Generally in pro wrestling, the champion should legitimize the title, and not the other way around. That is to say, the man or woman holding the championship should be A) talented enough to keep it, and B) should truly relish being the champion so much that everybody else wants to be in that spot. Sometimes, however, companies say "fuck it" and throw the world championship on someone clearly not ready to carry such a mantle to see what happens.
Sometimes, this works out better than expected. I don’t think anybody considers JBL one of the greatest WWE Champions of all time, but his sudden ascent from tag division mainstay to the top of the SmackDown brand was surprisingly interesting, and delivered a great payoff when John Cena was finally able to dethrone JBL, winning his first world title and propelling him to the stratosphere. WWE tried to recreate this result throughout the 2000s with its World Heavyweight Championship, putting it on everybody from Jack Swagger to Dolph Ziggler in hopes that it would jump start their careers. It didn’t.
Where does now former WWE Champion Jinder Mahal fall on this spectrum? Well, it’s not great.
When Jinder Mahal shockingly defeated Randy Orton to become WWE Champion at Backlash earlier this year, I was willing to give it a chance. He came back to WWE completely reinvented, with an astounding physique befitting of a WWE Champion (how he acquired that physique is certainly up for debate), and the rags-to-riches story would be a unique one to tell. Unfortunately, WWE instead relied on one of their most tired tropes, as the Indian Superstar began deriding the American audience as being beneath his rich culture and heritage.
(Yes, I know Jinder Mahal is Canadian. But he’s also Indian. If you think Jinder isn’t Indian, you must also think The Rock isn’t actually Samoan because he was born in California.)
Saddled with a gimmick that went out of style in the 1980s and still not being all that great of an in-ring wrestler, Jinder Mahal’s six month reign felt like it went on for six years. WWE was hesitant to pull the trigger on the monstrous Mahal and make him appear truly dominant, so they instead opted on ending nearly every match he had on interference from the Singh Brothers, the only other Indian talents in the company.
Mahal is the 50th WWE Champion in history, and going through the list of names to hold the title before him, his is truly out of place. The WWE Championship is the most prestigious pro wrestling title in the world, and thinking of its history evokes names like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Even more transitional, less celebrated champions like Rob Van Dam and Sheamus are clearly in a class above that of Jinder Mahal. The stature I can most closely compare Mahal to is that of Alberto Del Rio, and even he, though ultimately unsuccessful, was pushed to the moon for years.
So why did they do it? Outside of the catchphrase that "anything can happen in the WWE" and even touting SmackDown Live as "the land of of opportunity," the obvious answer is the 1.3 billion people living in India. Every global corporation, reaching saturation in their original markets, are marching ever closer to world domination, squeezing profit out of every corner of the earth. It’s the main reason Apple and many other tech companies have been so keen on China for the past couple years, for instance. WWE needs more subscribers for the WWE Network, and it looks like the US and European markets have about yielded all they are going to. India has 1.3 billion potential Network subscribers, and already a huge professional wrestling fanbase. Jinder’s recent tour of India was filled with Mahal glad-handing with some of the country’s most prevalent celebrities, and there’s no doubt that they created at least some new fans out of the endeavor.
WWE is touring India next month, and while big name stars like Roman Reigns are among the most popular in the country, Jinder Mahal is up there as well. Unless WWE pulled a swerve on us for no reason (which could easily be the case), it appeared as if they were originally planning on running with Mahal vs. Lesnar for Survivor Series and eking out another month of his reign to get him to India as the champ. The most cynical wrestling fans will say Jinder dropping the title now is simply a way to allow him to regain it in front of his home country, allowing for a monster pop and a memorable moment for the Maharaja.
That’s certainly a possibility. But for now, the Jinder Mahal experiment appears to be over. Mahal has many of the makings of a WWE Champion: he has an excellent, unique look, an entourage, is decent on the mic, and his theme song and floor trons combine to make for one of the best entrances in all of WWE. However, there’s just that "it" factor missing, that intangible je ne sais quoi that separates the Ric Flairs of the world from the…well, Jinder Mahals. With AJ Styles once again representing the show, it feels as if a cloud has been lifted over SmackDown Live. The top prize on the show and indeed, in the industry, can once again be the main focus of the show instead of a failed experiment.
In the end, as it rarely does, the title did not make the man. Don’t get me wrong — Jinder is in a far better spot than he was before winning the WWE Championship, and is legitimately a character worth keeping around. I’d love to see him go for the United States Championship — it’s a level more suited for his talents, and his "you people" schtick is a natural fit for a title representing America. But compared with the greats who’ve held WWE’s top prize before him, Jinder just doesn’t stack up. And not even 1.3 billion potential Network subscribers can change that.