ORLANDO – Montreal native Sami Zayn is once again back inside a World Wrestling Entertainment ring, some seven-plus months after what should have been a dream debut quickly became a nightmare.
Last May, in his hometown, surrounded by friends and family, Zayn made his WWE Monday Night Raw debut. Rami Sebei, a 31-year-old redhead of Syrian descent, spent more than a decade in the business, wrestling around the world under a mask as El Generico. After dominating in the WWE’s NXT development system, Zayn arrived to a monstrous ovation from the Montreal faithful to face the company’s biggest name, John Cena.
Talk about a dream debut.
Things went sour quickly, however, as Zayn suffered a serious shoulder injury just seconds into the match. Zayn was able to fight through the pain to finish the match.
“You just get through it if you can,” Zayn said during international media day at the WWE’s Performance Centre in Orlando as part of Royal Rumble weekend, adding that ringside doctors have the final say. “For me mentally, it wasn’t an option (to not finish). We were one minute in, with all this time to go on live television, millions of people watching, 15,000 people in the arena watching, my friends, my family seeing me in the biggest moment of my life — it wasn’t an option to stop. But it could have been if the injury was bad enough or if I somehow just didn’t get through it, the doctors would have stopped it.”
The injury, it turned out, was bad enough to cost him the better part of a year, at a time when he and fellow Quebec native Kevin Owens were right at the top of the company’s developmental system. Zayn was told he’d be out four to six months.
“I thought (my recovery) would actually go quicker because when I initially saw the surgeon, they said four to six months. Right away, I thought that means four. I was progressing very quickly very early, so I thought, ‘I’m going to crush this rehab.’ Then it kind of slowed down,” he said, adding that even today he feels some post-surgery discomfort in the shoulder.
“I still wouldn’t call it 100%,” he said. “I still feel some cracking and popping and whatever else. Mentally, I know it’s still the bad shoulder.”
Getting back to 100%, physically and mentally, will take time, Zayn acknowledged.
A ringside physician checks out Sami Zayn during his WWE debut with John Cena in Montreal in May 2015. Photo by Minas Panagiotakis, www.photography514.com
“There are certain things I’m not doing,” he admitted. “I don’t think anybody will really notice it, it’s just little things for me, like if there’s certain moves that put me in a position that I feel vulnerable in, I just won’t do them at this stage. Again, I just came back and I still don’t 100% feel like myself. As soon as I feel comfortable doing moves or being in those positions, I’ll be back at it. For now, in the short term, yeah, I’m definitely a little more cognitive of what I’m doing. You can’t help it when you get hurt. It’s actually an important lesson to learn honestly as a performer.”
While Zayn acknowledges that the night he debuted on Raw in Montreal was undoubtedly the biggest night of his career, it was also surreal.
“It was a pretty strange night,” he said. “Even now when I try to think back on that night, it’s a bit of a whirlwind because there were so many highs and lows. I still don’t know how to process that evening.”
Zayn remembers feeling like that dream debut might be too good to be true.
“I was very skeptical, to be honest, because things change in this company so often,” he said. “Having wrestled independently for so long before I got here, I’m very much of the mindset, I’ll believe it when I’m there. I only started believing it once I was there. Even at that, I was still kind of struggling to process it all. It was exciting but it was also a lot of uncertainty, because I didn’t know what it meant. I was trying to get clues to what this meant. Is this a one-off? Is this just because we’re in Montreal? Is this just something special to do for that crowd or does this mean I’m staying up? Or if the match is good enough, can I force their hand to keep me up? We’ll never know any of that, because I got hurt that night.”
Never one to dwell on the past, Zayn intends to pick up where he left with NXT, right in the mix for the NXT championship.
“We’ll see how it all plays out on a long enough timeline. Maybe it was the best thing that could have happened to me, maybe it was the worst thing. Only time will tell. Right now, I feel pretty good about things.”