As a fan of anything that you pay a lot of attention to, you accept a certain amount of, let’s call it, imperfection. That’s too polite, of course, for pro wrestling, given the amount of sexism, homophobia, and racial caricature baked into wrestling’s past. But you hope and at times agitate for things to improve. The arc of progress generally moves upward, after all.
It’s gotten better at WWE, the biggest pro wrestling company in the world. This odd, athletic soap opera I’ve enjoyed since I was a child has mostly caught up with the times.
Women who wrestle in WWE no longer compete in pudding matches, for example. They now wrestle in Hell in a Cell matches, Royal Rumbles and in no-gimmick contests that are sometimes great enough to steal the show. Hell, Ronda Rousey wrestles for WWE now.
Stereotypes, long used to bait fans’ basest instincts, are less abundant. The blackness of some wrestling characters and the homosexuality of others is no longer presented for crowds to fear or hate. These things are presented as, wouldn’t you know it, something fans might want to cheer.
There’s a lot of good in wrestling these days. There’s a lot of improvement and a lot of wonderful wrestlers and matches and shows that make WWE something I’ve enjoyed paying money to cheer for. Each summer I happily take boys my wife used to tutor to big WWE shows in Brooklyn. Each summer I also pay silly amounts of money to see the big Summerslam events and to sit as close to the floor as I can for episodes of Smackdown. I don’t buy any of the t-shirts or replica belts, but I started paying $10 a month for the WWE streaming network the moment it launched in early 2014. I had no regrets. I watched the WWE’s minor-league division NXT on it regularly, enjoyed their UK and women’s tournaments and was just getting into the cruiserweight show 205 Live.
This morning, I canceled my WWE network subscription.
WWE is planning to run a show called Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia next month, and I’m not comfortable paying money to them if they follow through, given the latest allegations made against the Saudi government that is financing the show.
I have nothing against the basic concept of WWE running shows in Saudi Arabia. If they want to promote there and spend their own money doing shows that are true to their product, that’s cool. But that’s not what has been happening this year. In April, just two weeks after WWE’s ostensible biggest event of the year, Wrestlemania, WWE ran a show in Saudi Arabia called The Greatest Royal Rumble. It was not representative of what WWE is today, what with a notable section of its roster forced to stay home. While Wrestlemania featured several women’s matches, including the show-stealing Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka and the wrestling debut of Rousey, the Greatest Royal Rumble had none.
Instead, with women prohibited from performing, the April show had time to air men’s matches and some propaganda about how great Saudi Arabia is under the leadership of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. That’s the same supposedly reformist leader whose government is accused of cracking down on activists and dissidents, as detailed in a recent report in The Intercept. That’s the same leader whose agents are now accused of murdering Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist who was critical of the government.
WWE’s 2018 Saudi Arabia shows are part of a lucrative 10-year deal that the company has signed with the Middle Eastern kingdom. The Saudis have paid big money—possibly as much as $50 million per show, according to an outlet that looked over WWE’s public finances. Whatever the dollar figure, the crown prince is paying for shows beyond the scale of what WWE usually does. That’s why you get matches and appearances slated for these shows that haven’t happened in the States. When’s Brock Lesnar wrestling again? Not in any U.S. shows since August. He’s back for Saudi Arabia. When is the legendary Shawn Michaels coming out of a retirement he’s stuck to since 2010? Not in any recent years to wrestle WWE’s best wrestlers, like A.J. Styles or his own protege Daniel Bryan; he’s instead slated to come back at Crown Jewel in a glorified old-timer’s match featuring faded stars Triple H, The Undertaker and Kane. No women’s matches are announced for the card. That’s a shame, because then it’d show there was some good coming out of this besides corporate profits to compensate for state-run propaganda.
It’s arguably irrational to draw moral lines with how you spend your dollars in a capitalist society. The phone I use, the food I eat, and the games I love playing—and make a living covering—all are produced in ways that might discomfit me if I knew more about the process. But there are limits. Maybe it should have been something else? Maybe there are enough terrible things my own country does to make any stance against a Saudi-WWE deal too hypocritical. But as I see reports of a Saudi hit squad luring a journalist into a trap at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, killing him and chopping his body to pieces, my zeal for watching WWE programming filled with hype for the Crown Jewel event disappears.
There’s some room for skepticism, given that the claims have been made only by Turkish officials, have been denied by the Saudis and have yet to be confirmed by the U.S. There is supposedly audio and video evidence, but the Washington Post reports that it’s unclear if it has been vetted by the U.S. The possible killing is just the last straw, though. The Saudi-WWE deal has reeked for a while. It was always garish and repulsive. If the Turkish charges are true, it’s beyond what I personally can tolerate.
In the last few days, media and business organizations have suspended or cut ties with the Saudi government. U.S. Senators from both parties are now urging WWE to rethink their deal and perhaps “pause” plans the show, according to a report today in the Independent Journal Review. Notably, the WWE CEO’s wife, Linda McMahon, is a member of President Trump’s cabinet.
WWE has simply said they are “monitoring” the situation. That’s not enough for me. If the facts of what’s been rumored are proven true, they’ll need to get with the times. If they don’t, count me out. I’d love to renew my WWE subscription someday. For now, it’s canceled.