Lying sprawled out on the canvas, the arena lights burning brightly above him, Mansoor Al-Shehail looks out into the crowd. The emotion of competing at home in Jeddah threatens to overwhelm him but through a gap in the ropes he spots a young Saudi boy cheering his name. It reminds him of where his WWE journey started. Five minutes later he is the last person standing in a 50-man battle royale, reveling in a victory he will never forget.
Overcoming self-doubt is nothing new for Al-Shehail. He was first bitten by the wrestling bug when playing the WWE No Mercy video game as a child. That passion eventually took him to the independent circuit in the US. Despite dedicating himself to the craft, when presented with the opportunity to attend WWE trials in Riyadh three years ago, he didn’t feel ready to apply. Fortunately, his brother had other ideas. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I almost let it slip through my fingers,” Al-Shehail recalls. “WWE was something that I just instantly fell in love with as a child – it was like superheroes in real life. I always wanted to be a wrestler, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a skinny, small guy.”
Despite his physical dedication, Al-Shehail didn’t think WWE would consider his candidacy. His sister pushed him to do it, while his brother filled out the application. “It bothers me that I treated it so passively, but there’s always been that part of me – a pessimistic, cynical side. It’s always been a battle to make me believe in myself.” Such an admission is surprising, given the outward image of professional wrestling. WWE is a larger-than-life organization drenched in drama. Its wrestlers are celebrated caricatures whose bodies resemble something between Herculean sculpture and Olympic weightlifter; humility usually gives way to self-aggrandizing and “smack” talk.
But Al-Shehail is cut from a different cloth. An armchair fan- turned-superstar, he studied drama at college to build his confidence in front of crowds. Wrestling, he says, is like “theater in the round.” The memories of performing at obscure venues for US $20 a night are still fresh for the 23-year-old Saudi, who recalls that “being able to pay for gas and maybe fast food was a win for me.”
An affable everyman, it is unsurprising that Al-Shehail’s popularity has exploded in the Kingdom and the wider Middle East. Importantly, he is trying to forge a different path from previous wrestlers from the region. From “Abdullah The Butcher” to “The Iron Sheik,” representations of the Middle East in professional wrestling have historically consisted of outdated orientalist stereotypes. Whether the wrestler possessed genuine regional roots or, as was often the case, was simply playing an Arab character, that role was usually of pantomime villain, known as a “heel” in wrestling parlance.
“For a lot of guys, there was really no choice. They had to play that role to support and feed their families, so I don’t blame them at all,” Al-Shehail says. “These caricatures of foreign bad guys, of Arab bad guys, have always existed across all media and you still see it in movies and TV shows. However, it is changing.”
Al-Shehail has seen his Arab identity feted rather than ridiculed by WWE – a fact not lost on the wrestler. “Of course my being here revolves around WWE’s commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia, but I’m not coming out on a camel to Arab music, wearing traditional dress. They could do that, but they don’t because they just want me to be me.” He recalls how, as a boy, “the guys I saw on TV were cool, but there was nobody I could directly relate to, who was like me. Now, I am trying to represent that. It is honestly so big for me. I feel so sure that there will be hundreds of Saudi wrestlers after me now. That’s my goal.”
The 10-year WWE deal is just one of a number of big sports and entertainment contracts penned in the Kingdom over the past 24 months. Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has seen the pursuit of a more progressive agenda domestically but for some, change has not gone far enough – exemplified by the international clapback surrounding female wrestlers not competing at WWE’s Saudi shows. However, Al-Shehail feels people are often too quick to make cultural judgements without understanding the entire picture. He insists the Saudi Arabia he triumphantly returned to this summer is a different country to the one in which he grew up. “Once when I was sick as a child and my mother couldn’t drive me to the pharmacy because she wasn’t allowed to, she had to carry me in,” he recalls. “She’d forgotten her hijab and was accosted about it. That was normal life in Saudi Arabia. Now, things are very different.”
The Greatest Royal Rumble show in April this year was the first time he had ever witnessed men and women watch the same show in Saudi Arabia. “It blows my mind comparing the country now to where it was when I was a kid. People can criticize WWE all they like for going to Saudi Arabia but change is like a staircase. You can’t jump every step. You have to climb one at a time.”
Originally published in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia.
Photography: Ziga Mihelcic
Style: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Grooming: Diana Tin Shot
Location: Gravity Calisthenics Gym
With thanks to Mohammad Saif, Mohammed AlByzik, Dubai Pro Wrestling