Sometime in the early 2010s, WWE changed their entire promotional strategy in a major way. The days of Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock and John Cena were over. No longer would the company focus their promotional machine around creating megastars with the transcendental power to become bigger than WWE itself and cross into wider pop culture.
Instead, the focus would become all about ‘the brand’, the overarching WWE brand in which wrestlers are interchangeable cogs in a larger machine. With this new philosophy, WWE wouldn’t ever have to worry about losing big money if their chosen franchise player failed or left for greener pastures. Instead, no one star would ever become bigger than what the company allowed, and anyone could be replaced at any time.
And the case we look at today is the perfect example of that interchangeability on display. Today we look at one of the most surprising creative and promotional decisions in modern WWE history. It’s one that, from a logical and creative standpoint, didn’t make any sense whatsoever. But from a financial perspective, was supposed to be a guaranteed money maker but managed to fail at doing that as well.
It’s the most out-of-left-field decision in SmackDown history: Jinder Mahal’s run as WWE Champion in 2017.
The decision to make Jinder Mahal WWE Champion was one of the dumbest decisions in modern WWE history. It was done without any sense of forethought other than a desire for the stockholders to cash in on a supposedly-lucrative fan market in India. And the decision to push someone that looked like an Indian instead of someone that the Indian people actually liked, ended up costing WWE a lot of money while also harming other wrestlers’ careers in the process.
As you can imagine, the story of the most out-of-left-field WWE Champion begins with the most out-of-left-field superstar in WWE history: Enzo Amore.
During his WWE run, Enzo Amore had a special power that most WWE wrestlers could only dream they had: he had more or less free reign to say whatever he wanted to on the microphone. With that freedom, Enzo trash talked anyone and everyone in creative ways, and on January 30th, 2017, his target happened to be Jinder Mahal. In his promo on Mahal, Enzo made lightning-quick quips about Mahal’s ‘veiny’ new physique and how it made his body ‘look like a roadmap’.
And it wasn’t just a few extra pounds of muscle that Mahal had gained; he looked completely different than before. This new Jinder Mahal was completely, utterly jacked. And by ‘jacked’ I mean it looked like he had spent months lifting cars while enjoying a diet composed of the Ultimate Warrior’s abs.
That remark by Enzo started a chain of events that would eventually lead Mahal to unexpected success. Though few of us here, if any, know Vince McMahon on a personal level, there have been plenty of people that have worked with him that have shared anecdotes about the almost hermit-like Vince and what he likes and dislikes. And one of his biggest likes is muscular physiques. This is an asset that he saw in Mahal and decided it was enough to give the man’s career a revisit.
After doing little on RAW besides losing to Mojo Rawley and concussing Finn Balor, Mahal was drafted to Smackdown after WrestleMania 33. That show had lost many top-level stars in the draft, leaving then-WWE Champion Randy Orton without anyone to defend against besides Dolph Ziggler. Thus, to widen the field of title challengers, a battle royal was held to crown a new #1 contender. It was composed of Ziggler and five other wrestlers that had never even been in contention for the top title before: Harper, Rowan, Rawley, Sami Zayn…and Jinder Mahal.
Guess who won?
And then, a month later at WWE Backlash on May 21, 2017, Jinder Mahal defeated Randy Orton – arguably the biggest legend still active in the company – to become WWE Champion. It was a stunning victory that took virtually everyone by surprise. And Mahal didn’t end up being a transitional champion, either. He held the WWE title for six months and main-evented multiple high-profile shows.
As soon as WWE announced Mahal as the winner and NEW WWE CHAMPION, the camera panned to the audience to find a suitable reaction. This is the first one they got:
That is a pair of ringside wrestling fans laughing. They are laughing at the absurdity of what they’ve just witnessed. Instead of being shocked, as WWE had hoped they (and others) would be.
By becoming WWE Champion, Mahal turned into ‘the Modern Day Maharaja’ and had his own entourage in the form of the Singh Brothers. These two became crucial to Mahal’s title run because they became staples of his title defenses. More often than not, they would interfere in some way in Mahal’s matches, long enough for Mahal to capitalize and score a cheap win. This went on for months and led to Mahal scoring more high-profile wins over Orton and then on another SmackDown debutant, Shinsuke Nakamura. Mahal’s rivalry with the latter was considered a disappointment; not only due to the bad matches; but also because of several promos that were at best insulting, at worst downright racist.
But despite all the criticism and jeering Mahal got, WWE continued with this project anyway. Why? Because Mahal’s push was meant to help WWE’s brand grow in the Indian market. They wanted to capitalize on that growing fan market and someone decided that local Indian fans would be more willing to shell out money for WWE and their products if there was a top star that was Indian (or at least, looked like and pretended to be one). Ironically, Mahal is actually Canadian that grew up in Calgary, and his win was actually congratulated by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta (akin to state legislature for the Americans out there).
The goal for Mahal was to increase fan interest in India and thus increase the revenue from a tour there that was meant to take place in September of that year. They also hoped his run would increase WWE Network subscriptions in India (with its 1.3 billion people, a figure WWE constantly brought up). In a hilariously ironic twist, all WWE events including PPVs aired for free all across India, rendering network subscriptions completely moot.
By the time SummerSlam 2017 ended with Mahal still WWE Champion, WWE’s plans on a successful India tour still had not materialized. The actual tour, which was supposed to take place in September, had not even yet been announced, and would then be postponed until December. But between those two dates was Survivor Series, and the marquee match was a champion vs. champion match. Between Brock Lesnar and Jinder Mahal. Brock, being smarter than most people give him credit for, recognized that no one wanted to see him face Mahal since Mahal was nowhere near credible enough to face him. Thus, WWE made a quick decision to have Mahal lose to AJ Styles before that pay-per-view on the November 7th edition of Smackdown. To many people, that ended up saving the Survivor Series show as Lesnar vs. Styles ended up being a great match.
As for Mahal, he still went on the India show (the tour ended up being reduced to a solitary show following poor ticket sales [who would’ve thought?]), but without his championship and without a rematch for it. He faced Triple H instead, and in front of the people he was supposed to represent as champion…got Pedigreed and lost.
There is a term used in professional wrestling called a ‘paper champion’ and it applies in this case because it has a dual meaning. First, it suggests that an idea – in this case, Mahal as WWE Champion – is a good idea on paper but not in practice. Second, it suggests that the person in question is so weak and lacking in credibility that they’re as weak as paper. Both of those apply fully in this case, and here’s why.
At first, some people actually liked the idea of Mahal as WWE Champion. He wasn’t an obvious choice for brand centerpiece and some people had grown tired of seeing the same ‘indy guys’ some up from NXT and elsewhere. Those people wanted to see a true homegrown WWE guy become champion, and Mahal was their guy. But the novelty of Mahal’s status as the best wrestler on the roster (by virtue of, you know, wearing the world title belt around his waist) wore thin very fast.
As a wrestler, Mahal wasn’t great; but he wasn’t terrible either. He was just…average. Nothing he did was truly unique or eye-catching. He wrestled in a very average style and nothing really jumped out at viewers in a truly special way. Even his finisher – the Khallas, a cobra clutch slam that Ted DiBiase Jr. had used almost a decade earlier – looked like the lightest-impact move anyone could take.
But these issues pale in comparison with Mahal’s biggest problem: his complete and utter lack of credibility.
Prior to this main-event push, Mahal was a lower-card guy through-and-through. His original run was mired by lower-card nonsense (something involving The Great Khali and a dowry) and being in the comedy trio 3MB.
After being released in 2014, he returned in 2016, and was immediately…thrust back into the lower card. But this time he had a gimmick as ‘the man of peace’. Basically he claimed to have found inner peace and wanted to spread that to others. Why he decided to bring peace to an industry driven by interpersonal war is beyond me.
And during both those runs, his win-loss record was more lopsided than anyone’s, even Kane’s. Prior to 2017, Mahal had never wrestled for any title, had never won a match on pay-per-view, and had never garnered any major wins against anyone even remotely credible. During his first run, he lost three matches in a row on one show, and the longest of those matches was four minutes long. As if that wasn’t enough, one of his career statistics includes a loss to the Brooklyn Brawler, the most famous jobber in WWE history. And when he returned, he spent more time in backstage skits than he did in the ring.
Now, this all could’ve been salvaged if WWE had given his main-event push some time to develop. From the moment he debuted on SmackDown to his WWE title win, he didn’t really convince anyone he was credible. In fact, when he became #1 contender, Randy Orton came out to the ring to cut a promo. But his target wasn’t Mahal, the man who’d be challenging for his coveted title; it was Bray Wyatt, a wrestler on a completely different show. Orton himself did not care one bit about Mahal as a contender. And Mahal proved that he shouldn’t because Mahal just stood there while Orton talked about Wyatt instead of sending him a message.
And yet, WWE still went ahead with Mahal as their chosen cog to play the role of WWE champion, albeit for the interim. He beat Orton and became the Modern Day Maharaja, which was not only supposed to be his new nickname, but also became his first piece of merchandise. Of course, it would’ve helped if Mahal – or anyone in WWE, for that matter – would’ve bothered to explain what a ‘Modern Day Maharaja’ actually is.
Mahal never cut a promo explaining what that term actually means. The only bit I was able to conclude is that in India, ‘maha’ = great and ‘raj/raja’ = king. So a direct interpretation would’ve suggested that he was a modern day great king, like the former rulers of India. But not even that was provided as an explanation. Instead, viewers were treated to this nugget of wisdom from JBL, who was commentator at the time and seen by many as Vince McMahon’s direct mouthpiece:
“1.3 billion people, he [Mahal] feels that in his country he has become what India represents.” – JBL.
That’s about as close to a complete non-answer as one can get. India is one of the most culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse countries on the planet. And yet somehow Mahal was meant to represent all of them and everyone living there? Sounds like a stretch, but again, no explanation was provided.
Ironically, JBL is actually a great case study to compare with Mahal. In 2004, the Bradshaw character transformed into JBL seemingly overnight. The former wild (and actually funny) bar room brawler that seemed like a midcarder for life transformed into a rich, snooty businessman complete with a stretch limo and enough money to buy his own Cabinet. And this man became WWE Champion and held it for the longest period in SmackDown history until Styles broke that record twelve years later.
JBL, like Mahal, was a guy that was thrust into the main-event picture seemingly overnight and people were expected to take him seriously as a main-eventer. But unlike Mahal, JBL told everyone what he had become, what he represented, and what he was going to do. And his run was way more successful than it had any right to be. Sure, his matches were underwhelming to say the least. But his promos and character work were fantastic. He was marvelous at getting people to hate him, and it made anyone look like a hero when challenging him.
Mahal’s problems were exacerbated by just how badly his matches were booked. Mahal never won a big match on his own. The Singh Brothers interfered on almost every occasion. At one point, Randy Orton spent four full minutes manhandling them. Given this, why anyone would have trouble with them is a mystery. I understand they were meant to annoy the fans in the same way that J&J Security did in Seth Rollins’s matches. But the difference between them is that Rollins was also an impeccable wrestler in his own right that could stand on his own two feet if he needed to. Mahal was presented in a way that he required help from these two men (and sometimes others) to win. It was as if interference was the crutch that allowed Mahal to move forward, which didn’t make people want to watch him more.
That was proven at the next PPV, when Orton demanded his rematch. But Mahal chose the stipulation and picked the worst possible type: The Punjabi Prison match.
The reason it’s such a bad match type is because of the practical element of the stipulation. The Punjabi Prison is a terrible concept because, a) it has needlessly convoluted rules; b) it is simply illogical (Mahal spent so much effort climbing up and down the “bamboo” walls and then Orton got ahead of him by stepping over from one wall to another); and c) you can’t see a goddamn thing in the match, even with WWE’s one thousand cameras following the action.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mahal won this match with interference as well. But not just from the Singh Brothers, who by this point had basically become human cannon fodder, but from the Great Khali as well. Why? No one really knows, or cares.
After Mahal had beaten Orton, he needed a new opponent to help elevate him, and WWE chose Shinsuke Nakamura for that role. This was a bit of a problem as Nakamura had almost every asset that Mahal lacked: advanced grappling skill, an awesome finisher, credibility as an athlete, and most importantly, mountains of charisma. Seriously, the only way Nakamura could draw people in any easier would be if he were literally made of magnets. His only flaw was that he wasn’t too good at promos, but he didn’t need to be. Nakamura’s entire persona can be summed up in seven words: “guy with swag that knees people hard”. But someone thought this was too hard of a concept to explain, so they decided to mock Swagsuke instead…in the most offensive way possible.
After a deflating win via interference for Mahal at Summerslam, the insults really started to pour in for Nakamura. They made fun of his voice, made Mr. Miyagi jokes, suggested that Nakamura and his fellow countrymen eat cats and dolphins, and went to great lengths to make fun of his various facial expressions.
Since Nakamura kept losing to this man instead of proving him wrong, it damaged Nakamura’s credibility as a wrestler and his image as a badass. Here was this Indian guy making overly racist comments (even the fans called Mahal out for this) and Nakamura was still unable to beat him decisively.
All of these negatives were meant to make Mahal into a top villain, someone people would tune in to see. But that didn’t happen. Not in North America, and not in India. The reaction to his WWE title win was met with anywhere from shock to laughter, and apathy soon followed.
WWE tried to justify pushing Mahal by saying his push was enabling them to get into a potentially lucrative market in India. But WWE pulled an old card that just doesn’t work in today’s world: they tried to pander to a specific ethnicity and nationality by pushing someone that looked like them. This was WWE’s mentality of ‘looks over skill’ in action and it blew up in their faces. Yet no one in WWE seemed to take the time to look at Indian fans and ask them who they like.
Look at the comments on almost any WWE-related video on YouTube, on blogs about WWE superstars, or discussion forums. Fans in India weren’t any happier about Mahal’s sudden new push as those of us in North America and Europe. They liked the same wrestlers as everyone else: A.J. Styles, John Cena, Roman Reigns, The Undertaker, etc. The people in India wanted to see a good wrestling product, and unfortunately, Jinder Mahal wasn’t the guy they wanted to see.
This mentality soon began affecting WWE’s booking plans for the rest of the year. Mahal was being considered a flop in North America, and soon the Indian market followed suit. Ticket sales for the big India tour slowed to the point that the tour was reduced to a pair of shows, for which tickets continued to sell poorly. Add to this the fact that Brock Lesnar, with his unique creative powers over who he faces in WWE, saw the writing on the wall and knew him fighting Mahal wouldn’t draw at all.
When WWE made the call and AJ Styles defeated Mahal, it was basically an admission of failure. They knew they messed up and they had to do something to fix it. So they put the title on someone that fans actually wanted to see, and someone with whom Lesnar could have a great match and sell tons of tickets. Because both of them had the one thing that, no matter what was done, Mahal just couldn’t get: credibility.
Just to hammer home how big of a failure this experiment was, Mahal went to India to face Triple H, on a single show in the entire country after abysmal ticket sales prevented any more than that solitary event. And on that sole, not-even-sold-out event, Triple H beat him clean in front of Mahal’s (supposed) countrymen. There’s just no recovery from that.
The saddest part through all of this is how much of a missed opportunity this was. WWE had a golden opportunity to create one of the best rags-to-riches storylines in years, if not decades. Mahal had spent years losing to everyone under the sun, sometimes to an embarrassing degree. Yet Vince pulled the trigger on him and wanted him to become WWE Champion. With a little bit of patience and better writing, they could’ve told the perfect story of Mahal overcoming his past struggles to reach the top of the company. It could’ve been an inspirational story in the same vein as Kofi Kingston’s unexpected rise to the top. And it would’ve worked because WWE had plenty of material to show just how low Mahal had been and how far he had come.
Instead, he became another bland foreign cheater with generic, manufactured promos and zero credibility. And how were people in India supposed to react to this man – one way or another – when he had never actually been there prior to this run?
The final verdict
Mahal’s WWE Championship run remains arguably the most mind-numbingly shortsighted creative decisions in WWE history. They wanted a guy that would draw in fans in a specific country, and Mahal fit the bill. But instead of reversing his years of jobbing and bad booking with good booking that was done logically, they just pretended that people would forget everything that had happened to him over the previous four years. And they compounded that by pushing Mahal to the moon and expecting everyone to go along with it. All to pander to a new market for live wrestling events.
Aside from getting a few people to comment on how surprising this direction was, everything else about this run was negative. Mahal had an awful character that was never explained, making it virtually impossible for people to connect with him or care about him. Most of his matches were hamstrung by predictable and annoying interference, which made him look like a weak champion since he couldn’t beat anyone fair and square. And his idea of getting people to react to him is by making basically racist comments towards one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster. And all of this was done without anyone actually looking more closely at the Indian market to see whom fans were tuning in to see and whose merchandise they were buying.
Actor Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones) once made an excellent comment about the distinction between the artistic world and the corporate world. He said,
“It’s a peculiar business [acting] because there’s a case for writing two versions of a draft, one for actors and one for potential financiers. Because potential financiers often by and large tend to be short on imagination and you REALLY have to spell it out.”
That resonates so well in this case. A bunch of money-hungry people in WWE wanted to increase company profits, so they chose to expand into a big market. But instead of giving those fans something they (those fans) wanted, they instead gave them something they (the people in WWE) thought the Indians would like. They took the easy route and create a cheap character instead of creating something polished and well-crafted.
They thought Jinder Mahal becoming WWE Champion would translate into easy money for them given that he looked like them and portrayed a stereotypical pro-Indian character. But Mahal’s run was very much the financier’s draft instead of the actor’s draft. His run was mired by bad writing and worse decisions. All of that makes this a cautionary tale about making rash decisions for the sake of making a quick profit without taking the time to think things out.