Here's a firsthand account of the 'hostage' incident after WWE Crown Jewel 2019

Since now is as good a time as any to publish this...

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About a year ago, I wrote an article about the fallout from the WWE charter flight delays after the Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia, where there was all sorts of back and forth about if the wrestlers were a pawn in some larger dispute. (It was to be published the following week, so use that as a guide for the tenses used in the text.) We ended up not being able to run it—not out of legal concerns, just budgetary ones—but I elected not to do anything else with it…even the article having a firsthand account of what unfolded as the passengers saw it.

Earlier today, though, in an SEC filing, WWE announced a $39 million settlement (paid for by insurance, WWE “expects”) to a securities fraud lawsuit that incorporated the plane issues into a larger case alleging WWE misled stockholders about its relationship with Saudi leaders. Though WWE says that settlement “will not contain any admission of liability or admission as to the validity or truth of any or all allegations or claims by any of the Defendants,” now feels like as good a time as any to run the unpublished article. So here it is, unchanged except to remove mentions of the name of the outlet it had been earmarked for and changing references to “the WWE” to just say “WWE.”

Though WWE continues to assert that the flight was simply delayed by normal mechanical issues, they have not publicly accounted for the discrepancies that caused the wrestlers and their families to become concerned, nor the Saudi television broadcast of Crown Jewel 2019 airing (on delay) an hour after the advertised start time. Whatever happened, it wasn’t communicated well to the passengers/talent. One wrestler, though, who cooperated with the plaintiffs in the securities fraud lawsuit, claimed that the story of a dispute with the Saudi royal family leading to the plane being grounded came directly from Mark Carrano, WWE’s Senior Executive Director of Talent Relations.


Last Thursday night, a little after midnight, I was winding down when I got a series of DMs from another reporter. “Have you heard anything about everyone coming back from Saudi?” the colleague messaged me, referring to the charter full of close to 200 World Wrestling Entertainment performers and support staff members who were in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for their second annual Crown Jewel event. “Keep alert. I’m getting it handed down (that) something’s up and they’re not making SmackDown,” the company’s live primetime series on the Fox broadcast network. I started sending out messages to get an idea of what the hell was going on and make sure everyone was OK.

“Big shit show,” a wrestler replied 15 minutes later. “We’re all pretty certain we’re being held hostage.”

What happened in Saudi Arabia has become the subject of much conjecture in and around the professional wrestling world this past week with some reports saying the delay was a response to a financial fight between the Kingdom and the wrestling promotion, while WWE and the charter company said mechanical problems were at fault. 

According to the statement from charter flight provider Atlas Air released by WWE on Friday, the flight was supposed to depart Riyadh at 3:00 a.m. local time, or 8:00 p.m. ET. That means that, as talk about the flight delays started to circulate privately—about an hour before I heard about it—the flight had only been delayed by about four hours. That’s not good, especially in a dictatorship, but most of the wrestlers fly over 100 times each year. They have a feel for this, and their instincts told them that something was wrong, and different from what they were being told.

“While sitting in the airport, initially, we were told to line up to get on the plane,” the same wrestler who sent me the initial “hostage” comment—granted anonymity out of concern for professional reprisals—told me after he got home. “Then we were told it would be 10 more minutes. Then about 30 minutes later, we were told it’s going to be another 30 minutes. After an hour goes by, we get ‘another 10 minutes.’  No one is telling us what’s going on or why we’re being held. Then finally, we are told it’s because they have to refuel the plane so it may take another hour.” 

This, in particular, set off mental alarms. “Why should we need to refuel the plane NOW when it’s been sitting in the exact same position it was when it dropped us off two days prior?” he asks. “The reason for charters is to get a group of people out on time and have everything ready to go.” (The most notable on the record account from Saudi Arabia, given by Allen “A.J. Styles” Jones, is vague in parts, but also backs up the assertion that the plane had, inexplicably, not been refueled.)  At that point, the wrestler I spoke to says, the wrestlers were told that the technician who could fill the fuel tank was incommunicado—only to be told three minutes later that they were good to board. WWE has not responded to an email requesting comment on the conflicting explanations given to the talent.

“We all get on the plane, we haven’t eaten a meal in 8 hours,” he continued. “I ask [one of] the flight attendants what was going on. He told me he had no idea why they were holding us (if it was mechanical, wouldn’t they let someone know?). He said all he knows is for some reason, these people don’t care to get you guys out of here.” 

The flight was running three hours late when the pilot’s voice came on the intercom, and said, as the wrestler recalled it, “Folks, I’m sorry, but we’re not sure what’s going on; It’s beyond our control and we’re not going to be able to leave right now. Please bare with us.” the wrestler said, He stressed, as others have since Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer first reported it early Sunday morning, that no one on board had the sense they were in physical danger, but that the prevailing belief on the plane was that they hadn’t really been delayed by mechanical issues. 

At about that point, a second, much smaller charter was booked to get about 20 key wrestlers out, although contrary to WWE’s statement, this wrestler says that the charter was booked and paid for by WWE, not the talent themselves. “With SmackDown emanating live from Buffalo, N.Y., several Superstars felt so strongly that they arranged for their own separate charter in order to make it back to the U.S. for the show,” read a key portion of the WWE statement, which rankled some of the talent enough for them to comment publicly. Wrestler Jonathan “Luke Harper” Huber, expressed his frustrations in an Instagram post (“I guess I didn't want it enough to pay for my own charter…”), while wrestler turned producer T.J. “Tyson Kidd” Wilson joined him in the comments (“Next time[,] we’ll pool our money together instead of being lazy”). Wrestler Joe “Curtis Axel” Hennig for his part, tweeted “We don’t leave each other behind. @WWE.” As of this writing, the promotion has not responded to an email requesting comment on who paid for that charter.

There ended up being a staggered set of several flights of WWE personnel out of the country. The company plane, which left before everything went south with the charter, reportedly housed CEO Vince McMahon along with legends Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Jimmy Hart, while WWE Champion Brock Lesnar and Monday Night Raw showrunner Paul Heyman left on Lesnar’s own personal plane. That was followed by an emergency charter of 20 top stars who couldn't make it to SmackDown in time, and the original, full sized charter. The indisposed wrestlers and support staff were sent off the large chartered plane after six hours seated on the tarmac, at which point they were put up in luxury hotels for about a day until the flight could leave about a day later.

The public speculation about what had happened to set off this chain of events began on early Friday morning, Eastern time, when journalist Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful.com tweeted “There were rumors among talent that Vince McMahon got in some kind of disagreement in Saudi Arabia, though I haven't been able to fully confirm that.” 

Friday night, former WWE announcer and international wrestling legend Hugo Savinovich, said in Spanish on a Facebook Live stream for Lucha Libre Online (and later reiterated in English in a voicemail message posted on the Hannibal TV YouTube channel) what two sources were telling him: This was that the plane had been held as revenge for McMahon telling producer Kevin Dunn to cut the Crown Jewel feed to Saudi broadcaster MBC Action to, basically, force the issue over a money dispute with the Saudi royal family. (The two sources were, according to Savinovich, a WWE executive and a longtime friend in Saudi Arabia.) 

WWE has not responded to a request for comment on Savinovich’s report, though they did continue to cite mechanical issues in a statement to Alfred Konuwa of Forbes.com.

There had been signs of a cash conflict between the Kingdom and the wrestling group buried in the WWE’s 10-Q filings with the Securities and Exchange Commision for the second and third quarters of 2019, which note that accounts receivable had balances way above the norm, in the high eight and low nine figures. Both reports attributed a drop in cash flow to reasons including “the timing of collections associated with our Super ShowDown event which was held in the second quarter of 2019.” Super ShowDown was held June 7 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. No past reports during the Saudi deal had such notes about late payments. (The Q3 investors’ call, held a couple hours before Crown Jewel, did include a note from WWE Co-President George Barrios that “subsequent to quarter end, we received a $60 million payment for an outstanding receivable.” WWE did not respond to an email asking if they could share the date that the payment was remitted.)

Meanwhile while the show was advertised as airing live in Saudi Arabia on the network MBC Action—with the correct start time for a live broadcast—tweets from both confused Saudi fans and MBC Action’s ownlivecoverage indicate that the event aired on about an hour delay, without explanation.

The WWE has yet to account for the feed delay, though Konuwa of Forbes.com paraphrased a statement he received saying “the feed issues were entirely unrelated to any issues with payment.” 

But whatever delayed the feed, its own talent hasn’t toed the company line here. Karl Anderson, one of the wrestlers on the tour, wrote on his Twitter account last weekend that he wouldn’t go back to Saudi Arabia unless he was paid enough to afford a second swimming pool. His wife replied, joking that it would have to be enough for a second house before getting serious. 

“Don’t ever go back AGAIN,” she added. “We don’t need our daddy […] being held hostage while we’re at home and worried to death.” Anderson “liked” the reply from his wife, as well as another from a fan who quipped that it sounded like the wrestlers “were held hostage,” not delayed by “plane issues.”

Two days later, the WWE announced that its 10-year deal with Saudi Arabia had been expanded to officially include a second show each year. That may have been damage control, as there have been two shows each year since the deal started in spring 2018, but WWE had been open to investors about the contract only stipulating one show a year. Based on how these events have been spaced out so far, the next contracted show is in six months.


Enjoy? Want to support this work and get exclusive content, like source materials and notes from the Babyface v. Heel podcast that’s finally debuting in the coming weeks? Then please subscribe for just $5/month or $50/year. Even if you’re not able to pay right now, please at least consider signing up for the free version, which will deliver all of the free posts directly to your email inbox, as well free preview excerpts of the paid subscriber-exclusive articles.