At the moment, Sami Zayn is one of the biggest stars in all of WWE; he headlined the Elimination Chamber in Montreal, won the final match of Night 1 of WrestleMania 39 alongside his tag team partner Kevin Owens, and currently stands undisputed with his long-time pal as not only the top tag team in WWE but the Undisputed WWE Universal Tag Team Champions, a moniker previously held by The Usos.
But there was a time in the not-too-distant past before Zayn was the breakout star of The Bloodline, before he was feuding with Johnny Knoxville, before he was making a documentary to detail the conspiracies against him, and even before he was the NXT World Champion, Zayn was working on the indies as a member of Ring of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, and other promotion too, and needless to say, the financial success didn’t come overnight, as he detailed to Andrew Santino on the Whisky Ginger podcast.
“I used to write down all the money I would make,” Zayn said via Fightful. “It wasn’t like a bookkeeping, for tax purposes type thing. It was just, ‘I did this match on this date for this company, and I got paid (this much).’ I remember then that pay went from $20 to $50. ‘Woah.’ The first time I got offered $100, I was like, ‘I’m getting $100 to go to the States? To wrestle?!?!?’ The first year, I think it was 2008, I’m six years into the business, and I’m making $20,000 a year. ‘That’s it. I don’t need another job. This is my living now.’ I’ve been very lucky in a lot of ways. 20, 30, 40 the next year. Over time, it’s just gone up, which is great. It continues to go up, thankfully.”
Fortunately for Zayn, the money did start to get better and better with each passing year, to the point where he was finally offered a spot in WWE in 2013. That offer, surprisingly enough, did not come with the financial windfall that some might assume, as Zayn actually took a pay cut to go from a top guy on the indies to a developmental prospect in the WWE system.
Sami Zayn explains why he bet on himself in WWE Developmental.
After accomplishing more or less everything a performer can on the indies, holding belts in 12 different promotions over 22 reigns, Zayn was ready to give WWE a proper shot and signed with the promotion on a developmental deal. During this period of time, when NXT wasn’t even being broadcasted on the USA Network, Zayn was tasked with learning how to work as himself, instead of under a mask like he spent mastering on the indies, and to do so, he took a pretty steep pay cut for the opportunity.
“When I signed for WWE, I actually took a pay cut,” Zayn said. “You’re signing for WWE, it’s like the opportunity to make money, in a sense. I think my last year on the independents, I’m throwing all these numbers out willy nilly, but whatever. I think it was, at the time, right after I left the independents, the independents kind of blew up where guys are suddenly making six figures who are just starting to make good names for themselves. There was a big Indie Boom right after I left. I think my last year on the independents, I made somewhere around $100,000. I signed my first WWE contract for $39,000. It’s developmental now, but eventually, you’ll make good money, which is what happened. I wasn’t too near-sighted about it, thinking, ‘Oh, I’m worth so much more.’ You kind of understand when to take it on the chin and when you’ll make it up.
“All this to say, I got pretty lucky in wrestling, even when I signed with WWE, even though I had already been working for ten or 11 years, they put me through the developmental program, and I did very well, very quickly. Within about eight months, which was unheard of at the time because they usually take two or three years before they start sending you to do stuff. Within about eight months, they started sending me on the road to do road loops. At that point, maybe it is 50 grand a year. That first check came in for that road loop, it was like six or seven grand. I had this lightbulb moment, ‘Oh my God, that’s right, I’m here to make money.’ I know it sounds cliche, ‘when you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life.’ Money is not why I do it. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having it versus not having it.”
Had Zayn opted to take the short-term money instead of playing the long game, who knows if he would have eventually landed in WWE and made the sort of life-changing money that has set up future generations of the Sebei family for success? El Generico may be one of the top dogs in AEW right now, he could have a few IWGP titles on his resume, or the man now known as Sami Zayn may have hung up his boots entirely in favor of a more stable career. Fortunately, fans don’t have to imagine that world, as this one, with Zayn routinely celebrating wins while “Worlds Apart” plays through arenas worldwide, is the best timeline. Olé!
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