On a night and weekend that is meant to celebrate the sheer enormity of WWE–the bombast, the cultural reach, the money, the sheer scale of it all–it was two guys who made their names in various, darkly lit auditoriums and armories and bingo halls and whatever other seedy corner you might find indie wrestling shows. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, no matter how long their WWE careers go from here, will always be seen as two guys, maybe the only two guys other than Bryan Danielson, who have climbed the longest road to the highest point in the wrestling industry. It’s what made their winning of the tag team titles over the Usos in WrestleMania Night 1’s main event so sweet.
Will Sami Zayn dethrone Roman Reigns?
It’s certainly in juxtaposition with what Mania generally is, and what the rest of the card shapes up. Everything else about Mania is just so WWE. The brand mascots were at ringside for a couple of matches. The naked catering to non-wrestling fans and whatever the company views as the mainstream through Logan Paul. And most of all, WWE’s vision of wrestling. Pretty much everyone else who is populating the top of the card on both nights are WWE products wrestling WWE matches. The other main event tonight is Roman Reigns. Cody may brandish his indie creds as empty as they are, but he’s a New York boy whether he likes it or not. Charlotte Flair lost to Rhea Ripley, who came through NXT mostly after it went from WWE Network experimental lab to just another TV product. Austin Theory, Bianca Belair, Edge, Sheamus, Drew McIntyre (a little unfair given his history but he’s had two whacks in WWE too), Dominik Mysterio, this is who WWE values.
Owens and Zayn were introduced to WWE audiences through NXT as well, but they spearheaded the time when Triple H was using the freedom he had to turn NXT into an independent wrestling workshop. Where it felt like he wanted to bottle the best of what WWE didn’t have and couldn’t do and find a way to get it into the WWE world. Sami and KO had winded their way through PWG and ROH and dozens of other companies and had real street cred amongst the indie fans, a crowd that once upon a time HHH wanted to make feel welcome into the WWE world that they had turned away from.
They’ve been in the company a good while now, but they haven’t really changed who they are, and they’re both so good at it that WWE hasn’t been able or really even wanted to plasticize them as they have with others. Owens’s gig has always been that he actually watches the show and can point out every problem with it, as all his fans are, while putting on great matches with anyone when he gets in the ring, looking and wrestling like the fan who jumped over the railing and just got in the ring and looked so at home no one bothered to stop him.
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Zayn’s path has been a little bumpier, bouncing on and off TV for pretty much his whole main roster career until he found something that stuck with his infiltration and eventual betrayal of the Bloodline. But whether he’s been the plucky DIY face or the conspiracy-theorist heel, he’s still been Sami. Hairy as shit, a little awkward in every way, and making up for it by diving face-first into everything with a wicked sense of humor and never taking himself seriously.
They can wrestle the WWE style, but they can do a lot of other things too. Because they’ve been so good at that, the powers that be have never been truly able to water them down all that much. The fans wouldn’t allow it.
They’ve always been linked. They come from the same area, they’ve toured the indies together, they joined NXT together, and they arrived on the main roster basically together. Their first Mania match was together in a seven-man ladder match. It was fated that their biggest moment would have to come together.
This moment and match call back to so much, mostly to the first big PPV match the two had with each other when Zayn hit Owens with multiple Helluva kicks. They had a Mania match against each other just two years ago. They’re never without each other.
Was it equal to having Zayn claim the undisputed title over Reigns in Montreal six weeks ago? Of course not! This was the easier path for WWE, given how it usually treats the tag division and doesn’t knock the company off the much shinier but much emptier path of Reigns and Rhodes. After all, that’s what WWE does, Big, gleaming, hollow.
Owens and Zayn are not that. Zayn claiming the title in his hometown would have stood singularly on its own as a famous moment. This one will just be in a collection of “Mania moments.” But the fact that two guys like Owens and Zayn who are so in opposition to what WWE usually projects–gruff, stained, with multitudes of depth and history–ended the first night of the biggest show is still truly special. It is a reward for fans who wouldn’t let these two change and stuck with them through some pretty fallow periods. It’s a reward for the whole wrestling world.
And frankly, the first night of WrestleMania needed it. Charlotte and Rhea had an absolute classic, proving that the four to six times a year when Charlotte actually wants to she is still capable of stealing any show. As hard-hitting and brutal as you’ll find any women’s match in WWE. Combined with the main event it turned around a show that was pretty listless. Whatever the delusion is about Dominik Mysterio I haven’t been afflicted with it yet. He’s cardboard in the ring and on the mic, and neither he nor creative can seem to lean anywhere near enough into the joke of his vision of himself as a prison hardass to the reality of his being a pampered submissive. None of it works.
The four-team tag match wanted to be the good kind of car crash, a spot-fest where the brakes are never hit but meandered for far too long between those spots to hit that speed. They couldn’t even manage to try and boost Theory’s rep with a clean win, because they had to protect (checks notes) a guy who wrestles twice a year, and thus no one looked good. Seth Rollins and Paul were fine enough, but WWE’s pandering to Paul’s fans isn’t really for wrestling fans and this feud hasn’t been going long enough or explained well enough to feel like it was truly cathartic for Rollins.
In the upset of the night, Trish Stratus saved the six-woman tag match from being an absolute disaster, as the chemistry between the other five women hovered somewhere around “sixth-grade dance.” Stratus turned back the clock and looked snappy and lively in the ring, which no one else in the match managed.
But no one cares when it ends like it did, with the catharsis that only one other match provided. Sami and KO provided what wrestling fans crave, just as they’ve always done, even when things have been stacked against them. That’s the foundational story of wrestling, right?
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