Maybe the powers-that-be didn’t want him to succeed. Maybe they didn’t want him to be “the face of the company.” Maybe they thought he was merely a B+-player (sound familiar?).
Throughout it all, however, Sami kept his head down and he did what he was told. Whether that was feuding with Bobby Lashley and hiring actors to portray his “sisters,” in what was one of the worst segments WWE has ever produced, or feuding with Braun Strowman or even, even, being tasked with taking on Johnny Knoxville at WrestleMania 38 – Sami took it all in stride and did his best to make it work.
The WrestleMania match, in particular, surprised everybody. Before the match, many wrestling fans considered this match to be bathroom break material.
But something funny happened on the way to the forum. The match turned out to be pretty good. This was due, in large part, to Sami’s absolute dedication to the match. In anybody’s else’s hands, the match wouldn’t have worked. It was too silly, too staged, too, dare we say, ‘fake.’
But Sami made it work (Credit to Johnny Knoxville, as well). And that was, maybe, the first time that WWE officials realized that Sami Zayn could be counted on. That if they trusted him with the company’s success, his shoulders were big enough to carry it.
Throughout the following year, Sami continued to prove himself. In story, he was trying to prove himself to Roman Reigns and the Bloodline. But in reality, he was proving himself to WWE as a whole. Maybe, more importantly, he was proving something to himself.
Being in WWE can be a mind f*ck. Countless wrestlers have said so. The company causes one to doubt themselves. Maybe they weren’t as good as they thought. Maybe they really were a big fish in a small pond.
Maybe they didn’t deserve to be here.
Roman Reigns and the Uso’s made Sami Zayn work for his spot in The Bloodline. They made him earn it. But eventually, he did. After he saved Roman countless times, after he sacrificed his own body for Jimmy and/or Jey Uso. After he kicked Kevin Owens in the face one final time, Sami Zayn earned his spot. He earned his family.
And at the Royal Rumble, Sami Zayn earned his place in the pantheons of professional wrestling. He finally, finally, realized that he didn’t need a mask anymore. He didn’t need Kevin Owens. He didn’t need Roman Reigns or The Bloodline. Sami Zayn had everything he needed, and he found it within himself.
So now, for the first time ever, Sami Zayn is challenging for the WWE Undisputed Universal Championship. He may or may not win the championship. He probably won’t. But that title isn’t the confirmation that Sami Zayn needs. The match itself is.
Sami Zayn, much like Daniel Bryan or Mick Foley before him, has captured the hearts of WWE fans. He has captured their interest in well. Elimination Chamber is one of the more hotly-anticipated shows WWE has had in quite some time. Most of us know that Sami Zayn probably won’t win the match. But that’s not even what we’re looking forward to seeing. We just want to see Sami make his entrance. We want to hear his music. We want to see his haircut. We want to chant ‘Ole!’ We don’t care if Sami wins the championship or not. Because we know that the real victory is the fact that he’s in the match in the first place. And it’s not just the match that he’s earned. He has earned the response that he’s going to get tonight. He has earned the tears that will inevitably fall when he loses. He has earned the love, the trust, and the respect from fans and colleagues alike. So when he comes out tonight, while his friends and family and fans chant his name from the bottom of their hearts, Sami Zayn can know that he’s exactly where he belongs.
He did it. He earned it.
He deserves it.