Cast members of a popular television show asking people to pray for them and privately telling a leading industry reporter they were being held hostage would be strange. Them doing so while they were, to all appearances, simply stranded in Saudi Arabia due to an airplane’s mechanical issues would be stranger. No one, including the performers, seeming to be quite sure what happened would be strangest of all.
What we do know is this: The WWE’s relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia finally cost the world’s most prominent wrestling company something other than its reputation. After the Crown Jewel show last Thursday—WWE’s fourth in a series of widely-criticized events in the kingdom—upwards of 175 employees (performers and production staff alike) were held up in Riyadh as they attempted to fly back home in time for Friday night’s live SmackDown show in Buffalo. Their flight was not able to leave Saudi Arabia in time to make it to that show, forcing multiple changes to the company’s most-watched program with less than 24 hours’ notice.
That an airplane was delayed is not news, and WWE has previously been able to scrape together day-of shows; in fact, these have been some of the best shows in the company’s recent history due to the lack of micro-management and the need to improvise. Getting into the area of what we don’t know is where things become interesting, though: What’s clear is that the story of the Saudi Arabia departure is not as cut-and-dried as the company’s press release makes it out to be. In that statement, WWE said that it was simply mechanical failures that stranded the wrestlers across the Atlantic. Without knowing anything else about the situation, it would hard to believe that a company with the resources of WWE and a country as rich in dubiously-gotten money as Saudi Arabia couldn’t combine their might to find a plane capable of making it to New York on short notice. To accept such a story, you’d have to possess a level of gullibility above even that necessary to buy into one of wrestling’s traditionally nonsensical storylines.
Multiple reports, from sources like wrestling reporter Dave Meltzer and wrestling news website BodySlam.net, claim that some wrestlers in fact believe the plane was deliberately held on the ground by the Saudi authorities, although for what purpose is unclear. Meltzer reported that multiple WWE wrestlers contacted him, characterizing their extended stay as a “hostage” situation; the BodySlam report cited other wrestlers calling it a “power play” by the Saudis.
In a report translated by Twitter user @MicromanFever, former WWE Spanish-language announcer Hugo Savinovich asserted that the delay was, in fact, retribution from the Saudi government towards the company. Savinovich claims that WWE cut off the Crown Jewel broadcast feed in Saudi Arabia over a lapsed payment. (For his part, Meltzer, who said on his own Twitter account that he can’t confirm whether the feed was cut or not in Saudi Arabia, says WWE was paid before the show.)
In any event, Savinovich claims that in retaliation for WWE cutting the feed, the Saudis essentially temporarily detained the performers and production staff. Reached for comment, a WWE spokesperson pointed to the company’s public statement. (“The company has confirmed publicly that there was no dispute over any sort of payment: mechanical issues were the cause of a flight delay and Atlas Air, the charter company, issued an apology in that regard as well.”)
WWE is marching on ahead as if nothing is wrong: The company announced on Monday that the deal with Saudi Arabia has been extended to 2027, surely for a lump sum as large as anything the company will ever see. A lingering problem for WWE, though, is that the wrestlers are not taking the delayed return home and subsequent murky explanation lying down. We’re not at open revolt yet, but the appearance of things could be about to get much worse for WWE.
The Saudi Arabia shows have long been controversial in the locker room, in large part because of the kingdom’s human rights record. Several prominent wrestlers—most notably, John Cena, ever conscious of his own brand, particularly as he begins to step away from wrestling and into movie stardom, and social justice advocate and hyper-popular good guy Daniel Bryan—had previously refused to take part. Sami Zayn, a Muslim wrestler of Syrian descent, was reportedly barred from participating in the shows by WWE; his real-life good friend Kevin Owens refused to participate, though it has never been clarified as to whether he opposes the shows on his own accord or because of Zayn’s situation.
And then there’s the fact that the women were unilaterally banned from the shows until Crown Jewel, where Natalya and Lacey Evans faced off in what was publicized as “the first women’s match in Saudi Arabia.” This meant that stars like SmackDown women’s champion Bayley, Sasha Banks, Charlotte Flair, and Raw women’s champion and current holder of the “most popular wrestler” title Becky Lynch were all unable to perform in the kingdom.
That’s the context for Meltzer reporting on his Tuesday radio show that there was an all-talent meeting to discuss the situation, and that a sizable (though not unanimous) portion of the locker room remains furious following WWE’s shoddy explanation. While he doesn’t name any specific wrestlers, the sentiment he’s reporting is that those who were angry about the delay have only gotten more so.
What will come of this, who knows. There are plenty of wrestlers in WWE who have scoffed at the possibility of standing up to the company, and there is a long history of wrestlers not being willing to organize. (Most famously, Hulk Hogan was a union-buster who ratted out Jesse Ventura to management when the latter was trying to unionize the wrestlers in the 80s.) It’s likely that enough wrestlers will be happy to cash fat paychecks for taking part in the Saudi shows for them to continue. WWE is surely happy to bet on it.
Either way, what’s happening is of a piece with WWE’s history. For years the greatest soap opera in wrestling hasn’t been the one taking place on screen, but rather the one running behind the scenes. While this latest episode did not disappoint, it would seem that, as it has for so many years, WWE will simply roll on, dredging its fingers through the muck in order to pan some gold.
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