WWE is a global phenomenon and so is Sami Zayn. He has competed in twenty nine countries prior to his debut on NXT in May of 2013. Since then, the charismatic superstar has been apart of several critically acclaimed matches on NXT with names such as Adrian Neville, Tyler Breeze and a series of matches with Cesaro that will have you on the edge of your seat.
I had the opportunity to speak to Sami prior to his big main event match this Thursday at NXT Takeover, a fatal four way match for the NXT Championship where he will be facing Tyler Breeze, Tyson Kidd and the reigning champion, Adrian Neville. I asked him for his thoughts on his opponents, found out which NXT superstars he has his eye on, his music tastes, his thoughts on Cesaro and much more!
NOTE: This interview was conducted prior to Sami’s surprise appearance on WWE RAW this past Monday.
Alex Obert: You faced Tyson Kidd at a live event this past weekend, what’s the feeling of facing him at a live event for WWE as opposed to NXT at Full Sail University?
Sami Zayn: The Full Sail crowd, it’s a pretty unique and a pretty distinct environment, it’s very close quarters and a bit more of what I’m used to from my days on the independents. But the truth is, I sometimes think that it’s harder to win over a small crowd sometimes than it is to win over a big crowd. The Full Sail crowd is very enthusiastic, but so are the crowds at WWE live events. When you’re in arena with five thousand to ten thousand people, you know that you’ve paid your money to come and have a good time. You’re enthusiastic, you come to make some noise and have some fun. So those are very receptible audiences, they’re very receptive crowds. Whereas sometimes, you work smaller shows in armories or wherever else and it’s in front of 100-150 people. It’s kind of bright in the building. (laughs) They’re almost embarrassed to maybe cheer because you have to really work to get them with you. Full Sail’s nothing like that, obviously, they’re very enthusiastic. But it’s not night and day, really. A crowd’s a crowd and to me, it’s not so much about the size as much it is the energy we’re getting. I’ve worked in front of crowds of two hundred that sounded like a thousand and I’ve worked in front of crowds of five thousand that sounded like two hundred. It really varies with the energy level with any given crowd on any given night. It hasn’t been a huge transformation because you’re really still just doing your thing.
Alex Obert: You’ve also worked preshow matches for RAW and Smackdown tapings. What is the feeling of a full WWE production like?
Sami Zayn: It’s funny because when you’re in the ring, you’re really just doing your thing that you’ve been doing forever. All the glitz and stuff that’s added around it, it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes. You’re like, “Geez! Wow!” But a ring is a ring. (laughs) It’s obviously very cool to have that kind of production on that level. It’s obviously unmatched to anything I ever had before I got to the WWE. It’s very cool for sure.
Alex Obert: With the mention of NXT, one name in particular that I’d like to bring up is Cesaro. What did you think of how he took the time to compete on RAW, Smackdown and NXT leading up to your match at Arrival?
Sami Zayn: I think it’s very admirable on his part. It sends a message and it was actually a smart thing to do in the end. I think it opened some eyes because to be honest, around the time before we had the first 2 out of 3 falls match, I don’t think the powers that be in the WWE really saw what kind of intensity this guy can bring or just how good he actually is. So in a way, wanting to actually come and compete in NXT shows his desire just to compete and be great because he is great. And it also enabled him to get a bigger opportunity in a smaller setting, he was given more time and freedom, and he was given a bigger spotlight. Yes, it was on a much smaller scale, but he gave him a bigger platform to do his thing. He did his thing and it opened a lot of eyes. Obviously that match was huge for me and opening a lot of eyes to me, but I like to think it also did a lot for him. Triple H was watching that match and I know for a fact that he pulled him aside afterwards and he also said, “That’s the guy I wanna see on Monday nights. That’s the guy. That was awesome. I want more of that.” They were way more aware of what his capabilities were after that, which is great. I think it did quite a bit for him, I hope it did a lot for him. It certainly did a lot for me.
Alex Obert: Getting into the big main event of Takeover this week, what is it like working with Tyson Kidd? He is a five-year veteran of WWE, did he help you adjust to that style?
Sami Zayn: It’s really not that different. The first time I worked with Tyson was on the indies in like 2006. He comes from an independent background, he’s been wrestling since about fourteen, maybe even younger. He’s been wrestling his whole life. He’s obviously very talented, but I don’t put him on the sort of pedestal where he’s this main roster guy. He’s great to work with, but it’s not intimidating in the least bit. He’s real fun to get in the ring with and he’s a great wrestler. I don’t view him as, “Woah! This is a main roster talent!” With NXT’s branding becoming what it is now, it’s almost integrated into the main roster, so by the time you actually do debut on the main roster, you’ve probably already wrestled a lot of the main roster talent on live events or tours or whenever. I’ve wrestled Sandow and I’ve wrestled Dolph and I’ve wrestled a bunch of the guys from here on various live events or tours, so it’s not like a big “Woah! This is happening!” sort of thing, it’s a very seamless transition nowadays.
Alex Obert: And regarding Tyler Breeze, who you faced at the first Takeover, what do you think of the fact that he was trained by Lance Storm?
Sami Zayn: It’s pretty cool. Lance is a great trainer. I’ve had the privilege of working a little bit with him, he’s come down to the Performance Center once or twice as a guest. He’s a really good mind for wrestling and he’s a great trainer. And obviously that shows up when you look at his students. Right now, Tyler Breeze is the one with the most steam. Emma was a student of his and so was Sylvester Lefort. So he’s produced three WWE contracted talents right there. And Tyler Breeze, he’s sort of cut in the same cloth in the sense that he’s slightly undersized for what you would expect from a WWE performer, but he’s all heart and he’s very entertaining. He brings a very cool balance of young, athletic competitive spirit mixed in with the entertainment value with the persona he has. I think the final result is a complete package, it’s very fun to watch and it’s certainly fun to work against him. It was a lot of fun to do that match at Takeover a few months back.
Alex Obert: What do you think of Adrian Neville being the NXT Champion?
Sami Zayn: It’s great, I’m not the least bit surprised to be honest. Out of all the competitors, I know him the best and I’m the closest to him. I first met him and wrestled him in 2006, since then we’ve wrestled each other in eight or nine different countries all over the world before either of us even signed to the WWE. We’re longtime friends and longtime rivals in the ring. He’s probably if not my best opponent, one of my best components I’ve ever had in my career. So I’m not the least bit surprised, I’m so aware of what he is capable of. I’m not surprised that he became the champion and that he was able to rise to the occasion every time they’ve asked him to. He’s just unbelievably gifted and unbelievably unique. All you need to do is watch him once to realize what you’re dealing with and you’ll say, “Oh, wow! This guy’s on a whole nother level!” It’s just the beginning, really, because once he gets up on RAW every week and starts getting exposed to more eyes, it’s just a matter of time before he continues that rise to greatness.
Alex Obert: Getting into yourself and your time so far at NXT, how did your new entrance theme come about?
Sami Zayn: Actually it’s a funny story. At the Performance Center, we have these presentation skills classes or promo class or whatever you wanna call it where we can play around and do all these things. I like ska music and punk music, and Adrian Neville’s actually a huge ska fan of original sort of Jamaican ska and 2 Tone ska from Britain, not so much third wave, I think he’s actually kind of grown to hate third wave. (laughs) But the point is in one of these promo classes, I once did this sort of bit where I came out dressed in a 2 tone suit and played Bankshot by Operation Ivy and I just danced to it, there was no words. It was just a dance, I just danced for ninety seconds and then left. And then Neville and I were talking about how cool it would be if we did a ska tag team or something like that. So he had this idea for us to do a promo together again in promo class with the same deal, wearing a 2 tone suit, one of those Ben Shermans and just do the same deal as a tag team. I guess it was pretty entertaining for the class and for some of the people who were watching it. And eventually, some higher-ups saw one of our promos with us as this ska tag team and kind of saw like, “Oh, that kind of suits Sami’s personality more, maybe we should give him something like this.” So that music was made based on these promos we made at the Performance Center.
Alex Obert: At Full Sail, you get the Ole chants. If that eventually become strong enough, especially upon debuting onto the main roster, would you look into pitching trying to get the Bouncing Souls song as your theme or is that a memory that you’re looking to leave behind?
Sami Zayn: Well first off, I don’t really think they do that much anymore where they use the rights to songs like that. Punk was kind of an exception when he came back with a Living Colour song as his theme song, but outside of that, I can’t remember the last time they had a well-known song or well-known recording artist recording songs for WWE entrance music. That song did a lot for me in my life and my career, but it’s not what I’m doing now, so it’s not necessarily something I would go out of my way to get. Either way, that song will live on in my heart and in my memories forever. And I still do appreciate when they sing that song to me, not that I’m necessarily seeking that out, but the fact that they do it for you, I almost view it as a tribute to my past life that I very much appreciate. So it’s cool, but I don’t know if I would go out of my way to necessarily get it at this stage of my career.
Alex Obert: You’re well-known for wearing band t-shirts backstage during interviews on NXT, what’s your collection like?
Sami Zayn: It’s not too, too extensive, but I just wear shirts of the bands that I really like. I’ve got a few more that I still haven’t worn or anything, it’s pretty cool that I’ve been able to do that. To me, I think that connects on a different level. It’s just the smallest thing, but if I saw Tom Cruise wearing a Rancid shirt, I’d be like, “Holy crap! Woah!” I suddenly love Tom Cruise. I never thought anything of this guy, but all of a sudden, he happens to share the same musical tastes, so that’s kind of a cool thing. So it’s just like a little nod and I don’t expect everyone to get it, but if you’re into any of the bands that you see me wearing, it’s a major way to connect with people when you like the same bands or same movies or whatever. I remember I was watching a Seth Rogen movie, which is actually kind of ironic, he and Paul Rudd were having a conversation and they mentioned the Black Crowes and Back to the Future in the same conversation. I’m like, “Man! They like all the stuff I like! I bet we’d be friends in real life.” (laughs) Actually I think that’s what they talk about at that conversation, they mention something like, “I think we’ll be friends.” The whole reason I bring this up is because I don’t really know Seth Rogen, I don’t know Paul Rudd, I don’t know anything, but the fact that they work those little things into the movie, it kind of tells you what they’re actually into. If you’re into the same things, it’s just like a cool way to connect with them.
Alex Obert: Getting into your music tastes, what’s the best concert you ever attended?
Sami Zayn: It’s really hard to say. I probably have a top five or ten or something, I don’t know if I could just say one. It’s gonna sound odd actually, but the first concert I’ve ever been to was Bon Jovi when I was sixteen. I used to love Bon Jovi and I do still appreciate them. So that was like a really great concert, the first big concert I’ve ever been to. I saw Guns N’ Roses back in 2006 when Axl first came back and his voice was awesome again out of nowhere. I went to see them at the Hammerstein in New York, a 3,000 seat venue which was just amazing. I once saw Rancid in I think Ponoma, which was really cool and it was the first time I saw them. I saw Against Me! at the Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas. I also saw Paul McCartney once at Shea Stadium. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so that was pretty sweet considering the history of The Beatles at Shea Stadium. Those are maybe five off the top of my head.
Alex Obert: Before we wrap up, just wanted to get into more NXT. Who would you rather see bald after Takeover this week, Enzo Amore or Sylvester Lefort?
Sami Zayn: I’d probably go with Sylvester Lefort. There’s just something about seeing a French toad get his comeuppance. (laughs) He’s the perfect character to see get his, you really wanna see him get his. So I wouldn’t mind seeing Enzo walk out with the win in that one.
Alex Obert: Who do you have your eye on the most that you haven’t worked with?
Sami Zayn: One guy that I really think is starting to break out slowly is CJ Parker, I think he’s really good. He’s got a tremendous passion for this business. I think the first sort of debut in NXT with this hippie gimmick, he was a good guy, but it was just kind of corny and canned and the fans turned on him. It legitimately broke his heart. And now he has a legitimate chip on his shoulder and his hippie character morphed into more of a socially aware, socially conscious houlier-than-thou character. It’s way grittier and more realistic now. He really puts his heart into what he does and I think he’s gonna be good. And similarly, there’s Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady who are both just phenomenally entertaining. And I really look forward to their growth. I really look forward to watching them. And there’s a couple of guys that have been signed now, but have not yet debuted such as Kevin Steen and Kenta and Fergal Devitt. In my opinion, they are three huge, huge signings. They’re just taking three of the best guys from different corners of the world and bringing them to NXT. If you look back historically, when Vince first did that national expansion from a regional promotion to a national superpower, he did it by finding the best talent in all the territories and taking all the best talent. In a weird way, I feel like that’s what’s going on again now. You’ve got Kevin Steen from Canada, you’ve got Fergal Devitt from Ireland and you’ve got Kenta from Japan. He’s just selecting the best talent worldwide and we’re snatchin’ ’em up. It’s just gonna make the product better here. These are my guys, these are guys I’ve come up with. So hopefully, we can all spearhead the revolution and be the next generation. We can take this business to an interesting place that maybe it hasn’t been before.
Alex Obert: Well I look forward to Takeover and the future ahead for NXT. I’d love to thank you so much for your time.
Sami Zayn: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.