THE NXT REPORT
Sami Zayn is back!
He’s made occasional appearances over the past two months - either with a pre-recorded cellphone video or an in-ring promo, but without seeing Sami wrestle it didn’t really feel as though he’d returned to NXT.
And even though his return wasn’t promoted in a fittingly operatic way, his main event match with Rhyno was so spectacular that it served as a reminder of how important Sami Zayn is to the WWE.
But before I delve into celebrating Sami & Rhyno, the rest of this episode is worthy of high praise.
CJ Parker, a performer I always enjoyed, has left NXT (amicably apparently), and he went out on a high note with an excellent match against Solomon Crowe. This was a stiff, gritty battle between disparate entities, the ruthless exchanges and the emotional intensity between the two elevating what could have been a forgettable encounter to a place of significance.
Godspeed, Moon Child. Your protest signs will be missed.
Baron Corbin laid waste to yet another jobber, and while the crowd is back in the habit of counting down to the finish, it’s clearly time he started regularly having legitimate matches. We’ve seen glimpses of what he’s like in a longer bout during his feud with Bull Dempsey, but he’s yet to fully demonstrate what he’s capable of. If he’s not permitted to really work then the company runs the risk of fans turning on him. The NXT crowd wants to like Baron Corbin, but a lack of substance guarantees a lack of interest in 2015. He’s clearly talented, and he has a good understanding of the importance of facial expressions. The time has come to give him good matches against guys like Hideo Itami and Finn Balor.
The lovable Enzo and Big Cass scored the victory on Angelo Dawkins & Sawyer Fulton. It’s clear the draw to Enzo and Cass is more what they do on the mic and less what they do in the ring - and, for this fan, that’s perfectly fine. In fact, Enzo’s awkward attempts to climb the top rope make him that much more likable and sympathetic. For safety’s sake, it’s probably best that the team limit themselves to what they can do well in the ring, but they’ve gained a lot of momentum over the past few weeks just by being great on the mic and having a genuinely sympathy-getting report in the ring.
Next came the debut of Dana Brooke. Dana has been promoted for about a month now, spotlighted in vignettes and presented, essentially, as the next big thing in the women’s division. Her sex appeal and her strength has been the emphasis of her campaign.
My metaphorical hat goes off to Corey Graves for making me laugh harder than any commentary call ever has. When Dana’s music hit, Corey said to his fellow commentator, “Stop talking, Rich. Just enjoy.”
The timing and tone was perfect, as the camera quickly cut to Dana flipping onto the stage.
To be clear, I’m not a fan of sexualizing, fetishizing, and objectifying women.
But the absolutely unapologetic way with which Corey Graves did so was undeniably amusing. His comment was also something one so rarely hears on commentary, a welcome sentiment of “Shut up and just enjoy the show, let’s stop intruding on it!”
Graves' commentary was the high spot of the entire segment, however, as Dana quickly revealed she’s more flash than in-ring substance. She has a great personality for a heel, but the ring-work was sloppy and awkward (which isn’t the worst thing on a developmental show).
I really hope the bookers at NXT didn’t think it was possible for a gimmick like Dana Brooke’s to get over as a babyface in 2015.
Pitting her against Blue Pants (now a fan favorite - ironically or not) and having her gyrate around the ring, touching herself, completely self-obsessed, guaranteed a negative fan-reaction.
The idolatry of the stereotypical, heterosexual male wrestling fan eye in 2015 is represented in geekier or off-beat gimmicks like AJ Lee, Paige, and Bayley. The days of the Playboy blonde bombshell getting over by parading half-naked around the ring are done - and I’m not so sure those days ever really existed. People might have hooted and hollered for T&A during The Attitude Era, but they only ever latched on to substance - actual talent and depth and sincerity. Lita and Trish aren't Hall of Famers because of what they wore or how many times they did "sexy" things. They're in the Hall of Fame and they're remembered because of what they did in the ring and how they inspired young women to stand up for themselves.
And I find it reassuring that this is becoming increasingly true in today’s world - people want to see men & women who are presented as more than the sum of their augmented body parts.
People want to see thought-provoking, talented performers tell an emotionally rewarding story.
And no one in the WWE is better at telling an emotionally rewarding story than Sami Zayn.
He is the absolute best in the entire company.
He is, without question, unmatched as an all-around performer. I do not simply mean that Sami Zayn is one of the best talkers or one of the best in-ring workers in the company. Typically, when a pro-wrestler is described as a great “all-around performer” that’s what the description means; good on the mic, good in the ring. Sami Zayn’s performance is better than the combined strengths of cutting a promo and working in the ring.
The only way I can come close to adequately conveying my meaning in a simple, recognizable way is to borrow an old pro-wrestling phrase and write that “Sami lives the gimmick.”
But even that isn’t up to par, because I do not mean that Sami doesn’t break kayfabe when he’s in the real-world. I mean not unlike Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale or Leo DiCaprio or Robert DeNiro or Al Pacino that when Sami Zayn performs he graciously offers viewers the most convincing, heartfelt, skilled, and complete performance humanly possible.
There are a lot of truly great performers in various arts.
But there are so very few masters.
Sami Zayn is a master of professional wrestling.
He is, essentially, a method performer who has mastered his craft so thoroughly that it’s occasionally difficult to fully appreciate exactly what he does that makes him so good. Only a master can make something incredibly difficult look incredibly easy, something that requires an incredible amount of effort appear effortless. Where other talented performers in the company are bursting at the seams with creative energy, hurling every bit of their talent into every moment of a match, wielding a massive talent-axe at a block of granite, hoping to erect a monument of high spots, Sami Zayn takes a scalpel to that block of granite, confidently chipping away, bit by bit with a surgeon’s precision, every moment of his performance contributing to a monument of soulful, pro-wrestling truth.
What Sami does, literally, with his body and his face, at various key spots in any given match creates a performance that no one else in the company can match, an entire world of realistic pro-wrestling sportsmanship.
That’s not a critique of any other gimmick - there are superb performers in the company, many of whom I love, and many of whom I believe contribute to one of the best roster’s in the company’s history. But many of those performers occasionally veer into slapstick with their performance. Many oversell the emotion or undersell the emotion or misread what emotion they should be portraying altogether. So many performers are acting like sports entertainers or professional wrestlers, trying their hardest to approximate what a gimmick might think, feel, or say in the moment.
Where others act and attempt, Sami inhabits. Sami just is.
No one inspires more sympathy.
No other pro-wrestling character is able to fluctuate between good old-fashioned babyface, feel-good shtick and the darker, more complex human emotions that make us really believe.
To provide a specific example of Sami’s excellence, I direct your attention to his Championship match against Kevin Owens at NXT Take Over: Rival. At the end of the match, after taking several power bombs and truly suffering at the hands of his enemy, appearing legitimately concussed, when Kevin went for the cover, at the two count, Sami did not kick out! in the way one would expect.
Sami limply raised his shoulder, rising, woozy, off the mat in one of the most unsettlingly realistic moments I’ve ever seen in a match.
There was no energy to the kick out, and that made it all the more powerful.
He was lifeless, his body utterly destroyed.
But he still had just enough mental strength to will his shoulder off the mat.
We always hear commentary talk about “the will to go on” and pro-wrestlers always kick out at the count of two in spectacular fashion, as though they’ve summoned the strength in a magical way.
Sami Zayn’s kick out, in that grim moment, embraced the reality of the character’s situation, the tone of the entire match, and showed viewers what “the will to go on” actually looks like in real life. And it also subtly addressed the truth of the situation - wrestlers don’t need to kick out in extravagant fashion to keep the fight going. They only need to keep at least one shoulder off the mat. It was so devastating to see Sami raise his shoulder in this lifeless way that it was almost too much to bear. That mauling at the hands of Owens was like watching a loyal, strong, courageous, lovable dog get slowly ripped to pieces.
These are the creative choices, combined with a sincerity in his eyes and an athletic ability that contributes to a pro-wrestling performance that transcends the genre, ascending to a status in the pantheon of the performative arts that deserves accurate recognition.
He’s not simply a great professional wrestler.
He’s a master performer, deservedly mentioned in the same breath as the great film and stage actors we've celebrated throughout history.
Sami is simultaneously an open wound and a righteously beating heart of perseverance, and his match with Rhyno was yet another example of this truth.
These two veterans worked together to tell a deeply engrossing story that made you believe a man of Sami’s stature could find a way to defeat a man of Rhyno’s size.
The way Rhyno pummeled Sami into the corners and delivered massive slams at significant moments in the match reminded viewers of the aforementioned Take Over: Rival match where Owens reduced Sami to a near-unconscious heap.
I’ve never had the chance to see Rhyno really work (his early aughts run with WWE seemed to consist of nothing but Gores) so this experience was an eye-opener. The subtleties of Rhyno’s performance, his excellence contributed to the story as much as Sami's work; his looks of bewilderment, an incredulous “Really?” shrug when Sami kept trying to fight back, and a balls-to-the-wall-top-rope-tumble to the outside that seemed to completely devastate him.
If you listen to Steve Austin’s podcast, you’ve likely heard Austin emphasize the importance of a good comeback, a believable comeback. Far too often today in professional wrestling, a babyface comeback plays out in an incredibly predictable fashion; the babyface hits three clotheslines in a row, essentially Hulks up, and then delivers a finisher or builds toward the finish. Because it’s so predictable and because this style of comeback is shared among so many wrestlers, matches can often feel stale, far-too scripted, and unrealistic.
In Sami vs Rhyno, we saw exactly the kind of quality-comeback Steve Austin argues for. Rhyno had Sami all but defeated, pummeling him into the center of the ring, and then, out of nowhere, Sami sprang off the canvas and wildly threw fists. He relentlessly punched Rhyno into the ropes, flailing like a madman (the way a smaller fighter would have to fight in order to disorient a larger opponent). He became crazed, and after being shoved away, summoned the strength to lift Rhyno up into the Blue Thunder Bomb, twist him around, and smash him down into the mat for a two count.
It was a majestic moment, a comeback so unexpected and convincing that you couldn’t help but believe Sami might actually win with a Blue Thunder Bomb.
What followed was a series of spots where every move mattered, and every move contributed to the finish, eventually leading to Sami leaping out of the ring, smashing into Rhyno, a final back and forth with a Gore-counter that set up for the Helluva Kick.
One, two, three…perfection.
It’s all the more impressive that Sami can deliver a story of this caliber when it seems clear that he wants to graduate from NXT.
He is a WrestleMania main-eventer. He is a top guy to build a company around. One wonders, outside the pro-wrestling Garden of Eden dubbed NXT, if the company would fully appreciate who they have on their roster.
Regardless of what the future holds, one thing is certain: we pro-wrestling fans should consider ourselves privileged and lucky every single time Sami Zayn permits us to watch him go to work.
He graciously offers us insight into what it means to be a master of one’s art.
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Have a nice day!