Leaders of the new school: Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami, Adrian Neville, Fergal Devitt and Kevin Steen talk to WWE.com about their generation
Are WWE NXT's Sami Zayn, Hideo Itami, Adrian Neville, Fergal Devitt and Kevin Steen the future of sports-entertainment? WWE.com headed down to the WWE Performance Center to find out.
In August, NXT sensation Sami Zayn sent out a tweet that, in precisely 140 characters, at once gave hope, elicited excitement and put the sports-entertainment world on notice.
Some 3,000-plus favorite tweets and retweets later and the buzz surrounding “Zayn’s generation” — let’s call it WWE’s New Generation — has only intensified. As WWE fans await the in-ring debuts of international Superstars Fergal Devitt and the wrestler formerly known as KENTA, Hideo Itami, and independent wrestling demigod Kevin Steen, WWE.com sat down with the NXT Five inside the place they call home — the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla. — for a roundtable discussion to learn about their connections to each other inside the ring and out.
Read on as they discuss their struggles journeying to WWE, why WWE has always been the final destination, and the heavy duty that comes with being the new guard.
WWE.COM: We’ve gathered you all here at 9 a.m. on a Thursday because of a tweet Sami Zayn sent.
SAMI ZAYN: I heard it from these guys yesterday, I’ll tell you. Today is our only day off.
ADRIAN NEVILLE: It’s not a day off. We’ve got a Cocoa Beach show tonight.
ZAYN: Yeah, we do have a show later this evening, but it was a chance to sleep in. It’s really not a big deal, but, of course, these guys are going to rib me a little bit about it.
KEVIN STEEN: I don’t care. I’m happy to do this.
ZAYN: Well aren’t you perfect?
ZAYN: It’s just crazy to think where we all were a few years ago and where we are now. The other guys I tagged are guys we all crossed paths with for years all over the world on various small, independent shows. We thought we were doing something special at the time, but you don’t know if it’s going to pay off. Now that we’re all here under the WWE umbrella, it kind of validates all that.
WWE.COM: Was getting here always the goal?
NEVILLE: I didn’t really have an interest in getting signed by WWE earlier in my career. If I did have the opportunity to come here, I wanted it to be later when I was a more traveled, well-versed performer. Honestly, with my body type and my style, I never really expected to be here. The fact that I’m here alongside these guys is kind of mind-blowing.
ZAYN: When we were young, we all looked up to the Jerichos and the Guerreros and the Malenkos and all these world-traveled guys who started where they were from and then made a name in Europe, then went to Mexico, then went to Japan, then went to ECW, then WCW and then they ended their careers here in WWE. Those are the guys that I looked at like, “That’s what I want to be.” Now, we’re that generation — we’re the Guerreros, we’re the Malenkos. It’s not a coincidence at all.
STEEN: I actually had a bit of a different mentality. I remember talking with Zayn about WWE, it must have been 2003, and I told him it wasn’t a dream for me — it was the goal. I appreciate all the chances I got to wrestle all over the world and I’m really proud to have wrestled in Japan and Australia and Italy. But it was never a necessity for me, because in my head, I thought, “When I get to WWE, I’ll travel with them and see all those places.” It was never something I felt I needed to do, but now that I’ve lived through those experiences, I realize how important it was in getting here.
WWE.COM: Was it the same for you, Fergal? You were a top star in Japan’s biggest promotion before you signed with WWE.
FERGAL DEVITT: I’d been doing it for about six or seven years when I ended up in New Japan. I was really just a boy and I became a man in New Japan in eight years. It came to a point where I could stay the rest of my career there and have the security of a job or I could step into the great unknown that is WWE and challenge myself. And that’s what I decided to do.
WWE.COM: You raise an interesting point, because getting to NXT is just the beginning of the journey, isn’t it? It’s not like you’re guaranteed a spot on the main roster.
NEVILLE: Honestly, it’s a huge risk, because we’ve got these reputations outside here and I know a lot of us made very comfortable livings outside here. To give up all that on what is essentially a flip of a coin, because a lot of decisions aren’t really in our hands as far as this place is concerned. One thing I liked about coming up is the ball was very much in our hands. Our success was based on what we did. That is the case to a certain degree here, but at the same time …
ZAYN: There are more external forces now.
NEVILLE: Exactly. So it’s definitely a roll of the dice in a certain respect.
STEEN: It is, but there’s no way you can’t roll the dice. When the offer was presented, there was no, “I really got to think about this.” I mean, I did, because I have two kids and I have a wife. It involved them moving from Canada to Florida; it involved my son changing schools, leaving his friends behind; it involved us getting away from our families. Our choice to come here impacted a lot of people, but …
NEVILLE: You were coming either way.
STEEN: I was coming. And they were coming, too. My son’s 7 years old. He watches WWE and he loves John Cena. I’d take him to a WWE show in Montreal and he’d be like, “How come you’re not wrestling?” “Uh, I don’t wrestle for WWE. You get to come see me in front of 200 people.” (Laughter.) Then one day I told him, “Hey, I think I can wrestle for WWE. You want me to?” He’s like, “Yeah!” So I said, “OK, but it means moving, changing schools and not seeing Grandpa every day.” His question was, “Are you going to wrestle John Cena?” (Laughter.)
ZAYN: That was the negotiation process.
STEEN: So for me, there was no choice in the matter. They gave me an option. They said, “Well, we’d like you to come. Let us know.” It was already a yes as soon as they asked.
ZAYN: We’ve all got at least a decade to a decade and a half invested here. And without blowing smoke, everyone here is really good, obviously. Before we all got here, we were kind of "the guys." I firmly believe we once again will be "the guys," but we had to hit that reset button and roll the dice and start from scratch. But like Kevin said, what are you gonna do? Not take the chance? I didn’t even read my contract!
STEEN: Yeah, same here.
ZAYN: I didn’t even read it, because what was I gonna do? “Oh, sorry, article seven, paragraph two doesn’t work for me.” You had to come here. But [Hideo Itami] is the best example of hitting that reset button. You want to talk about a guy who was firmly established in one place and really had nothing to prove to anyone. He’s the man in Japan. This is a huge reset button for him to come here, and it’s on a total gamble.
NEVILLE: Different culture.
ZAYN: Different language, different life, everything. He’s got a family. It’s a really huge thing for him in my opinion. How long have you been wrestling?
HIDEO ITAMI: Fourteen years.
NEVILLE: WWE was a big risk for you, right?
ITAMI: Yeah. Everything changed.
ZAYN: Why did you choose to leave Japan for WWE?
ITAMI: I wanted more. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to prove to myself.
STEEN: Did you always want to come to WWE? Because things are different in Japan.
ITAMI: When I started, I didn’t think about WWE, but my dream became bigger and bigger.
STEEN: Maybe you also came to WWE to take back the Go to Sleep. (Laughter.)
ITAMI: I hope! (Laughter.)
WWE.COM: Everyone here comes from a different part of the globe. Is it important for each of you to represent your countries in WWE?
ZAYN: The guys at this table are reinventing what it means to be international, because guys from Quebec used to be The Quebecers or they used to be La Resistance. Adrian Neville happens to be British, but he’s not coming out with a giant British flag. He’s not Mr. Britain.
ZAYN: I don’t know what’s going to become of [Itami’s] career, but I highly doubt you’ll see him with a headband, hitting a gong or anything like that. We’re reinventing what it means to be from these countries. We’re not stereotypes. We’re not here to epitomize your preconceived notions about Canada or Ireland or Japan or England. We just happen to be from these places and we happen to be really good.
STEEN: French is my first language. I didn’t speak English until I was 12 or 13. I started picking it up, because I was watching WWE. That’s how I learned how to speak English.
ZAYN: Jim Ross taught him how to speak English.
STEEN: I was using, “coming down the aisle” and “stomping a mudhole.”
ZAYN: He thought they were regular expressions! “That was a real slobberknocker!”
STEEN: Even though I have an English name, I’m French and I’m proud of that, but it’s really important for me not to be labeled as the French Canadian guy. If I’m ever on a show at the Bell Centre, you can bet I’ll speak French as much as I can, but I don’t want the fact that I’m from Quebec to define me.
ZAYN: It’s not our calling card. And I do feel like wrestling’s evolved past that. I certainly felt it when I did the tours to the Middle Eastern countries. Being an Arab and still being able to come out there and be myself and not have to wrap a turban around my head, that’s really cool. And that’s going to be part of the legacy of this generation of guys: We’re going to smash down many boundaries and preconceived notions.
NEVILLE: With guys that come from the indies, people think we find it hard to adapt to this style, but I say the opposite is true.
ZAYN: All you do on the independents is adapt.
STEEN: Yeah. That’s a great point. People think it will be hard for us to learn the WWE style but that’s the first style I knew how to do and then I had to adapt to the Ring of Honor style, because it’s for a different kind of fan. You need to do different things to get a reaction out of those 200 people that are there, but I was trained by a WWE wrestler, so that’s the first style I learned. The adaptation process isn’t going to be as strenuous as people think just because we’re from the indies.
DEVITT: You can teach a lot of things here at the Performance Center, but you can’t teach passion for wrestling. And the five people at this table definitely have it and have had it for a long time. And hopefully, a little bit of that can rub off on the rest of the people here and bring up the whole team.
NEVILLE: It shines through. It shines through in what you do.
ZAYN: There are times when you stop and you think to yourself, “Why do people like me?” And Kevin offered the theory to me years ago that fans can sense passion. They really can. I remember I saw Metallica once and I felt like they were just phoning it in. There was just no connections at all and they were playing these great songs and I was like, “I don’t care, because I don’t feel like you care.” It’s an innate human quality to be able to sniff out phoniness. And everyone at this table has been nothing but honest and true in their journey to get here. That’s kind of what got us here, to be honest. That’s the commonality here. And that’s why we have these 14-year journeys. It’s a really long time and you’re not going to make it through that journey if you don’t have that passion to drive you.
WWE.COM: At the same time, you’re competing for a main roster spot with bodybuilders and amateur athletes with no wrestling background at all.
ZAYN: I can’t speak for these guys, but I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Even before I got to developmental, I had that starving artist mentality of, (puts on an obnoxious voice) “Oh, you didn’t do the indies and you didn’t starve and you weren’t in the trenches.” I’m sorry; I completely lost my train of thought. What was your question?
STEEN: It’s that voice you were doing!
ZAYN: The voice threw me off!
NEVILLE: I guess it’s just about having faith in yourself. We don’t begrudge anyone for exploiting an opportunity. It’s just knowing that we’re better.
STEEN: Yeah, when I came here for the camp in March, I walked over to the car rental place and there were 20 guys in line and you could just tell they were here for the tryouts. And I saw a couple of guys that looked like they were born and the first thing they did was go to the gym and start lifting weights. Huge. And I looked at them like, “I’m going to eat you alive.”
ZAYN: I had the exact same experience when I went to my tryout. I got there and I was the smallest guy in the room next to Jimmy Jacobs who was with me. And he was looking at these guys like, “Bro, these guys are huge. Oh my God.” And you probably can’t publish this, but I was like, “I’m going to [mess] their world up.” I was fueled by passion and that starving artist mentality and that chip on my shoulder. Doesn’t matter how big you are. These walls have slowly started coming down.
DEVITT: I do agree with the lads on most of that, but I do believe that we do need guys like that as well. They add something to the show. It’s like the circus. We need all types of people from all walks of life.
STEEN: The guy that I’m talking about actually wasn’t too bad in the ring, but when we did the promos he actually shined a lot. He impressed me. Just because they don’t have the background that we have doesn’t mean they’re not going to bring something. But it’s a thing in our heads. When I saw him, I was like, “I hate you and I will destroy you.”
NEVILLE: Hate’s a strong word.
STEEN: That’s literally what I thought, though.
ZAYN: It’s not personal.
NEVILLE: I don’t dislike them. I’ll just take a step back and say, “OK, we’ll see.”
We're lifers. We have been and we always will be.NEVILLE: I’m just indifferent, because you know we’re reliable. We’ll get knocks, bumps and we’re coming back the next day. We’re going to be here for years and years to come. Certain people, they’ll have a good run and then you’ll never see them again. Whatever. That’s their prerogative, but we're lifers. We have been and we always will be. And that’s what sets us apart.
ZAYN: You can’t begrudge people for the opportunity they get, but there was a time when it really stung. When I would just stand in a building and no one would come up and say hello or no one would say goodbye — just little small things that drove me nuts. As someone who values etiquette and respect and traditions, it hurts to watch things go by the wayside. And it actually came to a head here, personally.
NEVILLE: I don’t think you need to go into it.
ZAYN: I’ll just touch on it. I don’t mind. I got frustrated at one point where I actually called an all-talent meeting with every member of developmental to try and explain. I’m sure it backfired. I’m sure a lot of people were like, “Who does this guy think he is?”
NEVILLE: I was one of them. (Laughter.)
ZAYN: I just didn’t care. I was so hell-bent on something I felt was bigger than me that I didn’t care if people hated me for it. I had to go up there and explain to them that we need to uphold these values, because if we don’t, it’s dead. NXT really is the future, and it starts and it ends with us, so anything we do now will be the norm in five years.
WWE.COM: Are there guys you can see taking your place in five years?
ZAYN: Absolutely, yeah. I think Adam Cole will be here eventually. I’m a big advocate of his. I’m a huge Kenny Omega fan. I’m a huge fan of a Japanese wrestler named Kota Ibushi. I asked [Itami] when he got here, “Who else do you think would be good for WWE from Japan?” And the first person he said was Ibushi. The Young Bucks. They have a family life and a good thing going, so I don’t know if now is the time for them, but they are phenomenal. Kyle O’Reilly maybe, eventually.
STEEN: Johnny Gargano. There are so many good guys.
ZAYN: They are starting to step into the spots we left behind. It’s funny, because that was us with Daniel Bryan and Low Ki and Samoa Joe and AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels. When we were breaking into the indies, those were the guys we looked up to. Then they started making their way out and we stepped into those spots. And before you knew it, we were kind of like indie legends.
NEVILLE: Indie legends? (Laughter.)
ZAYN: It’s crazy to say, but yes! We stepped into that role of guys who had been around forever on the indies. Now we’re gone and these guys are filling those roles and, hopefully, there’ll be a new crop behind them.
WWE.COM: It’s amazing how the scene repairs itself. One of the early criticisms of the Performance Center was that WWE was killing the indie scene by signing all the top stars ...
STEEN: I highly disagree. It all goes back to passion and love for wrestling. When I saw Adam Cole, I was like, “I want to help this guy, because he has a good attitude and he’s great.” It was the same thing with Daniel Bryan, Cesaro and Seth Rollins. Before they left, they did everything they could to help the guys they liked. The scene repairs itself, but anybody who complains that WWE is killing the indie scene is ridiculous.
ZAYN: You do your best to leave it in good hands.
DEVITT: I would say we’ll probably never be satisfied, and that’s the only reason we’re all here at the moment. It’ll probably be when we’re all 60 and at a Hall of Fame ceremony and we’re still thinking about what we can do next, because that’s what’s driven us. This thirst and hunger to keep pushing forward, I don’t think any of us will ever settle, be it a WrestleMania moment or a World Heavyweight Title. We’re all just going to still want more.
NEVILLE: The wheels are definitely in motion.
ZAYN: It’s already happened to me where I’ve looked around and been like, “What happened?” I remember after the 2-out-of-3 Falls Match against Cesaro, and that was a pretty special moment for me for a number of reasons. It was the day before my birthday and the day that perception of me in this company changed a lot. After the match, even though Cesaro and me had just battled, Triple H grouped us together to talk to us as employees, and he said it was a good match. So I remember Triple H telling Cesaro and me how good the match was and over his shoulder, I saw Neville and Seth Rollins and it was like, “What is happening?”
NEVILLE: I think “wrestling” and “wrestler” used to be dirty words. That has turned around. We’re all here to say it’s not a dirty word. In fact, it’s a beautiful word.
ZAYN: We’re proud to be wrestlers.
NEVILLE: This is all we’ve ever wanted. And if you’re [on the main roster] and maybe you’re a little complacent — you’ve lost that fire — that’s fine, but just know that we’re going to be on your heels. We’re coming.