At the end of Sunday’s Clash of Champions pay-per-view, Jinder Mahal tapped out. He was in the middle of the ring, his leg contorted in WWE champion AJ Styles’s Calf Crusher, veins bulging as he screamed in feigned pain and probably real discomfort. The referee rang the bell, the camera zoomed in on the triumphant Styles, and Mahal disappeared.
Men don’t tap out in WWE, at least not often, and when they do, it’s nearly always a marker of a shift in storyline. Someone backstage, likely but not necessarily Vince McMahon, sees giving up to a submission move as emasculating. This is why women tap all the time—Natalya tapped to Charlotte’s Figure Eight earlier in the evening—with no more import attached to it than to any other finishing move. There’s nothing to castrate with women, no fears of unmanliness looming over the sight of screaming and pounding on the mat. It is remarkably refreshing and a pleasant reminder that WWE’s men don’t (usually) tap edict is the aberration, not the historical rule.
A testament to the rarity is that I don’t recall the last time Styles won a big match with the Calf Crusher in WWE. That absence of submission wins for such a cool looking move says something about Styles’s place in WWE: well-regarded but not in the role of emasculator when compared to even John Cena with his poorly executed STF. There’s a limit to WWE’s idea of manliness which Styles can display; he’s already in the hole with his distractingly luxurious hair and flippy offense, so there’s no way he can rack up submission wins like a latter day Dean Malenko.
If the lack of submission wins means something a little diffuse about Styles’s place in the pecking order—guy everyone wants to wrestle, best pure wrestler in the company, but probably never the guy for McMahon and company—Mahal’s loss means something definite. He’s done as a top guy on Smackdown. Rusev, in speaking about his own submission finisher, the Accolade, on the WWE Network’s Ride Along show, casually stated that “it doesn’t work on top guys.” And he’s more right than he knows: there aren’t any submissions which work on the top guys in WWE. Submission losses are never just losses, even if the de-emphasis on the guy tapping out is temporary.
It’s rather stunning that Rusev’s Rule was simply blurted out like that, but the logic is true and clear. Submissions don’t work on top guys, a submission worked on Mahal, Mahal is not a top guy. Not anymore.
That much was obvious when he lost the WWE title to Styles on an episode of Smackdown in early November. For six months, Mahal ruled over Smackdown in an overlong, surprisingly dominant reign as champion. Every indication was that Mahal’s run at the top was to juice the attendance numbers for WWE’s autumn tour of India, with Mahal vanquishing Styles or Randy Orton in front of his “home” fans (Mahal is Canadian). Except that he lost the title to Styles shortly before the tour started, the number of shows was cut to one, and the expected title defenses turned into Mahal losing to Triple H before the two men danced in the middle of the ring.
It’s hardly novel at this point, but neither can it be stressed enough: nothing about Jinder Mahal’s run made sense. Not putting the title on him. Not giving him the better part of a year as champion. Not feeding him Nakamura and Orton. He’s an okay talker and a bad to mediocre wrestler who routinely messed up his really simply finishing move. His only good matches were with Styles, who is so good it’s tough to recall the last time he had a bad match with anyone.
That’s a harsh assessment, but it’s also okay to not be a great wrestler. There’s a midcard and roster of openers for a reason, and there’s absolutely no shame in being one of those wrestlers. Having those wrestlers is part of how the form works. To boot, Mahal seems like a genuinely nice guy who recognizes just how wild a ride the past year has been.
But he’s done and nothing came of it. You give the top title to someone for a variety of reasons, ranging from juicing business to performance to temporarily holding it to get it on someone else for storyline reasons. Ostensibly, Mahal’s run was for reason number one, except he never made it to India as champion. Reasons two and three are right out.
Which leaves a gnawing emptiness at the heart of Mahal’s title reign. It’s confused storytelling, yes, but also not a little nihilistic. Because in the end, what does it matter? My colleagues and I will be writing about WWE more weeks than not. People will watch WWE more often than not. Mahal’s run will be forgotten, unless a strange redemption arc is set up for the next trip to India (which is absolutely possible, if not probable).
WWE doesn’t have a monopoly in the industry anymore; the indies and New Japan have, against all expectations, offered a way for wrestlers to make money and for fans to see a variety of styles through streaming services.
What WWE does have, however, is a near monopoly on ease of access—something which may increase with the probable end of Net Neutrality, by the way, given Linda McMahon is part of the Trump administration. WWE is and always will be easy to access. People work more than they have in decades, with less disposable income. They’re busy, mentally and physically. Tapping into an obscure streaming service is tougher for a casual to medium-intensity fan than watching WWE every week, where they tell you over and over exactly how to access the Network in simple terms.
Mahal’s rise and fall over the past year may be more a testament to the power of monopoly of the spectacle than any hole in WWE’s storytelling or shortcomings in his ability as a wrestler. It may simply be that WWE didn’t give a shit because they don’t have to.