Mustafa Ali knew he didn't want to be another bad guy. The 33-year-old WWE Superstar grew up surrounded by negative portrayals of Muslims on TV and in the ring. In the rare event Muslims were represented at all, they often took the form of figures like the WWE's Muhammad Hassan, who played a villainous Arab-American wrestler, complete with a traditional headdress, in the early 2000s.
Ali, a Chicago native and former cop (whose real name is Adeel Alam), wanted to change that. He began his wrestling career also playing a bad guy until a little boy said something that drove him to change course.
"He jumps out of his chair and he put both of his fists up," Ali told CBS News earlier this month. "It hit me like a ton of bricks right there. I go, 'You just taught this kid to hate people that look like you.'"
That's when Ali made it his mission to show people something they weren't used to in a post-9/11 world: a Muslim good guy.
It's been a big 12 months for the Pakistani-American WWE Superstar. This time last year, he was wrestling on a little-watched show on WWE's streaming service. Last December, he was promoted to SmackDown, where he's seen by millions of viewers each week. Since then he's main-evented shows, competed for the WWE Championship, and taken on legends like Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan. On Sunday, he'll perform at Survivor Series as a member of Team SmackDown.
Ali shared his insights about the importance of positive representation, the challenges he's faced and his goals for the future via email. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Why was it important for you to be a Muslim wrestler without any stereotypical gimmicks? What have been the challenges in that?
Ali: I get the opportunity to be what I needed to see when I was growing up. I've been a fan of the game since I was a child, but every week I tuned in, I never saw someone who looked like me portrayed in a positive way. It was always a stereotypical or evil representation.
It wasn't confined to the ring. In Hollywood, on TV shows, we are always the bad guy. I found myself being questioned and having to defend myself to my classmates in a post 9/11 world. Like, "No, we really don't act like that or think like that."
As far as challenges, I was met with them the minute I stepped into the wrestling business. I was 16 years old when I started training, and the first thing that was discussed was, "Well, since you're a Muslim, you have to be a bad guy." I didn't want to be a bad guy. I wanted to show the world what I could do and be cheered. So I ended up hiding who I was by wearing a mask and pretending to be a luchador (a masked wrestler). I literally had to hide who I was.
Do you think it would have been possible to be Mustafa Ali, and everything that encompasses, 10 years ago? What has changed to allow you to be who you are professionally today?
I think anything is possible, but it definitely would have been a lot harder to do this 10 years ago. Look at all the steps we as a society have taken over the past few years across the board. People are finally fed up with being defined and contained into these little boxes of what they're "expected to be." Screw your expectations. I am who I am, and you won't define me.
Have you experienced any discrimination on this journey?
Where there is change, there is conflict. I've had fans boo me just because of my name. I've had promoters ask me to do really racially insensitive things because they thought the crowd would really react to it. And I'm sure I've been passed on roles and positions because of what I look like and what my name is. But I can honestly say the good outweighs the bad.
What are your personal and professional goals?
Professionally, I would love an opportunity to really show the world all that I'm capable of. Right now, I'm known as a guy that can put on really amazing performances and matches, but a big element in sports entertainment is the ability to tell a story. Take people on an emotional journey. I don't feel I've had the opportunity to do that, but when I do, I'll go down as one of the best storytellers in the game.
Personally, when I'm done competing in the ring, to sit back and realize that I was a game changer. That people can look back and see we don't portray characters because of their race and religion anymore, and that all started with Ali.
What accommodations have you had to make as a Muslim in this career?
The people that I work with in WWE are always very accommodating. For example, during Ramadan, I still fast while performing. Sometimes my match takes place before sunset, so I'm out there with no water or food. When I come back, they'll have a meal ready for me. They'll have a medical trainer checking in on me to make sure I'm well hydrated and feeling OK. Even before WWE, if I was doing prayer in the locker room, other wrestlers would quiet down out of respect despite me telling them they didn't have to.
How much of your character is a performance and how much of it is really you? Do the lines get blurred?
Ali is Adeel Alam. This is who I am. What I say I mean. The struggles the character faces are the struggles I face every day.
Are you aware of your influence as a role model?
It blows my mind every time a fan comes up to me and tells me how I've influenced them. I'm always like, "Me?!?" What's even cooler is that the character is having a positive impact not just on Muslims. I have so many fans outside of my race and religion that look to the character as a source of inspiration. That's wild to me. When kids and families outside of your race are holding up your action figure and wearing your T-shirt and chanting your name, a Muslim name, it's wild.
Do you think you've made it easier for future Muslim wrestlers?
Wrestling isn't easy in any way. It's a hard road. But hopefully I've removed some of the debris off the path for them. When promoters say, "No, you're a Muslim, you have to be a bad guy," Muslim wrestlers can point to me and say, "You're wrong."