Several months ago, Mustafa Ali took to social media to announce that he had requested his release from WWE. We last saw Ali on TV back in the fall, shortly after losing to former tag team partner Mansoor at Crown Jewel. I honestly enjoyed the Ali/Mansoor storyline at the time; both men have such natural charisma, and it was a great chance for two of WWE’s lesser featured talents to shine, however briefly. Unfortunately, after a decisive victory for Mansoor at the soon-to-be-called premium live event, Ali faded off the screen, ultimately making a public request to leave the company in January. As they like to do to people who desperately want to get out of Dodge, WWE did not grant the request, leaving Ali in an all too familiar wrestling purgatory.
As a longtime fan (mentally, the Cruiserweight Classic occurred at least 2 decades ago), it was frustrating to see Ali repeatedly be denied the chance to show what he was made of in WWE. His WrestleMania 34 match against Cedric Alexander remains one of my favorites of the past few years; the culmination of a very good round robin tournament that reminded the audience why people had enjoyed the 205 Live brand’s talent in the first place. The focus on sheer in-ring skill, instead of extended Raw segments nobody wanted to see, helped deliver some of the purple brand’s best moments, RIP.
Following his loss to Alexander, Ali continued to turn out incredible matches against Buddy Matthews (nee Murphy when we were pretending he was under 205 pounds). I’ve only been to a handful of WWE shows live, but their match in spring 2018 at my beloved Royal Farms Arena, where Murphy sold a DDT through the ropes like he’d been decapitated, remains the best of the best in my book.
Main Roster Woes
I’ve covered Ali’s main roster journey a bit before, and with regret, there’s not a lot more to say. What was admirable about it was just how devoted he was to making something work, regardless of how much it definitely shouldn’t. I’ve gone back and forth on Retribution, which could have been a solid idea, had it continued the momentum they debuted with and featured wrestlers named anything besides Mace and T-Bar. One thing the group never lacked was passion, as Ali could devote his entire soul to a 90 second promo for a filler match on Raw. And with good reason: everything he denounced about WWE while portraying the villainous leader of a counterculture stable was true. They tried to change his name, turn him into the kind of performer he wasn’t, and when that didn’t work, they blamed him for it. Within Retribution, he was playing the bad guy, but he was being more honest than he’d been on his prior main roster run.
His partnership with Mansoor played off this as well, with Ali constantly reminding the rookie that the crowd would only love him so long as he fit into the box they assigned him. Given the fact that we also haven’t seen Mansoor on TV since the fall, I can’t say Mustafa was wrong there. After becoming one of the most interesting side-stories on Raw over the summer, to completely drop both men once they fulfilled a Crown Jewel match is more than puzzling. Since being denied his release in January, things seemed up in the air for Ali, as little progress was announced on either side. That is, until he showed up to knock some much needed sense into Theory last week.
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Ali interrupted a Miz TV interview to ask a ball-less Theory if he was going to be holding any open challenges for his newly obtained United States Championship. The crowd was moderately hot for Ali, which is well deserved and always nice to see, and he was as solid on the mic as ever. He’s always had a unique ability to clearly deliver the WWE stamped and approved script in a way that feels like he does genuinely believe it all, decade-old jokes and all. Unsurprisingly, Theory wasn’t interested in putting his title on the line, but he did use his bff powers with Vince to score Miz a match against Ali.
The Light Goes On
This was as short and sweet as it needed to be; Ali is among the absolute smoothest workers in the company, and Miz can make himself mesh with literally anyone. Miz got a good amount of offense in here, but this was really a showcase to remind the audience what Ali can do. He had a killer neck breaker through the ropes, but ultimately it was a roll up that scored the win. While posturing very handsomely at the top of the ramp, Ciampa attacked Ali, which leaves us with a very big to be continued.
I’m going to remain cautiously optimistic about seeing Mustafa return to TV; the reception he got was a good sign that I wasn’t the only one twiddling my thumbs and hoping for good news here. It’s a bit of a relief to see Ali returning as a good guy; while he was convincing as the self-avenging leader of Retribution, his style and his easy charisma make him better suited as a dreamboat babyface. And while Ciampa on the main roster appeals to me about as much as Ciampa in NXT, I can’t deny him vs Ali is an interesting concept, if not a bit frustrating at the same time.
The Miz is a short-term feud Ali could easily win, but against someone like Ciampa, who’s recently called up and also looking to find a groove on the main roster, things feel like they could go either way. At the very least, the two will put on a very solid 8-10 minute Raw match, even if I’m concerned they might want to highlight the newly mononymous Ciampa over a man with two whole names and a track record of WWE not giving him a well-deserved shot. If that is the case, it’ll be a bummer to see the very talented Ali again used to prop up someone who won’t fit on Raw the way creative wants. Instead, he could potentially benefit from a mid card feud he’s more likely to win, before ultimately getting the chance to challenge for something like Theory’s United States Championship.
While it’s still a ways down the road, I’d love to see him capture a title with this new return, but we’ll see if anyone understands how capitalizing on momentum works this time around. Once again, the ball is in WWE’s court, and I can’t expect them to land a slam dunk when they’ve screwed this up so many times before. Whatever they deliver, we’re lucky enough to know Ali will do his damnedest to make it work.