“You disrespect me because of your lack of tolerance, but at Backlash, I will take back my respect.” Those were fighting words from unlikely number-one contender Jinder Mahal to WWE Champion Randy Orton during this week’s SmackDown Live. But they also denoted a new kind of onscreen WWE politics, one in which foreign heels can generate heat by turning Americans’ intolerance around on them, rather than reinforcing stereotypes to spell out who’s with or against them.
Mahal’s overnight nudge into main-event status – following his upset victory earlier this month in a six-man battle royal – isn’t entirely spasmodic, even if its permanence is far from guaranteed. WWE has been asserting itself as a touring entity in South Asian and neighboring nations for years, and now appears poised to export more of the region’s talent West.
On the heels of a well-publicized scouting event in Dubai this week, Executive VP of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul “Triple H” Levesque touted that the company is “dedicated to finding the most talented athletes and entertainers from around the world,” adding, “Not only are the Middle East and India important markets to grow our business and reach new fans, but they are also key regions from which to recruit premier athletes who want to pursue the dream of becoming a WWE Superstar.”
It’s smart business, as was the recent “roster shakeup” that landed Mahal exclusively on SmackDown and, awkward rollout aside, jolted viewers with welcome unpredictability. WWE can’t subsist on a combination of relatively locally sourced homegrown NXT competitors and premium acquisitions from encroaching international rivals like New Japan and AAA. Their survival, and certainly their dominance, demands they actively nurture future Superstars from parts of the world where next big things aren’t already syndicated on AXS TV.
But Mahal’s promotion also signifies that an Indian-origin phenom – Mahal, real name Raj Dhesi, is Canadian-born but of Punjabi descent – need not be literally oversized to cross over. Or, as WWE India’s Twitter feed might term it, emerge as “the new SmackDown sensation.” That’s a major shift from just several years prior, when seven-footer The Great Khali (who, incidentally, was Mahal’s first major storyline rival) broke ground as both an Indian-born WWE Heavyweight Champion and top of the card babyface.
Fan favoritism, however, is the last thing Mahal needs to worry about. A few weeks into his vaunted villainy, the second-generation sports entertainer (his uncle was Punjabi legend Great Gama Singh) and former 3MB exile is hitting all the right notes in his run opposite all-time great Orton. Big-picture corporate outlooks notwithstanding, that’s a testament to Mahal’s own hard work and anticipation. While grinding out dates on the independent circuit after being let go by WWE in 2014, he never said anything but the right things about his time there, about gratitude for the opportunity and the open door to second chances. And as Levesque told USA Today regarding his re-hiring last year, “From the second he’s been back it’s been, ‘What else can I do to make this work? What else can I do to improve? What else can I do to get to the next level?'”
Yes, his remade physique is jarring (but awesome). More significantly, his furious promos about being otherized are incisive but petulant, the perfect balance for an evolved foreign heel. Plus, it suggests that creatively – and contrary to my own concerns (or, as I’d like to imagine, in response to them) – WWE has figured out how to comment on the cultural climate without inciting a tweetstorm from McMahon family ally Donald Trump.
With proud Bulgarian Rusev also now exclusively a part of Tuesday nights, along with recent Raw émigré and outspoken Canadian-Syrian Sami Zayn, it’s fair to infer that SmackDown has been designated as WWE’s testing ground for globalism, and Mahal positioned as a potential international icon. It’s a notion that, ironically, President Trump would probably abhor, though it may just make his friend Vince’s empire great again.