BY JAMES GREEN
For the past several years, the world’s largest professional wrestling company has been attempting to make inroads into India. We’ve seen the American promotion stage more shows in the country during the past five years than it had in the previous twenty, and there’s been more airtime given to Indian wrestlers on WWE television shows than there has been at any point in history. Now, it appears that WWE is preparing to take the next step in making India one of the biggest focuses of its promotional efforts by opening up an India-branded arm of its company.
Rumors that NXT, WWE’s ‘third brand,’ would soon be getting a devoted Indian arm first started to appear a little over twelve months ago. The brand has become a massive success in America, selling out arenas and gaining a prime-time television show on the USA Network on Wednesday nights. NXT’s success led to the opening of NXT UK, a British-focused division of the company a little over three years ago.
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While smaller, that promotion airs television shows every week in its home country and is available on the WWE Network. The rumors have now been proven to be true. According to WhatCulture and several other reliable wrestling-orientated news outlets, WWE NXT India will open on Republic Day, January 26th, with the first TV recordings happening on the same day. When it happens, we can expect to see a very familiar face as the headline act.
While WWE has had an Indian World Heavyweight Champion before in the shape of the Great Khali and has showcased the talents of the Indian tag team the Bollywood Boyz more recently, there has been no bigger Indian star within the company than muscular Canadian-Indian performer Jinder Mahal. While he’s been absent from television for most of the past two years because of recurring injuries, Mahal shocked the world in 2017 when he defeated the legendary Randy Orton to capture the official WWE Championship, becoming the first Indian in history to win wrestling’s biggest prize.
At the time, it was seen as an attempt to win favor within the country by WWE, who had their eyes on a new big-money television deal. Mahal had been a mid-card performer at best during his WWE run up to that point and had even been let go from the company in the past, but his stronger, more athletic look upon his return saw him propelled to the top of the card, culminating in his unlikely triumph.
The good times didn’t last forever for Mahal. Although his run with the championship went on for longer than most people expected it to, he was eventually defeated at a television taping in England by AJ Styles in November of that year, seemingly bringing an end to his Cinderella story. The fact that he lost the championship on a regular episode of SmackDown as opposed to a pay-per-view led to suggestions that WWE management was displeased with his run as champion and had decided to call time on the “Jinder Mahal project,” but that proved not to be the case.
At the following WrestleMania – WWE’s biggest show of the year – Mahal defeated Orton again and also beat Rusev and Bobby Roode on the way to claiming his first-ever WWE United States Championship. That was in April 2018. He didn’t hold on to the title for long and began to suffer a series of injuries shortly afterward, but it was clear that WWE still believed there was money to be made with Mahal as a featured performer. Mahal is now fit enough to return to the ring, and WWE has put its faith in him to be the leader of the new NXT India project.
He’ll be joined by the Bollywood Boyz, and also a few WWE Performance Center stand-outs such as Gurvinder Singh, Laxmi Kant Rajoot, and Sukhwinder Grewal. Initially, the promotions’ weekly shows will be filmed in America and broadcast on the WWE Network in the hope that an Indian television station will agree to air them on regular programming. If that’s the case, rumors suggest that WWE will then open a dedicated WWE Performance Center in India in 2022.
While Mahal has been featured as a headline star by the company in the past, he’s not one of their ‘top tier’ attractions. One way to assess who WWE views as its biggest stars are to look at the range of online slots that the company has just released to websites across the world. John Cena, Hulk Hogan, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Roman Reigns, and Becky Lynch all have their own dedicated WWE-themed online slots. Jinder Mahal does not. This is, perhaps, surprising given WWE’s apparent intention to expand into India.
Unlike many countries where WWE does business, online slots websites are legal across most of India. If Jinder Mahal is viewed as a star in India, it’s likely that many of the gambling public would be drawn to an online slots game with his face on it. It’s also not necessarily a barrier to success – Drew McIntyre, the current WWE Champion, doesn’t currently have his own online slots game either.
At this early stage, it’s too early to say whether Mahal’s affiliation with NXT India will preclude him from appearing on ‘main roster’ shows like RAW and SmackDown. He could theoretically appear on either show as well as NXT India while the shows are filmed in the United States, but it’s anticipated that he’ll have to relocate if and when the Performance Center is opened in the country.
That would make it impossible for him to continue appearing on the ‘big’ shows, but that might not necessarily matter to him so long as NXT India is a success. Jinder Mahal is currently 34 years of age, so there’s plenty of time for him to return to the States after playing his part in building the NXT India brand. The idea will undoubtedly be for Mahal to help establish new stars and then return to America to resume his ‘regular’ main roster career.
Until WWE makes an official announcement on the matter, these reports should still be thought of as rumors, but they’re appearing in so many places that it’s unlikely for them to be incorrect. As only the second country in the world outside the USA to get its own branded WWE platform, this is big news for Indian wrestling fans and a statement of intent by WWE.
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