It may have been the strangest long-term booking decision in WWE history. Jinder Mahal, career-long underneath guy, would win the WWE’s oldest and most prestigious title and hold it for nearly half a year.
Jinder Mahal, who had never once wrestled for any WWE title.
Jinder Mahal, who had never once won a match on pay-per-view.
Jinder Mahal, who once tapped out to the Brooklyn Brawler.
Jinder Mahal, whose career highlight to that point was being ringside for the WeeLC match.
Jinder Mahal becoming WWE Champion in 2017, or any other year, was unthinkable. Not “unthinkable” in the sense that, like nuclear war, it must never be considered lest it come true.
“Unthinkable” in the sense that it would never even be conceived of in the first place. True, like Noam Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” the sentence, “Jinder Mahal wins the WWE title” made grammatical sense, but what it described was so far removed from all known human experience as to be unfathomable.
Jinder takes his lumps
Before winning the WWE title, the Punjabi-speaker had spent years Pun-jobbing to the stars (and everyone else), gaining his biggest fame as a member of Heath Slater’s 3 Man Band, during which time Jinder came out on the losing end of singles or tag matches nine times out of ten.
(Pictured: Jinder Mahal losing clean to El Torito)
Before returning to WWE in August of 2016, Jinder’s last victory had come on May 16th, 2014 over Brodus Clay, at a house show in Italy, when Clay was on his way out of the company.
Before that, Jinder had last had his hand raised on November 12th, 2013, when 3MB upset Titus O’Neill, Darren Young, and R-Truth on an episode of Superstars.
They lost a rematch the same night on Smackdown.
And when Mahal made his surprise return with Heath Slater in 2016 and beat the One-Man Band in an impromptu 14-second bout, it was a gag win, part of an ongoing comedy storyline where Heath Slater was left undrafted and desperate to sign with Raw or Smackdown.
Heath was so hard on his luck, even Jinder Mahal got signed before he did!
From there, Jinder lost to Neville in 3:05, Sami Zayn in 4:00, and Darren Young in 2:14.
He did manage to upset Jack Swagger in a remarkably heatless Raw match in September, debuting his new moniker, “The Man That Comes In Peace”…
…but in storyline, the loss was such an embarrassment to Swagger that he left for Smackdown the next night (then disappeared from that show, and WWE, shortly thereafter).
Jinder instantly disappeared to Superstars and Main Event, WWE’s D-Shows, to lose to Darren Young some more. One of those D-Shows, by the way, was cancelled more than a year ago, and you didn’t even notice.
You might have forgotten about Jinder until December, when he appeared with the rest of WWE’s super-geeks to be riffed on by Enzo Amore.
And because WWE finally counted and discovered that Rusev was only one person, Jinder was assigned as the Bulgarian Brute’s designated tag team partner to feud with Enzo & Cass. Jinder usually ended up taking the pinfall.
Still, when WWE held its Royal Rumble in January and did not rank Jinder Mahal among its top 30 contenders for a world title, not a single viewer wondered, “Where’s Jinder?”
A Jinder for the Gold
So how in the world did any of this lead to a Jinder Mahal WWE title reign? Well, my best guess would be that Vince McMahon was paying attention to Enzo & Cass’s January 30th pre-match promo on Jinder & Rusev. As usual, Enzo was given license to say whatever the hell he wanted, and on this night he really wanted to work in a Carly Simon reference.
Pointing out Jinder’s new, uh, vascularity, Amore sang a few bars of “You’re So ‘Vein’” before joking that with all those protruding blood vessels running every which way, Mahal’s body looked like a road map.
“Too bad you ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Sure, yuk it up, Trash-Talker Skywalker, but Jinder would have the last laugh, and it would be at the expense of WWE’s viewers.
See, if there’s one thing Vince McMahon loves more than poop jokes, it’s big, muscular guys, even if they’re totally unexceptional in the ring or on the mic. In McMahon’s mind, by gettin’ swole, Mahal may have finally grabbed that brass ring that eludes so many WWE Superstars – even the ones fans actually care about!
Now, Jinder sure didn’t seem poised for the big time at the Wrestlemania pre-show, where fans must have figured he only lasted to the final two in the Andre Battle Royal to provide the NFL’s Rob Gronkowski with a living tackle dummy.
And after his match the following night with a returning Finn Balor where (before predictably losing in 2:45) Mahal managed to give the former Universal Champion a concussion, all Jinder seemed poised for was a pink slip.
But he managed to make it onto Smackdown the next night as part of the Superstar Shake-Up, where he did seem poised for a new role: celebrity punk-out victim. Jinder caught a Gronk drink to the face…
…en route to another loss to battle royal winner Mojo Rawley.
Thanks to said Shake-Up, though, Smackdown had recently lost much of its main event talent, including Ambrose, Miz, and Wyatt. Sure, US Champion Kevin Owens was brought over from Raw, but his first challenger was AJ Styles, tying up the only viable WWE title challenger left on the blue show.
That left Dolph Ziggler to duke it out with five guys for a title shot who had never even come close to the WWE title…
…including, of all people, resident punchline Jinder Mahal, who had never been in contention for any championship, let alone Randy Orton’s WWE title.
But thanks to his new allies the Bollywood Boys and their ability to be two extra people, Jinder won the six-way match to face Randy Orton for the WWE title at Backlash.
While Renee Young attempted to keep a straight face and interview WWE’s most unlikely #1 contender…
…champion Randy Orton interrupted the proceedings to cut a promo… on Bray Wyatt, whom he would face in the infamous House of Horrors match. Mahal stood around like an idiot until Wyatt appeared on the Tron, allowing Mahal to slip out of the segment unnoticed.
So why, the fans wondered, had an enhancement talent like Jinder Mahal been positioned out of the blue to challenge a 13-time world champion for his title? Well, besides Jinder being fairly tall and ripped to shreds, he was also Indian, albeit born and raised in Canada.
With WWE planning a tour of India for September that year…
…and with someone having explained to Vince that Jinder would be a bigger draw than Tatanka was on their ’96 Indian tour, the Modern-Day Maharaja’s ticket to the top had been stamped. All he had to do was see the ticket-taker and hold on to his stub. Or something. Look, it’s not the best analogy, but I’m not going to hammer it home for the next 170 days to try to make it work.
Mahal cost Orton the non-title House of Horrors match, then stole his belt on Smackdown, leading to this shocking, out-of-context photo that by all rights should have been passed on for future generations to puzzle over…
…much like this photo of Diana Smith holding the WWF title. But Jinder refused to be relegated to a minor curiosity in the history of the WWE title. Instead, he’d live on as a major curiosity in the history of the WWE title.
Randy and Jinder met at Backlash, where Mahal, demonstrating precisely how little forethought had gone into his main event push, entered the ring with his name poorly cropped on the Titantron in good old pre-loaded Papyrus font (which isn’t even supposed to be Indian, but Egyptian).
I feel like this entrance logo would have been more appropriate.
Thanks to extensive interference by the Bollywood Boys (now known as the Singh Brothers)…
…which hilariously sidetracked Randy Orton…
…Jinder surprised Randy with his new finisher, the Khallas, to make history as only the 6th Canadian to win the WWE championship.
And how did the live audience react to the new champion? After WWE pulled the cameras off this guy laughing, we saw that the WWE Universe was in absolute shock.
A Papyrus champion
It was the beginning of a new era for WWE: no longer would it cater to an exclusively American or Western audience. It was time for a champion who could connect with the 1.3 billion people of India. True, John Cena could speak a little Punjabi, but he wasn’t wrestling full-time anymore, so it was up to Jinder to drive up WWE Network subscriptions in India.
And the WWE Network was the only place those 1.3 billion Indians could watch Mahal defend his title against Randy Orton at Money in the Bank… except for on free TV, where all of WWE’s so-called pay-per-views also aired in India.
The title he would be defending, by the way, simply said, “Jinder Mahal”, again in Papyrus font, on the custom logo plates, as WWE had yet to come up with any marketable images for the new champion.
At MITB, Jinder defeated Randy Orton again, surviving an RKO thanks to the blatant interference of the Singh Brothers…
…whom Randy Orton tossed around like rag dolls for four minutes.
This ungodly delay allowed Jinder to recover and hit the Khallas to beat Orton in his hometown…
…in front of his dad…
…on Father’s Day. That’s how hard WWE was pushing for Jinder to be its next international star, domestic audience be damned.
This travesty paved the way for another, much greater travesty – the return of the Punjabi Prison match…
…and in honor of this occasion, the WWE Champion got a new T-shirt – his first-ever piece of merchandise.
As expected, the Punjabi Prison match was a flop. India’s answer to the Kennel From Hell had long ago proved needlessly complicated, what with its four doggy-doors and sixty-second countdowns that never affected the outcome of the match…
…but the 2017 revival managed to top both previous bouts through sheer invisibility. As if two layers of “steel-reinforced bamboo” weren’t enough to cut off the live audience from the action…
…WWE couldn’t even be bothered to display the in-ring action on their expensive new Titantron. For much of the match, fans in attendance couldn’t see what the hell was even happening — pardon my language, the WWE Universe couldn’t witness what the hell was even transpiring…
…but they never once forgot that the pay-per-view was called Battleground, just in case they couldn’t read the name of the event listed on their expensive tickets.
Once again, the Singh Brothers were the real MVPs, interjecting themselves into the match first by emerging from under the ring…
…then by crawling through the cage bars to cut off Randy from escaping over the big cage wall. See, the Singh Brothers were so small that they didn’t even need to scale the Punjabi Prison to escape it…
…but then again, so was The Viper, who himself could have slithered out through the gaps in the cage like some sort of animal.
Once again, a Singh Brother took the bump of the night, taking the big plunge off the cage through the table.
As Randy looked to bring the match to a merciful end, Great Khali’s music hit. The giant from Punjab very gradually made his way to the ring, shook the cage, and choked Randy through the bars…
…allowing the Maharaja to escape and become the first Indian to ever win a Punjabi Prison match. The much more popular Great Khali got a photo op with the WWE title and was never seen again.
And Mahal, with not a single major victory to his name without heavy interference from 2-3 other wrestlers, marched on to Summerslam…
…or, as Jerry Lawler thought he said, “Summerslam, bitch.”
At Summerslam, the WWE title match would pit Jinder Mahal against Shinsuke Nakamura in a battle of two top draws in Asia (except for Jinder).
In an attempt to garner heat for the Modern Day Maharaja, WWE put on an over-the-top celebration of India’s Independence Day, perhaps forgetting that Indian independence was Mahatma Gandhi’s life’s work.
In the build-up to the match, WWE released a training video for Mahal, where Jinder explained his work-out techniques. I’m sure he did work out really hard. I’m sure he watched what he ate, too. But that wasn’t enough to quell the rumors floating around about the origin of his new, veiny physique…
…or the acne on his chest, shoulders, and back…
…or the strange fatty growths in his pectorals that one couldn’t help but notice every single time once they’d been pointed out.
But I’m no doctor. All I know is that at Summerslam, the world’s most jacked-up Lionel Richie…
…put away Shinsuke Nakamura with yet more interference from the Singh Brothers and an alleged Khallas.
The Mahal-Nakamura feud continued into the Hell in a Cell event thanks to three weeks in a row of horribly racist promos by Jinder.
The Maharaja’s new shtick was to plaster unflattering pictures of his opponent’s mug on the Tron and say, Hey, let’s laugh at this silly Oriental’s goofy-looking face!
And what was the point of these gags, Mr. Miyagi jokes, and garbled imitations? To prove that it was Americans who were truly racist. See, Jinder was only saying what people were already thinking. Racist people, specifically.
So when Jinder joked that Shinsuke and his countrymen “feast on feline and dine on dolphin” like desperately hungry Road Warriors…
…and sent shockwaves throughout the IWC (International Whaling Commission), he was just trying to warn Shinsuke that winning the title would make him the butt of more racist jokes, this time from the American fans.
By now, September had come and gone, and WWE had yet to even formally announce any Indian tour, let alone travel there. But lo and behold, just days before Hell in a Cell, WWE confirmed the much-anticipated tour for December.
Well, calling it a “tour” would be generous; instead, WWE would put on two shows in New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium.
With Jinder and the Singhs headed to India just days after the upcoming PPV title defense to promote the events, fans knew Mahal wouldn’t be heading to the subcontinent without his title in tow.
Jinder won yet another unspectacular bout, this time with slightly less Singh involvement than usual.
Jinder is a social construct
By this point, Jinder had been champion for four and a half months and looked to be so until at least the end of the year. This, despite Mahal never having established any real character and garnering only apathy on the mic as well as in the ring. In his promos, all we learned was that Jinder spoke Punjabi, liked India, and didn’t much care for American crowds.
Fans may have initially balked at Bradshaw getting a main event push in 2004, but after one promo, they could at least tell you what the JBL character was.
But good luck trying to explain what a Modern-Day Maharaja was supposed to be, or what defining characteristics set him apart from the Jinder Mahal of old, or why Americans should hate him but Indians should love him. Just listen to the aforementioned JBL struggle to convey to the home audience what exactly Jinder Mahal was all about:
Got that? Jinder feels he is what India represents. Or else he represents what India is. Or perhaps he only symbolizes what India represents that its people are. But metaphorically.
As far as anyone could tell, Jinder was just a generic, Bella Swan-like audience avatar upon whom each of the highly-touted 1.3 billion people of India could project whatever traits they saw in themselves.
The next two months looked to be big for Jinder, who not only was slated to twice defend his WWE title in India against the shamelessly self-interested, back-stabbing prizefighter Kevin Owens (you know, a heel character), but who also dared to challenge the Beast, the Conqueror, the unstoppable Brock Lesnar to a champion vs. champion bout at Survivor Series.
It was a mis-match that no one wanted to pay to see, especially with no titles at stake. Paul Heyman verbally cut the WWE Champion down to size in a single promo, calling Mahal a “consolation prize champion” for the talent-depleted Smackdown program who wasn’t even in the league of Brock’s typical challengers.
And things only got worse for Jinder from there. He lost his title to a hot AJ Styles, despite the usual interference by the Singhs…
…got left off Survivor Series to the dismay of no one…
…and saw his much-anticipated Indian “homecoming” cut down to a single show due to poor ticket sales in the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the world. Keep in mind that WWE had managed a two-night run in the same arena about two years earlier; it appeared as if putting Jinder on top had actually hurt business in India.
And just so no one could misinterpret Mahal’s recent championship setback as an opportunity for the Maharaja to come back stronger than ever and win the title back in his fatherland, new WWE Champion AJ Styles would not even be coming to India.
Instead, Jinder would face Triple H with no titles at stake in what would promise to be The Game’s most recent match of all time.
And so, on December 9th, as the big payoff to his unprecedentedly arbitrary eight-month main event push, Jinder Mahal stepped into the ring in front of an arena 70% full of his fellow Indians…
…squared off against Triple H…
…and lost. And with that, WWE Network wrapped up their third and most ambitious season of Swerved yet.
Months after thirteen-time world champion Randy Orton jobbed on three consecutive pay-per-views to initially put over Mahal, Triple H couldn’t be bothered to let the “hometown” kid get a single non-televised win over him.
Jeez, even Hulk Hogan would (and did) put over Jacques Rougeau in Montreal if he paid him enough.
But hey, The Game had to stay looking strong for all those future India tours he’d work in the coming decades.
And as for Jinder Mahal? He was just happy to be there, bowing to the COO in gratitude.
With the India show in the can, and with WWE demonstrating its unwillingness to put Jinder over in the one match he absolutely had to win, what chance did Mahal have of winning the title back from AJ Styles at Clash of Champions, especially wh-
NO NO NO WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!?
Jinder’s world championship days look to be behind him, but there are three feats he accomplished in 2017 that no one will ever be able to take away from him:
He became the fiftieth man to win the WWE Championship…
…he made wrestling fans wonder for the first time why Joey Abs never got a world title run, and most importantly…
…he captured the 2017 Gooker Award.