Reigning WWE champion Jinder Mahal wants to be a wrestling legend

To an outsider, Jinder Mahal’s reign as WWE champion looks like an overnight success story.

In a matter of weeks, Mahal went from a guy that came up short in many matches to the top man in all of WWE. Just like that, Mahal, who celebrated his 31st birthday July 19, was in possession of the same title that was once held by the likes of Steve Austin, The Rock, and Hulk Hogan.

However, from Mahal’s prospective, his WWE title reign — beginning when he pinned Randy Orton at Backlash in May — was many years in the making,

In 2014, the WWE released Mahal from his contract. On Sunday, he’ll headline WWE Battleground at the Wells Fargo Center. It’s a big deal for Mahal: He’s one of the main draws to a pay-per-view event in the wrestling-crazed town of Philadelphia against a future WWE Hall of Famer in Orton — in the first Punjabi Prison match in nearly a decade no less.

“I was a disappointment to myself,” Mahal said. “I had let myself down during the first run. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for the pressure. I wasn’t ready as a performer. I wasn’t quite mature enough outside of the ring.”

Mahal did not dwell on the disappointment for very long, as he saw his abrupt departure from WWE as a chance to return to independent circuit and reinvent himself, which was tough for him to do within the structured environment of WWE. “It’s a lot less stress and you can experiment more,” Mahal said. “I really needed that to rediscover myself.”

When WWE came calling for him to return to the company in the summer of 2016, Mahal said that he more than ready for the opportunity. “I wasn’t going to take it for granted this time because I knew that it could be taken away from me,” Mahal said. “I was going to come in focused and give it my all.”

Mahal’s Cinderella-like story to the top of the WWE wasn’t met with unanimous praise from wrestling fans and pundits. The doubters, however, do not deter Mahal from making the most out of his second chance with WWE. “I appreciate all of the doubt because it’s going to motivate me to work that much harder,” Mahal said. “I’m going to silence them. I’m going to prove everybody wrong. I’m going to make sure that this is a lengthy title run and I’m going to establish myself as dominant a superstar as there is in this business, as a solidified main eventer for the future here in WWE. I’m just entering my prime. I just turned 31. I’ve got a long career ahead of me.”

“Nobody sees the work that I put in away from the ring,” he later said. “Everybody just sees the 10 or 15 minutes that I’m on television or the pay-per-view match, but you’re not around for the rest of the 24 hours. I’ve been preparing for this moment. I’m focused. This is what I want. I want the spotlight. I want the main event. I want to be in the Punjabi Prison … in an arena like the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where it’s going to be rocking. This is what I worked for. This is where I aspired to be and this is where I deserved to be.”