We asked a Middle East expert about the risks of WWE’s arrangement with Saudi Arabia. 

By Justin Barrasso
September 26, 2018

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

WWE’s Second Show in Saudi Arabia No Less Controversial Than the First

Vince McMahon has never been shy of controversy—and WWE’s continued dealings with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are certainly rife with dissention.

Unlike the upcoming trip to Australia for the Super Show-Down on Oct. 6, which is a show viewed as a tremendous opportunity for WWE’s global growth, its lucrative agreement with the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia and the Nov. 2 “Crown Jewel” show from Riyadh are far more complicated.

There is too much money at stake for WWE to turn back from its agreement to produce live events in Saudi Arabia, but there certainly are reasons to be wary of the relationship.

For starters, none of WWE’s women’s roster is allowed to wrestle at the show. (The Saudi sports authority was forced to issue an apology after WWE showed an “indecent” video package featuring its female wrestlers during the Greatest Royal Rumble last spring.)

wrestling
WWE Announces Second Network Special From Saudi Arabia Will Be on Nov. 2

Under Saudi law, all females must have a male guardian and are forced to abide by a strict dress code. Women’s rights are severely restricted, as a male guardian’s approval is necessary for marriage, divorce, travel, education and other decisions women around the world are free to make independently. The ban on women driving was just lifted this past June.

Saudi Arabia’s LGBT rights are also considered to be amongst the worst in the entire world. Saudi’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice has the right to arrest or detain those who violate the traditional Islamic conduct, including acts of homosexuality.

So are the WWE’s trips to Saudi Arabia just a money grab? Is anything remotely positive emanating from these trips to the Middle East?

Sports Illustrated spoke with David Ottaway, a Middle East specialist at the Wilson Center, which is the United States’ forefront non-partisan policy forum, and he shared that the relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the WWE does have some benefits.

“It’s part of a larger opening of Saudi society to international entertainment of various kinds,” said Ottaway. “It is one of the most difficult markets to crack because the religious establishment has been very much against this general opening the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been engineering for the last two years, bringing in all kinds of entertainment and attractions.”

The WWE is not alone in its travels to Saudi Arabia. An entertainment city is being built outside of Riyadh and Six Flags, an American company, is the anchor to the whole operation. So there are other various forms of Western and American entertainment being brought into the Kingdom.

“This is part of a larger movement underway to allow all kind of foreign sponsored entertainment inside the Kingdom,” said Ottaway. “Opening the country and society to various forms of foreign entertainment, including movie theaters, is essential to get the support of the young people.

“But the risk is religious backlash. The religious leaders have huge followings, so this is very provocative to the religious establishment but very welcomed by the youth of Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudis have been living under a very austere form of Islamism called Wahabisim. The Wahabi religious establishment has been against this opening to foreign entertainment. The biggest risk, Ottaway noted, is for the government, not WWE.

“I haven’t seen any public protests against it organized by the religious establishment,” said Ottaway. “There is a risk, but it’s to the government, not for the companies, like WWE.

“Wrestling has turned out to be quite popular in Saudi Arabia. I was there this past spring for its [Greatest Royal Rumble] show, and there was a huge turnout for it. Wresting is quite an attraction for a lot of Saudis, so it is a good internal market [for WWE].

“They’re opening up a market and there is a demand for this, and they’re opening movie theaters and having concerts. This is designed for the younger audience to give them some relief from the austere atmosphere of Saudi Arabia that before had no films, no movies, no public concerts because of this oppressive austerity. This is a country that stops five times [a day] to pray, so it’s part of this social revolution taking place.”

WWE’s role in the social revolution of Saudi Arabia is a matter that extends far beyond storylines and the potential in-ring return of Shawn Michaels.

Watching the growth of the industry leader in sports entertainment as it extends across the world—with a particular eye on the Middle East—remains an ongoing, and fascinating, development.

Ten-Year-Old Noah Palzet Kick Out of Cancer

Pro wrestling is playing a role in the recovery of Noah Palzet.

Palzet is a 10-year-old from Deerfield, Illinois, and he shares a lot in common with other children around the world, especially with his love of WWE. But he is battling a unique disease in adrenal cortical carcinoma.

Instead of enjoying the fifth grade, Palzet has spent his past year-and-a-half having tumors removed from his abdomen on two separate occasions. His fighting spirit has been tested after enduring eight rounds of chemotherapy. The treatments have lasting consequences, including permanent hearing loss.

Cancer has attempted to wrestle the life out of him. But Palzet refuses to tap.

“He’s a tough kid,” said Noah’s father Dave Palzet. “When he’s down and out, all he wants to do is watch wrestling videos.”

Palzet is ready to give some “Sweet Chin Music” to cancer, and he is using WWE as his inspiration to get stronger every day.

“I love to watch WWE,” said Noah, who took a break from watching a Hulk Hogan match on the WWE Network to speak with Sports Illustrated. “Roman Reigns, Jeff Hardy, Brock Lesnar, and Daniel Bryan are my favorites.”

Palzet said that he has only been to SmackDown once, but he plans on going again. He has been thrilled to receive gifts from John Cena, Triple H, and David Otunga, as well as videos from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dolph Ziggler.

“Dolph Ziggler sent me a video telling me I was one of his heroes,” Noah said. “That made me feel a lot better.”

Palzet has also developed a friendship with former WWE ring announcer Justin Roberts, who has worked to connect his new friend with as many stars of wrestling as possible.

His case is incredibly rare. There are not thousands of cases to compare and contrast, and Palzet’s treatment protocol is based on a set of 34 children who have battled this cancer.

“Pro wrestling got him through treatment,” said Dave Palzet, who along with his wife Trisha and their three older children, have supported Noah in every step of his fight. “He sat in a hospital bed for days and weeks on end, and he watched every single wrestling video he could find from the 60’s all the way up to today. He knows more about professional wrestling than I even thought was possible to know.

“This is not an easy disease for him to get through, but people have lifted him up over the past year-and-a-half. It’s been amazing the way people have lifted our spirits.”

Noah’s oral chemo ended last week. Though there is the possibility for long-term effects, his most recent diagnosis for recovery is encouraging.

During his time fighting cancer, Palzet even helped develop his own mantra: “Fear? Not!”

Cancer did not instill fear in the heart of Palzet, but his heart and courage in the face of one of the ugliest diseases in the world inspired awe from the larger-than-life stars of the WWE.

In Other News...

• New Japan’s IWGP heavyweight champion Kenny Omega is coming to New York.

Omega will appear for Northeast Wrestling on Friday, November 9 at the promotion’s show in Poughkeepsie, New York at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center. He will be wrestling AAA Mega Champion Rey Fenix, who is the brother of Pentagon, whom Omega defeated at All In.

The show will also feature Rob Van Dam, David Arquette, and NEW champion Jack Swagger.

• Championship Wrestling from Arizona is hitting a major milestone with its 100th episode.

“AZ100” is airing in four parts, with the first already available to watch on FITE TV.

The fourth and final installment of “AZ100” will be centered around a return match pitting former NWA champion Tim Storm against Championship Wrestling from Arizona star Peter Avalon. The NWA was especially proud of the match, already releasing the video.

Peter Avalon is an executive producer for Championship Wrestling from Arizona as well as an in-ring talent, and he expressed gratitude to United Wrestling Network president David Marquez, who oversees the promotion, for the opportunity to build a promotion.

“This has been an incredible opportunity to create what we think pro wrestling is and what it should be,” said Avalon, who is 29-year-old Peter Hernandez. “It’s old school pro wrestling, with a completely different feeling and vibe than anything else today. This is a throwback to when pro wrestling was aggressive, when it was a fight, when it meant two guys duking it out in a physical contest.”

The culmination of 100 episodes is a significant achievement in a wrestling landscape already overflowing with options. Yet Championship Wrestling from Arizona has separated itself by planting seeds of success in its storytelling and in-ring execution.

“Our writing makes sense, and these stories are really exciting,” said Avalon. “We don’t insult the fans by just throwing whatever out there; we build to big moments and big opportunities for people.”

Mick Greenwood, the co-executive producer of Championship Wrestling from Arizona, felt a big match fraught with emotion in the return bout between Avalon and Tim Storm.

“It’s a match where you truly believed there were two guys with something to prove,” said Greenwood. “Working with the NWA has been a transformative moment for the brand.”

Avalon and Greenwood saw an opportunity to do business with the NWA during Nick Aldis’ title reign. The “Aldis Crusade” granted title shots to anyone who had pinned a former NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, which Avalon had done by pinning a former champ in Colt Cabana.

Avalon qualified for a title shot against Aldis, who was scheduled to appear at a Championship Wrestling from Arizona event but was ultimately replaced with Tim Storm due to scheduling conflicts.

“We opened that show by offering refunds for those who were upset that Nick Aldis was not there as advertised, but we didn’t end up issuing one refund,” said Greenwood. “Tim Storm and Peter Avalon walked out in the ring for a promo, and by the time that was done, there wasn’t a single person in the house who didn’t want to see them kill each other.”

Greenwood, who has also learned the intricacies of the business from Marquez, is confident that wrestling fans will find a new place to call home once they give a chance to Championship Wrestling from Arizona.

“We have taken the talent we had and found the stories that fit them, and helped them grow at the same time,” said Greenwood. “We’re getting to know our market and getting to know our fans, and we’ve been willing to change direction and not fall too in love with our ideas because they’re our ideas.

“We’re a show that’s about story. There are plenty of wrestling shows that will have indie spot-fests. For us, the spots tell an important part of the story. Every character has one, and when those stories overlap, unlikely heroes emerge and magic happens.”

• Jay Lethal is set to defend his Ring of Honor world title this Friday at the Death Before Dishonor pay per view against New Japan star Will Ospreay.

The card has some interesting matches, but none more so than the main event. Even though Ospreay is a New Japan talent and highly unlikely to win the ROH title, the clash of styles between Lethal and Ospreay should make the match one worth watching.

A Q&A with Lethal discussing Ospreay, race in wrestling, and his goals as ROH champion will run this Friday on SI.com.

• “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard” and co-host Conrad Thompson returns this Friday at noon ET with a detailed look at the Breakdown: In Your House from Sept. 1998 that was headlined by a triple threat match for the world title between defending champion “Stone Cold” Steve Austin against The Undertaker and Kane.

“This show takes place two months prior to Survivor Series 1998, where they did possibly the greatest single show story ever done with ‘Deadly Game’ where Rock became the corporate champion. But the whole storyline of Vince McMahon trying to take the belt off ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin really got going here in September, with this three-way that was really a handicap match against Austin.”

The show ended with McMahon running away with the title after a double-pin defeated Austin, and McMahon flipped off Austin.

“That storyline was really heating up, and the groundwork for the ’98 Survivor Series was laid at this In Your House show,” said Thompson. “There are also a ton of behind-the-scenes nuggets going on in 1998. This is Vader’s last pay per view, one of Bradshaw’s singles break-out performances, and we’ll look at how the business has changed. Nitro had gone on a six-week tear of beating Raw, but WWE was having the best 30-day stretch of revenue they’d ever had. It’s a tremendous upswing in the business, but if you only look at the ratings, it looks like WWE is struggling when they’re really succeeding. It’s interesting to explore how that potentially changed Vince McMahon’s mindset.”

Thompson’s “83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff” podcast covered the Vince Russo world title win in WCW this past week, and this coming week will explore Roddy Piper’s run in WCW. There is also exclusive content for listeners who subscribe to the paid Patreon version of the show.

“It’s pretty cool, we’ve been able to find a way to help Hulk with the NWO reunion in October,” said Thompson. “Eric and I are going to be doing a live ‘83 Weeks’, our first one, at the NWO reunion, and Eric wanted to do something special for our Patreon listeners and give them a Hulk Hogan Q&A. For a select group of fans, they got to ask the Hulkster whatever they wanted.”

Tweet of the Week

For those who are fans of Randy Savage, this clip is a quick—but nevertheless riveting look—into the development of the famed “Macho Man” character.

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

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