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As November 1 arrived, WWE performers had just wrapped up another bi-annual show in Saudi Arabia as part of their multi-year plan. Crown Jewel 2019 was headlined with a plethora of star power, including such names as Tyson Fury, Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and more. Company chairman Vince McMahon and most of the top stars returned to the United States after the show ended Thursday night into early Friday morning. But as the stars and the ownership took off, over 100 people were left on a chartered plane unable to return due to problems at the airport.
Reasons for the delay were widely speculated online thanks to both un-sourced reporting and cryptic social media posts by various athletes on the plane. The online speculation was made worse by the involvement of a foreign country criticized for human rights abuses including the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Turkish Embassy. The most concerning rumor, receiving mention in articles by Fox Business, the New York Post, and VICE, was that performers were being held against their wills. That didn’t happen.
What did happen was more than just mechanical. It could probably be best summarized as a series of unfortunate events. However, after thorough research, it also appears that some wrestling journalists were either deceived by bad sources or simply reported misinformation for more devious purposes, as speculated by top WWE performer Seth Rollins.
What Really Happened
“I think there was a lot of miscommunication,” AJ Styles told NEA Report.
Few on the trip would argue that point. As WWE Crown Jewel 2019 was midway through, many of the performers and executives began to leave. Talent were told that by leaving early, they could sit on the chartered Atlas air jet at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.
The day had been a long one, a WWE executive told me on condition of anonymity. He left the show around 10 PM local time and said he arrived at customs around 11 PM. He said the ETA, as he understood, was to leave no later than 3 AM local time Friday morning. After they arrived in the United States, talent from the RAW brand would go home while Smackdown talent would go to the show later that night to be aired on FOX.
The problems began when the plane was delayed by a tug that was malfunctioning, the executive told me. Airport personnel then had to locate another tug, which took “a while,” he said.
The next problem was that the plane was being tugged to the wrong spot. Not long after that, a Saudi VIP, described to me as an “executive of some level,” flew into the country. The chartered plane full of WWE talent had to be held back for that, too.
Superstars were getting restless.
“What the heck?” Styles recalled asking to himself. “What is this?”
As passengers were asking themselves why the delays were happening, the issue compounded by the variety of problems. While some talent told me they wish they had been communicated with better, no one in the company could keep track of what was going on. The pilots barely could.
At this point, there was another delay. This time, the issue was with the manifest. The Saudi military police and customs were unable to agree over a weight problem with the plane, the WWE executive told me. This was the only delay that involved any government official from Saudi Arabia as far as this reporter learned. It was described as a mere communication gaffe between the two sides.
So many delays had exhausted some of the fuel supply needed to make the non-stop 14 hour flight back to the United States from Riyadh. So, the plane needed to be refueled.
Then, a sensor went off. A piece of equipment used in fuel transfer between engines was shown to have a problem. That was a more difficult problem to fix because, according to Jerry Lawler on his podcast, the part couldn’t be purchased locally. It had to be flown in from Germany.
Indeed, it was a mechanical problem that finally stopped the attempts to depart that evening. It was simply many other problems which led up to it, including a delay involving military police and customs over a manifest issue.
Atlas air, the company that owned the plane and employed the crew working on it, issued a statement confirming mechanical issues were the cause of the delay. That is a mostly accurate statement considering it largely was mechanical issues which left WWE employees delayed in Saudi Arabia for over 24 hours.
For those who want to be more detailed and technical, there were also several non-mechanical delays. One, a WWE executive told me, was involving customs and Saudi military police but wasn’t described with malice. The flight would have left the country during its original boarding if not for a subsequent issue with a piece of equipment.
The night of the delay, many talent sent out social media updates that were cited as reasons some believed something terrible happened. Buddy Murphy Tweeted “Never again.” Rusev asked for prayers. Even an exchange between one star and his wife grabbed the attention of some. None of those updates were meant to be anything more than what they were – frustration.
The talent was not informed about what was going on because of the complexity of the problems outlined above. Few outside of the cockpit could be expected to keep up with these details and pilots don’t seem likely to be accustomed to a plane full of social media megastars impatiently waiting to be told why they’re not coming home. Another issue with the communication not being clear, as several wrestlers pointed out, was a cultural difference. While US airport crews might work one way, Saudi Arabian crews may not.
But while delays were mounting, Styles said the pilot personally told him and the others that mechanical troubles were to blame.
As the talent exited the plane, another challenge presented itself: they didn’t have anywhere to stay. With over 100 people in tow, the group went to a hotel and began arduously checking in – one at a time. It was yet another frustrating point in the long, long night for the stars. One wrestler said he felt delusional by this point while another person on the flight said he was slurring his words from how long the day had gone. Despite that long process, wrestlers were given exclusive access to the hotel gym and one described that evening as the best night’s sleep he’d had in ages.
At 4:58 AM Saturday morning, Atlas Air flight 8185, took off from Riyadh. At 12:20 PM EDT, it arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
The one yet-explained part of that flight was how the plane veered away from it’s planned course until it was outside of Saudi airspace. It then seems to resume its planned trajectory. Talent confirmed they couldn’t drink alcohol until they were outside of Saudi airspace but none could tell me any other change they noticed when they got out of the country. The flight deviated off course and flew west to the tip of the Red Sea before continuing over Egypt and then over the Mediterranean Sea. The United States Navy Fifth Fleet operates in areas including the Red Sea, while the Sixth Fleet operates in the Mediterranean Sea.
In as far as the likelihood of mechanical issues on the plane, it was a much longer trip than normal for this exact flight. After researching the flight history of N322SG, the tail number of the chartered plane used by WWE, the trip to Saudi Arabia was by far the longest it has been on since at least August and possibly further back, since records must be purchased that are older than several months. Most flights were about two hours. A 13-hour journey across the ocean to Saudi Arabia followed by a 14-hour return flight home stands out as the most taxing trip in its recent history.
With everything above confirmed to this reporter by people who were there, or from reputable sources laid out otherwise, we were unable to find anyone who could describe a feeling that the government planned the delay or was involved in the delay as a form of retaliation over business disagreements with the corporation. A stunning amount of misinformation seems to have been reported as fact regarding this yet no wrestlers I have found believe they were even treated poorly by Saudi Arabia, much less held against their will. Some complained about how hot it was, or being away from home, or just not having any information when they felt like they should have. However, from company guys to people who have been vocally displeased, there were no indicators of some ulterior motives behind the delay.
This was contrary to information stated online by former WWE Spanish announcer Hugo Savinovich.
Most often known to US fans as a target of table-bound 250 pound furniture toppling titans, Savinovich said in a video that the Saudi government owed WWE almost $300 million for each show – $600 million total. He said Chairman Vince McMahon ordered Executive Producer Kevin Dunn to kill the television feed and that Mohammad bin Salman, deputy prime minister of Saudi Arabia, had the talent removed from the plane as a result.
Everything Savinovich said was wrong. The shows were ten-times less expensive than he estimated. There was never more than one report of a local broadcast issue and that report said the show started late – the opposite of being cut off early. Finally, talent never saw any form of military or government/gun wielding presence as they left the plane.
I specifically asked a WWE executive about Savinovich and his reply was, sans expletives, that he had not been with the company in ten years and had no idea what he was talking about.
Another source for much speculation, which seemed to accompany his reporting to a detriment, was Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Dave Meltzer. Despite the official story of plane problems, Meltzer claimed he spoke with people on the flight who had other stories.
Curiously, we can’t find any of those other stories. We can’t find anyone who told them to Meltzer, either.
Meltzer actually responded negatively to what now seems to be a valid criticism of his speculation surrounding the reasons for the delay. Taking bits of information and drawing conclusions, one of the theories he promoted was, like Savinovich’s, that McMahon cut the live feed due to lack of payment and MBS retaliated after the villainous McMahon flew out of the country stranding his performers.
1) The fact the broadcast was delayed; 2) WWE’s 10-Q report that caem out Thursday. Ready to apologize now? https://t.co/KRqdGI5zZQ
— Dave Meltzer (@davemeltzerWON) November 4, 2019
The problems with this are two-fold. First, in WWE’s financial reporting, the company announced they had been paid the speculated outstanding balance owed by Saudi Arabia one day before the Crown Jewel show. Second, and almost more subtly, is that the story of the show feed being cut was now a story of the show broadcast being delayed. Which was it? There are still no clear answers except that Meltzer tweeted he had one single viewer in KSA who had reported problems with the feed.
When I asked a WWE executive point blank if the company cut the feed for the show, he told me he had no knowledge of that.
McMahon did leave the country before the performers but told them in a meeting the following Monday he expected they would be right behind him. A long-time wrestler told me Vince McMahon wouldn’t have done that to his wrestlers. An executive told me if he “even thought Vince” did that, he would have confronted him at his house over the matter.
One person in the company said WWE is trying to get video from as much talent as possible to claim the mechanical issues on the plane were the problem. Just the fact they would do this is very strange.
— Dave Meltzer (@davemeltzerWON) November 3, 2019
Once again, Meltzer speculates that WWE getting video is “very strange.” They’re a video content production company. Unless he has context as to why this would be “very strange,” it actually seems like the exact behavior one would expect from the company.
Finally, and perhaps the most copied of Meltzer’s speculations, drew into question why another plane wasn’t simply prepared for the talent. As Vice.com itself repeated:
Without knowing anything else about the situation, it would hard to believe that a company with the resources of WWE and a country as rich in dubiously-gotten money as Saudi Arabia couldn’t combine their might to find a plane capable of making it to New York on short notice. To accept such a story, you’d have to possess a level of gullibility above even that necessary to buy into one of wrestling’s traditionally nonsensical storylines. – Vice.com.
Here’s what actual research into this topic, instead of colloquial speculation, suggests.
Atlas air is the company that owns the chartered Boeing 747-400 with 160 business class seats that the WWE talent were to return on. The number of other Atlas air planes that were arriving or departing at the airport that day? Zero. What about that week? Also zero. Records from FlightAware.com showed this to be the only Atlas air flight days before or after at that airport. So, WWE would most likely have had to pay for entirely new tickets on different airlines and never recouped the money from Atlas.
It wouldn’t have been cheap, either. Business class tickets purchased on the day-of from Riyadh to JFK cost around $3,000 each. That would have cost the company just under $500,000 and that’s assuming that many tickets could be found on short notice for the exact same trip. Even economy class runs around $1,000 each. And the company would have no way of knowing if, by the time the flight departed, their originally scheduled plane would be ready to go.
The company did fly home 20 individuals including television production people who needed to be at Smackdown. This caused some wrestlers to voice displeasure on social media. By Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, even talent critical of WWE had little more than a passing complaint about this incident. Some of those who were flown back were behind-the-scenes/production personnel, I was told.
Vice’s story cited both Meltzer and “BodySlam.net” as actual sources. BodySlam.net cited infamous online wrestling news reporter Brad Shepard, who stated on Twitter he had the “real story they don’t want you to know on the WWE/Saudi Arabia flight delay.”
According to a high level source in #WWE, the outward reason being given for the extensive delay returning to the US from Saudi Arabia is the plane having mechanical issues. I’m told some WWE employees were able to get on separate rented planes and leave. – Brad Shepard
Shepard went on to say, citing an unnamed source in WWE, that McMahon said they won’t be returning to Saudi Arabia until they get their money owed. WWE announced an extension of their deal with the KSA on the Monday following the delayed return, completely contradicting that rumor.
So, we spoke to one of the highest placed sources in the company. None of these rumors were even known to, much less corroborated by, him. While speaking to me, the anonymous WWE exec actually went off on a small tirade on how pro-wrestling reporters make information up without even having sources.
Oddly enough, that scenario seems to have happened last week.
Reporter Meltzer stated on his podcast and daily update that McMahon held a meeting on Monday with talent to discuss the issues with the Saudi Arabia flight. While this was correct, Meltzer said Seth Rollins gave a “rah rah” speech. This was false. Everyone we spoke to said it was false but beyond that, Rollins himself took to Twitter to say it was false, forcing Meltzer to issue a correction.
“…you’re at best a purveyor of misinformation or at worst an outright, vindictive liar. I hope it’s the former. #rahrah” – Seth Rollins
Meltzer corrected the “misunderstanding” and said Rollins was mad at him, but Rollins fought back. He said either Meltzer or his source was “full of it.”
One must wonder if the same “source” also fed reporters misinformation about wrestlers fearing for their safety overseas. While it made for sensational headlines, it also created an unnecessary panic that, in at least one case, appears to have frightened the family of a performer on the plane.
That seems to have happened because either a source lied and the reporter didn’t check it or a reporter lied. Neither are comforting thoughts.
We reached out to a number of WWE talent and officials for this story. While we feel confident in the version of events we have presented to you, if any informed WWE workers want to share their stories anonymously and without fear it will be used inaccurately or for reprisal, they may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Although talent may remain anonymous in stories, we confirm the identity of everyone we speak as a matter of credibility.
Conrad Thompson contributed to this reporting.