Being a wrestling fan in the modern era isn’t easy; shows often drag on too long, international promotions are difficult to navigate, storylines get dropped with no warning and little reason, your favourites can evaporate into the ether and a lot of it is straight up bad. Not only bad in a quality sense either, there’s a lot of ugliness related to drugs, young death, concussions, labour rights, racism, misogyny, abuse and even international politics buried beneath the surface of this carny-created industry. This has only got more concerning since 2001 where the WWE devoured their main competition and functionally became a monopoly free to steer the business in whatever direction they see fit, and unfortunately for those of us that enjoy it this year they seem dead set of steering off the edge of the cliff this year.
Never before has the grossness of WWE as a company been forced into the face of their audience as much as it has with their 10 year deal with Saudi Arabia. As part of the Saudi regime’s Vision 2030 social and cultural reform program the WWE will present two live stadium shows a year projected to earn them profits of $20–40 million per event. With their first event back in April, The Greatest Royal Rumble, this was uncomfortable and embarrassing as WWE presented a glorified house show intersected with propaganda videos for both Saudi Arabia including ones that celebrated women being allowed to drive on the show where women weren’t allowed to perform by law. The event was also perfectly punctuated afterwards by WWE offering up a grovelling apology to the Saudi Royal Family for accidentally airing a promo package for an American Pay-Per-View that featured female talent in their ring gear, while also continuing to lean back on the justification for the deal that their presence there will be a catalyst for social change.
As if concerns with Saudi Arabia’s track record on human rights, gender equality and airstrikes on Yemen tied with WWE’s connection to the US government weren’t piling up enough; a deal that was already in bad taste turned inedible as this past Friday’s Crown Jewel event was thrown in disarray when the Saudi critic and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated on the 2nd October in a crime that was almost certainly connected to the regime itself. After many CEOs representing giants such as Uber and Viacom pulled out of a Saudi investment conference in response to the incident all eyes were on WWE to see what decision they would make regarding Crown Jewel, which they were already promoting heavily on their television.
Despite weeks of fan pressure, top stars such as John Cena and Daniel Bryan refusing to work the show requiring huge card changes, developments in the assassination story that made the regime look worse, venomous hard hitting dunks on mainstream shows such as Last Week Tonight and the promise of increased revenue from brand new television deals that are sure to dwarf the money from the Saudi deal within five years…they still went. WWE’s chairman and physical manifestation of toxic masculinity Vince McMahon proved himself to be King of the Carnies once again and stayed where the money was. Although Vince is famous for his swagger and notorious grapefruits, when addressing concerned shareholders on a WWE phone-in financial conference after the decision he seemed evasive and passive aggressive, as if he was sulking that the ethics of reality had penetrated the wrestling bubble he lives in shattering his perfect vision in the process. Maybe admitting this morally questionable decision was made for monetary reasons would destroy his self image as a “trailer park trash” common working man that Vince baffingly still manages to cling onto 70 years of life and billions of dollars later.
The fact that Crown Jewel also sucked a donkey ranch’s amount of ass as a wrestling show when it came together didn’t help matters as even hardcore WWE loyalists didn’t feel like defending the show either, but it’s irrelevant anyway when the show was tainted in inherent evil. What makes this more uncomfortable is that despite how poorly WWE handled the initial decision to do the show they still managed to get some PR points on the board for themselves. At the last minute it was announced that disgraced WWE Hall of Famer Hulk Hogan would be returning to host the event. Hogan didn’t do anything of consequence on the show, but it was a genius tactical play by WWE as letting Hogan back into the fold was certain to be met with controversy but most people who would care were already so emotionally checked out of Crown Jewel to get worked up about it again for being ten per cent more gross. The plan worked and Hogan-related controversy was minute compared to the…everything else.
It’s not just evil, it’s calculated evil.
They know what they’re doing and how it looks.
The calculations don’t end there either, since WWE were also making headlines last week (although a lot less of them) for their first ever all-women’s Pay-Per-View event Evolution. The announcement of this show by Stephanie McMahon several months ago was eye-rolling even at the time. The presentation of WWE’s female movement has been insufferable for the most part as the company continuously pat themselves on the pat for reintegrating women’s wrestling back into the show that they themselves phased out in the first place and has been flourishing in other promotions in the meantime. Still the fact that WWE had the gall to book the show on the same week as Crown Jewel (a mere five days earlier) as if they could sidestep the controversy from The Greatest Royal Rumble by giving the women their own show while simultaneously putting a lot more effort into promoting the show that they are banned from was excruciating. Even by the standards of WWE PR moves it was an unbelievable expression of cynicism and pandering.
Fortunately for WWE, a lack of help from the booking and the television leading up to the event didn’t stop the women on the Evolution card from going all in and putting on an event that was a great wrestling show on its own merits. It would be dismissive to suggest that Evolution was an insignificant show, irregardless of circumstances the fact WWE have even hired enough women to make a show like this possible is a sign of something positive…but it still wasn’t the right show.
The lack of build and promotion on WWE television didn’t help but the presentation of the show itself felt wrong too. The card felt thrown together on a diner napkin, the set was small, the crowd weren’t lit making it feel even smaller and having the production style of NXT Takeover events was the wrong decision. NXT is specialist programming to keep hardcore wrestling fans as regular costumers for the WWE Network service, as great as Takeover shows they are deliberately built and presented in a different fashion to main roster shows because they are aimed at a different audience, and presenting the first ever all-women’s Pay-Per-View event in this fashion sent the message that pure women’s wrestling is some kind of niche product which was the absolute wrong message to send.
Fans will argue that the event was a huge success as these women proved they can put a show on as good as the men, but that was never in doubt in the first place! The entire “point” (if we pretend for a second that there was one) of putting on a show like Evolution is to provide women with the equal platform that they have already earned, and as fun as Evolution was on the night WWE completely failed to do this. The aftermath was pathetic too, outside of self congratulatory promo packages and recaps the events of Evolution felt self contained almost to the point of a non-canon house show and on both Raw and Smackdown the women on the roster had their screentime cut again for the company to go full force on promoting Crown Jewel once again. At time of writing the show was only a week ago and it already feels like it took place in another decade, maybe even a different dimension, and it’s hard to feel that such an afterthought of a show was a force for change in such a conservative company.
The merits of WWE Evolution can be debated but irregardless of your take it can’t be disputed that Crown Jewel and the Saudi deal in general are a massive asterisk on whatever positives you can take from the show. On paper WWE Evolution would have been the most exciting concept in the world, but where we are now in 2018 you have to bury your head in the sand to earnestly enjoy it.
Some people will be able to Sonic spindash themselves into a “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” ball and drown out the grossness to just enjoy the show was what it is, but WWE is doing more damage to itself than destroying it’s mainstream image and credibility. After months of meandering around promoting grandpa main events for their glorified stadium house shows we’re now waddling into another uninspired Raw Vs Smackdown concept for Survivor Series where nothing of significance ever happens followed by the usually unimportant December Pay-Per-View and a huge gap as everyone sits around over the holidays waiting for Wrestlemania season to start. Brock Lesnar is holding the Universal title hostage once again, AJ Styles has been WWE Champion for over a year for no reason other than Vince getting cold feet on the guys who have challenged him and now the women’s champions have been kicked back to their midcard slots. WWE’s current internal turmoil is also causing major damage to the onscreen product so even the most oblivious hardcore wrestling apologist is finding it difficult to latch onto anything going on emotionally right now.
It’s times like this where it’s important to remember that professional wrestling exists outside the WWE, and the independent wrestling scene is stronger than its ever been on a global scale. No solution is perfect however, Japanese wrestling has accessibility issues due to the limitations of their English output, and access to television or Pay-Per-View for other American companies such as Ring of Honor or Impact Wrestling depends on where you live, as does your ability to support your local live wrestling scene if you even have one. Even then in the background you have the WWE machine tinkering away, threatening to kick down the doors of the UK wrestling scene with their new NXT brand and rubbing their fingers together plotting to sign anyone in the indies who threatens to become a big star without them.
There’s an unspoken but widely understood mentality with wrestling fans that when wresting is good it’s great and when it’s bad it’s atrocious, but now even when it’s good it’s going to accompanied by one of the WWE empire’s endless tentacles ready to crawl down your throat and ruin the taste, and this year especially it’s starting to get real exhausting.