Sports

AEW’s Tony Khan talks respecting the past, growing the present and building wrestling’s future

Whether he’s Tony Khan, Mr. Khan or “Big Biceps Tony,” the AEW co-founder, president and CEO is a wrestling fan first and foremost.

Don’t let the titles fool you: Khan is every bit as big a wrestling fan as someone you’d find in your favorite internet wrestling forum — just with a little bit bigger of a sandbox to play in. Still, with wrestling roots that run deep and a well-regarded encyclopedic knowledge of grappling and its history, the neophyte company has showcased an innate ability to connect with its fans and provide something familiar yet fresh at the same time.

MORE: Jon Moxley talks authenticity, adaptivity and accessibility of AEW

Much like most wrestling matches, though, the company hasn’t been perfect: While AEW and its show “Dynamite” have been well regarded since launching more than a year ago, there have been botches and missteps, however minor, along the way. Khan is fully aware of that, though: Rather than tossing some medical tape or a Band Aid on it, he’s made it a focus to learn, grow and improve, too.

Sporting News spoke with Khan, covering the criticisms about the company, the importance of “Dark” and what could come in the future of All Elite Wrestling.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Sporting News (SN): All right, so I’m gonna start off here with something hot and heavy, so I hope you’re ready for it: I’m up in New Jersey, and we have not seen a single one of the All Elite Wrestling Unrivaled figures yet. What’s the status on Series 2, and how surprised are you that they’re flying off the shelves?

Tony Khan (TK): Laughing. I’m not surprised at all that they’re flying off the shelves. I think Series 2 is out soon. I know the early prototype figures have been in the hands of some of our wrestlers’ kids. So I know that they’re going to be available to everybody very soon. It’s a great lineup in Series 2. I don’t know why you guys haven’t been able to get a hold of Seres 1 up there. I guess they’re just really flying off the shelves whenever they come in.

I’m not surprised, though. We have a great fan base, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear we have that demand up there, because some of the biggest AEW fans in the world are the fans up there in New Jersey, in New York and tri-state area. So I am sorry they haven’t come in yet, man. I hope you get them soon. Laughing.

SN: On that note, AEW has been branching out into action figures, now video games, and it’s been kind of a steady grow away from the matches and the ring over the past year. What’s next for you guys when it comes to branching out and growing the AEW brand?

TK: It’s a great question. I think there are a lot of potential areas we could grow in. Those are really important ones to focus on right now. I think the world of streaming, there could be a lot of options in streaming, and we haven’t done much in that space yet. But right now, I’m really happy with the content we are presenting.

For us to present something similar to our action figures, similar to the video games, it’s got to be something of great quality, something there’s great demand for — and those are two of the things that we have the biggest demand for. I think that the world of streaming offers a lot of possibilities and a lot of options, but I also don’t want to oversaturate our content, and I don’t want to over-stimulate the audience necessarily, so that’s a slippery slope, too.

I think focusing on the action figures and video games, they’re going to be great revenue streams for us. And I don’t want to put the cart before the horse and look to other ones before we’ve really gotten everybody their action figures. I want to make sure you get your action figures. Laughing. 

Once we get all the toys out and all the video games flying out, then we’ll be ready to look at more revenue streams we can generate.

SN: You mentioned the fans earlier, and it’s hard to describe the AEW fandom in general — they’re long-time pro wrestling fans who have just wanted an alternative from the other company for a while, and it certainly feels like AEW is delivering that. I spoke with Jon Moxley and he went into detail about what makes the AEW fans so different. In your eyes, what is it about the the All Elite fan that’s so different?

TK: I think we have great fans, and, as you said, they tend to be fans of wrestling in general. A lot of AEW fans might watch other wrestling, but they definitely make a point to watch AEW and that’s what ties them together: whether they’re fans of Lucha Libre or Japanese wrestling/puroresu, or they watch smaller independent shows or maybe they watch WWE. I think a love of wrestling ties a lot of our fans together, and a love of a lot of our big stars.

It’s a pretty cool thing because I feel like I am one of these AEW fans. I love our shows, I love our wrestlers, but I love all wrestling. I love the history of wrestling. I think that’s why it works really well; we’ve implemented stuff from the canon of wrestling into the canon of AEW. Whether it’s Jake Roberts, Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson, Taz, they’re great names from the past who have become influential figures in AEW today as leaders.

We also have different storyline points — stories that didn’t start in AEW that we’ll pick up. Stories that happened in other companies or other countries, and we’ve picked them up and made them part of our canon. So, I think that’s a big part of AEW.

Before I was working with Billy (Corgan) and before we booked Thunder Rosa as the NWA Women’s Champion, and then before Serena won the title from her and before one of my wrestlers carried the NWA title, we’d worked with other companies. I’d worked out a deal with Dorian (Roldan) and AAA, and utilized their tag-team titles, and the Young Bucks and the Lucha Brothers had a great program over those belts and the AAA belts have been defended on our shows. Kenny Omega has defended the AAA heavyweight title, the Mega title. Before I was working with Billy when Ricky Starks came in, he said he was the NWA TV Champion in a promo, and I thought it was great. Our production team asked me if I wanted to cut it and said, “No, it’s great. Keep it — I love it.” And they were surprised, but I love stuff like that. What I told them was: Remember when we did Hangman and Kenny vs. Matt and Nick, and Matt, Nick, and the sit down interview, told Hangman, he was nothing before they found him, he was just a jobber in Ring of Honor? And that sucked the life out of the arena that we were in. People gasped at that line — I knew that was gonna work, but it worked even better than I thought.

So I think that when you touch on reality, it makes people want to watch AEW more, no matter what wrestling companies you’re a fan of. We all just love wrestling.

SN: At the risk of sounding like a mark, Tony, AEW just feels like it’s been a breath of fresh air. But you mentioned bringing guys back from the past: Jake, Tully, Arn, Taz. One thing wrestling fans don’t tend to like is putting an over-emphasis on past wrestling figures in current programs. How difficult is it to toe the line between booking legends to complement your product without suffocating the growth or development of your current stars?

TK: I remember when Vader was 399 pounds, and he was a guy that wouldn’t lose matches but he wasn’t in the main events. And then all of a sudden he was the pushed heel — he’s 449 pounds. Now, what happened? You could tell they were really motivated about Vader suddenly, who was working with Sting.

So in 1991 Harley Race came in as Lex Luger’s manager, and then he also in ’92 became Vader’s manager. Harley Race is a great name from wrestling. When I went back and rented tapes, I could see Harley Race on the old WrestleManias or defending the title against Ric Flair at Starrcade ’83, and he kind of tied old wrestling to new wrestling for me.

He never overshadowed Lex Luger. He never overshadowed Big Van Vader, but he was a great complement to their act, and he legitimized them. I think that’s what Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson, Taz, Jake Roberts, some of our managers have done for us in those roles. The Rock ‘N’ Roll Express were used a little differently in the role of the legendary tag team that represents — in that story when you have the Rock ‘N’ Roll Express as kind of angels on the shoulder and Arn and Tully kind of the devils on the shoulder, looking back at great tag team wrestling and the two different ways to do it — almost like the Young Bucks in the FaceApp with Ricky and Robert or putting FTR in the FaceApp with Arn and Tully.

So we’ve tried to do it in a way that enhances our current wrestlers. We were using Greg Valentine in the dog collar match to put over the stakes and the brutality of the dog collar match based on his experiences. So we use these these legendary wrestlers in a way where we revere them and respect their history, and the people that respect them will be excited to see them — but where they also help enhance our current stars and build our show for tomorrow.

SN: You clearly haven’t been afraid to use wrestling legends in your programs and made it work, but something that’s drawn a little bit of criticism has been using outside-wrestling personalities or stars to further the stories, like Mike Tyson or the rumored arrival of Shaq. Do you, as an executive, as a fan, ever get nervous of what the backlash might be from the fan who maybe watched certain companies rely too much on stars from the outside?

TK: I don’t think anybody has to worry that it’s gonna be 75-80 minutes of Shaq every Wednesday night, or two hours of Mike Tyson every Wednesday night — that’s not what we’re going for. But I do think their appearances definitely add some mainstream interest, and hopefully bring in new viewers. And I think the wrestling fans want new viewers — the wrestling fans want it to be cool to be a wrestling fan.

I was in high school in the late ’90s and into 2000, I graduated in 2001, and I went to a school where it was 8 through 12. In eighth grade, I was the biggest wrestling fan in the world, trading tapes, wearing Japanese wrestling shirts, wearing my Taz shirt when he was in ECW, and everybody knew me as a wrestling fan — that was not a cool thing to be and I was not cool. And I got a lot cooler as wrestling happened to get a lot cooler. It’s funny how it worked.

All of a sudden, in ’98, my sophomore year, people wanted to talk to me about wrestling, people wanted to learn about it. On Tuesday morning, people would come up to me and ask me about what they saw last night: “Why does he not like him? Who’s this guy? What’s the deal?” And it just got to be more and more like that to the point where my senior year, so many people in school were watching wrestling. And when I started, it was almost nobody. I want it to be like that again. I think we can make it that way again.

I think Mike Tyson played a big part in that. We saw this year with “The Last Dance” that sports nostalgia is a very real thing — things that were big in the late ’90s, or the year 2000, that some of those things have still never been matched, and there’s still nobody like those people. Just like there was nobody like Michael Jordan and the story of “The Last Dance,” there’s really never been another boxer like Mike Tyson who can capture the public imagination.

Hopefully when Mike gets out of there with Roy Jones Jr., I’d love to do stuff with Mike again — he’s a good friend, and he’s always been very good to me, and I have a lot of respect for him, and I hope Mike comes out of this fight OK. Similar to Michael Jordan, I think there’s a mystique around Mike Tyson where nobody has ever replicated it, and it’s been over 20 years since he was in his peak, and still nobody can touch that mystique. So I think he has that.

Similar to both of them, I don’t think there’s ever been another big man in my lifetime that’s captured the imagination of America the way Shaq did — and he’s a very different basketball player than Michael Jordan. In a similar era, and then he played really later in the next era with Shaq and Kobe. Shaq’s also a friend, and he’s a great person, and I am excited about the possibility of working with him, too.

I think both Shaq and Mike are one of a kind, in very different ways. But for each of them in their sport, there’ll never be another like them. And that’s why I think they still have a lot of interest right around them.

SN: You’re very on Twitter. You’re very front-facing. You’ve put shows over before the show’s on the air, you kind of paint the bullseye on yourself when you put these proclamations out on Twitter. On the rare misstep that you have on a Wednesday night, do you ever get nervous that people might come after you a little bit more, that they might lose some faith?

TK: Not really, because I generally would make that proclamation knowing what’s coming. I would not set myself in that position if I didn’t know what was coming. And I know I have the goods. I’ve told people I have aces up my sleeve, and I feel like the balance of power is tipping in wrestling, and it’s tipping to the fans and I think that’s great. I think the arrival of AEW has been a great thing for the wrestlers, and for the wrestling fans, and for the quality of life of wrestling people.

The pandemic has made it very challenging, but before the pandemic, when you were able to go to shows whenever you wanted, AEW, I think, changed a lot of fans’ lives where they wanted to go to more shows. There’s new products they were excited about, a show that they really wanted to watch, and it reinvigorated the wrestling economy, in my opinion.

I think that it’s been a great thing, and I think the pandemic slowed down our live shows because that was such an important revenue stream for us. And we were the No. 1 live wrestling company last year, in terms of fans per show. We didn’t run as many shows as some of our competition, but every show we ran, on average, we had the best crowd in the world. This year, I don’t have that much time left in 2020, we’re going to do some really cool stuff before the year is over, and I can’t say what it is or when it’s going to be, but there’s going to be some awesome stuff. So when I said I had aces up my sleeve and that the balance of power is shifting — it’s true.

Pac is a really important wrestler to us, he’s one of our biggest stars, and I would never frame him as anything but a home run, massive arrival. And that’s why I want people to know that when I say you’re gonna see something big, well, I mean, Pac is something big, Pac’s a big star for us. But it’s not the only big thing you’re gonna see.

So there’s a lot of fun stuff coming up the rest of the year, and I would just say stay tuned. I’m not worried about the backlash at all, because whenever I’ve proclaimed something’s going to be good — I’ll go back. I’ve never talked about this in an interview. I will say there was one time I did the guys a disservice, but it was just my own personal opinion.

I feel like I set the expectations too high for them — but I thought it was great — for the Jon Moxley and Jake Hager match in April. I thought it was awesome. They beat the s— out of each other, and they they put on a great match — a true empty-arena match without even the other workers out there to watch them. And what they did, I thought was awesome, and and we were all just raving about it when it was done.

But on TV the way I presented it — it was in April, there was not COVID testing available to us yet, and I didn’t feel good about putting JR in a booth with anybody, and the technology has gotten more reliable since then. I probably should have given JR a partner for starters, and I liked the idea of JR calling it with an old-sport feel. I’ve learned a lot in seven months.

Those guys had a great match, Jon and Jake, and there was something really good in there, and it’s probably my fault how I presented it, because the match they had was awesome. And I told everybody I thought it was the best empty-arena match. I loved the match, but I get that not everyone did.

So that’s subjective on a wrestling match, but there’s some things that are not subjective, that are just binary. And as far as binary, is this going to be big or not stuff for the rest of the year? There’s some big stuff.

SN: “AEW Dark” has been a very important platform for a number of reasons: First, to showcase lesser known or younger talent and get them going, and ring experience. It’s since evolved to be much more than that. How important of a tool is “Dark” for you guys now?

TK: “Dark” has become a lot of things to us, and one of those things is our developmental show. It’s very important — it’s changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, we would do a “Dark” match before “Dynamite” started, and then we would do a couple of dark matches after “Dynamite,” and then “Dark” would be a few matches — lengthy competitive matches.

During the pandemic, I started seeing all these independent wrestlers out of work, and also a lot of my roster was not available to me. So I started to bring in a lot of them, and I would use them as the extras in the crowd, sitting in the babyface or heel section, depending on their personality, and fill those areas up with wrestlers who we COVID tested, and they would be effectively the audience before we started letting in an audience months later. I wanted to give those guys a chance, and I thought I would find some stars out of that group, and I think we have found some stars out of the group.

A lot of people tried to talk me out of this, by the way, and into doing more, you know, making it more competitive matches and not using so much developmental talent and making it more like it used to be. I told people, “Look, more people watch ‘Dark’ with what it is now than they used to when it was main-roster people.” Clearly, there’s a lot of interest in the independent talent — who’s going to make it? — and there are competitive matches on the show. I think we put some big matches on the show but, really, it’s about showcasing the future AEW stars.

There’s great acts who are on “Dark” on a regular basis. Ricky Starks has built up a huge winning streak and really made a name for himself as the guest host of the show, and then we’ve seen Scorpio Sky go on a long winning streak and we’ve seen him come on to “Dynamite” with a lot of wins under his belt and work his way into contention.

SN: Who on “Dark” has really stood out to you?

TK: The person who I’m the proudest of is Will Hobbs. Will Hobbs came on as a new talent, when we’re trying to find a lot of people with potential and put them in matches with our contract talent and then come out and see how they did, and try to find new stars. Will Hobbs is made from the ground up on “Dark” — I didn’t know Will Hobbs, I didn’t know much about Will Hobbs and I really took to him, and I think a lot of us saw something in him.

In addition to putting a show together, sometimes if it’s something I really want to hit specific points on, I’ll just agent it myself, and I agented on the “Saturday Night Dynamite,” the Darby Allin vs. Will Hobbs match — that’s where Ricky came in, painted as Darby the first time and Will did such a good job in that match.

It was not long, but he did everything really effectively, and he worked great with Darby and me, and I really liked him and I decided, you know what? We were going to do “All Out” Casino Battle Royale — I was thinking this will be the guy that I’m going to have go the distance, this will be the guy that nobody expects is going to last to the end, but he makes it to the end, and he’ll come out looking like a future star. That worked out great. Will’s been great for us, and now he’s an important part of our main roster and regularly featured star on “Dynamite” with a prominent part. That has all developed in the pandemic from trying out on “Dark.” 

There have been other people that have gotten tryouts on “Dark” that are coming up in those roles. Max Caster and Anthony Bowens came in on “Dark.” I really like them both. I actually had heard WWE was interested in both of them, too. I thought as tag team they really could have something. They’ve been on “Dark” four times. Every time it has gotten better. Their act has gotten better, Max’s presentation of the rap has gotten better, the freestyling has gotten cooler, the gear is cool. Their tag work has become more fluid and smooth. The Acclaimed — Caster and Bowens — that’s another act that has started on “Dark” and gotten pushed up. We’re gonna see the Young Bucks vs. Top Flight this week on “Dynamite.” Top Flight are guys that the Young Bucks scouted, and I signed and put on “Dark” on their recommendation. They’ve done a great job, and now they’re going to get a match with Matt and Nick.

There’s going to be more acts coming through “Dark” — Red Velvet is somebody that’s done really well on “Dark” and has done well for us on “Dynamite” now recently, too. “Dark” is a really important part of our company, and you’ll continue to see people coming up to the “Dynamite” roster from “Dark.”

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