EXCLUSIVE: WWE champ Jinder Mahal aims to inspire next gen of Indian wrestlers
Let’s not mince words—three years ago, Jinder Mahal was fired. The Canadian-born wrestler of Indian descent’s once-promising career in WWE seemingly came to an end in June 2014, at the age of 27. His run in WWE didn’t go as he’d wanted. He never became a champion. He spent his time in a comedic act that rarely won a match—3MB, a ‘three-man band’ with Drew McIntyre and Heath Slater. Worst of all, he didn’t give it his all.
“I had mixed feelings about my release,” Mahal tells me. “Obviously I was very sad and disappointed because it was my goal to be a WWE Superstar my whole life, and not only that, a WWE champion. I felt like I had let myself down. I was a disappointment to myself. I felt like I didn’t give it 100 percent. But also at the same time, I was kind of unhappy at the moment in 3MB. I wasn’t progressing the way I felt I should be, which was ultimately my fault because I wasn’t putting in the work.
In 2016, after WWE split its roster on to two separate shows—Raw and Smackdown Live—the company found itself in need of experienced wrestlers on short notice. Mahal got the call, rehired against the odds. He wasn’t brought in to be a focal point of course, but a second chance was all he needed. It was a chance Mahal wasn’t going to let go of. Rather than accept his new position at the bottom of the ranks, he forced himself to truly change—to work harder than he’d ever worked before.
“In order to succeed in WWE, you’re responsible. If you put in 100 percent, you get back 100 percent. A lot of it is mental. Just my mental attitude has changed. I have a very positive outlook, I set goals for myself, and I write down my goals. I read a lot of self-help books, I listen to a lot of podcasts, and just thinking positive, positive things are starting to happen in my life. I’m a firm believer that you get back what you put in.”
Mahal transformed his physique, and approached his character with a new intensity. WWE, recognizing his hard work, started giving him more opportunities, and less than a year after getting rehired, Mahal became the WWE champion—an unprecedented turn of events.
“My goal was to become WWE champion, but not this soon. Actually, to tell you the truth, I kind of aimed low. I started writing down my goals as of the new year, and every day I would write down, ‘become a champion in WWE’. I was aiming at Intercontinental champion or US Heavyweight champion, but I should have been writing, WWE champion. Now I write ’10-time WWE champion’.”
India has always been passionate about WWE, but it hasn’t had a top champion to represent it in the company since the Great Khali in 2008. While Khali is still a massively popular figure in the nation, there is hope that Mahal can become India’s next wrestling icon.
The pride of the Indian community
Mahal has embraced his role as a representative of the nation his family came from before he was born, and of Indian expatriates worldwide.
“Everybody is very excited. Every week I do Indian media, but also cities in North America have huge Indian populations—last week Smackdown Live was in Toronto, which has a huge Indian population and you can see the reception they gave me. Everywhere I go—I can go to the mall and see Indian people that are very excited and empowered about having an Indian WWE champion. But hopefully I’m not the last—I want to inspire the next generation of Indians to become WWE champions, or whatever their goals may be. I want to inspire the youth.”
There has been some controversy, however. Mahal’s character is villainous, and often, his long speeches in Punjabi or pronouncements of Indian pride are met with boos in front of American audiences. Just last week, Mahal brought to the ring a woman to sing the Indian national anthem on its independence day, which was loudly jeered at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Mahal, however, doesn’t see the seeming disconnect between Indian fans and non-Indian fans to be a problem.
“It was a very small negative reaction but overall everyone was very happy. I think that’s the first time that the WWE national anthem has ever been sung on such a huge platform. I think everyone was very proud that our culture has been showed. I want to make sure that everything we do is authentic, is the real thing. Very few people are offended by it.”
Mahal and McMahon
Mahal can partially attribute his successful second run in the company to his improved relationship with the company’s chairman and chief creative voice, Vincent K. McMahon.
“My relationship with Vince is great—he’s actually the first person I talk to after any match or any promo. Whereas before, my relationship with Vince wasn’t that great because I would just avoid him. Obviously Vince is very intimidating, but once you get to know him he’s very friendly and very helpful. He wants to help you. He wants to see you succeed, because when you succeed, WWE succeeds. It’s his baby, it’s his business, it’s his brainchild, and he wishes nothing but the best for it.”
From here, Mahal hopes to develop his character further, on the road to a long career at the top of the company.
I see a lot of change. Characters in WWE are constantly evolving. I want to add more depth and layers to my character maybe show a little more of my real personality. I’m kind of a funny guy, I’m fun to be around, but sometimes my character is very serious. I still have that side to show—you saw a little of that with 3MB but I think we can find more balance between the two. I just turned 31 so I feel I haven’t even hit my prime yet.”
Mahal retained the title at SummerSlam, the biggest wrestling event of this and every summer, against Shinsuke Nakamura, a man Mahal admits is a legend already, based on his years as an icon in Japan. He approaches the future with the same focused confidence that got him to the top in the first place.
“I am WWE champion, but I will go down in history as one of the all-time greats,” Mahal says.