Barnaby Read spoke to Sami Zayn, WWE's first Arab champion who is determined to rid Arabs of negative stereotypes and fly the Middle Eastern flag in international wrestling.
Sami Zayn is a proud man. He sits in front of Sport360 as the WWE’s first Arab champion and is widely being tipped to make an impact on its flagship programmes sooner rather than later.
Born to Syrian parents in Montreal, Canada, Zayn sports his name in Arabic on the back of his in-ring pants and is one of the company’s first positive Arab role-models.
It is no surprise that the WWE send him to meet the media ahead of this weekend’s live event at Zayed Sports City.
Although Zayn hasn’t spent a great deal of time in the Middle East, he remains extremely proud of his roots and is determined to alter perspectives of Arabs in both the wrestling and real world, by simply being himself.
“It’s very cool to come here and represent my people,” Zayn – real name Rami Sebei – told Sport360.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do in terms of being an Arab presence in an Arab market as I don’t think a lot of people have been able to do it in wrestling.
“Certainly in the WWE there has never been a positive Arab image so if I can contribute to that then I feel great about that. Not just for myself but the whole Arab market.”
There is no gimmick, no pantomime villain role, just an incredibly talented, humble wrestler who wants to make a positive difference both in and out of the ring.
Unlike the highly controversial (and largely racist) creation of Muhammad Hassan, Zayn will not be wheeled out as a ‘terrorist’ any time soon, instead being able to carve his own niche like any other wrestler on the WWE roster.
“I’m very proud that I can be myself. I’m not trying to be Arabic, I’m just being me and I happen to be Arabic. I think that might be refreshing to some people and it’s a bit more realistic than these pantomime villains we’ve seen before.
“Hopefully I can change some people’s perceptions being a down-to-earth human being that happens to be Arabic. Whether you’re Arabic or Portuguese it doesn’t really matter. A dude’s a dude!”
Zayn will be joined in Abu Dhabi by a host of fellow WWE superstars, including John Cena, Seth Rollins, Dolph Ziggler and Rusev.
He is a dream to market in the MENA region which the wrestling world’s most powerful organisation are determined to make the most out of it. The company has recently set up a regional headquarters in Dubai and clearly sees the huge fan-base as one that needs to be tapped into with greater ferocity.
“I feel like these are my people in the same way that I feel the people of Montreal or any Canadian city are,” said Zayn.
“You don’t get a lot of Arabs in wrestling so being able to represent is huge to me and honestly some-thing I’ve always dreamed of.”
Zayn has had to remain patient in his quest to rely on his own personality to develop his character, however. After debuting on the Canadian circuit back in 2002, Zayn first found success as El Generico, a Lucha Libre wrestler billed as hailing from Tijuana, Mexico.
Under this moniker Zayn found success in Ring of Honour and Japanese productions before breaking into the big time in 2013 and joining WWE NXT. Since then he has not looked back, delighting a growing army of the WWE’s feeder show and claiming its title by defeating Adrian Neville at the show’s Takeover: R Evolution special in December of last year.
Just like his high-octane moves do in the ring, his affable, easy-going nature makes an instant impression. He warns press of his ‘scratchy’ Arabic, but revels in the opportunity to speak in his family’s mother tongue.
As for his future in the WWE, at 30, Zayn might seem like he’s on slightly borrowed time but he is determined to continue wrestling over the course of the next decade.
While talks of featuring on the likes of Raw and Smackdown have been long called for by fans, Zayn is content with life as the NXT champion and happy to bide his time.
“You see it a lot that when people fixate on one goal, they miss out on the journey. And it’s one hell of a journey,” said Zayn.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m on the right track and I try not to obsess over when I’m going to be on Raw or when I’m going to be on this or that. I try not to think too much about it and make any situation as good as I possibly can.”
Weight: 251 lbs
From: West Newbury,Massachusetts
Signature move: Attitude Adjustment; STF
Career highlights: WWE World Heavy-weight Champion (12 times); World Heavyweight Champions (3) United States Champion (3); World Tag Team Champion (2); WWE Tag Team Champion (2)
Interesting fact: Cena is a massive fan of Japanese anime with his favourite film being ‘Fist of The North Star’.
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From: Davenport, Iowa
Signature move: Curb Stomp
Career highlights: WWE Tag Team Cham-pion; NXT Champion; 2014 Money in the Bank Ladder Match winner
Interesting fact: Rollins has kept it quite sedate in terms of ring names in the WWE. However, in his earlier days he was known as Gixx and Taj the Destroyer.
Weight: 225 lbs
From: Cincinnati, Ohio
Signature move: Dirty Deeds
Career highlights: United States Champion
Interesting fact: His reign as United States Champion, which lasted for 351 days, is the longest in company history. Before stepping into the ring, Ambrose sold popcorn and set up wres-tling rings in his hometown.
Weight: 213 lbs
From: Hollywood, Florida
Signature move: Zig Zag
Career highlights: Inter-continental Champion (4); World Heavy-weight Champion (2); United States Champion, Money in the bank Ladder Match winner
Interesting fact: In 2014, Ziggler was named Rolling Stone’s “WWE Wrestler of the year”.
Weight: 260 lbs
From: Perry, Oklahoma
Signature move: Patriot Lock
Career highlights: World Heavyweight Champion; ECW Cham-pion; United States Champion; Money in the Bank Ladder Match winner
Interesting fact: Attended the University of Oklahoma where he was an accomplished wrestler, setting the record for most pins in a season with 30 as an All-American.
Weight: 275 lbs
From: Rochester, New York
Signature move: Discus Clothesline
Career highlights: Inter-continental Champion
Interesting fact: Harper was known as Brodie Lee before entering the WWE. He came up with the name from the movie Mallrats by combining the names of actor Jason Lee and his character Brodie Bruce.
Weight: 232 lbs
From: Hollywood, California
Signature move:Curtain Call
Career highlights: Inter-continental Champion (3); World Tag Team Champion; WWE Tag Team Champion (2); Hardcore Champion (9)
Interesting fact: A true legend, Goldust first appeared in WWE 25 years ago, in 1990. He is the son of WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes and his in-ring partner these days, Stardust, is actually his real-life half-brother, Cody.
Bad News Barrett
Weight: 246 lbs
From: Preston, England
Signature move: Bad News Bull Hammer Elbow
Career highlights: NXT Season One winner; Inter-continental Champion (5)
Interesting fact: While living in Liver-pool in his early twenties, he became a champion bare-knuckle boxer. He de-cided to try and become a professional wrestler when he was 21.
Weight: 304 lbs
Signature move: The Accolade
Career highlights: United States Champion
Interesting fact: Despite being billed as Russian, Rusev (real name Miroslav Barnyashev) is actually Bulgar-ian, the first wrestler to compete in WWE from the European country.
Weight: 212 lbs.
From: Ghana, West Africa
Signature move: Trouble in Paradise
Career highlights: Inter-continental Champion (4); World Tag Team Champion; United States Champion (3); WWE Tag Team Champion (2)
Interesting fact: Kingston was born in Ghana but his family emigrated to the United States in 1982.