Mustafa Ali found his way to WWE through his entry in the 2016 Cruiserweight Classic tournament. Despite losing in the first round, Ali was later able to find a place in WWE’s 205 Live brand, where he became one of the top babyfaces in the cruiserweight division. He wowed fans with his high-flying skills and inspired them with his hopeful words. He shared with the WWE Universe his ultimate goal, not just for his pro wrestling career, but for the world as a whole.
Bright-eyed and beaming, Mustafa Ali told the audience, “my entire life, I’ve had one mission: to prove it doesn’t matter what your name is, it doesn’t matter where you’re from; all that matters is what’s in your heart.”
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Mustafa’s passion and optimism earned him the moniker of “the Heart of 205 Live.” In his palm, he held a bright blue light that symbolized the hope he spread wherever he went. He used his undying optimism to defeat the villains who stood in his path and set out to prove that anyone with enough courage can be a hero — even a man whose name alone evoked resentment from the ignorant Americans.
Mustafa’s optimism, however, was barraged and beaten down for the rest of his WWE career. At the start of 2022, Mustafa’s light seems to have been dashed; all of the hopefulness and optimism that drove him in WWE has effectively been crushed out of him.
Main Roster Call-up
Mustafa debuted on SmackDown byconfronting the World Champion at the time, Daniel Bryan. The champion almost took pity on Mustafa for how hopeful, how naive, he was. Bryan told Mustafa that the fans were just parasites not worth entertaining.
According to the eco-friendly champion, it didn’t matter how much heart a wrestler put into his performances, as the “fickle” fans would grow to hate him anyway. Bryan told Ali that after their confrontation, the fans wouldn’t care about him. He continued, “they’re too self-absorbed. They’re too xenophobic.”
Mustafa Ali, though, wasn’t swayed by the champion’s warning. He instead told the champion that he missed the old Daniel Bryan, whose unbridled passion drove him to beat the impossible odds at WrestleMania 30.
It’s ironic, looking back now, to see that Mustafa has headed down an eerily similar path to the Daniel Bryan of the Yes Movement. As painful as it is to admit, Bryan got the last laugh between them.
Mustafa’s time on the main roster threw obstacle after obstacle in his way. One of the most egregious of these was his loss at Money in the Bank in 2019; Mustafa was about to win the men’s ladder match, with the MITB briefcase in his reach, until Brock Lesnar (who wasn’t booked for the match) ran into the ring, knocked Ali off the ladder and claimed the briefcase for himself.
It was moments like these that piled up and chipped away at the optimism in Ali’s heart. He began to grow jaded and doubted that the mission that brought him to WWE was even possible.
On October 5th, 2020, Ali revealed himself to be the leader of Retribution. His goal was to completely disrupt the machine of WWE and uproot the system. This was a terrible shift in Ali’s moral compass; he no longer saw optimism and hope as agents of change. Instead, he turned to violence and intimidation. His time in WWE had strangled the light out of Mustafa Ali, leaving a dark antihero where the Heart of 205 Live once stood.
In one promo, delivered backstage with Retribution at his side, Mustafa laid one particularly scathing accusation against WWE. He said, “this company couldn’t figure out how to make a buck off a guy named Mustafa Ali” This line unmasks the subtlety of much of Mustafa’s previous talk of “bullies” during his days on 205 Live. When Ali talked about dealing with bullies, more often than not he was talking about dealing with Islamophobia. This reading of Mustafa’s story makes his arc much more personal; it’s no longer just a story about a man feeling screwed over by a company’s nepotism, but a microcosm of the problems a Muslim man faces, leading him to become so jaded by society’s prejudice that he abandons all hope of a peaceful world.
Mustafa’s short temper proved to be too much for Retribution to put up with. Less than a year after the faction’s creation, its members turned on their leader and left him on his own once again.
On May 3, 2021, the cheery and steadfast Mansoor made his debut on Raw. Though he got off to a rough start, Mansoor remained hopeful that things would improve for him soon. He was amiable with all the wrestlers he met. Mustafa Ali, however, highly disapproved of this behavior and let his opinion be known to the rookie. He told Mansoor, “be careful making friends around here. Everyone is just trying to get ahead and they will stab you in the back. Believe me, I know.”
The two had a singles match a few weeks later. Ali defeated Mansoor with the help of some underhanded tactics, and shamelessly told Mansoor, “stop thinking with your heart.” The word “heart” here is loaded; Mustafa’s thinking about his time in 205 Live, when he not only thought with his heart but embodied what it meant to have one.
He then took Mansoor under his wing, and the two formed a tag team. The pair had mixed success in terms of wins and losses, but the real story of the team was whether Ali could convince Mansoor to give up his babyface tendencies, or if Mansoor could win through honest means.
Eventually, Ali’s patience ran out. He snapped on Mansoor backstage and scolded him for his disobedience. He told his protege, now a “waste of time” in his eyes:
“I tried to help you survive this place. But what did you do? You want to go out and make friends, and be nothing more than a fanboy! Mansoor, you don’t deserve to be here!”
The core of this storyline is that Ali became the very thing he tried to protect Mansoor from. He was the antithesis of what he was when he debuted on Smackdown. What makes their break up especially tragic is that, in the eyes of Ali, Mansoor is his past self, the Heart of 205 Live. Every time he gives Mansoor advice, criticizes him, or yells at him in frustration, he is trying to retroactively correct the path he took when he made his own main roster debut.
Mansoor, though, was his own man. As much as Ali wanted to save Mansoor, it seems Mansoor wanted to save Mustafa. After their breakup, Mansoor made a brief but heavy tweet. He said simply, “I wanted to bring back the light.” These seven words reveal that the whole time Mansoor was teaming with Mustafa, he was trying to revive the heart within him. It’s eerily similar to what Ali attempted when he tried to talk some sense into Daniel Bryan to bring back the man behind the Yes Movement.
“…Because My Name is Mustafa Ali.”
The last time we saw Mustafa Ali on Smackdown was October 29, 2021, when he faced Drew McIntyre. He lost to the Scottish Warrior and became enraged at his defeat. He took the microphone and lashed out at the fans in attendance for their disdain toward him. He declared, “the only reason you choose to root against me is because my name is Mustafa Ali.”
This Ali — the bitter, jaded antihero— is a tragically far cry from the wrestler fans met in 2016. In 205 Live, he made it his mission to prove that anyone could achieve greatness, no matter where they were from or what their name was. Here, Mustafa saw himself as a man condemned by his birth name to live out a constant battle against prejudice. The light that Mustafa Ali carried had burnt out.
On January 16, 2022, Mustafa Ali requested his release from WWE. This adds an especially tragic final note to Mustafa’s story, one that I didn’t see coming when I began wring this essay. It brings his narrative through the fourth wall; not only was the character Mustafa Ali fighting an uphill battle in the ring, but the man behind the role had been as well. His announcement ushers in the start of a new chapter, wherein hopefully the light he carried once upon a time will be given new life.
I don’t blame Mustafa for requesting his release; no one would blame Sisyphus if he set his rock aside and contemplated another goal. I wish nothing but the best for Mustafa Ali, wherever life takes him. In a poetic sense, though, WWE ending his story in such bleak circumstances reflects very poorly on the messages behind their “sports entertainment.”