Soon after Jinder Mahal won the WWE heavyweight championship -- the greatest accomplishment of his professional life -- he left the Allstate Arena with two of his cousins to go eat chicken.
Chicken and rice, actually.
Mahal had just beaten Randy Orton at the Backlash pay-per-view, culminating his journey from an enhancement afterthought to achieving one the company's highest honors, and there he was at a local joint in the suburbs of Chicago eating chicken. When he finished, Mahal made the quick drive back to a local hotel for whatever sleep he could manage, before waking up only hours later to work out -- just as he had every other day since re-committing himself to the craft that almost pinned him for good three years earlier when he was cut by the WWE.
Boring, right? Mahal never considered anything resembling a garish celebration with fireworks and a parade of dancers like the scripted Punjabi festival two nights later on SmackDown Live. Just chicken. And rice.
There's a wash, rinse, repeat thing Mahal has had going on since his return to WWE, and nothing, not even his first championship belt, was going to dissuade him from his routine that night.
"You cannot become complacent or comfortable," Mahal recently told ESPN.com. "You can't become lazy. Being released was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It sparked my passion and forced me to work harder."
Mahal become only the second Indian origin WWE champ after the Great Khali, who held the belt for 61 days in 2007. And while he has great respect for Khali and the cultural significance of this accomplishment, Mahal took little time to revel in the gold around his waist, as his post-Backlash non-celebration showed us. It's not about survival or even a moment anymore. Last Sunday's triumph was the first step toward a defining legacy he's aspired to since he was a kid. We're talking, as Mahal said, all-time great WWE superstar and Hall-of-Fame kind of legacy.
"To become the WWE champion, you need confidence in yourself, in your ability," Mahal said. "You have to have confidence when you speak. When you start to look backward, that's when the confidence begins to weaken. That's not me. Not anymore."
Journey from jobber dude to The Man
Mahal grew up in Calgary, Canada. When he was 15, he would regularly take a bus 90 minutes in sub-zero temperature to a training center owned by Allen Coage (Bad News Brown in the WWE). Coage was trained in the art of judo. In the 1976 Olympics Games, he won a bronze medal before retiring from competition. Afterward, Coage continued to instruct his aspiring pugilistic pupils.
"He'd make me do a ton of pushups, a ton of squats," Mahal said. "That part was very tough. But no one made me do it. I showed up gladly and always was ready to do it again."
And he did. Ultimately, Mahal got his shot. He spent eight years toiling in the minors of wrestling, including Prairie Wrestling Alliance, Great North Wresting and Stampede Wrestling -- the last alongside the likes of Natalya, Tyson Kidd and Viktor -- before joining the WWE in 2010. Mahal strung together some promising, albeit fleeting, moments. He began feuds with The Great Khali, Ted Dibiase Jr. and Ryback, although none amounted to much of a compelling storyline.
In 2012, Mahal teamed up with Heath Slater and Drew McIntyre, a snake-bitten threesome infamously known as 3MB. It was a creative lapse that Mahal called "the biggest mistake he could have made," one that likely contributed to his departure from the WWE two years later.
For the first time, Mahal began to lose hope. Yes, this determined, indefatigable worker who'd bled body slams and drop kicks his entire life finally had hit a demoralizing threshold that made him rethink his career.
"Lost my motivation," Mahal said. "I was selling real estate on the side, and thought that if it doesn't work out, I could just do that if I want to."
Real estate? A respectable, if not potentially lucrative, vocation, but this wasn't Mahal's vision -- not for a guy who'd travel 90 minutes to the foothills of Alberta, Canada, just for pushups. Dejection led to drinking -- drinking daily -- and Mahal lost faith in his ability to perform in the ring.
Ambivalent about whether he should stick with wrestling, he decided to return to the independent circuit.
It took time and discipline, but Mahal rediscovered his passion in these promotions that were often lucky to draw 1,000 spectators. In 2016, he re-signed with the WWE. Mahal came back, this time with not just with a more dogged mindset, but with a sculpted physique good enough to land him on the cover of any fitness magazine. Thus, the story from squash fodder to sultan of SmackDown began.
Body fat? Not this guy
It's all about the six-pack. It's that simple for Mahal.
"When I train hard, I look better," he said. "I see the way I look on TV or in the mirror, and it gives me confidence. It translates into the ring. I have more confidence and can be more aggressive. If you saw me from a few years ago, the confidence level is night and day, and that's because of the way I look."
True. But Mahal has taken a lot of flak -- more accurately, he's been the subject of wellness violation accusations -- for the scale of his physical transformation. Ryback, a one-time Intercontinental champ who's not exactly lacking any muscle mass, said that Mahal's appearance should set off red flags. Dave Melzer, the longtime wrestling scribe, echoed those comments on his podcast.
"I've been tested plenty, and never failed one," Mahal said. He works out six days a week, and points toward his commitment to a routine as paramount to his success.
A little more than a month ago, Mahal had a conversation with the WWE creative team. They told him in short, "We're going to give you your opportunity." Between his physical presence and his improved mic work, he was ready. SmackDown Live was about to feel the wrath of the Maharaja.
"I know Vince [McMahon] appreciates wrestlers taking initiative, putting in the hard work," Mahal said. "He had confidence in me. He knew I would embrace the opportunity, and not let WWE down. I think I have been proving that in my matches ever since."
Of course, it took a lot of losing since his return more than a year ago before Mahal finally got the push into the spotlight.
Perhaps it was all just an extended rope-a-dope tactic, but he is the champ now, and whatever Mahal accomplishes moving forward, his mission is to work tirelessly and live healthily.
Pass the chicken, please.