Mustafa Ali is one of the most exciting new performers in WWE. Since moving from 205 Live to Smackdown, he’s become involved in storylines with WWE Champion Daniel Bryan, WrestleMania 35 fave Kofi Kingston, and other top WWE stars, and he continues to hold his own. Although he only arrived in WWE with the Cruiserweight Classic in 2016, Ali’s been wrestling since 2003.
For the entirety of his career, Mustafa’s dealt with prejudice and stereotypical expectations because he’s a Muslim, and chooses to proudly wrestle under a Muslim name while still playing a hero. He talks about that in the Season 2 premiere of the webseries Secret Life of Muslims, in which he gets to talk about his life as Adeel Alam, the real man behind the Mustafa Ali character.
With Spandex had the opportunity to sit down with Mustafa Ali and talk about Secret Life of Muslims, as well as his WWE career and all the twists and turns it took to get him to where he is right now.
With Spandex: I just watched your episode of Secret Life of Muslims, and it’s pretty great. What are you hoping fans get out of this appearance that they might not be getting just from seeing you in WWE?
Mustafa Ali: The thing with WWE is that I’m portraying a character that’s involved in a storyline that involves everybody else too, so it’s not really about me. But Secret Life is about the man behind Mustafa Ali, you know? The prejudice, the discrimination, and the preconceived ideas that I had to battle while chasing my dream. What my hope is, is that people see that I’m more than just a Muslim. The whole idea of Secret Life of Muslims is that we’re just ordinary people. We’re your neighbors, we’re your coworkers, we like coffee, you know? We’re everyday normal people with hopes and aspirations and fears. We have feelings; we have emotions. The idea is to just somehow be a little more relatable to someone who might not be as open to talking to a Muslim.
Did Secret Life of Muslims reach out to you, or was this something WWE hooked you up with?
No, they reached out to me. And I was familiar with their work from Season One. But they reached out to me, and told me about the filming of Season Two, and I kind of went back to watch those early episodes, and one episode in particular that stuck out to me was about a comedian named Ahmed Ahmed, and it’s basically my story, but in the comedy world. He’s a comedian, he was trying to be an actor, but he got cast with same kind of preconceived roles that I did, you know? They wanted him in these movies to be the terrorist, to be the bad guy, a heel foreigner, and finally when he said “No, enough’s enough. I don’t want to do it anymore,” he received some backlash for it. He didn’t get cast, he lost out on a lot of roles, and he had to struggle a bit to find his footing in the world of comedy, and be who he wanted to be. That’s the same story for me, but in the pro wrestling world.
Even now that you’re on the WWE Main Roster, do you still encounter situations where fans react differently to you because you’re a Muslim?
You know, with that it’s almost difficult to say, because there’s some times, being new, or not being an established character yet on WWE, because I’m still relatively new, you don’t know exactly what the fans’ reaction is going to be. I’ve had nights where it’s very obvious that I’m the good guy but I’m still booed, and you can kind of make a checklist about reasons why they’re booing me, and one of the evident ones is because of my name and where I’m from.
Especially in the earlier years with WWE — because I’ve been with the company for about two and half years now — but people would see the name Mustafa Ali, and they hadn’t even seen me, just the name Mustafa Ali, and it elicited a negative reaction. And to me that was just years of how the media portrayed people of that demographic, it was always as bad guys. So I think people booed, and then they got confused when they saw this really happy babyface guy coming out, slapping hands and kissing babies, and then they still booed, but then they see me wrestle and they think “Oh, this guy can do some pretty spectacular stuff,” and then they see a guy with an immense amount of heart that will lay it all out in the ring each night, and slowly but surely I feel like they’re finally seeing Mustafa Ali for what he is, and who he is.
Obviously you’ve had a lot of opportunities coming your way just recently. This past Sunday at Fastlane, how far in advance did you know you were going to be facing Daniel Bryan and Kevin Owens for the WWE Championship?
I would say I was told about an hour and a half, maybe, before that match went on. So the pay-per-view had started, and I still didn’t know that I was competing in that match. So yeah, talk about getting ready really quickly and having your mind in a whirl. Watching the show, I kind of went in expecting more of what’s happening with Kofi — and I’ve got all the love and respect in the world for Kofi Kingston — but I knew what I was going up against coming out that night. Obviously it’s one thing to get thrown into a championship match last minute, but we always have to stay ready. And I was ready, I went out and gave it everything I had.
But I knew as soon as I walked out, they were not going to be happy to see me, because they wanted to see Kofi right now. And that’s been the story of my entire life! People have a negative reaction towards me, I get put in a really tough spot, I get thrown into a really dark spot, but somehow some way, my light will shine. Somehow I still can overcome. And at the end of the day, yeah I walked out to boos, but when I walked out of that arena, they were cheering.
You’ve obviously gotten really good at helping audiences see you as a hero, even when they were inclined to at first. Is that why you come out to the ring dressed like a literal superhero?
The entrance attire is completely inspired from the saying “Be the light.” And what “Be the light” means is exactly that. Despite these negative thoughts about me, and people say terrible things, but you can always respond in a peaceful, positive manner. Like someone on twitter will make a comment about my wife wearing a hijab, and I’ll politely educate them, like I’ll go “Despite your insult, this is the actual reason why she wears it, and she chooses to wear it.” So I try to set that example of being the light.
No matter what darkness comes at you, you respond with light. So I thought, how do I become the physical embodiment? How do I represent that? And that’s what you’re seeing now, with the very superhero-esque entrance. I want to be the physical embodiment of light, you know? And I feel like now people know, when they see the lights go off and this light-up figure appear on stage, they know that’s Mustafa Ali.
Both as someone who plays a hero, and someone who obviously has great respect for your coworkers, does it ever feel awkward to be positioned by the company as an obstacle in the way of someone you like and respect like Kofi Kingston?
I wouldn’t consider myself really an obstacle, because if you look at it in the grand scheme of things, we all are challengers. Kofi rides and dies with the New Day, but at the end of the day if Big E had a championship match opportunity, would he not take it? So being an obstacle, I think it’s a given. By competing, we’re all challengers. But given the circumstances, I more than anybody understand Kofi’s position, and there’s no negative resentment whatsoever, because the way I got my job here in WWE was by being a replacement.
In 2016, in the Cruiserweight Classic, I wasn’t even supposed to be in the tournament. I was a replacement, because someone else couldn’t compete, and I made the most of the opportunity. So now here we are two and a half, three years later, and I’m competing on a pay-per-view for the WWE Championship. So if anyone understands taking an opportunity to its fullest, when you need to step in and fill a role. Like I said, I’ve got all the love and respect in the world for Kofi. I believe KofiMania is still alive and well, and I support him, but at the end of the day I do believe I have a WWE Championship reign in my future.
What was it like to transition from 205 Live to Smackdown? Is that something you knew was coming, or did it just happen all at once?
I feel like a recurring theme in my life on the Main Roster is being the last to know everything. Just like the Fastlane championship match I didn’t know about until right before, it was the same with the Smackdown Live thing. I didn’t know about it at all. The first match I had, while I was still on 205 Live, I was wrestling Daniel Bryan on Smackdown, and I was not a member of the Smackdown Live roster. I was told specifically before I went out there, ‘hey, we just want you to know this is a on-time thing, it’s a good opportunity for you, but it’s 100% just a one-time thing.’ And I said ‘okay, sure, I appreciate the opportunity.’ So we went out there and we killed it, and that 100% one-time thing turned into the following week I came and they were like ‘we’re moving you full-time to Smackdown now.’ So no, I didn’t know it was coming until the day of.
And yeah, obviously the transition’s been wild. There’s a level of exposure that Smackdown and Raw get that other brands like NXT, NXT UK, and 205 Live do not get. But at the same time, I feel like I would not be who I am without 205 Live. 205 Live — I talked about being put in tough spots, it’s the toughest spot. It’s the toughest spot in the industry, in my mind, to wrestle in 205 Live. It’s the hardest-working show, because of the spot these guys get put in. So I’m very very grateful for my time in 205 Live. I will always rep 205 Live.
You’ve had such a long career and a winding path to get where you are. Are there any wrestlers you still hope to get in the ring with one day?
I would love to wrestle a guy by the name of Rey Fenix, he’s a phenomenal performer. I got to wrestle him one time on the independent scene, but I believe we both have grown as performers, and if we were to cross paths again it would be something amazing. I’m a fan of all sorts, and I’ve been very fortunate to wrestle most of the guys that I always wanted to.
Jonathan Gresham is another outstanding technical-based wrestler, and I got to tie up with him one time as well, and it’s the same story where I feel like we’ve both grown as performers, and we’d absolutely kill it if we had another opportunity.
But right now, where I’m at, I’m wrestling some of the biggest names in our industry. I’m locking up with guys like Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan and Jeff hardy, so I’m very very happy right now. All my dream matches are slowly but surely happening, but who knows who’s next? Whoever it is, I really feel like I’m hitting my stride right now. The confidence is there, and my skills are only sharpening. So whoever’s next will get the best version of Mustafa Ali.
To bring things full circle, what advice would you give to someone who wants to build a career in wrestling, who doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional mold for what gets over in this industry?
I get asked that a lot, about what advice would you give, and it’s two steps. The first is that there is no algorithm. There is no simple formula of how to make something work for you. If I told you, hey this is how I perform as a good guy and how it works for me, that might not work for you. It’s just trial and error. Don’t go into it expecting steps A-B-C-D, because it gets mixed up a lot.
The second piece of advice I’d give is on a broader scale, and I feel like we don’t talk about this enough, especially with youth chasing their dreams. We always here about the musician, or the actor, or the wrestler, and how they’ve decided this is what they’re going to do with their lives. And they quit their jobs, and they jump in their car, they move to wherever, and they struggle and live out of their car, but they’re going to make it by any means, you know? And then they turn into a huge success. We always hear about these stories, but what we don’t hear about is the people who don’t succeed. We don’t hear about the people who are still living in their car. We don’t hear about the people whose dreams never are fulfilled. We never hear about what happens to them.
It took me 16 years to get to the WWE. And the reason for that is that I did it — I don’t want to call it the responsible way, but I’m going to call it the responsible way. I went to school, I worked multiple jobs, and yeah, I chased my dream. I was working Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights at independent shows, but when those shows would end I’d go straight to a midnight shift as a police officer, and I’d work till eight o’clock in the morning. Then I’d sleep for a couple of hours, and I’d repeat it all over again. So I’d miss out on birthday, hanging out with friends, and all that stuff, but I chased my dream responsibly. And yeah, it took me longer to get here than a lot of other people, but the thing is I got here knowing that if it didn’t work out, I had something to fall back on. I had two degrees. I had a law enforcement background. I was an educated man who had real work-life experience.
And I know it sounds very old and preachy and “dad,” but I don’t think we talk about that enough. We always talk about “if that’s your dream, you just chase it!” And yeah, put a hundred percent into that, but be responsible. There’s no need to put all your eggs in one basket. You can be committed to something and want it to happen, but why does it hurt to have a backup plan? I’ll get off my soapbox now, but that’s my advice for anyone chasing anything, not just in wrestling.