The Intercontinental Champion is the Villain WWE Didn't Know It Needed

At night one of WrestleMania 36, Sami Zayn surprisingly defeated Daniel Bryan to retain his WWE Intercontinental Championship. Zayn won despite getting barely any offense in. Instead, he spent the majority of the match running away from Bryan, depending on stable-mates Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura to keep Bryan, begging for mercy after Bryan’s coach Drew Gulak took out Nakamura and Cesaro, and weeping in fear as Bryan assailed him.

On the whole, it was about the most pathetic performance anyone could expect to see from a reigning WWE champion in a title defense. In other words, it was absolute perfection.

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Zayn’s latest run in WWE began in 2019 when he returned the day after WrestleMania 35 after missing ten months of action following major shoulder surgery. Zayn’s newest persona was serving as “the critic of the critics,” which meant he spent a few months dropping promos against the WWE audience itself without doing much actual wrestling. After his bizarre comeback feud against WWE fans themselves ran its course, he re-teamed with Kevin Owens to back up Owens during his feud with the New Day. After not being brought along to Owens’ feud against Shane McMahon, Zayn drifted for the next few months, not being seen much until surfacing as Nakamura’s mouthpiece in August.

It was rumored that Zayn’s pairing with Nakamura (and Cesaro) came about because his shoulder was once again less than 100%, and WWE was looking for a way to take advantage of his mic skills while keeping him from having to risk further injury inside the ring. It’s still not clear whether Zayn is fully or only partially cleared to compete inside the ring. As Nakamura’s advocate, Zayn essentially played the role of the heel manager, interfering with Nakamura’s opponents behind the referee’s back during matches but otherwise steering clear of formal involvement inside the ring. He only began appearing in tag team matches with Nakamura and Cesaro after a few months of teaming with the Artist’s Collective, and even then was rarely tagged into the action.

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Zayn’s title defense against Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania was his first singles match since August when he lost to Cedric Alexander in the first round of the King of the Ring tournament. Zayn began his partnership with Nakamura and Cesaro in the weeks following that King of the Ring match and has barely been seen inside the ring since.

When Zayn won the Intercontinental Title from Braun Strowman in a 3-on-1 handicap match, it was a shocking victory on two counts. The first is that Zayn, despite being a former NXT Champion, had been mostly booked as a high profile jobber since returning to WWE last April. That loss against Cedric Alexander in the King of the Ring tournament, his last singles match before walking out to WrestleMania as Intercontinental Champion? At the time, it was his 15th loss in his last 16 matches. Besides being booked like a loser in recent times, Zayn’s shocking IC victory over The Monster Among Men immediately raised the question of how WWE was going to move forward with a champion who might not be physically capable of doing too much actual wrestling inside of the ring.

WWE answered that question this past weekend at WrestleMania, and it answered it decisively. For a company that has been often — and rightfully — criticized for a lack of creativity in its booking, WWE’s decision to put the belt on Zayn and turn him into a sniveling coward of a champion hiding behind his stablemates is sheer creative artistry. For one thing, it’s flat-out fun storyline — anyone who can’t appreciate a championship match which involves one announcer asking the other “Is he crying right now?” just doesn’t appreciate good wrestling.

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But more importantly, turning Zayn into a pathetic weakling of a champion is also good booking because it effectively moves to address Smackdown’s heel issues. Since WWE’s most recent Superstar Draft in October, Smackdown has had issues in filling out its full roster of heels. The Fiend is technically Smackdown‘s top heel, but in terms of audience response he rivals Roman Reigns as the top babyface. That makes Baron Corbin Smackdown‘s de facto top heel, but while Corbin can certainly draw heat, it’s always a tightrope walking act to book Corbin in a way so that the boos don’t quickly turn into go-away heat. Corbin excels at playing the arrogant bully, but as evidenced by his recent feuds with Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, he tends to wear out his welcome long before WWE decides to move him on to a fresher program.

Dolph Ziggler is an effective mid-card heel, especially with his legendary ability to sell within the ring, but his “smarmy bully” routine can come off as repetitive when paired too often with Corbin. Nakamura, Cesaro, and Robert Roode are all solid in-ring talents who don’t bring much in terms of ability to work the mic. What Smackdown has desperately needed for a while is a different kind of heel who doesn’t play into the tired “overgrown bully” trope and can get good heat on the mic — and Sami Zayn is the perfect man for the job.

Pairing Zayn with Daniel Bryan for this program was a stroke of genius on WWE’s part. Besides being the consummate worker to protect Zayn in the ring, Bryan is a beloved babyface who prides himself on helping other wrestlers get over, and didn’t need a win or an IC title run to pad out his resume. He sold his frustration at having to chase Zayn around the ring to perfection. When Zayn caught Bryan in mid-air with a Helluva Kick, it came off exactly as it was supposed to — as one lucky moment handing a fluke victory to an undeserving champion.

It’s still unclear just how many bumps Zayn is cleared to take in the ring, or how much offense he can safely perform with a (potentially) bum shoulder. But with his recent match against Daniel Bryan, Zayn proved that he doesn’t need to be able to do much in the ring to be the perfect heel champion — as a weepy coward terrified of having to get into an actual wrestling match.

Further Reading: WWE Might Have Just Pulled Off the Sneakiest Double Turn In History

Sami Zayn's surprising IC title defense against Daniel Bryan gives Smackdown the perfect midcard heel it's been missing.

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