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    Monday, December 16, 2019

    31 Days of Wrestling (12/16/19): Saudi Na Natuto (WWE Crown Jewel 2019)


    Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies, and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2019 produced for us.

    Like oil and water, professional wrestling and international politics don't necessarily mix. Given the right agents and catalysts and situations, however, it can make for one of two things: a professional wrestling angle, or an international incident. The "foreign villain" trope has been a staple of professional wrestling since day one: Killer Kowalski, the Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, Yokozuna, the many iterations of "Team Canada," Muhammad Hassan, Rusev, name it.

    The whole point of the "foreign villain" is for the heroes of professional wrestling to stand for—and save—a decidedly American way of life. Wrestling's fictions stem from real-world issues; policy is often decided in the wrestling ring than in wars or the floor of the United Nations. And in the case of professional wrestling, America always finds a way to thrive and survive: Sammartino defeats Kowalski, Hogan beats the foreign invaders, Hassan is unceremoniously carted off into the sunset, Cena beats Rusev.

    But what if foreign affairs have everything—and nothing—to do with wrestling?

    *****

    WWE Crown Jewel was, in many ways, the WWE's gesture of looking outward—to live up to the "World" in World Wrestling Entertainment. For the past five years, the WWE has made its presence felt in the Middle East as part of a mutual exchange of sorts: the WWE gets paid handsomely and extends its popularity all over the world, and Saudi Arabia takes a step forward in its reform agenda moving into 2030.

    This year's WWE Crown Jewel happened at a time of great political sensitivities between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Just last year, WWE took flak for pushing through with the event, despite the international condemnation around the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The strained ties didn't exactly relax this year: what with issues like troop deployment, Aramco, and Donald Trump's general approach towards the Middle East.


    By and large, WWE cards in Saudi Arabia—like Greatest Royal Rumble and a number of house shows—can be successful in their own right. However, this year's event was unique in the sense that the WWE brought in a much larger roster, and it was the first time in Saudi soil that two women wrestled: Lacey Evans versus Natalya. For many, this was the highlight of WWE Crown Jewel: akin to Saudi embracing a future more in line with the global community.

    On top of these were other matches that would have fit in nicely with any other pay-per-view, but were mostly done to impress an audience hungry for the best of professional wrestling, or at least a version of it (after all, a Team Hogan vs. Team Flair tag team match won't probably fly for marks, but would really generate interest in a country that rarely sees WWE live and at this scale). Sure, the much-hyped match between Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez was a bit of a letdown, but getting WWE Network views was also an important matter (if we're being honest, this was a crowd that would have rivaled any WrestleMania on American soil).

    Yet the undercurrents of two conflicting cultures were very hard to ignore: far beyond seating arrangements, the manner by which the women were clothed, and so on. And it happened beyond the gleaming walls of the King Fahd International Stadium.

    That undercurrent was highlighted by the travel issues that left many WWE Superstars grounded in Saudi Arabia. The WWE claims that the wrestlers weren't "held hostage" for six hours, but that mechanical issues hampered the prompt departure of the roster and staff back to the United States. A prevailing theory—represented and articulated by ex-WWE announcer Hugo Savinovich—was that the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman allegedly ordered a hold departure over a complicated issue of money (to the tune of over US$200 million).

    The controversy and long delay elicited many negative responses, many of which dealing with the sheer complexity of US-Saudi relations. Like how the WWE should not have taken into the Saudi reform agenda, and find itself in the crosshairs of international observers. Or how the fact that top brass and Superstars got off the country in chartered flights while many were left on the ground strokes some feelings of discontent. The lockdown at Saudi Arabia following WWE Crown Jewel had such an impact that WWE SmackDown Live had to be rewritten on the fly... and brought us the next chapter of NXT as WWE's third brand.

    *****

    The thing is that we'll never really know the real story behind the debacle, as there are real consequences that may be too much to bear in a tell-all. But it sure would make an interesting story, as the WWE is bound to put on more shows in the Middle East in the coming decade. Maybe more care with planning as it negotiates tricky political obstacles is the best thing the WWE could do; after all, the WWE may be an ambassador for a distinctly Western way of life, but it isn't an expert on international relations. If there's anything that the WWE does particularly well, it's logistics: having mastered the art of moving people around in years of travelling shows with little to no margin of error, it can be baffling how the WWE can miss out on the intricacies that led to the travel issues.

    Which brings us around: do wrestling and politics mix? I think that whatever undercurrents there are between the United States and Saudi Arabia shouldn't detract the WWE from reaching out to a global audience. If anything, WWE Crown Jewel showed how much potential there can be in the company taking its show all over the world. And how—rightly or wrongly—it's wrestling that, in the end, somehow seems to get it right eventually.

    *****

    31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2019. Read our previous entries:

    1. The Man Stands Tall at WrestleMania (Becky Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair vs. Ronda Rousey, WrestleMania 35)
    2. The Game Changes (Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega, AEW Double or Nothing)
    3. Still the Ace (Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kenny Omega, Wrestle Kingdom 13)
    4. #KofiMania (Kofi Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan, WrestleMania 35)
    5. Starting With A Bang (The Premiere of AEW Dynamite)
    6. Let's Start A War (The Premiere of NXT On The USA Network)
    7. For You And Me! For All Of Us! (Jake De Leon vs. TJP, PWR Homecoming)
    8. It Takes a Bird and a Villain (G1 Climax Finals: Kota Ibushi vs. Jay White)
    9. The Fall of Bray Wyatt and the Rise of the Fiend
    10. Johnny Champion (Adam Cole vs. Johnny Gargano, NXT TakeOver: New York)
    11. Do You Wanna Yeet a Four-Man? (QUATRO vs. Chris Panzer vs. Jeff Cobb, PWR Homecoming)
    12. From Purveyor Of Violence To Death Rider (Jon Moxley in NJPW)
    13. We Will Rock You! (Crystal vs. Emi Sakura, PWR Path of Gold 2019)
    14. Revolutionary (QUATRO vs. IMABAYASHI, PWR Wrevolution X 2019)
    15. Manila Has Fallen (Ho Ho Lun vs. Robin Sane, MWF 10: Republika)
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    Item Reviewed: 31 Days of Wrestling (12/16/19): Saudi Na Natuto (WWE Crown Jewel 2019) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Marck Rimorin
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