Pro wrestling Twitter completely imploded on Wednesday. Well, more than usual.
This particular implosion began when Peyton Royce, who wrestles for WWE on SmackDown with Billie Kay as a tag team called the IIconics (sic, and formerly “The Iconic Duo”), was alerted to comments that Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer had made a week earlier on a podcast, and which were later tweeted by a fan. During an exchange between Meltzer and his podcast co-host and business partner Bryan Alvarez about the IIconics segment on last week’s SmackDown, this happened:
Meltzer: “The IIconics got ‘boring’-ed out. You know, they’re another one. I thought that they had a cool act in NXT and on the main roster I don’t get a thing out of them. I mean, I don’t think their promos are particularly good, their wrestling isn’t good. I think Peyton Royce’s transformation to look more attractive (Pauses). I don’t know, I don’t want to say.”
Alvarez: “She was more attractive in NXT?”
Meltzer: “I thought so yes. To me, yes. I would say so. That’s neither here or there.”
Alvarez: “No one’s saying she’s unattractive by the way, everybody.”
Meltzer: “I know, no shit. I didn’t say it at all. She doesn’t stand out to me, when she was in NXT she did. She was a lot lighter.”
Royce was, justifiably, not happy with this.
And it went from there, with multiple members of the WWE roster chiming in with criticism of Meltzer, some before his fulsome apology—it was his first tweet after everything blew up—and many after. In the last 48 hours, the story blew up mainstream to a degree, hitting ESPN’s air on Get Up! on Friday morning (when Royce’s co-worker Charlotte Flair was being interviewed) as well as the websites of The New York Post, USA Today’s The Big Lead, and even the BBC. A common defense of Meltzer among those moved to back him has been that he was saying that Royce getting breast augmentation surgery has impeded her athletic performance in the ring. Meltzer, notably, has not made that case. While his apology included a contextually oafish complement of Royce’s appearance, he has repeatedly continued to apologize afterwards. On his subscribers-only message board, he even implored people not to defend him; on his Wednesday night podcast for the same subscribers, he devoted a significant amount of time to the topic. It seems obvious that he was and is genuinely sorry, even if the initial apology was bungled.
And yet the WWE roster continued to pile on, either oblivious to Meltzer’s follow-ups or ignoring them. Seth Rollins’s tweet on the matter came hours later, but was the most lighthearted of the bunch, poking fun at the controversies over Meltzer’s star rating system for matches. Others were notably harsher. In particular, Tyler Breeze expressed frustration with Meltzer’s initial apology, accusing him of trying to “pass the buck,” a criticism Breeze made hours after Meltzer repeatedly amended it in light of the criticism. When Meltzer told Breeze “Not passing any bucks. I’m sorry,” Breeze’s response—“It’s not about me Dave, your voice carries weight, make it positive”—had little connection to Meltzer’s previous tweet.
Various fans chimed in after that, calling Breeze hypocritical in light of WWE’s past and present treatment of women. One shared screenshots of Meltzer’s apologies from Twitter and his forum, saying that “when he tweets all of this and you don’t accept it? You’re the one with the problem.” According to a reply a few hours later, Breeze blocked that fan. Retired WWE wrestlers turned reality show stars The Bella Twins, meanwhile joined in a full day after Meltzer apologized.
The WWE talent roster is as close-knit as it has ever been, and it’s hard to fault them for rallying in defense of one of their own. Meltzer absolutely deserved to be taken to task, and this is also not the first time he’s said something perceived along these or similar lines. Royce’s feelings are clearly genuine, and her peers’ anger surely is as well. This may not be any more complicated than that, but it’s also very easy to be cynical about anything involving WWE and the media in general, and Meltzer in particular.
This is, after all, a company that once accused Meltzer of defamation because he misunderstood their use of a pronoun on TV, subpoenaed him in a lawsuit that he was not party to in an effort to get him to give up sources, and is widely believed to have backed a recent revenge lawsuit against a podcaster—a suit that destroyed a decades-long friendship—among other things. Perhaps most ridiculously, Vince McMahon stole Frank Deford’s and his wife’s shoes because Deford’s The National Sports Daily featured critical WWE coverage from Meltzer. A WWE spokesperson did not reply to Deadspin’s request for comment on the Royce/Meltzer dust-up, for what it’s worth.
In light of all that history, there was something about wrestlers relentlessly piling-on onto a “safe” target, even one who deserved scorn, that felt off. Maybe because WWE has a fairly recent history of body-shaming storylines, for one. Usually, those storylines involve female performers, but some have centered around male wrestlers, as well. WWE and Saudi Arabia are also partnering on shows that no women can perform on and which female fans can only attend with male guardians, to boot. Behind the scenes, there are other stories. Among those that come to mind are:
- April “A.J. Lee” Brooks writing in her book that the head of Talent Relations (who she doesn’t name, but who was at the time John Laurinaitis) told her “no one wants to have sex with you” in a discussion about her appeal to television viewers.
- Muscle-bound Ryan “Ryback” Reeves telling wrestler/podcaster Colt Cabana about Vince McMahon thinking he was “fat.”
- Former WWE writer Alex Greenfield posting about the time that Kevin Dunn, the Executive Vice President of Television Production, said in a production meeting that Barbara “Kelly Kelly” Blank “needs to find some tits.”
None of this excuses Meltzer’s comment, of course, or renders invalid many of the criticisms he received. But some perspective helps, and WWE management doing the same sexist bullshit and worse in its programming inarguably resonates more than some similar bullshit uttered on a paywalled podcast, even when it comes one from the longest tenured and most influential wrestling reporters.
This may be me reading too much into WWE’s past conduct. But even if the initial criticism and much of what followed was entirely warranted and deserved, the sheer scope of the deluge of tweets and all that history inevitably meant that it at least felt like it had the company’s fingerprints on it. Maybe it doesn’t matter, and to a certain extent this sort of thing just comes with the territory of covering a company like WWE. But it’s also a reminder of how strange and treacherous that territory can be when even a largely genuine outpouring can feel like it could have been opportunistically coordinated from above.
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.