The main event of Saturday’s WWE Elimination Chamber event was one of the single-most anticipated WWE matches in recent memory.
Roman Reigns vs. Sami Zayn had a level of hype surrounding it, surpassing several WrestleMania main events. It was the apex of the critically acclaimed, if slightly overrated, Bloodline storyline. The man seeking acceptance from the top dog had his chance to become the top dog himself, in front of a rabid hometown crowd in Montreal. It was one of those special, lightning-in-a-bottle moments in pro wrestling.
It was never meant to happen, as Zayn joining the Bloodline as an “honorary Uce” was more of a gag than anything. But what started out as a gag became the hottest storyline in wrestling today. Ratings surged when Zayn was on television, crowds were at a fever pitch, and the 900-day title reign of Reigns had its biggest challenger to date. Despite the set challenge of Cody Rhodes at WrestleMania, many fans and pundits believed that WWE needed to find a way to have Zayn win the title in Montreal. Would WWE divert from its predetermined plan in order to take advantage of this exciting alternative?
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Not only did WWE stick to the plan, but what they did may have also cooled off their detour plans for Zayn.
Now, the match itself was not bad by any means. While Roman’s matches during this run don’t get my heart racing, the Zayn match was no different than your standard Reigns title match. In fact, the crowd being so into the match helped the Reigns heat segment as he taunted Zayn’s wife in the crowd. Zayn’s comeback was hot, and the ref bumps gave the match that over-the-top WWE main event feeling. But the finish is where the whole thing fell apart.
The referee got bumped, leading to Roman Reigns getting his hands on a chair. Reigns was then interrupted by Jey Uso, whose allegiance to the Bloodline had wavered since the rest of the group turned on Zayn at the Royal Rumble. Reigns handed Uso the chair, in a mirror image to the Zayn angle from the Rumble. Uso took the chair and briefly teased hitting Roman the same way Zayn did, but ultimately balked. Reigns took the chair back, ducked a spear from Zayn that took out Uso, and battered Zayn with the chair before spearing him. One, two, three. After the match, Kevin Owens returned to run off the Bloodline, allowing Zayn to hit a Helluva Kick on Reigns to stand tall at the end of the night.
The failure here was two-fold.
First, this match and this moment felt like a natural and earned conclusion to the Bloodline story that the WWE brutally whiffed on. Listen to the crowd when the final three count landed. There was no heat gained here. There was no outcry of anger at Reigns as there was when the match started. There was no despondence at the hometown hero falling short. There was nothing but 17,000 people realizing that they should have known better. An arena full of people realizing that they got played again by a promotion that seemed to enjoy playing their own audience for fools. It was an audience that watched one of their own get run down by the Roman Train, just as countless others had, and were just bummed out. Zayn wasn’t the chosen one, and no amount of quantifiable fan support would change it.
Now, instead of Zayn ending Roman’s reign after six months of interpersonal drama between the Bloodline, Cody Rhodes will most likely end it after six weeks of a boilerplate wrestling feud. Even though WWE is the promotion that supposedly tells great stories, they chose to write a different, less satisfying ending to this one.
Second, the optimal chance at transferring Zayn’s issues from Reigns to the Usos was missed.
Some people seem convinced that the conflict was between Zayn and the Usos from the beginning. Those people are wrong. This story was one between Sami Zayn and Roman Reigns and had been that way for months. Zayn didn’t turn on Jey or Jimmy Uso at the Royal Rumble. Zayn wasn’t standing trial against Jey or Jimmy Uso. The conflict of the story was primarily between Zayn and Reigns. If the plan was to shift Zayn to the heavily rumored Usos vs. Zayn & Owens tag team title match at Wrestlemania, then the heat from this match needed to be directly shifted to the Usos.
A line from Kevin Owens played in the pre-match video package. It was from before the Survivor Series in November, and in it, Owens warned Zayn that no matter what Zayn did, “you will never be their blood.” The Bloodline would never truly see him as family. If the goal was to get to the tag title match, then Jey Uso should have been the one to hit Zayn with the chair and cost him the match.
Jey Uso needed to prove Owens’ warning true, that the Bloodline would never choose an outsider over one of their own. Jey Uso needed to do something that would make all of Zayn’s supporters want to see Zayn take the tag team titles away from him, instead of just having the titles there as a consolation prize.
Instead, Reigns did the damage himself in order to get heat that never ended up coming. Hell, they didn’t even bother to give the Montreal crowd Owens and Zayn fully reconciling to give them a happy moment between the hometown boys that made it big. The show went off the air with Zayn sadly waving to a bummed-out crowd.
At the post-show press conference, Zayn was asked how he felt about this huge moment in his career, which saw him take on the WWE World Champion in one of the year’s most anticipated matches. Zayn said that he felt strangely detached, with the unhappy ending playing a big role in it.
I don’t blame him. He didn’t get the storybook ending, and his WrestleMania direction isn’t even set in stone. Even someone like me, who never expected WWE to change course, was disappointed in how this match played out.
For WWE, it’s just par for the course.
Organic moments be damned, the plan is the plan. And even if that plan backfires, the plan will still be seen through.