AEW President Tony Khan was recently on an episode of Le Batard and Friends – South Beach Sessions. Khan discussed how the CM Punk is paying for itself, and he discussed Punk’s potential effect on the wrestling business.
“I’ve gotten to know him years ago, and I think he just wasn’t really ready to come in and come back to wrestling, until he saw what AEW was gonna be,” Khan stated. “I don’t think he wanted to be the guinea pig, and we launched the company. And that’s completely fair, and I think it all worked out perfectly because we built a company. We’ve made new stars, unquestionably. A lot of people in the world of wrestling have become household names in any wrestling fans’ house, and that was not the case for a lot of these people in 2018 – 2019.
“The wrestling business has gotten hotter as a result of the launch of AEW, and I think a lot of the stuff I said in year one was validated through the way we carried ourselves on the launch of Dynamite and through the pandemic. I tried to do the right things by a lot of people through the pandemic, whether it was not executing mass layoffs and letting all my people go when we lost all the ticket revenue, and I ate those costs personally and then you look at what we did in terms of AEW Elevation and before that AEW Dark, those shows on YouTube through the summer was the home of so many independent wrestlers. And when independent wrestling was shut down, the only paying gig was Dark, and it was the best of both worlds because it was a chance to go out and make some money and have a chance to get the exposure on the internet for hundreds of 1000s of people on YouTube.
“And there’s really only a couple companies that were running in the pandemic. There’s only two big wrestling companies in America, frankly, but on national television. But at the same time, there are a lot of wrestling companies that are pretty good size that weren’t really able to run, to have TV. Before we came along, there was really only one company that had that huge national penetration on a mainstream station, and now we have multiple shows. It’s very different from where we launched but during the pandemic, really taking care of these people, providing a home for independent wrestlers.
“And then as Mr. Punk alluded to in our press conference scrum, I think he saw that we have a lot of people with integrity and people that can, frankly, keep a secret when we had a great wrestler by the name of Brodie Lee last year get very sick from a non-COVID illness. And his wife came and told our entire locker room and our entire staff, over 100 people sat out in the bleachers and she told everybody what was going on, and for months, nobody said a word and gave them their privacy. And it was the saddest, hardest situation we’ve ever been through. Nothing positive to say about losing him but he left behind a great family, and I think that for CM Punk, he saw the integrity of our locker room and the people we have here.”
Dan Le Batard talked about Punk’s Rampage promo, specifically the WWE portions. Khan spoke on Punk’s impact on the mainstream and whether or not he gave any lines to Punk that night.
“I didn’t say that. I am giving him a home and a forum to say what he feels, and that’s how he feels,” Khan noted. “And really, everybody in wrestling, the fans, the other wrestlers, the staff are the people who paid the price because you can make money for everybody and you can make people’s lives better. And he didn’t want to do it for a long time, and now that he’s come back, I think it’s going to have a positive effect on everyone. It’s going to help our business.
“It’s going to help grow AEW, and it’s, like I said, validated the support of our fans who have been with us from day one. And it’s also brought a lot of people back to wrestling that had gone away, and it’s created the kind of mainstream interest, nothing we’ve done, has ever created. And we brought in some of the biggest stars in the world, Shaquille O’Neal, Mike Tyson, Snoop Dogg. They have all gotten in the ring and done stuff for us and many other great moments. So many critically acclaimed matches. We’ve set ratings milestones but nothing has done what we’ve done with this.”
Khan discussed if what has happened so far exceeded his expectations for AEW. He talked about the state of the industry at the time AEW launched and what his original ideas were.
“I would say it has exceeded my expectations, but it’s kind of interesting how it’s happened,” Khan admitted. “There are people that have come to us, I never would have expected, that would be with AEW so quickly. There are some things that I wanted to do from day one. When I put this business plan together, there were a lot of exciting things happening in Japan, and there were a lot of exciting things happening in America and nobody had really tied them together. And what was happening was WWE was generating huge media rights and building, effectively, a TV, I don’t want to use the word monopoly, but they were the only company that was on a big TV platform.
“And they were on multiple big TV platforms with several shows, and they were gonna get huge rights fees for their content and it was very eye catching to me, the numbers that they were looking at. And it was the kind of numbers where I could basically build a business plan and say, if I could build a wrestling franchise TV show that gets on a big channel, I can command a rights fee and build a company around that and that could be the revenue stream that could pay for a big roster of wrestlers and pay for a wrestling company.
“And it didn’t used to be like that because the rights fees for the TV show weren’t enough to sustain a wrestling business. It was really pay-per-view buys and ticket sales, and there was a big TV component, but it wasn’t the whole big enchilada that it is now. So that changed a lot. Then in Japan, there were a bunch of wrestlers getting really hot. Chris Jericho had gone over and started doing work with New Japan Pro Wrestling and the crew of guys they had there, Kenny Omega, The Young Bucks, Cody Rhodes, Hangman Page, there was a guy named Trent in a team called Roppongi Vice, who I thought would be a really valuable wrestler. And then there were a bunch of people on the American independents that I thought you could build up around, including MJF, who I thought was the most exciting young interview I’d seen in a really long time.
“And there were some other wrestlers that were huge stars, and it was like, hey, if we could convince a CM Punk, we could really go in and compete from day one, but he wasn’t really ready to do that because like he said, very frankly, in the interview we did after the show on Friday night, he didn’t really want to necessarily be the guinea pig for this because there’s been so many other promoters that have come along and sullied the name of launching a competitor, launching another national wrestling promotion. He’s heard it so many times. He had to see it.”
Khan then went into specifics on wrestlers he didn’t think would have been available so soon. He noted the effect a past AEW World Champion has had on the company.
“I would have loved to have had him from day one, but that was not possible, so I went in and built the best roster I could,” Khan said. “Now what I didn’t expect was that within the first year, and really, before we did our first show, Jon Moxley would become available. I never expected that the guy that was known as Dean Ambrose in WWE, that had been known on the independents as Jon Moxley, was one of the biggest stars in wrestling in his prime, and had been the champion of WWE and the guy that they had really built the company around in 2016, in so many ways, he had headlined every show they did on the road.
“He did 200 shows, I think, in 2016 and had really been the headline guy. Just a couple years later to turn around and he’s available and willing to come in and wrestle for us, I was shocked. I never expected that, and he was a huge part of our first pay-per-view and why that was a big success because his surprise reveal at the end, was really a signature moment. That was the cherry on top that I thought took our first pay-per-view from an A to an A plus.
“There’s things like that that have happened along the way. Things you couldn’t plan for but those are the things that have helped us become so competitive, so strong, built this strong TV platform that helped us get a second TV show on Friday nights with AEW Rampage. And these are the things that helped convince CM Punk, AEW would be a good home for him to return to wrestling.”
Khan later about the environment in AEW. He also revealed what the biggest challenge is that he deals with when it comes with communicating with talent.
“It really is as good an environment as you could have because you’re always gonna have, on any sports team or property and same thing with an entertainment property, whether, however you want to look at it, you’re going to have a group of people that are going to be competitive for their spots,” Khan pointed out. “If it was a TV show, people would be competitive for screen time. If it’s a sports team, people are competitive for minutes, people want to be in the game more. So there is that aspect to it, but it’s also a really friendly competition.
“It’s such a pleasant locker room environment, and the only gripes people are going to have are I’d like to be featured more. I’d like to be on the show floor, but that’s going to happen with any team, and the way it’s done here is as pleasant as it could be. I’d like to think I have really good communication with the dressing room, and as the booker and the CEO, I am able to keep a pretty good perspective on how to utilize the TV time to try and maximize the growth of the company.
“And unfortunately, I can’t get every wrestler on every show, and that is probably the biggest challenge and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to build out these other complimentary shows that we do on YouTube that have great audiences with hundreds of 1000s of people every week, so that we can not only develop young wrestlers but also keep people getting reps, keep people getting practice, and you really people in the habit of winning matches and keeping their momentum strong if you can’t get every wrestler on the TV show every week.”
If you use any of the quotes in this article, please credit Le Batard and Friends – South Beach Sessions and provide a h/t to Wrestling Inc. for the transcription