After a week of unconfirmed reports that both John Cena and Daniel Bryan were refusing to work this Friday’s WWE Crown Jewel event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we have our answer. It wasn’t a straight one from the promotion itself, unsurprisingly—WWE had repeatedly refused to address whether Cena and Bryan had asked not to be part of the show—but the hammer came down on this week’s Raw and SmackDown. Cena was written off Crown Jewel swiftly, in a near-throwaway segment, while Bryan’s match was moved up to last night’s SmackDown. In an attempt to dodge the inevitable controversy of two of its biggest stars begging off its most controversial show, WWE appears to have avoided plotting out the wrestlers’ removal until the latest possible juncture.
A number of different reporters and outlets broke or confirmed parts of the story throughout the week, with all those developments stemming from Barstool’s Robbie Fox tweeting about it last Monday. It made sense for Cena, with his burgeoning film career, to pull out; Bryan, since he’s arguably the most notably openly leftist pro wrestler, also seemed like a poor fit for a card in a murderous authoritarian monarchy. Per Pro Wrestling Sheet’s Ryan Satin, both were moved to take themselves off the show after the kingdom’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In a statement to Satin, a WWE spokesperson wrote that “As always, we maintain an open line of communication with our performers and will address each situation accordingly.” (WWE did not respond to Satin’s request for a clarification regarding whether Bryan, who the company classifies as an independent contractor, would be permitted to skip the show.)
If there was any chance of WWE changing the wrestlers’ minds over the weekend, that probably diminished after HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver revisited the WWE/Saudi Arabia deal on Sunday night. Cena’s reported reluctance to do the show was alluded to, and, in a mock Crown Jewel promo video, the narrator said that he was pulling out to avoid the negative press. If nothing else, Oliver kept the story going and amped up the potential embarrassment for all involved. That’s apparently not an issue where WWE is concerned, but Cena made his choice.
That left the work of writing them off the show. Cena is not anything close to a full-time wrestler anymore; he hasn’t been on TV in months, and so he couldn’t be directly involved. Instead, WWE figurehead authority figure Baron Corbin simply removed Cena from the World Cup tournament and replaced him with Bobby Lashley, noting that Cena was the only wrestler who had not been required to win a qualifying match to enter the field. The segment was stilted and short and not a high point for anyone involved, but it did what the promotion needed it to do.
Bryan, meanwhile, showed up on TV this week having conspicuously not made any effort to get a tan, which would be a hilarious way to protest if nothing else, and then saw his much-hyped match with A.J. Styles moved up to SmackDown. After a longer than usual TV match—the length suggested that it was something they had been working on for Riyadh—Styles retained the WWE Championship. At that point Samoa Joe ran in and set himself up for the title shot at Styles at Crown Jewel. If you weren’t aware of the news about both Cena and Bryan pulling out, the Bryan-related changes—schedule-wise and in terms of outcome—would probably have been the more conspicuous. He was clearly perfectly able to wrestle a long match and so didn’t need storyline coverage for an injury. Cena has been a ghost outside of overseas supershows while he’s shooting movies, which made his excision something WWE could handle as a minor bit of a throwaway skit.
For Bryan, though, what aired was reportedly not the first plan the promotion had in mind. It may not even have been the second. According to a Tuesday report from Mike Johnson of PWInsider (site may contain malicious advertisements), there was an attempt to arrange for Styles and Bryan to go to Orlando and shoot their match at the WWE Performance Center for insertion into the Crown Jewel broadcast. Johnson did not say why that option fell apart, but either the Saudis wanting Styles on the actual live event or Bryan refusing to appear on the show in any form—it’s a Saudi propaganda event, after all—seem like fair guesses. It could well have been both.
On Tuesday, Satin reported that Raw announcer Renee Young will also be making the trip for Crown Jewel, making her the first female WWE personality to appear in Saudi Arabia. This is notable in the sense that, while women wrestlers were famously barred from appearing in April’s Greatest Royal Rumble in Jeddah, it became clear that week that none of WWE’s women personnel, at any level, made the trip. Not Co-President Michelle Wilson, not Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon-Levesque, and not announcers like Young, Charly Caruso, or JoJo Offerman. Renee’s varied outfits are part of her personal brand, but it seems fair to expect long sleeves at Crown Jewel.
The last mystery left in Crown Jewel, at this point, is whether the outright propaganda that defined WWE’s first Saudi show will be back. There was a heavy push about how beautiful Jeddah is in the week or so before that city hosted the Greatest Royal Rumble, but no such shilling for Riyadh has preceded this one. The promotion has gone out of its way to avoid even saying “Saudi Arabia,” though even references to “Crown Jewel” itself have drawn noticeable boos every time it’s mentioned at a live event.
And yet the propaganda is clearly part of why the royal family is spending tens of millions on these WWE shows. These gaudy supercards may or may not work as wrestling shows, but that’s only sort of the point. They’re intended as a promotional vehicle for the idealized version of the country that’s footing the bill, and in light of everything that we’ve seen and heard from the Saudi government in recent weeks, it seems unlikely that they would remove said propaganda from the internationally-broadcast wrestling shows that they’re paying for. WWE, if not all of its wrestlers, appears happy to hold up its end of the deal.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.