Sami Zayn didn’t wrestle this week on SmackDown Live, but he did make a backstage appearance to talk to Kevin Owens as he prepped for his match against Shinsuke Nakamura towards the midpoint of the show. The two discussed Shane McMahon naming himself the captain of the blue team heading into Survivor Series before Zayn voiced his displeasure about how he lost his match against Randy Orton during last week’s SmackDown.
“Randy Orton beat me last week using a low blow. I mean, what kind of man does that?”
It was just one line in a two-hour long wrestling show, and it wasn’t even the focal point of the conversation between Zayn and Owens. However, it showed a shocking lack of self-awareness of Zayn and his character, which isn’t a habit WWE creative should get into as they try to build him into a credible heel.
If they want to turn him into a weasel in the mold of Seth Rollins during his time with the Authority, then so be it. But that isn’t the most effective use of Zayn and what he brings to the table as a performer. This run with Owens would work best if Zayn was clearly going against his conscious each and every time he committed a despicable act.
We saw flashes of this kind of believable heel over the last few weeks. In reality, this one-off line is really the first shaky thing he has done since Hell in a Cell, so maybe we’re overreacting. But we all know Zayn beat Orton with a low blow when they squared off a few weeks ago. And that finish was impactful because of how the “Underdog from the Underground” sold the victory. Because of the story he told with his eyes and emotion following the win.
A Zayn who is knowingly going against his nature simply to move up the food chain is an effective heel character. A Zayn who uses low blows and celebrates them, only to complain about them when they are used against him will quickly run out of steam as a heel. He’ll get booed, sure. But not for the right reasons. And not in the passionate way that he could get booed if creative was a bit more subtle in how they’re building this new side of Zayn.
For this to work as well as it can — and we think Zayn could be one of the best heels in the WWE if handled correctly — then he needs to be battling against his very nature every step of the way. He should show remorse and regret in a way that would never fly with Kevin Owens. This would create an incredibly interesting foil for Zayn while making Owens look even more conniving and uncaring than he already does.
Again, it’s one line in the middle of one show. But lines add up. Characters in wrestling develop reputations the same way we develop reputations in real life. Rarely are we the outcome of just one or two things that we’ve said. Unless the thing that we’ve said is “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass.” Instead, we’re typically the sum of those parts that are built up over time.
The audience needs to be able to identify with Zayn and his motivations — at least a little bit — for him to be the kind of heel that he could be. Hopefully, the WWE moves away from having him appear aloof in favor of having him knowingly doing bad things to climb the ladder along with Owens.