No matter how quickly he moved, Mustafa Ali was regularly out of breath trying to make it to roll call on time. He'd be rushing, sometimes even soaking in his own sweat before his graveyard shift as a police officer began. His biggest fear was whether his fellow force members would get a whiff of his stench.
Ali wasn't exactly living a conventional life. A few years after he graduated college in 2007, he was trying to make real-life decisions as quickly as possible. He had spent some time toiling in what he more or less considered the banal world of marketing before landing a gig as a Homewood, Illinois, (a suburb outside Chicago) cop.
He was juggling a lot. His father had recently died, and Ali, who faces Cedric Alexander for the vacant cruiserweight championship at WrestleMania 34 on Sunday in New Orleans, was immediately thrust into a position in which he had to take care of his family. He was given the onerous task of working the streets when most other people are staring at the insides of their eye lids, on their way to a night's worth of deep sleep.
Ali was trying to save society from the street-side drug traffickers in an increasingly gang- and gun-infested city. If that weren't enough, he was doing it while raising his infant daughter and balancing a surreptitious existence as a professional wrestler.
Seems like a lot to handle.
"Yeah, it sucked, man," Ali told ESPN.com when asked how he could squeeze this chaotic life into 24 hours. "There were days I'd wrestle at 9 o'clock, and afterward, I often didn't shower and would just throw on sweatpants. I had my police gear in the car and would rush to get to the station by 10:30, clean myself off as best I could and be ready for my shift by 10:59."
At the time, Ali's coworkers didn't realize his side project inside the squared circle. He admits that he purposefully kept a low-key attitude toward his time in the ring, if anything, to ensure he didn't pick up unwanted attention in a job often defined by how savvy you are in keeping your name out of the spotlight.
Still, they knew something was off with Ali. He'd regularly show up to work with a fresh wound or black eye. "What's up with you?" became a standard question. Ali said he was learning to box, to which one cop quipped he "must be a really bad boxer."
It was exhausting, but his life and all its secrets worked for him. Ali had taken up wrestling for the first time more than a decade earlier, when he was 16 years old. He'd been training regularly at the Galli school of wrestling -- which specializes in a Lucha Libre-American-style hybrid -- about 35-40 minutes from his job. He was working with the same gurus who helped shape the careers and styles of guys such as Kassius Ohno and Cesaro.
Ali needed sleep, and he wasn't making much money inside the ring, but he simply wasn't going to give up wrestling. The caveat was that, unlike so many of his cohorts on the independent circuit, he didn't have the luxury of traveling overseas. He had offers to go to Japan, Germany and Mexico, but Ali couldn't justify globetrotting -- not with that paycheck and not when he felt obligated to be there for his family. As a result, he kept doing what he was doing, which was working the local wrestling scene until the day he was given his break.
Ali's life changed when he participated in the WWE's Cruiserweight Classic, a 32-man elimination tournament, in June 2016. During his opening-round match against Lince Dorado, commentator Daniel Bryan mentioned in passing that Ali was a Chicago cop. As it turns out, one of the radio dispatch officers happened to be watching the WWE Network that day. Needless to say, she did some detective work.
"When I eventually came back to roll call, everyone was staring and smirking at me," Ali said. "I said, 'What's going on?' And they said, 'How was your vacation?' I told them it was a lot of fun, but they kept pressing. 'Where did you say you went again? Who did you go with?' She took a picture and sent it around to everyone, so yeah, they eventually found out."
If it hadn't been for some fortuitous circumstances, Ali's name might never have been mentioned that night. He was brought to Orlando as an alternate for the tournament, and when Brazilian performer Zumbi failed to make the event because of visa issues, Ali got the nod. He lost to Dorado in the first round in about five minutes.
"But in those five minutes, I was determined to show the world what I can do," Ali said. "It was a wild experience." He must have made an impression because shortly thereafter, Ali signed a WWE contract, gave up his job as a cop after four years on the force and took a nosedive into the sports-entertainment business full-time. "I knew that's where my passion was," he said.
Judge the man for the man, not for his name
Fast-forward to recent months, and Ali has been given a big-time push. He's connecting with fans on 205 Live, and a large part of his appeal stems from the massive bumps he can both dish out and take. Ali said he has spent hours honing moves such as the insane inverted 450-splash, and despite the concerns backstage, he said he is confident every time he performs a stunt with a high degree of difficulty.
His explosive repertoire has led him to his first WrestleMania -- the biggest, baddest celebration in the business for the cruiserweight title. But win or lose, Ali has a more important endeavor than the possibility of his first slice of gold.
He's ready to change the world. Hyperbole? To most, yes. But for Ali, his reign in the WWE is not only about living out a dream, which it is, but it's also about being a recognizable personality who helps build a more accepting culture.
What better person for the job? "My name doesn't exactly shout babyface," said Ali, despite playing a good-guy role on 205 Live. Ali, whose real name is Adeel Alam, is of Pakistani descent.
"Just take a look at anything you do," he said. "Go to the movies, and you see a guy with a turban. He's a terrorist, right? We're getting better, but we have so much more to do."
It's that type of pervasive knee-jerk reaction that Ali says he wants to help change. And not by standing up and spewing the same sanctimonious messages of goodwill.
In a few days, he's going to be performing in front of 70,000 people, and he wants to prove to those fans that they can -- and should -- cheer for a guy whose name is Ali. He's someone who wants to at least make small steps toward a peace-loving future, by, somewhat ironically, beating up other people.
Ali concedes that there are roadblocks, plenty of them, but they aren't insurmountable, especially if he uses himself as an example.
"I've been told that to see someone like me on TV, someone [with a foreign name] who's not the bad guy but rather an American who comes out with a smile and high-fiving the fans, is encouraging," Ali said. "It gives me hope."