KARACHI: WWE superstar Mustafa Ali has come a long way in the last two years. From being a substitute participant and losing in the first round of Cruiserweight Classic tournament in 2016 to becoming a cornerstone of WWE’s 205 Live brand, his has been the rise that was least expected.
After all, there were far more popular stars that contested in the tournament. But Ali made history, for being the first wrestler of Pakistani descent to perform in a WWE ring. That should have been enough. But little did we know, that would be the first of many firsts to come.
Earlier this year, Ali also became the first Pakistani to perform at the grandest wrestling show of the year, WrestleMania and even came close to winning the Cruiserweight Championship. Recently, it was announced he will also be featured in the latest WWE game, WWE 2k19.
Speaking with The Express Tribune, Ali shared how his incredible rise to being a WWE star wasn’t meant to be. “I don't think people really realise how insane it is that I'm in the position I am in today,” he said. “Prior to the Cruiserweight Classic, I had a tryout with WWE in 2013 and was told that I wasn't what they were looking for at the moment.”
Then, when the Cruiserweight Classic rolled around, Ali was just a back-up. After the original contestant, from Brazil, Zumbi couldn’t participate due to visa issues, he took his place but was eliminated in the first round in a five-minute match. “By all means, the story should've ended there,” he said.
When 205 Live was created, Ali wasn't a top priority and he knew it. “Almost everyone else on the roster was well travelled and better known, competing in some of the biggest independent companies all over the world. I didn't have that,” he said.
Ali continued, “I didn't have a Ring of Honor run, I didn't compete at BOLA (a popular annual wrestling tournament in the US). I was a guy that stayed close to my local independent scene in Chicago because I simply had to. My family depended on my income, so my ‘real job’ (as a policeman) took priority.”
Due to such circumstantial restrictions, Ali couldn't take time off to tour Japan or the UK as wrestlers normally do. “So I had to work really hard just within the show to prove that I was worth everyone's time and that I could compete with these international stars. Now, you can't talk about 205 Live without mentioning my name.”
WWE employs a huge roster that is spread over Raw, SmackDown Live, NXT and 205 Live. And not every superstar gets the opportunity to perform at WrestleMania. Ali achieved his goal within two years of joining the company.
Talking about his mindset before coming out and performing at the grand stage, he said if he places too much importance or emphasis on something, it becomes distracting. “So when I was getting ready to compete at WrestleMania, all of that was hitting me at one time. I'm about the fulfill a lifelong goal of competing at the grandest stage of them all. How many millions of people are watching this? What if I mess up? I'm the first guy of my background to compete at this stage. How many kids that look like me and have a name like mine are watching? Will this be a moment that inspires them?”
As he felt the anxiety building up, Ali’s friend, WWE referee Jason Ayers approached him. “He was nearby and could see something was a little off and walked over. He reminded me what I was trying to do, how I was going to be the guy to knock down barriers, and preconceived ideas of what a guy that looks like me is supposed to represent so that others don't have to deal with it. He reminded me about my family and that right now this isn't about me. It's about getting the job done, it's about fighting for others. And with that simple talk, I snapped out of it and went into work mode. So no, I didn't get to really sit there and absorb it all, it was straight work mindset."
Ali added, "Looking back at it now, I'm amazed by it all. My wife sent me a text before the match saying, 'For years you wondered how cool it would be to walk down that aisle at WrestleMania. After tonight, you won't have to wonder."
Legendary commentator Jim Ross often talks about "maximizing your minutes", and Ali has done exactly that in the last two years. One wonders if the ‘Heart of 205 Live’ had travelled the world, perfecting his craft and making his name on bigger platforms, he might have made it to WWE sooner. He believes when he closed his eyes, he could see himself making it to WWE, competing at WrestleMania and winning WWE championships. But when he opened his eyes, it was a different story.
“I didn't think it was realistic and not because of ability or talent, but simply because I never really looked the part. In my mind, the way to succeed was to be 100% dedicated to it and I just had so much going on that I could never give wrestling 100% of my attention, even though I really wanted to,” he stated.
The wrestler continued, “As far as making it, I think this is the type of profession where the mentality is ‘on to the next one’. Like, I achieved this lifelong goal, but then immediately after that, a new goal appears. And after I chase and conquer that goal, a new one pops up. So I think it will be a carousel, just going around and around chasing goals. I'm not sure what the end game is. I just know I want my family to live comfortably. I know I want to use whatever voice I may have to help bring awareness and attention to issues across the globe.”
When Ali talks about “whatever voice I may have”, it’s out of humility. WWE tradition has long seen foreigners often be portrayed as heels (or bad guys). Ali defied that stereotype and wrestled as a baby-face (a good guy in wrestling terminology) from the beginning. The last two years, he has established himself as a solid crowd-favourite. During his matches, one often hears the audience chant “Ali” to motivate him. That’s the difference-maker. People want him to overcome the odds and win, just as he has won them over with his athletic ability, never-give-up attitude and charismatic Mortal Kombat’s Sub Zero-inspired costume.
However, despite making it this far, he has had only one WWE Cruiserweight title opportunity at WrestleMania; against current champion Cedric Alexander and he came out on the losing end. Ali isn’t bitter about it. He said, “I think the better man won that night. Cedric is a perfect example of what the entire division embodies and he's doing great leading the troops into battle every Tuesday night. But that spot won't be his for long. Backstage at WrestleMania after our match, I hugged Cedric and told him I was proud of him. Then I looked him in the eye and told him, ‘Bring your best every week because you're sitting in my chair'.”
While competitive in nature, as is required to survive in combat sports entertainment, Ali holds his peers in high regard and the atmosphere backstage is very supportive and encouraging of feedback. “205 Live has got a very cool vibe in the sense that we do kind of looking out for each other, especially when we all first started with the company. So we are all very comfortable and encouraging of feedback with one another.”
With the brand bringing in all kinds of talent, the new superstars have got an in-ring vet like Brian Kendrick always available for advice and several other stars that specialise in certain areas to help improve their game. The 205 Live star said, “We all watch each other’s matches and we all are very competitive with each other. It's a well-known idea amongst us that whoever is (performing in) the main event of 205 Live, it's their responsibility to steal the show and continue making noise for the brand.
Ali himself has performed in the main event and stole the show several times. His matches with the likes of Neville, Buddy Murphy and Alexander helped him showcase his ability. And now, whenever he’s in the ring, the audience can’t help but wait for Ali to execute his popular maneuvers such as Spanish Fly and 0-5-4 Splash (Imploding 450 Splash).
Currently on 205 Live, he is involved in a rivalry with Japanese star Hideo Itami over the latter demanding respect from his peers. Ali says he sees the source of Itami’s anger as the former NXT star came into WWE with a lot of hype but due to circumstances outside of his control (mainly untimely injuries), it faded. Ali now finds himself the target of Itami’s changed attitude. “He certainly deserves respect but not this way. Not beating up opponents while they're defenseless. I'll do battle with Hideo sooner than later, and when I do, I'll take his best shot and still rise to my feet. That visual itself will be enough to break him,” said the 32-year-old star.
While Ali continues to stand up to Itami and has had a show-stopping match with him, his favourite opponent is someone else. “I think for me the best I've been in the ring with is Neville. He's just next level. His intensity, his attention to detail, it's just unmatched. I feel like a 'Prince vs. King' feud (Prince Mustafa Ali vs King Neville) would've been amazing, but only time will tell if that will ever happen. On the current roster, Buddy Murphy and Cedric Alexander bring out the best in me.”
As he prepares to face Itami again next week, we asked him which one he thinks has been his best match in WWE, Ali said, “It hasn't happened yet, so stay tuned.”
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