Calgary, a city steeped in pro wrestling history, has produced its share of huge stars of the industry, but none, perhaps, as physically imposing as Jinder Mahal, the Calgarian and current World Wrestling Entertainment champion.
The big Albertan, who checks in at six-foot-five, 220 pounds, is in the best shape of his life. According to him, it’s been a life that has been entirely spent as a fan of pro wrestling and sports entertainment.
“I was born in Calgary, big-time wrestling town,” Mahal said during a telephone interview. “You’ve got the Harts, (and it’s the) home of Stampede Wrestling,” he said of the world famous wrestling family led by the late Stu Hart, who trained countless wrestlers in his family dungeon including his sons, Bret and the late Owen Hart, to name some.
“Wrestling when I was growing up was very, very popular,” the 30-year-old Mahal added.
In those days, he added, there was no one better than the Excellence of Execution himself, former WWE champion and Calgary icon Bret (The Hitman) Hart.
“Obviously, Bret Hart was every child’s hero (in Calgary),” Mahal said. “I grew up with Bret as my hero. I think everyone could relate to him because he was a great underdog. He was a great role model, even in the city.”
From a very early age, Mahal, whose real name is Yuvraj “Raj” Singh Dhesi, knew he wanted to follow in Bret Hart’s trailblazing footsteps.
“All I wanted to do was wrestle when I grew up,” he said. “I played other sports, I was an amateur wrestler, I played volleyball, I did track, I was very athletic.”
Bret’s fame and success in pro wrestling, along with Calgary’s rich pro wrestling history made wrestling seem like viable career option, Mahal admitted, though he said he was never under the impression that making in wrestling would come easily.
“Even as a child, I still knew it was hard,” Mahal said. “I still knew that Bret had worked his whole life for this and I knew that he had come from a wrestling family and this was his entire life’s work. But his character, I think that’s what drew people to him. He made it seem like dreams can come true because he was a smaller guy, wrestling Yokozuna or Sid Vicious and as a smaller guy, he would become champion. Bret did make it seem attainable but he didn’t make it seem easy.”
While Bret Hart provided the inspiration and set the example for the aspiring Indo-Canadian pro wrestler, it would be his own flesh and blood who would ultimately set him down the right path to chase his dreams.
“My uncle is from Calgary. He wrestled for Stampede (Wrestling),” Mahal said of The Great Gama Singh. ”So when I was old enough, when I was in high school, he guided me in the right direction (as to) where I could find proper training and actually get into the business the correct way.”
Mahal had the desire and the size required to make in an industry synonymous with giants.
“I was a big kid actually. I was pretty much 6’3”, over 200 pounds by the time I was in high school.”
At the advice of his uncle, Mahal began his training under the tutelage of retired wrestler Bad News Allen Coage, who had won a judo bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, while still in high school.
Even now, more than a decade later, Mahal remembers his early training and first bump.
“The first wrestling ring I started training in wasn’t even a wrestling ring, it was actually a kickboxing ring,” he said with a laugh. “So it was extra stiff!”
That stiff ring set the tone for Mahal’s toughness and tenacity very early on.
“Learning how to first bump in the stiffest ring possible made every other wrestling ring that I was in seem that much better. I got kind of lucky that I learned how to wrestle in a ring that was tough to wrestle in. It made every other ring seem easier.”
Of course, no pro wrestling journey is complete without long road trips for little or no pay, in the dead of Canadian winter – blisteringly cold in Western Canada’s case. In Mahal’s case, the distance between major cities was also a barrier for aspiring wrestlers.
“Being in Canada, all of the cities are so far from Calgary. You’ve got Vancouver, it’s a 12-hour drive, you’ve got Winnipeg, 12-hour drive. Geographically, (Western) Canada is not an ideal place to be (training), but you’ve still to make an effort and you’ve still got to travel around for experience.”
Mahal fondly recalls his first such trip, from Calgary to Thunder Bay, with friend and fellow wrestler Johnny Devine, who recently penned a tribute to the new WWE champ on SLAM! Wrestling. Long trips, little pay and friendships forged on the road are part of the process in the business, Mahal said.
“Wrestling, you just have to pay your dues. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Canada or you’re in New York, paying dues is very, very important because it gives you respect for the business. You see that it’s not really an easy business.”
Paying one’s dues early on, Mahal said, prepares one for everything and anything later on.
“Right now in my career in WWE, our schedule is so gruelling, wrestling night after night, plus travelling … (paying my dues) prepared me for that and in a way, paying your dues does give you respect for the business because that’s important.
“I think some people come into this business from other avenues of life and think that it’s going to be easy. ‘Oh, I’ll just become rich and famous and it’ll be a cake walk.’ It’s far from it.”
Mahal cut his teeth under the name Tiger Raj Singh, and racked up a ton of mileage in experience, working the independent scene in Western Canada, including teaming with his cousin Gama Singh Jr. (Munraj Sahota) as a tag team known as Sikh and Destroy, until he eventually caught the eye of WWE, which gave him a look when the company was passing through town.
“The first tryout I got was actually in Calgary,” Mahal recalled. “I was extra talent and we had a chance to get into the ring there. Jamie Noble was watching, some of the other producers were there ringside, Johnny Ace (and others).”
Unfortunately, nerves got the best of Mahal in his first WWE experience.
“I was just too nervous and I couldn’t perform,” he said, sounding nothing like the nervous wreck he was so many years ago. “I actually got really, really tired because I was very nervous. When you’re nervous, I was very stiff and they kept me in there for like three matches in a row and I was completely out of breath. It wasn’t good.”
In spite of that, WWE must have like what it saw in his size and look, as it invited the big man to Florida to try out for its former Florida Championship Wrestling training ground, which today is its NXT brand. There, Mahal was able to relax more and make his mark.
“When I went to Florida, I knew what to expect. I knew to relax and try and be not so nervous because if I was going to be nervous, then I was going to make mistakes. I kind of learned from my mistakes.”
The Florida tryout was the culmination of all of his life’s dreams and hard work.
“This was my childhood goal and I’d been working at it since I’d been in high school, making those 24-hour drives. I knew Dusty Rhodes was going to be there and Steve Keirn, who was the head of FCW, Dr. Tom Prichard was going to be there, Norman Smiley … yeah, it was a good pressure just to perform and really get a chance to show them what I could do.”
The second time was a charm for Mahal, who was hired by WWE in 2010 and assigned to FCW. The next year, he made his main roster debut, dressed in traditional Punjabi clothing and as a heel. For much of the first two years, he feuded with several WWE stars before he was aligned with Heath Slater and Drew McIntyre in a stable that was called 3MB, short for Three-Man Band. While the alliance felt thrown together, if not silly, it wasn’t long before the trio got over with many WWE fans, despite being heels.
Mahal admitted that even the members of 3MB weren’t sure what to do with the gimmick at the outset.
“At first, especially me, I was really … not really resisting it,” he said with a pause, “but I was kind of hesitant, I didn’t quite understand why I was put in this role and I hadn’t quite embraced it.”
But as the trio earned the respect of the audience, and thus more TV time and exposure, all began to embrace their roles and 3MB caught on.
“As soon as I started embracing and all of us started embracing it and just giving it our all, good things started to happen. When we hesitated, we didn’t quite fully get over with fans, but as soon as we embraced it 100%,” it went over, Mahal said, adding that in cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, 3MB were fan favourites, but in the south, they’d get booed.
“We did a lot of fun stuff,” he said, launching into his favourite memory.
“One of the funnest matches I was ever involved in was the WeeLC match with Hornswoggle and El Torino. I think going into that match, people didn’t expect much, but we were getting ‘This is awesome’ chants and right when we came back from Gorilla (Position), we got a standing ovation by Vince (McMahon) and all the producers. That was definitely a cool moment. I think we could have done more if we were actually positioned as babyfaces. We were still doing this kind of as heels. I think if we were positioned as babyfaces, we could have had another run.”
In June 2014, 3MB was broken up in a talent shakeup at WWE. Mahal and McIntyre were released, marking what Mahal admitted was the lowest point of his wrestling career.
“Looking back at it, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because I got to go away and reinvent myself and rediscover myself, get my confidence back, get my focus back most importantly. You need those lows to enjoy the highs and the wrestling business is like that. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, but you’ve just got to stay persistent and better days always come.”
And in WWE, the door might be shut at that moment, but it can reopen at any point. When he was released, Mahal was told that a return was always possible down the road.
“There was no promise, there was no guarantee of it,” he said. “I think maybe they give that talk to everybody because really the door always is open in WWE. Never say never.”
Suddenly, after four years in the big leagues, Mahal found himself working the independent wrestling scene again, trying to determine his next move.
“It was either get focused and pursue wrestling again or maybe you move onto something else,” he recalled. “I was just working independents on the weekends. All week, I was kind of bored. I had started doing real estate and (renovating) homes in the Tampa area.”
Still in his twenties, Mahal knew all was not lost.
“(I came to the) realization that I’m still young. I’m 30 now, I was 29 when I came back. When I was released I was 27 and I knew that I was still young and I could have another good run. I knew that I could make it to the top.”
It was when he least expected it, after months of wallowing in self-pity, poor eating habits and a broken gym schedule, opportunity once again knocked.
“You know what’s actually weird? While I was gone, for a good part of it, I didn’t really care (about my physique). I was eating a bunch of junk, not training so hard, because I was just working the independents. And then one day, I just said ‘enough’s enough.’ I had to start dieting, I had to start training and two months later, I was signed back to WWE,” he said.
“For almost two years, I was just doing my own thing and I didn’t care and as soon as I started caring, two months later I was signed back to WWE. I think it’s more than just a coincidence. I’m a firm believer that if you think, whatever you think becomes reality. It was my goal to come back to WWE, get back in shape.”
And get back in shape he did, toning up, working hard and coming back in the best shape of his life, a chiseled champion now thanks to his hard work.
“It’s my goal every week to get into better shape,” Mahal said. “That’s what motivates me. I don’t want to have an off-week when I eat some junk food or something like that where I lose focus or I don’t train. I just take baby steps, baby steps, baby steps and soon these baby steps become miles.”
That approach is what Mahal credits for his recent success.
“Becoming the WWE champion, it wasn’t overnight,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work, a lot of baby steps, a lot of things that fans don’t see me doing, like dragging around a cooler of food, or waking up early morning and doing cardio on empty stomach, sometimes even early before flights and making sure I wake up early enough, sometimes sacrificing sleep. And as soon as I land, the first place I go is the gym. A lot of fans don’t see that part.”
That hard work has not gone unnoticed, or unrewarded.
“I feel great, I’m glad I’m doing this and it just motivates me more and WWE is such a great place where they reward hard work. And it’s almost motivating for the other guys on the undercard because they see me (having gone from) opening matches with them to moving up the card to now in the main event, I think it’s a tremendous thing and if anything, it just motivates the rest of the guys, too. Overall, I think it’s great, me becoming champion, not only does it spice things up for the TV audience, it’s great for morale backstage.”
Mahal’s lifelong dreams were realized on May 21 when he defeated Randy Orton to capture the WWE championship, becoming the 50th recognized WWE champ in WWE history and the first of Indian descent, and just the latest to hail from Calgary.
When the bell rang and he held that title he’d worked his life to earn, Mahal admitted he doesn’t remember what was going through his mind at the time.
“In the ring, the adrenaline was so high, I didn’t have time to think,” he said. “When I finally got to my hotel room that night is when everything kind of settled in. It was a great feeling. I can’t even … words can’t describe the feeling. It was the greatest day of my life. I’ve just worked so hard to get here and from being released to coming back to being signed when I was 23 to debuting on the main rosters, those 24-hour car rides when I was young… It was a great moment and a great moment to reflect on my journey and everything.
He also knew, he said, that it was just the beginning of his new journey.
“The hard work is just beginning,” he vowed. “People talk about how I’ve worked hard to get here, but now that I’m champion, you should see how hard I’m working now.”
His place in history secured, Mahal admitted his dreams have come true and he’s proud of what he’s accomplished, but far from satisfied.
“I dream for more,” he said. “I don’t just want to be a one-time champion. I want to be a 10-time champion. I want to go down as one of the greats. I’m actually listening to an audiobook right now. It’s called Relentless. It kind of highlights how the greats think, like Michael Jordan, after he wins one championship, he’s at the gym the next day because he’s not satisfied. That kind of the same thing. When I won this championship, yeah, I was emotional, but this is not the be all and end all. This is just the beginning. This is one of the many reigns that I hope to have.”