Throughout the history of WWE, fans have had their fair share of villainous characters to love and to loathe in similar measure. From The Undertaker to The Million Dollar Man, Chris Jericho to Vince McMahon, there has been an almost infinite list of personae with the sole purpose, seemingly, to antagonise the paying public with feats of total treachery.
This is especially true of Middle Eastern wrestlers, whose sheer presence in this most patriotic of American cauldrons led to an instant dislike. Take The Iron Sheik (real name Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri) for example. Before he later evolved into a hard-talking voice piece loved by the likes of Howard Stern, he turned die-hard US fans against him, firstly by daring to feud with the all-American hero Hulk Hogan and secondly by simply being Iranian, and therefore mostly mistrusted by the States at the time, primarily because of the Iran hostage crisis.Fast-forward 30-odd years to the present and you’ll find one Middle Eastern wrestler hoping to shatter the many misconceptions about his nation in the sport and encourage WWE fans to simply embrace him for his ring prowess.
Sami Zayn welcomes the chance to trigger change and is undaunted by flying the flag for wrestlers in the Mena region. “I really can’t stress it enough, I feel like it’s such a great opportunity for me and I welcome gladly the chance to be the first Arab or Syrian representative as a WWE superstar,” he tells Time Out. “I felt, growing up and being a massive fan of WWE, that I never saw a representative – especially not a positive one – of the Arab people. So now I feel like I’m in this great position to be that representative and I’m very proud of that opportunity.”
The 31-year-old, a first generation Canadian born to Syrian parents, is clearly well aware of the weight on his shoulders, but if anyone can bear such a burden, it’s Zayn. And after experiencing first-hand the passion of fans in the UAE when WWE came to Abu Dhabi last year, the rising star can’t wait to see what the rest of the country has to offer.
He believes that the WWE Live Dune Bash, taking place on Thursday April 14 to Friday 15 at the Dubai Duty Tennis Stadium, which also features Big Show, Dean Ambrose and The New Day, could be the springboard the company needs to bring more major events to the region, especially considering the last time one was staged in Dubai was 18 years ago. And Zayn is more than happy to take the lead when it comes to promoting WWE in the Middle East.
“I think I’m in a good position where I can actually help to strengthen the relationship between the WWE and the Middle East and hopefully serve as an ambassador for that,” he says. “So if I’m putting myself in that role and the company is putting me in that role, then seeing WWE grow in the Middle East is something I’d take a lot of pride in and is something I really want to see happen. The WWE is very interested in expanding in the region, I know that for a fact. It has even got an office in the UAE.”
Zayn feels there is more than enough interest in the UAE to make events such as Dune Bash a regular fixture on the ever-expanding WWE calendar. “It’s a great market. Arabic fans are so passionate and we just want to make it bigger and better,” he says.
“I’m really looking forward to April 14 and 15 and obviously hope to see everybody there excited and enthused, because that will just mean we can come back more often. The more fans who are interested and coming out and making noise, buying tickets, buying merchandise, the happier we’ll all be to be there.”
Zayn appreciates there might be some apprehension from people in the UAE over whether their experiences of watching WWE on television, where the product is edited, will be matched by witnessing it in the flesh.
However, he is adamant the entire crowd will leave the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium with an overwhelming feeling that it was time and money well spent. “From my vantage point as a performer, I love these events even more than I love performing on television,” he says. “We’re talking about one of the premier touring shows on planet Earth. You don’t get to be at that level without quality backing you up.”
Zayn says that for fans, this show is an incredible opportunity, since they don’t have to jump on a plane to London or New York to see it. “We’re coming to you and I can say that not only as a performer, but as a long-time fan growing up and going to these shows, I don’t think there’s any art form in the world quite like what we do,” he says.
What comes across most when speaking to the affable Zayn is the enthusiasm he has for wrestling and the delight he feels that the toil he has been through to reach the top is being rewarded by more high-profile bouts. And he would definitely encourage aspiring wrestlers in the UAE to follow his path to superstardom, irrespective of how arduous it might be.
“Obviously it takes a lot of hard work and my journey to reach this point has been a long one – 14 years, as well as three years in NXT (the WWE development territory),” he says. “It definitely wasn’t an easy road but it was a road that I certainly enjoyed. If I can inspire someone to taste this dream, then where there’s a will, there’s a way. And if that means leaving the UAE, getting out your rambling shoes, packing your bags and heading out on the track, then just do it, because it’s a dream worth chasing. Now that I’m here, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Being born in another country, Zayn had the chance to attend shows and train at wrestling schools. When his career eventually, and inevitably, begins to wind down would he consider opening an academy in the UAE?
“Maybe one day, because obviously this a very physical thing that we do and your body only has so much time on it – that’s just the way it is when it comes to being an athlete,” he says. “I actually do have a deep passion not only for wrestling, but teaching wrestling and passing on any knowledge that I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up on my 14-year journey. It’s definitely something I would be interested in. We’ve just got to wait and see how it pans out.”
Long before he can even think of hanging up his boots though, Zayn has the small matter of Dune Bash to contend with. Let’s get ready to rumble…
From Dhs350. Thu April 14, 7pm-11.30pm; Fri April 15, 5.30pm-10pm. Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Garhoud, www.platinumlist.net.
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