Jinder Mahal stood on the middle ropes and leaned into the turnbuckle. With the WWE world championship belt draped over his shoulder Mahal surveyed the scene around the floor of the Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago. He drank it in. This was his look-at-me moment for the self-styled “Modern Day Maharaja.”
Moments before it looked like events were unfolding as anticipated. It looked like Randy Orton, the 13-time world champion, a WWE fixture, was going to close out the match against Mahal, the headline bout at Backlash. Then a bit of interference from Mahal’s two-man crew in his corner, the Singh Brothers, turned the tide and Mahal rolled up Orton for a three-count.
Exactly what Mahal drank in wasn’t what he expected, however: not anger, not horror, just simple disbelief. The thousands down on the arena floor looked. They gaped. Their jaws hung slack. Some had their heads in their hands. What we have seen, we can’t stand. There must be a twist here …
But there wasn’t. Mahal had won the WWE world championship and in the process sucked all the oxygen out of the arena. “Nobody expected it,” says Mahal, a 31-year-old native of Calgary. “I didn’t expect it. I thought one day I was going to be WWE champion. I didn’t know that this was my time yet.”
Rarely if ever has the arc of a story utterly ambushed the legion of WWE fans and that’s saying something, given the depth of their investment. They keenly identify wrestlers on the rise, those who are getting a push from the company. They know which are destined to work in the margins. They are, after all, not just fans but the focus group for the WWE, an outfit that has achieved dominance of the business by giving the people what they want — with, of course, some twists and bumps along the way.
Only one out-of-the-blue moment really ranks up there with Mahal’s and it occurred early in the company’s history: Bruno Sammartino, the respected and beloved face who effectively carried the company on his broad back, had owned the title for more than seven years when he met Russian heel Ivan Koloff before 18,000 at Madison Square Garden in 1971. When Koloff upset Sammartino the crowd didn’t boo. Koloff raised the belt and the seismic turn of events was greeted with silence. In fact, Koloff worried for his safety — he thought that the crowd might start throwing bottles or chairs at him. The new champion didn’t exit the ring so much as flee to the safe haven of the dressing room.
Not Jinder Mahal. He waited for the crowd to catch up. His championship began to register with the announcement of “the winner and new …” It was probably less acceptance than resignation to the unfortunate fact. Still, even those having trouble with it knew something was coming — the WWE was giving Mahal a hard push as a heel on the SmackDown side. Just weeks before he had been runner-up at the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania, losing to Mojo Rawley after interference by the New England Patriots’ resident goofball Rob Gronkowski. After the Superstar Shake-up, Mahal moved over from Raw to SmackDown and won a six-pack challenge over Rawley, Dolph Ziggler, Erick Rowan, Luke Harper and, finally, fellow Canadian Sami Zayn to become the top contender to Orton’s title. This run in the ring; his tag, Modern Day Maharaja; his time on the mic; and the heat he generated with his sense of superiority: All of it pointed to him becoming a major player.
Still, fans remembered that Mahal had been a jobber, a curtain opener. They remembered him wrestling in “dark matches,” those on the undercard of shows like Backlash that don’t make it to the broadcasts. He was essentially on the WWE’s bench. In MLB terms, he wasn’t in the starting lineup, not even on the lineup card, but rather down at the bottom of the 40-man roster. The rise of someone from a supporting role to star is a feel-good story in other sports, but in the WWE, it’s uncharted territory. What it will mean for Jinder Mahal, what it means for the WWE, is still hanging out there.
With his win over Orton, Mahal became the 50th wrestler to hold the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. All men are created equal but not all WWE champions. Some, like Sammartino, defined their eras. Some, like Hulk Hogan and The Rock, crossed over into the entertainment mainstream. Forty-nine were less laughable and implausible than the WWE’s Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, who, at age 54, wore the belt for less than a week back in a pre-millennium disaster of a storyline. Some champions fade almost instantly from memory. Who could forget the reign of Sid or Sheamus? Most wrestling fans, even the diehards, if Sporcle’s survey numbers are an indicator.
Where will Jinder Mahal land on the spectrum? With his reign at the three-month mark, he has already worn the belt longer than Daniel Bryan and Dean Ambrose, who cut out-sized profiles in the WWE. Longer than Dave Bautista, who was able to leverage his ringwork as a heel into screen heroism in the Guardians of the Galaxy series. These days the belt changes hands much more rapidly than in Sammartinian times of yore, probably a function of our limited-attention span
More than most of his 49 predecessors, Mahal has the potential to be a game changer. Among them he uniquely offers a chance to capture a massive untapped market. As the first wrestler of an Indian background to hold the WWE championship, he represents a figure who could raise the WWE’s profile in a nation of more than a billion people, the vast majority little acquainted with professional wrestling and not at all with the WWE.
Mahal isn’t the first Indian wrestler with a high international profile. Tiger Jeet Singh first entered the ring as a professional back in 1965, starting out as a heel, putting babyfaces to sleep with his claw-hold and Cobra Clutch across six continents. Occasionally he would see the light and take on arch-villains like the Sheik, with whom he drew heat in the old Maple Leaf Wrestling circuit. On broadcasts, he would always offer a few words in Punjabi to viewers who might have been outside the wrestling’s usual demographic. At 73, he is listed as semi-retired and resides in Milton, Ont., where he’s active in his eponymous charity foundation.
Mahal isn’t even the first wrestler in his extended family in Calgary. His uncle, Gama Singh, launched his career on the Stampede Wrestling circuit in the early ’70s and quickly became one of the most hated heels out west. He wrestled under the handle of the Great Gama, the Lion of the Punjab, a fabled wrestler whose career in India dates back to late 19th century. Gama Singh worked in the old WWF during the ’80s, but spent far more time in rings off-shore, often teaming with Tiger Jeet Singh. “I was too young to see my uncle wrestle very much,” Mahal says. “Late in his career a lot of the wrestling he was doing was in South Africa and Japan. I did get to see him a couple of times. It was a very cool time and I did see him on video.”
With all due respect to Tiger Jeet Singh’s and Gama Singh’s long and celebrated careers, the WWE championship has raised Mahal’s profile to heights they could only imagine. And these are entirely different times. Thousands of their bouts drew heat in jam-packed arenas but otherwise remained obscure. Mahal’s victory over Orton for the title has been viewed on YouTube more than three-million times in less than four months. His lavish Punjabi celebration at a later SmackDown broadcast, a pure Bollywood production number, has passed the four-million mark. “At my brother’s wedding in Calgary last week, somebody told me that ‘you have put Punjabis on the map more than anybody in the world, anybody in history,’” he says with a mixture of pride and sheepish disbelief.
In the wake of Mahal’s victory over Orton, the media in India has had to undertake something of an unofficial campaign to educate the market on the whims and ways of the WWE. New Delhi’s The Statesman tried to navigate the waters for readers unfamiliar with pro wrestling’s narrative construction. While calling Mahal “a Hero in real life,” the publication explained: “Jinder plays the role of a Heel guy in WWE and his character is based upon him being the greatest champion of all time even better than his predecessors who are all non-Indians and at this point he gets the heat required for his character from the WWE universe.”
This pretty much summarizes the Jinder Mahal character, but doesn’t touch on its evolution nor the backstory of the man behind the character.
The morning of a big card, Jinder Mahal, the erstwhile Yuvraj Singh Dhesi, likes to sleep in. In advance of the SmackDown broadcast in Toronto last week, he would have preferred to have slept in later than usual, having to drive in from a show in Kingston, Ont., the night before. At the crack of dawn, however, handlers from the WWE’s communications department shepherded him on the rounds of morning TV and radio to promote the show. “It goes with the role,” he says between appearances.
While Mahal was the grindingly arrogant and ever-entitled villain the night before in Kingston, he’s the exact opposite the morning after. He seems to appreciate that, like The Statesman laid out, he is a heel to those who have long followed the WWE, but might stand as a hero to a throng that is only now coming to professional wrestling. “I’ve always thought of myself as an Indo-Canadian,” he says. “We always spoke Punjabi at home. I learned English at the same time as my parents. My mother’s English still isn’t really good. When I talk to myself and think, it’s mostly in Punjabi. I always say something to [Indian fans] in our language. I’m very proud of my heritage.”
And while Mahal the character grates with his sense of superiority, Yuvraj Singh Dhesi seems to deeply appreciate the help that he has had along the way. He talks about training with, among others, the late Allen Coage, a bronze medalist in judo at the 1976 Olympics who wrestled as Bad News Allen at various stops along the way and Bad News Brown in the WWF in the ’80s and ’90s. “A lot of wrestlers in Calgary got their start with Stu Hart and in the Hart House Dungeon, but I was too young and missed that, so I trained with News,” he says. “I wrestled for Bruce Hart and the revived Stampede Wrestling circuit. So did a lot of the guys I work with now — we used to be out there wrestling in front of 50 people in a Legion hall. My first match was a sub-in against a jobber, a local guy, I can’t even remember. I watched it on video and thought it was so cool, but now I just can’t watch it. I sucked.”
Wrestling under the name Tiger Raj Singh, Dhesi cut his teeth in the territories at the same time that he was working on his business degree at the University of Calgary. Dhesi’s work in the ring improved with his training under people like Coage — unlike his uncle and others like Rowdy Roddy Piper who were literally thrown into the fire and had to learn on the job. “When I hear my uncle talk about it or read Roddy Piper’s book, I sort of wish that I had been around for that,” he says. “These are different times now. You do have a chance to see a lot of wrestling and learn from it, whether it’s on the network or social media.”
In 2010, Dhesi went to the WWE’s development camp in Florida and within a year made his debut as Jinder Mahal. After six months with the big boys, Mahal gained a bit of attention when he was the penultimate wrestler eliminated in a 41-man Battle Royal on an edition of SmackDown, what was the most crowded contest in the WWE’s history. Still, Mahal stayed stuck at a rung below the biggest names and was released by the WWE in the fall of 2014. “It sucks being released,” he says. “I felt like I didn’t accomplish much. I didn’t ever own a championship. I didn’t even contend for a championship. I didn’t have a single PPV match the whole time I was there.”
Though he was still in his 20s, Dhesi started to look at life after or outside of wrestling. He looked to get into real estate and when talking to him, you come away with a sense that he’d be a success in any sort of market or in any venture he’d undertake. Still, he continued to work on independent circuits and in time his desire to wrestle in the WWE returned. “The time away was good for me,” he says. “I needed to refocus. Things had come very fast for me — making the WWE so young. This time I was going to ready.”
The WWE again signed Dhesi in the summer of 2016 and the Jinder Mahal character remained a work in progress over time on the Raw side of the company — his “Man of Peace” phase might play out in other arenas, just not one booking pro wrestling. After the Superstar Shake-up, Mahal was flipped over to SmackDown, a boon to his stock. In contrast with the horde of veteran headliners on the Raw side, SmackDown featured a bunch of young talents vying for a better place in the game. Mahal’s dedication to work in the gym paid off — positively jacked now, it’s hard to imagine that the 6-foot-5, 238-pounder was ever knocked for being soft. And, most importantly, his Modern Day Maharaja character took flight.
“I’m a humble guy in real life and my character is very, very different,” Dhesi says. “[In character], I believe I’m royalty and better than everyone because of that. I have to be in that mindset. It’s easy to switch into the Maharaja mode. I have to pull up in the limousine. I have to have my custom suits. I have the rug rolled out for me. I have my two boys [the Singh Brothers] with me. It’s been very cool the way it has evolved and it’s going to keep evolving. That’s how characters are — they get more and more depth. You think you know your character and then a year later you look back, you think how different it is and how it’s taken off. You don’t know exactly where you’re going to go. That’s how it is in the WWE.”
At the SmackDown event in Toronto, the Modern Day Maharaja was again matched against Orton, this time in a non-title match and this time without his henchmen, (in real life Gurvinder Sihra and Harvinder Sihra of Burnaby, B.C. who went by the Bollywood Boyz before signing with the WWE). The WWE said the two were out of the lineup for the event due to injury. It made for a weird dynamic at the Air Canada Centre. Mahal is a heel elsewhere but wasn’t this night and only in part because all Canadians might claim him as one of their own. Indo-Canadians like Dhesis were out in force, some of them who were introduced and drawn to the WWE by Jinder Mahal. They didn’t quite see the champion the way The Statesman had laid out: not just “a Hero in Real Life” but also against Orton and all-comers.
It turned out not to be their hero’s night. It looked like it might be when he seemed to have Orton set up to choke out, to put him to sleep with what looked like a variation on Tiger Jeet Singh’s Cobra Clutch. Orton, however, busted out of it and turned the match with a DDT and two more concussive drops. The crowd’s reaction at the bell evoked that at Backlash: If there were a cheer, it would have been drowned out by a humming air-conditioner. The fans started to get to their feet at about the same time that Mahal lifted himself from the canvas. They started to the exits while Orton walked up the ramp on his way to the dressing room backstage. But then Orton stopped while still in the spotlight and looked back at the ring to gloat. At that moment, he was ambushed by Rusev, a former powerlifter from Bulgaria who occasionally serves as a confederate of Mahal. Rusev landed a blindside back-kick flush to Orton’s face and the former champion dropped like he had been shot just before the arena lights dimmed. Orton never saw it coming, just like Jinder Mahal caught so many unaware.