Why you should care
Because pro wrestling is sending mixed messages about women in the sport.
World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view, which emanated from Sacramento, California, on Oct. 6, ended with an eerie, horror film-esque main event. The arena was lit up in red — instead of the traditional bright lighting of most WWE fare — as Universal champion Seth Rollins defended his title against Bray Wyatt’s latest iteration, the Fiend, inside the titular Hell in a Cell, also painted crimson. This effect was no doubt an homage to Halloween but also to the Fiend’s movie villain persona.
But the honor of the most terrifying pay-per-view of the season should be reserved for Crown Jewel 2, which takes place on Halloween in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It’s the company’s fourth foray into the Middle Eastern country as part of its 10-year Vision 2030 partnership. The first Crown Jewel went ahead as scheduled a year ago, despite outcry over the Saudi-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And with the NBA rightfully taking heat for cozying up to China and stamping out discussion of the Hong Kong protests, WWE is long overdue for scrutiny for its relationship with a country with a far worse human rights record.
Crown Jewel 2 will feature the ongoing rehabilitation of Hulk Hogan, who was banished from WWE in 2015 when recordings of him saying the N-word and admitting he was racist surfaced. Hogan was brought back into the fold at last year’s Crown Jewel; this year, Hogan will assemble his own team of wrestlers to take on Ric Flair’s team in the show’s marquee match.
The messaging about the women’s division in WWE is extremely confusing and terribly uneven.
Warren Hayes, wrestling YouTuber
To promote the match, Team Hogan member Rusev’s on-screen and real-life wife, Lana, made out with African American wrestler Bobby Lashley, exploiting Hogan’s admission on the illegal recordings, which bankrupted Gawker Media, that he didn’t want his daughter, Brooke, who bears a striking resemblance to Lana, dating Black men.
Lashley was also tasked with representing President Donald Trump in a match against WWE Chairman Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 23 in 2007. The close ties between Trump and the McMahon family — McMahon’s wife, Linda McMahon, headed up the Small Business Administration until April when she left to run a super PAC for Trump’s reelection — make WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia all the messier.
This is in addition to WWE’s female wrestlers being prohibited from performing in Saudi Arabia, while female spectators are only allowed to attend with a male chaperone. Women’s rights activists who fought for the right to drive, by the way, have been jailed.
Despite its so-called women’s wrestling evolution, WWE seems intent on playing up this gender inequality in the timing and titling of its Saudi Arabian events. For example, its first show in April 2018 as part of the partnership, Greatest Royal Rumble, followed Royal Rumble proper, an annual event that takes place in January. That year, female wrestlers were given the opportunity to compete for the first time in the match from which the event takes its name. The first Crown Jewel occurred four days after WWE’s first-ever all-women’s pay-per-view, Evolution, and this month’s installment takes place almost a year to the day later. Super ShowDown this June in Jiddah was billed as being equivalent to or surpassing WWE’s flagship event, WrestleMania, where a women’s wrestling match closed the show for the first time in WrestleMania‘s 35-year history.
Warren Hayes, a wrestling YouTuber and commentator for combat sports site Fightful, points out that WWE put up superstar Becky Lynch as a panelist at the ESPNW Women + Sports Summit. “The same week, they don’t put any women’s wrestling on the program at all,” Hayes says. “All this under the umbrella of another Saudi show. They didn’t even bother to put on an Evolution 2 to offset it.… The messaging about the women’s division in WWE is extremely confusing and terribly uneven.”
In addition, WWE wrestler Sami Zayn, who is of Syrian descent, has been barred from the shows due to Saudi Arabia’s strained relations with the country, while Iranian wrestlers were part of a xenophobic skit in Greatest Royal Rumble.
Saudi Arabia has a shocking track record when it comes to gay rights — homosexuality is punishable by death in the country. I guess it’s a good thing, then, that the only openly gay wrestler in WWE’s employ, Sonya Deville, isn’t permitted at Crown Jewel.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily why they booked Fury,” says David Bixenspan, a wrestling journalist who recently wrote for Deadspin about WWE’s pivot from nostalgic stars to crossover athletes for its Saudi Arabian shows. “[But] it’s definitely [WWE’s] kind of leaning into tone-deafness, and it certainly feels more appropriate as part of one of the Saudi shows.”
It’s fitting, then, that the WWE’s frightening continued relationship with Saudi Arabia will be marked this year by the scariest holiday.
Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic.