On a recent episode of the the WWE After The Bell podcast, RETRIBUTION leader Mustafa Ali came to discuss the big opportunity he lost heading into WrestleMania 34. He started out on how his journey began, coming from 205 Live to SmackDown and having his first match against WWE Champion, Daniel Bryan.
"I remember I was last one to be invited in to 205 Live, but I'm the first guy to leave, so I always thought of the irony of that," Ali pointed out. "It was a lot of pressure because, again, you just don't know. I show up to TV one day and they go, 'hey, you're wrestling the WWE champion Daniel Bryan on SmackDown and it's the first segment, and you have an in-ring promo with him, and this, and then there's aftermath.' It's just like, 'you know I'm Ali, right?' Even then, at the time, Road Dogg was producing SmackDown, so it was very clearly explained to me this is a one-time deal. You're not full-time on SmackDown, this is just an opportunity for you to get some buzz.
"Bryan, being as gracious as he always is, made sure that I made an impact, and that's another guy - he'll never really confirm to me what happened. I made the most of that opportunity, and that turned into coming back to TV next week and then being told there that 'hey, you're no longer on 205; you are a full-time member of SmackDown, and you're in the main event tonight.' So, it's like everything's zero to 100 here. You show up one day and you're wrestling the WWE Champion on national television."
Ali then talked about how he hates the 'what if' question. He said his injury began with a match against Randy Orton, but noted that he genuinely thought that he was okay and nothing was wrong.
"I don't want to say it's a hard topic for me, but I hate 'what if's'. I hate them, and there's nothing you can do about it," Ali admitted. "The thing happened with Randy - it was an accident, but my face got caved in. I haven't really disclosed all of this, but as we all do, we get hit and we try to get back up. I got back up, I finished the match, I assured everyone I was fine. I really thought I was fine, to be fully clear. I wasn't hiding anything; I really thought it was just a really bad black eye. I knew where I was. They did the test.
"I was good, and then later that night, I have to go back out for a big kind of melee finish. Erick Rowan ends up grabbing me by the face and doing the claw chokeslam thing on the table, and I remember just laying on the table doing systems check. I'm able to get up on my own. I feel fine, I'm okay."
Ali confirms that he was set to be the breakout star in the gauntlet match that took place on the go-home episode of SmackDown for Elimination Chamber. He talked about an incident at a live event that forced him to see a doctor.
"I get word that for next week, I'm in a gauntlet match and the plan is to kind of 'make' Mustafa Ali that night," Ali revealed. "So now I'm realizing this is my moment. They're building me up going into this big Elimination Chamber PPV for the WWE Championship. This is what I've been working for my entire life - 17 years - the whole blood, sweat, and tears, broken bones. This is it.
"This is my moment, and we have a live event loop leading into that TV. It was at one point-- it was a tag match. I take a turnbuckle which I've taken a million times, and I get to the back and I end up sitting Indian style right by Gorilla. And you know long enough that you walk by someone sitting, that's odd. So I remember my good friend, Jason Harris, who's a referee over on SmackDown, walked and said, 'hey kid, you good?' And I go, 'mhm.' And he crouches down. He goes, 'are you good?' I go, 'yeah, yeah.' He's asking me something and he goes - like he should have - and tells the doc."
He said in that visit, he collapsed on the floor, which led to him missing out on the gauntlet match and Elimination Chamber. Ali admitted that he tried not to cry because he knew that he missed out on a career-altering opportunity, as shown with the run that his replacement - Kofi Kingston - went on.
"I know they took me in to get checked out, and you're sitting on the medical table. I'm gripping the edge of the table because I know if I let go, I'm going to tip over," Ali recalled. "I'm just gripping it, and doc goes, 'let me see your hands.' I'm being super defensive, argumentative. 'Why? This is dumb, I'm fine.' He goes, 'Ali, let me see your hands,' and apparently, as soon as I picked up my hands, I just tilted over. And that was it, man.
"They pulled me, and I remember sitting in the hotel room that night trying not to cry because I know there's no way they're going to let me perform on SmackDown. I'm like, 'how long? Can I come back in five days?' They go, 'dude, you're out for a while,' and then you go get the MRIs done. And from what I was told, it was a pretty bad hit that you took. You're going to need time off, and the announcement is made that Kofi's replacing me, and then we all know what happens - he goes on this historic run."
Ali admits that he is not bitter towards Kingston, but more bitter towards the fact that there were no storylines for him involving Orton, who he had a match with that caused his injury, Kingston, the wrestler that replaced him, or Brock Lesnar, who cost Ali a chance at the Money in the Bank briefcase. He admits that the question of what if he didn't get hurt will drive him crazy because he knows he could have made a similar run that Kingston went on.
"It's like, okay, silver lining? Great guy gets this awesome opportunity, but the bitterness that I have towards that isn't directed specifically at Kofi," Ali prefaced. "I came back, and there is a story right there. There's a story with Randy, there's a story with Kofi. Eventually, there's a story with Brock in Money In The Bank. There's all these layups that have presented themselves, and I came back, I was ready, and I had nothing.
"So therein lies kind of this realization, 'was I ever going to be the guy'? Because there's these rumors flying around that Ali was going to head into WrestleMania. You don't know, because all I know is I was about to beat five of the best on SmackDown going into Elimination Chamber, and let me ask you, do you not think that I could steal the show inside Elimination Chamber, knowing what I'm capable of? That was my night. So, I guarantee you, I was heading to WrestleMania. And that's where all this baggage, and this 'what if', and this thing that's going to drive me crazy for the rest of my life. What if I didn't get hurt?"
If you use any quotes from this article, please credit WWE After The Bell with a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription.