If Sami Wins, We Riot

Speaking to the press last night after WWE Elimination Chamber, a night that saw him wrestle in the main event, for the world championship, against the biggest star in the company, in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Sami Zayn seemed a touch less elated that one might have expected after the most important match of his career — perhaps because he lost it.

“I’m feeling very strange, and I can’t put my finger on it,” he said. “It was kind of an unhappy ending tonight. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t affect me. Of course, this is a dream come true … but the storybook ending obviously has a certain ending to it, and that’s not what happened. I can’t act like there’s a small part of me that wishes I could have given that ending to the people, the story, myself, family, friends, fans, and the city of Montreal.”

“Looking into the crowd after the three count, just seeing their faces, I was like, ‘This is not fun,’” he continued. “They were so hurt, so deflated, but not in a storyline sense … it was a downer — even if the fight was great, which it was.”

Scrolling through Twitter in the wake of the fight in question — which was great, it can’t be denied — it seemed the fans in Montreal weren’t the only ones feeling deflated. There was a general tone of anger and resentment after Zayn’s loss, and not the kind that makes you more excited to watch Cody Rhodes dethrone Roman Reigns at WrestleMania. Instead, it was the kind of feeling where you’re wondering if WrestleMania is even worth watching. The sentiment seemed to ultimately coalesce around the idea of “same old WWE.” Can’t give anyone a win in their hometown. Can’t put the title on a guy who isn’t tall and handsome and bulging with muscle. Can’t reward the long-suffering wrestler who got himself over organically after years of being stuck in the lower midcard, or the audience who are screaming for him to win, to just win, just this once, WWE, please, listen to us when we tell you that we have chosen our champion and let that man hold those belts high to raucous applause. No, can’t have that. Same old WWE.

It shocks me more than I think anyone will ever understand that I do not share that sentiment. It seems correct, after all. I understand it. Had Zayn won, I would have been so happy. I would have basked in the joy of an entire city, an entire province, an entire nation, and an entire fandom. I’ve been a fan of Sami Zayn for 15 years, and it would have been incredibly special to have seen him defeat Reigns and raise the titles high.

It also would have been the wrong choice, and I’m glad Sami lost.

That’s because the story that’s been told over the past 12 months in WWE is not The Sami Zayn Story. It’s Sami Zayn and The Bloodline. It’s not just Sami’s story. It’s Jey Uso’s story. It’s Kevin Owens’ story. It is not, and has never been, a story designed to catapult Sami into the main event picture in WWE (though it has certainly done that). It’s not a story about Sami proving that he’s the best wrestler in the world or overcoming the glass ceilings put in his way by a company that doesn’t believe in him. That was Daniel Bryan’s story. That was Kofi Kingston’s story. That’s why their stories involved actual authority figures as primary antagonists (Triple H for Bryan, Vince McMahon for Kingston) and that’s why their stories had to end with them becoming world champion in order to have satisfying endings. Those were stories about individual accomplishment, about people who were held back from being acknowledged as truly great. And maybe, on a meta-level, you feel that way about Sami Zayn — that he’s better than WWE has presented him over the years, that he’s one of the best wrestlers in the company and deserves to be treated as such instead of working (admittedly brilliant) matches against the likes of Johnny Knoxville. That’s understandable. That’s how I feel about Sami, too.

But that isn’t what this story is about.

I was pretty sure Sami wasn’t winning the title last night, although, credit where credit is due, WWE’s presentation and the match itself did a great job of making me think, on a couple occasions, that I was wrong. I wasn’t dreading a Zayn loss — on the contrary, I was expecting it. There was only one thing I was dreading: the idea that Zayn would lose specifically because his friend, Jey Uso, who had refused to join in on The Bloodline’s beatdown of Sami at the Royal Rumble and whose loyalties were supremely in question, would turn on him. That was the expectation for a fairly wide swath of Wrestling Twitter, and while I saw the logic behind the idea, especially if the idea was to build to Zayn and Owens vs. The Usos for WrestleMania, as has been reported, I really didn’t want it to happen. It would have felt like a betrayal of Jey’s character, and a major creative setback in the phenomenal story being told. This element of the match, rather than Sami winning or losing, was always going to be the determining factor in whether I thought this was the “same old WWE,” or if it was something different. And it turned out to be the latter.

Jey didn’t turn. He actually didn’t end up making a choice at all, standing with Reigns and Sami in the ring, steel chair in hand, attacking neither of them. It was the only scenario that made sense. If Jey had hit Sami with the chair and re-established himself as part of The Bloodline, he would be undoing months of subtle, beautiful character work. But if he hit Roman with the chair and established himself as a babyface allied with Zayn, that would have essentially ended the story too early. The same is true of Kevin Owens, who came out after Zayn’s loss to attack The Bloodline, who he’s been feuding with for months. I had expected Owens, another Quebecois and Zayn’s “you and I are destined to do this forever” frenemy across the wrestling landscape for the last 20 years, to arrive to end the show as a means of sending the Montreal crowd home…well, maybe not happy, but not entirely heartbroken. And if you really wanted to make them happy, I reasoned, you would have Zayn and Owens embrace in the middle of the ring, officially best friends again. But while Owens did appear to take out The Bloodline, and while he did stand aside for Zayn to hit Reigns with a Helluva Kick, there was no embrace. There wasn’t even a clear sense that the two men were even allies again. Owens just left, cautiously and meaningfully eyeing Zayn on his way back up the ramp. Because, again, when those two finally reconcile, the story is basically over.

Because this story is fundamentally about friendship, about love, about family. It’s about sacrificing your old family for your new family, and the complications that happen when your new family maybe isn’t everything you thought it was. Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Jey Uso, and even Jimmy Uso aren’t just wrestlers, they are deep, fully realized characters who have feelings about each other, and while those feelings all exist within the orbit of Roman Reigns, they don’t involve Roman directly. Jimmy and Jey aren’t in The Bloodline because of their feelings for Roman, they’re in The Bloodline because of their feelings for each other, which Roman masterfully used against them back when he first started putting the group together. Roman himself doesn’t actually care about either Sami Zayn or Kevin Owens, and they don’t care about him the same way they care about the other characters in the story. Sami sought Roman’s approval because he wanted to be in The Bloodline, but it was Jey’s approval that actually mattered; that was the relationship the story hinged on at Survivor Series. Kevin cares about Roman only insofar as he wants to be champion; his role in the story isn’t to hate Roman, it’s to love Sami, and then to be alienated from him. Reigns is an overarching presence for all of this, but he’s actually not a central figure in this narrative. The central figures will all be present for the tag team title match at Mania, assuming that’s where we’re going — Sami, who wanted so desperately to be part of a loving community that he ended his friendship with Kevin via a Helluva Kick; Kevin, who tried to tell Zayn time and time again that The Bloodline wasn’t his true family, and who ultimately gave up on his friend; Jimmy Uso, who was the first member of The Bloodline to accept Sami, but also the first member to kick Sami in the head when he refused to follow Roman’s orders; Jey, who doubted Sami’s intentions from the beginning, but was won over the point that he now loves Sami like a brother, and now he has to decide if he will remain loyal to his old family or to his new one. That’s the story here, brilliantly told via the actions of complex characters with complicated feelings, and Sami accidentally spearing Jey last night before the latter could make a choice will only add to the tangled nature of this particular web as we head toward WrestleMania.

And Roman? He now has to deal with Cody Rhodes. And while I don’t expect that match to become a triple threat involving Zayn, I do expect Zayn to have a massive impact on the outcome of that match. Because if we all believe that Cody is going to win — and we do — the only way for that to happen is for The Bloodline to fall apart. For literally years now, Reigns has held onto his championships solely because his cousins (and Paul Heyman) have been there to help him. It’s his ace in the hole, his biggest advantage, and Sami told Cody as much last week on Raw. It makes no sense for Cody to win the title win The Bloodline still intact, and as Roman has made clear, Sami is the man who will tear the group apart, purely by being a friendly and lovable person. Would I like to see Sami Zayn win a world title in WWE? Yes. 100 percent. I want it. But that’s not how this story ends — that’s not how Sami beats Roman. He beats Roman by taking Roman’s family away and thus leaving the champion vulnerable to another contender in the form of Rhodes.

Or at least, that’s how I see it. There are still any number of ways this story could go, and any number of ways WWE could still screw it up. But they didn’t screw it up last night at Elimination Chamber — quite the opposite. That match ended exactly the way it needed to end, not with Sami holding the titles, but with Sami wondering where his friendships with Jey Uso and Kevin Owens currently stand. And if you still feel like Sami was done a disservice, consider this:

Sami Zayn has only, ever, had two televised singles matches for a world title in WWE, both against Roman Reigns. The first one, on the December 3rd, 2021, episode of WWE SmackDown, before the Sami/Bloodline story began, was in the service of the feud between Reigns and Brock Lesnar leading up to WrestleMania 38. After the opening segment saw Lesnar goad Zayn into challenging Reigns for the Universal title that night, various segments throughout the broadcast made it clear that the idea of Zayn beating Reigns was an absolute joke. Even Zayn belittled himself in the process, ultimately attempting to solicit help from Lesnar because, in Zayn’s words, Lesnar would then have an easier opponent to defeat for the title. The “story” ended with Lesnar decimating Zayn prior to the “match,” which Reigns won in 15 seconds.

Last night, Sami Zayn’s championship match with Roman Reigns was a major beat in one of the best-told stories wrestling has ever seen, and it lasted more than 32 minutes. Far from being a joke, Zayn was a hero, and very clearly capable of defeating Reigns — at one point, if the ref hadn’t been knocked unconscious, he very obviously would have won. The match established firmly that Zayn was on Reigns’ level, at least that night in Montreal, and even if WWE doesn’t continue to treat him with quite that degree of respect, I think it’s safe to say Sami’s days of losing matches to celebrities are over. More importantly, he’s an established babyface with a boatload of popular support, as he was always meant to be. Last night was a spectacular moment in the career of Sami Zayn, one that has permanently elevated his stock in WWE, and I don’t know how much more we can ask for considering the fact that none of this was supposed to happen when the story began. He’s not going to be holding a world championship as WrestleMania comes to a close, but he will almost certainly be holding a tag team championship alongside Kevin Owens, his best friend both in kayfabe and in real life, and I can’t wait to watch it happen.

As the press conference last night went on, and Zayn spoke further about what he and Reigns had created that night, he started to visibly and audibly feel better. Removed from that singular moment of loss, the moment when he stared out at the faces of the people of Montreal and felt bad for letting them down, he was able to step back and feel proud of the story he was telling, a story that, I think it’s safe to say, will go down in wrestling history as one of the medium’s crowning achievements. Sami Zayn doesn’t need a world championship to show us he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world — he’s spent a full year showing us that, and he will continue to show us that, by proving himself to be one of wrestling’s greatest storytellers. Think about how deeply he made you feel, how desperately you cared about his victory or defeat in what is, after all, a scripted narrative, and give him the credit he deserves. The world championship is a prop with no true value outside the fictional world wresting creates. Our feelings, our investment, is what truly matters in wrestling, and is what will ultimately linger in our memories forever.

Nobody can take last night in Montreal away from Sami, and nobody can take it away from us, either. We can only take it away from ourselves, by caring more about who has the big gold thing than about the story being told. On February 18, 2023, Sami Zayn proved that he was the best wrestler in the world — not by winning a championship match, but by losing one.


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