The Miles and The Money: WWE, Saudi Arabia and the Return of Shawn Michaels

There are a lot of great insider expressions in the wrestling biz that you pick up when you listen to as many podcasts as I do, but one that seems especially topical right now is this one: “The only things in wrestling that are real are the miles, and the money.”

What that phrase means for guys in the business is that wins and losses aren’t real. Gimmicks, characters, relationships, storylines; none of that matters at the end of the day. What matters is how far to the next town and how big the payoff is going to be at the end of the night

In today’s wrestling world, the money is bigger than ever before. The WWE is now a company worth 9 billion dollars. All In sold out in 30 minutes. New Japan Pro Wrestling is breaking in to the US market and Bullet Club shirts are everywhere.

Growing along with that money are the miles wrestlers, or ‘sports entertainers’ if you prefer, are willing to go to earn it. Overseas tours, shows up and down North America, Chris Jericho’s wrestling cruise, and the curious relationship between the WWE and the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

When I’m not listening to wrestling pods, I tend to fuel up on US news and politics, which often crosses over with news about Saudi Arabia, its government and the many ways that their society and its values clash with ours.

This website is for fun, pop-culture stuff, so I’m not going to sound off on the topic, but if you spend a little time looking into the treatment of women alone, its hard to imagine making a deal with the folks running the show over there.

Yet, make a deal the WWE did. A deal that some estimates put at 40-50 million dollars for the Greatest Royal Rumble event in January. This was part of a bigger picture deal that includes return visits, promotion and the addition of Saudi-born men to the WWE developmental system.

The catch? No women allowed. None. No commentators, no crew, no office staff and no performers. In fact, there was even an apology issued by the Saudi government for the inclusion of female WWE performers cut into a promotional video.

Women were also not allowed to attend the event.

The argument breaks into two camps:

Camp A, the camp WWE itself resides in, says that them going over at all is a big step for Saudi Arabia as far as embracing Western culture and that change doesn’t happen over night. And, that the massive windfall of cash ends up trickling down into the entire organization and making everyone richer.

Camp B says that the same company boasting of the “Women’s Revolution” and a newer stronger voice for women in sports entertainment doesn’t get to have their cake and eat it too by going to a country where women are largely treated as second class citizens. The argument continues that if WWE really wanted to show how progressive they are, they would demand to have women in the ring and the stands or not do the show.

Enter the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels.

HBK retired 8 years ago in what is considered one of, if not the, greatest matches in Wrestlemania history against the Undertaker. After the match he swore he wouldn’t come back, that out of respect for Taker and for what they had done in that ring, he was going to be the guy that stayed retired.

It would seem however, that as the Million Dollar Man was known to say: everybody’s got a price.

We now know, as has been suspected for a few weeks, that Shawn will return to action as one half of D-Generation X with WWE COO Triple H to face the Brothers of Destruction, Kane and The Undertaker, at Crown Jewel, live from Saudi Arabia on November 2nd.

The first thing I need to get out of the way is that I’m not mad about Shawn’s return at all. There is zero chance that isn’t still capable of out-working almost anybody on the roster or that he would step foot in a ring if he didn’t think he was able to still be The Showstopper. I also understand why he is doing this “legends” style match with 3 other guys in their 40’s/50’s rather than working a young talent or a dream match with AJ Styles or Daniel Bryan. This thing comes down to miles and money.

Shawn is stepping back into a ring and travelling to Saudi Arabia, after already making the trip to Australia for Super Show-Down, because there is big money on the table. Period.

These emerging markets for the WWE want to see big stars and are willing to pay to do it. If Stone Cold or Hogan could work, you can bet your bottom dollar that they would going over, too. There is no distance a wrestler that has come up on the grind of the road won’t go for a solid payday, including a moral distance in this case.

How does a born again Christian like Shawn Michaels feel about the state of things in Saudi Arabia? How does a true patriot like Vince McMahon settle with the notion that Saudi Arabia has been implicated in the 9/11 attacks and still head over there to do business?

The miles and the money.

Look, I’ve never been offered any millions of dollars to do anything, but its a short-ass list of things I can think of that I wouldn’t do that comes off the top of my head when I think about it.

The dimensions that we as fans are left to deal with, like wondering why the fans in North America weren’t worth a comeback from HBK, despite peppering him with “one more match” chants every single time we see him and being there since day one. Or why we are expected to embrace the Women’s Revolution and buy in for the all women’s PPV event, when all it takes is a few million in cash for the WWE itself to agree to leave ALL THE WOMEN THAT WORK FOR THEM home to catch a payday. These are things that we have to work through with a different set of qualifiers, because wrestling is real to us in more ways than just miles and money.

For fans of pro wrestling, we have to believe in what we see to enjoy it. We have to forget that what we see is scripted, that the punches don’t connect and that the “smack” sound of a well placed super-kick is actually a guy slapping his own thigh. We have to believe in the drama created by the performers in the ring and let go of all the things we “know” about the wrestling business.

In the case of Crown Jewel, the WWE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and the return of Shawn Michaels, it is harder to make that leap. As great a storyteller as he is, and as amazing a sight as it will be to see those four in the ring together, it is going to be really hard to separate the drama of the match and the reason that it is taking place:

The miles… and the money.

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