Jinder Mahal is WWE World Champion. You can admit it: even when he won the number one contender’s match for this opportunity at Backlash, you never actually thought you’d see those words before you. This is where we are, though, and while no one can quite agree on the reason that Mahal rose from jobber to the top of WWE in a single pay-per-view cycle, whatever that specific reason is barely matters. The fact Jinder is champion is huge on its own, as are the reasons for why that’s the case.
The most accepted take for why Jinder Mahal is WWE World Champion has to do with WWE’s push into India. In a world where television ratings are continually on the decline, finding new markets for money is key. WWE has tried this with YouTube, with the WWE Network, and as you can see by their continued push to make territories out of entire weight classes and countries, by expansion abroad as well.
This globalism was inevitable, but it’s also not necessarily a negative. If WWE is trying to appeal to viewers in India, that means WWE cares about what a country that isn’t primarily made up of white people is thinking about their product. Yes, WWE knows that line of thought can make them money and it’s likely that’s their primary motivator here, but they’re a business. Wrestling is a business. That goes for a billion-dollar juggernaut like WWE all the way down to the local indie that only has talent from surrounding towns showing up.
Yes, even the little indie that could wants to grow to include the county, the state, the region, and eventually, into a giant promotion just like WWE. (Except, you know, cool, with uh, no selling out and stuff.) Said indie would (and does) absolutely book champions and winners they think are going to make them money and allow them to continue to survive and grow. So why is it a negative when WWE does that?
You could argue that those companies wouldn’t do something so blatant as bring a jobber to the top of the company, but WWE is telling an intriguing story here, one with more layers than maybe many of us are giving them credit for (or, more cynically, whether WWE knows it or not). Mahal is the bad guy in our eyes, but we’re looking at this through the traditional WWE lenses, which happen to be fitted for white people. Nadir Shirazi wrote a piece on Jinder’s win that explained how Mahal is no villain to him or other western millenials of color: he’s the hero, because he’s speaking truth that clashes with the sensibilities of its primary audience — white fans.
To WWE’s current primary audience — and by that, I mean white people — Jinder is the villain. To those who have been othered by WWE — and that’s a very long list — his promos, where he explains that audiences don’t like him because he’s not the things they think of him as being just because of who he is and where he’s from, are full of truth. And really, just like when Rusev was essentially a babyface who loved his country and loved his wife and thought Americans were an arrogant, ignorant people, Jinder is the one who is right here. Don’t agree? Just listen to those boos.
Jinder, in many ways, is the face here. We’re the villain. You could argue that Jinder cheats because he has to, because WWE never allows those who have been othered to win by traditional means, and especially not to this degree. He joined up with the Singh Brothers, who know all the same stings he does, and now they’re a seemingly unstoppable trio with a hold on WWE’s most coveted prize. It’s certainly better than this being yet another round of the evil foreigner trope in wrestling, which, given WWE’s history, it certainly could be.
WWE’s history at the top of their card is primarily white. The WWE World Championship was initially introduced in 1963, and there have been an individual 49 champions. Just nine of them were anything other than white: the Puerto Rican Pedro Morales, Japan’s Antonio Inoki, Iran’s Iron Sheik, Yokozuna — representing Japan but billed as Polynesian — as well as another member of the Anoi family, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Latinos Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and Alberto Del Rio, another American Samoan in Roman Reigns, and now Canadian-born but of Indian descent, Jinder Mahal.
Inoki had the belt for six days after winning it in Japan, sandwiched between Bob Backlund reigns that WWE considers to be uninterrupted and also over 2,000 days long. The Iron Sheik would win in 1983, for all of 28 days. Rey Mysterio wasn’t an evil foreigner — he was one of the most popular wrestlers in WWE and in the world — but that only earned him less than an entire episode of RAW as champion before John Cena came in and took what was considered to be his championship back.
The Rock (who is also black, and the only black WWE World Champion to this day) and Roman Reigns are basically the exceptions in terms of being allowed to have lengthy reigns and more than just one or two, though, it should be noted that Guerrero’s lone reign was 133 days long — not terribly short by today’s standards.
Which bin is Jinder going to end up in? He’s unlikely to have a reign of notable length — he’s not holding this thing down until WrestleMania 34 — but he’s not even being challenged to a rematch by Randy Orton until June 13 in New Orleans, so he has at least that long. If Mahal manages to defend it, then he’ll have another shot at losing it on June 18. Should he successfully hold onto the WWE World Championship then, there’s another month-plus until Battleground, the pay-per-view before SummerSlam.
It’s to be seen if Mahal will hold onto the title that long, but if he ends up losing it at Battleground, that means he has a couple of title defenses behind him as well as multiple pay-per-view cycles to play his character and go through an actual arc. And if he somehow makes it through Battleground as champ? Then that’s a relatively hefty reign, especially considering how quickly he rose from jobber to champ. And he would be, historically, in a better place than most non-white champs have been in WWE.
And that would be a good thing. WWE’s history is primarily white. For all the attention to diversity, with New Day thriving and women — especially women of color — being given more time and that brief moment where nearly every champion in the company was black, the present is pretty white, too, at least in the main event scene.
The assortment of Women’s titles have always been better about diversity, and that’s continued into today, where Bayley, Sasha Banks, Naomi, Nia Jax, and more are in the spotlight. The World Heavyweight Championship, which has been combined with the WWE Championship, has a more diverse history than the belt it shares real estate with, but none of those champs were ever the WWE Champion when they held a title.
The actual WWE Championship, the one with the 49 different winners and not many of them anything other than white, has had an issue with diversity, and historically made it nearly impossible for someone like Jinder Mahal to win it. He’s holding it now, though, and that’s potentially good news for the future.
Did Mahal “deserve” this? That’s a lengthy debate that gets into some uncomfortable territory, especially since we’re talking about scripted television. What we do know, though, is that WWE didn’t force Jinder to be the absolute best, cannot miss wrestler in order to stick him at the top at a time when it made sense for the company to do so. They’ve ignored plenty of wrestlers who shouldn’t have been ignored in the past because they weren’t your traditional — meaning white — idea of a WWE Champion, regardless of how much sense it made to give them the spot.
That’s, in an odd way, encouraging: WWE recognized the value of a non-white performer without said performer having to jump through a million hoops and earn cheers for years to get that recognition from above. That’s not how these things traditionally work: instead, Jinder is being given the chance to deliver on promise he hasn’t shown he can fulfill yet, which wouldn’t be odd for a white champion given the sudden rocket push, but it’s certainly out of the ordinary for those deemed “others” by WWE and many of its fans.
Jinder winning like this helps open the door for Kofi Kingston, for Big E, for Shinsuke Nakamura, and even for someone like Rusev, whose accent and pride in his country previously forced him up against the foreigner version of a glass ceiling regardless of how incredible he was. And that’s just when we’re talking about SmackDown’s roster, never mind what happens with RAW performers who switch brands or future wrestlers of color who come to WWE.
That is, of course, assuming WWE does the right thing here, and tells this story to a satisfying conclusion instead of just hotshotting the title right back to Orton in mid-June, less than a month after what could be a real turning point for WWE’s most prestigious title.
If Jinder gets a legitimate reign and his career is turned around because of this win, and WWE doesn’t just use this as a brief way to get India to notice them, then this is going to be more than just a symbolic victory or the latest capitalistic trend. It’s going to change how non-white fans perceive both WWE and the career prospects of the wrestlers they relate to, it’s going to bring WWE to a place where they should have been years ago. It’s going to make WWE look more like the place it should strive to be, and that’s something we should all be getting behind, whether we identify directly with Jinder Mahal or not.