'The MVP of WWE': Sami Zayn's rise from masked indie wrestler to main event show stealer

Sami Zayn acknowledges the crowd before joining "The KO Show" with Kevin Owens. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens defeated The Usos to win the tag team titles at WrestleMania 39.

SAMI ZAYN PEERED at Kevin Owens -- steel chair in hand -- as his real-life best friend was handcuffed to the ropes courtesy of The Usos and Roman Reigns. Owens had just lost to Reigns in the main event of the 2023 Royal Rumble, but "The Bloodline" wasn't through with him just yet. They used this moment as Zayn's final test of loyalty to their family.

Zayn, the "Honorary Uce," was faced with an on-screen decision, which would have far-reaching implications both in storyline and reality. As the fans roared, anticipating Zayn's next move, he pivoted away from striking Owens with the chair and landed a clean strike on Reigns' back. Nine months of partnership and incorporation with Reigns' Bloodline -- the hottest WWE storyline in ages -- had shockingly changed course.

The echo of the chair shot reverberated through Montreal's Bell Centre, the same city where Zayn (real name Rami Sebei) and Owens paved their way to WWE on the Québécois independent scene. The sold-out crowd erupted -- a pop, perhaps, not heard since the peak of Daniel Bryan's "Yes Movement" in 2014-'15 -- signaled the place Zayn now finds himself in WWE's hierarchy eight years after he debuted on Raw with a loss to John Cena.

Throughout his tenure on the professional wrestling scene, Zayn, 38, has wrestled and cut promos in the shadows as an under-appreciated, undersized indie darling too often overlooked by WWE brass and fans alike. Sure, he's held titles, been featured in numerous high-profile matches and often provided comic relief. Still, this storyline with The Bloodline -- one that will continue at WrestleMania 39 in Los Angeles with a match between Zayn and Owens vs. The Usos for the undisputed tag-team championship -- has pushed Zayn to the main-event scene many believed he deserved all along.

"For the last two years," Owens told ESPN, "I'd be hard-pressed to find anybody else that could say they were the MVP of WWE as much as Sami."

WHEN ZAYN MADE his WWE main roster debut in May 2015, he was immediately thrust into a match with WWE legend Cena for the United States championship.

What seemed like a big break for Zayn -- who made waves with WWE's developmental brand, NXT, as its champion in 2014 -- turned into a significant setback. Zayn was introduced that night by WWE Hall of Famer Bret Hart to considerable applause, but the debut dream turned into a nightmare.

Inexplicably, a fired-up Zayn dislocated his right shoulder during his walk down the entrance ramp after he punched the air to hype up the crowd. He wrestled Cena for 10 minutes but was sidelined for seven months afterward. All the momentum of his debut subsided.

Zayn resurfaced at the Royal Rumble in January '16 and was welcomed back to the main roster that March ahead of his WrestleMania debut in a seven-man ladder for the Intercontinental title.

Zayn's quirky personality, high-flying moves and ability to deliver cutting promos made him a favorite with fans as he established himself as a reliable mid-carder, either as a face or a heel.

Sure, he won the Intercontinental title in 2019 and regained it twice over the next three years, but his standing in WWE never seemed to match his immense talent.

That perception changed in the strangest of ways at last year's WrestleMania. Zayn took on Johnny Knoxville in a singles match featuring many of his Jackass friends and all the pranks and hijinks you'd expect from that crew. The match delivered both action and plenty of laughs. Zayn lost the match, as many expected he would, but that moment turned Zayn into something more.

The match was funny -- like when Zayn was stuck in a mouse trap -- but he also showed off his innate ability to connect with fans through his outlandish expressions, timing and ring psychology. What could have cemented Zayn as a comedy act showed the sort of talent he possessed all along.

"My stuff with Knoxville had to happen to kind of be the linchpin, the launching pad for the whole thing [with the Bloodline]," Zayn said. "My whole thing was like, man, I've been humiliated, and I need to recover. I need respect, and this is how I get respect. So that's the logical direction -- to go to The Bloodline."

Reigns, the WWE's undisputed Universal champion and leader of The Bloodline, took notice: "I was entertained by him when he did the Jackass stuff and really respected the way he navigated that creative [process]," he told ESPN.

Even before Knoxville and Zayn butted heads on TV, Zayn heard about Reigns' desire to work with him at some point. So Zayn brewed up the Bloodline storyline and discussed it with WWE creative before Survivor Series '21. It would be months before the idea was greenlit and moved closer to reality, but now, it seemed the person who mattered most had given Zayn his imprimatur.

"If I'm not lobbying, none of this happens," Zayn said. "I don't want to say the whole thing was my idea -- the concept was my idea -- but I think I was brainstorming it with Roman one day, and he was on board. If Roman's not on board, it's not happening.

"But the idea of this arc, this on-screen relationship, these different dynamics within the group, a lot of that was stuff that had already been conceptualized. It didn't happen right away. It kind of just sat on the shelf for a minute and then the stars kind of aligned and one part happened and then that led to the next part."

ZAYN'S PATH TO WWE's coveted, imaginary "brass ring" began shortly after WrestleMania 38 with the Canadian in pursuit of respect.

In the way only Zayn can -- frantic, perhaps, in his delusion that WWE's top star would welcome him to a faction composed of real-life family members -- he began to insert himself into Bloodline matters.

At first, the segments seemingly centered around laughs; the storyline appeared like a short-lived program that would eventually fizzle out.

"It's just kind of such an off-the-wall idea when you just first hear it or put it on paper," Zayn said. "But it was the execution that made it what it was."

Zayn appeared to instantly showcase chemistry with the other Bloodline members: twin brothers Jimmy and Jey Uso, the real-life cousins of Reigns whom Zayn and Owens will meet at WrestleMania; The Usos' younger brother, Solo Sikoa; and, of course, Reigns.

"We'll have your ass laughing, crying, mad, happy in the same segment, man," Jey Uso told ESPN's Marc Raimondi. "Like when we were breaking character, that s--- caught on. I really couldn't stop."

Zayn always showed off that comedic effect on others. Like how he deadpanned while dorkily delivering some of the Usos' trademark lines. "Feeling Ucey?" More than anything else, the laughs carried the program to greater heights and breathed new life into the entire Bloodline.

But it's the fifth member of The Bloodline -- the only non-family member -- who noticed Zayn was meant for far greater recognition in WWE long ago.

"You could tell from Sami's in-ring work how talented he was and his understanding of telling a physical story to a large crowd," said Paul Heyman, the founder of pioneering wrestling organization ECW, the on-screen "wise man" to Reigns and a WWE executive known for his creative genius.

"What caught everyone off guard was just how brilliant he could be in talking segments. This is a person that spent a decent portion of his career under a mask before he came to WWE. And to hide that face and his expressions is mind-boggling to me. I don't think Sami knew; otherwise he wouldn't have spent part of his career under a mask."

Months after Zayn made his in-ring debut in 2002, he donned the mask and wrestled as a luchador named El Generico over the next 10-plus years. During that time in Ring of Honor, Zayn gained acclaim for his fast-paced matches and high-risk moves. But not his face, which was always disguised.

While Heyman finds it mind-boggling that Zayn is so good at cutting promos and making the facial expressions that have become a staple of his character, Zayn credits that very mask for his development.

"I think everybody should work in a mask at some point in their career, even if it's when they're first starting," Zayn said. "The mask is a really beneficial tool early in your career because it teaches you the art of body language and facial expressions.

"It teaches you to be far more expressive and to really master the art of getting by without a lot of tools that we just take for granted. For example, even being able to talk. Talking is a huge part of connecting with people. So you need to be able to connect with people and not really talk. If you could do that, you're gonna be pretty good."

While the mask was a vital tool that aided in Zayn's rise, his star turn in WWE followed a heel turn for the longtime babyface. During his Intercontinental title reigns on SmackDown, Zayn played a character that concocted conspiracy theories along with shadowy figures who were out to sabotage him.

"Being a good guy is hard because people are very finicky, and it takes one wrong thing for someone to go: I don't like that guy," Zayn observed. "So you're very conscious of your behavior, of your movements, of your actions, of your words to make sure that they're here to reinforce what you're trying to accomplish, which is to get them to like you.

"As a bad guy, you don't have any of that. You have free reign to say and do whatever, however you're feeling. However you want to act, you can, because you're not limited by those constraints."

Now, days away from WrestleMania, Zayn is playing the good guy again. And not just any good guy, perhaps, but the good guy in WWE's hierarchy.

"I believe I can do work of this level with... other guys, they'd just be different," Reigns told Raimondi. "It wouldn't be the same. It would be a different character, a different angle, a different layer. Nobody would be able to be the 'Honorary Uce' other than Sami Zayn."

AFTER ZAYN TURNED the chair on Reigns at the Royal Rumble, ending his monthslong partnership with The Bloodline, the stage was set.

Reigns would defend his undisputed WWE Universal championship against Zayn at February's Elimination Chamber. Naturally, the event was set to occur in Zayn's hometown, Montreal.

Everywhere he went, fans boisterously cheered for him. And when he walked out of the tunnel at the Bell Centre for his main event for the biggest prize in wrestling, the energy was palpable. Tens of thousands of fans were on their feet to watch the real-life underdog facing the biggest star in wrestling.

"He's endearing in that way where you want something good for him," Reigns said. "Even if he doesn't deserve it, you still want it for him."

Reigns defeated Zayn in a barnburner that left no doubt Zayn could hang in the limelight. Now, Reigns heads into WrestleMania for a main-event match against Cody Rhodes.

Zayn, meanwhile, is poised for his marquee matchup, and he'll do it alongside his travel buddy from the independent days in Quebec, Kevin Owens, who's been a staple of the Bloodline storyline, too.

Zayn and Owens feuded over the NXT Championship and made their main-roster debuts two weeks apart. First, Zayn answered Cena's U.S. title open challenge with an injured shoulder. Two weeks later, it was Owens.

Only Owens parlayed his opportunity into a headline match with Cena at Elimination Chamber in 2015. Owens defeated Cena cleanly and later won the Universal championship as a mainstay of the main-event scene while Zayn toiled on the mid-card.

"I remember telling him that I was getting called up to work with Cena and that was kind of hard to have that conversation with him because it was two weeks after he had his match with John Cena on Raw in Montreal, and he blew his shoulder out," Owens recalled. "Then two weeks later, here I am being told, well, not only are you gonna come work with Cena, but you're called up completely full-time. You're just on the main roster now. And it was tricky because I had maybe been at NXT for eight months.

"He was very happy for me, but it was hard to tell him because, in a way, it could have been him. When I won the Universal title, he was the first one there when I came back [through the curtain]. And there's a video of me telling him, This is ours. And I meant that big time. But there was a hint of bitterness there. Not for me or him, just in general because I said, this is ours. At the time, he could hardly get on shows. Now to see things that finally turned around, and he's getting his just due, that's pretty incredible."

Zayn and Owens traveled different yet parallel paths that curved and veered off into WrestleMania this weekend. One year ago, it was Owens against Stone Cold Steve Austin in the main event of WrestleMania while Zayn took on Knoxville.

Now, they find themselves together again, on the grandest stage of them all, battling the Usos for the tag-team titles as part of WWE's hottest storyline.

"WrestleMania last year to me was as big for him as it was for me because that match he had with Johnny Knoxville stole the weekend, stole night two by far," Owens said. "And this might upset some people, but whatever, by far the best match on the show for night two. And I put it up there as the best match for the entire weekend. Obviously I think pretty highly of him, even though he's extremely aggravating sometimes. I gotta put that in there."