Sami Zayn: The Heel and Humanitarian of WWE SmackDown Live

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterMarch 8, 2018


The fictional explanation for Rami Sebei's exit from the pro wrestling independent circuit is fitting.

The man who would later be known as WWE's Sami Zayn was El Generico back then—a lanky luchador in a red and black mask who spoke with a cartoon accent. When he left for WWE in 2013, the wrestler told fans he was en route to Tijuana, Mexico, to care for orphans.

While that journey was merely a cover story for his move to WWE's developmental system, it's something the man under the mask may well have done in real life.

Zayn has shown himself to be a passionate and giving person, and he's used his celebrity to spread the word about the civil war in his parents' homeland of Syria—a war that has resulted in 400,000 Syrian deaths and 5.5 million refugees fleeing the conflict between the government and opposition forces. 

Zayn has been outspoken about the horrific situation there. He's also worked to push back against the darkness in a tangible way. Last year, he launched "Sami for Syria," a fundraising campaign to set up a mobile medical clinic in a nation gutted by violence.

Zayn, who grew up in Quebec, Canada, born to Syrian parents, sought out a way to make real change. He approached the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Foundation, and it didn't take long before the clinic was a reality.

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"He saw the devastation and what's going on in Syria and he wanted to help," SAMS Media and Communications Manager Lobna Hassairi told Bleacher Report.

Now, a wrestler's persona is often his or her true self with the volume turned up. But things aren't as simple with Zayn.

His real-life deeds contrast with the character he currently plays on TV. Outside the ring, he's a good-hearted man who speaks up against injustice around the world. On SmackDown every Tuesday, though, we see an entirely different persona at work.

Zayn's current heel shtick sees him play an obnoxious, in-your-face gnat in a newsboy cap. He dances in his boss' face, Zayn's flailing arms coming dangerously close to smacking him. Zayn whines. He mocks. He cheats.

And Zayn is fantastic at all of that despite how far removed it is from his true personality.



A bleary-eyed Zayn dragged himself through the San Antonio, Texas, airport before sunrise. He had just worked WWE Raw the night before and driven 300 miles. It would be understandable if he wasn't in the mood for anything other than sleep and coffee.

But when WWE fan Justin Hix and his wife Cecelia approached him, he happily took a photo with the couple.

"He was incredibly pleasant and nice," Hix said. "He never gave me a leave-me-alone vibe."

Sami Zayn poses with a fan at the San Antonio airport.
Sami Zayn poses with a fan at the San Antonio airport.Photo courtesy of Justin and Cecelia Hix.

The Hixes weren't able to attend the show to see Zayn perform, but they got a glimpse of him outside the ropes. They came away impressed with his warmth after the brief interaction. In fact, Zayn became Mrs. Hix's favorite WWE star.

Nicole Willis, from Buffalo, New York, won't soon forget her own moment with The Underdog from the Underground.

At a house show ahead of WrestleMania 33, Willis and her sister stood near the stage as Zayn's match ended. The grappler posed for photo after photo, including one with Willis.

"He wouldn't tell anybody 'no,'" Willis explained. 

She noted that his energy stood out, that he seemed dedicated to pleasing everyone in the crowd. And this moved Zayn up on her list of favorites.

"After I met him and realized how he interacts with his fans, what he does for them, I became a big fan," she said.

Zayn's attitude toward the audience isn't something new for him. Craig Williams, who wrestles as Human Tornado, recalls seeing him take a similar approach on the independent scene.

"Sami was always a good person when I met him and Kevin (Owens) at PWG (Pro Wrestling Guerrilla)," Williams said. "He was always kind to the fans everywhere he went."

And Zayn was far from an elitist when it came to the non-stars of the business. "Before shows at the old Jewish Community Center, Sami and sometimes Kevin would play a full game of basketball with ring crew and whichever wrestlers that were there to play," Williams recalled.


Sami for Syria

Zayn's Twitter feed is a mix of punk-rock talk, in-character responses to WWE happenings and the 33-year-old spreading the word about the horrors unfolding in his parents' motherland.

But he wanted to go well beyond sharing news and offering thoughts and prayers about Syria. Zayn linked up with SAMS with the hope of making a lasting impact for the people there. 

The wrestler began talks with the nonprofit organization in July, and the wheels began to turn.

"It's something that's near and dear to his heart," Hassairi said of Zayn's interest in giving back. "He didn't want to just stand by while the people continue to suffer. He wanted to leverage his base and status and platform to do good."

And that he did. Zayn created an online fundraiser dubbed "Sami for Syria" to finance a mobile clinic. He helped raise enough money to keep the roaming medical facility going beyond the original plan of six months.

The clinic now serves the sick and injured in southern Syria, seeing around 50 patients a day, mostly children. In December alone, it aided 1,000 patients. 

Zayn has continued to be involved with the project, checking in with SAMS as well as promoting the clinic. With over one million followers on Twitter, he has quite the digital reach. And he's used it in the best of ways.

"He's been a great advocate for the Syrian people through social media," Hassairi said.

The organization has been more than grateful for the wrestler's contributions. He's brought a spotlight to an issue that the media doesn't cover nearly enough.

In recognition of his efforts, SAMS honored Zayn with The Humanitarian Award in February.

A Much Different Zayn

During his stint with WWE's developmental brand NXT, Zayn played an everyman, an underdog, the kind of wrestler you'd want to go hiking with. He fought hard. He fought fair.

He maintained the same type of persona when he moved to the main roster in 2016. Zayn was the quintessential babyface.

Until Hell in a Cell 2017.

That night, Owens and SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon battled inside, outside and atop the imposing steel structure that gives the pay-per-view its name. In a stunner of a plot twist, Zayn emerged at the last possible moment to yank Owens off the announce table and away from danger as McMahon dove off the Hell in a Cell roof.

Until that point, Zayn and Owens had been blood rivals on TV, on both the NXT brand and on the main roster. Now, Sherlock Holmes was on Professor Moriarty's side.

Another version of Zayn manifested during his partnership with Owens. He was an entitled, unscrupulous jerk.

Fan Nicole Willis, who met Zayn when he was still a babyface, was among those happy to see the former NXT champion have a fresh role to toy with—even if it was an unexpected one. "It's so cool to see him do something different, for him to explore something new," she said. 

Zayn's old tag team partner Human Tornado sees the real Zayn shining through despite his villainy.

"Watching his stuff on SmackDown reminds me of himself a bit, dancing to the beat of your own drum whether heel or face, 'can't anything throw you off your game' type feel," Williams said. "It seems like they [Zayn and Owens] can't be thrown off their game, which is kinda true to life from indy wrestling around the world." 

The character change has done Zayn good. His tank of momentum filled up in a hurry.

After months of being an infrequent part of the show, he's now firmly in the WWE Championship hunt, primed to battle for that prize for the second PPV in a row at WWE Fastlane on Sunday.

Once the cameras are off, though, Zayn removes that wicked layer and again becomes Rami Sebei, the man who tweeted last October: "Spread as much kindness and compassion as possible to counterbalance all the horrible things in this world."

Those aren't empty words. It's a mantra he clearly lives by.

Find out more about the Sami for Syria campaign here.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Ryan Dilbert covers WWE and pro wrestling for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @ryandilbert.