Sami Zayn does not fit may people’s stereotype of a pro wrestler.
Instead of a hulking muscleman, Zayn’s character is a dorky, loveable ska fan. He’s the ultimate underdog, not just in WWE storylines, but also in real life, having spent a decade toiling away in the independent wrestling scene, all over the world. Despite building up a loyal fanbase, he was the sort of guy no-one would have expected to make it in WWE – a skinny ginger Arab-Canadian who spent most of his time playing comedy characters under a mask.
Yet he’s managed to make himself a real fan-favourite in the big leagues. Partially through his incredible ring work, but also by coming across a genuinely likeable, inspiring underdog. In a wrestling climate still under the shadow of ‘cool’ anti-heroes like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, he is a sincere, un-ironic good guy and that has really struck a chord. And it’s not just an act – Zayn has set a charity IRL to help people in war-torn Syria, where his family is from. We caught up with Zayn on the phone to talk about his charity, the start of modern wrestling, and hanging out with Jesse Pinkman.
First up, can you tell us a bit about your charity? It’s not something you expect a wrestler to be doing…
Basically, it’s called Sami For Syria. The goal was to raise funds to launch a mobile medical clinic on the ground in Syria, that would be able to bring healthcare to people stranded as a result of the conflict. Obviously it’s a matter that hits near and dear to my heart, having my family actually flee from there, and having family still living there.
It’s a very difficult situation to watch, and you reach the point in your life where you ask yourself, “What am I really doing to help?” Like a lot of other people, I felt kind of powerless to help, because it’s so far away from you, but in the end I realised we all have way more power to do good than we think.
You’re a person of Arab descent, whose wrestling character isn’t defined by that at all – that’s rarity on American television. Is that important to you, to break those stereotypes?
Yeah, that was a conscious decision. I am what I am and being Arab, and being Canadian, and having red hair or whatever, it’s all just gone into making me what I am. When I had the opportunity to come to WWE, and not necessarily play a character but essentially a version of myself, it was something kind of cool that I could represent Middle Eastern fans in a way that hasn’t really been done before. And it’s a little more true to life – I’m not saying I’m the prime representative of Arabs, but it’s certainly more accurate than the Iron Sheik, or whatever.
You’re part of a generation that seems very different to the wrestlers of the ’80s and ’90s – instead of going out partying, you’re more likely to be playing video games and staying healthy…
Yes, but it’s not just the wrestling industry that has changed, the world has changed. Unfortunately a lot of that generation paid a very heavy price for it. And it would be very silly for our generation to not learn from their mistakes. Not to mention the WWE wellness policy as well, which I think is a great thing, honestly. It sort of keeps people in check! But at the end of the day I think matches are at a higher level than ever, the quality of talent we have now has never been better, and the work rate has never been higher.
Another thing that’s changed is that there are lot more high-flying flips and high-risk moves in the ring these days, with wrestlers doing more and more to top the last match. Do you ever worry that this isn’t sustainable in the long term?
Well, there was a time when I would have said yes. But I think even that is scaling down a little these day. Definitely, we are performing more moves now, and they are high impact moves. The game has changed since the ’80s, where you could punch and kick and headlock, and do one suplex, and that’s a 25 minute match. Those days are gone and you’ve got to adapt accordingly.
But I think when I started wrestling on the independents it was definitely a time when people were pushing the envelope on how risky or dangerous some stunts could be. Whereas now I think a lot of the stunt show aspect of it has gone down. There’s a lot more technical skill executing these moves than it is falling off a giant scaffold or something like that. I think the stunt show aspect of the business has regressed, which is a good thing.
One thing I’ve always wanted to ask a wrestler: Is it strange being known around the world by a name that’s not actually your real name? (Zayn’s birth name is Rami Sebai)
It’s not a real big adjustment, but the time I think it’s really funny is with the family I have that have come to Canada as refugees from Syria. Before they came to Canada, they knew me through WWE, they were wrestling fans. They grew up in Syria, I grew up in Canada, so we didn’t really know each other. They know me more as Sami Zayn than me, which is really funny. They’re 15 years old, and they’re my cousin’s sons, and they call me Sami! “Sami Zayn’s coming over!” [I have to say,] “No, no, no! Sami Zayn is on TV – I’m coming over!”
You are also known as a massive ska fan – can you recommend us three essential ska bands?
I’m a bit more into punk ska, so Operation Ivy is a staple of my life. Even part of my wrestling character is based on it. The Specials, obviously from the UK, they made a huge impact and everyone should check them out. And a band that’s out right now called The Interrupters, who are very influence by things like The Specials, and I think they’re the best current punk ska band going on right now.
You also tweeted recently that you “accidentally went hiking with Aaron Paul in Iceland” – you’re going to have to explain how that happened…
I was in Iceland just on vacation, I was going up to this hike. And as I’m parking I realised the guy parked next to me is Aaron Paul. I said that I was Sami Zayn from WWE, he did some stuff with WWE a couple of years ago and he had some really great things to say about his experience with us. We just unintentionally ended up hiking side by side. He’s a real nice guy.
Finally, there was a wrestler by the name of El Generico on the independent scene, who many say may have trained you, but disappeared about the same time you signed with WWE. Do you know if he might ever return to the ring?
There a lot of parallels between my style and his, I suppose, but I never actually met the man. But from what I hear I think he’s still running an orphanage, still fighting the good fight in Mexico. That’s as far as I know.
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