Jinder Mahal’s win over Randy Orton on May 21, 2017, at Backlash will be remembered as one of the most stunning victories in the annals of wrestling. And we’re not counting the WCW title victories of Vince Russo or David Arquette. Those were desperate ratings stunts.
Mahal’s achievement was no joke. It was simply unfathomable that Mahal, who had turned losing into a full-time gimmick as a member of The Three-Man Band with Heath Slater and Drew McIntyre, had suddenly become a world-championship caliber wrestler.
The word is that management was impressed by Mahal’s commitment to physical conditioning and his professional attitude. And Mahal’s return happened to coincide with WWE’s push to further its brand in India. To the McMahons and Triple-H, it was a great way to shake things up after WrestleMania.
“Those are reasons for WWE to push Jinder Mahal,” noted PWI Publisher Stu Saks. “It’s also feasible that wrestlers can improve in the ring. But this would have made more sense if we had seen a logical progression from a losing record to a winning record over the course of time, or at least a rationale for his rapid improvement.
“I can’t think of any wrestler who has gone from being a jobber to champion within the same company in so short a time. It’s unprecedented.”
Saks is right. There are several examples that come close, but none of them match the phenomenal rise of Mahal. Here are a few.
Mick Foley: Even during the unpredictable, ratings-crazy Monday Night War, it was shocking when Foley—as the demented Mankind—beat The Rock for the WWE title on Raw back in 1998. Exploiting the fact that Raw was taped, announcer Tony Schiavone gave the result of the match on that night’s live WCW Monday Nitro and snidely added, “That’ll put butts in seats,” per orders from his boss, Eric Bischoff. Although Foley was not a typical WWE champion, he had a dedicated following thanks to his hardcore performances and his hilarious Mankind character. Outside of India, can anyone imagine Mahal putting more butts in seats than Foley?
John Bradshaw Layfield: He and Ron Simmons seemed more satisfied with being beer-guzzling, poker-playing opening acts than regaining the tag team championship. Simmons was fired, and Layfield was re-tooled as a J.R. Ewing-type bad guy. Suddenly he went from being a perennial mid-carder to a WWE champion keeping pace with The Undertaker and John Cena. Yet at least Layfield was a familiar veteran; Mahal had no substantial track record whatsoever.
Justin Credible: The WWF utilized some terrible gimmicks in the mid-1990s, and Aldo Montoya—with a mask suspiciously resembling a jock strap—was hampered with one of the worst of all-time. Billed as the “Portuguese Man O’War,” Montoya (who actually spoke fluent Portuguese) became a glorified jobber despite the hype. After the WWF, his only salvation would be ECW, an island for misfit wrestlers. Re-billed as Justin Credible, he suddenly enjoyed tag team success with Lance Storm as The Impact Players and dominated as ECW champion. But Credible’s success wasn’t considered that incredible given ECW’s proven history of turning WWF and WCW rejects into main-eventers.
Ronnie Garvin: After teaming with faux brother Terry Garvin in the 1970s, he was a solid territorial draw in Tennessee and the Southeast into the early-1980s. And after Ric Flair’s many NWA title defenses against younger stars such as Rick Steamboat, Kerry Von Erich, and Magnum T.A., the 42-year-old Garvin was an unlikely championship candidate for the future. Yet a feud with Jake Roberts for the National TV title on Superstation TBS and a scintillating series of bouts against Flair in 1986 gave Garvin the credibility to beat the “Nature Boy” in 1987. His reign was short-lived, however.
Mikey Whipwreck: He was one of those affable underdogs who gained a cult following. Perseverant, speedy, and able to pull out a match-ending maneuver in an instant, Whipwreck’s losing record didn’t reflect the excitement he generated at ECW shows. His two greatest achievements were defeating The Sandman for the ECW title in 1995 and successfully defending the belt against Steve Austin soon thereafter. Like Mahal, Whipwreck quickly went from the opener to the main event, but he had a solid base of fan support. For the record, Mahal claims one billion fans—all in India.
“Diamond” Dallas Page: When Dallas Page was a loudmouth manager in the AWA in the late-1980s, and then an unheralded 35-year-old prospect at the WCW Power Plant, no one imagined he would become a three-time WCW champion. Critics said that being a friend and neighbor of Eric Bischoff helped Page’s career. Perhaps. But DDP’s personal reserve of incredible enthusiasm and tenacity—and a groundswell of fan support due to his firm stance against the NWO—enabled him to build a main-event career from TV champion to U.S. champion to World champion. But that took four years, not four weeks.
Curt Hennig: The record-keepers lost count of how many times Hennig dropped matches to Superstar Graham, as well as many other WWF rulebreakers in 1982-83. Yet the bookers would sometimes toss Hennig a hard-fought win over an undercard heel, such as Swede Hanson, and he’d often come within one-dropkick-too-many of winning the feature match on Championship Wrestling. In four years, however, the future “Mr. Perfect” would win the Pacific Northwest title and form a world-championship team with Scott Hall in the AWA. After Hall’s departure, Hennig turned heel and beat 53-year-old Nick Bockwinkel for the World title. His transformation was quick … but not overnight.
Johnny Valiant: He wrestled as John L. Sullivan, a hard-luck mid-carder who never won the big ones. After four years of struggle in the WWF, he met “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant in Ontario and became “Luscious” Johnny Valiant. Together, The Valiant Brothers returned to the WWF and raised hell as tag team champions in 1974-75. Johnny later returned with another faux brother, Jerry, to regain the belts in 1979.
As you can see, many wrestlers have experienced some tremendous turnarounds, ascending from opening-match jobbers to main-event champions. But only Jinder Mahal has skyrocketed from the murky depths of undercard indifference to headline arenas throughout the world in such a short period. Now Mahal faces a greater challenge: turning his unbelievable victory into believable long-term success.