Author: Ayman Farid
At this point in time, there may honestly be no stereotype more overused, well-known, and outdated in wrestling than that of the foreign heel. From the Iron Sheiks and Nikolai Volkoffs of the past, to the more modern Muhammad Hassans and Rusevs, the foreign heel is a trope that, if nothing else, gets consistent heat like few other gimmicks can. Jinder Mahal, Vince McMahon’s most recent spur-of-the-moment pet project, is an excellent example of this. The man went from getting crickets as a lowly jobber to getting constant heat as the WWE champion whom nobody wanted to see. Given that the man was a heel, and getting legitimate heel reactions nowadays can be nearly impossible due to the increased insider knowledge of the business that the internet has brought us, that evolution is nothing to sneeze at. However, just because the gimmick was successful at garnering heel heat doesn’t mean that it was a beneficial gimmick to use overall.
Simply put, the fact that WWE still relies on this crutch after 30+ years of successful usage signifies to me a huge reluctance to take a step forward and innovate. For Mahal’s case in particular, the main issue I had with the push was that it could’ve actually made for some quite great TV. As previously mentioned, getting actual boos and jeers as a heel has become something of a rarity nowadays, and for that, Mahal deserves plaudits. However, the story WWE told could’ve been so much more interesting and fresh if they hadn’t overly relied on the whole “he’s a brown guy, be scared of him” trope.
To add insult to injury, there was a wonderful storyline WWE could’ve done that was basically built into Mahal’s return. Returning looking as ripped and rejuvenated as he did, WWE could’ve easily told the tale that he was tired of being taken as a joke, and of nobody ever treating him seriously. He could’ve come back just as bitterly and angrily as he did, only with a take that was much more modern and realism-oriented, rather than one that was implicitly racist and regressive. In fact, this had potential to be one of the best stories in years. A heel who was a complete loser, then takes a short break, comes back with two lackeys, and conquers the company? That’s compelling right there.
To delve into the realm of fantasy booking a little bit more, let’s analyze how WWE could’ve made this work. For me, leading up to his match with Randy Orton at Backlash, there was nothing wrong with how Mahal was being treated. With his incredibly impressive new look (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the whole steroid thing), new music, and new henchmen, Jinder truly did feel refreshed, a welcome change of character from a man who had previously been one of the most lackluster jobbers the company had to offer. However, once they started playing up the racial element of his gimmick, it went from feeling fresh and innovative to something we’ve seen a thousand times before. How hard would it have been to simply let him win almost every match by cheating, and then rub it in the fans’ faces like a classic heel? Since Mahal isn’t some indie darling, or the best in-ring worker in the company, he would’ve still been absolutely booed out of the building (and drawn much more true heel heat than AJ Styles ever did—which isn’t a knock on Styles, it’s just the way the business is nowadays). He could’ve cut promo after promo about how the fans never believed in him, and now that he’s succeeding at the very top of the business, he’s proving us all wrong.
That sort of deluded heel character certainly has been done before, but very rarely has it been done by someone who went through the type of transformation that Mahal did—from being almost literally the bottom guy in the company to, ostensibly, the top. A metamorphosis that incredible could certainly have provided fans with a fresh, legitimately compelling storyline of an underdog who succeeded in spite of the fans, not because of them. Instead of a fresh, interesting new storyline to keep the product hot in the post-WrestleMania months, however, fans have been treated to yet another reminder that WWE can be dangerously reluctant to move on from antiquated elements of the business that are not only incompatible with a growing global audience, but are also simply far less entertaining than they could be.