Jahannam is Other People: Sami Zayn’s Existential Nightmare
GARCIN: Is it day time now? VALET: Can’t you see? The lights are on. There’s a backstage sketch from PWG in 2009, featuring El Generico and his tormentors at the time, Chuck Taylor and Kenny Omega. They’ve been threatening Generico in and out of the ring, and in this scene, corner him in a change […]

GARCIN: Is it day time now?

VALET: Can’t you see? The lights are on.

There’s a backstage sketch from PWG in 2009, featuring El Generico and his tormentors at the time, Chuck Taylor and Kenny Omega. They’ve been threatening Generico in and out of the ring, and in this scene, corner him in a change room. They back him up against a closed door – he looks at it, desperate for an escape – a printed sign upon it reads NO EXIT.

Generico hasn’t wrestled for years. They say he’s in Tijuana, running his orphanage. 

We must imagine Generico happy, no longer striving to impress audiences or wrangle opponents, no longer, we hope, hurting himself for art and entertainment.

Sami Zayn is less lucky.

***

Jean-Paul Satre’s No Exit is a play set in hell. 

It’s a curious hell – one room with three couches, an incredibly ugly ornament and lights that never turn off. 

Three characters are introduced, one by one, each a dead sinner, though their crimes are introduced gradually – as are their punishments.

***

When Zayn appeared in NXT, the underdog from the underground, he was a quick fan favourite. He was loveable on mic but also enormously creative, convincing and emphatic in the ring. 

It’s hard to imagine anyone so easily charismatic, so endearingly engaging and, most importantly, fun. If he did not exist, the company would have had to invent him. 

The text on these tights is from a ska song about communal, collective delight as a revolutionary act – the lyrics refer to being a musician going to a gig, but can be applied to wrestling – performing in the ring or attending a show. This seemed Zayn’s modus operandi – joyous excitement, stubborn persistence, punk sensibility with open, welcoming arms.

Zayn technically turned heel in 2017, but are you really a heel if you do it for love? In this case, it was love for his brother in arms, Kevin Owens. Zayn and Owens have sixteen years of history – sort of, because Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens have only been around since 2014. The years before happened between different men, with different names, in different rooms. Sami Zayn, who had no face or voice before he arrived in WWE, knows Kevin Owens – let’s leave it at that.  

(One might argue that WWE did, in fact, invent Sami Zayn – I’m sure the company lawyers would.) 

It’s curious, because even within those short years of WWE existence, they’ve built up a lot of narrative. Introduced on NXT as friends, Owens betrayed him, they became rivals, they had incredible matches. But Owens, a heel through and through, had more success than him, more belts. 

Sami Zayn turned heel first when he interfered in a match, rescuing Kevin Owens from certain defeat through cheating. He appeared the next week on Smackdown, said, “My whole life I’ve spent trying to please people, my whole life has been spent trying to please all these people.” He gestures to the audience, who boo. “I tried, I tried to be the good guy and do everything the right way… I get to sleep at night with a clear conscience and think that maybe in four or five years my time will come… I saved my brother,” he points to Kevin, “because it was the right thing to do. Kevin, for the longest time I thought I despised you – now I realise I just despise the fact that you were right.”  (This is where the speech ends, never explaining what the despicable truth was. What was Kevin right about? That being a heel is good? Kevin Owens is so often tortured by his actions it’s hard to imagine him recommending it – but I digress.) They hug at the end of this speech. They raise each other’s wrists while the audience boos. They’re having fun. 

The logic of this heel turn is coherent, is consistent with the moral universe of WWE and the rules of kayfabe. We still have a way to love Sami. By sharing his success with Kevin, he shares it with all of us. Sami is part of a community of two, here, which is still a community, he’s lost faith with the company at large but trusts and respects one other person, and my extension, has faith in people. He smiles, during this first “heel” run. 

That isn’t the case now.

He is now in hell. 

***

GARCIN: I shall never sleep again. But then—how shall I endure my own company? Try to understand. You see, I’m fond of teasing, it’s a second nature with me— and I’m used to teasing myself. Plaguing myself, if you prefer; I don’t tease nicely. 

The first human we meet in No Exit is Garcin – a journalist who was executed for critiquing his government’s war. He attempts to convince the audience, the other characters, that he doesn’t belong in hell – though he knows he does. He was a dishonest man, cruel, cowardly and obsessed with other’s opinions of him. He gave the outward appearance of a good person – but this fails when he is challenged. His intentions, rather than his actions, appear to be what damned him.

***

Zayn had a nine month absence from wrestling to recover from two shoulder surgeries for a damaged rotator cuff. 

Wrestling hurts. Wrestlers get hurt, but often the rhetoric surrounding their injury is of some kind of personal rather than industrial failure. His absence was total – no appearances, no references. In wrestling, being absent from the ring, having your name never spoken: it is a kind of death. 

He came back after Wrestlemania, in April of 2019, and lost to Finn Balor.

He sits in the middle of the ring, defeated, stares into the crowd, who are cheering for him. “It genuinely seems like you missed me,” he says, flatly, and the audience roar agreement. 

“I can honestly say, from the bottom of my heart,” he gets to his feet, “honestly, I can say,” his voice breaking, “I did not miss any of this, or any one of you, and your ugliness.” He spins, pointing to everyone present. “You really think you are the voices of reason? The voices that should be heard? No…Sami Zayn has always done the right thing, and the right thing… is to hold each and every one of you accountable, because nobody else will.”

He turns his back on the audience, says, in parting, “See you in hell,” and throws the microphone over his shoulder.

He says, “See you in hell.”

Sami Zayn has never turned on the audience like this. He’s never hated everyone around him this way.

He says see you in hell because he knows what hell looks like.

Sami Zayn is in post-modern hell where he now refuses to engage with society. 

***

INEZ: Remember you’re not alone; you’ve no right to inflict the sight of your fear on me.

The second human we meet in No Exit is Inez, a woman who already identifies as a sinner. She doesn’t care what people think of her, revels in criticism. She happily tells the story of her death – a murder-suicide committed by her lover – and claims, as Garcin does, to regret none of it. She holds her co-prisoners to account, she sets about to upset them out of the complacency they held in life – but has, ultimately, the same selfish heart Garcin has. She criticises not to teach or improve but to tear at the self image of those around her.

***

Zayn says to a Montreal crowd, “You project your unaddressed issues – your anger, your insecurity, your failures, you project all that onto me, and quite frankly, I’m not accepting it.”

On April 22nd’s Raw, he goes onto claim that he is not bitter but jubilant – he shows his beautiful life outside of the WWE, hiking in Switzerland, in a hammock in Mexico – this world beyond the walls of the stadium that appears lost to him, now. All these images, which he describes as joyful, are bright, natural, peaceful. They are nothing like the closed world of WWE, which takes place amid artificial lighting and ugly metallic props.

It an interesting flip of the normal conditions of spectacle, defined by Debord as the “social relationship between people mediated by images.” We don’t know the person who performs as Sami Zayn. We have access only to a representation, pieced together from social media, promo packages, shots framed by ring ropes. The artist known as Sami Zayn appears to be critiquing not the industry, but the phenomenon of spectacle itself – which is, while he’s still appearing on television, a patently impossible pursuit. 

He mentions that he doesn’t agree with the corporate structure of WWE and regards the other performers as egomaniacs, but again, the problem is the audience. “It’s easier to boo me than to think about your role in all this. You don’t want to be responsible? I am making you responsiblefor all this.” 

It’s unclear exactly what he’s making them responsible for. He keeps saying it’s “all this”. Does he mean the state of WWE, the fact that performers are classed as contractors and have little say in their workplace? The condition of North America? The global crises that batter our collective psyches like a rising tide crashing against an unstable coast? We may very well be responsible, but this is a wildly futile response to it.

***

ESTELLE: I never could bear the idea of anyone’s expecting something from me. It always made me want to do just the opposite.

Estelle, the third sinner in Satre’s little hell, is easily the worst of them. Estelle, an upper class trophy wife obsessed with interior decorating, wants a mirror to fix her make up, wants Garcin’s attention to make her feel attractive. She denies, for the longest time, any wrong doing. Gradually, it comes out that she alone in the room has committed murder – her own child, which she did not want – and this action drove her lover to suicide. Despite this, her biggest concerns remain who can sit on which couch and whether her hair looks alright. Like the others, her true sin is selfish obsession with the regard of those around her.

***

The next week, Sami Zayn gives the audience a slideshow featuring the definition of psychological entitlement – the belief that one deserves more than others. “You’ve come to think that what you feel is correct, and whatever you want should be given to you.” 

“I don’t owe any one of you a damn thing. I think I’ve been more than generous. I think three shoulder surgeries and seventeen years of five star classic matches is pretty good.” (Remember, Sami Zayn did not exist before 2014. Who was there for the other twelve years? Someone who could not talk to the audience, who could not be the voice of reason, who could not make themselves heard. It’s almost no surprise that so much rage built up.)

“To quit WWE would be amazing…” he says, when people ask why he doesn’t just leave, “but you know what would be just a little bit more amazing? Coming out here, week after week and holding every one of you accountable for your actions.” So here he is, tortured, but torturing others. 

***

GARCIN: I’ll put up with any torture you impose. Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough.

No Exit is where a commonly misunderstood phrase originates. When Garcin says that “HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE,” he does not mean their voices or odours or taste in music. He means their regard: to be seen by other people is hell. 

An unconfronted individual may believe anything they like about themselves – but when you are viewed by others, they reveal you. Under the eyes of the universe, you are unmasked and judged, attacked by their opinions, confronted by flaws in your own, forced to develop arguments in defense of your actions. If there’s a big enough audience, it’s impossible to keep all of them on your side. It’s easy to be a saint in paradise but damn near impossible in WWE. 

The effort to be free from the regard of the audience while performing for the audience is obviously maddening, and Zayn, the bitter heel, the critic of critics, the man projecting his insecurities onto an audience he claims is projecting their insecurities onto him in a scathing ourobouros of shame, is raging, yet stupified by his own powerlessness.

***

He’s alone, now even abandoned by Kevin Owens, who, while still a heel, has become an anti-authority figure, fighting for justice. Sami, by claiming to be an authority, has alienated everyone. Kevin visibly despairs of him in tag matches in late June, where Zayn ignores his advice, instead acting egotistically, cruelly, selfish. The last time they tagged together, Sami, still not taking advice, lost against a larger opponent as Kevin walked gloomily away.

Since then, Sami Zayn has lost all his matches. After his King of the Ring match, he hurled abuse at he audience, a metal chair at the ring. 

He wrestles less and less – still appearing to talk, jeer, cheat. The true heel despises not only his opponent, not only the audience, but wrestling itself – and that’s where Zayn is now. 

Now that his character has embraced despair, he is no longer free. 

***

INEZ: Now then! Don’t lose heart. It shouldn’t be so hard, convincing me. Pull yourself together, man, rake up some arguments.

No Exit ends with the characters realising that even when the door to their room is open, there is no escape, and they are doomed to torture each other indefinitely. It’s a bitter little morality tale with no hope for redemption. 

In the 2009 PWG sketch, referee Rick Knox protects Generico from his attackers. 

In recent weeks, Zayn has been pairing with Shinsuke Nakamura, another incredible wrestler who barely wrestles, these days. 

We know, from his wordless background, that this performer does not give up easily. 

Though he may be in hell, there is one key difference between Sami Zayn and Satre’s ghouls: he still has, and perhaps always will have, people with whom he has things in common. He still has defenders, friends, fans who want him to succeed. 

Will he be fighting, the whole time, until he is free again?

Of course. 

Listen to him. 

Quoted text from No Exit, images courtesy of WWE and Twitter.


“Scream” star David Arquette has an extreme passion that almost cost him his life — professional wrestling.

Two years ago, Arquette faced off against ex-con Nick Gage in a deathmatch, the most violente style where the wrestlers swing chairs, baseball bats and the like.

With blood gushing from his neck, Arquette gets up and tries to pin Gage but can’t. He jumps out of the ring, holding his neck. Then, he climbs back in and smacks Gage with a folding chair. After a couple of minutes, though, Arquette is the one who gets pinned.

“It nearly cost me my life, ” Arquette told the Star of the match. “I was in way over my head. I was about half an inch from death…”

Arquette decided to go back into the ring after fellow pro wrestler Jack Perry, the son of late actor Luke Perry, assured him that he wasn’t bleeding to death. Perry is the one who took Arquette to the hospital.

Arquette told the Star : “I could hear Luke but I couldn’t see him, ” Arquette told the Star. “I said : ‘Luke is it pumping ? ’ because I was worried I was bleeding out and he said : ‘No it’s not pumping. ’ I knew at that point I wasn’t dying immediately, I could try to finish the match. ”

Arquette has had a lifelong love affair with wrestling, which is traced in a new documentary, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette. ” The film tells of how Arquette has spent the past two decades trying to earn back the respect of the wrestling world — after he won the World Championship Wrestling heavyweight title as a publicity stunt for his movie “Ready to Rumble. ”

In those years, the 49-year-old Arquette has battled heart problems and drug addiction. After the Gage match, Arquette’s wife, Christine, told him : “I just feel like you want to die, ” the actor recalled.

“I don’t want to die but life is painful, ” Arquette told the Star. “If you have addiction issues like I do there’s an element in the back of your head that the accro is literally trying to kill you. You have to find ways to deal with it so you don’t continue to kill yourself, either slowly or quickly. ”

For Arquette, wrestling helped him deal with the deaths of Luke Perry, a close friend who died of a stroke, and his transgender sister, Alexis, who died of a heart attack.

“Losing someone is really painful but a few things have happened to make me feel we are all much more connected, ” Arquette said. “For wrestling, you shave everything and at one point I was looking at my arms and it was like I was looking at Alexis’ arms, as being transgender she would shave them… For a deuxième it was like I was looking through Alexis’ eyes… I think we’re a lot more connected than any of us know. ”

Through the film, Arquette has finally learned to accept himself. “I accomplished what I set out to do, ” Arquette told the Star. “I wanted to prove I could be a wrestler. And through this whole experience, I figured out – and it’s ironic – I need to stop beating myself up. I had to stop attacking myself and be kind to myself, as corny as it sounds.

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