Evolution was supposed to distract from WWE’s dealings in Saudi Arabia. Instead it got drowned out.
Three months ago, when WWE announced the upcoming all-women pay-per-view WWE Evolution, the cynical view claimed that it was something of a make-good. In April the company had held a heavily promoted show in Saudi Arabia from which women performers were completely excluded in accordance with local laws, a detail that drew both internal and external criticism. Almost immediately afterward, speculation built that WWE, given its yearslong campaign to belatedly promote the value of its women’s division, might hold a female-only card as a type of compensation. Then, in September, two months after the Evolution announcement, WWE announced a second Saudi show, WWE Crown Jewel, in Riyadh. It would take place on Nov. 2—five days after Evolution, which will be held this Sunday in Uniondale, N.Y. The cynic’s take evolved accordingly: Evolution wasn’t a make-good for the first show, but a p.r. cover for the second.
It has not quite played out that way. In the month since Crown Jewel’s announcement, criticism of that show has grown exponentially in both level and scope. On Oct. 2, Saudi-born journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, triggering international backlash. Reports regarding his death have contained gruesome details, including that he was dismembered with a bonesaw, and the Turkish government, among others, has implicated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as being responsible for orchestrating Khashoggi’s killing. The official Saudi explanation has shifted several times, from Khashoggi having left the consulate alive, then to Khashoggi having died accidentally during a one-on-15 altercation during an interrogation. The story changed again on Thursday, with the government admitting that the killing was premeditated. Saudi Arabia has arrested 18 men in connection with the act, which this week President Donald Trump described as having “the worst cover-up ever.”
As attention understandably turned toward various U.S. businesses’ relationships with the Saudi government, U.S. senators including Chris Murphy—who represents WWE’s home state of Connecticut—called for WWE to cancel Crown Jewel, while mainstream media ranging from The Washington Post to HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver also scrutinized the company’s plans. WWE crowds seemed to take notice too, booing the Undertaker’s reference to the show by name on a recently episode of Raw. On Oct. 16, WWE put out a vague statement that it was “monitoring” the situation; around the same time, it stopped mentioning Saudi Arabia while discussing Crown Jewel during its broadcasts and on social media, and scrubbed the show’s location from its website. Various news reports said that the company was looking into alternative sites for the event and facing a potential boycott by top stars John Cena and Daniel Bryan. On his Wrestling Observer Radio show last week, Dave Meltzer reported “that unless the State Department tells them they can’t go or Donald Trump tells them they can’t go, then they are going.” This week, Meltzer said that pressure from “outside forces” had put the show “very much in jeopardy.” On Thursday morning, WWE officially announced that Crown Jewel will go on in Riyadh as scheduled, citing the company’s “contractual obligations to the General Sports Authority” and other U.S.-based companies carrying on their own Saudi business operations.
Even with the question of Crown Jewel’s location and happening now settled, the effect of the debate surrounding it remains. For one, there is the general p.r. hit suffered by WWE, coming at a moment when it has managed to foster a more positive public standing than it has in decades, or perhaps ever. But there has also been the inversion of the timely-distraction theory many suspected Evolution was intended to provide. Rather than offering cover for the unsavoriness of holding another show promoting Saudi Arabia and its leaders, Evolution has been overshadowed by Crown Jewel’s growing cloud of controversy. On the eve of what WWE had hoped to hype as the zenith of its progress toward gender equality, it has instead had to fend off the perception that its priorities are as craven and regressive as ever.
To any remotely skeptical eye, the juxtaposition of shows was always doomed. In defending its first major show in Saudi Arabia—April’s awkwardly titled WWE Greatest Royal Rumble—WWE had tried to fashion itself as an agent of social change that left behind its entire female roster as pittance for contributing to the ongoing liberalization of Saudi culture. But any notion that WWE was some sort of Trojan Horse of progressive values was belied by the way Greatest Royal Rumble was presented not as a WWE show incidentally in Saudi Arabia but one explicitly of and for that country. The show included announcers praising Prince Mohammed’s Saudi Vision 2030 plan and the “vibrant, progressive city” of Jeddah, where it was held, along with effusive thanks for the kingdom’s hospitality. At one point the show cut to a jarring two-minute video touting “the dawning of a new age in Saudi Arabia” in which “everybody’s welcome” (which might be news to Syrian-Canadian wrestler Sami Zayn, who was also conspicuously left off the show) and a “societal renaissance,” highlighted by women now being permitted to drive, that it attributed directly to Prince Mohammed.
The propagandic tone aligned with Prince Mohammed’s ongoing attempt to rebrand as M.B.S., a progressive force of modernity, that had previously led to easy embrace in Western media and spheres of influence. Citing the prince’s pledge to return his country to “moderate Islam” and actions like reopening movie theaters and reigning-in of religious police, outlets like TIME and 60 Minutes ran positive profiles, while prominent Americans ranging from Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Oprah granted him an audience during a recent U.S. tour. It was a p.r. campaign decried by some observers as legitimizing a ruthless leader that, according to The New Yorker, had earned the domestic nickname of “Father of the Bullet.” Among his alleged transgressions were the anti-corruption detainment of hundreds of businessmen and royal family members in a hotel that reportedly resulted in more than dozen hospitalizations and at least one death, and a brutal ongoing military campaign in Yemen, during which Saudi forces recently killed 40 children by striking a school bus with a U.S.-made bomb.
This context earned WWE some external criticism, mostly on sites and outlets outside of the traditional mainstream. Relating to its willful exclusion of the women on its roster, it seemed to weather some internal disapproval as well, judging from social media posts from talent like Sasha Banks and Corey Graves. (The company reportedly did pay its female performers as if they had worked the show.) But the controversy mostly appeared to blow over in time, in part thanks to WWE’s position in a sort of cultural blind spot that allows it to evade persistent scrutiny unless death and/or drugs are involved. And it likely would have taken a true storm of scorn to outweigh the mass of cash the show brought into WWE’s coffers: reportedly as much as $45 million.
Given that revenue, WWE dutifully promoted Greatest Royal Rumble as an especially major event, stacking it with championship matches and, fittingly, the largest Royal Rumble in that match type’s 30-year history. Crown Jewel too was hyped astronomically and packed with bells and whistles, including the in-ring return of the legendary Shawn Michaels after an eight-year retirement and the creation of a new WWE World Cup tournament. The product’s devotion to promoting Crown Jewel arguably came at a price that by now you might be able to guess: Evolution, the all-women show taking place that same week. Suddenly Raw and Smackdown’s building of that show had to compete with the build-up to a show featuring WWE’s significantly larger male roster, who generally occupy an accordingly larger portion of those shows. The supposed culmination of what began as a “Divas Revolution” in 2015 was left fighting for oxygen within WWE’s own product.
None of which to say the lead-up to Evolution has been insignificant. Major airtime has been devoted to the Raw Women’s Championship match between former UFC star Ronda Rousey and the returning Nikki Bella, of Bella Twins and E! reality show fame, and the Smackdown Women’s Championship match between Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, who have spent the past two months in one of WWE’s best feuds of the year. But the message Evolution was ostensibly intended to send—that the gender-based division WWE had long neglected (or, for periods, scrapped altogether) had matured to the point of warranting its own pay-per-view—was inherently muddled by WWE’s simultaneous promotion of an even bigger show in which that division would play no part.
WWE frequently presents itself as in the business of telling stories, but here it has erred in trying to tell two in conflict: That it is a champion of women’s representation and empowerment and women taking their rightful place alongside men, and also that it has no qualms about gleefully promoting a show on which they are barred from performing and cannot even attend without a male guardian. While the company has attempted to negotiate that cognitive dissonance with comments by Triple H, Randy Orton, Natalya Neidhart and Alexa Bliss expressing hope that women may someday wrestle in Saudi Arabia, the current reality is illustrated by what happened after WWE aired a standard in-stadium video advertisement that included female wrestlers in their wrestling gear: the Saudi General Sports Authority issued an apology for the “indecent” content and asserted its commitment “to eliminate anything that goes against the community's values.”
In a way, WWE has never quite known how to present the story of Evolution. It is pitched as a moment of triumph for the company’s women, a high-water mark after the era of Girls Gone Wild “body contest” partnerships and “Diva” branding gradually gave way to athletic emphasis and serious-minded main event matches. Left unsaid is why, exactly, this moment took until now to arrive and over what they are triumphing. If it was the shortcomings of previous talent, then bringing back and celebrating past stars like the Bellas, Trish Stratus, and Lita would seem counterintuitive. If it was the fault of disinterested fans, WWE would be blaming the very audience to which it is attempting to sell Evolution—a notion that’s also betrayed by both crowds’ enthusiastic embrace of new stars like Banks and Flair and by the fan-led gender parity campaign that WWE has cited as an impetus for change.
Which leaves the only logical remaining culprit to be WWE itself, a target at which the company is inherently disinclined to point the finger. Instead, regarding WWE’s telling of how the Divas-Evolution-turned-Women’s-Evolution came to be, we get a narrative in which all parties triumph over a vague problem without a name or author.
It’s an incomplete accounting somewhat befitting a show that has largely been seen as failing to capitalize on its full potential, often relying on flat, mundane methods to build its matches and relegating a number of the company’s top women to an afterthought battle royal about which even its participants seem less than thrilled.
Ultimately, Crown Jewel’s fate was unrelated to Evolution and the clashing narratives the shows’ pairing provides. The decision to carry on with Crown Jewel as planned was the result of WWE’s own business calculations. Yet by placing the shows within the same week, WWE ensured from the start that the two would be, to at least some degree, understood in relation to one another. Thanks to forces of reality beyond even its control, only one has emerged as the wrestling industry’s biggest story—and it’s not a story WWE particularly wants to be telling.