World Wrestling Entertainment: Progressives Who Support Barbarism

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.

Black Belts for Fascists?

I do think it is completely unnecessary to bring politics onto the mats. Jiu-jitsu should provide escapism from the continued polarisation of our societies.

However, that may no longer be possible.

In the run-up to the Brazilian presidential election, a number of jiu-jitsu practitioners and elder statesmen of the art backed the far-right politician – now president-elect – Jair Bolsonaro. It is easy to criticise their outspoken endorsement of this abhorrent individual. One could certainly question their morals. Their support for this demagogue shows, at the very least, a willingness to normalise his hateful rhetoric. Nevertheless, they certainly have every right to share their political opinions.

With that being said, using one’s position within the jiu-jitsu community as a platform to espouse a political view is one thing, but, the act of awarding an ‘honorary’ black belt to an unworthy bigot is something else entirely. I say this in no uncertain terms: Robson Gracie awarding a black belt to Jair Bolsonaro was an affront to jiu-jitsu.

Unfortunately, I learned a long time ago that the universal principles of jiu-jitsu are highly negotiable. The respect, the trust and the vaunted notion of family can be jettisoned in an instant. Akin to all areas of life, hypocrisy runs rampant.

One thing that remained sacrosanct was the black belt. This was something that set BJJ apart from other martial arts. To receive a black belt was recognition that you possessed the requisite skill to perform the art at its highest level. It was incontrovertible proof of your determination, passion and work ethic; the accumulation of countless hours on the mats, across a span of years. The black belt was an illuminating symbol of your unique achievement.

Over the course of a decade, I have given everything to jiu-jitsu. I am fiercely proud of the brown belt I have earned during that time. It has been the most challenging undertaking of my life, yet, one that has rewarded me in innumerable ways. This one contemptible act cannot take that away, but I do feel it undermines it. Gifting anyone – let alone this man – the highest of all accolades undermines the entire system. It is truly ridiculous.

The jiu-jitsu community should not ignore this ignominious act. Even in the most charitable of readings, Robson Gracie made a huge error of judgement. This has set a terrible precedent. Despite his venerated status – one of BJJ’s few red belts – his decision needs to be critiqued by all those who have embraced the grind and earned a belt in jiu-jitsu.

I’m not just disappointed, I’m angry. We all should be.

Bolsonaro: A Threat to Liberal Democracy?

Anyone who has followed this blog in its five years of existence – notwithstanding the last twelve months where it has lay dormant –  will be acutely aware of the affinity I have with Brazil. I love that amazing country. It literally changed the direction of my life. An initial three-week visit in 2012 inspired me to leave full-time employment, and pursue jiu-jitsu. From there, I spent nearly two years living in Rio, the majority of which, I stayed with a Brazilian family who took me in and accepted me as an honorary member. I acquired another family on the mats at the Fernando Terere Academy. I was part of a brotherhood – I had sisters there, too – that could only be accessed by committing to all-out warfare. Every single day we renewed our bond by attempting to strangle one another to death. Some of my happiest memories lie on the mats and the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

With that being said, I was not blind to problems the country faced – I would literally have had to bury my head deep in the sands of Copacabana not to see them. My stay coincided with the worst recession in a century. In the past decade the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) pulled millions from poverty and presided over one of the fastest growing economies in the world. However, those gains were squandered by the very party that had achieved them. Political corruption was rife and everyone knew it. The disproportionate distribution of wealth was truly startling. Living in the Cantagalo favela, the home of my Brazilian family, I saw first-hand the poverty and the violence that many were forced to live with.

While I have not had the opportunity to return for two years, I have retained a deep connection to my second home. Thus, I have been glued to the coverage of Brazil’s presidential election – which has been getting an unusual amount of coverage from news outlets here in the UK. It shocked me to witness vast swathes of the country fall for the allure of a far-right demagogue. Last weekend when Jair Bolsonaro – leader of the ironically titled: Social Liberal Party – was elected president, I was honestly horrified.

In the Western press Bolsonaro has been gifted the moniker: Trump of the Trumps. Perhaps this comparison, with the buffoonish American president, is main reason this story has received so much coverage. Ostensibly, there are a number of similarities. They were both able to create populist movements under the aegis of being political outsiders – this is despite Bolsonaro serving in congress for almost three decades. They similarly side-stepped traditional media and spoke directly to their supporters – Bolsonaro’s chosen platform is Facebook. And each man has been lauded by their supporters for their willingness to “tell it like it is”. Furthermore, both threatened they would not accept the outcome of the election if it was unfavourable.

Brazilian author, Luiza Sauma described Bolsonaro as “Trump on steroids” – this description gets us closer to the truth. Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitalia – Bolsonaro has issued rape threats, infamously telling a journalist she was too ugly to rape. Trump’s rhetoric has led to the “Othering” of the LGBT community; Bolsonaro claimed he would murder his own son if he came out as gay. Trump claimed, asininely, that climate change was a Chinese hoax. Bolsonaro described climate science as “greenhouse fables”, and is prepared to carve up the Amazon rainforest selling off land to the highest bidder. Trump has polarised American politics; his detractors feel a visceral hatred towards him. His Brazilian counterpart is loathed, by some, to such a degree that they would attempt to murder him. He suffered a punctured lung and nearly died after being stabbed at a campaign rally.

Jair Bolsonaro is the latest in a line of right-wing populists that have recently risen to prominence. However, not only is his rhetoric more hateful than his contemporaries in Western Europe and the United States, he is far more dangerous. There are, in my view, two main reasons for this:

First, Bolsonaro is an evangelical ideologue – with a clear and unwavering sense of morality. Unfortunately, the morality derived from his religious conviction is one which is disdainful of the “Other”. He explains, “God above everything. There is no such thing as the secular state. The state is Christian and the minority will have to change.” His willingness to marginalise minority groups is justified by these fundamentalist beliefs. Revealed knowledge allows him to denigrate homosexuality with zero thought for the human cost. His unbridled misogyny is spoken with the certainty of a zealot.

Second, Bolsonaro, a former army captain, makes no attempt to hide his authoritarian tendencies. He speaks favourably of the military junta that controlled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, championing Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a man responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of left-wing activists. Bolsonaro advocates an ultra-hard-line policy towards criminals, he believes the police should shoot to kill – this is a police force who last year killed a mind-blowing 5,000 people. He proposes loosening gun laws; arming private citizens as a means of combating record levels of crime. One of his most inspired ideas involves providing Brazil’s farmers with shotguns, which will allow them to defend themselves against –unarmed – protest groups who occupy their land. His plan to bring a number of ex-generals into his government appears to foreshadow the sign of things to come.

The combustible mixture of evangelical ideology and authoritarian demagoguery is one to be very afraid of.

Following the election result, I spoke with a number of my Brazilian friends – admittedly more affluent and left-wing cats – who were certainly angry but not in the least bit shocked. One friend explained to me, during the campaign, “the environment was anti-PT rather than pro-Bolsonaro”. The country’s most impoverished felt the economic crisis the most acutely, they blamed the Workers’ Party for their suffering, and voted against them in protest. Another friend explained that: many people were willing to overlook his hateful rhetoric because they believed that he could solve the endemic corruption and high-levels of crime that plagued Brazilian society. For those living in Brazil’s favelas, here was a man that promised to end the violence their blighted their daily existence, looking at it from their perspective, it is possible to appreciate his allure. This was the position taken by members of my Brazilian family – who were vocal supporters of Bolsonaro – they explained to me, simply: that all law-abiding citizens were in favour of him.

In victory he attempted to offer a conciliatory message, explaining: “This country belongs to all of us… Brazil is a country of diverse colours, opinions and orientations”. Going forward, will his rhetoric and his policies reflect this sentiment? One can only hope.

I am worried about my family. I am worried about my friends. I am worried about Brazil’s already marginalised minority groups. Perhaps most importantly, I am worried about the very survival of liberal democracy. A democratic system is predicated upon the smooth transition between elected leaders, if this fails, democracy is dead. Bolsonaro will be inaugurated on 1 January, at that time we will discover whether Brazil has a despot on their hands.