The Room at the Top is Empty: Sami Zayn and the Great Lies of Vince Mcmahon

On February 18th, Sami Zayn lost to Roman Reigns at WWE Elimination Chamber in. Montreal. It’s now been a week since then, and I still don’t completely understand the way many fans, not to mention numerous corners of wrestling media, are reacting to it.

The day after Elimination Chamber, I wrote an essay about why Sami losing was actually a good thing, because it fits the narrative of the story that’s being told — a story that’s not about becoming world champion, but about abusive families and discarded friendships, and whether you’ve gone too far down the road to hell to turn back. This story isn’t about Sami Zayn, I argued, but about his relationships with Kevin Owens, and with Jimmy and Jey Uso. The day after that, on Monday’s WWE Raw, Sami and Kevin shared an emotionally charged segment in the ring, in which Sami apologized for all he’d done to Kevin and asked for Kevin’s help, an olive branch that Kevin icily rejected, telling Sami that if he needed help, “why don’t you ask your buddy, Jey.”

In other words, I was 100% right, obviously, in your face, haters — a message that, shockingly, not all of the haters have been quick to embrace. Not even after another emotionally charged segment on this past Friday’s WWE SmackDown, which saw Sami accuse Jimmy of being both the first to accept him into the Bloodline and the first to superkick him out of it, as well as of allowing Reigns to abuse and manipulate his twin brother, Jey, who as of this writing still has yet to officially declare his loyalty to Sami or to Roman.

I think there are two reasons why fans of WWE, or at least the Bloodline story, remain so adamant that Sami (a) should have won the world title in Montreal, or (b) should still win the world title in the main event of WrestleMania 39, presumably in a triple threat match featuring Reigns and Royal Rumble winner Cody Rhodes. The first one is that they just love Sami and want him to achieve the highest level of success he possibly can, and I can’t really argue with that. I love Sami too. I would love to Sami become world champion. I would love to see it happen in the main event of WrestleMania. But being in favor of Sami’s personal success is really the only good argument, and it’s not a strong one. The second reason people are so dug in about this is because they think there are other good arguments that are stronger, and the reason they think that, I believe, is because we’re all still suffering from the long-term PTSD of 40 years of wrestling controlled and dictated by Vince McMahon, who, for worse or for fucking worse, has warped the popular perception of pro wrestling almost singlehandedly for decades, to the point that many find it difficult to talk or think about wrestling in ways that aren’t, on some level, McMahon-approved.

Am I immune to this myself? Hardly. I was calling for Sami to get that world title Mania main event along with everyone else not too long ago, and I’m sure there are other ways Vince has influenced my thinking about wrestling that I’m not even aware of. But on this particular issue, I think I see things pretty clearly at the moment, and I think I see where Vince’s creative legacy is leading people astray. And so, in an act of supreme hubris, I’ve taken it upon myself to address some of the arguments I’ve heard for why Sami either should have won the title at Elimination Chamber or should win the title at Mania, and in the process, reveal some of the Great Lies of Vince McMahon that have led us to this point.

Photo credit: WWE

Argument #1: “It would have been a great moment.”

The First Great Lie of Vince McMahon: Stories Don’t Matter, Moments Matter.

Yes, Sami beating Reigns and winning the world title in Montreal would have been a great moment. It would have been an amazing moment. I would have loved it. I would have been crying. The fact that it would have been a great moment is not in dispute. But it would not have been a great end to the story being told, an end that absolutely must bring the relationships of Sami, Kevin, and the Usos to a logical conclusion to be satisfying. Could they have done this at Elimination Chamber and still have had Sami win the title? Yes, I suppose. Jey could have taken Sami’s side and attacked Roman, and Kevin’s music could have hit and he could have also taken Sami’s side and attacked Roman, and Sami could have won. To me, though, that seems a little quick and easy. I much prefer what we’re currently getting, in which Kevin does not just instantly forgive Sami low-blowing him at Survivor Series or doing nothing while the Bloodline destroyed him on SmackDown. I much prefer a few weeks (at least!) of Jey being tormented by his divided loyalties and his own history with Roman’s abusive brand of love. To my mind, what we got at Elimination Chamber was perfect: Jimmy showing up and attacking Sami without hesitation, followed by Jey showing up, not knowing what to do, and ultimate not acting at all, followed by Kevin coming out after the match to clear the Bloodline from the ring, because he still hates them, and casually standing aside for Sami to deliver the Helluva Kick to Reigns. It’s just a better story, and it fits better with the narrative as it exists, regardless of how great a moment the alternative would have made.

And isn’t that the thing we’re supposed to want? Stories, not moments? WWE has long promised us moments, and delivered them, and maybe for some people that’s enough, but I suspect that many fans and media members who are upset with Sami’s loss are also people who have (rightfully) mocked WWE’s “moment-makers” branding and declared that they don’t want “moments,” they want storytelling, which is something WWE under Vince McMahon has not been good at over the years. One might argue that the “moment-makers” branding is a cover for the fact that McMahon is utterly incapable of good storytelling, which is why they started saying that moments matter more than stories (spoiler, it’s me, I would argue this). And now that WWE is in different creative hands and nearing the conclusion of one of the greatest stories, if not the greatest story, the company has ever told, we’re going to get mad at them for not giving us the moment we wanted? Come on. We’re better than that.

But because wrestling fans have spent so much time processing the heartbreak of Vince McMahon’s terrible decisions behind the scenes, we have difficulty processing the idea that heartbreak can be a vital part of a wrestling story, as opposed to a wrestling story ruined by a bad decision. Which leads me to the idea that Sami’s Elimination Chamber victory, or better yet, the technically-still-alive-but-probably-dead dream of a Sami WrestleMania victory, is the logical, satisfying end to the story of Sami and the Bloodline.

Photo credit: WWE

Argument #2: “It’s how the story needs to end.”

The Second Great Lie of Vince McMahon: Only One Championship Matters.

Here’s a story for you.

Once upon a time, a popular independent wrestler made his debut on a show called NXT. Indie fans knew all about what he could do and how great, he could be, but his main roster career wasn’t exactly going the way we’d dreamed it would — until a magical run saw him become the most popular star in the company, riding a massive wave of fan support that seemed destined to climax at WrestleMania. But he wasn’t even in the Royal Rumble, much less the winner, and the fact that WWE had a single unified champion meant there was theoretically no other way for him to get the coveted WrestleMania world title shot. He did get a championship match at Elimination Chamber, but outside interference cost him the victory, meaning the only hope left was for the Mania main event to become a triple threat.

And of course, as everyone knows, it did, and he won. But that was nine years ago.

It’s easy to see why people are comparing the story of Sami Zayn in 2023 with the story of Daniel Bryan in 2014 (someone even made a Zayn-centric tribute to Bryan’s iconic “Monster” video package, though the fact that it doesn’t really feel like the images fit the song should tell you everything). But Sami Zayn is not Daniel Bryan. His story is not Bryan’s story, and he doesn’t need a world championship to finish it.

Daniel Bryan’s WWE career didn’t start out well — he was eliminated early from the original game show incarnation of NXT, then fired immediately following his main roster debut for inadvertently offending a toy company. But things picked up after that, as he won the United States Championship, the Money in the Bank ladder match, and the World Heavyweight Championship. By 2013, he had spent significant time in the main event scene, he had wrestled for the WWE Championship on numerous occasions, and most importantly, he had discovered and weaponized the “Yes” gimmick that would make him famous.

Sami Zayn, in contrast, had seemingly peaked in 2014, when he won the NXT Championship in one of my personal favorite storylines of all time. His transition to the main roster, however, began with an untimely injury and never fully recovered — it would be more than five years before he would hold championship gold of any kind, and by then he had devolved into a largely ineffectual heel, with even his three pandemic-interrupted reigns as Intercontinental Champion coming at a nadir for that title’s value. By 2022, he had apparently settled into a role as “celebrity jobber,” dismissed by Logan Paul at WrestleMania 37 and defeated by Johnny Knoxville at WrestleMania 38. He never had a match for either the WWE Championship or the new Universal Championship where it felt like he had a chance of winning — prior to Elimination Chamber, his only singles world title match had been a 15-second squash (ironically, at the hands of Reigns). And while “Feeling Ucey” did get slapped onto t-shirts, it was the Bloodline story, rather than a specific gimmick or catchphrase, that changed Zayn’s fortunes.

So Bryan and Zayn approached their respective career high points from wildly different positions — but crucially, they were also involved in wildly different types of stories. Bryan, after all, was leaving the likes of his lover, AJ Lee, and his Team Hell No tag team partner, Kane, behind him on his quest for a title, while Zayn’s quest was simply for a place to belong.

Bryan won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 30 due to a contrivance of outside factors, the most notable one being CM Punk’s abrupt departure from WWE following the 2014 Royal Rumble. It wasn’t the original plan — but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Beginning in the summer of 2013, Bryan began a story that saw WWE authority figures Triple H and Stephanie McMahon acknowledge his growing popularity, but attempt to thwart him at every turn. The story mirrored real-life fan perceptions that WWE management was holding Bryan down due to his physical profile, and when the audience loudly rejected the championship ambitions of a returning Batista and WWE was forced to pivot to Bryan after Punk walked out, it was seen as a victory for fan influence over the product.

Before the Bloodline, Sami Zayn’s character was almost a parody of 2013 Daniel Bryan — he believed he was being held down by the company, when it fact it was clear he just wasn’t very good. That 15-second squash match, for example, was the culmination of a one-episode story in which he tried to convince Brock Lesnar to help him beat Reigns for the title, even going so far as to suggest to Brock, who was the number one contender, that he should help Zayn win because Zayn would be an easier opponent than Reigns. Nobody took Zayn seriously as a world title contender — not even Zayn himself. There was no authority figure unjustly holding Zayn down, no sense that he could be the best or most popular wrestler in the world if only the company would get out of his way. We, as fans, might have felt that way, because outside the fiction of wrestling, it’s true. But the story of Sami and the Bloodline had nothing to do with Sami wanting to be the best. It had to do with Sami wanting a family.

Daniel Bryan winning the WWE Championship was the logical end to his story, despite the fact that multiple unlikely things had to go right for WWE to finish that story the right way. Sami’s story had nothing to do with the world title. To be honest, the fact that Sami even got a title match against Reigns at Elimination Chamber was more of a weird subplot that a crucial part of the story — a story that, admittedly, has had to change and adapt and grow to accommodate Zayn’s increasing popularity. It’s clear WWE knew they had to give the fans something in terms of Zayn wrestling Roman for the title, but it’s also clear that wasn’t the original plan. Sami responding to the events of the Royal Rumble — in which his refusal to hurt Owens even more and his unwillingness to endure yet another Bloodline loyalty test got him kicked out of the group and brutally attacked — by demanding a world title match, is frankly odd to me on its face. Really, Sami? That’s your first priority right now, winning the championship? Seems off to me, but it was one of those things WWE thought they had to do. It made no sense in terms of being the resolution to Zayn’s story, and it never has. We just thought it did because the Bloodline story is currently the biggest thing in wrestling, and Vince McMahon has trained us for a long, long time to believe that the biggest thing in wrestling must necessarily involve the world championship.

In fact, the resolution of the Sami/Bloodline story is inherently better suited to a tag team match, which (a) can involve the three other main characters in the action directly and not as run-ins or people standing ringside, and (b) is just a better medium than a singles match for telling stories about relationships between people, rather than stories about individual ambition. To Vince (and all soulless capitalists) the be-all, end-all of human accomplishment involves one person reaching the highest possible level of personal success, which is why he traditionally focused so heavily on singles action. He was never as good at, or cared nearly as much about, telling tag team stories, with their inherent emphasis on friendships and teamwork and sacrifice, and that shows in how he’s booked WrestleMania for nearly 40 years.

Aside from the very first WrestleMania, whose tag team main event involved WWF Champion Hulk Hogan and other top stars rather than any actual tag teams, and the extremely dubious example of WrestleMania 2, in which Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid defeating Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake for the WWF Tag Team Championship was technically the main event of one of the three shows in three different locations that simultaneously comprised up the event, a tag team match has never been the main event of WrestleMania. The same thing was true of women’s matches until 2019. In the 36 WrestleMania events that have thus far followed WrestleMania 2, only seven main events have been contested without involving a world championship or a women’s championship, and that includes the Night 1 main events of both WrestleMania 36 and WrestleMania 38 — the Night 2 main events of both shows involved world titles. Moreover, the WWE Championship, specifically, has (not always, but) typically been treated as superior to any secondary world title that happened to be in place, which is the exact reason why Daniel Bryan’s quest to become WWE Champion was invested with such meaning despite his previous World Heavyweight Championship wins. As a result of this history, McMahon has trained us to believe that anything less than a WWE Championship victory — particularly in the main event of WrestleMania — is a demotion, a step down, less important than the people at the top, fighting for the only title that matters.

McMahon’s (supposed) departure from WWE creative hasn’t changed everything in this regard. The main event of Night 2 of WrestleMania 39 will almost certainly be Reigns vs. Rhodes, and there’s a possibility that Sami, Kevin, and the Usos won’t even main event Night 1, as that honor could go to Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley instead. And that would be a shame, largely because many wrestlers have also internalized The Second Great Lie of Vince McMahon and derive self-worth, or lack thereof, from world title wins and WrestleMania main events. But card placement doesn’t change the fact that Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens vs. The Usos for the unified WWE Tag Team Championship is the right ending for this story. Should Sami and Kevin win, that would be a worthy honor in its own right — the Usos have been tag team champions longer than anyone in WWE history, and dethroning them should be considered a massive narrative accomplishment — but one of the reasons this story is so good is because it doesn’t really matter who wins what title at WrestleMania. What matters is whether Sami and Kevin will be friends, and whether Sami and Jey will be friends, and whether Jey and Jimmy will still be a team, and whether Jimmy himself might come back around to Sami’s side in the end. That story is more important than a world championship, and the idea that it’s somehow a step down for Sami because the titles on the line are less prestigious is Vince thinking. And while that match might fully deserve to be the main event of WrestleMania, believing that it not being the main event of WrestleMania means it’s less important is also your inner Vince, even now demanding that you see wrestling the way he does.

Which, as it happens, brings me to…

Photo credit: WWE

Argument #3: “Sami needs to win the title/win the main event of WrestleMania, or else he’s just going to wind up back in the midcard.”

The Third Great Lie of Vince McMahon: The WrestleMania Main Event Matters.

This argument is a bit more complex, as it’s a slight variation on the good-but-weak argument that we just want Sami to have has much personal success as he can. According to some, Sami winning the world title, particularly in the main event of WrestleMania, has to happen so that he will be officially cemented as a main-eventer in WWE internally. In essence, if Sami wins the main event of WrestleMania, his place in the upper echelons of the WWE roster is secure, whereas if he doesn’t win the title or doesn’t wrestle in the main event, his place on the roster is unstable and likely to return to its previous lowly position.

First of all, I find it very difficult to believe that after being the centerpiece of WWE’s most popular story and being the WWE’s “main character” for three straight PLEs (Survivor Series, Royal Rumble, and Elimination Chamber) Sami will suddenly sink back down to the level he was before, i.e. “comedy jobber.” At Elimination Chamber he clearly would have defeated Reigns if the ref hadn’t been down; it’s going to be difficult for WWE to pretend he can’t beat Johnny Knoxville after that. Even if he’s not treated as a “top guy” on a regular basis going forward, he’ll still almost certainly settle in a position well above the one he occupied before.

Second of all, Sami joining the tag division shouldn’t be seen as the division dragging down a big star — it should be seen as a big star elevating the division. WWE under Triple H has done an admirable job of rehabbing its singles midcard championships, but there’s still a lot of work to be done for a tag division that’s been dominated by the Usos for well over a year. Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are a veteran indie tag team who have never gotten to be a true tag team in WWE; they love tag team wrestling and have always wanted to be champions together. They are also, inarguably, two of WWE’s biggest stars at the moment. If fans want to see WWE place more time, effort, and importance into the tag team division than Vince McMahon ever did, they should rejoice at the idea of Zayn and Owens getting involved with the tag titles.

 Third of all…look, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but deep down you already know: winning a world title, or winning the main event of WrestleMania, doesn’t necessarily mean jack shit for your future in WWE, despite what Vince wants you to believe.

To illustrate this, some numbers.

Using the most generous possible definition of the term “main event,” the following 25 people have won the main event of WrestleMania: Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, Davey Boy Smith, Dynamite Kid, Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior, Yokozuna, Bret Hart, Lawrence Taylor, Shawn Michaels, the Undertaker, “Stone Cole” Steve Austin, Triple H, Brock Lesnar, Chris Benoit (yeah he did, and unfortunately it’s relevant, sorry), Batista, John Cena, the Miz, the Rock, Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Becky Lynch, Drew McIntyre, and Bianca Belair. If we narrow our focus to winners of main events that were contested for men’s world titles, aka the ones WWE consistently tells us are the most important thing, we lose Mr. T, Smith, Dynamite Kid, Taylor, Rock, Lynch, and Belair, leaving us with 18.

Of those, only half (Savage, Warrior, Yokozuna, Michaels, Austin, Benoit, Batista, Rollins, and McIntyre) won their first world titles in the WrestleMania main event, and after those victories, their careers had wildly different career paths. Savage, Michaels, Austin, and arguably Batista had what one might call main-event level careers going forward from their first world title wins. Warrior might have had one if he hadn’t, to use WWE’s terminology, self-destructed, but the fact remains that his career peaked at WrestleMania VI; Yokozuna managed to shake off the humiliating ending of WrestleMania IX long enough to be a main-eventer for another year, but after that he was de-emphasized and eventually relegated to the tag division. Benoit was champion for five months before losing the title to Randy Orton at SummerSlam and promptly ending up back in the midcard, while McIntyre went from winning a main event world title match at WrestleMania 36 to losing a show-opening world title match at WrestleMania 37 to beating Baron Corbin at WrestleMania 38, and this year it seems he’ll be involved in a match for the Intercontinental Championship. As for Rollins, he certainly remains one of WWE’s biggest stars, but he has had to fully re-invent himself at least once to stay in that position, and he’s still never main-evented WrestleMania a second time — and honestly, even the first time, it’s not as though he was the advertised main event, as he cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to ultimately win a match that, if not for a last-minute creative change, would have been the first WrestleMania main event victory for Roman Reigns, who would have taken the title from defending champion Brock Lesnar.

In fact, of the 13 wrestlers who won their first world titles at WrestleMania, regardless of whether or not they were in the main event (a qualification that allows us to add John Cena, Rey Mysterio, Kofi Kingston, and Braun Strowman) only seven (Savage, Yokozuna, Michaels, Austin, Cena, Batista, and Rollins) ever wrestled for a world title at WrestleMania again, period. Someone like Kingston, whose unlikely run to a WrestleMania world title win at age 37 (ironically taking the spot that had been earmarked for Kevin Owens) has also been compared to that of the 38-year-old Zayn, was unceremoniously F-5ed back into the tag division by October of the same year, and a similar fate would reportedly have befallen Daniel Bryan if he hadn’t had to give the title up due to injury first. Even Braun Strowman, who fits Vince McMahon’s stereotypical conception of a main event wrestler far better than Kingston, Bryan, or Zayn, won his first world title at WrestleMania 36 and was out of the company entirely shortly after WrestleMania 37. In other words, simply winning the world championship at WrestleMania is no guarantee of any future success —  in a way, the opposite is true, as we can see when we look at the seven wrestlers who have won multiple WrestleMania main events.

Hulk Hogan, who main-evented eight of the first nine WrestleManias and won seven of those matches, had already been WWF Champion for over a year prior to the first Mania in 1985. Triple H, who still holds the record for most world title matches at WrestleMania (9), was already on his third WWF title reign before winning the bizarre main event of WrestleMania 2000, having first won the title in August 1999, more than seven months earlier; Brock Lesnar, similarly, won his first WWE Championship at SummerSlam in August 2002 before winning his first Mania main event at WrestleMania XIX the following year. The Undertaker technically won his first WWF Championship in 1991, more than six years before he won the main event of WrestleMania XIII, though that initial reign only lasted a few days — after that first Mania main event, though, he had to wait 11 more years and rack up three more world title reigns before he main evented again. Austin did kick off his run to superstardom via a WrestleMania main event world title win, and Cena and Reigns only didn’t due to technicalities (Cena won his first world title in the semi-main event of WrestleMania 21, probably just because Batista, not Cena, was the one wrestling Triple H that night, while Reigns was supposed to have won his first world title at WrestleMania 31, and even after that, his technical first title reign only lasted a couple of minutes due to more Money in the Bank shenanigans, all part of the story that would see him officially crowned at WrestleMania 32). But none of these were Sami Zayn underdog stories; it was obvious for at least a full year ahead of time that Austin, Cena, and Reigns would be major stars in WWE. 

The point of all this is that, by and large, you get to be in the main event of WrestleMania because WWE already thinks you’re a big star, not because that match will make you a big star, and if WWE doesn’t think you’re a big star, no WrestleMania win will prevent them from dropping you back where they feel you belong. Conversely, there are multiple wrestlers whose WWE careers are the stuff of legend despite never having won a WrestleMania main event — Edge, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, and Mick Foley come to mind, or even The Rock, who didn’t win a Mania main event until he returned to WWE for WrestleMania 28 after successfully transitioning to Hollywood. The only thing that can guarantee consistent stardom in WWE is WWE’s decision to consistently present you like a star — no more, no less.

I won’t pretend Sami winning the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 39 wouldn’t make me feel more secure about his standing in the company, but not that much more. And if he’d won at Elimination Chamber, most of us would be convinced/terrified of the idea that he’d enjoy a six-week title reign before dropping the belts to Rhodes at WrestleMania, assuming he even made it that far. Again, aside from our investment in Sami Zayn the person and his real-life career, would being able to etch his name on the list of former WWE Champions truly be that big of a deal?

For some people, I think, the answer is yes.

Photo credit: WWE

Argument #4: “It’s a wasted opportunity.”

The Fourth Great Lie of Vince McMahon: WWE’s Success Matters.

This is one I’ve seen a lot, though the people who invoke it are rarely asked to clarify their statement. And so I must ask: Sami Zayn not winning a world championship is a wasted opportunity…for what, exactly?

As usual, we must eliminate the idea that it’s a wasted opportunity to advance Zayn’s career — that’s obviously true, but only marginally relevant. If it’s a wasted opportunity for a big moment in Montreal, or a wasted opportunity to end the story properly, or a wasted opportunity to make Sami a definite main-eventer, we’ve covered those already. But maybe what these fans are saying is, it’s a wasted opportunity to at least give Zayn a shot at consistent main event stardom. It’s a wasted opportunity to potentially create a new star, perhaps not on the level of Cena or Reigns, but maybe another Daniel Bryan, or a Rey Mysterio, or a Seth Rollins. Someone who can do what top WWE stars do — sell merchandise, draw fans into arenas, and elevate TV ratings. That is, after all, the job of a top WWE star: to make the company money. So maybe that’s what a certain subset of fans are saying — it’s a wasted opportunity for the WWE to potentially make more money.

Which is fine, but that’s honestly a weird thing for a fan, much less a member of the media, to be upset about. And that’s why The Fourth Great Lie of Vince McMahon is possibly the worst one.

This lie, of course, is not limited to Vince himself. In fact, this is the one lie that will assuredly be neither changed nor challenged if and when McMahon does step away from the promotion for good. After all, every profit-driven company has a vested interest in forming a connection between the company’s brand and the consumer’s personal identity, and WWE is no different. WWE is, in fact, a master at getting fans to actively root for the company’s financial success, even in an era that has seen it achieve unquestioned dominance in the industry. While there are still WCW loyalists who root for WWE’s downfall, and these days a growing AEW fanbase that would love to see Tony take down Nick in the Great Khan Wars, a huge number of wrestling fans actively want WWE to succeed. There are probably lots of reasons for this — a big one possibly being wrestling’s existence on the margins of pop culture and the desire to see the industry as a whole succeed and expand — but the one I think is relevant here is the fact that, due to its nature as a medium that relies heavily on direct crowd response, fans tend to invest a degree of ownership into their favorite wrestlers, Sami Zayn being a perfect example (there’s a reason so many of us just want Sami to have all the nice things , dammit).

The problem, however, is that WWE has become unreasonably adept at channeling that investment into its profit machine. We buy our favorite wrestlers’ merch, for example, both because our fandom of that wrestler has become part of our identity we want to express, and because we know WWE is more likely to push wrestlers who sell a lot of merch. If our favorite wrestler is on the card for a show, we might be more likely to watch it or attend in person. Most importantly of all, we define wrestlers’ success in terms of their accomplishments within the fictional world of WWE, which effectively means that any time we root for a wrestler to win a world title or main event WrestleMania, we are rooting for their success on WWE’s terms; we are rooting for them, in essence, to make WWE more money. It is truly bizarre, and honestly disconcerting, to reflect on the Daniel Bryan story and realize that the most direct practical impact of him overcoming the very real odds and — despite the consistent doubts and outright sabotage attempts by Vince McMahon — winning the world championship in the main event of WrestleMania, was that Vince McMahon made a boatload of money off Daniel Bryan’s name. WWE’s fans were the ones who pushed Bryan to the brink of superstardom, but they had to pay for the privilege; Vince and WWE, the very people who had held Bryan back and whose lack of support he had to overcome, were the ones who reaped the rewards.

And you know, that’s capitalism for you. We all have to live with it, at least until it finally collapses under the weight of its own unsustainability and we have to figure out a way of organizing human society that actually works. But even if Sami Zayn winning the world title is a wasted opportunity for WWE to make money, I don’t plan on shedding any tears for a company that, with Sami’s help, has been breaking nearly every financial record they have. I am not a WWE shareholder, and thus have no actual investment in the company. All I have, as we keep coming back to, is my personal investment in Sami Zayn having a meaningful and successful career. And to be honest, I think it might be past time we stop thinking about wrestlers’ success in terms of their kayfabe accomplishments, and start thinking about success in terms of the stories they tell, the characters they bring to life, and the way they make us feel when we watch them perform.

And if we’re doing that, could there be a better person to start with than Sami Zayn? While he’s had some tremendous in-ring performances during the Bloodline story, it’s his character work that has propelled him to the top of the WWE hierarchy. It’s the emotional hook of his relationships with Owens and the Usos that make the tag team match the proper ending for the story — something that has nothing to do with match placement or even championships. And while I’m sure there’s a part of him that would love to be world champion, that would love that main event spot, I’m also sure there’s another part of him that loves working with Kevin Owens again, crafting the latest chapter in a saga the two of them have been writing together for 20 years. Does winning a world title in the main event of WrestleMania really represent the highest peak Sami Zayn can achieve, as opposed to completing one of WWE’s greatest stories and weaving it into a larger tapestry that has encompassed his entire career? Does holding that gold belt high as WrestleMania goes off the air really matter more than knowing that you and your best friend did something together that will be remembered for as long as wrestling exists, and possibly longer? Is the individual achievement worth more than the collaborative one?

Or is that just what Vince McMahon would say?


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