One of the more surreal stories in wrestling this year has been Jinder Mahal becoming the new WWE champion. This booking decision has been met with a mixture of shock, bemusement, and annoyance due to the sudden nature of Mahal’s rise. Mahal went from being a mid-carder who lost to the likes of Mojo Rawley, to being the number one contender in the space of a month.
This out-of-nowhere change in fortune is a major gripe for fans because it goes against the natural progression of wrestling storytelling. To create investment and a suspension of disbelief, a wrestler needs to be established as a major player before they are primed to win the biggest prize in a company; be it built over a long period, or established right off the bat. But Jinder isn’t the only instance of this. And here is a brief history of when established mid-carders were rapidly thrust into a world title run, how their reigns played out, and what happened to their careers in the aftermath, giving us an insight into what the future holds for Jinder Mahal.
Before the Autumn of 1987, Ronnie ‘Hands of Stone’ Garvin had spent his time in Jim Crockett Promotions engaging in several tag team feuds with the likes of the Midnight Express. But on September 25th 1987, Garvin found himself defeating the NWA’s golden boy Ric Flair to become the NWA world champion. The story goes that Jim Crockett thought that his upcoming Starrcade pay-per-view would do better against the competing WWF’s Survivor Series if big star Ric Flair was chasing the title going into the event. Thus an interim champion would have to be crowned, but most wrestlers declined the offer of a short reign. Garvin, being 42 at the time, saw it as his last chance at such a big opportunity and accepted. Garvin duly returned the title to Flair two months later at Starrcade and slipped back down the card to feud with the Varsity Club, and Greg Valentine in the WWF. Though a nice moment for Garvin, his lack of star power, and a passive fan reaction made it a questionable decision in the long run.
John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield
A past title victory that has been brought up recently in comparison to Jinder Mahal’s has been that of John ‘Bradshaw’ Layfield. Prior to this, much of Bradshaw’s WWE run had been spent in the tag division/mid-card as a bar brawler with only a few tag team, Hardcore, and European titles to his name. In 2004, a lack of main event players to feud with champion Eddie Guerrero lead to Layfield being repackaged as JBL; a J. R Ewing-esque Wall Street heel. JBL went on to feud with Guerrero for the title just a month into his push, and went on to win it at The Great American Bash. This was allegedly partly to do with Guerrero’s request to drop the title due to his inability to handle the pressure as champion. But after being a tag team mid-carder months earlier, JBL never looked back and went on to have the longest world title reign in SmackDown history before losing it to John Cena at Wrestlemania 21. JBL played the role well, and managed to stick around in the main event scene until his retirement and transition into a cushy announcing role; so the reign was clearly the best thing to happen to him.
More recent examples have included Sheamus’ first world title run in 2009. Having made his WWE television debut in June of that year on ECW, and then moving to the RAW roster in October, Sheamus’ only notable feuds during this time were against Goldust, Shelton Benjamin, and Jamie Noble. It then came as a surprise when Sheamus defeated WWE’s golden boy John Cena at the December Pay-per-view TLC to win the WWE title. Not much is known as to why WWE pulled the trigger so soon, other than them having plans for him as a future star. Though Sheamus lost the title after only two months. He has had sporadic world title runs since (including a lengthy reign in 2012), but has also fluctuated in and out of the mid-card; separating him from that ‘Top Guy’ status.
Not long after Sheamus was the sole world title reign of Jack Swagger. Swagger – an established mid-carder whose only feuds had been against MVP and Kofi Kingston – won the Money in the Bank ladder match at Wrestlemania 26. Two days later on a March 30th episode of SmackDown in 2010, Swagger cashed in his MITB contract to win the World Heavyweight title from Chris Jericho. The booking reason for this is unclear; other than for pure shock value, as Swagger’s subsequent three month reign did little for him as he was portrayed as a paper champion before losing the title at June’s Fatal 4-Way pay-per-view and remaining in the lower-card until leaving WWE in 2017.
And finally, there’s Jinder. The progression of his career has gone from a losing feud to the Great Khali, to being a member of the glorified jobber stable 3MB. He was then by WWE due to cut-backs, and eventually brought back for a losing streak. Suddenly, he was in a position to win the WWE title from established star Randy Orton. With a current win-loss record of 81-376, it’s understandable why eyebrows have been raised. The apparent reasoning behind Mahal’s sudden push is to do with WWE’s current expansion into the Indian market, and the hope that a prominent Indian star will lead to an increase in Network subscribers and merchandise sales there.
Time will tell if this decision will be a boost for WWE business-wise. And time will also tell if Jinder Mahal’s career will go the way of JBL and continue with prominence, or if will go the way of Garvin and Swagger and fade back into the mid-card. This all depends on how consistent WWE’s booking of him will be, what the figures from India say, and how well Mahal will perform. But the the domineering trend seems to be that the wrestlers in question (discounting Sheamus) never go on to reach the same heights as the upset reign. What unifies the aforementioned reigns is that it’s not the men in the roles themselves who sour them; as they’re each talented in their own right. It’s their presentation by their respecting bookers/creative; beforehand, during, and subsequently after. It would be in the best interest of both the audience and any wrestler put in a similar position if the time was taken to build said wrestler up to establish them in the upper card before they flirt with any world title prospects. That way, the audience won’t feel dissatisfied by the rushed nature of the story progression, and the wrestler won’t run the risk of suffering any fall from grace.