The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff
In my preview piece for Backlash, I admitted that I wouldn't be surprised if Jinder Mahal actually won the WWE Championship from Randy Orton. I didn't think it was a wise decision, but WWE did in fact make a man who, even with his recent push, is 11-40 in WWE this year (in fact, since 2010 Mahal has never won more than 38 percent of his matches in a given year), the WWE Champion. Up untilh is astonishing, out-of-left-field push, Mahal had been the very definition of a jobber, a guy who lost matches quickly to other talent that WWE was looking to establish. Now over the span of a month, he has gone from modern-day Steve Lombardi to the holder of the most prestigious championship in all of professional wrestling.
The rapid push and coronation of Mahal has created a cascade of responses from fans, many of whom cannot fathom the lightning ascent of someone who up until last month, did not have a known finishing maneuver. At the very least, Mahal has created a sense of intrigue within WWE, a lot of which can be taken as a negative, but it is intrigue nonetheless.
WWE has in the past, when short on talent, pushed guys rapidly into the title picture. The most well-known is the push of John Layfield in 2004. Layfield had been a veteran best known for his tag team work with Ron Simmons in the APA and had the gimmick of beer-drinking tough brawler. In a flash Layfield was repackaged as a New York City millionaire who embodied the characteristics of a sleazy politician and suddenly became WWE Champion and held that title for months. At first fans couldn't believe a former mid-card wrestler had rapidly climbed the ladder to being the world champion, but as time went on the JBL character caught on and thanks to working with some really talented babyfaces like Eddie Guerrero, Booker T and The Undertaker, JBL became a success. In a lot of ways, the rise of Mahal mimics the rise of JBL, and theoretically could find similar success.
There are however, key differences between Mahal and Layfield. While Layfield had always been a mid-card wrestler, he was far more established than Mahal. Layfield had been a champion in the tag team division and been in the company for nearly ten years and had been positioned as tough and competitive, if unspectacular performer. Mahal was not in the mid-card, he was a jobber who almost never won on PPV, in fact his victory at Backlash may very well be the first PPV victory of his career. In addition, while Mahal has added elements to his character recently, most notably the Singh brothers as his lackeys, he remains largely the same character he was before his push, an arrogant rich guy. Layfield's transformation was a complete 180 from his previous character, he was a completely different person and it could be easily believed that he had found success using this new formula.
In a vacuum, I don't really dislike the way Mahal has been presented. The Singh brothers have helped him win matches, they did a nice job with his championship celebration, he makes good faces in the ring and they have let him pick up wins over top stars. The issue most fans have with Mahal is the rocket that was strapped to his back on his way to the top. Instead of slowly building up his character with wins over mid-card guys, he immediately jumped to the main event and won the world championship. Over a longer period of time it is entirely possible that fans would respect Mahal as a credible champion, but that option was never presented. Instead WWE threw their fans headfirst into the era of Jinder Mahal with little prior warning.
Some might argue that since Mahal is a heel, you are not supposed to like him and therefore he is doing a great job cultivating heat. I don't buy that because fans are not necessarily upset with Mahal and his character, but rather the push that he is getting towards superstardom. If it was Mahal's character getting under the fans skin and drawing all the heat it would be one thing, but Mahal's character and his promos and the fact that he cheats to win are just ancillary details in the fans hatred of Mahal; if Mahal was swapped with say, Erick Rowan or Curt Hawkins or Curtis Axel or David Otunga, the reaction to them would be largely the same.
Mahal's biggest issue is that at the end of the day; he just doesn't come across as being someone who is very talented. His promos have been the same "You don't like me because I'm different and I'm not American" which have been done to death by every foreign heel in the history of wrestling and he hasn't expressed much charisma beyond that. In the ring he is mediocre at best, and that limits the quality of the matches he can be in. Say whatever you want about guys like Roman Reigns and John Cena, but the fact is they have been in a many, many more great matches than Mahal.
Of course the (Indian) elephant in the room is the fact that Mahal is of Indian decent and WWE believes that by pushing him they can help find success in the Indian market. This, more than anything, is the reason for Mahal's swift ascension to WWE gold. Sure, Triple H can say things like he is really impressed how Mahal left the company, improved outside of it and came back a star and compare him to Drew McIntyre; but the fact is McIntyre couldn't get on the NXT TakeOver show and Mahal is now WWE Champion, so something else is definitely in play here.
I do have a degree in journalism but I do not have a degree in global economics, however I will do my best to break things down about WWE trying to take advantage of the Indian market and using Mahal as a tool to do that. What we do know is that India does play an important role in WWE's globalization strategy; according to Dave Meltzer they have more social media followers from India than any other country. Social media followers are WWE's favorite metric to rationalize their popularity because unlike pesky things like television viewers and live attendance (things you make actual money of off) they never go down.
More substantial is that the television contract WWE has in India is their third-most lucrative television contract behind their TV deals in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Since WWE makes a bulk of their revenue from their television contracts, it makes sense that they would want to in some ways cater towards the countries that provide them with their biggest contracts. However, WWE's actual footprint in India remains a mystery. If India were truly a key market for WWE up until very recently, you would think they would tour it every year like they do Europe. They also don't make a ton of money off of merchandise and India and it isn't like WWE is promoting any Network events live from India. The actual interest in WWE from Indian's remains vague.
WWE is far from the first American corporation to view India as a potentially lucrative market; any businessman understands that in a nation with 1.3 billion people, you only have to appeal to a microscopic percentage of the population and you could still add a million new fans. WWE is also trying to make strides in China, which has a similar population density. India does offer some advantages that China does not; including a large populace (125 million) that speak English, and friendlier domestic relationships with the United States.
Wrestling in India has deep roots; dating back hundreds of years with the development of the traditional grappling sport of Pehlwani. Certain native wrestlers over the years, like The Great Gama and Dara Singh, have drawn enormous crowds for wrestling matches, but still the actual interest level in professional wrestling in India is somewhat of a mystery. The Great Khali, while a punchline in the United States, is a legit major celebrity in India known not only as a wrestler but as an actor and television show personality. Khali, promoting a show with mostly American talent, drew an enormous crowd estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 people to a show in India last year. That would seem to indicate that wrestling is super popular in India, but the promotion Khali was with hasn't run a show since then. There is a belief by some that professional sports in India is a tough market to get into because the population does not generally pay in great numbers to watch sports, with the exception of cricket which is extremely popular.
So when it comes to wrestling fans in India, what is WWE aiming for, and how does Mahal fit into that picture? Suppose that India does have a bunch of WWE fans that are really interested in the product; as the social media numbers suggest; why is merchandise almost non-existent in India? Why don't they have any network subscribers? An issue could be that a bulk of India's population live in poorer, rural areas and do not have the income to spend on things like WWE Network subscriptions. That may be the case, but if it is, why would WWE expect to get anything out of India if so much of the population cannot afford to significantly contribute to the company's bottom line?
Then there is Mahal himself. The main question a lot of people are asking is that if WWE is trying to use Mahal as a vehicle into India, wouldn't it be better if he were a babyface? Particularly if a lot of fans in India, or prospective fans in India, are more unfamiliar with the heel/face dynamic than their western counterparts who often cheer for the heels (I have no idea if this is true; I'm just hypothetically speaking) why not just make him a babyface? Now, some will make the argument that Mahal is a babyface in India, he is only a heel to fans in the U.S. and his promos reflect that. That's true, but the fact is Mahal's actions are those of a heel, he cheats to win, he lets the Singh brothers rescue him from peril, he doesn't fight fair, all classic heel moves. If you are new to watching professional wrestling, chances are you wouldn't root for that guy.
On the other hand, suppose India is actually full of hardcore wrestling fans who follow everyone on social media and religiously watch the shows on television. Wouldn't a lot of those fans have the same reaction American fans are having to Mahal's sudden championship reign? Would Mahal being of Indian descent be enough to offset the fact that Mahal is someone the fans don't buy as a legit champion and don't respect as a top-level performer? Does WWE expect fans to just brush over those facts and blindly cheer for him because he is Indian? I don't know; I'm not saying they won't cheer for him--just that if India is in fact full of hardcore fans, it is reasonable to believe that some of them feel the same way about Mahal as a lot of American fans.
The decision to use Mahal as THE guy for the Indian market is also interesting. Clearly WWE wanted to find someone of Indian descent to use for their big push, and Mahal happened to both be an Indian-Canadian and on the roster. Another interesting thing about India is that it is made up of an incredible diverse array of culture and languages. Mahal's character is heavily influenced by Punjabi culture, best evidenced by his use of the language in his promos. In fact, Mahal promotes himself more as someone from Punjab and not from India. The thing is, Punjab is a relatively minor part of India as a whole. He might say he is speaking to his 1.3 billion fans in his promos, but in reality he is only speaking to the 30 million or so Punjabi speakers in India. I attached a map of India that showcases the most common language spoken in each territory, as you can see Punjabi takes up a minor spot on the map in the north. India, more than most countries, is divided by culture, language, religion and economic status; while Mahal could be very popular in Punjab, that doesn't mean he will be very popular everywhere else in India.
At the end of the day, if Mahal does become a big success in India (or if he starts getting hot in the United States and Canada) then WWE will have achieved something big. If that doesn't happen WWE will easily take the title off of him and send him back down the card. A year from now we will be almost laughing about how WWE had pushed Mahal and eventually made him the champion that nobody wanted.
From a quality standpoint, Backlash proved to be a very predictable show. What you expected to be good ended up being pretty good and what you expected to be bad ended up being pretty bad. With an awkward main event, a lack of top stars and the women's match being a random multi-man tag, the show didn't have a ton of momentum going into it and the result was one of the more forgettable shows of 2017. It certainly did not match the standard set by the TakeOver event held the previous evening, which was probably the best WWE show of 2017.
Jinder Mahal vs Randy Orton: **¼
The match wasn't a trainwreck and considering the potential heading into it, that has to be viewed as a success. It certainly was not of the quality one would expect in the main event of a PPV from the largest wrestling company on earth, but it wasn't atrocious. There wasn't a bunch of botches and the crowd, which really could have turned on the match, was pretty lively for it. The support for Mahal from a good chunk of the Chicago crowd was surprising since it seems that a majority of hardcore fans cannot swallow the idea of Mahal becoming the world champion. I would chalk that up mostly to the fans being aware of the absurdity of the situation and that since it as gotten this far, it would be humorous to see the jobber WWE Champion. I don't think Jinder actually has a bunch of fans in Chicago; and realy that is a sign of just how lifeless of a champion Orton has been. If Mahal was wrestling AJ Styles, or even Dean Ambrose for the championship, I'd doubt you would see anyone supporting Jinder the way they did Sunday night.
Sadly you could make the case that this match was the best match of Orton's title reign--it was certainly better than either match he had with Bray Wyatt but that is more indicative of how bad his feud with Wyatt really was. Mahal is a limited worker so there was only so much they could do in the match; but it did have some substance with Mahal working over Orton's shoulder to set up his finisher, and the Singh brothers rescuing Mahal at the appropriate times. The highlight of the match was when Orton dropped not one but both of the Singh brothers on their heads with some real careless work that could have gotten someone seriously injured. If Mahal is going to be in the title picture for the next few PPVs, and it looks extremely likely that is going to be the case, there is only so much that can be done to make the matches exciting.
Kevin Owens vs AJ Styles: ****
Unquestionably the best match on the card, Owens and Styles was as advertised and delivered a good match despite a weak finish. With Mahal and Orton occupying the main event with their mediocre-at-best program, the onus is on Owens and Styles to deliver high-level, entertaining matches that are the highlights of major shows. What was strong about this match was that it was everything that you would expect, hard-hitting, a fast paced, unique moves, but it was also clear that they were saving a lot for later matches. Considering that both Owens and Styles will be in the Money in the Bank match at the next PPV, these two could easily keep feuding over the United States Championship throughout the summer. The only thing that hurt the match was the weak, count-out finish where Styles got his foot wrapped around some wires outside the ring and couldn't be the ten-count. That finish sucked some life from the crowd, who had been hot for the match. However, they needed a way to give Owens the win but make it seem like a fluke so they can continue the feud so they went with a count-out finish to get the job done.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs Dolph Ziggler: ***¼
Reading and listening to other opinions it seems like I liked this match more than a lot of other people. The main complaint I see is that Ziggler was given too much of the match and it really should have been a match where Nakamura steamrolls Ziggler and moves on. Maybe that would have accelerated Nakamura's popularity a bit, but I thought the match accomplished it's goals. Nakamura had a great entrance and the crowd popped huge for him and he looked like a star before the bell even rang. They then worked a basic match with Ziggler getting heat on Nakamura, Nakamura making a babyface comeback and hitting his signature moves while also kicking out of Ziggler's finisher and then winning the match with his finisher. I don't think there is anything wrong with a match like that; maybe Nakamura should have gotten in more offense but whatever; making Ziggler look at least competent as a competitor is not the worst thing in the world and Nakamura still felt like a star at the end of the match so I think they accomplished their goal.
Baron Corbin vs Sami Zayn: **¼
Zayn has a very interesting role in the company in that management sees him as someone the crowd enjoys and will get behind, but since they don't see him as a potential top guy he plays the role of the babyface who loses to the guys they think are going to be top stars. A lot of fans disagree with that assessment and so it seems like Zayn is always getting buried, particularly in a feud like this one where it is clear that Corbin is going over in the end. However, Zayn did get the surprise victory at Backlash, proving that the feud won't be that one-sided and it is now hard to make the argument that Zayn is being "buried", albeit you can say that he is certainly being misused. The match was just kind of there, Corbin doesn't have a huge glaring weakness that is preventing him from becoming a great wrestler, but he still doesn't have all of the skills it takes to have a great match.
A match that felt like it totally could have taken place on SmackDown that nobody really cared about. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, and the finish of having Natalya win with the Sharpshooter was fine, but why not have a title match? Considering the next SmackDown PPV is late June and Naomi has yet to defend her championship a PPV, it seemed very strange that they would roll out a nothing match for Backlash as opposed to a championship bout.
The Usos vs Breezango: **½
This wasn't a terrible match and Breeze gambled on the crowd getting behind the different outfits and made the match more fun that most people expected it to be. The mop getting over more than anything else in the tag team division was a sign of how the absurdist concept of professional wrestling has taken over a lot of live audiences; but they got the most out of what they could have done.
Erick Rowan vs Luke Harper: *½
They tried to have a decent match but they were put in the death slot so the ceiling for greatness was pretty low. The crowd had been hurt by the flat finish to the Owens/Styles match and the main event was next so it was tough to get the crowd going. Some mistimed moves at the end of the match didn't help matters.
NXT TakeOver Chicago Review
Team DIY vs The Authors of Pain: ****
A really fun main event that was in question going into the evening due to a injury to Tomaso Ciampa, both teams delivered a fun match that had all of the high-spots you would expect in a ladder match and a heel turn at the end with Ciampa annihilating Johnny Gargano. The Authors of Pain have come a long way since their debut and while they have worked with a lot of talented teams and that certainly helps, the fact is on these TakeOver shows they have been having generally very good matches, which is a great sign.
Bobby Roode vs Hideo Itami: ***½
I know that some fans were a bit disappointed in the match, but I thought it was pretty strong. Considering it was the NXT Championship match and the names of the guys in the match I suppose people could have expected the best match of the night, but that is more of a testament to how good some of the other matches were that the NXT Championship match just feels like a normal match. Itami has had a weird run in NXT, he came into WWE has one of the premier signings they have made over the last ten years and was recognized as one of the best wrestlers in the world; today I don't think anyone would have him on a list of the best ten workers in wrestling. Injuries and big adjustment to WWE's style have deflated him a bit, but he is still a good worker and Roode comes across like a really big star. The highlight in the match was Roode's excellent selling of his shoulder and he really came across as a babyface gritting out a tough victory.
Tyler Bate vs Pete Dunne: ****½
I think this was the very best WWE match of 2017. A lot of people would say Styles vs John Cena at the Royal Rumble, and while that match was very good and I gave it the same star rating as this one, I genuinely enjoyed this match more. For all the bluster about indie wrestling style compared to the traditional, WWE style made over the last two weeks, Bate and Dunne had an indie match on a WWE show and tore the house down. It was a quintessential example of the British independent wrestling wave that has wrestling in the U.K. seeing a surge in popularity. Bate and Dunne mixed in a lot of the traditional, Wigan-based grappling with World of Sport-style exchanges, and combined with elements of American indy wrestling, strong style strikes and lucha libre moves to get the crowd rocking in Chicago. Dunne and Bate came across as stars and blew away anything anyone did on the SmackDown show the following night.
I like this match more than the Styles vs Cena match for one reason; the finishing moves were fiercely protected. Cena and Styles had a match that has become very frequent in WWE PPV's and that is guys just hitting a finisher/kicking out over and over again. Cena does like four or five AA's per match now a day, which hurts the value of those moves. Bate and Dunne on the other hand, used creative spots and unique moves to create drama in the match without having to waste their finishers. The only time someone hit their finisher was when Dunne hit the Bitter End to win the match. Ironically, the whole argument against the indie style was that it reduced moves into being just spots in the match as opposed to meaning something, but the indie guys really protected their finishing moves while WWE routinely wastes them.
Asuka vs Nikki Cross vs Ruby Riot: **1/2
The match ending with Asuka pinning both Cross and Riot was a sign that neither women is going to have a shot at taking down Asuka fair and square. Asuka's dominance has been great to watch, but is nearing a breaking point. The issue is that nobody right now feels like a credible enough challenger to dethrone her; eventually they are going to have to pull the trigger and have someone like Ember Moon beat her clean OR have her surrender the title and go to the main roster as the undefeated champion (something they should totally do). The match was nothing special, Cross as a good presence and her character is there but from what I have seen from her she is pretty bad in the ring and her offense looks terrible. Riot had her best performance since signing with WWE and the crowd got into her a bit; I think she had a chance to give Asuka a real run but instead they had Asuka pin both women which doesn't make them look very credible.
Roderick Strong vs Eric Young: ***½
A good match to start the show and example of how to book a babyface well; something WWE often struggles with. Strong was outnumbered by the members of Sanity, but he used his speed and his quick-thinking ability to stay a step ahead and get the clean victory. Unlike a lot of babyfaces, Strong didn't come across as dumb or naive but rather as a motivated guy that knew exactly what he had to do to win the match and he executed his gameplan to pick up the victory. I really like the vignettes they have done with Strong and talking about his journey and his family life because he humanizes him and helps get him support from the crowd that may not know just how great Strong has been outside of WWE. It's key that they did that for a guy that has struggled throughout his career to exhibit the amount of personality in the ring to connect with the audience at the social level necessary to be a big star in WWE.
Must Watch Matches:
Dragon Lee vs Hiromu Takahashi: ****1/4 - NJPW Best of the Super Juniors Day 1
Marty Scurll vs Will Ospreay: ****½ - NJPW Best of the Super Juniors Day 1
Will Ospreay vs Ricochet: ****¼ - NJPW Best of the Super Juniors Day 2
Katushiko Nakajima vs Go Shiozaki: **** - NOAH Great Voyage in Yokohama 2017