The story of Ring of Honor‘s first World Championship defense in Israel (currently Jay Lethal (c) vs. David Starr) only keeps getting more contentious as the April 21 match approaches. Starr unflinchingly brought the underlying political issues surrounding the match to the surface in a promo he released on social media yesterday, but today they seem to have been pushed back down by, in his words, “the powers that be.”
Politics and professional wrestling are far from strangers. In the U.S., promotions used villainous Russian characters in the 1980s. The WWF incorporated the Gulf War into a storyline in 1991. At WrestleMania 31 in 2015, WWE fans watched “the Bulgarian Brute” Rusev ride into the arena on a tank to defend his United States Championship against John Cena, whose entrance video used quotes from American presidents. (Of course, the American wrestling scene hasn’t been the only one to use nationalism to hook audiences – Rikidōzan became Japan’s biggest pro wrestling star by defeating American opponents shortly after World War II.)
Within the past year, several promotions have incorporated politics into storylines with mixed results. A 2018 MLW angle included the Lucha Brothers being detained by ICE, for which Court Bauer later apologized. Before he signed with NXT, Trevor Lee got the most heel heat of anyone in Southern California-based PWG by cutting promos disparaging Mexicans after entering to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” previously a favored entrance song of President Donald Trump. The first appearance of Jessie Jones in WOW Women of Wrestling in early 2019 similarly saw her use pro-border wall rhetoric to establish herself as a villain before wrestling Azteca, a luchadora.
In the real world, politics and wrestling mixed when WWE gained mainstream media coverage first by signing a long term deal for live events in Saudi Arabia which would not be allowed to include female wrestlers, then airing Saudi propaganda ads during Raw and Smackdown. A nationalistic segment during their first of these events, the Greatest Royal Rumble, resulted in Iranian-American wrestler Ariya Daivari receiving death threats. WWE caught even more flack when they went ahead with their second Saudi Arabia event, Crown Jewel, after several American companies pulled out of dealings with the country following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And of course, with Linda McMahon a member of Trump’s cabinet, WWE will never be truly detached from the political realm.
Under its current ownership by Sinclair Broadcasting, Ring of Honor is also unlikely to ever be fully detached from political discourse – although it doesn’t seem like the promotion that had an “I Quit” match in which National Guard veteran Flip Gordon attacked Bully Ray with a kendo stick bearing an American flag at Final Battle 2018 is particularly concerned about that.
Though the announcement that ROH World Championship would be defended in Israel for the first time at the Israeli Pro Wrestling Association’s Passover Bash 2019 came out of nowhere, it was hardly surprising. Several high profile artists have canceled performances in Israel in protest of the occupation of Palestinian territory, but there was no reason to think a company owned by Sinclair, whose Chief Political Analyst worked for Trump and has supported moves like the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, would have the same qualms.