“I don’t care for nationality. I care for unity. I don’t mean to offend anyone. This is just me stating that I feel nationality doesn’t define us as people, it separates us” – Ali.
It is no secret that Ali is one of the best pure performers that WWE currently has under its banner. Some fans and critics (myself included), would even go as far to say that the talent WWE currently has is the best roster they’ve ever had in terms of pure wrestling ability. Ali’s ascension to stardom in WWE is an interesting tale.
Ali was initially picked as a replacement in the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Classic and he would even be eliminated in the first round. Ali clearly made a strong, positive impression towards WWE officials as he was offered a deal to work the 205 Live brand, a show that would air following SmackDown Live every Tuesday on the WWE Network.
The way Ali built a connection with the fan-base was very genuine and organic. It was simply the quality of his wrestling and the matches that followed that garnered him the recognition he so rightly deserved. Quality matches with the likes of Neville, Cedric Alexander, Drew Gulak, Buddy Murphy and Hideo Itami allowed the WWE fan base to see what Ali could offer. The matches in question were hard hitting with a strong focus on storytelling and offered a different stance on the respected, established style of a Cruiserweight match-up.
WWE and their representation of the Muslim faith has always been a rather controversial subject. WWE has been prone to ‘vilify’ the faith and present any character from said faith as a dastardly heel rather than a babyface (i.e. Muhammad Hassan). WWE historically was aligning to common media portrayals of the faith and probably assumed (wrongly) that this was in their best interests to present the faith as the common perception that is perceived by the casual audience. Notwithstanding, the fact that the historical portrayal is undoubtedly wrong.
Looking back at WWE’s output from the past three decades, we could spend a lot of time dissecting WWE’s portrayal of the faith and condemning WWE for this inaccurate portrayal. Despite this, what is more valuable is if we can look at the here and now. In turn, look into how WWE has presented Ali, a talent with Muslim heritage. Then, reflect on the presentation of both the aforementioned Ali and what it means in the overall presentation of the faith. Consider what it means for other groups that WWE may choose to present in the correct manner in forthcoming years.
Ali portrays a character that refers to ‘The Light’. ‘The Light’ references Ali’s inherent desire to be a positive role model: presenting his Muslim heritage with pride and honor in a wide setting; that setting being to an audience of millions of people, worldwide, every Tuesday night. The character – even though it’s hard to call it a character, as it’s clearly the real-life vision and goal of the man himself – has been acclaimed from both wrestling fans and mainstream media outlets.
WWE not opting to give Ali an outdated, controversial and quite frankly distasteful character and instead allowing Ali to virtually be himself in the ring whilst portraying a positive role model has really opened the door for future presentations of religion, sexuality, and gender. It’s without question that in around ten years, once Ali has achieved his in-ring goals, and had an extensive run at the top, we will look back towards this timeframe and the work Ali has done to shatter the stereotype of the Muslim heritage in professional wrestling and celebrate and reflect on what it has achieved in relation to the presentation of not just the Muslim faith but other walks of life.
Upon undertaking the requisite research for this piece on Ali, I was going to base it on his talent and his ability to become one of the key faces of the WWE product. However, I see this is a common notion from fans and WWE officials. Ali is on SmackDown Live on a weekly basis. Following his SmackDown Live debut last year against the then-WWE Champion Daniel Bryan, Ali has been a cornerstone of the brand. He has since been featured prominently against the likes of Randy Orton, Samoa Joe and Andrade.
Henceforth, it was a wasted notion to write extensively about the man’s talent and instead I opted to write how the success of Ali is important for the something much more important than WWE Championships, ratings, or attendance and that is a positive representation of faith in sports entertainment.