DUBAI: Mustafa Ali knows the buzz of performing in front of a WrestleMania crowd all too well.
It’s a feeling that he has been chasing ever since he experienced it for the first time in 2018.
But when WWE’s showpiece event returns next weekend, it looks like Ali - just like the homebound crowds - will be watching from his family home’s sofa - and he’s completely at ease with it.
“WrestleMania has been something that turned into an obsession and it has its ebbs and flows for me,” the American wrestler, born to a Pakistani father and an Indian mother, said.
“Relatively early in my WWE career I had this amazing opportunity, although it was on the pre-show, it was still a WrestleMania-featured match for Cruiserweight Championship against one of my closest friends, Cedric Alexander, and we absolutely tore the house down.”
Ali, real name Adeel Alam, lost the fight to Alexander but he had lived out a dream he’d had ever since he was a kid growing up in Chicago with a room-full of, then still, WWF action figures and walls covered with pictures of Kane, Jeff Hardy, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper and many more.
“John Cena was reacting to our match and we got millions of viewers, I remember all the media and the press, and even though we were on pre-show, you felt the pressure of performing on WrestleMania,” said the 35-year-old.
“I’ll never forget walking down that ramp and looking up and seeing my name and the video packages and all the hype. That was one of the coolest moments of my life, and I’ve never quite achieved that level of success again going into WrestleMania.”
Ali who is signed up to WWE’s Raw brand, says he worked tirelessly towards getting into WrestleMania 37 in Tampa, Florida, on April 10-11, and he has a much healthier outlook about missing out than he did last year.
“I was aggressively trying to get on [WrestleMania], and when I found out I wasn’t on the show, I was blaming everybody but me,” he said.
“This year, I looked in the mirror and said I can get upset again, I can get mad at everybody else, but at the end of the day I’ve got to look at myself and realize I have to do something as a performer where they don’t have a choice but to put me on the card.”
Though Ali has missed the visceral reaction of the fans in recent times, he says the introduction of WWE ThunderDome, the virtual videoconferencing crowd system and arena, has been a game-changer.
“Don’t get me wrong, you’re in the ring and there are millions of viewers and there is another man or woman who you’re competing with and they’re trying to take your head off,” he said.
“So the adrenaline is still there, the prep is still there, but I genuinely miss that live feel, there’s nothing in the world like it.”
Ali has particular fond memories of 2019’s Crown Jewel at King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, when he was part of Team Hogan that took on Team Flair in a five-on-five tag team match.
“My favorite thing on my most recent trip to Saudi Arabia, as we’re making our way to the arena, you see these kids running alongside the bus and they’re giving each other RKOs and I was just blown away. And for me specifically, when they announced my name and it popped up on the giant screen, the audiences, despite the fact I’m not from Saudi, I’m not Arab, I’m not Middle Eastern, they see my name and there’s a connection there.”
Ali sensed the crowd identify with him, in the same way they identify with local hero Mansoor.
“It was a cool moment,” he said.
“Because I was that kid in the audience and I would look up and I would never see someone that looked like me performing at such a high level. So I think it’s cool for them to look up and see someone like Mansoor, someone like Mustafa Ali, and they say, ‘oh those guys look like me and they made it’.”
Ali, however, stops short of calling himself a role model, saying that as man a man with many “imperfections” he doesn’t want to let anyone down.
Whenever Ali misses the feeling of being in the ring, he falls back on one of his quirks from when he was traveling the world for the WWE SmackDown live tours, where he would tweet out the schedules of the performances.
“In one weekend I did Manila, Shanghai and Honolulu,” he said.
“These are three places people save their entire lives to go see, and I did that in one weekend. And then I flew back to the US and I did TV, so there is a sense of almost a badge of honor, I’ve earned my stripes. Sometimes I go back and look at these tweets and think I’ve done more, and forgotten more, than I’ll remember and that’s cool.”
Ali says that when the call comes to get back in the ring, he will be more than ready, but acknowledges that the lone bright spot during a very difficult year has been the time spent with his young family.
“I have a three-year-old son and now he actually knows who his dad is. I have a seven-year-old daughter and we get to hang out almost every day, I get to help her with her homework,” Ali said.
“I get to teach them how to ride bikes and play sports. I have beautiful wife that does everything for me, I get to be at home. I’m out there busting my butt, making this money, and now I get to be here with them while they enjoy it. That’s a blessing.”
“They call me baba, ‘baba’s home’. That’s awesome.”