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The anger about WWE’s business dealings with Saudi Arabia and financing of combat sports

By Zach Arnold | May 3, 2019

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Every time I attempt to make an argument against hypocrisy in the fight business, I realize what a fruitless proposition it is to try to persuade anyone. For all intents and purposes, consider this an exercise in mental therapy.

Someone please (gently) stop my old colleague Dave Meltzer from mentally torturing and contorting himself further into a pretzel regarding WWE’s current business dealings with Saudi Arabia. Dave’s outrage is well-intentioned but his various attempts to magnify Saudi Arabia financing of WWE as the worst financing in the history of combat sports requires downgrading some ugly, ugly history.

The world’s brutal butchers

You would be hard-pressed to find me contorting myself to produce an unclean hands affirmative defense to clap-back against all of the horrific human rights atrocities that the Saudi Arabia government has inflicted upon its citizens and the citizens of the world. The country is reportedly running out of executioners and hiring some more. Saudi government hands are plenty bloody. Ask the families of victims from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Which is why I am very proud of Dave Meltzer and others in the fight business standing by the courage of their convictions in pressuring WWE about its business dealings with the Saudi government. I, myself, wonder why on Earth WWE decided they had to make such a business deal in the first place.

The hygiene of hypocrisy

What I am not proud of is watching so many media colleagues, past and present, critique WWE and the Saudi government while they were largely muted about the corrupt financing of high-level Japanese combat sports for decades.

The level of violence from the major Japanese gangs in combat sports escalated hard. It went from extortion, pyramid schemes in ticket distribution, and turf protection to outright gun fights and gangland suicides. It was always a myth that the “older generation” of yakuza bosses were kinder and gentler compared to the young machos who replaced them. They just did a better sell job in marketing and covering up the bad behavior.

Consider this infamous Los Angeles Times article about four top yakuza members getting liver transplants at UCLA medical center.

Then consider the LA Times reporting on the “donations” UCLA received for the surgeries.

What would you say if gangsters like this were financing your favorite fight at the Tokyo Dome while sitting at ringside as a VIP for recruiting purposes?

“The show must go on!”

Making the combat sports situation in Japan even more combustible? The politics involving North Korea and the treatment of zainichi in Japan. So many important individuals who made enormous contributions in the Japanese fight business downplayed or hid their true family heritage. Those of high profile, like Yoshihiro Akiyama, found themselves scorned and ridiculed hard when scandal was attached to their name (e.g. the “Oil of Olay” incident with Sakuraba which in turn led to a rather hostile KO by Kazuo Misaki).

Nobody played both ends against the political middle in combat sports like Antonio Inoki. When it came to dealings with Saddam Hussein or the North Korean regime, Inoki always sold it under the banner of peace. He convinced many powerful individuals to go along with his various political journeys. The granddaddy of all of Inoki’s escapades was the 1995 Peace Festival at Pyongyang Stadium in front of 150,000 people. Ric Flair lost to Antonio Inoki in the main event. Here’s Flair talking about his experiences dealing with the North Korean government.

The event was a gigantic, successful propaganda coup for both the North Korean government and Antonio Inoki. People still talk about the show in historic terms. Which is why I found myself floored by this comment from Dave Meltzer comparing Inoki’s North Korean event to WWE’s business deal with Saudi Arabia:

WWE’s deal with Saudi Arabia absolutely deserves criticism and I hope Dave continues to speak his mind. However, Inoki’s dealings with North Korea were just as disgusting but far more impactful and successful. The Return On propaganda Investment game goes to Inoki.

Stay consistent and stay proportional in levels of criticism

There is plenty of room to criticize financial backers in combat sports. Karim Zidan and John Nash are highlighting Sequoia Capital’s role in financing ONE Championship and financing surveillance technology used by the Chinese government against Muslims. This is a big story that I personally find far more consequential than WWE’s cheerleading agreement with Saudi Arabia. However, both situations deserve critical analysis.

Just like the financing behind PRIDE deserved critical analysis. It was next to impossible to get anyone in the press interested on what was going on behind the scenes. The events were big, the fights were dramatic, and the money was flying. People got sucked in.

Criticizing gang financing of combat sports in Japan was unpopular. Taking a verbal wrecking ball to the business model that produced mega-events at the Tokyo Dome and Saitama Super Arena was no fun. I spent decades covering a rotten industry and spent God knows how much cash to do it. Criticizing the industry’s business model was still the right call, though.

When it comes to situational ethics in combat sports, you don’t have to downgrade past incidents in order to inflate current scandals to illustrate needed change. Dave Meltzer did some very insightful, honest reporting and commentary about what took place with Inoki in North Korea. To see the same person downgrade that shameful debacle in comparison to WWE’s current deal with Saudi Arabia is disappointing but understandable.

Topics: Japan, Media, WWE, Zach Arnold | 1 Comment » | Permalink | Trackback |

One Response to “The anger about WWE’s business dealings with Saudi Arabia and financing of combat sports”

  1. Samsara says:

    The real difference between your examples is that Pride was real fighting, and thus infinitely better and more justifiable in terms of its questionable financing.

    There is also an ENORMOUS difference (talking in the billions of people) between organized crime and government sanctioned slavery, torture and murder of innocents. Not. Even. Close.

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