South Asia's relationship with WWE is unique. We don't watch it to watch our guys win, but for the storytelling. I have known fans right from the days of bootlegged tapes to watching Raw one week behind the U.S. broadcast in the attitude era to now, when most of the shows are telecast locally at 5:30 a.m. in India.
My friends and I have moved on to different professions -- me to cricket journalism, where I don't miss a trick to introduce WWE to my work -- but we still discuss WWE on WhatsApp.
Sitting at home in Delhi, India, neither I, nor my friends who watched that day, were surprised at all when Jinder Mahal executed the Khallas on Randy Orton to become the first WWE champion of Indian origin. It says a lot about the predictability of what should have actually been a shocking storyline.
Professional wrestling fans in India are -- or have been in the past -- somewhat of a secret society. We love to pretend to be all shocked when yet another tells us professional wrestling is scripted. After what has transpired over the past month and a half in the WWE, we now find tables -- not the ones the Dudleys bring -- turned on us: we are having to tell Indians it is all scripted. Given the evidence that there is so much curiosity about wrestling now in India, the WWE might have achieved the desired result.
A jobber when we last blinked, Mahal is now the WWE champion. This sudden five-week rise in the fortune of Mahal is a reminder that among other things, WWE is foremost a business. India, with its big population, is a new market for this business, and Mahal (real name Yuvraj Singh Dhesi) is a Canadian man of Indian origin, who can speak Punjabi, one of the many Indian languages.
For years, the only money WWE has made from India is through TV revenue. An event in Delhi last year was so poorly managed that the kiosks at the venue didn't have any actual merchandise to sell. Only recently has WWE licensed a moderately stocked online store. For a company so ambitious, competing not with wrestling shows but with prime-time entertainment, it's a surprise this big push into India has taken this long coming.
Yet fans have existed.
On an average, through at least three shows every week broadcasted in India, WWE has given Ten Sports consistently higher ratings than even live cricket, which is the dominant force in what is almost a single-sport market.
The buzz is clearly there. I've seen a man at a hair salon asking for a designer beard, "the one Sheamus has" and not-so-reputable medical clinics have been known to utilize photoshopped pictures of Batista to advertise their bone-mending skills.
Professional wrestling has for long been a phenomenon here, but the bottom line for businesses is expansion and the incremental consumers. Even if WWE knew India was not going to stop watching Kevin Owens and Jericho, it needed a new audience, so it has put the WWE championship on Mahal, a man with Indian roots. While there are no events currently on the official WWE schedule, a WWE India tour is expected and Mahal is likely going to own the spotlight when it occurs.
The hardcore wrestling fans in India reacted quite similarly to the stunned faces at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, during Backlash. Fans here just couldn't believe a world title could come to someone so easily.
Mahal is, by all accounts, a hard-working wrestler who has come back strongly after being released back in 2014, but he is not an exceptional in-ring performer. He is not the most athletic man in the ring. His finisher, a cobra clutch slam called Khallas, is not great, and no, the name Khallas has nothing to do with the Punjabi language that Mahal speaks, nor is his entry music anywhere close to what Punjabi musicians are capable of.
Even in this push, his promo and mic work has been insipid. He is no Shinsuke Nakamura, who is wildly over with the crowds.
There have been wrestlers more notorious for injuring their opponents, there have been others who have been stiffer and there have also been champions who can't speak a word on the mic, but they have some X factor. Mahal's is simply his Indian origin.
One of the biggest frustrations of wrestling fans with WWE has been that the main event scene is always dominated by big muscular -- mostly white -- men. We have seen how hard good wrestlers like Daniel Bryan had to work to get into the main event. We are seeing how hard Sami Zayn is having to work.
In a way, Mahal at least ticked one of the boxes: He transformed his physique when he came back. He is now this ripped, muscular hunk, the kind that has been known to impress Vince McMahon. In using the most predictable story arc possible, though, the WWE has lost a great opportunity.
People will try to justify against his rise by giving WWE's creative team more credit than it deserves, but Mahal has been given the tired old part of the evil foreigner. He deliberately speaks a language the locals don't understand, he uses two cronies -- the Singh Brothers -- to cheat his way to wins, and he tries to impose cultural superiority over fans who "hate me for the way I look."
Now just imagine if WWE had let this story develop more organically.
Here is a guy who had been introduced as kayfabe brother-in-law of the Great Khali, who wore a turban, did nothing of note and was let go in 2014. He then goes to the indie circuit, comes back a better wrestler, gets a reaction from the crowds, impresses at midcard level, has people talking about him and gradually enters the championship scene. And then you arrived at only the ninth nonwhite world champion out of 49 in all since 1963. What a great story it would have been, a story of diversification and integration, a statement that good wrestlers need not be only white to succeed in WWE.
Instead we have yet another champion forced upon the wrestling fan where a simple statement is made: You can be successful if your forefathers came from a country whose population is 1.3 billion.
Smarks in India didn't want an Indian champion, not one we don't relate with, and most definitely not this way. Not all is lost, though.
The biggest consolation here is that the man Mahal dethroned was an even more undeserving champion in his current reign. Randy Orton can work a great match when he wants to, but he has been uninspiring of late. His title win against Bray Wyatt at Wrestlemania was a worse match than the one at Backlash. Mahal's first defense is against the same man, so the bar has been set low.
More importantly, the WWE has drawn a true reaction from crowds. In this reality era, it has been nearly impossible to have the people hate an intended heel. Owens is a current example and The Miz is another where if a wrestler plays a proper bad man, the crowds love him. The only real heat in recent times has been reserved for John Cena and Roman Reigns, the men the company forced on the fans -- modern-day Hulk Hogans with minimal depth in their characters.
Mahal has managed to get that kind of reaction from the crowd. If this is only a business push into a new market, it would not make any sense to portray Mahal as a villain, except that in WWE there have been wrestlers -- Bret Hart for example -- who have been heels in the U.S. and faces in their own countries. On wrestling forums, the positive reaction from Asian-Americans, who relate with the discrimination angle more than Indians ever will, is already pointing toward that dynamic.
The only problem is, it is all down to Mahal now.
The period between Wrestlemania and the build up to Summerslam is the leanest for WWE. It can easily wash its hands of this experiment if it doesn't work. For WWE to retain Mahal anywhere near the main-event scene, he will have to transform again. Just the ripped body, the scowl and the repetition of "you hate me for my looks" will not cut it. The irony here is if he could be interesting enough to be hated simply for his looks, this would have been a great storyline.
Mahal has a base to start working from, albeit a difficult one. He is booed by the American crowds, but he is not as good a wrestler as Reigns or Cena. During the period between now and his first title defense, he will have to show he can put together good 20-minute matches. He will have to develop as a character enough for people to care about him, to hate him for more than just being the champion creative crowned at will and to love him for more than just his Indian roots.