Sami Zayn’s Intercontinental Championship run this year was significant by several different measurements.
From a Canadian perspective, the most remarkable aspect is the fact that Zayn was the 15th Canadian to ever capture the Intercontinental title, joining a list that includes Bret Hart, Roddy Piper, Edge, Kevin Owens and the first ever Intercontinental champion Pat Patterson, among others.
"Damn, that’s a hell of a list to be on, man. That is some world-class talent," Zayn says with a big smile on his face. And the smile is justified. Zayn has earned the right to slot his name next to the Canadian elite when it comes to pro wrestling.
During his run as Intercontinental champion in 2020, Zayn was not shy in promoting the fact he’s Canadian. Ahead of his Survivor Series matchup against United States Champion Bobby Lashley, Zayn was always quick to note that, in addition to Canada, he was also representing all countries as Intercontinental champ in contrast to his opponent representing just one country.
It was a loose callback to one of the greatest long-term angles in the history of WWE, when Bret Hart was a hero in Canada thanks to his patriotism for the Great White North while at the same time vilified in the United States for his insulting comments towards America.
"When I got the opportunity to go against Bobby Lashley, I was kind of trying to play on that," Zayn tells Sportsnet. "I would love to do a more modernized version, a bit more of an intellectual approach, a bit more of a factual approach to what Bret did in 1997 because I thought it was revolutionary. It’s never been done before, and it’s never been done since. Global hero, (but) despised in one country like that."
However, in the highly politicized climate of 2020, the idea of touting virtues of one country while insulting another is a tough line to walk, admits Zayn.
"I was jumping out of my skin for years to do something like that," Zayn says. "When I got injured and I came back, that’s sort of an idea I had – if you put me in a run for the United States Championship when I come back, and I could do this character similar to what Bret did, and modernized and updated. In all honesty, when the opportunity came to do it a tiny bit against Bobby Lashley, I found myself not wanting to go too hard because the reality is actually too depressing.
"It’s like, man, this isn’t fun. We’re getting hit over the head with it too much nowadays anyway … It just wasn’t fun the way I had dreamt of it for years and years."
That doesn’t mean that Zayn wouldn’t attempt the idea again in the future.
"I still think it’s something that could be really, really entertaining and really fun," Zayn says, but with the foresight to want to modernize the idea of a foreign heel. "So that it’s not just, ‘Hey I’m Canadian and I think America sucks,’ because I think that’s a little one dimensional. I like there to always be little elements of truth where you’re like, ‘Well, he’s not entirely wrong. I mean he’s kind of a jerk (in) the ways he’s going about it, and he’s being obnoxious, but there is some merit to what he’s saying,’ and that’s the line that I like to walk as a heel."
Zayn and fellow Quebec native Kevin Owens have become the standard-bearers for Canadian wrestling within WWE. His efforts to promote Canada both in and out of the ring have not gone unnoticed north of the border, with some on social media suggesting a Lou Marsh nomination was a worthy way of recognizing Zayn’s accomplishments as a Canadian, both in and outside of the ring, where Zayn is active charitably.
Zayn, in terrifically Canadian fashion, downplayed the idea of being included on the short list for Canadian athlete of the year.
"I don’t think of myself on that level," Zayn says, explaining that "there are people that are doing really wonderful things and are engaged in athletic competition that is direct competition."
Zayn recognizes the barriers between success in pro wrestling and success in professional sports, noting "if you’re the best hockey player in the world, it’s not because the right people got behind you and you’re a good talker. It’s just because your athletic ability is undeniably the best. So wrestling is different in that regard because there (are) so many variables behind it."
But if the honour were to come around?
"Not to say I wouldn’t be thrilled, or honoured to even be mentioned in that conversation," says Zayn. "I appreciate the fact that you’re even bringing my name up in that conversation, but I could see why I wouldn’t be at the forefront of anybody’s thought process when even considering the winner of that award."
Canadian pro wrestling is currently experiencing a resurgence not seen in over two decades, when Hart was at his zenith.
Along with Zayn, Owens is a regular, upper-echelon player on the WWE roster; Calgary’s Natalya (Hart’s niece) continues to act as a stalwart in the women’s division; Delta, B.C.’s Kyle O’Reilly is one of the top wrestlers in NXT; and talent like Kenny Omega and Chris Jericho, both natives of Winnipeg, are in main event roles in All Elite Wrestling.
There are dozens of more Canadians making an impact across the pro wrestling universe.
"When I think of the storied history of Canadian wrestlers, and the amazing talent that’s come out of Canada…" Zayn says, trailing off for a moment to reflect. "To now (be) carrying that torch of Canadian talent that you can count on to have bangin’ matches, and they’re good on the mic, and they’re good in the ring, and they work hard; that Canadian work ethic, that work rate that’s followed Canadian’s around… to be carrying that now, that’s pretty cool."