So the WWE circus rolled into town — town, if you happen to live in New Delhi — after 13 years and put on two shows at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium on 15 and 16 January.
But, not before the WWE had averted a minor but potentially damaging incident.
Damaging to the organisation’s reputation perhaps, but primarily to the money that stood to be made from two shows — where tickets were priced between Rs 1,699 and Rs 17,999 (before handling charges and all manner of taxes were applied) — not to mention the millions of rupees to be made from a fanbase in India.
The Aadvanshi Veer Sena (yes, us neither) and a group of local wrestlers reportedly protested against an incident in 1998 that saw then WWF wrestler Kurt Angle clean his nose with the Indian flag. They demanded an apology or else...
We never did find out what the ‘or else…’ was because in the days leading up to the Delhi shows, WWE International President Gerrit Meier said (in oddly broken and stilted English, it must be stated):
This case is about 20-years-ago and we did not deliberately did that. We have a great respect for the country. We are sorry that it happened, but we had no intention of doing it. India is a reputable country and we apologise for this… We are extremely pleased that India is hosting the live events again. There are good number of fans and I am confident that they will enjoy it all. Nearly 14 years later, we are once again on the ground of India will play a WWE match. (sic)
Let’s just sidestep the incredibly patronising ‘reputable country’ part. But at least he didn’t say that ‘the footage was doctored’, ‘the incident was taken out of context’, ‘their accounts were hacked’ or that ‘it was a smear campaign against them by a rival organisation’. Meier apologised. Twice, in fact.
The addition of the claim that it was not done ‘deliberately’ (something that was again said twice) serves to water down the apology and even render it disingenious.
But, he’s not entirely at fault.
While you digest that idea, here’s the incident in question that was supposedly not intentional:
But that was 1998: The WWE was called the WWF — and would continue to sport that name until it had the proverbial ‘smackdown’ laid down on it by the panda organisation in 2001, ‘superstars’ were called wrestlers, Olympic gold medallist Angle was just entering the world of professional wrestling, and Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart was on the verge of jumping ship to erstwhile rival WCW.
Why is the last part relevant? The contrast between Meier and Hart’s approach to India is notable. While one issued a perfunctory apology to ensure that the show would go on, the other seemed to genuinely treasure his brush with India. Hart was part of the contingent that came to India in 1996 and the experience clearly stayed with him, seeing as he saw fit to include it in his documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows and write about it in his autobiography Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.
But as noted earlier, this isn’t entirely Meier’s fault: He was only doing his very best to apologise for something that comes as naturally to the WWE as breathing does to you and me.
The incident with the tricolour is only a tiny footnote in the history of WWE’s complex but abusive relationship with flags.
Basing storylines on geopolitical equations is something the WWE has been doing for decades, from Soviet flag-waving Nikolai Volkoff and Iraqi flag-wielding General Adnan to the ridiculous 2005 angle involving terrorists seeking to sacrifice the Undertaker (don’t ask).
And every time a statement has to be made — whether to draw cheers or jeers from fans or further the political agendas of pro-wrestling’s First Family, the McMahons — something or the other happens to a flag. Remember Ultimate Warrior ripping up the Iraqi flag and feeding it to Sgt Slaughter?
Let’s do a brief rundown, shall we?
Undertaker laying waste to the Japanese flag:
Hulk Hogan having his way with the Soviet flag:
The Big Show ripping down a Russian flag:
Chris Jericho kicking the Brazilian flag around in Sau Paulo no less:
Numerous incidents involving the Canadian flag — most of which have disappeared from the internet, but this one remains:
A notable exception to this rule is the US flag, which has largely escaped this treatment. That’s not to say it didn’t come close on at least two occasions.
The Un-Americans — if ever a name was more on the nose, I haven’t heard it — almost setting the flag ablaze:
Rusev almost ripping it down:
The key word in both cases is ‘almost’. With a primarily American audience, the WWE would obviously not be able to get away with desecrating the Star-Spangled Banner on cable television. But the national flags of other countries have always been fair game.
These antics have allowed the WWE to clearly demarcate bad guys and good guys for its audiences and in the process sell pay-per-view events, merchandise and tickets to their live shows. It's safe to say that these angles are going nowhere anytime soon.
That being said, ‘action’ has been taken for a small percentage of these in-ring stunts over time, with Jericho being suspended for 30 days (although the fact that he was almost arrested may have had something to do with it) and the WWE apologising to Russia on behalf of the Big Show.
And now, the apology to India.
Bear in mind that Angle hasn't been in the employ of the WWE for a long time and the company could have easily palmed it off as the actions of a former employee and something for which the current management takes no responsibility.
But to even merit this strange apology, one thing is clear to the folks in Titan Towers: India — where the company recently launched its WWE Network — is a major business opportunity for the WWE. That's also probably why Iraq or Japan — with its own thriving pro-wrestling ecosystem — never received an apology.