West Ham name Julen Lopetegui as new boss

West Ham name Julen Lopetegui as new boss
West Ham name Julen Lopetegui as new boss

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: Amid the expansive global reach of the WWE, few wrestling stars embody the spirit of international connectivity quite as completely as Sami Zayn. His journey from pre-WWE days to competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time a decade ago and then glory at WrestleMania surely reflects the transformative power of sports entertainment.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, he shared some insights into the evolution of his career, his aspirations, and the effects the partnership between WWE and Saudi Arabia has had on him personally and wrestling in general.

It came as Zayn prepared to defend his Intercontinental Title this weekend in a triple threat match against Chad Gable and Bronson Reed at the WWE King and Queen of the Ring event in Jeddah.

As he reflected on his journey, Zayn, who signed with WWE in 2013, reminisced about his first visit to Saudi Arabia the following year, in the early days of WWE’s partnership with sports authorities in the Kingdom.

Though Zayn is not of Saudi descent — he was born in Canada to Syrian parents — he expressed a profound sense of belonging in Saudi Arabia and the wider region because it resonates with him on a cultural level and he appreciates its familiar characteristics.

“You know, with your culture, your language, your people, the food, the smells, the sounds, I don’t know, there’s something about it,” he said. “It just feels like home, even though it’s not home, you know?”

Discussing his victory over Gunther in April at WrestleMania 40 to claim the Intercontinental Title, which his opponent had held for a record-breaking 666 days, Zayn said he achieved something many people thought was impossible, and it was a pivotal moment marked the end of a significant chapter in Gunther’s illustrious career.

“I think just being in the ring with Gunther — who obviously has shown that he’s one of our top superstars now and, you know, probably the best Intercontinental Champion we’ve ever had — to beat him at the biggest show of the year, I mean, I think it’s very, very memorable. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do right now.”

Zayn did his best to articulate the indescribable thrill of competing on WWE’s grandest stage. Amid the deluge of content in modern wrestling, he said it is particularly significant if one can craft memorable moments that will endure beyond the duration of the event itself.

“I feel like the hardest thing to do nowadays is to have a memorable match and memorable moments that people will remember, oh, two, three, four, five, maybe even 10 years down the road,” he said.

“And I feel like that match (against Gunther) was good, if nothing else because of how long he held the title. I feel like it’ll be very well remembered. So I’m very proud of that.”

As Saudi Arabia continues to evolve and open up to the world, the rapid pace of developments in the country over the past few years has made sport and entertainment accessible to all and opened up ever-greater opportunities, which means that the prospects have never been better for aspiring Arab wrestlers to follow in Zayn’s footsteps.

He acknowledges that what not so long ago was a distant dream for Saudis is now a realistic possibility, and he credits the long-established presence of WWE in the Kingdom for helping to foster a sense of connectivity and inspiration. He also stressed the importance of encouraging emerging talents to show determination and perseverance as they pursue their dreams.

“Now, because of the fact that we run shows in Saudi and we have this partnership with Saudi Arabia and we’re more connected to the region, if you’re an Arab kid or a young man with a dream of chasing this, becoming a wrestler or the WWE or whatever it is, it’s much more attainable than it’s ever been,” he said.

“If you have that goal, look, it’s not easy, it’s never easy, but it’s more achievable now than it’s ever been … for somebody from anywhere here in the Middle East.”

As for his own future, Zayn has a pragmatic but optimistic view. While harboring ambitions for world championship glory, he said he prioritizes the art of storytelling and emotional engagement as his guiding principles. He remains committed to making a lasting impact on fans as he continues to evolve as a performer and storyteller.

“I would just like to keep doing what I’m doing now, which is to continue to tell good stories, prominent stories,” he said.

“I want to be an important part of the television show. And I think what I bring to the table, just as much as anybody if not more than most, is the emotional component of the stories that I tell in the ring or, you know, leading up to these matches.”

Still, he acknowledged that he would love to win the world championship before he steps out of the ring for the final time.

“But hopefully that’s not for another few years, you know, God willing, inshallah, at least five more years or something. But you don’t know what life has for you.”

Looking back on into his formative years, and his journey from wrestling fan to superstar, Zayn pays tribute to his own childhood idols and inspirations. From Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart to the Hardy Boyz, Mick Foley and Eddie Guerrero, they all left an indelible mark and influenced his journey.

He said the Hardy Boyz and Mick Foley in particular had a big impact on him “because they had stories that, in some ways, I could really relate to: They started in their backyard and then they got trained. It just seemed like a more attainable route to get there. I think they kind of opened my eyes in that way.”

WWE returns to Saudi Arabia this weekend with the double-header of SmackDown and then King and Queen of the Ring at Jeddah’s Superdome. The action begins on May 24 with the Kingdom’s inaugural SmackDown event, which will be broadcast live globally and include the second semifinals of the King and Queen of the Ring championships. The finals of those competitions will take place at the main event on May 25, along with Zayn’s battle and two other championship bouts.

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