INTERVIEW: Sami Zayn - Flying the flag for WWE in Middle East

Barnaby Read 12/02/2015
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We have lift off: Sami Zayn will be launching himself off the turnbuckle in Abu Dhabi.

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.

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– WWE Superstar Sami Zayn proud to represent Arab community

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.”

WWE superstars appearing in Abu Dhabi

John Cena  
Height: 6’1” 
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’.

Seth Rollins 
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 217 lbs
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.

Dean Ambrose 
Height: 6’4”
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.

Dolph Ziggler 
Height: 6’0” 
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”.

Jack Swagger 
Height: 6’7”
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.

Luke Harper 
Height: 6’5”
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.

Height: 6’6”
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 
Height: 6’7” 
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.

Height: 6’0’’
Weight: 304 lbs
From: Russia 
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.

Kofi Kingston 
Height: 6’0”
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.

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OSN announce five year partnership with WWE network in Middle East

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WWE Superstar John Cena (R) with OSN CEO David Butorac (L).

OSN, the leading pay-TV network in the Middle East, and WWE on Thursday announced a five-year partnership to distribute WWE Network as a premium, linear channel in time for WrestleMania on March 29, exclusively on OSN.

The agreement will run concurrent with WWE and OSN’s existing partnership to air WWE’s flagship programming, Raw and SmackDown, as well as NXT, Superstars and more in the region.

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WWE stars to line up in Zayed Sports City for a gripping spectacle

OSN subscribers will be able to access the premium linear network via their set top boxes, and anytime, anywhere on multiple devices via OSN Play and through authenticated access via WWE Network apps. 

“OSN has a long standing relationship with WWE and we are very excited to be expanding that relationship further with the exclusive carriage of the WWE Network,” said Andy Warkman OSN’s VP, Sport and Production.

“We will be co-branding the linear channel OSN WWE Network HD and following on from our enhanced TV deal renewal last year, this is great news for WWE fans in the Middle East & North Africa region. We are looking forward to launching the Network in the coming weeks and cementing our position as the Home of WWE in the region.

WWE Network is available in more than 170 countries and territories and recently surpassed 1 million subscribers just 11 months after launch, making it the fastest-growing digital subscription service.

WWE Network’s one-of-a-kind programming includes all 12 WWE pay-per-view events LIVE at no additional charge plus groundbreaking original series, reality shows, documentaries, classic matches, exclusive coverage of special events and nearly 3,000 hours of video-on-demand content.

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King Kofi: WWE's Kofi Kingston gets his inspiration from the likes of Shawn Michaels, Brett Hart and Ricky Steamboat.

Kofi Kingston will be among the WWE superstars appearing in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

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Born in Ghana, his family emigrated to America in 1982 and after training as a wrestler after university he made his WWE debut in 2006.

The four-time Intercontinental and two-time Tag Team Champion tells Sport360° about his life in wrestling and what inspires him in the WWE.

What made you aspire to become a WWE superstar and how did you break into it?

Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to become a WWE superstar like Shawn Michaels, Brett Hart and Ricky Steamboat. I loved the fact that it was always so enter-taining – there was great music and athletes doing incredible things.

I started training for a while and along the road, I got my chance after I graduated from college. I had a tryout and I was very lucky to be in front of the right people at the right time. That was a kind of a dream come true with a lot of luck and a lot of work.

From moving to the US from Ghana to WWE superstardom, what has been the main change in your personality?

I have been in the US since I was two years old, so as far as my personality changing from being a civilian to being a WWE superstar, it hasn’t changed much.

My mum always gave me a great foundation and I think at the end of the day, we are all people.

I don’t have any kind of arrogance or cockiness about being in the WWE. I think that it is important to remember where you came from.

When did you know you wanted to be in WWE?

It was really early – it was probably in elementary school. I have always been a fan of WWE for as long as I can remember but I don’t know if I had an actual moment.

I have always loved watching WWE and we used to have Superstar, which was a show every Saturday morning.

For my entire youth that’s all I would watch – Superstar and Saturday morning cartoons. I would make sure to never miss an episode of WWE.

What do you feel about your position in WWE, are you where you want to be?

Yeah, I feel I’m pretty lucky for still going strong. It has been eight years; a lot of people have come and gone in that time but I’m very lucky to have been able to stay and still be the fans’ favourite, so I’m very pleased.

What are your ambitions for the future, how do you see yourself grow?

Kofi Kingston (r) believes he can realise his potential with Xavier Woods (l) and Big E (c).

Right now I’m with Xavier Woods and Big E and we’re doing some pretty cool things as we have a group that we call ‘The New Day’.

I’m very excited about everything that we’ve been doing together so far, and we’re already kind of fulfilling our potential.

A lot of people question the authenticity of WWE, what do you say to them?

We are very forward in saying what we do is entertainment, it’s like any show you see on television that has a story line, protagonist and antagonist.

We’re the exact same thing except we do it in the ring and we do it in an incredible fashion and in a manner unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

It’s supposed to be this way and we designed it this way for a purpose – when people come to a show they are entertained, that’s the entire point.

You visited the Middle East before, so how do you feel about the fans in this region, how do you rank them?

Middle East fans are definitely one of the most hardcore WWE fans in the world. I have been fortunate to have experienced it in Abu Dhabi before and this is my third time in the city.

I’ve also been to Saudi Arabia on two different occasions, so I’m very familiar with WWE Middle East fans. I know how great and welcoming they are and I’m very excited about the upcoming trip.

After eight years in the WWE how do you think your character has changed?

My character has gone from being Jamaican, to being athletic, to being a motivational speaker. I think when you have people in WWE that are there for a very long time, you have this self-development. This is so natural and I’m very interested in seeing where it will all go and where I will end up.

How did your story with WWE start? Can you give us a few career highlights?

My career with WWE started when I was in Boston and I had a try-out at the school I was training at. I got signed to a developmental contract and I was able to make it all the way to main roster.

One of my favourite moments was winning the Intercontinental champion-ship from Chris Jericho in 2008. It was also because my favourite WWE superstars were the Intercontinental champions like Shawn Michaels, Ricky Steamboat and Jericho.

It was an honour to actually hold that title because of all the guys held it before me and they really inspired me to get that one.

Is winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship still one of your dreams?

Absolutely! As a kid, you always envision yourself as being at the top of the food chain, envision yourself as being the best. The mark of being the best in our industry is the world heavyweight championship. That is definitely one of my goals.

Kofi Kingston (r) dreams of attaining the WWE World Heavyweight Championship glory.

You have won several titles in your career. Which one is the most special? My first WrestleMania was Money in the Bank in 2009 and that was when I really felt like I had made it.

I have been a fan since I was a kid and when you imagine yourself as a WWE superstar, you imagine yourself at WrestleMania and in 2009, I actually did that. It was definitely like a lifetime achievement and a moment that I am very, very proud of.

What is your dream WWE showdown?

Myself taking on Shawn Michaels in Wrestle-Mania in the main event. Shawn Michaels, in my mind, is the greatest of all time.

Your favourite WWE moment? There has been so many. Maybe when RAW initially came out; no one really knew how big RAW was going to get. I think it was in 1994 that Monday Night RAW debuted on television and look at it now! We are a worldwide entity all because of what started on that day.

What other sports are you interested in?

I lift weight, I do a little bit of cardio, but when it comes to competing athletically, I haven’t competed in anything since high school. I played American football and wrestled in high school. However, being at WWE, you have to lift weights and work out to maintain the athleticism.

Can you name one WWE superstar that has influenced you the most? Rey Mysterio is one of my biggest influences, because he’s very small, one of the small-est superstars in WWE, and he’s able to do so much.

I remember watching him whilst growing up; I was very small too and a lot of people used to tell me that I’m too small to be a WWE superstar. When I saw Rey Mysterio on TV, I believed I can do it too.

What sort of music do you enjoy?

I listen to a whole lot of different things from Bob Marley to country music to hip-hop to classical music. Music is a big part of my life – growing up I played in bands, played the saxophone and I have the drums at home. I have different types of music on my iPod.

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