Sami Zayn had 10 years of pro wrestling experience under his belt when he joined WWE in early 2013. Despite that, he was stepping into an entirely different world and it took him a while to realize that what he saw of himself wasn't necessarily the same as what others saw of him.
Zayn talked about the contrast in those two perceptions when he joined The New Day Podcast.
"Joining WWE made me aware of so many of my actions because I came in and you [Kofi] were there obviously, Woods and E, you were just leaving developmental. The Bill DeMott era of NXT-FCW or whatever, it was the big mantra: perception is reality," said Zayn. "Even though I was 28 when I got there, I don't think I was a fully mature person in some ways and I don't think I was fully aware of how I have my interpretation of what I thought I was. But there's also, 'Oh wait, people don't agree with that!' I see myself one way and people are seeing me differently and it was astounding a little bit because it made me a lot more aware of how my actions are perceived by some people who are not me. Maybe this armbar thing has lumped in there somehow.
"Well, just, for example, what I might perceive as fun-loving or whatever, like, 'Hey, let's have a good chat on the bus' [is perceived as] like, 'Man, this guy's annoying.' Or what I might see as trying to put a match together is like a passion or a perfectionist to whatever it might be, 'This guy is insufferable and who cares?' You know what I mean? It's just a different viewpoint and I always just looked through my lens, but being surrounded with all these different people and different points of view, it started to make you look at yourself at their lens."
While Zayn was successful during his early years in WWE and even won the NXT Championship, he had to learn to transition his behavior to fit in backstage. He credited one of The New Day members with helping him with that transition.
"It's funny, because now that you mention it, I remember you [Woods] pulling me aside pretty early when I was going through some growing pains there with my new surroundings a little bit, because again, on the independents it's just a very different mindset. It very much is we're all buddies and we're all just doing this and there's a very, very slight… I wouldn't call it a competitive nature. I mean, everybody wanted to do good and have great matches, but it's not like you've thought the other person as a threat and I think when you come to WWE, especially back then, very different now. But back then, you're almost taught where the person next to you, he's not your friend. He's a threat to your success, which isn't accurate, but it was whatever because it was kind of culture at the time," stated Zayn.
"So, I remember struggling with that, because I'm here to have fun. Let's all be friends; let's all have great matches and I'm getting something different than what I used to get in return. And I remember you pulling me aside and you're like, 'Look man, I was the same way. I was like you but crazier. I was a nut. I was laughing, joking, crazy bouncing off the wall'. You almost described yourself as spastic and 10 out of 10 all the time and you're like, 'I had to learn to tone it down and I had to learn to put on this facade to coexist or to succeed within this framework.' So, I remember that."
Zayn admits that he was overly comfortable when he first joined WWE and didn't necessarily understand how to conduct himself in a corporate manner. It was never due to malicious intent but him just not assimilating to the culture of WWE.
"This is definitely what's followed me around for a long time without really me connecting the dots in WWE. I finally started connecting the dots. If I were to trace back my behavior for years, it has been a lot of too comfortable too quickly and that's just no part of the culture, which makes sense," stated Zayn. "I understand that because if I see somebody else doing it, I'll be like, 'Who does this guy think he is?' First time on the job and feet on the table – that kind of thing – I've been guilty of that but I guess just oblivious to it because I don't think my intentions are malicious. So somehow, I get a pass for that or something. Maybe I was giving myself a pass on it or just not aware of my actions or how other people would interpret these actions.
"Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up and saying it's disheartening was there's this almost adult – and again, I'm 28 and I traveled the world. So, you think, 'Oh okay, you're 28, you're an adult, you've done all these things. You kind of got it together.' But I still didn't have that realization, that heartbreaking moment where you realize, 'Oh, you can't just be yourself' because you have to put on this facade and if anything, that's a testament to how amazing my life was. I only learned that lesson at 28! Most people learned that lesson when they're six!
"Something goes array at school and they're like, 'Oh, can't do that anymore' or I'm ashamed or victimized or humiliated or whatever. I learned that piece of a lesson when I was 28! When I already signed for the biggest wrestling company in the world and all of a sudden, I'm like, 'Oh, you can't just go up to someone and start pushing them and laughing and putting them in an armbar if you don't know them that well? Oh! Life lesson learned!'"
If you use any of the quotes in this article, please credit The New Day Podcast with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.
Mehdy Labriny contributed to this article.