When WWE were nearly thrown off UK TV

Oh the summer of 2005 how I love you! Most remembered at the time for England beating Australia in arguably the greatest Ashes series in history the summer also had another famous UK victory against the odds when underdogs London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics over hot favourites Paris (and only delivered the best Olympics ever). Chelsea fans and Labour supporters will have bittersweet memories of that summer. Tony Blair’s Labour easily won its third General Election in a row – in stark contrast to the mess that party is now in outside London. While Chelsea won their first English League title in 50 years back in the days when the Premier League Champions played at Stamford Bridge instead of visiting on the last day of the season as Leicester will on Sunday!

Of course there was tragedy too. The day after London won the Olympic bid there were the terrorist attacks on the city (known as the 7/7 bombings). The British General Election of 2010 (page 19) claims that the bombings “marked, symbolically at leat, an abrupt end to the optimism of much of the Blair era”. While I don’t agree with that – Blair had shot his bolt with the UK electorate two years earlier – there is no doubt that the first terrorist attack on the UK by Al Qaeda had a serious effect on the country. On a less serious note it got World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) into such trouble they nearly got kicked off of UK TV and are still on probation till this day. How on earth could a UK national tragedy get WWE into trouble not just in the UK but in the US – so much so one of their wrestlers had to be booted out of the company for good at the age of just 23? Answer – a cocktail of arrogance, bad luck and like most sports organisations being out of touch with the real world.

The background is this. On 13 December 2004 WWE debuted a  new wrestler. He was an “Arab American”* Muhammad Hassan. The gimmick of Hassan and his manager Kosrow Daivari was that they were Arab Americans who had got on well with their fellow Americans until 9/11 but that after 9/11 their fellow Americans turned on them, discriminated against them and blamed them for the 9/11 attacks just because they were Arab Americans. They made some logical points that however were too intelligent for most American wrestling fans and therefore Hassan and Daivari became hated heels (wrestling jargon for bad guys). Hassan was placed into feuds with Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin (who said to Hassan and Daivari “I see sand people”- not WWE Creative’s finest hour) while suffering no pin fall defeats.

Then for some reason he was traded from RAW to Smackdown – a mistake in my opinion as Smackdown was on a broadcast (the US equivalent of terrestrial) channel United Paramount Network (UPN) which meant the audience for Hassan and Daivari  was potentially bigger than on RAW (a cable show) and the bigger audience something controversial gets the more people there are who could get offended. WWE had to be careful. They weren’t.

As soon as he got to Smackdown Hassan got into a feud with the Undertaker and a match between the two was arranged for the July Great American Bash pay per view. That same night (July 4 2005) Smackdown General Manager Theodore R Long made a match between the Undertaker and Daivari for that night’s show. Undertaker won easily – and then it all went pear shaped. Outside the ring Hassan kneeled down as if he was praying to Allah – and five men in masks, black tops and combat trousers ran to the ring and beat up the Undertaker. After that Hassan came into the ring and performed his finishing move on the Undertaker while the five masked men knelt down. The masked men then lifted Daivari up and carried him out of the ring a la a martyr’s funeral. What makes this more sinister is what  Hassan had said to Daivari pre match “You will be a sacrifice. But a sacrifice for a greater good”. It at least could be implied that this was acting out a terrorist attack and was rather sinister.

Note the date. July 4th. But Smackdown was not (and still is not) shown live. In those days Smackdown was shown on Thursdays in the US and that week’s Smackdown was broadcast on July 7th. Yes the day of the London bombings. Ah you say the Hassan “terrorist” angle would be edited out. Er no. It was shown in North America in full – with a “crawler” warning at the bottom of the screen. WWE claimed that it could not be edited out in time. They really should have asked UPN to delay the programme for a day in order to give them time to edit the angle out. Predictably – to everyone except WWE that is – there was an outcry and even the New York Post, TV Guide and Variety got involved. UPN panicked and told the WWE that Hassan would not be allowed to appear on their network again. So he was banned from Smackdown and Spike TV – the network that broadcast RAW – did not want him back on their show either. So he had to be beaten by the Undertaker at the pay per view and “killed off” with a last ride onto concrete. He was never seen again on WWE TV**.

Where WWE was incredibly lucky was that in the UK Smackdown was not on TV until Friday which gave Sky time to edit the angle out. But WWE made another blunder. They posted the footage on their website – including the UK. Even although the internet was not as prominent in 2005 as it is now enough UK fans saw it for it to be known what had happened and in the words of Ian Hamilton (in “Wrestling’s Sinking Ship : What Happens to an Industry Without Competition” page 172) “were up in arms”. Why on earth they put it on the internet is a mystery. They must have known UK fans used the internet in 2005 – unless they were so ignorant they thought we didn’t!

Still at least the UK press hadn’t got hold of the incident so all WWE had to do was not make any more mistakes and let the affair die down. But they could not even do that right. Once UPN had banned Hassan they really should have pulled him out of the pay per view match with the Undertaker and found a substitute (Randy Orton would have been the obvious replacement or bring in a wrestler from RAW like Kurt Angle). But instead they kept Hassan in the match. Incredibly they showed the beat down on the Undertaker in the promo for the match. Even more incredibly Hassan was carried to the ring by the same five masked guys who had beaten the Undertaker up. And even more incredibly it was shown live on Sky Sports in the UK!***

Now the shit did hit the fan. Sky got reprimanded by Ofcom (for the benefit of anyone reading this who is not from the UK Ofcom is our TV regulator – our Federal Communications Commission (FCC) equivalent). Sky understandably were furious. Especially as the WWE had been running some awful angles at the time – Hot Lesbian Action, Katie Vick, WWE owner Vince McMahon fighting his own daughter on pay per view and a one legged wrestler – Zach Gowen – being pushed down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair (Sky cut that out too). Sky in effect put the WWE on a “suspended sentence” saying if the WWE did anything else offensive their UK TV contract would be terminated. Frankly the WWE had done so many offensive angles in the previous three years they were lucky to keep their contract.

This whole mess was an example of sporting arrogance at its worst. As Dave Meltzer put it on his website “they (the WWE) live in a bubble in Connecticut where there is nothing but wrestling and the real world doesn’t exist”. Substitute Zurich for Connecticut and soccer for wrestling and Meltzer could have been writing about FIFA. How they did not know after the London bombings that that angle would offend is a mystery.

I think the Hassan affair (along with the Chris Benoit murder/suicide and Linda McMahon’s (Vince’s wife) US senate bids) led to the current PG WWE era that wrestling fans consider safe. But you can’t blame the WWE for playing safe. Remember if they do anything offensive they could blow a lucrative UK TV contract.  They think ” better safe than sorry “. And that is the price the WWE are paying for taking a totally unnecessary risk back in July 2005….

*Ironically the man who played Hassan – Mark Copani – is not Arab American at all. With that name it is no surprise that he is Italian American.

**Copani was sent down to the WWE development league to alter his gimmick but he was released on September 21 2005 probably because he would always be associated with the Hassan character. He then retired from wrestling aged 23 an innocent victim of the whole sordid mess. Ironically he was heading for a major push and was going to win the World Heavyweight Championship at August’s SummerSlam pay per view had the affair not happened.

***That was when I first saw the incident (I did not have the internet at the time). I was horrified. If I had known WWE would show that I would not have taped the event. I suspected – and still do – that if a US city had been bombed on July 7th that angle would have never seen the light of day. To my mind it showed arrogant contempt for the UK. I know people who have never watched WWE again and one friend of mine wanted whoever wrote the angle sacked and McMahon hung. Whether anyone other than poor Copani was sacked I don’t know.

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