There was a time, not all that long ago, when World Wrestling Entertainment lived for controversy. Just ask D-Generation X.
DX, for those who did not grow up in the truly surreal world of professional wrestling kayfabe, was one of the most infamous products of WWE’s “Attitude Era”, a period of time in the late 1990s when the company, in a pitched battle with World Championship Wrestling for ratings supremacy, took their program in a decidedly adult direction, which is to say, ironically enough when it came to DX, exceedingly juvenile.
Built primarily around Shawn Michaels and Triple-H, DX was the company’s story-line version of delinquent teenagers firing off spitballs during class, and then telling each other dick jokes in detention. Usually, their segments were childish, but harmless enough. “Apologizing” to network censors with a string of profanity, tagging the company headquarters with graffiti, rolling over to the competitor’s show in a tank. Of course, then there were the occasions when things got much more, to use a word that’s been reduced to a trite cliche, “problematic”. Like, say, that time the group came to the ring parodying the Nation of Domination stable, with Sean “X-Pac” Waltman in blackface.
Yeah… that happened.
Suffice it to say that the WWE was a different company back then, one that leaned into the skid where controversy was concerned, and one that was all too happy to embrace a reputation as crude, off-color, and politically incorrect. It was a time when lingerie matches passed for women’s wrestling, hardcore spots became more and more dangerous, and nary a week went by without Steve Austin soaking the ring in beer. Still, DX remained at the center of it all, WWE’s merry band of pranksters who, at least within their own universe, were always more than happy to stir up some trouble.
So it’s more than a little fitting, in a truly twisted, pro-wrestling gods sort of way, that DX finds itself back in the main event, more than two decades after its creation, in what has become perhaps the most controversial show that WWE has ever put together. Given the current state of affairs, Vince McMahon would probably welcome a dick joke controversy right about now. It’d be a whole lot easier than what he’s actually dealing with.
For those unaware, WWE has found itself right smack dab in the middle of the international crisis triggered by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As evidence continues to mount that the Washington Post columnist was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and that Saudi leadership at the highest levels was involved in the killing, the American government, and private enterprise, are all being forced to reevaluate their relationships with the kingdom. And wouldn’t you know, WWE’s “Crown Jewel” event is set to emanate from King Saud University Stadium in Riyadh, on November 2nd.
Should it take place, “Crown Jewel” will mark the second show in a ten-year contract between WWE and Saudi Arabia’s General Sport Authority, one that has been reported to pay the company between $20 and $40 million for each event. The problem, of course, is that while Vince McMahon and company are usually quite eager for any sort of “mainstream” exposure, this particular deal has put them in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, even before the Khashoggi story.
That’s because the WWE of 2018 is a far different company than the one that rode the “Attitude Era” to new heights back in the 90s. Once they had vanquished their rivals, and established themselves as a virtual monopoly on big-ticket pro wrestling in the United States, WWE set its sights on international expansion, and cultural ubiquity. That meant throwing aside the more controversial aspects of their show in favor of a more family friendly, TV-PG presentation. Vince McMahon made it his goal to shed professional wrestling’s traveling carnival roots and put WWE on the same playing field as Disney, Marvel, the NFL, and other sports and entertainment powerhouses. He’s been largely successful too, thanks to an increased demand for live television programming, and a very successful embrace of wholesome values and cause-based marketing.
Because make no mistake, the WWE wants you to know how much good it is doing, outside of the wrestling ring. The company regularly touts its partnerships with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Susan G. Komen, and Connor’s Cure, all of which have legitimately laudable charitable aspects, but which also serve to position WWE as the sort of virtuous enterprise that everyone can embrace, (and open their wallets for). Additionally, WWE presents this message of social responsibility within its own scripted storylines, by embracing, and promoting, a “Women’s Revolution” that has, undeniably, offered the company’s female superstars greater opportunities to perform in more prominent, higher level matches. Once relegated to serving as eye-candy, or a brief sideshow, in an earlier era, the women of WWE are now presented as serious competitors capable of main-eventing shows, and telling stories that are as compelling, if not more so, as anything else on the marquee.
That revolution, in fact, was set to culminate with “Evolution”, the WWE’s first ever pay-per-view event built entirely around female performers. But here is where things get a bit tricky, because in addition to serving as a showcase for all of the ways in which the company has moved forward, “Evolution” also functions as something of a sleight-of-hand, distracting from the fact that while the women of WWE will be front and center in Uniondale, New York, just a few days later, in Riyadh, they won’t even be allowed in the stadium.
Almost immediately after signing the deal with the Saudi Kingdom, WWE began to take heavy criticism for exactly what it entailed. Despite their years-long championing of their female performers, when it came to the Saudi shows, WWE was all too willing to leave them at home, in accordance with the restrictions the government places on women. In addition to forcing WWE to abandon its female talent, the show also functioned as a rather naked piece of political propaganda, with broadcasters frequently touting the modernization of Saudi society. Of course, given Saudi Arabia’s rather horrific human rights record, its penchant for jailing dissidents, and its involvement in the brutal war in Yemen, making the case for Mohammad bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030 campaign was always a rather difficult sell.
The Saudi Arabia deal was always going to present a PR problem for WWE, but until recently, it was one that, given the hundreds of millions of dollars involved, they were willing to paper over. Time will tell if the apparent killing of Khashoggi changes that equation, but one thing that is certain is that it’s become a lot harder for them to hide. A slew of major American companies all pulled out of next week’s “Future Investment Initiative” in Riyadh, and on Thursday came word that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin would also be skipping the event. Media powerhouse and talent agency Endeavor announced earlier in the week that they were exiting a planned $400 million investment deal with the kingdom. All of which is to say that WWE’s position is increasingly isolated, explaining the national scrutiny they have faced, which included a major role in John Oliver’s featured “Last Week Tonight” segment about Khashoggi’s disappearance.
As of Friday, WWE is still planning on moving ahead with the show, and the company’s official line is that they are “monitoring the situation”. Look a little closer, though, and you can find another argument taking shape, one that was advanced by a pair of WWE performers in the past view days.
“My personal opinion is that they should go,” offered former WWE Champion John “Bradshaw” Layfield, in his role as a commentator on Fox Business Network, “You isolate a country, all you do is impoverish that country. WWE has been at the forefront of change, and you want to change Saudi Arabia, you send something like WWE there.”
“I think we should go. I think the only way to help with change over there is to go and not to cancel the trip,” added current star Randy Orton, “That’s the goal is to make things better everywhere and I think us not going — it doesn’t help. Going helps.”
This line of reasoning, that WWE recognizes the Saudi government’s imperfections, but wants to help move it along into a more modern future, is one that has also been advanced by WWE Executive Vice President Paul Levesque, better known to wrestling fans as Triple-H. (Oh, right, it bears mentioning… one of the guys from DX who made all of those dick jokes? He’s now the heir apparent to take over the company one day.) “I understand that people are questioning it,” said Levesque, back in April, when the deal was first announced, “but you have to understand that 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.”
There is absolutely a good-faith discussion to be had about whether isolating a repressive regime actually does more harm than good, and what role, if any, the United States should have in trying to modernize and reform foreign countries. But to be clear, that is absolutely not what the debate over Crown Jewel is truly about. This is not a typical international show, after all, where WWE presents its usual product in a new market. No, this is a fully paid propaganda effort, where the entire bill is footed, and the production dictated, directly by a government that, by all appearances and available evidence, lured a journalist who’d been critical of the regime into his own gruesome death and dismemberment with a bonesaw.
There is no debate to be had here. None whatsoever. WWE should obviously not be in the business of promoting the Saudi government, nor should anyone else, and nor should they have been from the very start, given the amount of carnage and brutality the regime is responsible for. Professional wrestling has always flirted with controversy, and sought to exist in the moral grey area, but the situation in Saudi Arabia is utterly black and white.
It’s fitting, in a sense, that Crown Jewel is scheduled to headline with the D-Generation X taking on The Undertaker and Kane, four older performers from a earlier era, given that their own handling of the situation has been so woefully behind the times. For a company that wants to present itself as an enlightened, thoughtful, progressive, socially responsible enterprise, guided by a real sense of ethics, the events of the past few weeks have exposed the limits of that public image. If there’s one positive that can come from this debacle, for wrestling fans, it’s a much needed reminder that no matter how commendable it may be for the company to donate to charity, clean up the racism and sexism that have pervaded the business, and elevate women’s wrestling to new heights, the WWE, like any corporation, will only be as moral as the bottom line allows.
After all, while it was DX that courted controversy, it was always the Million Dollar Man, Ted DiBiase, who explained how the world really works.
“Everybody’s got a price. Everybody’s gonna pay.”