Since WWE re-split its roster into Raw and Smackdown brands last summer, perhaps no image has summed up the change more than Jinder Mahal — yes, 3MB goof-turned-job beggar Jinder Mahal — raising the WWE World Championship above his head on Smackdown Tuesday.
Sure, Smackdown's new reputation as "the land of opportunity" has had its moments of upward mobility. Look no further than Mahal's former 3MB stablemate Heath Slater and his feel-good tag team championship win on the brand's first exclusive pay-per-view, Backlash. (The recent WWE return of 3MB's third man, Drew McIntyre, tells another story altogether about the opportunity NXT offers wrestlers who can raise their stock elsewhere.)
But Mahal's sudden ascent to No. 1 contender to Randy Orton's championship has been the second brand split's most surprising development, by far. Even if Orton dispatches him in less than 10 minutes come this year's Backlash May 17, Mahal has still gone farther and faster than anyone expected since his return to WWE last summer.
WWE fans, however, don't seem to know what to make of his ascent. That's probably due, at least in part, to two aspects of Mahal's push that are so transparent as to be almost audacious, even for Vince McMahon and WWE. The first is Mahal's new physique, which is so impossibly jacked that I'm surprised I have yet to see a gif cutting up his entrance with that meme bait video of McMahon lustily falling out of his chair. Since WWE implemented strict(er) drug testing about a decade ago, no superstar's body has ever transformed for the "better" so suspiciously fast.
The second aspect of Mahal's rise that may be giving fans pause is the blatantly market-driven reason behind it. It was no secret WWE kept the comically inept Great Khali so prominent for so long because of his popularity in his native India, and its push of Mahal — headscarf, Punjabi promos and all — feels just as much like pandering to fans in the world's second-largest country. Of course, WWE has long leveraged its performers' hometowns and native countries to grow its bottom line, but rarely has it done so for performers who bring so little else to the table.
Mahal's rise to the main event, then, feels like the result of size fetishizing and market cornering, and little else beyond those most superficial of reasons. Though the 30-year-old has been improving on the microphone, exposing WWE fans' casual racism with a nuance predecessor heels like Muhammad Hassan failed to achieve, Mahal is still exceedingly basic between the ropes. His recent concussing of Finn Balor — by carelessly allowing the former NXT Champion to fall on his forehead after knocking him loopy with a forearm — was an inexcusable, rookie mistake.
So these reasons for Mahal's push may invite some less-than-flattering interpretations of the fans' reaction to it: "It's not real heat, it's 'go away'/X-Pac/'F--k you, Vince' heat," etc. But it's never been harder than it is today to map the causative space between what WWE does and how its fans react — to know whether your emotions are playing right into the company's hands.
Roman Reigns is exhibits A through Z. After retiring The Undertaker at WrestleMania, fans held yet another referendum on "The Big Dog" and the hateful reactions he gets, as though they signal some sort of creative failure on WWE's part. Do they, though? After 10 years of the same fans booing John Cena only to see his merchandise numbers soar and his crossover stardom brighten, how is it still so hard to acknowledge that maybe voracious boos signal some sort of success on WWE's part? Moreover, how is it still so hard to acknowledge that maybe WWE, minding Cena's example, is now chasing those boos?
I'm not saying they are, necessarily. True to its schizophrenic form, WWE's book sometimes seems to fancy Reigns a babyface (his destruction of Triple H and Philadelphia title win in late 2015) and sometimes it seems determined to make him the most unlikable guy in the company (almost every time he's opened his mouth since The Shield split up). WWE seems more headed in the latter direction since Reigns' program with The Undertaker began with a trollish surprise No. 30 Royal Rumble entrance, but who knows when McMahon might change his mind again.
Regardless, Mahal's curious push is just the latest example of McMahon and WWE pulling strings that may be more complicated than fans think. Consider that the next time you're tempted to say that he, Reigns or anyone else in WWE isn't triggering the emotions you think you should have toward them.