A Darkness Without Light: Sami Zayn and the Gift of Sorrow

I’m watching wrestling while hiding under the sheets so my parents won’t catch me.

Clarification: I am a grown-ass human being of full adulthood, and I’m watching wrestling while hiding under the sheets so my parents won’t catch me.

This is because I still haven’t figured out a way to explain to my parents that it’s terribly important I watch Sami Zayn defend his NXT title against Kevin Owens; that I have in fact flown from the other side of the world not exactly to visit them as I’ve claimed, but because in two days I’m going to drive four hours to my first-ever live wrestling show in Fort Pierce, Florida.  Since seeing Sami win at TakeOver R-Evolution, it’s become my quest to see him with my own eyes holding the title, so despite my fear of A) crowds, B) sudden loud noises, C) unpredictable situations, D) basically everything that one might encounter in a live wrestling show, I am going to do this thing.  It took a couple of months to jigger my schedule and and get the flights and car rentals straight, but I finally managed it, and now I’m just one short title defense away from seeing my favorite wrestler as champion.  This is all very important, but I’m not certain I could explain this to my parents, who are rational intellectual retired schoolteachers and not particularly given to excesses of emotion over either real things or fictional things.  Wrestling, being neither–and both–seems far too complicated, and so I deal with the conflict as I do most conflict, by hiding under the covers and avoiding it altogether.

I’ve spent the days at my parents’ house in the ways adult children spend days at their parents’ house–answering work emails, trying to fix their computer problems, getting updated on health worries and family drama, being a good and responsible grown-up as much as possible.  But this evening I’ve called it a night early and am now hiding with my iPad under the sheets so the light doesn’t give me away.  I am nervous but also serenely confident that there’s no way Sami’s going to lose his title in his very first defense, no way.

(Because I still don’t know any history at all, I don’t yet know that Sami’s friend El Generico has the record for the shortest title reign in IWS history at three minutes and ten seconds.  Here he is celebrating!

And who attacked him, got a title shot and cruelly snatched his title away three minutes later?

Oh. That’s. That’s ominous.

This is only Sami and Kevin’s second time wrestling in the ring together in the WWE–and the other was an untelevised tag team match.  So this is their first singles match in the WWE.  Depending on how you define and name the wrestlers, this is either their first singles match in almost three years or their first singles match ever.  And they seem ready and eager to get this story started:

I am also ready and eager for Sami to retain his title and triumph over his Very Bad Ex-Friend!  But first, of course, he has to suffer, because no hero’s win is complete without some good suffering, and Sami’s suffering is some of the best there is.  For example, the way he collides with a turnbuckle:

There are a lot of ways to enact suffering in wrestling, from melodramatically stoic to melodramatically over-the-top (the melodrama, however, is required).  In general, Sami’s style is stylized and gracefully exaggerated; legs, arms, fingers all working together to delineate arcs of agony.

All three of these collisions happen within a few minutes of each other, and each one is distinct and different:

It’s always on the knife-edge of being unrealistic, but as long as the viewer is emotionally invested it works.  I’m emotionally invested, so at one level I’m worried about my hero (who is definitely going to win!).  But at the same time the chattery little intellectual part of my brain is endlessly impressed with the artistry of it all, the presence of mind and physical control necessary to project being out of control of one’s body in an emotionally involving way.  Like the way Sami takes a chest chop, the elegant slow arch of it, the discipline of communicating one’s suffering so even the people in the cheapest seats will feel it:

Hidden and huddled under my blankets, worried for Sami but also certain all this will lead to triumph, I also am enjoying the aesthetics of the way he wobbles dramatically after a kick, all loose-limbed and staggering:

I’m of two minds as I watch:  the breathless fan following the story and the cautious intellectual analyzing and dissecting, keeping my distance. I’m sure Sami will have a comeback soon–and when he does, I feel both emotional relief and intellectual satisfaction.  Sami is on the offensive, he’s got Kevin reeling to the outside of the ring, he does a sitting springboard moonsault–



And the back of his head comes up hard against the ramp.

It’s such a small thing, there is nothing melodramatic or exaggerated about it, just a slight misstep and a quick thump, and in that instant suddenly I’m truly worried.  Concussions, whiplash, so many true and bad wrestling injuries happen not in dramatic moments but in those sudden little stresses and impacts, in the body failing in the most mundane of ways.  It’s one of the most agonizing moments for a wrestling fan:  are they okay?  I mean… really okay?  My heart stutters.

Sami gets up, the referee checks him quickly, he gets back into the ring.  He’s staggered and a little woozy-looking, but he’s allowed to continue, and because of this I know he’s almost certainly okay.  He’s fine, I tell myself, it’s a work, he’s fine, and I know it’s true, but somehow it’s no use.  That little thump and that moment of authentic panic have jarred loose my careful handhold on disbelief, leaving my chattering analyzing self silent. I feel only anguished worry as Sami tries to deliver his finishing move, stumbles, and falters right into Kevin’s pop-up powerbomb.

And then the four powerbombs delivered one after the other:

Looking back when writing this, I’ll be able to appreciate the way Sami’s arms fan the air, accenting the brutal speed of each descent.  But in that moment, I have no appreciation at all for selling, or booking, or anything but the fact that Sami is losing, and it isn’t fair.  It isn’t even like Kevin’s beaten him, not really!  He just banged his head and now he’s going to lose his title, and I’m miserable.

Eventually the ref stops the match because Sami can no longer continue taking powerbombs, can no longer stand.  When the referee raises Kevin’s hand to the stunned crowd, I curl up in the darkness and–somewhat to my own surprise–I weep inconsolably, like a heartbroken child.  I stuff the side of my hand into my mouth to stifle my sobs so my parents won’t hear me, and I actually, literally, cry myself to sleep in utter desolation.  For that hour it feels like there is nothing in the world but my grief over the unfairness and cruelty of this loss, nothing but sorrow in the universe.

And in that ridiculous luxury of anguish is the strange gift of wrestling.  Because the whole day before watching that match I was going through my life in the way you do, the way you have to, with my mind on the necessary things:  I have a student who’s close to failing out of college, and what am I going to do about it?  My nieces will surely need more help affording college, and what am I going to do about it?  The paperwork for my committee must be filed before a looming deadline, and what am I going to do about it?  My mother’s eyesight is faltering, she wants my advice about surgery, and what am I going to do about it?  All the usual mundane stresses and responsibilities pile up and pile up–but for one careful and deliberate hour, I get to put them all aside and simply grieve for Sami Zayn, who has lost his title and who asks nothing at all of me but that I sorrow for him, who makes no demands of me but that I want better for him.  I don’t need to (in fact, I can’t) do anything about this title loss, and there’s a strange sideways relief in that.  No plans, no paperwork, no scheduling is necessary, just grief.

The byline of The Spectacle of Excess is from Roland Barthes on the semiotics of professional wrestling:  “a light without a shadow generates an emotion without reserve.”  But the flip side is also true: those moments of shadow without a light, where hope seems lost and evil triumphs, encourage you to abandon yourself to grief without reserve, without ironic distance or detachment.  It’s an odd gift, to be sure, and not always an easy one to accept.  It would be much easier to intellectualize, to wonder why these particular booking choices were made, to analyze where the angle will go from this point.  It’s tempting to pull out some the dozens of techniques we come up with as wrestling fans to armor ourselves against loss, to protect ourselves from the faint feeling of embarrassment when we catch ourselves caring too intensely.  And I’ll do all that–in the morning, between answering my work email and trying to get Skype to work for my mother and discussing budgets and banking.

For just this hour, though, I put aside all the responsibilities in my life, wrap myself in sorrow like a blanket, and cry myself to sleep.

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I'm an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.