Sami Zayn’s Heel Turn 2
In volume 20 of The Atomic Elbow, there’s a guide to professional wrestling through the lens of the fantastic Mountain Goats album Beat the Champ.* If you really want to get into wrestling, it tells you how to do it right, straight from The Legend of Chavo Guerrero: “My most earnest recommendation for people trying to get into pro wrestling is find a wrestler, or a tag team that makes you feel like the character in this song feels about Chavo Guerrero. Fucking find a performer that you live and die with…Just find someone who rips the cynic or the skeptic out of your brain from the moment their entrance music hits, to the moment their arm is raised in victory.”*
This is true. I know this because my favorite wrestler is Sami Zayn.
Get stomped like a snake, lie down in the dirt
Cling to my convictions even when I get hurt
Be an upstanding well-loved man about town
In your child’s mind that’s how it goes down
But I try the losing side
I love Sami for a thousand reasons. I love that he is a thirty-three year old man who dresses like a Hot Topic clearance rack. I love that he raises money for Syria and cares about humanitarian causes and panics at food waste as much as I do. I love that he’s full of weirdly aggressive kindness and joy. Most of all, I love the way his earnest nature and his passion and his need to be seen intersect to create his character. Every promo from him is a weird gift, a moment of pure self-recognition for those of us who love everything just a little bit too much to make other people comfortable. (Oh god, that clip of him hyping himself up in his Op Ivy shirt before the NXT championship fight! How many times have I worn a cool band t-shirt when introducing myself to someone? If you like them, you have to like me too, right? If I was introducing myself to America I’d probably do the same thing.)
All of that would be fun but frivolous if I didn’t love him as a wrestler. Sami Zayn is one of the best wrestlers in the entire world- and that isn’t me, that’s just a fact. Sami’s a natural babyface, a hard-working people’s champ, and his in-ring work tells you everything you need to know about him. The transcendent joy on his face when he lands a blue thunder bomb. The way he flips and turns in the air when he takes a hard hit. The way his face twists when he kicks out at two; dazed and hurt, but not done, not for a second. The way he rushes to the ref after a broken pin, eyes and mouth wide, making desperate signs with his hands to dispute or confirm the count. The way he calls his big moves before he does them, pointing and yelling and giving his opponents every chance to block or counter as he comes running across the ring. It isn’t a good strategy, but Sami isn’t a character that acts strategically. He is a bolt from a bow, whistling with confidence, and he fully believes he will hit his mark come what may. And since he believes that, so do I, and my heart beats and breaks with his, and that is just how it’s going to be.
Unfortunately for me, my heart breaks more often than not. Sami’s an underdog by design, and he’s so good at theatrically getting his ass kicked that he’s used to put a lot of people over, which means he tends to be on the losing side in his ongoing rivalries and plotlines. He loses big matches more often than he wins, but it doesn’t stop him from running back into the ring, and it doesn’t stop him from being Sami Zayn, and maybe that’s what I love about him the most.
Because what is the point of wrestling if you don’t care about it with all of your heart? What is the point of loving a wrestler who doesn’t cry with you, cheer with you, and risk his neck to show you how much he loves the crowd? I can’t love someone that doesn’t love me back, even if they always win.
I don’t want to die in here
I don’t want to die in here
Drift down into the new dark light without any reservations
You found my breaking point
Here, second-by-second, is the exact moment when I realized that Sami Zayn is my favorite wrestler:
I am watching Sami’s first promo after Hell in a Cell. He’s been given a live mic to explain why he chose to save his rival, Kevin Owens, from a life-threatening injury at the hands of their boss Shane McMahon. Up to this point, Kevin and Sami have been best friends turned bitter enemies for years. Their reconciliation was completely unexpected, and the way it happened- Sami yanking Kevin out of harm’s way as Shane plummeted from the top of the Cell, dooming Shane to absorb the full force of impact with the table below -was brutal, even by wrestling standards. Shane was badly injured in the aftermath, and Kevin is mystified as to why Sami chose to run into the arena and pull him out of danger. Why did Sami risk his neck and career for someone who has betrayed him so many times?
I watch as Sami explains that he decided to save Kevin not because he hates Shane, but because he’s realized that playing along in the WWE doesn’t get him anywhere he actually needs to be. “It’s brought me all the way to…mediocrity.”
I choke up, unexpectedly. Not because I am shocked by this admission, but because I know he is right. Sami has languished on the midcard for far too long. He is bright and talented and incredible, but bosses like Shane don’t understand him and don’t give him the opportunities he deserves.
(Later I will realize that I took this all a little too close to heart. Generally, I take Sami’s storylines more personally than I should. Probably because I’m a thirty-four year old professional do-gooder who also dresses like a Hot Topic clearance rack, and lately I’ve been on the losing side more often than not. For example, the day I watched that promo was the day I learned that I would be losing my job at the end of the fiscal year. Years of hard work to build something I believed in, revoked in the scratch of a pen. All of that effort in a position I thought would let me change the world, ended in…mediocrity. But that’s another essay.)
Sami is blurred by my tears, sudden and embarrassing, but I keep watching. Sami speaks of the years of friendship and rivalry shared by Kevin and himself. He describes how much he wanted to see Kevin lose that match, right up until the moment that Shane propped his dazed opponent on a table and began to climb the side of the steel cage they had been fighting in, signaling that he had decided to finish the match by dealing Kevin a career-ending blow. Sami could not watch Kevin be injured like that for the sake of Shane’s pride, so he chose to act.
“I saved my brother because it was the right. Thing. To do.” He spits every word out with the conviction of a martyr who is not afraid to die for a cause. Kevin stares at Sami like a man seeing the sun for the first time, and honestly? So do I.
Because this is my Sami again, finally back from wherever he went after NXT. I realize with a rush how much I had missed him. The way he’d cheer for the crowd as they cheered him back. His sunny declarations that people should be whatever they wanted to be, and that his winning the NXT title when the odds were stacked against him was proof that it was possible. Sami’s championship run meant that you could succeed on your own merits, even if the system in which you were striving was set up to cause you to fail. This was the Sami I’d really wanted, finally back to business on the main roster, ready to resist despair and upend stagnation into victory. I watched as Kevin and Sami hugged in the middle of that ring, both so incandescently happy to be reunited, and I cheered in my living room. Fuck WWE, fuck titles and championships and fuck serving systems and institutions that don’t serve us back. I wanted anarchist heroes. I wanted them to burn everything down and make something new. No gods, no masters, no McMahons.
Later there would be moments in this storyline that made me cringe; a bitter Sami railing against the crowd, calling Daniel Bryan a housewife like he wasn’t allowed to use another gendered slur. But in that moment, I needed what Sami meant to me. I was completely on board, for better or worse.
In other words: I love Sami Zayn so much that I completely missed that this was a heel turn. I honestly, literally did not understand that he had become a villain. Sami tried to kill his boss and pledged his allegiance to Kevin Owens, the jerkass wrestling prince of hell, and I didn’t realize that he was doing something wrong.
If Sami isn’t my favorite wrestler, who is?
So when your favorite wrestler is going to perform in your hometown? You have to go. You have to open up StubHub, and you have to slide the how-much-money-will-i-spend-on-this-ticket thing up to a price that spikes your blood pressure, and then you have to slide it up AGAIN until some tickets actually appear for sale. (It’s a harrowing process, like playing poker with yourself.) You have to put the tickets in the shopping cart, you have to blink away nervous sweat as you click the yeses and no-s, and then you have to click the final button. Two incredibly expensive tickets for FastLane, please.
Are you sure about this purchase?
Yes, you are sure.
Are you really sure? It’s not like he’s going to know you’re there. Even if you could talk to Sami you wouldn’t do it because you’d be too scared. Remember when you were two feet away from Colt Cabana and you hid behind a soda machine?
Yes, you are really sure. He doesn’t need to know you’re there for you to cheer him on.
Are you really, really sure? This is such a frivolous use of your money. You could donate this to Sami for Syria instead.
Then you take a deep breath and grit your teeth, jam your thumb down on the button and howl: “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ETHICAL CONSUMPTION IN LATE STAGE CAPITALISM”.
And it’s done. You’re going to FastLane. You’re going to see Sami in person for the first time, in the middle of his biggest storyline in years. It’ll be worth it. Hopefully.
I don’t want to die in here
A heel turn for your favorite wrestler can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about it. It means someone you love is getting a storyline, which means main events and promos and a chance to remind everyone exactly why they’re so special to you. It also means that a character you love is having a major moral realignment. The guy who does the right thing all the time is gone. He was a cocoon for this new creature, this doppelganger that looks like the guy you used to love but isn’t quite the same anymore. And if this changeling still holds your heart in his hands, there’s a chance he might just drop it on the canvas and stomp it flat.
I am an idealistic idiot in general, and an idealistic idiot in specific when it comes to the people I admire. I know that. But if Sami had simply become evil- if he’d just snapped, shoved Rusev into a woodchipper and fled into the night -I probably would have at least realized what was happening and guarded my heart accordingly. Who turns heel for friendship, anyway?
I blame Kevin. Like most Sami Zayn fans, I also love Kevin Owens with all of my heart. I do want to kick his ass sometimes, but that’s just a part of the Kevin Owens Experience. Kevin has been the heel to Sami’s face, both figuratively and literally, for as long as they have been working together. And Kevin is a marvelous, masterful heel. He is a terror on the mic, a perfect mix of hilarity and cruelty. His wrestling is pragmatic and brutal, all strikes and superkicks and cannonballs, but then he’ll bust out one of the most beautiful moonsaults you have ever seen just to remind you that this arrogant sumbitch really is as good as he says he is. He would probably be my favorite wrestler if he didn’t make a career out of kicking my ACTUAL favorite wrestler in the dick for the last fourteen years. Ah well.
If you love Kevin, you are used to seeing him miserable, and it’s usually his own fault. Kevin Owens is a great wrestler, but he’s also a broken, lonely dude who destroys other people to get what he wants and then suffers for it. For example, he was only on NXT for about…maybe ten minutes before he betrayed his then-best friend Sami to stake a claim on the NXT championship. This sparked a rivalry that has been the axis of their shared WWE careers. Kevin has always been the devil on Sami’s shoulder, holding him back and reminding him of his failures. In turn Sami has often been the angel on Kevin’s shoulder. Not a nice angel. More the biblical vengeance variety, swooping in to spoil his big moments and remind him of the damage he’s doing to his soul with his constant betrayals and general immoral bullshit.
I am not getting into the tangled history of Kevin Steen, Kevin Owens, El Generico and Sami Zayn. This essay is already embarrassingly long, and that story has been recounted more effectively than I could hope to do it.*** As the essay notes, it can be frustrating to watch all of this unfold over and over again, even as it is done so well. I love watching Sami and Kevin put on a show, but fourteen years is a long time to spend kicking someone else in the dick, and I sometimes wonder if there’s a point to this endless dick-kicking purgatory they have made for themselves. I’d like to see them happy, someday.
Sami’s heel turn, if nothing else, opened the door to the possibility of reconciliation. For those of us who let wrestling dreams of love and redemption live in our hearts, there will always be a torch burning for the tag team of Steen and Generico, and hope flowing eternal for a truly reunited Owens and Zayn. Maybe these characters we love could actually change and evolve instead of staying locked in a sadomasochistic tango that costs them both their happiness. Maybe we could have a Sami that wins titles, and maybe we could have a Kevin who is capable of having friends without trying to murder them whenever they stand between him and something shiny.
Credit due to those marvelous monsters: for a little while, it looked like our dreams might be coming true. Sami took to calling himself Kevin’s guardian angel, because subtext is for cowards. They started coming out to the ring together, Sami dancing to Kevin’s music like a deranged marionette, both of them cheering each other from the sidelines and helping each other distract the ref and celebrating their wins with rapturous embraces. Seeing Kevin and Sami join forces was, to me, the main piece of evidence that Sami wasn’t actually evil. He was teamed up with an evil guy, yeah, but that didn’t make him bad. Sami had just reset his moral compass and he was still figuring stuff out. The WWE system had failed him, so now Kevin was his magnetic north, and he was performing some course corrections. Sure, he was being kind of bratty, and cheating more often than I would have liked to see, but that seemed less like evil to me and more like a teenager acting out. He’d come to his senses eventually. And in the meantime, friendship! That couldn’t be a bad thing, could it?
(And OK! Maybe it felt a bit flimsy sometimes, given all the bad blood between them. It was a little too neat and unearned for Kevin to be instantly forgiven for all he had done. It seemed odd for Sami to just forget everything that Kevin had done. But I wanted it, goddamn it, so I accepted it. Just like Kevin did, come to think of it.)
The honeymoon didn’t last. First Kevin and Sami lost a chance to be co-champions, which turned them against each other. Post-match celebrations became quiet and strained. They fought each other in an ugly singles match, where Kevin screamed his insecurities at Sami and got a forearm to the face for his trouble. Watching their full-contact couples therapy was uncomfortable, to say the least.
It was somewhere in here that I began to lose the thread on my Sami. The more Kevin opened himself up, the more Sami shut himself off. His eyes went flat, his jokes with Kevin got pointed, and I wanted to see them together less and less. I kept hoping for the best- Kevin can change! Sami can win! Friendship will triumph! -even though the worst was clearly on the horizon. But I kept the faith, kept thinking the good Sami was still in there somewhere, even as he got meaner and meaner and harder to read. It was oddly painful, to realize I understood so little of this character that had meant so much to me.
It’s irritating, but not surprising, that Kevin figured out Sami’s role in the FastLane storyline before I did. Nobody knows Sami better than Kevin, after all, and good ol’ KO has been the catalyst for many a moment of ring-based heartbreak. So when Sami told Kevin that he was still his guardian angel no matter what happened, and when Sami promised Kevin he’d take a dive to help him win the championship at FastLane, I should not have been studying Sami for clues as to where his loyalty laid. I should have been looking at Kevin. Kevin already knew.
Because what Kevin realized, before I did, is that Sami is not very good at being a heel. He’s not good at navigating shifting situations, stifling his emotions, and manipulating people to his advantage. There is only one person in the world Sami Zayn can successfully manipulate, and that is Kevin Owens. Kevin is the only card that heel Sami has in his pocket. Kevin is the only ace Sami can play to win the title he wants so badly. The title that would be dangling in front of him, just out of his reach, at FastLane.
Observe the neat and terrible dilemma Sami’s gambit has created for us, as Kevin’s face breaks the fourth wall and screams at us to pay attention: Sami can betray Kevin, and win a title shot. Sami can preserve his friendship with Kevin, and lose a title shot. Sami can’t have both. It’s the title or his friend, just like it’s always been for Kevin.
And to be fair, Kevin has always picked the title. Kevin has no right to expect better from Sami. And I had no idea, at that point, if Sami expected better from himself. All I had was hope.
So which would it be?
I don’t want to die in here
I decided that in order to survive FastLane, I was going to have to preemptively mark the fuck out. I was going to have to believe, in defiance of wrestling logic and booking indications and God himself. that my favorite wrestler was still a good guy and he had as much chance of winning that match clean as anybody else in that ring. So I would go to FastLane, and I would wear my Sami Zayn t-shirt with pride. And in the incredibly, unbelievably unlikely event that Sami lost, or betrayed his friend, I would buy one of those $18 beers at the concession stand and drown myself with it.
We misunderstood the timing listed on our tickets, and we found our seats in the sold out arena just a few minutes before the first bell. I had never been to Nationwide Arena before, and it was predictably cramped and bright and loud and anxiety-inducing, but at least my StubHub panic attack had resulted in decent seats. I could see where the wrestlers would enter from. I had a unobstructed view of the ramp. And there was the ring, where I would see Sami and Kevin wrestle in just a little while. I thought of the hours I had spent watching them wrestle on my laptop, the venues I had seen them wrestle in; everything from high school gyms to WrestleMania. It seemed surreal that there was a place where I could actually see them in person, and that I was allowed inside. If I’d been willing to pony up a little more I’d have been close enough to touch them as they entered. Strange miracle. I felt so lucky, in that moment, that I was able to be there for whatever would happen next.
The lights dimmed and the crowd roared. On a screen above us the promo package for the FastLane PPV came on to kick off the show. John Cena’s smiling face popped up on the screen. I didn’t boo- many of the people in the arena did -but I did snap, my annoyance with him being added to what I thought of as the Sami and Kevin match still fresh in my mind. “GODDAMN John Cena! He’s-”
My husband grabbed my wrist urgently, inclining his head to his right. I peered across him to see a small boy in a lime green John Cena t-shirt, clutching a “Never Give Up” towel and staring at me with horror.
“-such a good wrestler!” I finished, weakly.
(We all made sure to applaud loudly whenever Cena came up from then on in. It seemed to make him feel better. The kid, not Cena, though I’m sure he appreciated it too.)
The video outlined the plotlines we’d be seeing, the belts up for grabs, the scores intended to be settled. Sami and Kevin got a good amount of time to seethe at each other, which pleased and worried me in equal measure. I stared up at Sami’s face, larger than my entire body, snarling about how he would stop at nothing to win the title.
Being the eternal optimist, I saw one way out. One way Sami could walk out of that ring with his pride, a belt and Kevin’s respect. If Sami tried to lay down for Kevin, Kevin could simply reject the gesture. Refuse to lay down next to his friend, kick him in the ribs for good measure, make him stand up and fight. Then Sami and Kevin could really have it out, and Sami could win clean. It was a long shot, and I knew I was hoping for a lot, especially from Kevin. But that’s how hope works. It’s hard to turn off, you know?
You can do it, Sami. You can win the right way, like you always said you would.
Just please, please don’t fuck it up.
Stay good under pressure for years and years and years and years
President of the fan club up there choking on his tears
By the time Kevin and Sami’s match began, I had been perched in my tiny stadium seat for two and a half hours. I had sat through boring wrestling, and exciting wrestling, and confusing wrestling, and perhaps the best Charlotte Flair match I had ever seen. I enjoyed it profusely, but it was all prelude to the match I’d been waiting for.
Finally- FINALLY — the main event. Kevin and Sami, and some other wrestlers that I cared about much less, in a six-man challenge for the championship. The wrestlers started to emerge to their theme music. First Cena, to the rapturous delight of Cena Kid. Then Ziggler, then Corbin. It felt weirdly anticlimactic, all pageantry and artifice. There was no need to take it that seriously. These massive dudes were going to slam into each other for the next half-hour or so, and someone would be walking out of there with a belt, but it was pretty much irrelevant to the rest of the world. I breathed and relaxed, getting myself ready to enjoy the show-
Then Kevin’s theme music hit.
Reader, I cannot explain to you exactly what my body did at that moment- what emergency buttons were pressed, what levers were jammed -but I was all in. As soon as the “KO” lit up on the entrance way I was on my feet and yelling. I watched Kevin emerge from the backstage area and stride down the ramp, rolling his neck and screaming at the crowd, and it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in my life. My heart climbed the walls of my ribcage, as if it could leap into the ring to challenge him itself if my body would just get out of the way. I jumped up and down, I waved, and I tried to ignore the voice in the back of my head reminding me that we weren’t here to root for Kevin, Kevin was about to beat the hell out of our actual favorite wrestler, and he would be coming out any second-
Then SAMI’S theme music hit.
And I couldn’t do ANYTHING. I couldn’t cheer, couldn’t yell, couldn’t jump in on the OIe chant starting in front of us. Up to this point, Sami Zayn was a fictional construction in my head, as unreal as Batgirl. I would never breathe the same air as my hero and I was fine with that. But there he was, striding down the ramp- striding PAST KEVIN — and curling up on a ringpost just forty feet away from where I sat. He was somehow smaller than I had imagined and larger than life. If I’d been watching on TV I would have noted the lack of joy in his entrance, the immediate trash talk. But all I could say in person was “LOOK IT’S SAMI! THERE’S SAMI! SAMI ZAYN!”
If anybody tells you wrestling isn’t real, you tell that smug buzzkill genius to go fuck themselves. There is a difference between something being predetermined and something being fake. Wrestling is real because we make it real, because we can’t help ourselves, and if you don’t watch it you might not ever understand.
That’s OK. You don’t have to. Sami Zayn is real to me.
And so the match began. Their first twenty minutes were pure audience baiting tug-of-war. Everyone was waiting for Kevin and Sami to end up in the ring together and have it out. They exploited that by trading places, slipping past each other, targeting other opponents, and timing it perfectly so they were JUST missing each other with every big movement. You could hear the audience keen as they came within arms lengths of each other, desperate for them to finally make contact.
Finally, the moment of truth. All of the other wrestlers in the challenge were knocked out to the sides of the ring, sprawled and recovering. Sami and Kevin found themselves sharing the ring, alone. They turned to look at each other.
I brought my hands to my face, whimpering, pleading. Don’t do it, Sami. Stay good. I still believe in you, even though I know I shouldn’t, so please don’t fuck this up.
The recording doesn’t quite capture the audience’s confusion and frustration with what happened next. You could see Kevin shake his fists, scream for Sami to come at him. You could see Sami shake his head, drop to his knees. The cavernous arena fell nearly silent as the tension mounted between them.
Don’t do it, Sami. Don’t take a fall for Kevin. Don’t give up on yourself.
You could see Kevin hesitate, look back and forth, before clumsily falling to one knee. The crowd’s voice became a crescendo of tense booing.
Don’t do it, Sami. Don’t give up on Kevin either. You guys can still figure this out-
And then- and I will swear this is what happened until I die -Kevin roared a final, defiant taunt. He leaned in close and grabbed Sami around the neck with his massive forearms, trying to pull him to his feet. Trying to force him into a fair fight. He tried give us what we wanted- what even Kevin wanted - and what Sami deserved. Despite what was at stake, Kevin still tried to do right by Sami, maybe for the first time in his entire villainous life.
And then Sami just rolled him up and went for the fucking pin anyway.
Let all the trash rain down from way up in the rafters
I’m getting out of here in one piece, I don’t care what comes after
Shortly after Kevin broke the pin, I realized how thoroughly I had been worked. I had assumed that Sami would win the match through trickery, or that Kevin and Sami would both lose but at least walk out as friends. I did not consider the third option: Sami panicking and not trusting Kevin, blowing a pin and losing his chance at the title. Kevin’s righteous fury with Sami pushing him to do the best thing in the worst way, leaving him vulnerable to an attack that both of us just didn’t want to see coming. Sami and Kevin leaving the same way they came in: empty handed and alone.
Kevin did the right thing and it didn’t even matter.
Sami turned heel and betrayed his best friend for a title he didn’t even manage to win.
From that moment, at least for me, the show was basically over. Later in the match Sami and Kevn each had a pin ruined by interference from the ever-awful Shane McMahon, but I didn’t care anymore. From the second Sami turned on Kevin, I knew they had both lost. I barely watched the rest of the match, not even able to cheer when champion AJ Styles predictably won and retained the title.
Next to us, Cena Kid sniffled onto his dad’s shoulder, crushed to have seen his hero lose in person. His dad handled it like a pro, carrying him away while reassuring him that yes, Cena could still find a way to WrestleMania, and yes, they could stop for a Frosty on the way home. I briefly wished there was someone to carry ME out of the arena and buy me an ice cream before I got too upset. But that isn’t really a thing for adults, so all I could do was watch the aftermath.
There was a moment after the match that I recounted on Twitter. I have to be honest and say that I am still not 100% sure of what I saw. I know I saw Kevin backing down the ramp, staring at Sami. I know I saw Sami leave. If it meant everything I read into it? I have no idea. One thing I did realize later is that it seemed to take hours to me, but based on my Lyft receipt I only could have lingered to watch for five minutes or so. The human brain reads meaning into things in strange ways. Maybe I just wanted Sami to be as sad as I was, in that moment.
Hell, maybe he was. If there’s one thing that this essay establishes, I am not a trustworthy source for opinions on the feelings and motivations of Sami Zayn.
On the way home, I decided that I hated Sami with every fiber of my bruised heart. I had trusted him, goddamnit, well past the point I should have stopped. I ignored the heel turn, ignored his growing iciness, ignored the thunder of an approaching storm. It was my fault I got taken aback by the betrayal. Only by my own efforts was I shocked and soaked.
And yet, somehow, that knowledge did not make me feel better. Who knew?
The worst part is that there was a part of my heart- a tiny, dumb piece -that still believed that Sami was good. That he had thought Kevin was attacking him and he had acted in self-defense. That he still cared about Kevin and friendship and doing the right thing, somewhere down deep inside of him. My heart still had hope in it for Kevin and Sami, even after that terrible display.
Oh, my heart. Oh, Sami. What are you going to do?
Drive the wedge, torch the bridge
I don’t want to die in here
I don’t want to die in here
After the match, I decided I was too wrapped up in the Sami and Kevin storyline. It was dumb to love any wrestler that much, to be able to delude myself to that extent. Plus, what was really left to care about? Kevin and Sami hating each other again wasn’t a story I was much interested in. It was time to summon my cynicism and take a break from my Wrestling Feelings.
And then Twitter exploded. Apparently, Sami and Kevin had a big night on SmackDown while I was away. They had learned that they were getting a singles match at WrestleMania. And they had responded by beating the absolute hell out of Shane McMahon.
I raced home after work the next day to watch the episode. I watched their promos with a jaundiced eye, waiting for my sadness and distrust of Sami to be validated. And yes, my heart hurt when Sami proclaimed that he’d been plotting against Kevin the entire time. Yes, that ache deepened when Kevin said he wouldn’t trust Sami again.
But there were odd details. Sami took a break from trash talking Kevin to mention how talented his friend was, and how they’d been close outside of the ring for a long time. Kevin was wearing the red “KO” shirt that matches Sami’s gear- a color-coordinating habit from when they had tagged together back in the day. These were strange choices for trash talking promos. Why would Sami stop to praise someone he was trying to undermine? Why would he invoke their shared past again, as he did after Hell in a Cell? Why would Kevin wear Sami’s colors in a promo just to put him down?
When Kevin and Sami went into the ring together at the end of the episode, I knew that these liars had lied to us again and that Shane was going to suffer for it. I was reminded of a moment at FastLane I hadn’t thought much of at the time, shortly after Sami betrayed Kevin in the ring. Sami crawled across the floor, exhausted and furious, staring at where Shane was sitting ringside and screaming something I couldn’t quite make out. It made sense after I looked it up. Sami wasn’t angry about losing the pin. Sami wasn’t angry about losing the title.
Sami was angry about losing Kevin.
I relished the hellacious beatdown they administered to Shane. Yeah, I was put off by Sami’s ugly violence-fueled joy, but I got to experience that joy too, so I can’t judge. At the end, when Shane was laying gasping on the floor and Kevin pulled Sami into an awkward but heartfelt sideways embrace, I cheered in my living room. Again.
No gods, no masters, no McMahons. Just The Sami and Kevin Show, reconciled once more and on its way to WrestleMania.
The thing about storytelling- whether you tell stories via narrative essays or via punching people in the face -is that you are always aware that you are walking a tightrope of trust with your audience. It is the most vulnerable feeling in the world when you ask someone to take a risk on you and the stories you want to tell. You have to assume they will follow along with you, even when things get hard or strange. You have to try new things, and different things, in order to make it worth their while. You have to punish them for trusting you, and you have to comfort them after they’re hurt by you. You never know exactly how your meaning will be perceived, even if it’s a story you’ve told a thousand times before. And you have to accept the fact that your audience may abandon you, in the end, if they don’t like where you go.
We tell our stories because of the hope that they will matter to someone, someday, even if we can’t predict how or why. For example: Could Sami have known a weepy post-punk essayist on a bad stretch of road in life would derive strength and gratitude from his heel turn? Probably not. But here we are, some 6000-odd words in on it. Because he trusted me enough to tell that story, and I believed in him enough to listen.
(And if regular storytelling is difficult, great wrestling storytelling is difficult-plus, because it’s predetermined but it’s also somehow real. You have to let your best friend scream at you about your actual career missteps and your high-profile failures in front of thousands of people. You have to trust him to lay your broken body down as gently as possible when he powerbombs you into the ring apron, even though you know it won’t be painless since he still has to sell it to the audience, and you may never recover enough to do this again. You have to accept booking-mandated losses with a smile and watch wrestlers who aren’t as talented as you or don’t care as much as you do take the wins, just because they’re more over or they have the look management likes, and you still have to make them look like gods when you fall down for them. You have to bleed and burn and hurl yourself into the jaws of a lion every day, and trust that people will keep on believing in you, even when you hit a losing streak or you have to make them hate you for a while. And you do it all for the stories you tell, and for the people who love you, even when you are struggling to love them back.
I’d rather get a million rejections from The Atlantic than have a million people see me get called a failure and get punched in the face by my best friend. And yet, Sami Zayn endures. How could I ever stop loving him after all of that?)
I should have been annoyed at being worked again, but I just felt fortunate to have followed them out on the storytelling tightrope. They trusted me not turn my back on them, to stick with them through the twists and turns that had been and the twists and turns that were no doubt to come.This was their story, and they were telling it to me, and I could not have been more lucky to see a piece of it in person. I could not be more lucky to be sharing that piece with you now. Even if it made me cry.
Oh Sami. Oh, my heart. What are you going to do next?
And look, I don’t know what any of this means about what happened at FastLane. I’m still not sure whether Sami betrayed Kevin on purpose, or if he acted in the heat of the moment, or if it was just a work, or if the two misunderstood each other so completely that they created yet another fight out of nothing at all. I don’t know if Kevin trusts Sami or not. I don’t know if Sami can be trusted, for that matter. I am also incredibly aware that something could happen to end this storyline or upend it completely, as even Kevin and Sami are subject to the whims of Creative (which is honestly why I am trying to get this up before SmackDown airs again). I know what I want to see, but that doesn’t matter much.
The only thing I am certain of is that somewhere in the unreadable monstrous mess that is heel Sami Zayn, there is a Sami who still loves his friend, and is still worthy of being loved. There’s a Sami that Kevin seems willing to forgive, whatever forgiveness means for the two of them now. There’s even still the Sami who won the NXT belt way back when, hidden somewhere under all those layers of anger and irony. I know that Kevin and Sami have their own story to tell, and I know I will watch it until it is done. It doesn’t matter if I never get my old Sami back. No matter what, I’ll still watch his matches and I’ll still grasp at straws and I’ll still find hope in the stupidest places. I’ll absolutely go down with this ship, no question.
Because I still trust Sami Zayn. And he’s still my favorite wrestler.
*”Everyone Will Do What He’s Been Trained How To Do: A Guide to Pro-Wrestling via the Mountain Goats Album Beat the Champ”, by Ed Blair. It’s in The Atomic Elbow 20. It isn’t online, to my knowledge, and you should pay for good writing anyway. Go buy it.
** Heel Turn 2, from Beat the Champ, in case that wasn’t apparent from the title. If you haven’t listened to this album but you’re also the kind of person who is willing to read this much about Wrestling Feelings, what the hell are you waiting for?
***I owe an obvious debt of gratitude to J.J. McGee and her incredible wrestling essays on Spectacle of Excess. Linking her work in the middle of my essay feels a bit like if Ed Wood had paused the action halfway through BRIDE OF THE MONSTER to ask the audience if they had any interest in watching CASABLANCA instead. I don’t mind. She’s that good and I wouldn’t be screaming this heartfelt nonsense into the void without her work leading the way. Go read her stuff.