WWE Hosts First Female Pay-Per-View Show Amid Saudi Partnership Criticism

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Five days after Evolution, the women's roster will not be present for WWE Crown Jewel. (File)

Uniondale, New York:

Three days before Halloween, little girls dressed up like Becky Lynch, Alexa Bliss and Ronda Rousey converged on Long Island for the WWE's first all-female pay-per-view event.

Rousey, the former UFC megastar, is the face of WWE's new and improved women's division, one no longer known for bikini contests and two-minute matches. She closed Sunday's "Evolution" show with a victory over Nikki Bella, the former model who parlayed her WWE career into reality television success. In that sense, Bella provided the perfect foil for Rousey: A more traditional wrestling "Diva" colliding with the "baddest woman on the planet."

Rousey retained her WWE Raw Women's Championship, and little children and adult wrestling nerds alike streamed into the parking lot with stories to tell and T-shirts to wear from what WWE billed as a historic night. For some wrestling insiders, though, the timing of the event was suspicious.

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"I think there's a big part of [Evolution] that is their attempt to publicly do a make good for the women not being able to go Saudi Arabia," said Bryan Alvarez, who runs WrestlingObserver.com.

Five days after Evolution, the women's roster will not be present for WWE Crown Jewel, the company's second big Saudi Arabian event of 2018, held in a country that didn't allow women to drive until June.

WWE was widely criticized for April 27's Greatest Royal Rumble, held at King Abdullah International Stadium in Jiddah, both for its propagandizing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Saudi Vision 2030 program and for its exclusion of female competitors. (A similar event in the U.S. would almost certainly have at least one or two female matches.) That was the first show in WWE's 10-year strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, which will net the company about $450 million, according to reporting from Dave Meltzer, Alvarez's WrestlingObserver colleague.

The final two weeks of buildup for Evolution were overshadowed by WWE's relationship with Saudi Arabia, after the disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. That spurred mainstream attention on the often insular WWE world, including criticism from politicians and from public figures like HBO's John Oliver. At one point during the Evolution show, WWE flashed live video of its announce team with a Crown Jewel logo on the big screen. Fans in Long Island booed, and the screen quickly went black.

WWE has refrained from severing its relationship with the kingdom or moving Crown Jewel to a different location. In the meantime, the promotion of Evolution continued in earnest on Raw and Smackdown Live!, WWE's weekly prime time shows that air on USA Network.

Ticket sales suggested muted interest; two days before the event, StubHub was offering tickets for as low as $6.75.

WWE announced a sell out, despite social media photos of the arena that suggested otherwise. The company didn't release an official attendance figure. (The Coliseum's maximum capacity for basketball, MMA and boxing is 14,500).

Those in attendance were treated to more than three hours of well-received action, including a classic Last Women's Standing match between Lynch and Charlotte Flair. The event drew devoted fans like Suzy Rodriguez, 30, who took a flight from Miami to be in attendance. Ashley Rogers, 30, a trans woman, said she put aside some consternation about WWE's past to support the women performing at the event.

"You always have to have a certain amount of being able to move past problematic issues with wrestling, especially with WWE," Rogers said. "And so for a while, for me, I couldn't deal with a lot of it anymore so I was like, 'I'm going to leave it for a bit.' Especially because of their treatment of women, and their priorities on models versus wrestlers."

There were kids, too, like Serenity Adorno, 6, who couldn't sleep Saturday night. She rolled out of bed Sunday morning before her parents, eager for what was to come. Finally, at 5:30 p.m., she stood outside Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, her parents at her side and her replica WWE SmackDown Women's Championship belt slung over her right shoulder.

"I've been waiting my whole life for this!" she said.

The event was, in fact, years in the making. In February 2015, then-WWE performer AJ Lee replied to a tweet from Stephanie McMahon, who had posted a Patricia Arquette quote championing women's rights. Lee wanted McMahon, WWE's chief brand officer, to practice what she preached.

"Your female wrestlers have record selling merchandise & have starred in the highest rated segment of the show several times," Lee wrote. "And yet they receive a fraction of the wages & screen time of the majority of the male roster."

The days of women competing in bikini contests and "bra and panties" matches receded when WWE transitioned to PG programming in 2008, but for years women were still treated like afterthoughts, in both screen time and promotion.

Then Lee's message went viral. WWE soon stopped referring to its women as "Divas" and started writing them into more nuanced story lines. Performers known more for their ring skills than their looks got called up from NXT, WWE's developmental territory, to the main roster.

Then came the first women's Money in the Bank Ladder match; the first women's Elimination Chamber match; and the first women's Royal Rumble match. The Royal Rumble was won by Asuka, an internationally recognized wrestler who had previously earned titles and worshipers in Japan, where women's wrestling has long been presented in the mold WWE only recently embraced. Rousey made her debut after Asuka's victory, stamping the women's division with heretofore untapped mainstream credibility.

Rousey stole the show at WrestleMania 34 this April, teaming with Kurt Angle to defeat McMahon and Paul Levesque (Triple H), McMahon's real-life husband and WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative. Rousey's performance helped WWE grab even more headlines, and her star power is likely a big reason WWE pulled the trigger on Evolution, said Dave Schilling, a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report and a wrestling podcaster.

"Professional wrestling historically has been about the draw, the person at the top of the card, and a women's wrestling event – while it's definitely a novelty and something people are excited about – maybe WWE didn't have a personality everyone wants to witness live," Schilling said. "She's such a mainstream star, it makes sense she would be the catalyst for making this happen."

"I don't know if they would have had the guts to do it without her," Meltzer said.

After fending off interference in the main event from Bella's twin sister and reality television co-star, Brie, Rousey celebrated in the ring Sunday night, raising her title and bowing to the fans, as Joan Jett's rousing anthem "Bad Reputation" blared through the Coliseum.

She walked back up the entrance ramp, slapping five with fans, until she reached the top, where women's wrestlers of past and present were waiting with smiles and hugs. They posed and soaked in the cheers, as the camera panned back to include the massive "Evolution" graphic on the adjacent screen. It was a shameless photo opportunity, one destined to be relieved on WWE programming for years.

Fans poured out of the arena and lingered near a pair of merchandise stands. Jesse Rutzler, a lifelong wrestling fan, hung back with his family. He picked up his 5-year-old daughter, Chiana, who nuzzled her head into her father's chest. Rutzler said he appreciated the strides WWE has made to present women as serious wrestlers, and Chiana enjoyed Evolution, her first live wrestling show.

She even said she'd watch WWE RAW on Monday night. Normally she leaves the room when her father puts it on.

"It's something she's not going to recognize yet," Jesse said. "But eventually in the future I'll be able to point back to her and go, 'Look, you were there at the first time. You were here for the first time.' "

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)Source Article