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The Right Place at the Right Time
Sami Zayn and the Magic of Wrestling
I hated the idea of Sami Zayn versus Johnny Knoxville.
When the Jackass star showed up backstage before the Royal Rumble and ran into Sami Zayn–even before he showed up to toss Sami over the top rope later that evening–I groaned with a dreadful foreknowledge: Oh my God, Sami’s going to have a match with Knoxville at WrestleMania. Sami Zayn is my favorite wrestler, and I didn’t want him to end up in some comedy celebrity match on the grandest stage of them all! I wanted him to have a match with meaning, with resonance. Something with exquisite long-term storytelling. A technical masterpiece where he could show off his brilliance. He deserved better, I grumbled to myself.
In short, I was a blithering idiot.
Mea fucking culpa.
If you watch enough of the promos and matches of Sami Zayn (and his precursor, El Generico) you start to notice that a certain level of chaos tends to follow him wherever he goes. Things fall apart, topple over, get entangled. At first it’s merely hilarious. Then you come to accept he’s just oddly awkward in a variety of ways: anecdotes about him backstage hint at a kinetic twitchy ball of energy, prone to ripping off his pants for effect, propping his feet on furniture, or losing in ping-pong in dramatically flailing ways. Eventually you start to be impressed that someone so awkward could manage to be so skilled in the ring.
And then, at last, the suspicion starts to creep in:
Surely he isn’t able to do this on purpose.
After that, you start to notice it everywhere, the deftness with which he uses his surroundings. Frustratingly, it’s not something you can prove; any one example could just be happenstance.
I’m pretty certain that Sami Zayn is having fun making his hat fall down over his eyes at the perfect moment to punctuate his rants, because I’ve caught him doing it more than once:
But for example, look at El Generico after winning PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles in 2011. Kevin Steen, petulant in defeat, has lashed out and broken the trophy, and as Generico celebrates after chasing him off, you can–maybe?--see his glance take in how the top is wobbling wildly.
I can’t be absolutely certain that I’ve caught the luchador telling referee Rick Knox to loosen the top of his trophy, but Knox is definitely fiddling with it…
And when Generico finishes his speech thanking the audience, somehow a tiny nudge is enough to send the little golden cup falling into the hands of the crowd.
It’s perfect, isn’t it—this little thank you to the Reseda audience for their cheers and support, this symbolic sharing of the glory? Yet I squint at the video, stymied by the utter lack of fanfare on Generico’s part. He’s impenetrably casual; he doesn't seem to notice it happened at all. It could just be coincidence.
Or as another example, WWE superstar Sami Zayn shows up in EVOLVE in 2015. It’s just after Johnny Gargano’s farewell match, and the ring is full of purple streamers thrown by the fans. Sami gives a speech about Johnny and about missing the informal indie-style crowd, talking about the “indie-sized hole in his heart.” He wanders around the ring a bit as he speaks, and as he finishes up he suddenly looks down at his feet in surprise: in his ramblings he’s somehow ended up with his feet tangled up in the stray streamers. “Oh,” he says in bemusement as the crowd bursts into laughter, “I forgot about streamers!”
Again, it’s flawless: a tiny note of hilarity that perfectly caps off the theme of the superstar’s nostalgia for the intimate indie audience crowding up against the ring, throwing streamers. It couldn’t be an accident, could it? But how could it be on purpose, either? Could he really have been gathering up streamers with his feet as he spoke? Surely not. But maybe? I’m impressed and suspicious at once.
But then, wrestling has always shared quite a lot with magic—not fictional sorcery, but the craft of stage magic. Their origins are strikingly similar: whether three card monte or a fairground exhibition, both started off as swindles, using misdirection and sleight of hand to fleece gullible marks of their money. Both have evolved into live spectacles, stage shows where the “marks'' are more informed but no less dazzled by the con, struggling to see the craft of the illusion and only sometimes succeeding. All wrestlers are magicians; Sami Zayn is merely one of the very best at the art.
One of the more visible examples in wrestling is when a wrestler draws your eye toward the point of contact on a kick while slapping their thigh to create the aural illusion of an impact, a bit of legerdemain I’m aware of but still manage to miss on nearly every single first watching, no matter how many dozens of times it happens in a week of wrestling.
The gaze is drawn irresistibly to the place where body strikes body, wincing at the crack of impact while missing the shell game being played with sound.
The most thrilling examples are the ones where the secret collaborative nature of wrestling comes into play. In the middle of a PWG match, El Generico suddenly, impossibly, runs up the wall like he’s in some wild martial-arts movie, defying logic and gravity to flip over his opponent and send him flying.
Commentary adds to the impact, sputtering “That’s not even real!! They did that in post, didn’t they? Green screen?” The audience goes nuts, the illusion of combat hiding the teamwork: look again and see the way Generico interlaces his fingers tightly with Kevin’s…
So he can brace himself against Kevin’s arm and get the support he needs to make the impossible merely bogglingly difficult.
Or more recently: in 2018 Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, goaded beyond endurance by General Manager Daniel Bryan’s disapproval, attack him and beat him down. Bryan has literally been announced as cleared to wrestle that morning, so this is the first time he’s taken a wrestling move since his retirement due to concussions years ago. At one point Sami pins Bryan’s arms, holding him while Kevin superkicks him.
In the moment, even knowing they would never hurt him deliberately, I find it frightening: to kick him while he’s so helpless, arms held back! Commentary groans; the audience shrieks in horror; I wince. It’s only when I make the gif later, with a more dispassionate eye, that I see the misdirection, the hidden care and caution. Sami seems to be laying Bryan open to attack, but in reality he’s moving Bryan’s head out of the way of Kevin’s kick as he throws his own arm and head back to augment the illusion of recoil. In fact, it almost looks like Kevin is kicking not Daniel’s head, but Sami’s hand, giving him the cue to hurl himself and Bryan backwards.
It requires perfect timing by Sami and Kevin, and deep faith by Bryan: with three wrestlers who were less skilled, who knew and trusted each other less totally, the whole thing would fall apart.
The wrestler and the opponent, the referee, the commentators: it’s a whole team of stage magicians, working together to create an immersive fantasy; always pulling the eye away from the cool-headed teamwork and toward the clash of impact. Sometime when you’re re-watching a ladder match, keep an eye on the base of the ladder and notice how often opponents or referees stabilize the ladder for safer climbing, like here where John Morrison’s “exhausted collapse” at the base of the ladder provides a counterbalance so Kofi can prepare for a crazy leap.
Or when you’re re-watching a tag match where someone does one of those frantic over-the-shoulder tag attempts, look not at the desperately reaching hands that draw your eye like a magnet, but at the hand on the opponent’s back to see the way one wrestler steers their “enemy” closer or further away to heighten the tension:
Well-trained camera operators can usually make sure these little tricks don’t show up on TV, but if you’re vigilant and detached, you’ll see them now and then.
But honestly, if you’re vigilant and detached while watching a wrestling match, what’s the point? The fun is in letting yourself be tricked, in getting emotionally involved and only later realizing the effort that’s gone into creating that dazzling lie. There might be satisfaction, but there’s no joy in peering at the screen, watching for thigh slaps with a critical eye, refusing to lose yourself in the magic.
Professional wrestling is magic, and Sami Zayn is one of its most skilled magicians.
A great deal of his magician’s skills appears in a love of using props. El Generico did a more than one stint in DDT Pro, the Japanese promotion famous for its wild, hilarious, prop-heavy matches, where the luchador got to wrestle with a giant mallet:
As well as wrestle in a kayak with Kota Ibushi during one of DDT’s “campground matches,” where wrestlers use a whole campground for improvisational wrestling.
He also got to use a small giggling child as a weapon:
El Generico is currently enjoying his well-deserved retirement, but I do sometimes regret that he stopped wrestling before the debut of DDT Pro wrestler Andreza Giant Panda. Generico would have had so much fun selling Andreza’s offense.
Imagine him taking that vicious headbutt!
When Sami appears on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast in July 2022, Austin spends some time praising Sami’s skills. Eventually he points to what he says is Sami’s greatest strength.
When I hear this, my reaction goes something along these lines:
Because that is Sami’s gift and talent: an unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time to create the biggest impact, the best result. Ranging from the tiniest gestures to the most dramatic flourishes, he knows how to find the right place at the right time.
This Austin fellow, I conclude, might just know a little something about wrestling.
As Sami Zayn’s feud with Johnny Knoxville escalates in the spring of 2022, building toward WrestleMania, I go from annoyance to grudging acceptance (I guess it’s better than no match at all…) and then to dawning interest. The tipping point was probably the release of Knoxville’s movie Jackass Forever, when Sami crashed the premiere and confronted Knoxville on the red carpet, then scuffled with security.
It’s a startling, thrilling, Andy Kaufman-esque violation of the boundary between the slightly-skewed alternate universe of wrestling and the “real world.” Watching him flee Knoxville’s cattle prod into the night, my negativity finally dissipates in the face of an undeniable truth:
Sami Zayn is having the time of his life.
And if Sami is having fun, I realize, this match is going to be fun.
I still had no idea how much fun.
Sami and Knoxville’s match starts off looking like a wrestling match at first, with a quick and brutal Helluva Kick to Knoxville’s face. But everything quickly devolves into chaos when Knoxville rolls out of the ring and Sami starts scrapping it up with the Jackass crew in the front row. This gives Knoxville time to get his hands on a fire extinguisher to blast in Sami’s face.
Now, a fire extinguisher is a fairly standard wrestling prop. But part of what makes this match so charming is the slow, steady escalation of the props toward the increasingly ludicrous. Sami takes comedic relish in finding a cookie sheet and a stop sign–props that are at this point merely unconventional–with which to batter Knoxville.
He recoils in shock at finding a table covered with mousetraps under the ring:
On commentary, Michael Cole, the staid veteran of many a WrestleMania, has started to chuckle uncontrollably. I can’t help it either, I’m giggling in a mix of delight and dread as my knowledge of both slapstick and wrestling tells me exactly who will be going through that mousetrap-coated table.
Knoxville eats absolutely all of an exploder suplex through a (non-mousetrapped) table, which yanks a horrified gasp of respect from me: he’s taking his fair knocks here too, he’s earning his victory. By this point the basic rhythm of the match has been established, and everything ratchets up a notch when Chris Pontius/Party Boy of the Jackass cast shows up to strip down to a G-string to… dance-attack (??) Sami:
Whatever it is, it’s definitely some kind of nudity-based offense, and Sami sells it like a punch to the face. The crowd noise spikes, then cools when Sami kicks him and shoves him under the ring, only to spiral upward uncontrollably when Jason Acuña/Wee Man comes out from under the ring in an avenging rage, raining blows on a bewildered Sami.
This leads to the centerpiece of the match in which Wee Man body slams Sami, a moment which manages to be simultaneously hilarious, legit impressive, and an incredibly clever reference in miniature to the famous WrestleMania moment of Hulk Hogan body slamming Andre the Giant.
By this point, Michael Cole has been reduced to laugh-sobbing “Sami! Sami!” over and over. The audience is roiling with delight as the match continues to escalate and Sami eventually gets pyro up his ass, a bowling ball to the balls, and a mechanical foot punt to the groin. When Sami, fleeing Knoxville’s taser, somehow manages to run right into a GIANT HAND, I burst out laughing in delicious surprise.
All of my pompous worries about Sami’s long-term booking and position on the card have been disintegrated into pure giddy hilarity. I’m lost in a childlike wonder at the sheer cartoon-physics of it all, to the point that I have managed to completely forget about Chekhov’s Mousetrap-Covered Table until Sami is sent–inevitably, joyously–flying through it. The audience and I shriek with horrified delight together.
The match ends with Sami–who’s been called a “rat” for the last two months by everyone–stuck in an implausibly giant mousetrap, unable to shake off Knoxville’s pin. The crowd is going crazy. On commentary, Michael Cole and Pat McAffee are beside themselves with laughter. The entire Jackass crew celebrates around the dumbstruck and defeated wrestler with an exhilaration that feels quite genuine: We pulled it off!
Sami Zayn, who has planned and engineered this match, organized and coached this group of non-wrestlers, and created with his reactions the perfect illusion of chaotic slapstick violence, lies defeated in the ring, pinned by a hilariously large mousetrap.
He is also absolutely and utterly triumphant, there–as always–in the right place at the right time.
After WrestleMania, a video surfaces of Michael Cole calling Sami and Knoxville’s match. It captures the moment where Wee Man attacks Sami, and when Cole realizes the bodyslam is about to happen, that most measured of commentators leaps up in uncontrollable delight, practically jigging with hilarity. Sami posts the video to his Twitter and Instagram account, calling Cole’s enjoyment “one of the greatest compliments” he got about the match.
At the same time, in an Instagram Story–ephemeral and temporary–Sami posts the video again, this time with a caption: A good match makes you cheer. A great match makes you dance. Sami’s career has so often revolved around music and dancing, from El Generico’s wild and goofy gyrations, to NXT Sami’s pure-hearted skanking, to modern heel Sami’s self-congratulatory capering. Yet it’s at 2022’s WrestleMania, trapped in a ludicrously oversized mousetrap and unable to move, that he may have achieved his greatest victory and his most joyous dance to date.
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