The flags that wrapped around Sami Zayn's tights when he wrestled for WWE NXT weren't decoration; they told a story.
The national emblems for Mexico, Denmark, Australia and Japan represented all the nations where he has stepped into the squared circle during his long career. When he traveled to Saudi Arabia with WWE in 2014, he noted on Twitter that it was the 30th country he has wrestled.
Zayn (real name: Rami Sebei) had wrestled for over a decade before WWE signed him to a developmental deal.
Before that, he had traversed the globe, working for promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Dragon Gate, taking on a wide range of opponents that included WWE trainer Sara Del Rey and current Ring of Honor world champion Jay Lethal.
Early in that journey, The Underdog from the Underground met Kevin Steen, who now wrestles as Kevin Owens for WWE. They would become friends, tag team partners and onscreen rivals. As Zayn built his name and honed his craft in various promotions, Owens was so often there to greet him, each man bringing out the best in the other.
Zayn, as he told Yahoo Sports, was born to Syrian parents in Canada. That's where he started his trek into the wrestling world and where he and Owens first clashed.
The Mexican from Montreal
Much of his education would come in the ring, but early on, it happened in a less forgiving environment. In an interview with Gorilla Position, Zayn said of his training, "It was bare-bones. Paid 25 bucks a week to go learn how to fall in some guy's backyard on the frozen grass of Canada."
Debuting in 2002, Zayn began wrestling for International Wrestling Syndicate based in Montreal. His first of many matches against Owens would happen just a year later, per CageMatch.net.
The skinny wrestling novice donned two personas. Infrequently, he wrestled as Stevie McFly, a high-energy grappler decked out in long shorts and a baggy T-shirt. It was his other gimmick, though, that took off.
Zayn morphed into El Generico, a masked luchador from Tijuana, Mexico. That fact that his red beard poked out from behind his mask and he spoke Spanish poorly was all part of the joke.
By 2005, that act had already begun to inspire chants of "Ole! Ole! Ole!" from the crowd, and Zayn's popularity was ballooning.
(Note: Video contains brief NSFW language.)
That proved to be a huge year for him. His resume soon filled up with matches for PWG, ROH, Chikara, Combat Zone Wrestling and Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South.
Zayn competed in several of PWG's Battle of Los Angeles tournaments. He teamed with a long list of wrestlers including Quicksilver, Owens, Human Tornado and Beef Wellington.
A big part of his appeal was his comic timing. He was a court jester who could put on a hell of a match.
As El Generico, he provided many a goofy moment both backstage and between the ropes.
The silliness of his antics wouldn't define him, though. Wrestling promotions saw enough of his in-ring storytelling ability to bring him aboard again and again. In the next few years, he began to shine outside of the tag team scene, outside of being comic relief.
Anything But Generic
The demand for the fleet-footed masked man increased.
Impressive showings at PWG's Battle of Los Angeles and IWA Mid-South's Ted Petty Invitational in 2006 showcased how fun and compelling Zayn could be in the ring. He would then take his act across many a border.
As seen on his CageMatch.net profile, in 2007 alone, he wrestled in Ireland, England, Japan, the United States and Germany.
That same year, he won the PWG World Championship, a title he would claim again four years later, defeating the man later known as Kevin Owens, per the PWG website.
When those two men both began to work for ROH, their careers surged. They began as allies in 2009 with the popular indy promotion, teaming up en route to tag team gold. Owens then turned on his comrade, kicking off a lengthy, enthralling feud.
Steen vs. El Generico proved to be one of ROH's hottest tickets. The two collided at Death Before Dishonor VIII, Showdown in the Sun and Final Battle in both 2010 and 2012.
Intensity powered this extended story. The narrative of Owens betraying his friend resonated. They thrived in the ring time and time again.
Afterward, Zayn continued to diversify his resume, working for Dragon Gate USA, EVOLVE and for various Japanese companies. WWE eventually caught wind of what he was doing and signed him to a developmental deal in January 2013, per PWInsider's Mike Johnson.
Zayn didn't just leave the indys behind; he left the character that had made him famous. As James Caldwell noted for PWTorch, the luchador gimmick was written off "when Generico announced that he was returning to Mexico to tend to orphans."
After joining WWE's feeder system NXT, Zayn shed his mask, his fake Mexican accent and the Generico name. He traded it all in for a babyface underdog gimmick and a moniker that better reflected his Syrian ancestry.
It was a move that many critics questioned, unsure of how he would fare without the goofy shtick. Zayn, though, was happy with the change.
In an interview with Barnaby Read of Sports 360, he said, "I'm very proud that I can be myself. I'm not trying to be Arabic, I'm just being me and I happen to be Arabic. I think that might be refreshing to some people and it's a bit more realistic than these pantomime villains we've seen before."
It became clear right away that Zayn could flourish without the mask. His facial expressions added emotional weight to his matches. His ability to emote midbattle helped him connect to the crowd.
Those skills combined with his high-voltage offense led him to produce a number of outstanding matches against the likes of Cesaro and Tyson Kidd.
In December 2014, NXT chose to place him atop its food chain. He bested Adrian Neville at TakeOver: R Evolution to claim the NXT Championship.
After establishing himself as the heart of NXT, Zayn slipped away to the main roster for a singular opportunity. He answered John Cena's United States Championship Open Challenge in his hometown, putting on a stellar performance.
It proved a bittersweet moment, however.
A nagging shoulder injury flared up that night. Zayn would then miss much of the next year, as Bobby Melok noted for WWE.com. The company tried to sell the injury as a result of an attack from Owens, but one can clearly see Zayn gritting his teeth and clutching his bad arm against Cena.
WWE built a narrative between Owens and Zayn atop the one they began elsewhere. What began in Montreal and ROH bled onto the screen for NXT.
A healthy Zayn later found himself on Raw again, this time for good. He redebuted this March.
Not surprisingly, Owens was his target. Their saga continued on yet another stage.
Zayn has since battled for the Intercontinental Championship and Money in the Bank briefcase, putting on strong matches against WWE stars and continuing his fight with Owens. He is now poised to be one of the fresh faces who help usher in the New Era the company has talked so much about.
This all comes 14 years after his first match, after countless miles on his odometer. And now a new leg of his journey is underway.
His story is a reminder of how persistence pays off, how sometimes the road to center stage is a long, winding one. As Zayn told Gorilla Position, "If you work really hard at something for a really, really long time, you do it well. Eventually, somebody will notice."