Face off: Champion Jinder Mahal fighting to be 'greatest ever'

In the world of professional wrestling, Jinder Mahal plays a heel. That's spandex speak for the bad guy. Mahal, who reverts to Yuvraj Singh Dhesi when he isn't in the squared circle, is a very good one. Wrestlers have played the character of the 'villainous foreigner' before, but Mahal has slipped into it quite effortlessly.

He has earned unrelenting hostility from sold-out stadiums across the USA by assailing crowd favourites with provocative and pompous mic promos on race and class before flagrantly using underhanded tactics to beat them. "That's too far," crowds in Oakland chanted when he made ethnic jokes at the expense of Japanese import Shinsuke Nakamura last month.

The heat he has drawn hasn't hurt his career one bit, though. For the last six months, Mahal has been WWE champion, the longest reign in the past two years in the world's biggest pro wrestling franchise.

Despite the success of his glowering persona, Mahal, who was in India over the weekend to promote the live shows in New Delhi in December, suggests he wouldn't mind if the writers of WWE have him portraying the 'good guy' at some point.

"I am interested in seeing what other characters I could play. The evolution of a WWE character is such that things change and I can't wait to have a babyface character," says Mahal. He has a great chance to do that in a couple of months when the WWE makes a tour of India.

Unlike in the USA, the 31-year-old Calgary native - only the second Indian-origin champion in WWE history (the Great Khali was the first when he won the RAW title in 2008) - is guaranteed a far more positive reception in New Delhi.

"I can't wait for the crowd reaction when I come here and definitely the WWE will see some of that reaction. Maybe that starts to plug something in creative and you might see a different side of me."

While he obviously wants to grow his character, Mahal has come a long way already. This is his second stint in the WWE after being cut from the roster in 2014 following an uninspired two-year stint. What followed was two years in the wilderness of the independent circuit including a spell in India. In hindsight though, Mahal says the setback was a stepping stone to success for him. "Looking back, that was the best thing that ever happened to me because that motivated me. I reinvented myself," he says.

It was a noticeably leaner and muscular Mahal - one who went cold turkey on alcohol and instead began instagramming his workouts and diets - who re-earned a WWE contract in 2016.

"The WWE rewards hard work, so I became the hardest working superstar in the WWE. No one is out-training me. I look at all my matches and see what I could have done better. What I did correct, I want to do more of that. I am just driven," he says.

While perhaps an eye on the Indian market - the biggest in terms of TV and Facebook views for the WWE - smoothed his climb, Mahal's journey to the top has been a steady one. Now he plans on staying there.

"My most interesting challenge would be staying motivated. I got released from the WWE because I got complacent. I became lazy and I wasn't motivated like I am now. Every day when I work out, I realise I have to work even harder. I know how hard I had to work to become WWE Champion and I know how hard I have to work to stay WWE Champion and go down in history as one of the greatest of all time."

It isn't just a matter of diet and training anymore. Mahal looks to get any sort of advantage he can find. In an interview last month, WWE CEO Paul Levesque - more familiar to fans as the wrestler Triple H - said Mahal analysed movies and old wrestling tapes to learn from the greats of pro wrestling.

"No one sees the 24 hours that I put in," says Mahal. "A large part of those 24 hours is putting the work that will make me the best WWE superstar that I can be. That means watching tape. Not just matches of myself but also the great matches including matches of Triple H and just watching the stories that he tells in the ring. I will see The Rock, Stone Cold (Steve Austin) or even watch Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels. Their Ironman match at Wrestlemania XII was the greatest of all time."

The part of Mahal which grew up in Calgary and idolised Bret Hart wishes he could go back in time and wrestle the Heart Break Kid Shawn Michaels in Wrestlemania. "He was Mr. Wrestlemania," he says.

For the moment though, Mahal throws up a tantalising prospect. "For right now, how about Brock Lesnar. The WWE champion versus the Universal Champion. That's blockbuster of a match."

There are other prospects too. "Roman Reigns would make for a good match and I have history with Seth Rollins. We were finalists at the NXT championships. That would be a blockbuster match." he says. In December though, Mahal will be wrestling former Universal Champion Kevin Owens, who won the Hell in the Cell PPV last week. "This December will be the first time I am stepping in the ring with him. It's going to be a tough, tough match."

The fact that Mahal will be defending his title in India in December, suggests he will keep his belt until then. He plans on staying champion for the big pay per view events next year, and even longer.

"My goal is to be the greatest of all time. There isn't any point setting small goals. You have to set large goals. When I set the goal of becoming WWE champion, people would laugh. I remember when I was entered into the six pack challenge match to be the No.1 contender for the WWE title, there were many who asked 'why is Jinder here?' But I set my aims high. I proved the doubters wrong and I look forward to proving more doubters wrong."

It is that validation that Mahal looks to receive through his mic promos that draw the most heat.

"I channel stuff that makes me mad. I think about it and then channel it into my character. When you see me make my entrance, you see me fully psyched up and I'm thinking about all the doubters who told me I wouldn't accomplish something. As for now everything is fine and I am still the WWE champion."