In a recent article, I detailed my disappointment with World Wrestling Entertainment in light of their relationship with Saudi Arabia. That piece was written in the wake of dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which took place shortly before the WWE were set to travel to the kingdom for their Crown Jewel show. As details of Khashoggi’s gruesome death continued to trickle out, more international companies began to distance themselves from their dealings in Saudi Arabia. The WWE themselves came under mounting pressure from inside and outside the US government. Naively, I believed they would eventually acquiesce and pull the plug on the show. Clearly I was wrong.
When the company agreed to be part of the Saudi Government’s Vision 2030 project – a ten-year deal worth a reported $450 million – they were not blind to the facts on the ground. This repressive theocracy practiced torture and public execution; as well as infantilising half of its population.
When asked to comment on the worst excesses of the regime, Chief Operating Officer of the company, Triple H offered a cynical exercise in cultural relativism. He opined:
“every culture is different and just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture. You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things,”
In April, when the deal was signed, one could make the argument that the kingdom was changing. The modernisation process was being spearheaded by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The young prince styled himself a reformer: giving women the right to drive and reopening the nation’s cinemas. MBS – as he was affectionately known – had become an international darling, winning powerful friends in both the US and UK.
However, this all came crashing down with the decision to have an innocent man murdered in full view of the world.
Justifying their decision to go-ahead with Crown Jewel, public face of the company, Stephanie McMahon claimed: they were doing it for their Saudi Arabian fans. However, company CEO Vince McMahon, during a conference call to investors the week of the show, dispensed with the subterfuge. He explained:
“the company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority and stage the event. Full year 2018 guidance is predicated on the staging of the Riyadh event as scheduled.”
Cancelling affected the company’s bottom line and risked the entire deal. This is a clear admission: it is only ever about the money – ethics simply do not come into it.
I would love to say that I boycotted watching Crown Jewel. I deplore the misogyny, repression and state-sanctioned murder practiced by the Saudi regime. I believe by going ahead with their show, the WWE are tacit apologists for these human rights abuses. Yet, I watched it anyway.
As tone deaf as the WWE have been in regard to this relationship, they thought it wise to eschew with the overt propaganda that characterised The Greatest Royal Rumble Ever. The previous show saw wrestlers lining up to extol the virtues of the benevolent prince. During Crown Jewel, however, MBS went unacknowledged. The announce team, in fact, did not mention that the show was taking place in Saudi Arabia; not once.
You would assume that any sane person would realise that this event had garnered enough negative attention. Apparently not. It was opened by Hulk Hogan – making his grand return from exile. He had been released from the company three years ago following leaked audio, which heard the Hulkster spewing a tirade of racist epithets. The mind boggles that the WWE thought it prudent to bring him back for this show. Upon his return I was expecting a grovelling mea culpa for his shocking racism, instead he gave a stock speech about Hulkamania and was not seen again.
The body of the show was built around a World Cup of wrestling – featuring eight Americans – which would crown the best in the world. Viewers were treated to the apotheosis of terrible booking when 48-year-old non-wrestler, Shane McMahon, who wasn’t even in the tournament, won. The show culminated with Shawn Michaels & Triple H vs. The Undertaker & Kane. Michaels at 52 years old was stepping back in the ring after an eight-and-a-half-year layoff. HBK, an evangelical Christian, has many times declined offers to come out of retirement, that is until the opportunity arose to wrestle in a country that refused to let him legally practice his beloved religion. No judgement. Even the return of this all-time great could not save what was an awful match.
The show was truly dire. It was emblematic of all the things that are shit about pro-wrestling – it offended your intelligence and was horribly dull. Yet, irrespective of the wrestling, just by taking place, Crown Jewel will leave an indelible stain on the company’s reputation.
Five days prior to this, the WWE promoted their first all-women’s PPV, Evolution. The fact that it took place in such close proximity to their return to Saudi Arabia was clearly a cynical ploy to deflect negative attention. They had come under significant criticism following the Greatest Royal Rumble Ever, where they had agreed to follow the kingdom’s misogynistic instruction that the women were not allowed to perform. At this time the company were in the middle of promoting their own women’s “revolution”. The hypocrisy was lost on no one, except maybe the WWE themselves. Evolution opened up with the cringe-worthy proposition that “Today’s women, they can be and do anything”, failing to add the caveat: except wrestle in Saudi Arabia.
Despite the hypocrisy and the self-congratulatory tone, this show did represent progress, it was not that long ago that bra and panties matches were ubiquitous. Moreover, it was incredibly entertaining, unquestionably the best WWE PPV of the year – excluding NXT Takeovers. Rather than follow the same stale formula of every other show – dreadfully long with a litany of mediocre matches – it felt entirely unique. Top to bottom every match delivered. They brought back past ‘legends’, who, unlike those on display at Crown Jewel, could still perform at the necessary level – and weren’t horribly racist, either. The co-main event between Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch – a Last Woman Standing match – was of a quality rarely seen in a WWE ring. It was, in my opinion, the greatest match in the entire history of the women’s division in the company.
Ronda Rousey headlined the show which was fitting, it was her boundary-breaking MMA career that was the real genesis of the WWE’s women’s “Revolution”. It was her universal appeal that proved there was money to be made from promoting female athletes as top stars in combat sports. Rousey has the midas touch. She has shown herself to be natural at professional wrestling and was able to get a great match out of a less than proficient opponent in Nicki Bella. This show provided a startling juxtaposition to Crown Jewel.
In showcasing their female athletes, the WWE claim to be leading the cultural zeitgeist, in reality, they are barely hanging off its coattails. Nevertheless, the overt misogyny that the company used to revel in, has been consigned to the past. However, their strenuous efforts to paint themselves as progressives has been irreparably damaged by their decision to go ahead with their show in Saudi Arabia. I am not naive enough to think that ethical considerations figure greatly in their modus operandi. With that being said, I did not think they would stoop as low as to become apologists for barbarism. As a lifelong wrestling fan it is impossible not to be disgusted by this.