Mustafa Ali wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to walk down the ramp at WrestleMania. He wasn’t supposed to be featured on television as part of WWE’s 205 Live program. He wasn’t supposed to be wrestling every week in 1.5 million homes. Mustafa Ali has never done BOLA. Mustafa Ali has never been on EVOLVE (one time in Dragon Gate USA) He hasn’t toured England or Japan. You have never seen Mustafa Ali at Joey Janela’s Spring Break. He isn’t part of Being the Elite, nor he is a viral sensation like PCO or Nick Gage. He isn’t one of the top tier marque names like Matt Riddle or Keith Lee.
Mustafa Ali isn’t supposed to be the best babyface in wrestling. But he is.
What started as happenstance—CMLL superstar Zumbi was unable to get a visa in time for the WWE Cruiserweight Classic—turned into an incredible opportunity for Ali. A 13-year veteran out of Chicago, Ali has wrestled for IWA Mid-South, Dreamwave, Jersey All Pro Wrestling and a host of other regional indies. A relative unknown, even at the indie scene, the Illinois native worked as a police officer alongside his wrestling aspiration. “I became an officer to make change. I hated people abusing their power so I tried to bring change from within the system.“ said Ali in a tweet. “[It] sucked, man. There were days I’d wrestle at 9 o’clock, and afterward, I often didn’t shower and would just throw on sweatpants [before showing up to work]”. When WWE came calling, he used his saved vacation days and took a trip to Orlando for a tournament to showcase Cruiserweight talent.
His first match (a corker of a six-minute match against CHIKARA stalwart Lince Dorado) soon transformed the patrolman’s passion into his full-fledge career.
Signing to the WWE after the CWC, Mustafa Ali soon found himself among other stand-outs like Noam Dar, Drew Gulak and Gentleman Jack Gallagher, talents that had far and away more busy coming in from their respective indie scene than Ali, as part of the 205 Live roster.
The less said about early Vince-helmed 205, the better. The same tropey storytelling that one found in RAW and SmackDown can be seen in those episode, with Vince’s impression on Scottish Supernova Noam Dar’s producing the juvenile “ALICIA FAAAAAUX” and Drew Gulak’s obsession with powerpoint presentation being the best examples of a Vince idea that can be entertaining in it’s own way, but ultimately not right for the brand moving forward.
Still, even in those days, there’s something special about Mustafa Ali.
His face turn (originally presented as an cocky Muhammad Hassan-lite) was a subtle course correction. Here we are presented with a subtle progressive step in the right direction. A first generation Pakistani-American who has not been embittered by the treatment of Muslim Americans. Someone you would have a beer with (if he drank) or have a hot dog with (or you could have the hot dog and he’ll watch. Mustafa doesn’t judge). A wrestler who acknowledges his background, but refuses to let preconceptions bar his path. Quietly, Mustafa Ali became the most purely traditional and equally revolutionary character on WWE TV. A 21st Century Common Man, a la’ Dusty Rhodes. Talent, smart, capable, and humble; a good man with a good heart trying to his best by everyone.
Even wrestling in one of the worst goddamn fatal four-ways on the WWE network (205 Live Fright Night Fatal Four-way from October last year), there’s an electricity that comes off of Ali. There’s pure joy on his face, as he looks around at the shattered bits of pumpkin, splatters of pie, and the remnants of a broomstick that he had used during an assisted dropkick, that reads clear on-screen. Even Ali is like “Man, this is ridiculous”. Mustafa Ali popped off screen every week, showing up day-in and day out to a show that most fans had written off as this generation’s Velocity. While He-Whose-Rap-Video-Will-Not-Be-Watched was crowned the Cruiserweight champion in a last-ditch effort to boost ratings, Ali was right there, putting on matches after matches, after matches, the definition of a good hand.
Then something happen.
There was a regime change. Drake Maverick (who looks a lot like a former ring crew member at PROGRESS shows) introduced a new tournament to crown a champion after the old title was “mysteriously” left vacant and suddenly the show shifted from “Sports Entertainment” to “Wrestling”. 205 Live became a showcase of the best pure workers the company half to offer. This was top indie talent working a relaxed WWE style and matches they had could only really be rivaled by Seth Rollins’ astonishing Intercontinental title run of the flagship show (there’s a whole ‘nother column about WWE’s misuse of what is potentially the greatest roster of wrestling talent of tall time). In one eight week period, over the course of 8 hours, 205 Live breathed new light, culminating at the Wrestlemania pre-show. While WrestleMania itself proved to a bloated, uninspired affair with few high spots, the Ali/Alexander match that precede the main show was connected and emotional.
Both men screamed “Heart” and “Soul” intermittently, like characters in a Japanese samurai melodrama. Some found it overwrought, but anyone who is familiar with Japanese anime would feel right at home with characters yelling out their internalized purpose. It’s here we can note that Mustafa Ali’s ring-gear, a blend of Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero and Iron Man’s arc reactor with a glowing half-mask that pulsated with a rainbow spectrum of light. Ali’s promos, always captivating, stepped into the palaver of superheroics. “Be the good you wish to see in this world. Be the light for those in the dark.” Ali tweets, with all the forthright hope of T’Challa or Steve Rogers in The Avengers: Infinity War. The use of the word “We” appears in Ali’s work, impressing upon us a virtue. It’s not Ali who is succeeding. It’s “Us”. All of us working together, progressing forward, achieving our dreams. Ali’s dream isn’t simply being a world champion, being a legend in his field, or getting the accolades for matches. Ali’s dream is a world where his kids won’t be judge by their last name, or his wife won’t be looked at for the hijab she wears or the God his family prays to.
Yes, his motivation may seem a little outsized (I mean, he is a wrestler), but how media portrays men like Mustafa Ali outside of wrestling. Muslim actors of color have a hard time presenting themselves as anything other than stereotypical terrorist or grocery store owner. Only recently where actors like Kumail Nanjiani able to break out of stereotypes through the Big Sick (which oftentimes meaning that people of colors having to wear multiple hats to even create the opportunities for themselves in the first place).
Wrestling, as the red-headed stepchild of media, have historically played only to the lowest common denominators when it comes to people of color (to quote the Netflix show G.L.O.W “It’s wrestling, everything is offensive”), is still widely viewed amongst a segment of the population that Hollywood doesn’t talk to. For many, wrestling is an outlet for a wider world that they may never interact with, and for Mustafa Ali to be presented as a benevolent man who fights for what’s right against the odds, as a Pakistani-American, is a huge step forward for the same company that still thinks big men in dress are funny.
Growing up as a brown kid, I distinctly remember the impression the Los Boricuas made on me on WWE TV. Here were Hispanic men (granted, they were Puerto Rican and not Dominican), who were presented as from the streets but were ultimately embraced by their fan for their loyalty to one another and their desire to represent their barrio.
In Mustafa Ali, I see a Pakistani kid seeing a valued hero that wears his face. With every Eid Mubarak that is handed out via Twitter to the never-say-die attitude that is currently making 205 Live an amazing show to follow, Mustafa Ali plays an important road for P.O.C representation in media. Wrestling is a mass-media gateway to culture, to understanding. Wrestling can be a powerful tool for diversity, because at its core wrestling is for everyone.
Mustafa Ali reminds us that everyone can be noble, everyone can be special, everyone can do the right thing. You don’t have to be a six foot tall former MMA fighter swarmed in tattoos. You don’t have to look like a Greek statue come to life. You don’t have the daughter of a legend or a physically dominate Amazon. You can build a better path for the people that will come after you. You just have to get in there and do the work, every night.
You have to build it, brick by brick.