WWE’s first foray into Saudi Arabia with April’s “Greatest Royal Rumble” — a terribly named supershow with a card akin to something a Mountain Dew-fueled me would have booked on No Mercy in 2001 — drew warranted criticism.
Saudi Arabia’s oppressive laws forced WWE to leave women off the Greatest Royal Rumble. From an ultimately frivolous wrestling perspective, this dramatically impacted the card’s appeal to me, given the best matches on two of the last three Wrestlemanias featured women’s title matches (Charlotte Flair vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch at Mania 32, Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka at this year’s Mania 34).
On a much more significant front, I passed on the the Greatest Royal Rumble not only due to the human rights oppression of women, LGBTQ and non-violent drug users in Saudi Arabia, but because of the ongoing crisis in Yemen. The images of famine, allegations of use of skin-burning white phosphorous, and others charges of genocide are too much for me to tacitly support what amounts to little more than PR for the Saudi king.
Wrestling is a form of entertainment that I go into understanding there are warts. Its history is steeped in shadiness, if not some outright revolting chapters. WWE already walked away from another controversy this year, dropping the name Fabulous Moolah from its Wrestlemania battle royal and re-commissioning a new trophy amid backlash.
Speaking on behalf of the company in defense of the Greatest Royal Rumble, Paul Levesque offered a salient point — essentially that the spread of pop culture and entertainment can lead to cultural change. One need not look far to see its impact; sports advanced the push for desegregation here in the United States, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to credit music, TV and film for turning the tide in favor of marriage equality.
So will history reflect on the Greatest Royal Rumble as a landmark moment for much-needed progress in an oppressive nation? Or will it become a new generation’s Collision in Korea?
For the uninitiated, Collision in Korea is an utterly bizarre historical artifact from the not-so-distant past of 1995. USA Today interviewed Ric Flair about the event, held in North Korean capital Pyongyang, in 2014. As a centerpiece of the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, more than 300,000 North Koreans watched the event live, though knowing what we do of life in North Korea, I’m guessing attendance was mandatory.
To see a wrestling match among such a massive sea of humanity is quite a spectacle — although seeing it requires scouring YouTube. Collision in Korea’s not available on WWE Network, despite owning the rights as a WCW pay-per-view event.
Ric Flair wrestled Antonio Inoki in the main event — a fitting pairing for such a bizarre show, given Flair’s well-documented outlandishness, which comes nowhere near the stories told of Inoki. The Japanese puroresu legend might very well have shortened the boxing career of Muhammad Ali in a worked-shoot fight, negotiated the release of a hostage in Iraq in 1990, bought a deserted island from the Cuban government, and — in more recent years — hosted a 7-hour long MMA pay-per-view in Japan that kicked off with him on a cross.
With Flair and Inoki on the top of the card, assorted other WCW and New Japan talent filled out the undercard. It isn’t nearly the level of supercard WWE presented at Greatest Royal Rumble, but it does include an IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout between Shinya Hashimoto and Scott Norton, and The Open Man favorites the Steiner Brothers facing Kensuke Sasaki and Hiroshi Hase.
It’s an altogether odd event to the point that it doesn’t seem real. Perhaps in 23 years’ time, Greatest Royal Rumble will be remembered similarly. Or maybe, with North Korea and South Korea working to ease tensions, WWE’s next landmark, global event will be Collision in Korea 2?