Is WWE wrong to enter a long-term agreement with a country where its female wrestlers aren’t allowed to compete?

By Justin Barrasso
April 25, 2018

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

News of the Week: WWE May Eventually Make History in Saudi Arabia, but Not at the Greatest Royal Rumble

WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble show is set to take place this Friday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The card features 10 matches, including a 50-man Royal Rumble and seven title bouts.

Although there is considerably less storyline entering the event, the lineup is arguably better than the cards from the past four WrestleManias. Some of the standout matches are John Cena vs. Triple H, Rusev vs. The Undertaker in a casket match, AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, and Brock Lesnar defending his Universal championship in a steel cage against Roman Reigns.

Reigns has the chance to win the match—and the title—in front of a favorable crowd, which will be a unique setting for the WWE at the sold-out King Abdullah International Stadium.

The one glaring omission, though, is any women’s division matches. Women will not be allowed to wrestle at the Greatest Royal Rumble, and females attending the show will only be allowed to do so if they are accompanied by a man.

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country where Islamic law is strictly enforced, and it is illegal to practice any form of religion other than Islam. Strict dress codes are enforced in public, with men unable to wear shorts and women forced to wear loose-fitting clothes, full-length cloaks, and headscarves. Saudi Arabia also has its own set of laws on relationships; both homosexual acts and adultery are punishable by law.

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Is WWE wrong to perform for a country where its laws differ so greatly from western civilization? Does the show mean the company is taking a step back from its championing of women’s athletes?

“I understand that people are questioning it, but you have to understand that every culture is different and just because you don’t agree with a certain aspect of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant culture,” Triple H told British newspaper The Independent this week

“You can’t dictate to a country or a religion about how they handle things but, having said that, WWE is at the forefront of a women’s evolution in the world and what you can’t do is affect change anywhere by staying away from it.

“While, right now, women are not competing in the event, we have had discussions about that and we believe and hope that, in the next few years they will be. That is a significant cultural shift in Saudi Arabia.”

Although the exact number is still unconfirmed, WWE has generated millions of dollars of income by signing a 10-year agreement with Saudi Arabia’s sports authority, and this show alone is expected to net in excess of $25 million. The WWE is not alone in its venture into Saudi Arabia, either. The World Boxing Super Series will hold a championship match in Jeddah next month and Riyadh hosted the country’s first international auto racing event in February. 

I have been critical of WWE in the past, but I am unwilling to say that the partnership with Saudi Arabia is wrong. The company is serious in its goal to become a worldwide brand, which means it is also forced, at times, to play by the rules of certain host nations.

Hopefully, within the next decade, WWE can fight to include its trendsetting women on a card in Saudi Arabia. For a company set on making history, that would certainly be historic.

Matt Riddle on Marijuana and Winning the EVOLVE Championship

Matt Riddle is known among wrestling fans for his proclivity for marijuana, but the new EVOLVE champion has so much more depth to his story. He is a father of three, once starred as a mixed martial artist in the UFC, and he is ambitiously planning to change the course of wrestling history.

As for the weed, though, Riddle says he’s curtailing his use. 

“I’ve been cutting back,” admitted Riddle. “It’s the schedule, the road, and I’ve been cutting back a great deal.”

Riddle delivers consistently compelling matches, and he is championing the no-rope break match in EVOLVE.

“My goal is to make wrestling more like mixed martial arts,” said Riddle. “EVOLVE is a big part of that for me. My goal isn’t just to make wrestling into a bigger show and make good money, but it’s also to evolve pro wrestling to where I think it belongs.”

The 32-year-old Riddle is the EVOLVE champion after dethroning Zack Sabre Jr. over WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans, finally claiming the title he set out to win when he first made his wrestling debut in 2015.

“That’s the first title I wanted when I got into independent wrestling,” said Riddle. “I thought I was going to be the one to take the title from Timothy Thatcher, but Zack was the one who did it. My issues with Zack were never personal, but I always wished I was the one with that belt. Zack is having a crazy year, winning titles, dominating New Japan, so beating Zack for the EVOLVE title was a feather in the cap for me.”

Riddle headlines EVOLVE’s upcoming shows on May 19 outside Chicago in Summit, Illinois, and May 20 just outside Detroit in Livonia, Michigan. The match on May 19 at EVOLVE 104 is a non-title affair against Shane Strickland, then it is appointment viewing on Saturday in his no-rope break match against Keith Lee in an encounter entitled “The Final War”.

“Any match with Keith Lee is definitely circled on my calendar,” said Riddle. “I know Lee will bring it, and I always do. He’s a huge man who can move like a lightweight, but I’m definitely not losing this EVOLVE title this soon.”

After a tumultuous run with the UFC, Riddle noted that he remembers every day how fortunate he is to have found such a welcoming new home in pro wrestling.

“I was landscaping not too long ago, so I’m extremely grateful for the people supporting me in wrestling,” said Riddle. “Not that landscaping is terrible, but I’d rather be suplexing and punching people.”

In other news…

• Jim Cornette mourned the loss of wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino.

“Bruno transcended wrestling,” said Cornette. “Nobody today could ever understand how a wrestler could be that famous. Bruno was God. His picture was in every Italian-American family’s living room next to Jesus and Frank Sinatra. The fans of today cannot understand how popular Bruno Sammartino was to everybody, and he drew more money for a longer period of time than almost anybody in our business.”

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Wrestling was broken up into territories during Sammartino’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, and the “Italian Superman” was best known for his work throughout the northeast, particularly headlining Madison Square Garden in New York. Nevertheless, the Sammartino aura traveled across the country.

“I didn’t get a chance to see Bruno Sammartino regularly because I didn’t grow up in the northeast, but he came into Indianapolis in his in-between time of being the champion between ’71 and ’73 when he worked for Dick The Bruiser because he liked The Bruiser,” said Cornette. “I got to see him and the The Bruiser against the Valiant Brothers. It was wild to finally see the guy from the magazine covers, the most dominant champion in the world, on TV.”

Cornette, who is one of wrestling’s proudest historians, was able to sit down with Sammartino over a decade ago in 2006 when he interviewed him for Ring of Honor’s “Straight Shootin’” series.

“We talked about his childhood in Italy and the Nazis,” said Cornette. “That was a big mark out moment for me. I went in with an entire legal pad of notes. I was so grateful to be part of that.”

• There is too much money invested in Brock Lesnar dropping the WWE Universal championship for it to happen with virtually no build-up at the Saudi Arabia show.

The temptation of Reigns winning the title in front of a (rare) overwhelmingly positive crowd could be too much of a lure for Vince McMahon, but I think it is more likely we see other titles—like the IC belt—change hands.

• Bobby Roode’s loss to Elias this past on Monday on Raw only confirmed the obvious: he needs a heel turn, and fast.

After Roode arrived to SmackDown this past August, I wrote that he represented a major wild card for WWE.

So far, the only thing “Glorious” about Roode is his entrance music. Ten months later, I am still unable to describe Bobby Roode in a sentence or less. Live audiences are not waiting impatiently for Roode to burst through the curtain.

The key to a pro wrestler’s success is the ability to be their character from Point A to Point Z. Wrestling is all about selling a product, which is the wrestler, and the audience needs to know what it bought.

Steve Austin, for example, was a beer-drinking, ass-kicking, redneck. Austin was always the person who he sold to the audience.

Roode is still missing that definable character.

• For Impact Wrestling fans, this section is spoiler-free.

Pentagon Jr. captured Impact Wrestling’s championship at Sunday’s Redemption pay per view.

The decision to make Pentagon the new champ is brilliant, as it brings new viewers to Impact to see one of the most popular wrestlers on the North American indie circuit. The move also signals the strength of the relationship and working agreement between Impact and Mexico-based promotion AAA. Pentagon is also Lucha Underground’s champion, and the masked warrior continues to win over fans with a style that is far gorier than what is prevalent in WWE.

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Impact now has until July 22 to build genuine interest in the Slammiversary pay per view, and it will be worth watching to see how Pentagon is presented as champion.

• For football fans, Boston sports media personality Danny Picard put a new twist on Hulk Hogan’s arrival into the NWO from the 1996 Bash at the Beach pay per view.

[tweet:https://twitter.com/DannyPicard/status/987321872953069570

• There is a new product for wrestling fans looking to bring a little WWE into their workout, as Performa has launched an extended line of WWE shaker bottles.

“We know that wrestling fans are some of the most loyal sports fans in the world,” said Jamie Rendell, who is Performa’s Brand Manager. “So we wanted to give them something that they would not only be excited to own, but that would also add value to their lives.”

The shaker bottles include the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Roddy Piper, John Cena, Ric Flair, DX, and the NWO.

• Coming attractions: Thursday on SI.com, Sports Illustrated will have an interview with Baron Corbin, who discusses the Saudi Arabia show, his missed “Money in the Bank” contract opportunity, and the role his late father played in his becoming a WWE success.

Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, as the pair take a thorough look at WWE’s Unforgiven pay per view from 1998.

The show, which was WWE’s first pay per view following “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s title win over Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV, featured a number of firsts, including a new company logo, the first evening gown match, and the first Inferno match.

“It feels like a ‘Ready, shoot, aim’ approach for Vince Russo,” said Thompson. “The idea of an Inferno match, with a fire all around the ring during a match, has been promised and now they have to deliver it.”

Unforgiven’s main event pits Austin defending his championship against Dude Love.

“We’ll hear from Bruce why Mick Foley was chosen as the first opponent of the ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin era, as well as why the Dude Love persona was the right fit here,” said Thompson. “It was Foley’s first main event in a little while, and he had a real banner year in ‘98. He had that very fun main event with Shawn Michaels in ‘96, but that almost felt like a one-off, then had that Undertaker feud, and he really hit his stride here with the company. So we’ll talk about all things ‘Attitude’, especially Mick Foley and the Inferno match, which was just insanity when you think about it.”

This week’s “Something Else to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” show on the WWE Network is a deep dive into the relationship between Hulk Hogan and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage.

“We cover everything, including the rumor and innuendo between Randy and Steph [McMahon],” said Thompson. “I don’t know if that makes air or not, but I talked about it and it will be interesting to see what they let fly.”

Next week’s show on the Network will take a close look at Shawn Michaels’ year in 1995.

“We’ll get to show footage of Shawn surrendering the belt and the collapse on Raw,” said Thompson. “So that will be a game-changer with the added footage.”

Tweet of the Week

The best heel in wrestling? Tommy Entertainment.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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