Simply put, WWE Crown Jewel was a bad idea from day one. The event, part of a 10-year, twenty-show deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was under fire from the get-go for serving as propaganda for the totalitarian state, its new crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), and his modernization campaign dubbed, “Saudi Vision 2030”.
One can’t discuss Crown Jewel without first talking about May’s Greatest Royal Rumble. Like the Prime Minister of Lebanon, the WWE Network special would be held in Saudi Arabia, albeit it voluntarily this time.
At that event, WWE not only stoked nationalistic fervor against Saudi Arabia’s nemesis Iran, but aired videos promoting host city Jeddah as “progressive” and painting MbS as not merely a Rusev lookalike…
…but a bold reformer.
WWE was far from alone in its love for the new, young crown prince. Even mega-successful non-wrestling celebrities like Bill Gates and Dwayne Johnson fawned over the next-in-line to the Saudi throne.
After coming under fire for putting on that first Saudi event, WWE announced its historic, all-women’s pay-per-view titled Evolution…
…but shortly thereafter, as if responding to the complaint, “What about an all MEN’S pay-per-view, huh?!”, it also announced precisely that:
A second Saudi-funded sausage-fest called, “Crown Jewel”, which would take place later in the same week. Promotion for the event would dominate WWE television, overshadowing Evolution.
Although hosting an event in a country where women couldn’t leave the house unaccompanied (let alone wrestle) flew in the face of WWE’s campaign to promote women’s wrestling…
…and although glamorizing a country where homosexuality was punishable by death seemed to fly in the face of WWE’s campaigns with GLAAD…
…the company and its defenders argued they were helping the country evolve little by little.
Why, under King Salman and his son, the Kingdom had already agreed to let women drive, even though many of the activists who had petitioned for that right were imprisoned anyway.
Those women weren’t the only critics of the Saudi government, however. Another critic was Jamal Khashoggi, who, one month prior to Crown Jewel, went missing after visiting a Saudi consulate in Turkey to collect some legal documents.
Khashoggi, a Saudi-born journalist living in the United States, was wary of Mohammed bin Salman’s intimidation tactics while also praising his recent reforms to the country. In his words, he wanted an evolution, not a revolution.
In the US, this kind of mild criticism of one’s leader might earn one a mean tweet from the President, and maybe a petty nickname (I’m thinking, “Cryin’ Jamal”).
For Khashoggi, his complaints about MbS’s alleged strong-man tactics earned him an assassination by the prince’s goons. Evidence soon emerged suggesting a Saudi hit squad had killed him and cut his body to pieces (and not necessarily in that order).
Now it’s not like WWE should have been surprised that this sort of thing would happen during their lucrative Saudi deal, but they probably weren’t counting on anyone caring about it. No clients of Ned Ryerson, WWE had no death and dismemberment plan.
The Saudis denied the accusations, yet their story changed day to day. Originally, Khashoggi was said to have simply walked out the back door of the consulate. They had even staged some corroborating surveillance footage, which backfired when the body double, who had dressed up in Khashoggi’s clothes, neglected to change his shoes.
Officials changed their story a number of times over the weeks. At one point, they claimed that Khashoggi picked a fight with fifteen men (as one does) and accidentally wound up dead. And you thought the story of Shawn Michaels and the nine thugs in Syracuse was hard to believe.
The scandal was a top story in the news for weeks. Usually, when WWE gets mainstream coverage, they won’t shut up about it, like when they “leak” Hillbilly Jim’s Hall of Fame induction to TMZ or Sports Illustrated and then act like these media outlets dispatch their best reporters to get the big scoops on the company.
But this time around, WWE kept completely mum on television. As pressure mounted from the media and politicians of both parties to cancel the Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia, WWE simply stopped mentioning where the PPV would be held.
It wasn’t just the outside world telling WWE to cancel or move the event; big-name superstars from the company’s roster started voicing their concern. Daniel Bryan, scheduled to challenge for the WWE title on the show, refused to participate in Crown Jewel. So did John Cena, the 16-time champion who was set to compete in the World Cup tournament on the same card.
Adding to the uncertainty about the event was Roman Reigns’s shocking announcement that he had leukemia and would be immediately forfeiting his Universal Title, disrupting Crown Jewel’s scheduled title match.
The universe seemed to be screaming to WWE that Crown Jewel was a bad idea, and so did the WWE Universe, which booed The Undertaker for even mentioning the name of the upcoming event.
Without a single ticket purchased as of late October, WWE had a number of alternatives to Crown Jewel in Riyadh. It could cancel the event, postpone it, hold it in Saudi Arabia without televising it, move it stateside, or hold it in the UK, where WWE was already scheduled to tour just days later, and which famously contained both a crown and jewels.
Instead, the McMahons plowed ahead with their Plan A.
According to Stephanie McMahon, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer and television figurehead of the Women’s Evolution, it was a “tough decision”. On the one hand, there were overwhelming moral concerns, political pressure, terrible publicity, and protest from within the company…
…but on the other hand, there were wads and wads of Saudi cash ($60 million, to be precise) and the promise of even more cash for 18 more events over the next decade.
In other words, the tough decision was to make the wrong decision, but for money.
So disturbed was Stephanie over the whole Khashoggi affair that three weeks later, she would joke about dismemberment on live TV. Get it? Because dismemberment is what their sponsor did to a journalist!
On television the week of the event, WWE wrote John Cena and Daniel Bryan off the show without a mention of their refusal to compete.
Before the opening bell even rang, Crown Jewel was already a top contender for the 2018 Gooker Award. Fortunately, come November 2nd, it did not disappoint.
By which I mean, it sucked. Sorry for any confusion.
The show opened with a graphic naming Riyadh as the site of the night’s event. Other than this brief acknowledgment, the host city was never mentioned again, nor were the words, “Saudi Arabia” ever uttered by the English-language announcers or the Superstars themselves. It was the kind of gag order Vince McMahon usually reserves for cities he considers too small to be mentioned on TV, like Wichita.
Setting the tone for the evening was Hulk Hogan, making his triumphant return to WWE after a three-year hiatus when it turned out he was a self-admitted racist who used the N-word and didn’t want his daughter dating a black man.
Why bring back Hogan? Well, the crown prince, for whom the entire show was put on, was a fan of the WWF as a kid and wanted stars of the past to be on his show. If he wanted Hulk Hogan, then dammit, he was getting Hulk Hogan. It was certainly easier to get the still-living Hulkster to Saudi Arabia than some of the old-school stars MbS had requested for the Greatest Royal Rumble, which included – no joke – The Ultimate Warrior and Yokozuna…
…the latter of whom had been dead for nearly two decades.
In for a penny, in for a pound, WWE figured that as long as Crown Jewel was going to be super-controversial, they might as well go ahead and bring back the Hulkster to host it. Hogan stated how great it was to be with all his Hulkamaniacs at… uh, the Crown Jewel. The Immortal One wouldn’t say where exactly in the world he was. If WWE was ignoring his controversy, he’d ignore theirs.
Speaking of Hulk Hogan’s controversy, the New Day would later awkwardly adhere to the ban on the S.A.-word during their entrance. Usually, Big E will get on the mic and shout, “Awwww [host city], don’t you dare be sour…” On this night, however, the former Mr. Langston simply said, “Awwww, Crown Jewel!”
He and his New Day partners then slowly arrived at ringside on a giant magic carpet. Why a magic carpet? Were they in the Middle East? No one would tell us!
With WWE scrubbing nearly all reference to Saudi Arabia and its tremendous progress, they were unable to pat themselves on the back for putting Renee Young and her sexy exposed fingers at the announce table for the event.
The production value for this event was off the charts – while WWE no longer uses pyro on its domestic shows, they went all out putting on a spectacular light show for their host. This meant fireworks everywhere and for everyone. Hulk Hogan alone got the July 4th treatment before *and* after his entrance.
The Miz would even get fireworks for the second match of the night.
Then there were the big screens, including a set-up at the entrance way that wouldn’t even fit in most of the arenas where WWE runs shows.
If we estimate Rey Mysterio at a generous five feet in height, that screen was well over 70 feet tall.
All told, the first half of the show, dedicated mainly to the first two rounds of the World Cup, was fairly good – like an above-average episode of Raw.
Now typically, a World Cup involves competitors from at least, say, two nations.
But WWE, despite having male wrestlers on the main roster from at least 10 different countries, included only Americans in its World Cup to determine the best in the world.
If WWE banned its announcers from saying, “Saudi Arabia”, they more than made up for it by making them say, “WWE World Cup to determine the best in the world” at every opportunity.
To further drive home the importance of the WWE World Cup to determine the best in the world, WWE had all of the participants, including last-minute Cena replacement Bobby Lashley, cut inset promos expressing how badly they wanted to be the best in the world, or at least the continental United States.
Every man even got special, extra-long introductions that included all their accomplishments in WWE and amateur wrestling. The point was, these were decorated athletes, and not the kind of guys with only a flukey European title reign to their names.
The matches were nothing special, all lasting 5-8 minutes and lacking the marathon of finishers fans have been conditioned to expect over the years. Kurt Angle, for instance, fell unceremoniously to the Zig Zag, which felt like it hadn’t put anyone away in years.
At least the kids in the front rows enjoyed it, even if the Saudi officials sat on their couches looking at their phones as Rey Mysterio flipped around the ring.
You’d expect maybe Seth Rollins and Randy Orton to wind up in the finals, but instead those honors went to The Miz and Dolph Ziggler. With those two advancing to the finals, the title of Best in the World was to be contested between two guys from the same Cleveland suburb.
One thing was for sure, it seemed – whoever won this thing at the end of the night would be getting a huge push.
Why are you shaking your head?
The WWE Title match of AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe was more notable for the bizarre circumstances leading into it than for the match itself, which AJ won.
Daniel Bryan had been advertised as AJ’s challenger ever since beating The Miz at WWE Super Show-Down a month earlier, but it soon became public knowledge that Bryan was refusing to participate in the Saudi show. And still WWE kept promoting it.
In fact, Bryan had refused to participate even before the Khashoggi scandal broke, and even before he was named number-one contender. Bryan had actually volunteered to lose to The Miz, allowing the A-Lister to win not only the match and the title shot, but effectively the feud that had been brewing for two years.
Undaunted, WWE had Bryan win that match anyway in two and a half minutes. You might think, reading this, that Vince McMahon was either crazy or stupid for doing this, but he actually had a plan that would prove you absolutely correct.
If Daniel Bryan wouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia, WWE would film the WWE title match in an Orlando studio and pass it off as Saudi Arabia via the magic of green-screen technology. That’s the same technology that would allow the Crown Jewel kick-off panel, who in reality were in a small studio, to appear as though they were in…
… a bigger studio.
When someone finally convinced Vince that this set-up wouldn’t fool anyone (possibly by showing him some old AWA footage), he gave away the advertised match for free on Smackdown that week. That meant that Bryan could stay home, while AJ could fly to Saudi Arabia…
…and wrestle Joe.
If it weren’t for the last three matches of the night, this pay-per-view would have been a passable, if completely tasteless, pay-per-view event. But it was the last hour and a half that dragged this show so far down into the abyss that you, the Wrestlecrap readers, voted as an absolute majority to win this year’s Gooker award…
To understand how bad the Universal Title match was, one must first view it in context:
For nearly four years, WWE had been trying to get Roman Reigns over to the point that he could beat Brock Lesnar without the fans revolting. In four different pay-per-view matches (including two Wrestlemania main events), Vince got cold feet at the last minute, employing swerves, run-ins, and bafflingly bad referee calls to keep Roman from conquering The Beast (or besting The Conqueror) while preparing him for that one big win to complete his hero’s arc.
At last, at Summerslam 2018, WWE had Roman pin Brock for the Universal Title, finally figuring out a way to make it happen without fans booing him out of the building:
…by promising an immediate Money in the Bank cash-in by the more popular Braun Strowman, which never materialized.
At least fans could celebrate the fact that Raw finally had world champion who actually showed up on television. But to help get that new champ over, WWE made the infuriating decision to turn Braun Strowman heel.
When Roman Reigns stunned WWE viewers by announcing that he had cancer, WWE quickly backpedaled on Braun’s heel turn and changed the planned Triple Threat match at Crown Jewel into a one-on-one Strowman vs. Lesnar match for the vacant title.
With Braun as the only Superstar on Raw whom WWE could credibly promote as the top guy, it seemed a no-brainer that Strowman would finally get the title reign fans had been clamoring for.
Instead, at Crown Jewel, Raw General Manager Baron Corbin clocked Braun with the belt right before the bell, setting up an out-and-out squash of Strowman by Lesnar…
…who delivered F5 after F5. Still Braun kicked out each time, leading Michael Cole to wonder what Lesnar would have to do to put away Strowman.
Had he considered doing another F5?
Yes, in fact he had, pinning Braun after his fifth finishing move. Braun had managed only one offensive move, a boot to the face, while Brock had managed, well, also one offensive move, but executed five times.
Okay, I lied before. One doesn’t have to view this match in context to understand how bad it was, although it does help…
…especially considering that Baron Corbin, the Raw GM, had just cheated to ensure the Universal Title stayed off his show every Monday night. Brock was once again the best in the universe, which as you know is better than being the Best in the World…
…unless you’re AJ Styles, in which case they’re the same thing.
Corey Graves summed up the match, and Crown Jewel as a whole, perfectly.
Instead of getting a rematch with Lesnar, Braun feuded with Borin’ Corbin, whom he beat supposedly to earn a rematch at Royal Rumble…
…a rematch Vince McMahon never intended to deliver, not wanting to damage Strowman by jobbing him out to Lesnar (again).
It was now time for the finals of the World Cup. Raw GM Baron Corbin and Smackdown Commissioner Shane McMahon arrived at ringside, but of course, their female counterparts Paige and Stephanie McMahon did not.
Each man had an interest in the outcome, as Raw’s Ziggler and Smackdown’s Miz would be going head to head in competition…
…right after Michael Cole gave the following plug for Survivor Series:
Unfortunately, one of the competitors suffered a debilitating knee injury in a pre-match brawl, as you can see here:
Uh, it was The Miz.
Rather than allow Dolph Ziggler to win by forfeit and earn bragging rights for Raw, Shane McMahon took it upon himself to substitute for the Miz. Was that legal? Could you just stick a fresh man in just because a competitor couldn’t wrestle?
Suddenly, the 1995 King of the Ring finals seemed even more egregious.
Fresh as he may have been, Shane himself had some disadvantages, namely that he was a 49 year-old businessman wearing jeans who had wrestled fewer than a hundred matches in his 20-year career.
Despite Baron Corbin’s insistence that Greg Hamilton “announce Dolph the wiener”, the match began anyway.
Shane fired off his deadly Shane punches…
…before Ziggler snuck up from behind to hit the Zig-Zag, the same move that had put away Kurt Angle earlier in the night.
Shane kicked out.
Dolph bumped around for Shane-O…
…who attempted to go coast-to-coast.
Though he ended up making it only so far as Nevada, Dolph graciously met him in the middle, allowing Shane to pick up a pinfall three minutes into the match.
Not only had Shane single-handedly revived the Cleveland Curse, he had also won the title of Best in the World and the accompanying trophy…
…which, sadly, was not that glowing orb from the pictures.
The announcers complained and complained, but the WWE Universe in [redacted] ate it all up as Shane danced around the ring as if he’d just been named…
…well, Best in the World. Fair enough.
With the incessant reminders that the WWE World Cup to determine the best in the world would, in fact, determine the best wrestler in the world, you might think that Shane’s victory was just an embarrassing last-minute booking decision that WWE cooked up after Cena pulled out of the show, but no.
This swerve had been the plan from the tournament’s inception, designed to slowly turn Shane into a delusional heel who bought into his own hype.
As such, he needed to substitute for a sufficiently weak and cowardly heel (Miz), then beat another heel (Ziggler) who had nothing on the horizon. This was practically the only part of the show that didn’t get messed up by circumstance.
And how did that Shane McMahon heel turn end up? McMahon came out on Smackdown the next Tuesday and admitted that he of course wasn’t *really* the best in the world…
…while Miz didn’t resent Shane in the slightest for taking his trophy.
At Survivor Series, WWE would book the entire show around Smackdown losing every match to Raw (except, accidentally, the pre-show 20-man tag) so as to eventually drive Shane to lash out at his roster. WWE would by then have dedicated one and a half pay-per-views to very gradually creating yet another heel authority figure…
…a plan that would get nixed anyway. Instead, with ratings at an all-time low, the McMahons would soft-reboot WWE, casting themselves as babyfaces and scrapping all sorts of future booking plans.
To cap off the night, WWE put on a match that a lot of people might have wanted to see in 1998, but that few would have wanted to see in 2018. Unfortunately, one of those few people was the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who was sponsoring this event as a vanity project.
The question on everybody’s mind was whether Shawn Michaels would pull off yet another show-stopping performance or whether he’d leave an embarrassing legacy.
For eight and a half years, nothing could lure Shawn Michaels out of retirement for one more match. Not money, not a match with his former student Daniel Bryan, not even a chance to shine one last time at Wrestlemania.
He was a man of his word, and when he told the world that he would retire if he lost to the Undertaker at Wrestlemania 26, he meant it.
But it turns out there was one thing that meant more to Michaels than Wrestlemania or money – that is, a whole lot of money. Like, a lot. We’re talking Saudi oil money.
Stemming from the dreadful Triple H-Undertaker main event one month earlier at Melbourne’s Super Show-Down, HBK and Triple H would team up to take on The Undertaker and Kane…
…who, as the recently-elected mayor of Knox County, TN, took the same principled stance as Michaels.
The match was of great historical significance. That’s not just because the two guys who used to moon the audience would perform their “Suck It” schtick in front of ultra-conservative foreign dignitaries; it’s also because of Wrestlemania 12.
On that night in 1996, Triple H made his Wrestlemania debut, The Undertaker extended his streak to 5-0, Shawn Michaels won his first WWF title…
…and two decrepit parodies of Hulk Hogan (42) and Randy Savage (43) wrestled in a “match” that ended when both men dropped dead.
Now, in 2018, Triple H (49), Michaels (53), Undertaker (53), and their contemporary, Kane (51), would work a pay-per-view main event. Their ages might have totaled two centuries, but at least they were all still alive, which is more than can be said about some of MbS’s past requests.
With the four men’s aging bodies being put to the test, WWE should have accounted for the possibility of injuries.
Instead, we were treated to a comedy of errors that, unlike most WWE attempts at comedy, was genuinely hilarious.
The problems started just minutes into the match when Triple H showed Michaels who the real showstopper was, tearing his pectoral muscle and grinding the action to a halt.
It was the same corner bump that Triple H had done hundreds of times, except this time he was pushing fifty and knocking into his buddy’s knees.
Having more pride than The Miz, The Game refused to let his brother-in-law fill in for him, even if he was the Best in the World.
It was a valiant effort for sure, but if WCW had ever put on a match like this, complete with the visual of two aching bald men stomping their feet, WWE would make sure we never heard the end of it. Incidentally, WWE spent more to put on this one match than to buy WCW.
Speaking of which, Shawn Michaels wasn’t exactly tearing down the house, but with the money he was making on this night, he could buy several of his own.
Fans chanted, “You still got it” at the most inopportune times, such as when the combined strength of HBK and Triple H barely managed to get Kane over for a suplex.
Triple H still kept trying to go, do-si-do-ing with Kane, then delivering another such Irish whip to The Undertaker. Both legends eased themselves into the barricade like an old man into a nice warm bath (no offense).
The COO, who would have ordered the match stopped had it been anyone else who had torn his pec, finally wrote himself out of the bout in the safest way possible, getting chokeslammed through a table onto the announcers’ monitors.
That left Shawn to earn his $3 million payoff and carry a handicap match all by himself.
After a plodding beatdown by Kane, the two ascended the top rope for arguably the highlight of the match. Michaels, not having wrestled a masked Kane since 2002, forgot the Big Red Machine wore a wig affixed to his headgear. HBK tugged on Kane’s rug as he threw a punch, snatching him bald in a possible tribute to Naomi.
“Shawn Michaels hit Kane so hard that Kane’s mask came off his face!” said Cole, bless his heart.
Despite a decade of Kane wrestling sans mask and hair, cameras quickly pulled away so as to protect his mystique. The last thing this Attitude Era nostalgia trip needed was yet another bald man.
Next, Michaels had two words for ya (“F*ck it!”), shrugging and delivering a moonsault onto the Brothers of Destruction. Neither of said brothers managed to catch Michaels, who crashed to the floor and busted open his nose and forehead.
By the time WWE finished the replays and cut back to live action, Kane had inexplicably recovered his mask.
Later, Triple H’s eventual comeback was nearly cut short by the rustiest Hell’s Gate you ever did see…
…but he was able to fall into a Pedigree on Kane to bring the match, and the show, to a merciful end.
Between the embarrassing nature of the match, the bad publicity surrounding the entire Crown Jewel event, and the fact that all four men weren’t showing up on Raw any time soon, the match was forgotten within a week…
…which is mind-blowing considering that this may well have been one or more of these men’s last match.
And because sometimes, just sometimes, there is justice in this world, the all women’s Evolution pay-per-view ended up a much better show than Crown Jewel…
…which you, the readers, named far and away the worst thing to happen in wrestling in 2018.