The current WWE Champion brings to mind wrestling's disreputable carney vibe of old.
In the New York Times story on WWE Champion Jinder Mahal that ran before last weekend’s SummerSlam, Mahal remembered how an in-ring promo he cut on Randy Orson put him on the map.
“Randy, you’re just like all of these people!” Mr. Dhesi [Mahal] said, shooting his opponent a piercing glare. “You disrespect me because I look different! You disrespect me because of your arrogance and your lack of tolerance!”
He was wearing a turban. And then he spoke Punjabi. The crowd expressed its disapproval.
“The reaction was great; I heard the crowd that day,” Mr. Dhesi said. “I was elevated to star status just within that one promo.”
According to the story, Vince McMahon suggested the shift toward an immigrant’s perspective, and while it did the trick, it put the WWE in a tricky spot where it seems to be courting xenophobia. On the last Smackdown Live before SummerSlam, Mahal brought out Bhangra dancers and a woman to sing the National Anthem of India to celebrate Indian Independence Day. Audience members who boo Mahal then booed the culture he rode in on, which brought them uncomfortably close to proving Mahal’s initial charge in the Orton promo true. Technically, it was all heat for Mahal, but it was hard to watch at home and get around the visual of the audience booing this small woman singing in the ring.
In many ways, Mahal is a big step forward for the WWE, which for decades never met a stereotype it couldn’t exploit. He and the Singh Brothers don’t look like throwbacks to old movies, and they get heat because of how they behave more than because of who they are. Mahal seems unworthy, unable to win without the help of the Singh Brothers or The Great Khali, and nothing pisses off fans more than someone unworthy holding the title. His undeserved arrogance only makes it worse.
But he also seems like a step back to wrestling's sideshow roots because Mahal's foreignness is central to his heat. In the Age of Trump, that feels dicey. Central to Trump’s rhetoric is the idea that America’s getting screwed and the rest of the world doesn’t respect us. An unworthy Indian champion who condescends when he talks to Americans lines up with that thinking disturbingly well, and when Mahal speaks to his own people in Punjabi, the audience always takes it as a dismissal. That gesture is problematic because it makes the moment about Indians and not just Mahal, and it’s the one that nightly prompts a response that feels intolerant of difference and not intolerant of Mahal.
The most modern twist in Mahal’s story is how it exists in an Internet world. The WWE has made no secret of its desire to crack the Indian market, which makes Mahal’s championship reign seem like a corporate decision rather than one earned in the ring. It doesn’t help that Mahal spent three undistinguished years in the WWE before being dropped in 2014. When he was given another chance, he started as a jobber then got a championship match without working his way up the ladder. As a jobber, his role was to make others look good in relatively short matches. In the ring now, Mahal appears to be convincingly powerful, but he doesn’t have the experience to create and perform main event-calibre matches. That only adds to his heat.
At SummerSlam, he beat Shinsuke Nakamura with help from the Singh Brothers, so this week on Smackdown Live, Nakamura took on the Singh Brothers in a handicap match during which he got revenge on them and eventually Mahal. I hope Nakamura can have a more interesting program with Mahal than Randy Orton did for all of our sakes.
- At SummerSlam, Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Braun Strowman vs. Samoa Joe was the best kind of 10-car collision. I’m not normally a big guy fan in wrestling, but this match was exactly what they’re there for. Lesnar won, and it looks like he’ll face Strowman at No Mercy, the next pay-per-view.
- On Smackdown Live, Bobby Roode made his debut. Everything about him says “heel,” but the audience for over for him Tuesday night, as much because of the excitement of a much-anticipated new guy as for the actual match.
- On Raw, the crater that is Jason Jordan continued to kill crowds. This week, an audience sat on its hands as he faced Finn Bálor and only cared when Bálor finished him off. The WWE has to be playing some long game with Jason Jordan because this last month as Kurt Angle’s illegitimate son has been a wipeout.
- John Cena moved to Raw to face Roman Reigns. Now the fans will have two wrestlers in one match that they’re split on.
- At SummerSlam, guest referee Shane McMahon got way too involved in the Kevin Owens/A.J. Styles match, getting bumped, tripped and hit because he was too damned close much of the time. On Tuesday, Owens got one last chance at Styles’ belt and got to pick his own referee—Baron Corbin, who did himself some good by being an arrogant prick. When he quit the match after McMahon accused him of quick-counting and missing an obvious low blow, McMahon once again put on the referee shirt—ewww, after someone else had sweated in it?—just in time for Styles to pin Owens. I love everything about Kevin Owens and how distraught he was at the end of the match, but I wish it didn’t look like he’s going to get into something with Shane McMahon.