BROOKLYN, NY — Just four short summers ago, Yuvraj Singh Dhesi was back at home in Calgary, mulling his future, having just weeks earlier been released from his dream job as a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment.
On Friday, Dhesi, who is better known to wrestling fans as Jinder Mahal, was sitting in a packed room in a hotel in Brooklyn, filled with journalists from 15 different countries. He was there with his WWE championship belt in hand, the result of years of hard work and a never-quit attitude.
Following his release in 2013, Dhesi recommitted himself to fitness and clean eating, and pushed himself back onto the WWE’s radar. In the summer of 2016, his work paid off. Less than one year later, Mahal became the WWE’s 50th heavyweight champion. Since then, Mahal has been successfully defending his championship, been a part of WWE’s growth around the world, specifically in the homeland of his parents, India, and emerged as a viable main event player. On Sunday, he’ll defend that championship, which he won in May, when he faces Japanese megastar Shinsuke Nakamura.
For Mahal, the learning curve at the top of the WWE roster has been steep.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Did you celebrate? What was it like?’” Mahal answered when asked about his reign, which is now at three months and counting. “Honestly, I didn’t have a moment where it was like, ‘Oh my god, I accomplished something,’” he said. “My goals are a lot bigger than this. I worked very, very hard to get here, but I knew that the hard work was just beginning.”
Besides an increased presence on TV and at pay-per-views, Majal has seen his presence within the company grow as well, which has translated into more media interviews, merchandise opportunities, his image on more posters and WWE promotional tools. It’s a responsibility, he said, that he takes very seriously.
“As the WWE champion, you’re the face of the company,” he said. “I look at things totally differently now. Every live event, I’m asking the marketing rep what the gate was, what the attendance was, what it was last time we were here. I ask about my merchandise sales… From a business point of view, I’m a lot different. And obviously the media that I’ve been doing has increased quite a bit, which I enjoy because ultimately, the more media I do, the bigger my brand becomes and ultimately the more value I am to WWE.”
Mahal also seems to have gotten his bad guy character over, as fans everywhere boo him appropriately as a bad guy, rather than as someone who doesn’t interest them. Everywhere, that is, except in his homeland of Canada. During appearances in Kingston, and a live TV taping of Smackdown Live in Toronto, Mahal’s normal boos were replaced by noticeable ovations, a nation tipping its collective cap to the Canadian-born champ.
“Toronto was amazing,” Mahal acknowledged. “It’s actually one of my favourite crowds that I’ve ever performed in front of.”
The adulation at the Air Canada Centre wasn’t entirely unexpected, Mahal admitted. “Even Randy (Orton, his opponent in Toronto) knew. A week before, we knew that we were going to have the match and he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be in Toronto, it should be interesting.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it will be.’ I thought it was going to be like 50/50, but man, we were in the beginning and Randy was punching me and the crowd’s booing. It was awesome.”
Mahal admitted the love from Canada made the trip special.
“I know Canada’s very proud. I’m from Calgary, but all of Canada is very proud. Interesting note, Smackdown followed Raw (also in Toronto one night earlier), and I had asked about the attendance and we weren’t that far off from Raw, which is big because sometimes Smackdown is significantly lower.”
The significance of being one of the main events at SummerSlam, WWE’s second-biggest event of the year next to WrestleMania, isn’t lost on the Albertan, who has never competed at a SummerSlam.
“All the other previously SummerSlams, I’ve been unfortunately sitting in catering and watching the show and wishing I could be on the show,” Mahal noted. “But now this is my moment. Not only am I on the card, I’m in a WWE Champoinship match, one of the main events, against someone like Shinsuke Nakamura, who is an international superstar. It’s a huge, huge honour and I know it’s going to be a good match.”
It’s a match, and opportunity, that Mahal is taking very seriously.
“This is the WWE championship,” he said, pointing to his belt. “I want to be at that level where I’m considered one of the all-time greats. I want to be someday a hall of famer. I want to be a multiple time world champion.”