March 11, 2020 was a Wednesday evening and that was the night that the sports world changed, perhaps, forever.
Only minutes before a key Western Conference clash between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). On the very same day that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, it had reached North American sports. By the end of the night, the NBA season was suspended and the immediate future of sports across the continent was cast into doubt.
That same night, as the world changed, All Elite Wrestling was running its weekly Dynamite television show out of Salt Lake City. Like the NBA and NHL, which were in midseason, AEW president and booker Tony Khan knew right then and there that creative thinking was needed to keep his show going without fans – the lifeblood of a live wrestling event – in attendance. Khan ended up taking inspiration from late-night TV on how to move forward.
“I was watching talk shows with no live studio audience,” the 38-year-old Khan told TSN.ca. “And I watched Colbert – and Stephen Colbert is a brilliant comedian and a great host, but I found his show, the first week of the pandemic, was a little harder to watch with no studio audience. With Jimmy Fallon, he had no studio audience, either, but he had his band and his production staff there and they were laughing at his jokes. That reaction was so much more natural and that show felt like a better show to me at that moment. Not to say that one comedian is better than another, but the feel of the show as a comedy show worked better for me.”
Just as Fallon decided to use The Roots and his staff as an audience, Khan could use other wrestlers as ringside fans at Daily’s Place, the Jacksonville amphitheatre that has become AEW’s base of operations during the pandemic, to give AEW a more authentic feel.
“At first, I thought we’d just put the wrestlers outside of the ring, but the next day I realized we could split them in two sections on each side of the ring, kind of perpendicular to the hard cam – heels on one side, babyfaces on the other with the heels on the same side as the heel tunnel and babyfaces on the same side as the babyface tunnel,” Khan explained. “I made a little crude drawing of it and sent it over [to staff] with what I thought the seating areas would look like.”
With wrestlers in the ringside area, cheering and booing like fans would at a live event, AEW’s TV presentation felt just like a regular event with paying fans in attendance. Now with the State of Florida allowing spectators to again return to sporting events, at a reduced number for safety reasons, AEW has once again welcomed back fans. Khan couldn’t be more pleased with the way the company continues to weather the storm, both from a practical perspective, as well as the testing and safety measures the company has put in place to keep its talent healthy.
“It’s robust, it’s worked really well for us and we’ve never looked back,” Khan said. “Since then, we’ve done some of our best matches and had some of our best shows. I would have liked to have done it in front of bigger crowds, if that was possible, and it’s not because of a lack of interest from fans. I think it’s because we’re trying to present the safest show that we can.”
The limitations of the pandemic have forced Khan and his booking team to reach into their bag of ideas for compelling content over the past six months. That has sometimes meant outside-the-box thinking that has resulted in wild spectacles outside of the traditional pro wrestling norms. At last May’s Double or Nothing pay-per-view event, Chris Jericho’s heel Inner Circle stable took on The Elite and Matt Hardy in a “Stadium Stampede” match at TIAA Bank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, that saw a bar fight, a golf-cart chase and a number of high-risk spots rolled into one 34-minute extravaganza of excess. On the Sept. 17 edition of Dynamite, Santana and Ortiz faced Best Friends (Chuck Taylor and Trent?) in a vicious parking lot fight replete with blood, weapons and nasty bumps taken on the hoods, windshields and tops of cars. The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer gave the match a five-star rating.
The most recent example of that kind of thinking led to a polarizing segment amongst fans and media on Dynamite’s Oct. 21 episode. With Maxwell Jacob Friedman pushing to join the Inner Circle, Jericho agreed to a sit-down steak dinner with MJF to discuss the potential further. Billed as “Le Dinner Debonair,” the segment began with comedy as MJF and Jericho, a pair of preening heels, attempted to outdo one another with their increasingly rarer and rarer steak orders. But what came next, nobody could have predicted: Jericho and Friedman did a choreographed song and dance number – to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Me and My Shadow” – alongside some Jaguars cheerleaders. It was surreal, very funny and utterly ridiculous. The question for some fans, though, was did it make sense on a wrestling program?
For Khan, the answer is a resounding yes.
“When they brought the idea to me, it was different,” Khan explained. “The original idea was different from what we ended up doing, too, because I’m big on realism. There’s nothing unrealistic about pro athletes singing or dancing and we see it in music videos all the time. We’ve seen athletes do musical numbers. When I was a kid, the [Chicago] Bears did the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle.’ So it’s not crazy to have these great athletes singing and dancing. And both of them have a background in music and/or the theatre, so it made a lot of sense from that perspective. It might have been confusing to some wrestling fans, but it was very consistent with the characters of Chris Jericho, who is not just a wrestler, but also a musician and with MJF as these two really egotistical guys would film this ostentatious, over-the-top music video. I don’t think it would have fit for other people’s characters, but for them it made perfect sense.”
Khan disputes the idea that the segment wasn’t in line with the vision of pro wrestling upon which AEW was founded.
“I don’t think there was anything unrealistic about it and people always say, ‘You said you were always going to present a sport-based product,’” Khan said. “Well, I mean it. That episode had so much wrestling in it. That was the episode with Penta El 0 Miedo versus Fenix. It was the beginning of our contender tournament. We had great stuff. Hangman [Adam Page] and Colt Cabana had a great match. Wardlow and Jungle Boy was an excellent match. We had a tag contender match on the show. The four-way was great. So we had tons of good wrestling on the show and it felt like this was the one big non-wrestling segment… It was the highest rated segment in the demo in all of wrestling on the Wednesday. So I think it was an idea to get people talking, which worked, and it built some more buzz on the [MJF vs. Jericho] match for the [Full Gear] pay-per-view.”
Being booker of the company means Khan heads creative, but as president he must also handle more practical matters. And AEW isn’t the only thing on the Champaign-Urbana, IL native’s plate. Khan also serves as Fulham’s director of football operations, as well as the head of the Jaguars’ analytics department. He says he is busy, but not overwhelmed.
“I think for a lot of business owners who wear a lot of hats, it’s not unusual,” Khan said. “AEW is still a small business. We provide entertainment to people all over the world. We literally have millions of people who watch our shows and I just think it’s the coolest job in the world, but a lot of small business owners wear a lot of hats and manage different departments and oversee a lot of different things and this one is no different. But I’m really happy to do it. It’s a dream for me and the fact that it’s gone so well in the first year, I’m so proud of it.”
As AEW continues to grow as a company, Khan says continuing to foster relationships with other wrestling organizations is a priority.
In recent months, the NWA Women’s World Championship has been defended on AEW programming and now AEW-contracted wrestler Serena Deeb is the current title-holder. On last Saturday night’s Full Gear PPV, Impact Wrestling executive VP Don Callis sat in on commentary during the Kenny Omega/Adam Page match. Omega currently holds leading Mexican federation AAA’s Mega Championship, its top title, while the Lucha Bros. (Rey Fenix and Penta El 0 Miedo) are its tag team champions.
But the relationship that fans remain most curious about is the one AEW has with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Before launching AEW in 2019, all four of the company’s executive VPs – Omega, Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks (Nick Jackson and Matt Jackson) – were regular performers and champions for NJPW. Since the formation of the company, none of the four men has worked there, but Jericho has worked a number of NJPW events, including at Wrestle Kingdom 14 against Hiroshi Tanahashi, and AEW World Champion Jon Moxley is New Japan’s current IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion.
Khan believes that the partnership that does exist between his company and NJPW can strengthen and is hopeful that the recent change in New Japan’s leadership, with Harold Meij departing as president and Takami Ohbari moving into the role, could help push things forward.
“With New Japan, it’s been a little more one-sided where we’ve sent people there and I haven’t really had people from New Japan show up on my TV [programming] yet,” Khan said. “I’d like to see more of a two-sided relationship there because I’m honestly one of the easiest people to work with in wrestling. We’ve worked with NWA, we’ve worked with AAA and we’ve sent people to New Japan. I think with Harold being gone, I don’t know if it’s going to be easier, but I have a feeling it might be.”
Khan envisions a day when AEW can serve as a kind of hub for other promotions to tell their stories.
“I’d like for AEW to be the centre point of the wrestling world where all these big stories culminate,” Khan said. “So I’m really open to working with anybody if the situation makes sense for us.”
What makes sense for AEW’s broadcast partner, TNT, is more AEW programming. A third AEW show, following Dynamite and the YouTube-exclusive Dark, is set to arrive on TNT in the coming months.
“It’s going to launch in 2021,” Khan said of the new show. “We’ve worked it out with TNT. It’s 100 per cent going to launch in 2021. I don’t have the exact date yet, but I would look out for it soon and it’s right around the corner.”
As the company heads into 2021, another area Khan would like its growth to continue is with pay-per-view numbers. While the buyrates for last weekend’s Full Gear aren’t yet available, Khan is hopeful that they stay true to trend for AEW in 2020.
“In one year, I would love for us to do a pay-per-view that is our biggest number yet,” Khan said. “Every pay-per-view we’ve done, we’ve been really happy with the number. The chart is out there – I’m not 100 per cent sure that they’re all going to be accurate, but they’re pretty close and you see that our numbers are the best pay-per-view numbers anybody in the business has done in the last 20 years outside of WWE. I’d like to hit another record high. In 2020, with all the challenges everybody faced and as tough a year as it’s been for the economy, our pay-per-views have all been up from 2019. Double or Nothing and All Out are bigger than Double or Nothing and All Out from the year before and Revolution was one of our biggest successes. If Full Gear [did] well, I’ll be very happy and then in 2021, if we launch this third hour of television, I’ll be very happy. If the pay-per-views come in higher in 2021 than in 2020, that would be incredible and I’d like to see us hit new highs for Dynamite.”
Khan is confident that sustained success across the board will proceed into 2021.
“I think we’ve got some big matches and some big surprises ahead where it’s going to be really possible to do that,” Khan said.