Redemption: Sami Zayn’s road, and what was at the end of it

Some of the very best moments in wrestling are about redemption. Redemption is Miss Elizabeth throwing herself into Randy Savage’s arms; it’s Shawn Michaels saying “I’m sorry, I love you” to Ric Flair; it’s Daniel Bryan holding those two titles aloft in New Orleans. It’s those fleeting moments where something is lifted out of doubt and darkness and held up as worthy, as valued, as clean and bright and true. Wrestling fans, we love a good betrayal, and we relish a beautiful fall from grace. But we crave redemption.

This is about Sami Zayn’s Road to Redemption, and what exactly was redeemed at the end of it.


It’s September 2014, and NXT’s TakeOver special features a four-way men’s title match between Tyson Kidd, Tyler Breeze, Sami Zayn, and Sami’s friend Adrian Neville, who currently holds the title. The climax of the match happens when it looks like Sami is going to pin Kidd, but a panicked Neville yanks the referee out of the ring to break up the count.

Sami, incensed, throws himself out of the ring at Neville, but Neville drops him and pins the still-groggy Tyson to retain his championship.

The next week, Sami notes that he doesn’t hold this against Neville, but he personally would rather win a championship more fairly.  

Clearly stung, Neville responds with what will become the overarching theme of Sami’s Road to Redemption:

This sets in motion a series of matches in which Sami fights to prove that he deserves a singles match with Neville, taking on Titus O’Neill, Tyson Kidd, and Tyler Breeze while Neville continues to insist he’ll be happy to give his good friend Sami a match anytime, because he loves and respects him.  Oh, and also:

Sami finally gets his match against Neville one on one, and it looks like things are finally going to go Sami’s way: Neville misses with his finisher, and Sami is ready to hit his own finisher and finally, finally win the big one, when Neville falters and collapses, apparently injured. Concerned, Sami tentatively approaches his friend to check on him and see if he’s able to continue the match, over the strenuous objections of the mistrustful crowd:

And indeed, Neville takes advantage of his lapse to roll him up quickly and win the match.

The crowd is deflated, and even Neville seems apologetic, almost sorry to be proven right that Sami lacks the cutthroat instinct necessary to succeed. He stops to console Sami and ruffle his hair in affectionate sympathy before the trainers arrive to check out his injury.  

The camera keeps filming the aftermath–ostensibly so that the commentary team can talk about how serious Neville’s injury might be, but in reality so the cameraperson, who apparently just finished the Full Sail University advanced course in Cinematography for Sadists, can linger lovingly on Sami’s despairing face and watch it fill with regret and self-doubt.

The next week Sami calls Neville to the ring, and Neville comes out limping and looking concerned. Sami talks about how he’s been in NXT for a while now, and at this point he needs to either achieve the heights, or accept that they will never be his. He hopes that as his friend, Neville will give him one more shot at the championship.  And he intends to remove the safety net: this will be his last shot at the title one way or the other.

He either will win the title or walk away from NXT (and possibly, he implies, all of WWE). So the match is set for the next TakeOver, with Sami’s career in NXT on the line. He’ll either walk out of the match as the NXT champion, or he’ll walk away from Full Sail and NXT.

The last show before TakeOver Neville comes to the ring with his title over his shoulder and cuts a promo on Sami where he says that Sami is a friend who he loves and admires, but–let’s just drive that theme home again:

When Sami comes out to confront him, Neville pleads with him not to put his career at NXT on the line, because he doesn’t want to be responsible for ending Sami’s career. Sami is furious at Neville’s placid assumption that he’ll win. And it’s not even because Neville believes he’s more skilled than Sami! It’s clear Neville thinks they’re equals in the ring, he just thinks he has that vicious edge Sami doesn’t. It’s not that Sami isn’t talented enough in Neville’s mind, it’s that his character is fatally flawed, and it’s just a shame Sami doesn’t realize that. Finally, more in sorrow than in anger, Neville tells Sami that it will be an honor to face him, and calmly extends his hand.

And let’s take a moment to appreciate how vital Neville is in this feud, because his total lack of personal animus toward Sami in this promo throws the conflict into perfect relief. If Sami’s opponent were someone he could hate, this would be a battle between two people. But Neville’s cool fondness and utter lack of faith in Sami makes clear that the struggle isn’t merely between two individuals, it’s Sami and his ideals versus the world-weary pragmatic cynicism that Neville stands for.  

If it were someone Sami could hate cleanly, it would all be so much easier. Instead, he lashes out at Neville but then stares wildly around the ring for something tangible to fight, baffled and furious. He’s angry at Neville, for being condescending and craven. But even more, he’s angry at the world of wrestling which so rarely rewards the good; angry at the world in general which even more rarely rewards the good.  And finally, of course, worst and deepest of all, he’s angry at himself. He lashes out at himself, tearing at his own hair: wondering if Neville is right, furious that he’s even wondering it.

So the stage is set for TakeOver R:Evolution. Seething and angry now, Neville is determined to demonstrate that viciousness and taking shortcuts is not merely a useful way but the only way to succeed. Sami is emotionally and spiritually frayed, right on the knife’s edge. If he loses this match, Sami Zayn is done. If he can’t win on his own terms, if he has to win Neville’s way, the Underdog from the Underground is done. It’s either a clean victory or spiritual death for Sami at this point.

Let’s go.


The Career vs. Title match starts with Sami and Neville facing off while the divided audience starts up dueling chants.

Well, okay, the audience is divided in the sense that 80% are cheering for Sami to win and 20% seem to be chanting for Neville to lose. I admit there are a few scattered fans rooting for Neville–perhaps blinded by his abs and talent, it’s understandable–but on the whole the Full Sail audience is solidly behind Sami, hoping to see him win the title at last.

The match is fast paced and incredibly good–Sami and Neville have been meeting each other in the ring for a decade at this point, and the base story of the match is that they know each other so well and are so well-matched that it’s difficult for either one to get the upper hand. Someone’s going to have to dig in and find some extra inspiration, some bonus edge, and when Neville finds himself about to be on the receiving end of Sami’s finishing move, he goes low, yanking the referee into the way of Sami’s kick and rolling out of the ring while Sami checks to make sure he hasn’t hurt him.

As Sami frets over the referee, Neville grabs his title and gets back into the ring, preparing to whack Sami with it. Sami, however, sees it coming and manages to deflect the blow, knocking Neville down and kicking the title out of his hands.

Sami finds himself standing alone with the title at his feet. Now, one of the wonderful rules of Wrestling Physics is that hitting someone with a title does major amounts of damage–and hitting someone with their own title is extra-devastating. If Sami just picks up that belt and uses it to hit Neville, there’s no doubting that he’d end up the next champ. And why not do it? The ref is out! Neville just tried to cheat and hit him with that very title! Sami would be entirely justified in making sure his career is saved by giving Neville a taste of his own vicious medicine.

But Full Sail sees where this is going immediately and erupts, passionately begging Sami not to do it. They keep desperately making the “no” sign, yelling as Sami argues with himself, pacing, preparing himself to be as vicious as he needs to be to win.

The WWE edited out Sami swearing, of course, but I am putting it back in because, well, I love it.

The audience pleads with him to be better than that, to be true to himself and his ideals. And eventually Sami hears them, and hears his own heart, and turns away to put the title down.

And the audience’s “no” chants are just shifting to cheers of relief and support when Neville jumps up and gets him into a quick rollup pin.

Neither a gif nor my words can do justice to the sound that Full Sail Arena makes in that moment, a keening wail of horror. You can see people throw their hands in front of their eyes, because they know how this goes, they were shown it three weeks ago: Sami has been too honorable, too fair, and now he’s going to lose again. But it’s worse than that, this time. This time his career is on the line, and this time, this time the audience is complicit in his defeat. They begged him not to fight dirty, they implored him to not just win but to win well, to win the brightest possible victory, because they love him and wanted him to be true to himself. You can see and hear the realization hit them: Sami is going to lose, and we are going to lose him, and it will be our fault. We loved him too much, we demanded too much of him, and now our love is going to destroy him.

Our love is going to destroy him.

The referee, having recovered consciousness at the worst possible time, begins the count that will prove Neville right and send Sami away without a title, his dreams shattered.  His hand comes down.

Stop. Wait. Stop right here, in this ring, in this moment, with Sami struggling in the pin and the audience frozen in anguished shock. Stop here, and let’s talk about love, and fear, and redemption.

You probably love wrestling. You probably love thinking about wrestling, since you’ve read this far. And if you love wrestling and love thinking about wrestling, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ve been touched by a terrible fear. At some point, when a wrestler gets injured, or burns out in ways either quiet or spectacularly self-destructive, you’ve probably felt it. Seth Rollins hobbles to the ring and announces bitterly that his knee gave out from carrying this company on his back, and your heart goes cold for just a moment, because you were part of that weight, right? Just a tiny bit, just a feather’s worth, but there are so many feathers: so many house shows, so many long drives and signings and expectations and demands, so many things that can pile up until it’s too much. When something bad happens, or something worse happens (or something worse happens), that fear glances by you, and you wonder: What if, with all my love and all my passion, I am nothing more than a tiny, chattering cog in a vast dark machine that grinds bodies to paste and minds to dust and hearts to ash, just to puke out money on the other end? What if my love only destroys what I love?

Neville pins Sami Zayn, and in that moment something horrible walks in through the unlocked door of your heart, sits down, puts its feet up, smiles, looks at you and says: for three seconds, consider that your love may be the thing that destroys what you love.

One.

Two.

Thr–

Sami kicks out, he kicks out, and the audience comes to its feet in joy and relief and wonder. Sami himself seems unable to believe it wasn’t a three count, but once he realizes it wasn’t, it’s only a matter of seconds until he sets up his finisher and pins Neville for the victory and the title.

Sami takes the title in his hands, the title he won clean and fair and bright, and he smiles, and oh, why did we ever think the Road to Redemption was Sami’s to walk alone? It was ours, it was ours, it was ours as well, the whole time. We reach the end of the road and find vindication of our deepest, most cherished and childlike hope: that our love might inspire and uplift, be a help and not a burden.

Sami puts the title down in the ring and looks down at it, rubs his eyes in disbelief and addresses the audience:

In any other sport, it would be a simple statement of happy amazement. But this is wrestling, and so in a unique way that golden belt’s meaning and significance arises from how much we value it, how much we suffer when it’s won by someone unworthy, how much joy we feel when the hands we love hold it. This is wrestling, so he’s asking us to help him make it real.

“This is mine?” Sami asks us, and we answer with all our hearts, making it as true as we possibly can: Yes. Yes. Yes, Sami Zayn. This is yours.

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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.