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A grand cross-cultural body slam as WWE star turns up the heat

PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> “You people have nothing to celebrate,” Jinder Mahal shouted into a microphone Tuesday night at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The current World Wrestling Entertainment champion was dressed in a black turban and a gray suit with his giant belt slung over his shoulder. He twisted his face into a deep, angry grimace, and continued, “But for my people, today marks Independence Day of the greatest nation on earth: the great nation of India!”

Thousands of fans leapt out of their seats, stuck their thumbs down and roared their disapproval. “SmackDown Live” — one of WWE’s weekly live-televised events had just begun, and Jinder Mahal (real name Yuvraj Singh Dhesi) was using an elaborate celebration of his culture to fire up the crowd. The wrestling ring was decorated with a lush rug; a Bhangra dance team made its way down the entrance ramp; a woman in a purple salwar kameez sang the Indian national anthem.

Dhesi, the first WWE champion of Indian descent, is a heel (wrestling speak for a villain), so it is his job to turn crowds into booing, angry mobs. As part of his persona, he exhorts the crowd with statements of cultural confrontation: that Americans are too clueless to realize that greatness comes from immigrants (and therefore, himself). The heated rhetoric often sounds like it would be at home on a cable news panel rather than a wrestling ring. And on Sunday, it will arrive on one of WWE’s biggest stages: SummerSlam, one of the sports-entertainment company’s core pay-per-view events, where Jinder Mahal will fight a rising star named Shinsuke Nakamura.

WWE performers have long relied on patriotism and “us vs. them” narratives. In the 1980s, a tag team featuring the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff waved the flags of Iran and the USSR; in the 1990s, Sgt. Slaughter, a onetime patriot, switched his sympathies to Iraq. Recently, Miroslav Barnyashev, a Bulgarian athlete who competes under the name Rusev, wrestled John Cena in a “flag match”; the Stars and Stripes prevailed. But Dhesi has been elevated by the company at very specific moment. One of the pillars of President Donald Trump’s campaign platform was to cut down on unauthorized immigration, and his charged language often linked immigration with crime, spurring protests all over the country. This month, Trump unveiled a proposal to cut legal immigration in half.

Both Dhesi and WWE executives deny that his storyline was politically motivated or designed to send subtle messages, even as the company has made a large investment in becoming a global product. The WWE is looking to expand into India, a country where sports entertainment is already popular, with a potential audience of 1.3 billion people. Its programming is available now in 180 countries and in 650 million homes, according to a spokesman. It is a publicly traded company and has attracted many big name sponsors, including Snickers and Mattel.

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