Sami Zayn still climbing the WWE mountain as 'Smackdown' hits Detroit

Canadian WWE Superstar finds himself in his biggest storyline ever, which will continue to unfold at Little Caesars Arena on Friday.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Sami Zayn is the odd man in.

The bushy bearded, red-headed World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar is currently at the top of his game as part of the sports entertainment company's main storyline. He's featured alongside the alpha stable known as the Bloodline, headed up by WWE's Undisputed Universal Champion, Roman Reigns, and also featuring Reigns' cousins the Usos and Solo Sikoa. Those performers are all a part of the celebrated Anoa'i family tree, a legacy of Samoan wrestlers which spans several generations.

WWE Superstar Sami Zayn appears on "Smackdown."

Zayn is not in any way related to the Anoa'i family, but in the story he has worked his way into their good graces to the point where they have granted him the title of "Honorary Uce" — uce short for uso, or brother. And since April 2022 he has been a part of that Bloodline story, seemingly always on the verge of being on the outs with the clique for one reason or another, but perpetually pulled back into the fray just in time to keep the story going for one more week.

That one more week has now lasted nine months and brings Zayn to Little Caesars Arena on Friday, where he will appear as part of WWE's "Smackdown" program. The show, which runs from 8-10 p.m., will be broadcast live on Fox.

"I'm just rolling with it as far as this story goes," says Zayn, on the phone from a "Smackdown" taping in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier this month. "I think with this whole Bloodline thing, we've kind of stumbled upon something pretty cool and something that fans enjoy seeing the twists and turns of every week. What keeps me excited, what keeps me on my toes, is just knowing the evolution of the story, and knowing what's going to progress this coming Friday or Monday or whatever it is. Like, 'ooh, what are we going to do next?'"

Sami Zayn (fifth from left) appears with the Bloodline -- Solo Sikoa, Jimmy Uso, Roman Reigns, Jey Uso -- and manager Paul Heyman.

Zayn, a longtime fan favorite, says he had the idea for the Bloodline story more than a year ago, and he was flattered when Reigns mentioned wanting to work with him in a 2021 interview with BT Sports' Ariel Helwani. They officially kicked things off last April when Zayn, whose character was calling himself the "locker room leader" at the time, approached Reigns on camera and offered to be his eyes and ears among the other wrestlers. That was the spark that ignited the flame that's still burning.

"Things morph very quickly in the world of WWE, and live television is a very funny thing because it can take you places you never planned on going," says Zayn, who joined WWE's developmental brand NXT in 2013. "Sometimes you get the right plot twist in the right town in front of the right crowd and it really takes it to the next level."

That's what happened in Zayn's hometown of Montreal last August, when crowd reaction to Zayn and Reigns' on camera interaction helped solidify their chemistry as performers: Reigns the cool but imposing leader, Zayn his jumpy, eager to please sidekick. The storyline has continued to evolve, and for Zayn the different elements at play — including the anxiety of how long it's going to last, and when and how it's going to end — has made it the gift that keeps on giving.

"It's quite rare, even in WWE, that you see a storyline last this long," says Zayn, 38. "A long story in WWE terms is like three to six months, and we're almost at nine months to a year here. I definitely feel fulfilled. I feel validated, I feel very happy to be a part of it, and I also realize it's kind of a gem because you just don't get these very often."

Sami Zayn goes flying toward Sheamus.

Zayn was born Rami Sebei and raised in Laval, Quebec, about 30 minutes outside of Montreal. He was raised Muslim by his parents, who immigrated to Canada from Syria.

Pro wrestling was one of his earliest memories and "was just always there," Zayn says. He grew up watching wrestling with his father and eventually started imitating it, and never stopped until he became a performer himself.

"There's a whole philosophical rabbit hole you can go down here, if it's the chicken or the egg, did it speak to me because of my natural personality, or did it shape me?" Zayn says. "I really don't know, but I took to it like a fish to water, and I didn't know when enough was enough. Being a fan wasn't enough. I just took it too far, and here we are."

He's been joined on his journey by his friend Kevin Steen, who wrestles as Kevin Owens, whom he's been either partnered with or feuding against for a good chunk of the last two decades. Both came up through the independent ranks together and joined WWE around the same time — Owens landed in NXT in 2014 — and they continue to be inseparable.

Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens square off at Survivor Series 2022.

In 2017 at Little Caesars Arena, Owens fought Shane McMahon, son of WWE CEO Vince McMahon, in a pumped up steel cage match known as Hell in a Cell. One of the match's high risk spots saw McMahon leaping from the top of the 20-foot cage and attempting to drop an elbow on Owens, a move interrupted when Zayn pulled Owens off the table in a last second save.

Yes, the moment was scripted, but that didn't make it any less real, Zayn says.

"I was terrified," he says. "You're talking about micro split-second timing. I almost felt like this is beyond the scope of what we should be qualified to do as pro wrestlers, but it's one of the many hats we wear. We're not just performing wrestling maneuvers, on this level there's also storytelling and stunt work and sometimes you're your own travel agent, your own booking agent, your own manager, your own stylist and your own everything else. And sometimes you're also your own stunt coordinator."

In order to make the save on camera and make it look good, Zayn had to grab Owens and yank him off the table while McMahon was falling through the air but before he made contact. He could only guess the moment of impact, calculating McMahon's mass times his rate of speed as he rapidly descended, and he only had one chance to get it right, and that was live in front of more than 16,000 fans, as well as hundreds of thousands watching at home.

"It was something that was barely rehearsed — how could you rehearse it? — and it was just like, 'go out there and do it.' Whereas if this was on a movie set, this would be something that was carefully planned and plotted and there would be zero room for error and you'd have 100 shots at it," Zayn says. "And it just kind of reinforced how unique and insane what we do actually is. And when I stop to think about it, it's kind of insulting that we don't get the respect we deserve when it comes to this sort of thing in the world of entertainment. What we do is beyond just flying without a safety net. There's nothing that even compares."

Zayn, for his part, wouldn't have it any other way. He's worked his way up through WWE, earning three Intercontinental Championships, and fighting "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville at last year's WrestleMania. (Zayn lost the contest, which saw interference by several of Knoxville's "Jackass" co-stars.)

Sami Zayn in the ring with "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville.

The way Zayn can sell a feud with Johnny Knoxville and make it credible is part of his appeal as a performer, says Kenny Herzog, a longtime wrestling journalist who has contributed to Bleacher Report and Rolling Stone.

"What people have always been drawn to about Sami Zayn is he seems to honor both the real work ethic of the sport but also the wink-nudge meta awareness that everyone has about the sport as entertainment now, without teetering into parody or self-parody. That's the key," Herzog says. "Even in this Bloodline storyline, which could have very easily, in the wrong hands, become a bit too much of a comedy gimmick, or he could have been a complete jester. But there's something about him as a character where even when he's at his most irksome, he's still lovable and you want to root for him and you know he means well, but he's just sort of desperate for attention and validation. And you know, the guy's put in the work over the years."

Zayn's current storyline with the Bloodline is the closest he has ever come to the tip of the mountaintop in WWE, and he's not ready to start coming down.

"Honorary Uce" Sami Zayn.

"When you get this close and you're in the in the periphery of the WWE title, it makes you think, well, I'm already here, maybe winning it's not totally unrealistic," he says. "That would for sure be like a cherry on top of everything else. If it happens, awesome. If it doesn't happen, it still would have all been awesome.

"I mean really, since I can't even tell you how early into my career, probably three years in, I remember thinking, 'well, this is it, it can't get better than this.' And then somehow each year, it just kept getting bigger and bigger," Zayn says. "You would think I would learn at this point to stop saying it, but I am also content with everything I've done. I don't want to be the type of person who feels like, oh, there's a void unless I get this next thing, and if I don't accomplish this, I'm a failure or my career was a failure. Whatever happens, I'm good. It could end tomorrow, and knock on wood, I really hope it doesn't, but I would feel very complete and very satisfied with everything I've ever done. At this point, everything's gravy."


WWE Smackdown

7:45 p.m. Friday

Little Caesars Arena, 2645 Woodward Ave., Detroit

Tickets $20 and up