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.
However, independent wrestler David Starr’s views are much different from those promoted by Sinclair and he’s far from shy about expressing them, often retweeting progressive political analysts and recently tweeting his belief that Trump is an anti-Semite and an Islamophobe. When he tweeted he would be releasing a statement on March 19 about his upcoming ROH title match, he included emojis of both the Israeli and Palestinian flags. The promo announced by this tweet ended up being far more politically explicit.
Starr’s promo has since been taken down from his social media accounts – more on that later – but has been preserved by Pro Wrestling Sheet, where you can watch it in its entirety. Starr started out by calling Jay Lethal’s “Black Machismo” character an act of disrespect, then moved on to ROH and its parent company, saying:
Something else that’s a joke is that Ring of Honor wrestling used to represent pure, independent, professional wrestling, instead of representing a far right wing, extremist corporate propaganda machine. Did you think it was some kind of cute publicity stunt to let the little Jew boy get a flight to Israel and wrestle for your championship? Is that what you thought?… Because no, I’m not wrestling for your championship because I’m a Jewish kid in Israel. I’m wrestling for your championship because I’m one of the best independent professional wrestlers on the f*cking planet.
Starr has never shied away from acknowledging his Jewish heritage – one can look no further than his ring name, gear, and the nickname “the Jewish Cannon,” to see that. However, this ROH World Championship match was one of the few times it seemed like Starr, a talented wrestler and a popular performer on the independent circuit in several countries, may have been booked to wrestle specifically because he is Jewish. He certainly didn’t gain a title shot in traditional ROH fashion, having wrestled only four matches ever for the company, two in 2016 and two in 2017.
ROH’s news article about Lethal vs. Starr included the sentence, “Having an opportunity to wrestle for the ROH World Title in Israel is a dream come true for Starr, who is Jewish.” However, as his promo continued, Starr did not present wrestling in Israel in such simple terms, even referencing the occupation of Palestine.
Sinclair Broadcasting, you think you’re doing me a favor by having me wrestle for your championship in the homeland? No… It’s not just the homeland for me because I’m a Jewish man. It’s supposed to be the homeland for everybody. It’s supposed to be a place that we can all seek peace and refuge. It’s supposed to be a place that doesn’t deprive its citizens of basic, civil human rights.
But you know what? I’ll take the favor, man… Sinclair Broadcasting, I’ll take the bone you’re throwing at me because on the morning after April 21, you will have to wake up to your worst nightmare. You’ll have to wake up to the fact that your championship is now represented by progressive Jew named David Starr.
This was by far the most explicitly a wrestler associated with ROH, however tangentially, has called out Sinclair Broadcasting. Given that Sinclair, which owns a large percentage of the U.S.’s local news stations has contracts the prohibit journalists from quitting and has gained notoriety for “must-run” segments for said stations that present right-wing stances on political issues that anchors may not share, but are required to present as if they are organic opinion pieces, this isn’t surprising. (Additionally, many wrestlers simply choose not to publicly engage in political discussion.)
These aspects of Sinclair are the ones brought to mind by the next chapter in the story of Starr vs. Lethal for the ROH World Championship. Earlier today, Starr tweeted that “the powers that be” had asked him to remove his promo, which he did “out of respect to IPWA.” However, he specified that “My complying with this request is not an admission of wrongdoing or a retraction. I stand by my entire statement and do not regret any of my actions regarding this subject.”
This raises the question of whether the removal of the video was legitimately requested by ROH and/or Sinclair Broadcasting or if it was planned in advance, possibly with the intention of channeling any real political controversy around the match into the more manageable form of a wrestling storyline. It has definitely created buzz for the ROH title match, but this latest connection of politics and pro wrestling may not be one that makes people want to give Sinclair and/or ROH their money.