The 30-year-old, who has strong Arabic roots, talks to The National’s Graham Caygill about returning to the UAE, being NXT champion and advice for Emiratis looking to move into wrestling.
WWE Superstar Sami Zayn feels at home wrestling in Abu Dhabi
WWE Superstar Sami Zayn was in Abu Dhabi this week to promote the WWE Live shows in the capital, happening next month on February 12-14 at the Tennis Stadium at Zayed Sports City.
The 30-year-old, who is Syrian-Canadian, talks to The National’s Graham Caygill about returning to the UAE, being NXT champion, advice for Emiratis looking to move into wrestling, the importance of crowd interaction, the prospects of a match at WrestleMania and his dream opponents in the WWE.
What can the UAE’s WWE fans expect from next month’s shows in Abu Dhabi?
It should be pretty exciting. We have been here twice before and I was here last year. I think that because we don’t get to come out here very often, and maybe this sort of entertainment does not come to the emirates very often, that the fans are very excited. They are not the least bit jaded by it, so they are very impassioned, so it is going to be three very exciting nights to look forward to.
When you here in 2013 you were fighting for the US Championship against Dean Ambrose. What can we expect from you here this time?
Well this time I am coming in as the NXT champion so hopefully I will be defending my title. I’m a much more established performer, as far as NXT goes, being the champion and everything now, so I have come a long way since 2013 when I last came here. So hopefully I have gotten to know the Arab fanbase a little bit better and they have got to know me a bit better, so hopefully the connection is a little deeper and I am really looking forward to it. Even though I am from Canada obviously, with the Arab background, it is almost like a home crowd for me so it is very exciting for me anytime I can perform in front of the Arab countries.
Can you tell us a little more about your Arabic background and connections to the region?
If you take a quick look at me you wouldn’t guess that I am Arabic, but I am a 100 per cent Syrian. Both my parents are Syrian and come from Syria. They came to Canada in the seventies, so I was born and raised in Montreal, but I am of full Syrian descent.
NXT is screened here in the UAE, but for any fans who only know the Raw and Smackdown WWE shows can you tell us a little about NXT and its background?
NXT is basically the breeding ground for all WWE talent now. The business has changed so much since the days of, well obviously since the days of Hulk Hogan, but even since the days of Steve Austin or even when Brock Lesnar was first champion just 10 years ago or so.
It has changed just so much and now you don’t get guys just coming in from whatever company or whatever background and coming to the main roster. Basically everyone now passes through NXT.
A lot of NXT alumni have made a huge splash in WWE very quickly from Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns to the Wyatt family, well Bray Wyatt as they are no longer a family. Luke Harper, Erik Rowan and you know Bo Dallas, Paige, Emma, Adam Rose, the list just goes on. Everyone is now coming through NXT now. It is a very exciting thing to watch.
It is a lot more interesting in my opinion to watch people kind of clawing and chomping at the bit to get ahead.
While I think once you have made the main roster, there is a certain level of comfort and security knowing that you are here.
It is not to say that you should take anything for granted, and I am not saying the people on the main roster do, but there is a certain level of hunger that exists amongst the NXT roster that you just have to be in NXT to understand, or you have to watch NXT to understand, and really fully appreciate that hunger.
Anyone who hasn’t checked it out, I highly suggest they do.
How big a moment in your wrestling career was becoming the NXT champion and the manner of how you did it by pinning Adrian Neville in December at NXT Takeover: R Evolution?
It was huge for me on so many levels, professionally and personally. I don’t even know how to begin to put it into words, but it was definitely a career highlight for me.
The match was one of my favourites of my career against one of my all-time best opponents in Adrian Neville, who I have known for years and years, so it is a really huge deal for me to be the NXT champion.
In the interests of full disclosure, from a personal perspective, when I came here, there is a lot of doubts on how are you will do, because I came from an independent wrestling background, and you are not sure what kind of deal you are going to get.
So, for me this is a big symbol of having kind of thrived in this kind of environment in WWE on the NXT level and makes me very confident in that next step forward on to the main roster I think I can do just as well as I have down in NXT. It is very important to me and it means a lot.
Going back a bit, when did you decide that you wanted to be a wrestler and this is the career for you?
Well I had always wanted to do it ever since I was a little kid, I always loved it. You are so young you don’t necessarily think ‘that is what I am going to do for a living when I’m 30’ as you can’t really process it at that age. But I loved it. My earliest memories were watching Hulk Hogan with my dad.
It is kind of a long story on getting to where I am today, but I will give you the short version. I got trained in Montreal by a local wrestler and then broke in and wrestled locally in Montreal for about a year, year and a half, and kind of earned a bit of a reputation and that eventually broke me out into the US and the independent scene, which led to Europe, Japan and everything else and Mexico, so it has just been an amazing journey that I guess started when I was five. I am very grateful for it all and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.
For any young Emirati fans watching you in action live next month and fancy following in your footsteps, what would your advice be to them?
I grew up in Montreal and when I grew up there and broke into the business it wasn’t even a business really, there was no money involved, zero, but there was wrestling, and there were shows.
Now the problem is, if you’re an Emirati kid, there is not really a wrestling scene out here. So, you might almost have to create your own, which is how these scenes often get started.
If it is something you are deeply passionate about or something you really want to get involved in, obviously it is possible and the proof is that I am here talking to you now. If I can do it anyone with the right amount of hard work and passion and that combination can do it. You just have to stick with it.
It requires some sacrifice and in the case of an Emirati kid you might need to get on a plane to England or Europe or North America and get proper training and break in.
If it is something you really want to do you have to take maybe take bigger steps then maybe I had to take because when I was getting trained it was 30 minutes from my house. Unfortunately I don’t know of any training schools in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, so that might be the thing.
How important is crowd reactions to you and other WWE Superstars? We have the seen the good with the amazing reaction to your win over Adrian Neville, and then the less positive with the crowd reactions at the Royal Rumble last week, so how important do you see interactions with the crowd?
That is a very subjective question and different people are going to give you different answers. Personally, to me, the crowd is the show, that is just me. Someone else will tell you something completely different, it all stems from your background and experience or whatever.
But for the me the crowd is the show and it can make or break the show, and any great memories in wrestling in my life, as a fan, that I remember, that I cling on to, that I think moved me or affected my life or decision to want to become a wrestler or anything like that, if I really stop and think about any one of them, it is all about the crowd at any given moment.
The easiest example is the Rock versus Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8. They are not even moving for the first few minutes but the crowd is dancing. You watch something like that have such a profound affect on these people that it moves you.
So to me the crowd is extremely important and in the case of the night I won the NXT championship I think that is definitely a big factor in why it was so amazing.
Even after the match and all the celebrations, it probably went on for 10 minutes, and they were relentless and just loving it. I could probably watch it back over and over again because I don’t think I will ever get tired of knowing not only was I a part of that reaction, but that I was the cause of it, and that is very powerful to me.
With WrestleMania 31 around the corner there have been rumours of a NXT match being on the card. What would being on the card of WrestleMania mean to you?
Obviously it goes without saying that it would be a dream come true to perform at WrestleMania. I really don’t know. I’ve heard rumours, but I put very little stock into them.
But a small part of me feels as great as it would be to be on WrestleMania, you know the likelihood if we were featured in that kind of light, would be probably a five-minute showcase and that is not how you envision your WrestleMania debut.
But listen, a WrestleMania debut is a WrestleMania debut, especially if you are defending a championship at WrestleMania. It would be awesome, it goes without saying. But I would hopefully envision a time when I can be at WrestleMania in a bigger role.
Finally, looking at the current WWE roster, who would be your dream opponent if you could pick anyone for a one-on-one match?
I guess it depends on the stage because a lot of the guys I really want to wrestle with again are guys I have already wrestled with like Daniel Bryan, Seth Rollins and Cesaro. These are just some of the guys I think are the best period.
So even though I have wrestled them before, to wrestle them on a grander stage in the WWE would obviously mean a lot. Even Adrian Neville, a guy I have wrestled countless times now, to be able to him to wrestle him in the WWE in say a WrestleMania match or something like that would obviously be a whole another level.
I guess if there are guys I would like to wrestle before they call it a day Christian would be one, although I do not know what his status is. Rey Mysterio is another, though again I do not know what his status is. But those are a couple of guys I would love to get in the ring with before they call it a day.
Obviously there is just so much talent up there. Cena is the top guy. You want to be in the ring with John Cena. Randy Orton. An amazing performer. I would love to get in the ring with him. Dolph Ziggler too. There is just so much talent up there now, that pretty much anyone you could work with would give you a pretty good match.
Tickets for each of the three days of the action at WWE Live in Abu Dhabi start from Dh300 and tickets can be bought online at www.ticketmaster.ae
For more information on the event visit www.wwe.com/AbuDhabi