Why Unlikely Star Sami Zayn Is America’s Top Wrestler

Tom Holzerman graciously hosts The Wrestling Blog 100 (#twb100), an annual poll of the 100 best wrestlers in the past year. Sami Zayn was a no-brainer choice for No. 1 on my ballot for 2014, and may only be scratching the surface of his stardom.

No matter the opponent or feud, Sami Zayn shined. His 2014 started with a bang when he went head-to-head with Cesaro. The Swiss strongman was quickly ascending up the WWE card when he returned to NXT (sadly his meteoric push was squashed shortly thereafter, though that’s neither here nor there).

Blown off and looked down on by the powerful, arrogant Cesaro, fiery underdog Sami Zayn was the perfect foil. Zayn’s tenacity forced Cesaro to bring his A-game, culminating in a Match of the Year candidate at the first NXT Arrival live special.

The Cesaro feud was a fitting cornerstone for Zayn’s character and beginning to his story arc throughout 2014 — the best booked arc anywhere in wrestling last year.

Ridiculed for his inability to “win the big one,” such as his 2-out-of-3 falls series with Cesaro, Sami Zayn had to prove himself every time he hit the ring. Each rung up the ladder provided a new challenge, and each match showcased Zayn’s incredible in-ring ability no matter the opponent.

From Tyson Kidd to Titus O’Neil to Tyler Breeze, Sami Zayn routinely had the best matches on any given NXT card. With each challenger, Zayn added depth to his character.

Sami Zayn portrayed the role John Cena has for almost decade, and Zayn did so much more effectively than WWE’s top star.

Nothing about Cena really screams “underdog.” He’s a former college football player with the kind of bodybuilder physique Vince McMahon has long favored in his booking. And, despite touting “Hustle Loyalty and Respect” in the scads of merchandise he markets on TV every week, John Cena repeatedly throws his core values to the wind when it benefits him.

Sami Zayn’s long road to the top culminated without him sacrificing his ideals to be NXT champion. Losing his first one-on-one title match to Adrian Neville because he refused to pin the injured champ may have exploited this wrinkle to Zayn’s persona, but forced him to update his game plan in the rematch in December.

The celebration that capped December’s NXT Takeover championship match was a fitting end to a long road for the underdog babyface — and the subsequent introduction of Sami Zayn into a feud with longtime indie running mate Kevin Owens was an even more perfect detour down Zayn’s next road.

As the Joker challenges Batman’s convictions as a hero, Kevin Owens’ brutality will force Sami Zayn to re-examine his ideals as NXT’s good guy underdog.

Indeed, Sami Zayn’s arc is some of the most compelling character development on TV, and should set the precedent for how wrestling stories are told.