While Jinder Mahal will defend his WWE Championship Sunday night at the Money In The Bank pay-per-view against Randy Orton, six stars from the SmackDown Live roster will vie for the Money In The Bank contract in a ladder match. The contract entitles the winner to a championship match whenever they choose, and historically it has been a ticket to a title reign.
With just a few days before Sami Zayn steps in the ring to face off against AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Dolph Ziggler, Baron Corbin and Kevin Owens, he spoke to Fox Sports about his approach to ladder matches, the inherent danger of the MITB match, and the advice he'd give himself before debuting on the WWE main roster.
You can watch Money In The Bank Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on the WWE Network.
Fox Sports: You just recently returned from a tour of Latin America, and I saw you tweeted an appreciation of the crowds. What is it about Latin American crowds that you enjoy so much, and how do they differ from American crowds?
Sami Zayn: "I think it's a combination of a couple of things. I think, for starters, they're generally just very, very passionate people. When they go to an event like this, they really just... there's no inhibitions. They're not inhibited in the least bit, they're there to have fun, and they have fun.
But I think another combination is the fact that we don't go there very often. We were in Panama, I don't know if we've been there in 10 years. We went to Puerto Rico, we haven't been there in two or three years. We went to Costa Rica and I think we haven't been there in six years. A big part of that is the lack of frequency, so if you don't get WWE shows coming to your town once or twice a year, you sit there and you wait and wait, and obviously that excitement from that anticipation builds. It just makes the experience so much better when we do come to town."
You're heading into a MITB match and will be competing against Shinsuke Nakamura, who made his NXT debut against you back at NXT TakeOver: Dallas. How were you feeling heading into that match about his debut, which was also your NXT farewell?
Sami Zayn: "It was a pretty special match, and I think when we were going into it I knew it would be good, but... I don't know if it didn't really hit me how big it is that this is his first match, and it's my last match. I don't know, I feel like the stars just kind of aligned that night and created something that's really special.
And the way that I know it's special is that it's still talked about now. It's been a year and a half or something and I still get messages about it almost daily.
Something very special occured that night, and it was really cool. And now to see Shinsuke's success since then is really interesting. And I'll get to finally cross paths with him again in the Money In The Bank match. It's been interesting to watch his trajectory since that night."
Fox Sports: "Now that you're both a part of the SmackDown roster, have you noticed if Nakamura has changed at all after a year in NXT?"
Sami Zayn: "No, not really. I mean, as a person, not really, but I didn't really know him at all. I think I met him once in my whole career, we both had about 15-year careers before we finally got in the ring with each other. I don't really know him too well as a person. I can tell you he's a laid-back guy. I actually teamed with him in a couple of these live events, and whatever town we're in he's just insanely popular. They really go crazy for him. So whatever he's doing, he's doing right, and I think he's well on his way to becoming a top star in the company."
Fox Sports: If you could go back and give that Sami Zayn from that night in Dallas some advice, what would you tell yourself after more than a year on the main roster?
Sami Zayn: “I guess I’d just be ready more for the highs and lows. You know, very few people - if any - come in here and just have a very linear trajectory to the top. It becomes very much… there’s highs and lows. You take two steps forward and you take a step back. Five steps forward, three steps back. It’s not a linear, chronological ascension to the top.
You’ve got to kind of get mentally prepared for that. I guess that’d be my advice for anybody from NXT who is going to come up to the main roster. Once you’re prepared to understand that it’s not always going to be smooth sailing, I think it makes the ride a lot more… I don’t want to say ‘bearable,’ but it makes it a lot easier for you to handle it mentally. For as tough as what we do is physically, the mental aspect can be almost as tough, if not tougher.”
Fox Sports: You’ve had a number of memorable ladder matches throughout your career, often with Kevin Owens involved. Do you remember your first ladder match?
Sami Zayn: “I think it was in a gymnasium in the town that I lived in, in front of about 80 people. I want to say it was in… late 2002. It was a three-way ladder match. Definitely did some things I probably shouldn’t have done that night, you know, just taking really unnecessary risks. When I think back on it now, think about the 15-year toll I put on my body, I think about some of those early nights when I did way, way more than I should have. Took way bigger risks than I should have. But I feel like that, having that missing screw loose, I feel like that almost goes hand-in-hand with having the passion to make it this far.
And if you almost don’t go through with that… I can’t say that for sure, because certainly other people haven’t done that kind of stuff to still make it far, but I feel like, again, that just goes with my trajectory. I have to take those crazy risks and and do the crazy, stupid things to kind of learn to understand when to do them and when to not do them, and eventually get smarter and better at what I’m doing. Good enough to line myself up here, which is where I’m at now, so I guess I wouldn’t change any of it."
Fox Sports: At WrestleMania 32 you had a moment where you dove through an upright ladder, over the top rope and flipped onto a group of guys outside the ring. How did you develop the body control to be able to execute a move like that?
Sami Zayn: That I'm not really too sure of. That might just come with years and years of practice and work. I don't even know how to begin to describe it, I feel like you just practice it early and younger and then it sort of becomes muscle memory type of thing.
Fox Sports: When you’re in matches like these which are a bit more unpredictable and risky, how do you balance wanting to raise the bar for ladder matches against making sure everyone is able to walk away at the end?
Sami Zayn: "Well it's a very different game, because also my mentality has changed since 2002.
I think I was a lot more drawn, especially back then, to the risks and to the high-flying, high-impact stuff. And it's not to say that that is gone, it's not gone, obviously. You see a lot of my matches will have a lot of high-impact stuff, but it's really to me more about the dramatics, and I think that's really the name of the game when you get to the WWE. It's really more about the story and the hunt and the chase and everything else, and I think that's where the real drama is and the real connections are made with the audience.
Don't get me wrong. Jeff Hardy doing that Swanton off the ladder the first time is something so memorable and you'll replay that a thousand times over, but really... you know you probably don't remember every single move that those guys did back then in those TLC matches - those guys being the Hardyz and Dudleys and Edge and Christian. You don't remember all the crazy moves or the crazy risks they took, you just remember kind of how the matches made you feel, and the ride the match took you on. And I think ultimately that's more important than any singular move or risk or whatever you want to call it."
Fox Sports: This weekend’s show will also feature the first women’s Money In The Bank match. What was your reaction to that announcement?
Sami Zayn: "Well it's a pretty huge deal, if you think about it. Every time I think that we've kind of come as far as we're going to go as far as the women's revolution... it really has been a revolution, and it's not something you would have seen 10 years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago, really ever. So it's really, really cool to see, I'm as curious as any of our fans to see how it goes down."
Fox Sports: I know you’re a big Montreal Canadiens fan, did you keep up with the Stanley Cup Finals as well?
Sami Zayn: "I definitely kept up with them. It was really hard to watch them, because we're traveling so much as of late, but to be perfectly honest - once the Canadiens are eliminated, it really sucks the wind out of my sails. So I kind of follow along with everything that's going on, but I don't go out of my way to watch the games like I do when the Habs are in it.
Certainly the finals seemed really exciting, from what I saw, with Pittsburgh and Nashville. And I called it from the beginning that Pittsburgh would win it again, they're too good. We'll see, hopefully we can unthrone them next year."