Poor, poor Jinder Mahal. The trial period is over, and WWE is not buying.
Last night at WWE Clash of Champions, AJ Styles defeated Jinder Mahal in a rematch for the WWE Championship. This was not a surprise; the surprise was actually several weeks ago, when Styles won the title from Mahal at a SmackDown taping in Manchester. It was a landmark event--it's exceedingly rare for the title to change hands at a TV taping. It's unheard of for that to happen on non-U.S. soil.
Because of the events' rarity and because AJ Styles is so respected by both critics and the general audience, it sent a clear message to the WWE fans: We're pulling the plug on Jinder Mahal. We're capping this silly, misguided experiment--of whether we can turn an enhancement talent into a main eventer overnight--at 170 days.
Ninety percent of the time, WWE builds its talents the old fashioned way. A hotshot newcomer slowly works his way through the ranks, both winning and losing (always by a close margin) to difficult opponents. Eventually, he'll either get a run with a midcard belt or with a tag team belt. This where the prospect will hone his craft, learn what works and doesn't work in the ring, and figure out how to get over. And if he exceeds that role? Then, and only then, does he get a shot at the main event.
John Cena followed this trajectory, roughly speaking, and so did Randy Orton. It works on a practical level--no one wants a champion who didn't pay his dues--but more importantly, it works on a narrative level. Fans like to see characters grow and develop from their humble beginnings. The main event is the climactic payoff to months or years of storytelling.
Every now and then, WWE engages in what I like to call "backwards booking." Rather than having a wrestler gradually work his way to the main event over several years, the writers will simply hand the title to a rookie and expect him to rise to the occasion. They did this to Jack Swagger early in his career; he won both the ECW Championship and the World Heavyweight Championship before winning any midcard titles. This also happened to Sheamus, who won the WWE title in a fluke win against John Cena--the same year that he debuted on the main roster.
Both men languished in their roles because they were completely ill-prepared for them. In a "traditional booking" scenario, the main eventers would all know how to speak, work, and get over because they had the experience of doing so at every level of their ascent. But when a talent gets a rocket strapped to him, he misses crucial steps of development that would give him the magnetism, charisma, and star power to be a main eventer. Only an exceptional wrestler could overcome those expectations.
There are rare exceptions to this traditional build. Sometimes, a monster heel will be rocketed to the upper midcard overnight based purely on his physicality; take Kane, for example. The most recent, successful example of backwards booking is when Paige won the Divas title from AJ Lee in 2014. But at least she had a decorated history in NXT to give her some notoriety. And after winning the Divas title, she turned in quality match after quality match on a weekly basis. The audience quickly got on the same page with her, pun intended.
But, usually, this booking strategy fails spectacularly. And Jinder Mahal was at the bottom of the bottom of the card when he started his title push. Prior to earning the No. 1 contendership for the WWE Championship in April 2017, Mahal regularly fought against Curtis Axel on the lower card. Prior to February, he had a 3-month losing streak. He picked up one win against Darren Young in November 2016; his only win before that was in September. Mahal also lost during this time period to Mojo Rawley, Big Show, Big Cass, Neville, and R-Truth. He had nothing, no notable wins on his resume, to rationalize a shot at the title, let alone the title itself.
Once they put the belt on him, the writers stuck him with the most tired, hoary gimmick possible: the Evil Foreigner who growls at the camera. That's not bad as a starting point; Rusev started as the "Bulgarian Brute," and now, he's the funniest guy on WWE SmackDown. However, Rusev had years to develop his eccentricities and put his own spin on the character. Mahal had none of that time to develop, thanks to backwards booking. So he played his role straight--like an '80s throwback villain who proclaimed the greatness of his home country and whined about being discriminated against.
In addition, the writers booked him like a complete loser. Every time he won, it was because his minions, the Singh Brothers, were jumping on the apron, yanking him out from the ring, or holding on to his opponents' legs. Simply put, Mahal is way too big and way too muscular to be helped out that much. Not every heel needs to cheat, especially a man of Mahal's size. Yes, Yokozuna had Mr. Fuji cheat for him. But Mahal is no Yokozuna, and even Yokozuna would squash a few local talents every now and then.
There was one last humiliation before this past Sunday. Triple H faced off against Mahal in India last week, and not only did Triple H win, but this happened:
WWE has been trying to make inroads to India over the past year; in fact, it's rumored that Mahal's entire push was built around that. And now, they're not only having Mahal lose in India, but they're also having him subjugate himself to his boss and opponent? There is no non-problematic way of interpreting this.
On Talking Smack, Styles said, quite rightly, that he was done with Mahal. What can Mahal do next? Does he feud for the United States title? Does he hang around the upper midcard for a awhile? He's kind of directionless; his entire gimmick was being the first WWE champion of Indian descent. Now that he no longer is, he's got nowhere to go. And true, he is one of 50 men who can say he was WWE champion. Very few men can claim that, and no one could ever take that away from him. But he'll probably never hold a title (even a midcard one) ever again. And he has WWE, rather than himself, to thank for that.