On Friday morning, World Wrestling Entertainment held its Crown Jewel pay-per-view, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Highlighted by a number of marquee matches, including the in-ring return of wrestling legend Shawn Michaels, it was supposed to be a groundbreaking event, aimed at showcasing the partnership between Saudi Arabia and the WWE. However, despite all the hype built for Crown Jewel, several major controversies surrounding and during the event largely overshadowed it.
First, above all, was the complex political atmosphere towards the Saudi government — particularly regarding the death of Jamal Khashoggi. After the journalist was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi government repeatedly denied involvement, changing its account of Khashoggi’s death numerous times before finally admitting it had been premeditated. In the wake of the controversy, numerous prominent businesses withdrew from partnerships and summits with the Saudis, citing the suspicious nature of Khashoggi’s death. However, notably absent amongst them was the WWE, which, according to CNN had signed a 10-year, $400 million deal to hold events within the country. The implications in holding the event were clear: by continuing to conduct business with the KSA, the WWE was showing its support for the Saudis’ actions — or sending a message that their primary loyalties lay with their paychecks. Even after pressure from several U.S. Senators, including Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), according to Pro Wrestling Sheet, WWE stayed its course. In releasing a statement, it appeared to take a comparative approach, citing contractual obligations: “Similar to other U.S.-based companies who plan to continue operations in Saudi Arabia, the Company has decided to uphold its contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority and stage the event.” Through their actions, however, WWE conveyed a far more damning sentiment — come hell or high water (or international repercussions), the show would go on.
By going ahead with the event, though, the company triggered backlash from a number of its stars, with two in particular refusing to even work the event. First, John Cena, arguably the most popular wrestler of the modern era, declined to make an appearance at Crown Jewel, where he’d been slotted in as part of a “World Cup” tournament to determine the top wrestler in the world. Slated to wrestle other top names like Randy Orton, Rey Mysterio and Kurt Angle, Cena was instead replaced by another star, Bobby Lashley. The awkward conclusion of the tournament suggests WWE’s plans were rapidly changed, as none of the eight competitors came away as the World Cup winner. Instead, Shane McMahon, the commissioner for SmackDown Live (one of WWE’s weekly shows) made a surprise entrance in the finals, defeating finalist Dolph Ziggler to win the trophy, and the tournament — despite never having been in it. The other prominent star to pull out, Daniel Bryan, made an even bigger ripple in the pay-per-view, as he had been scheduled as one of the Main Events for the evening. Slated to face title-holder AJ Styles with the WWE Championship at stake, Bryan’s refusal forced the company’s hand. WWE quickly replaced him with fellow SmackDown star Samoa Joe, and booked Styles to defeat Bryan in a quick title match the week before the pay-per-view. More important than the booking, though, was the statement both superstars made — they weren’t willing to put their reputations on the line for something they didn’t believe in, and would act on it if necessary.
The pay-per-view also lacked women throughout its match card. As the Saudi General Sports Authority frowned upon the presentation of women’s wrestling, whenever WWE has held an event in Saudi Arabia the entirety of the women’s roster is left off the event, with men’s-only matches. This has led to considerable criticism for WWE, as despite holding Evolution, the first ever women’s-only pay-per-view event the week prior, fans pointed at Crown Jewel as a step backwards for women’s representation in wrestling. Instead of a celebratory event, critics saw Evolution as a hasty compensation for Crown Jewel, a politically-fueled move instead of an altruistic one.
Finally, in choosing him to host Crown Jewel, WWE reintroduced one of its most famous, yet controversial figures — Hulk Hogan. Hogan, revered throughout the 1980s (often known as the WWE’s golden age) is often seen as the embodiment of professional wrestling, with countless fans getting their exposure to WWE through the man nicknamed “The Hulkster”. However, in recent years, a leaked video where he repeatedly used racial slurs and described himself as “racist, to a point”, disgraced Hogan from the WWE, as they severed ties and dropped any references to him. After several years, though, the WWE appears to have re-embraced Hogan, re-inducting him into their Hall of Fame, and booking his surprise return at Crown Jewel as the event’s host. While older fans have praised the move as rightfully honoring someone who helped make professional wrestling iconic, others have seen the move as tolerance of racism and inappropriate behavior by WWE. An icon from the supposed “glory days” of wrestling, but also a period plagued by steroid use and backstage politicking, Hogan is seen by some fans as a relic — wonderful for nostalgia, but representative of a time better left behind.
Though Crown Jewel is now in the books, WWE may continue facing repercussions for holding the event, as both sponsors and fans react to their decision of going ahead with the pay-per-view. And, with nine more years on the deal, the company will likely face the same situation once again down the road, with the same issues — political undertones, women’s’ exclusion, and the checkered pasts of its competitors — not going away any time soon. Though we can certainly hope the situation improves, only time will tell.