On May 7, 2016, Warriors of Wrestling held an event known as Full Throttle 2016 at an amusement center in Staten Island, New York.
Unlike many Northeast independent promotions, WOW relied on mostly local talent that night with one exception. A former WWE superstar appeared in the semi-main event on the losing end of a six-man tag team match alongside Abdul Nasir, Darius Carter, JustNeph and the duo known as ABSolutely Latino.
One year and two weeks later, that former WWE superstar will square off with Randy Orton for the WWE title at WWE Backlash 2017.
In the course of fifty-four weeks, Jinder Mahal has gone from a forgotten also-ran to an enhancement talent to the number one contender for the biggest title in the biggest wrestling company on earth. It is a story that is seemingly inexplicable to both casual and hardcore fans alike.
The shock of Mahal becoming number one contender on the April 18 edition of Smackdown Live! was immediately apparent. Many fans became enraged at the idea that Jinder leaped over Luke Harper, Sami Zayn and the other competitors in the match to become Randy Orton’s next opponent. And, in fairness, many of the criticisms were understandable. Mahal had not been pushed in any real way since his return to WWE in August 2016 and was explicitly brought back to serve as an enhancement talent following the brand split. The quality of his in-ring work was questionable as not even Cesaro could produce a good match with him
Counter to these criticisms is the fact that the brand split has opened up more opportunities for new stars to emerge. Moreover, with the pressures of buy rates from pay-per-views less of a factor in the WWE Network era, WWE could take a chance on someone like Mahal without risking an erosion of their core business. Finally, with WWE attempting to expand their footprint in India, the importance of establishing Indian stars to connect with that local audience added to motivation to give Jinder a chance.
Notably, in the month since becoming Mahal became the number one contender, WWE has done a good job of building Mahal’s legitimacy.
He is been made to look strong in his encounters with Orton, been put over Sami Zayn and pinned Orton in a six man match also featuring AJ Styles, Zayn, Baron Corbin and Kevin Owens. This week, he scored his biggest win to date with a win over AJ Styles.
And while the issues with Mahal have not disappeared, a larger point can be made regarding the approach that made him the top contender.
For many years, going back to early days of the WWWF and continuing through the reigns of both Vince McMahons, the formula to build a new heel has not changed. Whether it was Bruno or Backlund or Hogan or Bret, the only variable has been the person chosen to fill the role. From there, give that person progressively bigger wins until only one person remained, the champion. The formula worked then and the formula works now.
Adding to this historical pattern is a new goal for the WWE: international expansion. The UK Tournament earlier this year made clear that the WWE’s ambitions go beyond bringing existing talent to foreign lands, but also creating unique and homegrown (or at least localized) stars across the globe. Finding these talents has and will continue be a challenge, so the ability to use an existing talent for this purpose certainly suits the company’s goals.
I am not pretending this Sunday’s match will be a classic. It will very likely not even be one of the two most important matches on the show. But, I am always in favor of trying something, anything once.
And if Jinder Mahal can rise from semi main eventing in Staten Island to battling for the WWE Title at a WWE pay-per-view in slightly over a year, then literally anything and everything is possible in WWE.