This week’s edition of WWE’s Monday Night Raw flagship made official a major development that had been expected for weeks: After eight and a half years of retirement, Shawn Michaels really is returning to the ring in a few weeks, at WWE’s Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia. Michaels had been steadfast for years about making his retirement a real one, but it’s easy to see how that changed.
Crown Jewel is WWE’s second event in its 10-year deal with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s regime had, according to reports from Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer, been asking for all sorts of returning legends for their shows, including dead ones. When you consider that WWE financial reports appear to indicate—via a line item for “other”—that the first show, The Greatest Royal Rumble in Jeddah, cost the Saudis close to $50 million, it’s not difficult to deduce that Michaels was made an offer that he couldn’t refuse. He’s a legend in the sport, and surely could have walked into lucrative WrestleMania main events. This one pays better.
Since this is pro wrestling, it probably won’t surprise you that Michaels comes off as a total hypocrite. For years, he has pledged not to return just for a big payoff. “If I’m doing something, I want to put 100 percent of my time into it and make it good.” Michaels told Sam Roberts on his podcast in January 2017. “I know the reasons why I wrestled [and] why I don’t. And, look, I would be doing it just for the money now and I don’t want to do that!”
He had also suggested in a WWE Network interview first aired in 2014 that his farewell at WrestleMania 26, stemming from a classic match with The Undertaker, was just too good a sendoff. “That’s why it’s always been so easy for me for to not desire to come back, to not do it again” he said. “I’ve never done a perfect thing, I think, in my life. But I am at least wise enough to know those things that I’ve done that shouldn’t be messed with.” It was only after the Saudi deal was announced that Michaels publicly changed his tune, telling Sky Sports just days after the first show of the 10-year deal that he would be fine with a one-off return, preferably teaming with Triple H in a match where “I can just do a few crotch chops and have some fun.”
If you’ve been keeping up with world news, you realize that returning to the ring for a match in Saudi Arabia is not an uncomplicated thing. The first show of the Saudi partnership, April’s Greatest Royal Rumble, was basically a non-stop propaganda infomercial for the repressive kingdom; even by WWE’s standards, there are some serious ethical issues inherent in these shows. Michaels’ return proper was set up on Saturday, coincidentally during another stadium show staged in partnership with a foreign government—the Super Showdown event in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Saturday was the same day that Turkish police, in speaking to outlets like the Washington Post on background, revealed that they knew that the Saudi government, possibly under orders from Mohammed bin Salman, had lured the dissident journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul so that they could murder and dismember him.
WWE has not responded to a request for comment on how the Khashoggi rendition/assassination impacts their Saudi partnership. As of this writing, neither have ESPN or Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, who partnered to present WWE with their “League Humanitarian Leadership Award” at the Sports Humanitarian Awards during ESPYs week in July. The same goes for the mayor’s office in Knox County, Tennessee, which is the workplace of Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who will be in the match with Michaels in Saudi Arabia in his “Demon Kane” gimmick. On Monday, hours before WWE announced the match, Jacobs’ office was electing not to confirm the trip’s existence to local media.
For what it’s worth, WWE issued a press release a few weeks back—it is not on their corporate website and seemingly went out only to local Knox County media—saying that they were donating $100,000 to the Knoxville Public Safety Foundation, a first responders charity, at Jacobs’ request “in appreciation for” his upcoming appearances. Both the mayor’s office and WWE did not respond to requests seeking clarification on whether the donation was in lieu of or in addition to payment to Jacobs for appearing on the Saudi show. A statement that WWE released on Thursday evening said only, “we are currently monitoring the situation.”
The Khashoggi story is seemingly heating up by the hour, despite some ghoulish attempts by the Trump White House to dismiss the murder as the cost of doing business, which means WWE could very well find themselves in a tight spot sooner than later. Just how tight a spot depends on a number of factors, from how much pressure builds on businesses—even those that aren’t producing outright propaganda in the way WWE is—to pull out of Saudi Arabia to how incendiary the Khashoggi story itself gets. For WWE, though, the deciding factor may well be whether the promotion winds up under the spotlight for its dealings with the kingdom.
WWE is much more of a mainstream entertainment company in terms of how it does business and how it fits into popular culture than it has been at any other point in its existence, but there are still elements of “it’s just fake pro wrestling” at play. That isn’t exculpatory in any way, but WWE’s cartoonishness means that its actions are generally perceived and discussed in an abstracted way that works to insulate it from criticism. If a similarly sized non-wrestling sports or entertainment company had done outright propaganda for Saudi Arabia in April, and subsequently elicited death threats to at least one wrestler and the ire of Al-Qaeda, it probably would have been a much bigger deal than it was when WWE did it. At the moment, it doesn’t look like the State Department or anyone else in U.S. government will force WWE’s hand. It will be up to the promotion to decide if this is all worth it.
As it happens, the company has a promising distraction planned for the same week as Crown Jewel. That would be Evolution, an all-women’s show at NYCB Live (the former Nassau Coliseum) in Uniondale, New York. After the Greatest Royal Rumble, fan complaints centered on women not being allowed on the show by the Saudi government, both because it’s discriminatory and because those wrestlers were being penalized financially. (It was reported that the Syrian-Canadian male wrestler Sami Zayn was blocked from appearing, as well.) For all the larger potential issues with the Saudi partnership, this is a valid argument: the most nakedly hypocritical aspect of WWE’s first Saudi show was its treatment of women, who were excluded from the show itself and forbidden to attend as fans unless accompanied by male guardians.
Within a few days, there were scattered suggestions in wrestling circles that an all-women’s pay-per-view show might make for a decent counterweight to the Saudi show. No one knows when exactly WWE decided to run with Evolution—the event was first reported on less than two weeks before its announcement—but the timing of the shows, which are just five days apart, sure suggests that they were intended to be understood in relation to each other. It’s breathtakingly cynical even by WWE standards, but it’s easy to see how it might work. WWE-friendly media outlets—the ones that WWE feeds announcements to about Hall of Fame inductee and Mae Young Classic entrant announcements—can be expected to lavish praise upon the “groundbreaking” Evolution and elide the WWE doing paid propaganda for an oppressive regime that just murdered an American resident.
The scandal and shame of doing business with the Saudi regime aside, it’s not as if there aren’t other reasons for WWE to pull out of doing Crown Jewel. WWE moved the show from the 68,000-seat King Fahd International Stadium to the 25,000-seat King Saud University Stadium in the last few weeks; a news post added to the Saudi General Sports Authority website on Monday lists the smaller venue. That type of change almost anyways means low ticket sales in wrestling—doubly strange since the Greatest Royal Rumble tickets were priced to move and the GSA is likely giving away plenty as well—although there are also possible security concerns and the chance of a blooper like a double-booked venue. All three could provide cover for an eventual cancellation, but this is, after all, a government venue, and tickets still aren’t on sale. Beyond the dual secrecy fetishes of WWE and its host country, it’s hard to know what’s going on here.
We can say this with some confidence, though: whatever reason WWE gives in the event that they cancel Crown Jewel is unlikely to be the real one. If WWE backs out of the show, I hope you’ll join me in celebrating WWE’s very genuine commitment to gender equality at Evolution, which will air live on WWE Network, at the cost of just $9.99.
This post has been updated to include WWE’s public statement.
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.