Sixteen months ago, Adeel Alam was performing in front of 400 fans in Lasalle, about an hour and a half southwest of Chicago, in a match promoted by local independent circuit Dreamwave Pro Wrestling. On Sunday, as Mustafa Ali, he’ll square off against Cedric Alexander in the WWE Cruiserweight Championship at WrestleMania 34, one of the biggest events in professional wrestling. The competition is expected to draw more than 75,000 people to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans and millions more via pay-per-view.

“This is something I’ve thought about for my entire life and I’ve been pursuing for my entire life,” says Alam, 32. “I took this huge gamble and it worked out.”

Before signing with the WWE in late 2016, Alam was a familiar face in Chicago’s independent wrestling scene. While working as a police officer in south suburban Homewood, he moonlighted as the character “Prince Mustafa Ali” with local circuits such as Freelance Pro Wrestling and Dreamwave Pro Wrestling (now known as All American Wrestling), making a name for himself as a high-flying performer with an agile offensive move set.

Alam had first been invited to participate in the WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament in mid-2016 and was soon offered a prominent role on 205 Live, the league’s live Tuesday-night TV program. On November 26, 2016, he officially left the police force and flew out the very next day to pursue his dream of wrestling professionally and join the WWE full-time.

205 Live highlights the WWE’s cruiserweight division, which features acrobatic wrestlers who weigh less than 205 pounds. Alam’s signature move, an inverted 450-degree splash from the top turnbuckle dubbed the “54,” helped him win his way through a 16-man tournament on 205 Live and land in the finals this Sunday against Alexander. Though they’re competing against each other on screen, Alam and Alexander are friends in real life, and even watched WrestleMania 33 together live in Orlando last year.

“We told each other, ‘Man, one day that’s going to be us walking down that ramp and we’re going to tear the house down,’” Alam recalls. “Sometimes you’ve just got to put it out there and it will happen.”

Part of Alam’s success is due to how he’s molded the “Mustafa Ali” persona. Despite having the opportunity to promote equality as the WWE’s first wrestler of Pakistani descent, Alam often had to portray a nefarious Middle Eastern stereotype to receive bookings as an independent wrestler in the early 2010s. He admits that it always worked to get crowds to boo him, but he hated the representation and its effect on young fans. During one match in 2013, Alam recalls how a child, no more than seven years old, jumped out from the crowd to angrily confront him.

“I just remember the way he looked at me,” Alam says. “He put his fists up and he took a step back, almost to be defensive. I was like, ‘Man, did I just teach this kid to hate people that look like me?’ That night I decided to quit it.”

Alam pivoted to a well-spoken babyface (good guy) character, often peddling positive messages when speaking on the mic. After winning a physically brutal semifinal match against competitor Drew Gulak two weeks ago, Mustafa Ali stood in the middle of the ring and addressed WWE’s young 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. It doesn't matter what the color of your skin is. All that matters is what's in your heart."

Today, Mustafa Ali is one of the most beloved wrestlers on the 205 Live roster. Alam says winning the Cruiserweight Championship at WrestleMania 34 would not just be a boon for his career, but an important moment for kids looking up to him, particularly as a Pakistani.

“We didn’t have anybody that looked like us (before) and we didn’t have anybody with a name like ours,” Alam says. “The way I look at WrestleMania is this is the night when the world is watching. I’ve always had this sense of responsibility to do what I can to help fix the world and help make this a better place to live. Now I have the opportunity.”

The WrestleMania 34 pre-show begins at 3:30 p.m. Sunday on WWE Network.