The WWE Universe can be a fickle thing. Jinder Mahal had the longest championship reign of the last two years heading into SmackDown Live on Tuesday night — an evening that saw him in the main event against A.J. Styles.
Just days away from Survivor Series (and a date with Brock Lesnar), the two men clashed in a physical confrontation that saw Mahal get the better of Styles early. It was the kind of work we’ve come to expect from the Modern Day Maharaja; slow, bruising and methodical.
It was a well-booked match, with Styles trying to get in offense early on, only to be quickly cut off by the bigger, stronger Mahal. The Phenomenal One was eventually ready to get rolling, however, and we now have a new champion on SmackDown Live.
Barring another title change, this sets up what can only be described as a tough-to-book dream match between former UFC heavyweight champion Lesnar and Styles. We know what’s next for A.J., but what’s next for Mahal?
If the WWE is smart — and sometimes they aren’t — then they won’t waste the time and energy they put into Mahal’s title run. There’s no denying that fans in North America despised him as champion. His promos were condescending and he used deplorable tactics to beat opponents who were viewed as more legitimate, talented and deserving.
That is to say that he was an actual heel at a time when the art of generating real heat seems to be a dying art form. These days, a lot of fans like cheering for the bad guys. That’s because the supposed heels aren’t really all that unlikable. Even when Kevin Owens is power bombing helpless opponents onto the ring apron or jumping Chris Jericho, he’s still charismatic.
Mahal is anything but, and that’s a valuable resource that the creative team would be prudent to continue to tap into. He isn’t despised because he was the champion — though it certainly didn’t hurt matters. He was abhorred because of his tactics and, more than anything, because he comes across as such a good “evil foreigner” heel.
That gimmick is a dime a dozen. It’s a character Vince McMahon has washed and reused countless times. The effort didn’t feel flat with Mahal, though. We’ve seen this kind of heel before, but Mahal’s portrayal was real enough that it wasn’t difficult for even the “smartest” of fans to hate him.
He’s unique because no matter what kind of devotee you are, you’ll still dislike him. Smart marks loathe him because they remember he was part of 3MB and because he’s never been an indie darling like Styles. Casual fans reject him because he plays his character so well. You don’t need to have decades of watching wrestling under your belt to know who the bad guy is supposed to be when Mahal is in the ring. He just… is.
That’s why, despite losing the belt to Styles on Tuesday night, Mahal shouldn’t be relegated to the bottom of the card and written off as a failed experiment. Fans are always clamoring for new wrestlers to be given opportunities and the 31-year-old took the ball he was handed and ran with it.
Of course, you didn’t enjoy it. You weren’t supposed to. Mahal is a rare real-deal heel — there’s nothing tweener about him — and the WWE would be wise to keep him involved in meaningful feuds moving forward.