WWE has entertainment and sport in perfect harmony
Professional wrestling is a controversial sport. For starters, the idea of two men — often more — trying to beat each other into submission does not exactly have a universal appeal. Unlike its “amateur” variant, known as Greco-Roman wrestling, which is recognized by the International Olympics Committee, professional wrestling is often more entertainment than real competition. It is not a coincidence that the biggest and most popular wrestling organization calls itself World Wrestling Entertainment.
Professional wrestlers often bristle at being asked whether their sport is “fake.” One famously demonstrated wrestling’s authenticity by delivering an “open-hand slap” on a reporter who asked him that question, knocking him to the ground. Nevertheless, it is well established that the sport is a spectacle, albeit one that is well-rehearsed, orchestrated, and often quite compelling. It is also a sport that has global appeal. So when one of the WWE’s biggest events took place in Jeddah last weekend, it did not disappoint.
Here, I must make two confessions. The first is that I was a very big fan of professional wrestling growing up. I first started watching in Saudi Arabia but followed it more closely when I attended high school in the United States. Names like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and the Ultimate Warrior were household names in the late 1980s. We all had our favorite wrestlers. Many of us also tried our wrestling moves on friends or siblings.
The scale of the event and the participation of so many wrestling superstars was the result of thinking outside the box.
Second, after living in the US for many years, I finally attended a WWE event when my nephews visited Washington last summer. To its credit, the WWE puts on an entertaining and well-organized event. Every wrestler still maintains a persona of some sort and the audience is made to feel like they are witnessing a saga unfolding before their very eyes.
I did not attend the event in Jeddah but I saw about a dozen different clips of it. For starters, it is estimated that well over 40,000 people of both genders, all ages and different nationalities attended the event. People interviewed before and after, including children, could barely contain their enthusiasm. While parents expressed gratitude for a venue that allowed them to spend time together as a family, the children spoke about the wrestlers with awe. And while professional wrestlers can seem cartoonish to adults, there is little doubt that the “good” wrestlers leave quite an impression on children who attend their events. One wrestler in particular, John Cena, is the closest thing we have to the fictional superhero Superman. Built like a freakishly muscular cartoon figure, he vanquishes bad guys and rarely, if ever, tastes defeat.
While their over-the-top hijinks like cage matches and “Royal Rumbles” are decidedly lowbrow entertainment, the WWE and its stars are well aware of their popularity and have often projected a positive image. That has entailed being attuned to the concept of social responsibility.
In Jeddah, some of the wrestlers found the time to visit landmarks and taste the local cuisine. Just as importantly, some also visited a school for children with special needs.
The event in Jeddah was not completely free of controversy. Women wrestlers were not included. However, having seen them in action in Washington, I have no doubt that what many consider to be the overt objectification of the female wrestlers would have offended the sensibilities of most Saudis. The WWE also chose to add some politics into the mix by having Saudi wrestling prospects throw two Iranian wrestlers out of the ring.
In the end, the event was a tremendous success. Thousands of people attended, yelling, booing and clapping seemingly nonstop. The scale of the event and the participation of so many wrestling superstars was the result of thinking outside the box. Vision 2030 views entertainment and sports as playing a central role in improving the quality of life in Saudi Arabia. With the WWE, Saudis and the thousands of others in attendance experienced both at the same. This is the new normal.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization.