Meet WWE Superstar Ali: ‘A Kid from Chicago Chasing His Dream’
It’s a sport of masks, hence characters like The Masked Avenger, The Masked Marvel, The Masked Superstar, The Masked Tornado, et al. Of course, there’s the celebrated lucha libre tradition of Mexico, too, of El Santo, Rey Mysterio, Último Dragón, El Solitario, Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras and so many more.
Famed luchador enmascarado El Hijo del Santo once explained, “When I put on the mask, I’m transformed. The mask gives me strength. The mask gives me fame. The mask is magical.”
For Adeel Alam, better known to WWE fans as the high-flying Ali, his mask wasn’t so much a conduit for magic as it was a hiding place. The youngest of three sons of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, Alam grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. As a kid, he faced stereotypes, though he didn’t always understand why. Not that it kept him from chasing his dream of one day becoming a professional wrestler, just like those he’d grown up watching on his living-room television set, larger-than-life heroes who always stood up for what was right.
When Alam first broke in as a professional, he wore a mask to avoid the kind of racial discrimination he had first begun to experience as a child. He was initially known as Alto, and later as Prince Mustafa Ali. To help make ends meet, he wrestled by day and patrolled the streets by night as a police officer. For more than a decade, he plied his craft on the independent circuit. His big break finally came in 2016, when, as an alternate, he earned a shot at the WWE Cruiserweight Championship against Cedric Alexander at WrestleMania. Although he narrowly lost, he had, in Gladiator speak, won the crowd.
Having abbreviated his name in early 2019, Ali, now 33, is one of the WWE’s fastest-rising stars, an ambitious athlete who’s aiming for a shot at the blockbuster pay-per-view event SummerSlam in Toronto (and, who knows, maybe a rematch with Shinsuke Nakamura). StubHub caught up with the man whose bruising physical style is perhaps best encapsulated in the acrobatic 450-degree splash.
STUBHUB: For the uninitiated, can you explain exactly what a 450-degree splash is?
ALI: It’s a terrifying maneuver. The “054,” as we’ve dubbed it, is when I’m standing on the top rope facing toward the crowd, then I jump backward into the ring while rotating forward to complete a 450-degree splash. Basically, I can’t see where I’m going. Not exactly the most pleasant experience, but a spectacular move for those who are watching.
SH: There was another fighter of some renown who went by the name Ali, a guy who knocked down a few walls — and a few opponents — himself. I imagine he’s someone you’ve taken inspiration from.
ALI: Absolutely. Talk about a trendsetter. I was infatuated not only with the stuff Muhammad Ali did in the ring, but outside the ring, too. He was a guy who proved that a movement can indeed be inspired by one person. Look what he did. Look how many people he inspired, including me.
SH: Here you are in a sport known for masks. But you wore a mask for a different reason. What did it mean for you early in your career?
ALI: I’ve got a huge amount of respect for lucha libre and the mask tradition. I was always a fan of it. But my story is a little different. When I first came to the sport, I was just a fan. I was a kid from Chicago who loved The Hardy Boyz, Rey Mysterio. I was a huge Bret “Hitman” Hart fan. I was always infatuated with the “good guys,” guys who just went out there and stole the show. I started training when I was 16. The first conversation I had with the place I was training was character stuff. They told me, “Hey, because you’re a Muslim, because you look the way you look, you have to be a bad guy.” I was so confused by that. I was a high-flyer who liked to do all these moves. I saw myself as a good guy. Why did I have to be the bad guy? But the minute someone knows you’re a Muslim, they’re going to boo you no matter what. That was a fact at the time. It wasn’t just confined to the ring — it was in the media, in movies. Wherever you turned, Muslims were vilified. I was very aware of that. My solution to this problem was to hide who I was. I wore a mask in the initial stages of my career to hide the fact that I was Muslim, to hide my name, to hide my identity, presenting myself as a luchador of Hispanic heritage.
SH: There’s a moment that’s been retold in which you were wrestling in Oak Forest, Illinois, not far from your birthplace, when you looked into a young fan’s eyes and saw fear. How pivotal a moment was that for you?
ALI: I gave into the pressures of the industry. I wanted more out of it, so I adopted the evil foreigner character and went on a meteoric rise on the independent scene. The top promoters were starting to notice me. But it was that fateful night in Oak Forest that changed everything. I was ringside. I bumped into the barricade and looked over at a young boy, maybe seven, eight years old, blond hair, blue eyes. He jumped out of his chair and put both his fists up. He was looking right at me. I saw fear in his eyes, genuine fear. That’s when I had an epiphany, the realization that I had just taught this kid to hate people who look like me. That was the moment. After that night, I refused to portray a character with a vilified message again.
SH: You once spoke about “being the light in the dark,” about representing that kid somewhere in the third row with a funny name like yours. What did you mean by that?
ALI: I feel like we’re surrounded by negativity, surrounded by darkness. There’s so much political strife, internal strife. There’s so much that divides us. The message of being the light is, no matter what, when you face opposition, you face that darkness, if you’re the light, you’re what’s right in this world, there’s always hope. Ninety-five percent of my interactions online are positive. It’s one or two trolls who try to make a remark about my heritage, my religion. Instead of responding with hateful remarks, I do the exact opposite. I respond in peace. I respond with knowledge. I try to enlighten them. If their misconception of me is that I’m violent and unintelligent, this savage, I respond with the opposite of that — peacefully, calmly. It destroys their argument right off the bat. That’s what it means to be the light in the darkness. If you respond with positivity and kindness, it’s going to change the world.
SH: Is that just a matter of maturity? I imagine it wasn’t so easy to see things that way earlier in your career.
ALI: I had a very unique upbringing. My father was an immigrant, so I saw what it meant to support a family, working three jobs. I fully believe that he worked himself to death. My mom, who was also an immigrant, didn’t take the cultural role of what a woman was supposed to be. She was very intellectual. She was out there organizing fundraisers, a very well-spoken woman. That translated to their three boys. We have this work ethic and sense of charity, a sense of doing what’s right. I was a police officer for four years before coming to WWE. I learned empathy in that job. It gets the rap of being a very hard job, where you can’t show emotion. I got to interact with people I wouldn’t normally have ever met in my life. I met plenty of people with plenty of problems. Growing older, you get this understanding of the world. Sometimes we make this place a little harder on ourselves than we need to.
SH: That brings us to the $64,000 question: What’s tougher, being a police officer or making your living in the wrestling ring?
ALI: Everything’s got its difficulties, but I can tell you I don’t fear for my life when I’m competing in a WWE ring. I’ve got medical staff. I’ve got amazing performers to work with. When you’re on the street as a cop, you do have a team, but they’re not always sitting right next to you. You’re by yourself a lot of the time. There were plenty of close calls, plenty of scary nights. I’d say rocking the badge is probably the hardest thing I ever did.
SH: You grew up with two older brothers, playing make-believe, wearing makeshift costumes and dreaming of WrestleMania. I imagine selling your pro wrestling dreams to your immigrant parents wasn’t all that easy.
ALI: Actually, it was all my dad’s fault. [Laughs.] He was a lifelong fan. I was probably two, three years old when my dad put me on his lap, watching Bret Hart battling Macho Man Randy Savage or somebody like that. All this is his fault. I mean, they were parents, watching their son of smaller stature competing against guys who were 6-foot-7, 300 pounds. Of course, they were going to be a little concerned here or there about my physical well-being, but they were always supportive of my happiness. “If it makes you happy, go for it. But can you please make sure you have an education, make sure you get a real job in case this doesn’t work out?” I played by their rules and here I am living my dream.
SH: You’ve said that your current incarnation, Ali, is who you wish you could have watched when you were growing up.
ALI: I think we’ve made strides, not only in WWE, but across the board. Growing up, I had to watch the Iron Sheik. I watched movies like True Lies. Anyone who even remotely resembled me was always the bad guy. He was always out to get America. He wasn’t normal. He didn’t love his wife or his kids. He was always this evil, terrible person. His existence was based on destruction. The only other role you had was Apu on The Simpsons. It was never a positive portrayal. We could be more than a taxi cab driver, a 7-Eleven store owner, a terrorist. Why can’t he just be a kid from Chicago who’s chasing his dream?