A picture of a gaping skull wound held together with a row of staples greets visitors to Mustafa Ali’s Twitter page, an injury picked up during his most recent show in France.
“Leaving Paris with a memento,” he wrote, drawing exclamations of shock from fans in both words and emojis.
Ali, 32, has wrestled with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) for less than two years, but has already established himself as a headline act on one of its weekly shows.
He also made history in April when he became the first WWE superstar of Pakistani descent to perform at the Super Bowl of professional wrestling – Wrestlemania.
Ali, whose real name is Adeel Alam, acknowledges the sense of pride that he gives many of his Pakistani fans, but is adamant that his goals are much bigger.
This Tuesday on @WWE205Live, it doesn’t matter what cards I get dealt in #TheGauntlet match. I’m not folding. pic.twitter.com/BfXTkufBz5
— Mustafa Ali (@MustafaAliWWE) April 20, 2018
“My vision is a lot bigger than being the first wrestler of a background to do something,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ali, who is also a practising Muslim, added: “Someone with my name and my appearance comes with preconceived ideas attached.
“My mission is to erase as many preconceived ideas, barriers and stereotypes as I can.”
Ali was a teenager in Chicago when the 9/11 attacks happened, a moment that triggered widespread hostility towards Muslims in the US.
He grew up seeing very few faces that resembled his own play heroes on television. Rather there were countless shows in which Muslim characters were portrayed as the enemy, such as Homeland and 24, where they played terrorists.
That is what makes Ali’s role in the WWE so significant.
Professional wrestling is essentially a live action scripted drama, with good guys and villains, and Ali currently plays the former on the 205 live strand, which features the world’s best cruiserweight fighters.
Fans see him each week following the rules, appreciating the crowd and respecting his opponents, the way legendary WWE heroes like Hulk Hogan and John Cena used to do.
It is a big departure from the way the WWE previously portrayed Arab and Muslim characters.
The company’s earlier storylines arguably entrenched the idea that Muslims were the enemy.
One example of this was General Adnan, a character who appeared during the first Gulf War and was portrayed as a sworn enemy of the US. Dressed in military regalia, he would pledge his allegiance to God in Arabic and regularly goad the American crowd.
More recently from 2004 onwards, there was Muhammad Hassan, who was played by Marc Julian Copani, a performer of Italian-Jordanian origin.
Hassan was depicted as a disgruntled Arab American, wearing a Saudi-style headdress during his entrances and standing in the middle of the ring delivering critiques of American society.
On one occasion he was accompanied by an entourage of masked men in camouflage gear.
By contrast, the positive manner in which Ali’s character is portrayed is an “encouraging sign”, according to Alfred Konuwa, a Forbes WWE writer.
“WWE has shown the ability to be progressive when it comes to Ali, rather than making him a cartoonish, racially motivated villain.”
Ali is one of a number of fighters of South Asian or East Asian backgrounds to flourish in the last year, alongside Canadian-Indian Jinder Mahal, as well as Japanese Stars Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka.
Konuwa believes this could have a positive commercial effect for professional wrestling.
“As a crop of Asian performers … continue to progress in WWE, it will be interesting to gauge the long-term impact this has in Asian markets. I’m guessing it will be quite positive.”
I remember one kid, he said to me it’s always cool to see someone you consider a role model doing something big and chasing their dreams, but it’s even cooler when that person looks like you
Despite the WWE’s material interest in ensuring his success, Ali, who is married and has two children of his own, is enjoying the opportunity to break the mould and “be the light” as he puts it.
“I remember one kid … he said to me it’s always cool to see someone you consider a role model doing something big and chasing their dreams, but it’s even cooler when that person looks like you,” Ali recalled.
“When he said that, I really realised it’s true. It’s a little easier to relate to someone when you feel ‘hey that’s me. That’s how I look and it’s someone with the same concerns I have growing up’.”
But Ali’s WWE career has not been plain sailing. He spent at least a decade trying to make a name for himself on the independent circuit, while balancing wrestling with full-time work.
He even did a stint as a police officer.
Seeds of grander vision
Ali’s inspiration to keep going was his late father, while it was his mother who planted the seeds of a grander vision.
“My dad is really the reason I have this hard work ethic. I can fully remember him leaving home at 5 o’clock in the morning and not coming back until midnight,” he said.
“While my mum taught me to be the person you want the world to be”.
Fortunately for Ali, he feels he did not face any serious discrimination as he tried to work his way up.
“If anything, who I am and my background helped propel me and helped me stand out,” he said.
He finally got his break in 2016 on WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic.
I can’t tell you the amount of support I’m getting from WWE. They’re allowing me to express myself freely, they’re promoting me, and they’re letting me be me
He was initially just a reserve, but one wrestler could not compete due to a work-permit issue and Ali got the nod to stand in.
His fortuitous performance landed him a full-time contract.
Having established a place for himself on the active roster, Ali thanked the WWE for showing their faith in him and letting him express himself.
“I can’t tell you the amount of support I’m getting from WWE. They’re allowing me to express myself freely, they’re promoting me, and they’re letting me be me.”
Even now in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, his bosses have been accommodating as he fasts, making food readily available backstage for when he can eat again.
But Ali knows that he needs to keep delivering in the ring to continue spreading his message, which he feels is more necessary now than ever.
“A lot [of] people feel because of what society has labelled them, they feel that is what defines them. My message is that nobody defines you but you.”
|Ali thanks the WWE for showing their faith in him [Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images]|