This has been a weird week.
On Monday Night Raw, Roman Reigns (real name Leati Joseph Anoa’i) blindsided the wrestling world by announcing that his leukemia was no longer in remission, which was shocking in large part because his original battle with cancer was not known publicly. It had already been reported that Reigns was injured and he was off this past weekend’s live events, so when he showed up to open Raw in street clothes with his hair up, it was obvious that he was about to announce something meaningful. Still, nobody expected what was coming, which was both in its form and in its import far off the usual script. The announcers went from hype mode before the speech to shell-shocked tears after. Renee Young spoke of how close her husband, Dean Ambrose, is to Reigns; Corey Graves explained that Reigns isn’t just a work friend, mentioning that their kids play together. Reigns’ teammates in The Shield, Ambrose and Seth Rollins, joined Reigns for a long hug before doing their fist bump pose. Both were visibly in tears.
While the live crowd in Providence stayed lively all night, it took a good hour or so for the show to feel like more than an unnecessary and dubiously tasteful distraction from what had come before. To the credit of the wrestlers and producers, the show came around, eventually peaking with Rollins and Ambrose winning Raw’s tag team titles from Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre. It was the happy ending that everyone had been waiting for all night, and the match itself was pretty damn exciting, to boot.
And then Ambrose unexpectedly laid Seth Rollins out.
The crowd was in shock—the pro wrestling type, this time, as opposed to the more human variety that opened the night. Ambrose’s turn had been hinted at for weeks, but nobody expected it to happen on Monday, if only because of the Reigns announcement. Less than three hours earlier, Ambrose and Rollins had been crying actual tears about and with their actual teammate, because his real life away from the ring was about to get much more difficult. By the end of the show, everything was showbiz again.
At least on Twitter, the immediate reaction was negative, and for obvious reasons. That the attack was explicitly tied to the announcement—announcer Michael Cole yelled “Not tonight! Not on this night!”—struck many people as gratuitous. That it was seemingly being framed as Ambrose being unable to contain his emotions over Reigns’ illness—Rollins audibly repeated “it’s OK” while Ambrose beat away at him—made the connection all the more overt.
The veteran wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter took issue with the timing on his post-Raw podcast for subscribers in particularly blunt terms. “They live in a world where their fake world is more important than the real world,” he said. “And when you think like that you do things like this. You do things like all of the decisions that they make, or many of the decisions that they make. It’s kind of sad in that way.” Later, he added that “I was thinking that if he does get cured and he comes back it’ll be a wonderful story. But I wasn’t thinking how can we benefit from this in the next two hours?’”
It came off as especially weird that the same company clearly made a point of not using Reigns’s announcement as a ratings ploy earlier that night. (If his beating the first bout of cancer a decade ago was known within the company, then it was never exploited for its potential sympathy when fans were vocally rejecting him, either.)
That Ambrose’s turn was eventually going to happen anyway, and probably within a few weeks, made all of the above much different from the average exploitative storyline. In the most value-neutral of terms, if the promotion was trying to maximize the impact of an already planned turn, then Monday was the time to do it. If the plan was to do it at any point in the next month or so, it would still have been perceived as something of a tasteless exploitation of Joe Anoa’i’s cancer diagnosis, and given the strong likelihood of a backlash as a result, it’s at least mildly understandable how “fuck it, do it tonight” wound up as the chosen course of action. What matters most, where the decision to pull the trigger on Ambrose on Monday is concerned, is whether Reigns was asked and gave the green light. After all, he’s the person whose life or death illness is at the center of this. Even before the illness, Reigns was one of the very few people in the promotion that would not have to expect reprisals for saying “no” to WWE.
The result was an incredibly effective piece of pro wrestling storytelling, but even in the best case scenario, it couldn’t help but also feel a little icky. Especially given the context of everything else that WWE is doing.
If this were not happening at the nadir of one of the most profoundly soulless moments in WWE history, maybe it would feel different. That is not where fans or the promotion are, though, as WWE announced earlier this week that it will continue to do propaganda for the Saudi royal family at next Friday’s Crown Jewel event. It had also already been reported on Monday that both John Cena and Daniel Bryan are refusing to make the trip to Riyadh for that show, which has since been backed up by more reporters. WWE isn’t denying the story, but is still advertising their presence all the same. There’s a rich history of deliberately false advertising in pro wrestling, but it’s something that WWE has largely avoided for years. It’s not nearly the ugliest thing about Crown Jewel, but it’s another chunk of slime to throw onto a growing pile.
This could all very well be handled on the “go-home” editions of Raw and SmackDown next week, but as it stands, WWE has done a great deal to paint itself as an amoral entity in this week alone. It’s easy to group everything together under the promotion’s larger and longstanding tradition of shamelessness, and that’s before factoring in other recent black eyes, such as the promotion’s attempts to freeze contracts (most recently Neville’s) indefinitely while claiming publicly that wrestlers can terminate their contracts whenever they want.
It may well be that there is some kind of line for WWE, and that there are some things the promotion just won’t do on principle. It could be argued, too, that the Ambrose turn timing didn’t cross it. But in this moment, it’s impossible to determine where that line is, or indeed whether it exists. We’re still less than a week removed from them trying to turn the famously homophobic Ultimate Warrior into an icon of LGBTQ support. If there really is a line for WWE, it keeps moving further and further out, and down.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.