Sami Zayn on Elimination Chamber, His Unkempt Hair and IC Title Run
By Ryan Satin
FOX Sports WWE Analyst
Sami Zayn might appear to be unraveling each week on SmackDown, but the man behind the character is fully cognizant of the fact that he’s doing the best character work of his career.
Zayn returned to WWE in August of last year proclaiming to be the real Intercontinental Champion after being stripped of the belt for inactivity.
As the weeks progressed, though, and he continued to insist on being the rightful titleholder, one thing became clear – the 36-year-old wrestler’s descent into madness was becoming one of the best parts of Friday Night SmackDown and he suddenly felt more in-tune with the heel side of his character than ever.
It helps that most of the audience watching who are still stuck at home can relate to the feeling of going mad right now, but the real credit goes to Sami for all the brilliant work he’s done on the microphone.
This week, Zayn joined me for a one-on-one conversation where we discussed how he’s felt about his run since returning, holding the Intercontinental Championship, his upcoming Elimination Chamber match this weekend for a shot at the Universal title, and more.
Watch the interview or scroll below for the full transcript.
RS: I’ve always been a fan of your work in WWE and, during your time in NXT, I honestly felt there was no better babyface in the entire company. I loved everything you were doing at the time then.
Ever since you returned in August, though, I feel like you’ve been more in tune with your character than ever before and, personally, I think this is the best character work that you’ve done in your entire WWE run.
Did this happen naturally or did you think about what you would do when you returned last year in order to be better than before when you came back?
ZAYN: Well, firstly, thanks for the kind words. I appreciate that. That time in NXT I think holds a very special place in my heart.
Again, for some of the storytelling and character stuff that I got to do. I just have very fond memories of the stuff I got to do in that time. And now, I kind of agree. I think I am doing some of the best stuff I’ve ever done. Definitely in terms of mic work and stuff like that.
I feel like this is definitely me at my best right now.
In that time, where I was off because of the beginning of the pandemic and not really having any certainty of what was coming next, I was off for a couple of months and to be honest with you – and I’ve said this in other interviews – when I’m away from wrestling, I’m pretty away from wrestling, you know? I tend to compartmentalize it.
When I’m in it, I’m in it 100% and when I’m out, I don’t want to say I’m out 100%, but pretty close, you know? Of course, the bug bites me a little bit, every now and again, and I get flowing with some creative ideas and, "Oh, man. I can’t wait to do this and do that."
But, for the most part, I didn’t necessarily think of what I would do differently when I came back.
I kind of had an idea because of the way things left off, how I would return and what kind of story I’d be plugged into, but, from there, things have just kind of spiraled organically into this, I’d say, evolution … but it’s almost like a de-evolution.
I’m just coming undone. I’m looking shaggy and frantic and narcissistic, a conspiracy theorist who is deranged that thinks everyone is out to get him. It kind of happened organically over this time, ever since I've been back, but I’ve really been enjoying it.
RS: So, the hair. You mentioned the hair just now and how you’re letting it look all crazy.
Is that something that’s pandemic-related because most of us aren’t going out and getting haircuts right now? Or is that something that kinda happened because you saw it was getting under people’s skin a bit and you just kept it going?
ZAYN: It’s funny that you say it’s getting under people’s skin. I actually get that comment a lot. "Cut your hair. Shave your beard." What’s your problem? What do you care? It’s the strangest thing.
It offends people to be this unkempt. It offends people.
But, no, it’s actually more just cause I think I’m going bald and I’ve never had long hair. And I said, "Well, if you’re ever going to do it, now’s the time. I’m getting older. I’m starting to see it thin out a little bit." I said, "I’ve never had it, I’m starting to see it thin out a little bit. I’ve never had it, let’s go for it."
Then, because of the nature of my character, it just looked better to keep it looking crazy versus putting product in it. If I was a good guy, I don’t think it would work as well.
But, I had an inspiration early on from, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, Kingpin. Bill Murray’s character in Kingpin and the big game when his hair starts going little by little. That was a bit of an inspiration for me. I wanted to have that look.
Or Bret Hart from a more practical point of view, where he’d come out looking one way, but then as the match progressed he looked a different way. And it kind of gave off the effect that this person’s going through hell and they’re in a war.
They come out and their hair’s looking one way, but by the end, it’s just everywhere, you know? So, I kind of like that aspect of it.
RS: I knew it had to be a little bit deeper than just not getting your hair cut. I felt there had to be more since you’re someone who, when you’re in it, seems to be constantly thinking about ways to enhance your character. So it doesn’t surprise me that there’s a deeper thought process behind there.
I also hate that people get frustrated by long hair and long beards. Before I started working with FOX, I was the same way. I would just let it all go. I had the long hair, long beard like you, and it definitely seemed to bother people.
ZAYN: It’s really strange. Like, it’s something you would have heard in the 70s. "Cut your hair, hippy." But, it’s 2021. How can this bother you? Anyways, whatever. I digress.
If it helps get under people’s skin in any way or helps me be any more unlikable, then I like it. And I do think especially now, because of the conspiracy theorist sort of skew on the character, it kinda goes hand in hand with that.
It looks like someone who's been holed up in his basement a little while, going down a YouTube rabbit hole and now he’s paranoid. Too much coffee. God knows what. That’s kind of the aesthetic I’m going for a little bit.
RS: Well, I love the documentary thing you’ve been doing, too. It cracks me up. The thing you put out the other day with the Mysterio family is so good. I loved it. Are you a big documentary guy yourself? What are some of your favorite documentaries?
ZAYN: Yeah, sure, there are a few. I like a good documentary.
I don’t know what I’ve watched recently. The last one that just jumps to mind is "The Social Dilemma." That was a big one for a minute. Everyone was talking about that.
I saw a documentary many years ago called "Cowspiracy" which inspired me to stop eating meat.
I also just think of "Bowling For Columbine" and those old Michael Moore ones. When the documentary does eventually come out, I’d almost want it to have an over-the-top, sort of exaggerated feel akin to what those Michael Moore documentaries kind of had, you know? Just a little more unhinged.
RS: Do you think you’ll actually put out, like, a full documentary of some sort of all this footage that you guys are putting together?
ZAYN: I don’t know about full length. Like, it’s not going to be an hour and forty minutes, but it’s definitely in the works. That’s for real, yeah.
RS: I can’t wait to see that.
You talked a minute ago about how you knew how you wanted to return when you came back from the pandemic. Was the angle surrounding your return as the real Intercontinental Champion inspired by the angle surrounding the WrestleMania ladder match between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon?
ZAYN: Maybe a little bit, yeah. But, you know, I was so young at the time, maybe ten or eleven. So, I kinda don’t remember the storyline going into the match as well.
Obviously, I remember the controversy of two Intercontinental Championships. But, I don’t remember the circumstances under which Shawn – Shawn was the one who left, and he was still Intercontinental Champion if I remember – but I don’t really remember the circumstances surrounding it. Like, I don’t know the real story of why Shawn was gone. I don’t remember.
But, for sure, visually, I thought the visual of the two Intercontinental Championships in a ladder match would be a really cool culmination to this storyline and amazingly it worked out. Which is very rare.
I don’t know how much you know about how WWE works, but it’s very rare as a performer that you have an idea and it gets seen through. It’s extremely rare.
RS: I made a bet with my friend at the time who predicted you would return with a similar angle to the whole Shawn Michaels/Razor Ramon thing and I didn’t think they would since it was unclear when you’d be returning. So, I totally understand what you’re saying.
ZAYN: Yeah, yeah. It’s just crazy that I was like, "Oh, this is something we could do." And then even some of the people I talked to were like, "Well, maybe that is something you could do." And then I came back and we did it. And, again, it’s such a rarity in WWE. And you can’t point the finger at any one reason.
There’s just so many variables in the air at all times and things change constantly. It’s just so rare that you get to have an idea and execute the idea almost exactly like how you envisioned it. Any time you can get that, that’s a win from a performer’s point of view.
RS: Of course. For me, the ladder match you had with AJ Styles and Jeff Hardy was one of my favorite matches last year. I loved it so much.
RS: Was it crazy for you as a long-time wrestling fan to be in a ladder match with Jeff Hardy?
ZAYN: Yeah. I was a big Hardy fan when I was younger. In Canada and Montreal, where I live, I didn’t have cable. Kevin Owens always makes fun of me for that because I won’t know about a lot of stuff from the 90s in WWE, and he’ll be like, "Were you even a fan?" I’ll be like, "We didn’t have cable!" And that’s always been my cop-out, how I didn’t have cable so I couldn’t follow all the storylines.
But I was pretty obsessive, especially in ’96/’97/’98 and on, and I was a huge fan of the Hardy Boyz when they were on Shotgun Saturday Night, cause that’s what we got Saturdays at noon.
We didn’t get RAW, because I didn’t have cable. So, I would watch Shotgun and the Hardyz were on Shotgun Saturday Night every week in the flannel. And I was like, "Man, who are these guys? They’re awesome. I love these guys." And they would lose every week.
Then, I remember one week they won and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. Then I think what opened my eyes, and this is for people in Canada who were watching in the 90s, but it was a really big deal the first time RAW ran at the SkyDome in Toronto. That was a huge deal.
I think they taped Shotgun Saturday that day, and they had Edge and Christian versus the Hardyz, and I was so pumped. I watched it on Shotgun Saturday Night and it was amazing.
I felt like the Hardyz were starting to get pushed on television, but I felt like nobody really knew who they were. I don’t know. I knew. I was a huge fan already.
But then, they were doing the Brood stuff and New Brood. So, when that match was coming up at No Mercy, I remember the friends of mine that we used to all watch the pay-per-views together, they didn’t really know these guys. They weren’t really interested.
I was like, "Guys, just wait. This is gonna be the match. I’m telling you! This is gonna steal the show. It’s gonna be the best match." And it was everything I envisioned and more because they did stuff that I would never have even dreamed of at the time. It was revolutionary.
At that point I was 16, just about to start training as a wrestler, and that match had a profound impact on me. So, it was pretty cool, fast forward all these years later, to be in a triple threat match with not only Jeff Hardy, but with AJ, who I was also a big fan of when I was first breaking in and I’d watch his tapes. Because he was a couple of years ahead of me career-wise.
RS: You’re both indy guys. But, he’s a little bit of a step ahead of you.
ZAYN: He was two or three years ahead, yeah. That’s right.
Same with Daniel Bryan, Low-Ki, Samoa Joe. All these guys that were like two or three years ahead. So, they were already starting to make their names, they were already the top guys when I was just getting started.
Eventually, you catch up and you’re all on a somewhat level playing field. But, still, these were two guys that I admire. Especially if you throw a ladder in the mix, and on top of that you have this really wonderful story with two championships and this guy claiming he’s the champion, but this guy being the champion, and this guy’s the champion that never lost.
Then the match itself was awesome, I thought, on top of it all.
RS: It was great.
ZAYN: Yeah. I actually think it gets overlooked a little bit just because there’s so much content. If this match happened ten years ago, we’d still be talking about it, you know what I mean?
But, it was really good. It was one of my favorite matches that I’d had in a really long time.
One of the things that also went through my mind before we did the match was, "There’s not going to be an audience." Right? It’s just the virtual audience in the Thunderdome. So I was wondering how that would affect me.
But, weirdly enough, I had the same endorphins and the same adrenaline and the same kind of, I don’t know, anything goes mentality that you have when you’re out there.
So, like, again this is just from a performer – and maybe not every performer is like this, but for me – sometimes you’ll talk about something crazy you want to do and you’re like, "Oh, I don’t know. I could get hurt. I could see this going wrong in a million ways. I’m not so sure about this."
But then, when you’re out there, you’re like, "Just do it!"
You throw complete caution to the wind. Any sort of reservations you have is way out the window. So, I had that same feeling when I was out there in front of, really, nobody. Just a bunch of video screens.
Even though there was an audience virtually present, it’s obviously not the same. But, I was still amped up, full of adrenaline, with reckless abandon, ready to go. It was crazy. It was really one of my favorite matches in a few years, I’d say.
RS: So, after the ladder match you were Intercontinental Champion for like 90 days—well, in your eyes you might still be Intercontinental Champion.
ZAYN: That’s it? Just 90? It felt so much longer.
RS: I think it was 89, 90? Something like that.
ZAYN: Oh, my goodness.
RS: Looking back on it, are you happy with your most recent run as Intercontinental Champion?
ZAYN: Oh, yeah, thrilled. I think that’s—I really think it’s some of the best work I’ve ever done. Certainly from a character perspective, and definitely as a bad guy, a heel. Cause I was a good guy forever and then all of a sudden to be doing this.
I was really, really proud of the work I did from, really, maybe August of 2019 when I first started aligning with Shinsuke and I first started calling myself "The Great Liberator" and all that stuff.
Even though I wasn’t in the ring a bunch, a lot of the stuff we were doing on live events, I felt like I was getting crazy reactions. People just wanted to rip my head off. And the best thing is, we were doing something you don’t do a lot, in WWE especially, because usually, it’s, "Okay, this person gets you angry. Just wait a few minutes and he’ll get his." I just never got mine.
I would skate away on every show and it was incredible.
People just expected me to get beat up at the end of the match, and I wouldn’t, and Shinsuke would win and we would leave victorious. It was so amazing. The heat we got was just so awesome.
Sadly, some of my favorite work from that time period is all on live events, I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day. But, I was so proud of so much of that stuff we were doing there.
Then it was good enough where even though I wasn’t in a wrestling role, the Intercontinental Championship lands in my lap, which is a little bit of a dream come true because it’s well documented that’s sort of the workhorse championship and it’s kinda the one that a lot of guys like me want to win.
So, that was very nice to win and then to have that match with Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania, all that stuff was great.
Then doing the stuff on the other side, it was great. Even the stuff with Big E now, with the conspiracy, it all feels really good to me. Maybe I really am just egomaniacal, but I really feel like I’m doing good stuff and I’m enjoying it.
RS: No, like I said before, I’m not just sucking up or whatever because you’re here, I’ve said it in my articles before on the site and in other places. I truly feel like this is the best character work that you’ve been doing. Every time you’re out there, you’re making me laugh. So, really, don’t feel egomaniacal for saying that.
ZAYN: Yeah, I appreciate that. Well, you tend to get in your own bubble because you think you know what’s good, right?
But, then you sometimes you’re like, "Well, I’m doing it so it must be good." But, I’m pretty sure this is good. Even though you don’t have a barometer because of the live fans, you just know when something’s good and it feels good, so I’m pretty sure it’s good, you know?
RS: Well, looking ahead a little bit, this weekend is the first time you’ll be competing in the Elimination Chamber match. Since you’ve competed in so many other different types of matches over the years, does getting the chance to compete in a new type of match for you to get you excited?
ZAYN: I don’t know if excited is the right word.
RS: Is it the opposite, do you get nervous?
ZAYN: Maybe there’s a hint of what I was talking about earlier where, when you’re thinking about ideas, you’re like, "Oh, that Chamber looks very painful. That’s going to really hurt!" But, then, of course, when you’re actually in the midst of it, you enjoy it quite a bit.
I guess it is exciting. But, again, exciting doesn’t feel like the right word. "Interesting."
And here’s the thing, especially in these multi-man matches, and this is something again that kind of goes under the radar, but I really, really enjoy being in those big, Money in the Bank type matches or these big multi-man ladder matches. Any of these kinds of matches with this aesthetic.
If you go back and watch my WWE work, or even older than that, those matches that I’m in with a bunch of guys and cool variables like that, they’re always great.
I really get excited to put them together and it’s going to be good. I’m very excited about that because I know it’s going to be really, really good. Because everybody in the match is really good, too. So, that doesn’t hurt.
RS: I was impressed by the amount of people in this match. It’s like a dream match of people altogether. You, Cesaro, Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, Jey Uso, Baron Corbin. That’s an impressive group of competitors in one match.
ZAYN: Yeah. And I don’t think you’ve had that kind of athletic work rate type of collection of wrestlers all in one Elimination Chamber match. I feel like over the years, you’ll see like Cena and Orton and Kane and Big Show. All these huge guys. Triple H.
These guys who are obviously great at what they do, but not the, I don’t know what you want to call them, more agile sort of smaller guys who are known for their work rate or these types of exciting matches. I don’t think they’ve all occupied one Elimination Chamber match like this before. I could be wrong.
I’d have to go through the history of Elimination Chamber matches, but the lineup feels very, very different. It has a very different feel from any other Elimination Chamber match I’ve ever heard about.
RS: Yeah. I agree. It’s actually very different than the RAW one, too. I like that you guys have that work rate vibe going right now for the match and RAW side is more of the—
RS: Powerhouse guys, yep.
ZAYN: I was looking for the right word without disrespecting anyone here. Because those guys can all work. Those guys can all work. But, they’re more muscular-type style and this is a bit more, like, agile. So, it’ll be very interesting.
RS: I’m worried one of those guys is going to slam someone through the cage. For your guys’s match, I’m more worried someone is gonna jump off the top of it.
ZAYN: Yeah. It likely won’t be me, I’ll tell you that now.
RS: You mentioned when you were talking about Jeff Hardy how you were an Edge and Christian fan too back in the day. Was it surreal for you to be in the ring with Edge during the Royal Rumble?
ZAYN: I’m kind of past that point of—maybe I’m not, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just become a jaded, old veteran wrestler. But, I’m sure if I stop and think about it – and every now and again I do – I’ll be like, "Oh, man. I just wrestled Rey Mysterio." That’s kind of crazy.
If I told that to 16-year-old me, that’d be crazy. Same with Edge or whatever. But, at this stage in the game, I’m older and I’ve also been wrestling just about 20 years now. So, it’s not like, "Whoa! I’m in the ring with Edge." If I stop and think about it, it’s like, "Oh, how cool is it—" you know, full circle type of thing.
But, at the moment, he’s a peer at this point. That’s how I see it. These guys are peers and I don’t know that there’s anyone in the ring that I’d be in the ring and be like, "I can’t believe I’m in the ring with this guy." I feel like I’m kind of past that point.
Not trying to sound like a big shot. I just don’t really feel like that unless I really stop and think about it after the fact.
Which, again, I often do because it’s one of those "you have to stop and smell the roses" type thing. You gotta stop every once in a while and just appreciate how far you’ve come.
So, when I stop and think about the fact that I’m mixing it up in the ring with Edge or getting chokeslammed by Undertaker in Madison Square Garden or wrestling Rey Mysterio the other week on Smackdown – when you stop and add that up, it’s pretty cool, for sure.
RS: Lastly, I’ve been ending these interviews asking the person I’m talking to three questions relating to their finishing move. For you, I know that’s the Helluva Kick. But, since you also used the Blue Thunder Bomb for a long time, I’m gonna give you both options to choose from for these.
RS: So, after that long-winded explanation.
- What’s the best Helluva Kick or Blue Thunder Bomb you ever delivered
- Who takes the Helluva Kick or Blue Thunder Bomb best?
- And what’s one of those moves you wish you could take back for whatever reason?
Let’s start with the first one.
ZAYN: Oh, God. So, best – I don’t know how to say best – but, there’s a couple of guys I really smoked with that kick and they’re the last guys you’d ever want to smoke that badly.
One of ‘em was the 1-2-3 Kid, X-Pac. Sean Waltman.
I wrestled him at an independent in 2011 and, again, I was so excited about the match, I have so much respect for this guy, a genuine trailblazer. Deserves both Hall of Fame rings, if not a third one for his individual contributions to the business.
I’m in the ring with him, we’re having this match, and I guess, I don’t know, maybe I ran too fast? I don’t know what was going on, but I absolutely obliterated him. Obliterated him.
To the point, I could feel his skull through my foot. It’s very hard to explain, but upon contact, I was like, "Oh, that was so much harder than I wanted to do that. That’s too much."
And the other one, another legend, is Jushin "Thunder" Liger.
Wrestled him in Los Angeles in, maybe, 2009? 2010? Same thing. The last guy you’d ever want to hurt and again I must’ve had a little too much momentum. Absolutely obliterated him.
Those are the first two that come to mind and of course, the Blue Thunder Bomb, any time I give it to AJ Styles it feels like a fun little ride. And he takes that really well. What was the next one?
RS: What’s one of those moves that you wish you could take back for whatever reason.
ZAYN: Does it have to be limited to the Blue Thunder Bomb or Helluva Kick?
RS: No. What’s a move you wish you could take back for whatever reason? It can be something else.
ZAYN: Well, it’d probably be the only time I ever injured somebody. Which was, I was doing a somersault Van Terminator. It’s what Shane McMahon does, the Coast to Coast dropkick.
So, I would do that back in my independent days, but with a somersault flip in there as well. And it was just a chaotic match.
I think there were six or eight guys in there and when I did it, I happened to land on the head of Super Dragon, who is a California indie legend, and I think I concussed him pretty bad. I still feel really rotten about it cause that’s like, I’m pretty sure, the only time I ever hurt anybody and I felt terrible.
So, if I could do one over, I’d say, "Maybe let’s cut the somersault Van Terminator tonight."
RS: Yeah. Super Dragon is definitely not someone you want to injure since he’s booking the matches at PWG. You don’t want to hurt the guy that’s booking the show.
ZAYN: Yeah, and he’s a great buddy of mine. He’s actually – I don’t know if I’d be here right now without him. He was really, really helpful in my career. Because I think PWG in California, in the early part of my career, that was monumental for me, for kind of getting ahead to the next step, and going to Europe especially and making my name, little by little, as a journeyman.
PWG was crucial for that. So, I don’t know if I’d be here without him.
RS: I’m actually bummed that I never got to see you in PWG.
In fact, your matches in PWG are what got me to start going, even though I didn’t see you.
ZAYN: Aw, man.
RS: I’d read about all of them online and then when my brother moved into town, he asked, "Why aren’t we going to these?" And I was like, "Well, I had no one to go with." So he said, "Well, let’s go," and we started attending right after you signed.
ZAYN: So, there was still at Reseda in Legion Hall? You’d go to those shows?
RS: Oh, yeah, yeah. I went for years and years. It was literally right after you got signed when is started going.
ZAYN: Oh, bummer.
RS: I miss Reseda very much.
ZAYN: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think anybody who performed there will say the same thing. Cause that building is gone now and the whole world is so different now, so the shows aren’t even really being run. But, glory days, I think when you look back on them now. For sure. Some very, very special match-ups happened there.
RS: I used to think, "Why don’t they go to a bigger venue? It’s so hot in here. They could have food and stuff." But, now that they moved out and it’s not there anymore, I wish I had never said that. I feel like I jinxed it, because I wish I could go back right now.
ZAYN: Yeah. I think that’s—not to get into a whole thing about PWG now—but that’s the thing about PWG that I don’t think people understood.
Because all these other companies at the time wanted to get bigger. Ring of Honor wanted to get bigger. Every company wanted to get bigger. PWG I don’t think really ever cared about traveling and running shows here, running shows there.
They just wanted to do what they did very, very well and they did. You know what I mean? And the fact that it was in that Reseda Legion Hall, by the end, by the time I was finishing up there, it was a hot ticket. You couldn’t get in. There’d be lines around the building.
So, it actually kind of created more of a buzz and more demand that you couldn’t just go and whatever. So, I don’t know. Special—all this to say—very, very special times for me.
Sami Zayn can be seen on SmackDown every Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
And don't forget to watch Zayn, Kevin Owens, Jey Uso, Baron Corbin, Daniel Bryan and Cesaro all compete in the SmackDown Elimination Chamber match this Sunday on WWE Network as they vie for a shot at Roman Reigns' Universal Championship.