WWE announced this week that it will be stripping Sami Zayn of his Intercontinental Championship due to his “inability to compete,” and holding a tournament over the coming weeks on Smackdown to crown his replacement.
While this is certainly WWE’s prerogative, there are two issues at hand in WWE’s decision to strip Zayn of his IC title. The first is how it was handled in storyline. The second is how hypocritical the company’s decision to take the title away from Zayn was in the first place.
Zayn, a former NXT champion, won the Intercontinental Championship at the Elimination Chamber Pay-Per-View back in March — his first singles title since joining the main roster in 2016. At his first — and now, only — title defense against Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 36, Zayn played the role of the cowardly heel, running away from Bryan throughout the entire match before picking up an improbable last-second win with a well-timed Helluva kick. Zayn seemed poised to continue playing the role of the cowardly champion hiding behind his muscle, Nakamura and Cesaro, in the weeks ahead.
Instead, that match at WrestleMania was Zayn’s last appearance on WWE programming to date. In real life, WWE announced after WrestleMania that any talent uncomfortable with traveling to work shows in the midst of the pandemic would be allowed to stay home and wouldn’t be pressured to work. Like his fellow Smackdown superstar Roman Reigns, Zayn has elected to stay in quarantine since then, which is the real reason for his absence over the past several weeks.
While it’s certainly understandable why WWE might not want to keep a championship title on a performer who’s currently unable to perform in person, it completely bungled its handling of Sami Zayn’s situation on at least two levels.
First, from a kayfabe perspective, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to quietly announce on social media that Zayn was relinquishing his title without making that a part of an on-air storyline. Just because Zayn isn’t able to leave quarantine to attend tv tapings doesn’t mean that he’s unable to tape promos from home.
WWE could have spent weeks letting Sami cut promos from home to explain — or make cowardly excuses for — his recent absence. That’s exactly what AEW did with MJF recently to explain his absence from television in storyline. With WWE’s shows starved for fresh content each week, the decision not to take advantage of Sami Zayn’s biggest value to the company — running his mouth — by incorporating his absence into a series of promos taped from his home is the kind of missed opportunity that simply boggles the mind.
Outside of the missed storyline opportunities in kayfabe, the far more disturbing aspect of WWE’s decision to strip Zayn of his title is how hypocritical it makes the company look. First, at a very basic level, it’s not a good look for the WWE to announce that its performers won’t be required to attend live tapings if they’re uncomfortable with the health risks — and then punish one of the few performers who actually took the company up on that offer with a storyline demotion.
It comes off even worse for WWE given the recent anonymous whistleblower complaints by backstage personnel about being pressured to work during the pandemic, and the rumored hot-and-cold running ban against mentioning Roman Reigns’ name on air while he remains in quarantine. WWE doesn’t get to pat itself on the back for protecting its employees’ health if it punishes any who actually elect to miss work and go into quarantine. Anyone who doesn’t think that WWE’s treatment of Sami Zayn was, in part, a message to any other wrestlers on the roster considering whether or not it’s worth the health risk to show up to tv tapings has got to be kidding themselves.
WWE’s hypocrisy here looks even worse when comparing its treatment of Zayn to its treatment of its other mid-card champion, Andrade. Andrade won the U.S. Title from Rey Mysterio at a house show in Madison Square Garden the day after Christmas — like Zayn, it was also his first singles title since joining the main roster.
While Andrade defended his title several times in his first few weeks as champion, a month into his title reign, he was popped for a Wellness Program violation and forced to serve a 30 day suspension. Rather than taking the title off Andrade because he was “unable to compete,” WWE wrote up a storyline injury to explain his month-long absence. After returning, Andrade defended his title once, at Elimination Chamber, before suffering a real injury that precluded him appearing at WrestleMania in a planned match for the tag team titles.
Since that Elimination Chamber PPV when Zayn first won his IC title and Andrade defended his U.S. title, they’ve both defended their titles the same number of times: once. Zayn had his defense against Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania, Andrade had his against Apollo Crews on the April 27 edition of Raw. And yet, according to WWE, Zayn needs to stripped of his title because he’s unable to defend it, while Andrade still remains U.S. Champion despite missing months of work due to injuries and a Wellness violation.
Is it possible WWE has given Andrade preferential treatment because of his real-life relationship with WWE legacy Charlotte Flair, or because it views Andrade as a potential top-card talent and Zayn as just a mid-carder? Is it possible Zayn is on a shorter leash when it comes to missed tapings because WWE has had to hold him out of Saudi Arabia shows due to his Syrian background, or that WWE took out its frustrations against for missing time because it can’t punish a bigger star like Roman Reigns?
Any of the above might be true — or might also be totally off base, and that’s really the point here. The optics in this situation look terrible for WWE because whatever its real reasons for taking the title off of Zayn were, it’s created the perception that it’s treating some of its wrestlers more harshly than others for similar offenses (if going into quarantine during a pandemic can even be considered an “offense”). No matter how you look at it, WWE bungled its handling of Zayn’s title, and created bad press for itself that should have been totally avoidable in the process.
WWE should have handled its removal of Sami Zayn's title better, both in storyline and backstage in real life.