When Sami Zayn won the NXT title I was moved to tears three times – when he secured the victory, when he and Adrian Neville hugged – and when his best friend Kevin Owens turned on him.
Sami Zayn has been a revelation in NXT. Who knew he’d be such an engaging performer without the mask? (Not to suggest he was ever El Generico, of course. El Generico has gone to Mexico to work with the orphans.) He is that rare thing – a genuinely good, likeable babyface in WWE. The moment in his most recent title match against Neville when he considered using the belt illegally to strike his opponent demonstrated Zayn’s appeal in microcosm – as the crowd appealed to him to put the belt down and fight nobly, he could have done the easy thing and rationalised it as a means to an end, but he did the right thing.
His NXT title win was no less than he deserved, and that was why the locker room came out to congratulate him.
Owens’s callous turn was unexpected, shocking, and upsetting.
Full Sail – like many wrestling audiences – appreciate a good heel, sometimes to the extent of turning them face. When Paige debuted there, her obvious brilliance meant they had to make her a heroine sooner rather than later.
But Owens doesn’t get mixed reactions. He’s just a bad, bad man. He attacked Sami Zayn, who is a good person. He kicked the belt he had taken so long to earn. And rather than the joyful panto-esque boos one often hears from crowds, there was silence – with the occasional shout of “You suck, Owens!” or “Get lost, Owens!”
And the contract signing on this week’s episode showed beautifully why this feud is so captivating. Friends turning on each other is nothing new. But the genuine love of the fans for Sami Zayn, built up over years, is rare.
And we know from watching him over these months in NXT that Zayn is all about respect. He battled on against Antonio Cesaro, demanding a rematch, because he wanted to earn his respect. The actual win was less important than knowing that his opponent thought well of him. Neville fired him up before their rematch, rightly pointing out that he lacked a killer instinct and until he discovered it he’d never be able to hold a title. He came out to sign a contract and the first thing he looked to do was shake hands with the official in charge.
So seeing Owens kick the belt Zayn took so long to earn, seeing him throw a pen at his head, feels thoroughly outrageous in the literal sense of the word. The flagrant disrespect is an outrage – and it’s a calculated outrage, because Owens knows Zayn better than any of us, and he knows exactly what will rile him up.
A bitter, bitter match between two men who know each other so well is going to be a marvellous match at the next NXT Special Event. And I for one cannot wait.