If you’ve watched professional wrestling long enough, a few elements become rather familiar. Characters that seemingly appear everywhere, integral pieces of almost every promotion’s fabric. The cocky villain with numbers on his side, the domineering monster or even the unpredictable wild man, or woman for that matter. All of those archetypes feature consistently to this day but opposite them, a slightly less complex figure often stands. They are valiant, heroic and brave, the ideal protagonist that’s defined simply by their actions.
In wrestling speak, that character is often described as the ‘white-meat babyface,’ a position as old as time. It’s rarely the coolest persona and certainly not often the biggest but nonetheless, remains a pivotal piece of the wrestling puzzle. That role represents the product’s overarching morality and while it’s arguably become a dying art over time, a few individuals still keep that light shining bright. Within the modern WWE landscape, there’s arguably no greater example of that feat than SmackDown Live superstar Ali.
While it’d be an insult to dismiss Ali as nothing but an undefined hero, his core values are very reminiscent of the often more simplistic heroes that preceded him. The unbreakable people’s champion, a wrestler fighting the good fight regardless of his foe. That’s a sound description of Ali but in truth, his motivation is rooted far deeper. Just as wrestling is built on archetypes, it also features a history entrenched in stereotypes. To quote Ali himself, “anyone of Middle Eastern heritage was always portrayed as the bad guy.”
“The evil foreigner, the terrorist. And I knew I didn’t want to do that,” Ali told The Secret Life of Muslims. Nonetheless, Ali soon that age-old approach regardless, achieving relative success before deciding that he wanted to fight for something greater. Ali would no longer further a stereotype but instead, he’d become the man that those villains often battled, a conqueror that regardless of name or look, displays integrity, honor and decency. With his typecast trope shattered, Ali thrived, quickly becoming one of his generation’s finest ‘white-meat babyfaces.’
Alongside Johnny Gargano and now somewhat distant incarnations of Sami Zayn and Daniel Bryan, Ali’s approach feels reminiscent of some of his role’s greatest performers. While in-ring, Ali is as modern and innovative as anyone you’ll see on WWE TV, he matters for the same reason that Ricky Steamboat once did. Or even more recently, why Rey Mysterio still resonates to this very day. These men were and are integral pieces of any story, the hero without any mystery or misled motives. Instead, they simply seek what’s right.
While experiencing something as it happens, it’s always hard to contextualize how impressive certain moments in time really were. Well, while Ali’s 205 Live stint didn’t experience the most exposure or ever meet it’s fitting conclusion, that portion of his career will forever stay with those watching. It really was a unique, refreshing spell, one without shades of gray or doubt as we followed the noble ascension of a brand cornerstone. Ali slowly climbed the ranks and over time, his spotlight organically increased.
We began to learn about who this man really was, developing an understanding of what he was here to do and why he was here to do it. Unfortunately, things change quickly within the WWE landscape and for that reason, the Cruiserweight crown never rested on Ali’s shoulder. Even still, his journey left an indelible impact on the division’s devoted fans. Inside the ropes, Ali consistently made magic but more than that, he allowed viewers to believe again. He wasn’t trying to be cool or edgy, he was simply trusting his story and with it, onlookers began to trust him too.
The truth is, 205 Live was a wonderful fit for Ali’s evolution but in the big picture, it can only ever be a ladder to greater heights, a bridge to where elite talents strive to be. That’s not a criticism, far from it but with so much wrestling available, only so many places can share the spotlight. SmackDown Live is one of those spots and in December 2018, Ali finally debuted on the blue brand. The former Cruiserweight standout was immediately featured, taking on some of SmackDown’s biggest stars and even battling Daniel Bryan on his very first night.
Main roster success is a complex challenge though and five months later, Ali’s journey now feels in need of a truly focused direction. With so many moving pieces, Ali has remained a factor and with Money in the Bank now just days away, this represents the chance to take yet another step forward. Last week on SmackDown, a wider audience even got a sight of the kind of promos that once allowed Ali to capture fans with just a few minutes of their time. Ali spoke directly to camera, encouraging fans to search for the light and fight as long as they see it.
Wrestling dialogue is a generally simplistic matter at this point but there’s a certain poignancy to Ali’s words. He speaks with poise and confidence, far from arrogant but certainly not unsure either. This isn’t a gimmick, not even close. This is a man that simply believes and with words alone, he can allow you to believe too. Many great performers enter the squared circle every week but Ali has a far rarer skill than his awe-inspiring athleticism. He makes you truly care and in professional wrestling, that’s the greatest feat of all.
This Sunday at Money in the Bank, Ali takes part in the event’s marquee male ladder match. Among a stacked group of talent, Ali’s presence remains special. Whether he’ll win or not? Well that remains to be seen but frankly, I’m not sure it matters. Ali’s appeal was never defined by a title and it’s certainly not reliant on a briefcase either. With that being said, his ceiling feels undeniable. Ali refuses to be typecast and as a result, his impact will be far stronger than the furthering of an ignorant stereotype.
No, Ali is on a path to genuine greatness. This is a man capable of making fans feel something quite special, an energy that very few performers can consistently capture. Wrestling history is littered with brilliant in-ring performers but its list of truly great heroes is much shorter. Ali has the chance to stand alongside that group, an opportunity to join the pantheon of protagonists that allowed fans to live and die with their every move. The white-meat babyface, wrestling’s toughest archetype to achieve.
Fortunately, Ali is special, far too special for any stereotype to stop him and far too talented to do anything but succeed. He’s wrestling’s strongest light, a combination of some of the genre’s greatest traits and a prideful piece of the industry’s fabric. At Money in the Bank, Ali continues to climb his legacy’s ladder, just the latest stop on his road to legendary status.