Whenever I think about the Bloodline—which, after watching their magical WarGames match at Survivor Series WarGames, has been happening even more than usual over the past few days—my brain floats back to the middle of May 2013.
The Shield had debuted roughly seven months prior, and quickly rose to prominence, reaching their first peak with Dean Ambrose capturing his first U.S. championship the same night Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins won the WWE Tag Team titles for the first time, at Extreme Rules on Sunday, May 19.
It almost feels like a coincidence that only two weeks before this, during a random Raw on May 6, Reigns beat his cousins, the Usos—who teamed with Kofi Kingston to lose cleanly to the Hounds of Justice—in the ring for the first time, or that, just two days before Extreme Rules, the twins lost their first tag match to Rollins and Reigns on SmackDown in under two minutes. Especially because their brother, Solo Sikoa, was still in college playing football.
However, one last bit of “coincidence” pushes the whole thing completely into “narrative serendipity,” as just a few days before—on that Wednesday, May 15, to be exact—another performer made their on-screen debut on NXT: El Generico, beloved indie icon, had been signed by the WWE in January 2013, but rumor had it that he had lost his mask when making his way to NXT and would definitely be on TV without it.
This news, understandably given the context, led to concerns in the preamble to his first appearance, at least among me and my friends, who had very recently launched a wrestling website called Juice Make Sugar (as in literally five days earlier, on the 10th) and spent way too much time thinking about this specific kind of dumb stuff.
We also spent way too much time talking and writing about the day-to-day happenings of WWE, both for “editorial” and “not much going on in our lives” reasons, as it would still be a few weeks before I’d meet my now-wife later that spring. Listen, this wasn’t super crazy no way school, but a lot of shit happened in these couple of weeks. So, for us and almost everyone watching, the confident and clear way in which they had been presented to that point made the Shield’s clean sweep of the midcard so quickly after debuting not the least bit surprising. But it still felt like the arrival of a new force that might genuinely revolutionize the business.
They’d been almost completely untouchable on TV up to that point, losing just one of their 11 matches (and then, only by DQ) while alternating between epic brawls and squash matches to paint a picture of fine-tuned dominance. And, while I wasn’t tracking this kind of stuff at the time, given that their first 65 losses on house show matches that year came by DQ, they were definitely the hottest heels in the territory.
A lot more uncertainty surrounded Generico. There were broad concerns, like the track record of most independent performers at this point in the company’s history. While Rollins (who’d faced Generico nearly 10 times as Tyler Black in Ring of Honor) and Ambrose (who had not worked with the Generic Luchador, but had also appeared in Combat Zone Wrestling, in his case as two-time champion Jon Moxley) both had considerable “indie cred,” placed next to Roman they felt closer to raided talent from the territory days than someone being pulled in from a different plane of existence to see whether they could survive in the WWE universe the way Generico was.
More specifically of concern (at least to us) for our masked hero, was, well, why exactly had he been covering his face in the first place? Sure, wrestlers wear masks for any number of valid reasons, like honoring their culture, paying tribute to their family’s legacy, returning earlier from a suspension, tricking their opponents, attempting to murder someone in a parking lot, switching places with their tag team partner—the list is almost endless.
There are, to be sure, other reasons to wear a mask: You might have a weird/gross face, receding hair, or, most tragically, a combination of both where you end up looking too much like one of us (as in the general bestiary of “wrestling dudes” that populated the majority of crowds at independent shows during this time). Unlike whatever the worst thing we were worried Generico’s mask could be hiding, the Shield at least all looked and, based on their now legendary backstage handycam promos, sounded like potential WrestleMania main eventers.
It was unclear, on the other hand, whether Generico could even speak English, in large part because he’d never really cut a promo in it on the independents and, although he was a comically pale ginger (and if we are being honest, not particularly great at speaking Spanish), there was truly no way for us to know what might happen when an unmasked luchador joined the WWE. (Note: It’s possible he cut a promo from the Generico era in English, but given that filming at this level and for this time was almost uniformly terrible, either in content or production value, though usually both, I assume my lived experience of never having seen one during his time as El Generico is correct. Kindly send corrections to @JDPower.)
With “The Pride of Tijuana” on his way into the company—though my friend “Angry” Andy Miller, who in addition to writing for JMS also had connections on the independent scene, was “pretty sure he’s just some French-Canadian dude”—the draw of turning him into a stereotype seemed like it would be too much for Vince McMahon to pass up. If it seems like I’m needlessly impugning Vince’s character, please remember that he made members of the legendary Colón family into the anonymous bull-fighting tandem Los Matadores—an activity for which the Colóns’ home of Puerto Rico had never been particularly well known, and which had been banned there for 14 years at that point—four months after this.
Hell, up until September 2012, Roman Reigns had been known as Leakee (pronounced “lei-ah-kee”). He’d wrestle as Roman Leakee, which, I ain’t even gonna lie to kick it, seems like it could have actually worked the best out of anything, before, finally, swapping in Reigns, a brand that has obviously done very well for him so far.
Presumably a play on his “actual” first name, Leati—publicly, Roman Reigns goes by Joseph (“Joe”) Anoa’i, (obviously the same Anoa’i of the Anoa’i/Fatu Samoan wrestling dynasty)—Leakee’s “presentation” was much more respectful of what his legacy and heritage might actually mean than what his family had mostly been framed as before. Which is, of course, saying almost nothing.
Before Reigns made his way into the industry nearly every Samoan performer, including the Rock (as Rocky Maivia, with his original ring gear) and the Usos, was expected to fit into one or more of a series of tropes. Sometimes that meant their family’s culture was celebrated (as it was in those examples), but it was most often used as a way to describe Samoans, or at least those who’ve chosen to work as independent contractors with the WWE, as “savages.”
So, for most of wrestling history, when an announcer said something like “wrestling is in his blood” about a performer from a famous Samoan wrestling family, it wasn’t to say “because he comes from a wrestling family who have taught him how to succeed in a difficult business, but also, LOL this MF diesel”—which, to be as fair as possible to His Lordship, is how William Regal explains it on commentary in the above clip. It instead nearly always meant, “Boy those Samoans sure have hard heads!” Because, well, casual racism equals cash, apparently? And this wasn’t some old relic, Umaga—the Usos’ uncle and Roman’s cousin (who, for the record, was incredible)—was employed by the company to play a wild savage all the way until 2009, when he left after a Wellness Policy violation. Otherwise, Reigns would have been in the WWE ecosystem (he started in 2010) at the same time as the last of a certain kind of way of looking at the world was fading away.
Thankfully for us neckbeards, things were way less sociologically and contextually fraught than we’d previously feared for our beloved Generic Luchador: As soon as he arrived on NXT TV, we learned that the man underneath that mask was not from Mexico’s most famous border town, but rather Quebec’s third-largest city and when, even after that, he didn’t appear wearing a beret or a Red Serge, we felt like we’d dodged a Big Kahuna Burger’s worth of bullets.
Sami Zayn (as portrayed by Rami Sebei) was a deceptively handsome Syrian French Canadian with boyish charm—some may remember the running bit of him coyly trying to court the then–Renee Young (or, more accurately, the then–Renee Paquette portraying Renee Young, before she was portraying Renee Paquette while actually being Renee Good because she married Jonathan Good after her relationship with Dean Ambrose ended)—and a very clear and articulate understanding of who he had been, as well as what he wanted to become in the future.
In that way, Sebei was the perfect avatar for what a successful independent wrestler with a good look might be able to do with a big enough platform. As a master of nearly every in-ring style with a true gift for emotionally connecting with audiences all over the world even if they were not familiar with the totality of his work before, Sami Zayn looked and felt like he belonged on TV as, at the very least, a major part of the company’s future midcard.
Joe Anoa’i, on the other hand, was the perfect avatar for, well, the entirety of WWE. He fit the mold of the company’s future headliner and center (or center-adjace) of the WWE “universe” in a way that’s almost unprecedented, with a résumé as a legacy performer (both familial with the Anoa’i and culturally as a Samoan), a “legitimate” athlete (he was All-ACC first team as a DE at Georgia Tech), and a WWE leading man (those baby blues) no one else in the history of the business—outside of, maybe, his cousin Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—has ever quite had.
However, while Dwayne had movie-star charisma and looks, he also had movie-star ambitions from the start: Nearly as quickly as he became the centerpiece of the company (including three straight WrestleMania main events) Johnson began developing, if not quite an “exit strategy,” then an escape pod that would allow him to routinely teleport between Los Angeles and where WWE was as often as possible. (This is, essentially, what the Titantron would become for “Hollywood” Rock during his second feud with Hulk Hogan in 2003, the last year in which he worked more than three matches, when he worked seven.)
For comparison, in addition to being able to work circles around even a prime Rock on his worst day, Roman has won 130 more (984 total) matches than Dewey has ever worked (854) and done so at a 73 percent rate across 1,347 bouts, all despite the same amount of active (13) years on the job (though Johnson started working in 1996, 14 years before Roman’s pro wrestling debut). Roman has always been for showin’ and for goin’ in a way that few similarly positioned cornerstones have. OK, outside of John Cena, who went through a Kanesian 2,212 matches in his career with the WWE. (In Roman’s defense, and pardon our French, Cena is a fucking freak whose career makes no sense statistically.)
Roman has even worked considerably more matches than Sami in the WWE—over 500 more than Sami’s 812 as of December 4, (including NXT for both and FCW for Roman)—though Rami has worked 237 matches more than Joe overall, in a eight-year-longer career in which he has had nearly as many matches (772) outside of WWE as he’s had so far in it. Pre-Zayn, Sebei had so many reps in front of live crowds that when he, like many in his and subsequent classes of NXT recruits, signed they were essentially already prepared to appear on TV; but, because of going maskless (and pulling it off) he didn’t have the same level of baggage from fans expecting to see him as “old character + WWE” that some other signings would come in with.
This new horizon of possibility—one in which he wouldn’t start off handcuffed to his best friend (and better archenemy) Kevin Steen—allowed him to be judged on his considerable merits as he shifted to his maskless future. As a result of his not needing to represent PWG, ROH, CZW, or any of the other 91 promotions he worked at before the WWE there was really no character to “learn” or “figure out” and he hit the ground, if not running, then jogging at a brisk pace from day one.
For Reigns, even when facing the Usos, as was mentioned earlier, there was simply no mention of Reigns’s relationship to them, or, quite frankly, all that much chatter about the background of any of the three. Given the context—again, it was literally their first and second TV matches against one another ever, but also the Usos explicitly being the sons of Rikishi, along with Yokozuna, the most successful non-Rock member of the Fatu/Anoa’i family to that point—it was clear they didn’t want to talk about it as part of the larger narrative for any of them.
Like shedding of the Maivia name and joining with a radical, racialized Nation of Domination (though Rock would make it immediately very clear he wasn’t particularly interested in those parts of the group’s mission), Reigns’s entry into this vigilante/mercenary stable allowed the prestige of their family’s legacy in the company to both serve and be served by whatever was happening in the group they were in.
For Rock and Roman, the accomplishments they had during this period were largely aligned to furthering the group’s goals and became milestones on the group’s journey as opposed to millstones around each of the performer’s necks, simply existing to be stacked up against what had come before them. By the time their successes were seen as contributions to their family’s legacy, it was on their own terms.
With Zayn, although he had twice been PWG World and Tag champion, as well as ROH TV and Tag champion, there would never be anything he could have done that would give him the built-in cache that Roman’s legacy (along with his looks and size) gives him when he’s simply walking down to the ring, but Sami certainly had the ability to equal him once he got in there on a match-by-match basis. From a promotional perspective, the benefits of allowing him a bit of slow burn to build up a story line would become something of his calling card, an attribute Zayn discussed in his excellent interview with Ringer Wrestling’s own Peter Rosenberg.
Which, with that in mind, almost makes Sami’s debut on the main roster in 2015 starting with him getting a Road Warrior Pop in Montreal before he separated his shoulder while trying to hype up the crowd only to have an absolute banger of a (one-armed) match with John Cena a little less of a bummer. It at least makes you think that maybe the injury changed the trajectory of his career.
But at the time, in addition to being an almost tragic befalling of such a committed performer, it was also a sign that Sami wasn’t going to have anywhere near the same luck that Roman had since he’d been up on the main roster. And poor Sami even had his brother in the business betray him too, like the first day they saw each other again! Which makes the whole thing seem extra unfair.
For Roman, Seth’s betrayal just over a year after they’d won their first titles as a tag team, was a catalyst for, honestly, a Roman Reignsian(?) run. We’ve mentioned it before, but outside of six-man tag matches with him and the Usos—of which they’ve lost 21 on house shows—Roman has been on one of the all-time-great runs off camera. (Note: Roman’s house show record with Rollins and Ambrose isn’t too hot, either.) In 389 singles matches on house shows, he’s lost 14 times. Ever.
Hogan lost 33 times in those kinds of matches ... in 1989. Cena had a couple of clean sheets but also doubled up Roman’s entire singles loss column in one year. Brock comes the closest, inasmuch as he has 39 straight singles wins on house shows dating back to 2003. But he also has over two times as many of these losses on the road as Roman, all in just the three-year period when he was actually consistently working on these shows. Roman’s also done pretty well on TV, winning nearly 75 percent of his singles matches on-screen, along with capturing six world championships and main-eventing in six (6!) WrestleManias.
Kevin’s betrayal of Sami just minutes after Zayn finally won the NXT title—echoing Rollins’s betrayal of Reigns a few months prior—brought back all of what Rami Sebei’s performance to that point had been able to avoid by channeling himself in the Sami Zayn side of his career. The idea that Owens and Sami, or Steen and Generico, were meant to be fighting forever—and the anxiety that comes with that kind of toxic relationship—was something that he had been able to avoid while making his name in NXT, up until (and stop me if you’ve heard this before) he found his destiny on the path he took to avoid it.
Because, without that—and all the things that made his relationship with Kevin Owens what it is and was—there’s no way he would have found himself doing what he did to KO two Saturdays ago. He tried to partner with Kevin, but it never felt like Zayn fully trusted Owens, and that inability to put what happened between them (or has happened repeatedly, to be fair) behind him eventually turned him into a conspiracy-theory-minded Great Liberator, both the high and lowlight of his main roster career before he finally hit with the Bloodline. He needed to take back his dignity and the only way to do that was to try to excise Owens from his life.
It’s the same dynamic that allowed Roman to accept his position within his family’s legacy (the Tribal Chief) and the company (the Head of the Table) in a way that has let the audience finally accept and acknowledge him. Although he went on a historic rampage, dominating the company for much of the next eight years, as Mithen of Ring the Bell has pointed out, based on his reaction to Seth’s mind games during their Royal Rumble match—essentially the only televised blemish on his singles record since 2019, along with a no-contest in 2021—he was still unable to let go until he proved that unlike he did for his family, he wasn’t going to let Seth out with some kind of deal or compromise.
Sami didn’t have to let Kevin go the way Roman did with Rollins, but he had to let go of what Kevin represented to Rami, in the same way that Joe might have Dwayne do for him. And it’s that connection—that Sami has to his wrestling past and Roman has to his past and what it means for the entirety of wrestling—that has both poised to make seismic changes in the landscape of the WWE main event over the next year, even if they don’t meet at WrestleMania. (Which, #KazIsRight.)
Although it may feel weird to treat anything people in spandex are doing as being subtle or nuanced in its exploration of interpersonal relationships and the tacit symbolism of a glance, that just means you haven’t seen Shakespeare the way it’s meant to be played. What Sami and Roman created in the ring, along with Jey and Jimmy, Solo, Kevin, Sheamus, McIntyre and the Brawling Brutes was incredible. The hug between Sami, along with the post-match shower of affection from Zayn to the rest of his found family, was remarkable.
But what Sami and Roman created backstage before the match was art, forged by the two of them in their ability to tell stories through years of honing their craft and carrying the weight of expectations, potential, and history on their shoulders. They know who they are and where they’ve come from.
The two of them also being perhaps the two best professional wrestlers in the world right now doesn’t hurt either, and although it’s unlikely, it’d be really great if they were destined to do this forever.