Tony Khan Talks AEW All Out, CM Punk, ROH, More

The launch of AEW in 2019 has changed the course of pro wrestling history, and AEW President Tony Khan sees this as a huge positive for the industry.

“Right now is probably the most exciting time for pro wrestling and TV in 20 years,” Khan said in an exclusive interview. Khan is the mastermind behind AEW, the driving force behind its creative process and one of the main reasons why WWE, after two decades as the unchallenged and unquestioned king of pro wrestling, finally has some legitimate competition.

AEW’s primary shows are Dynamite, which recently moved to TBS, and Rampage, which airs on TNT, and it is AEW’s presence on national television that has helped revitalize and reshape the pro wrestling landscape.

“TV rights fees are a big aspect of what’s driving the modern pro wrestling economy, and now, there are two companies that are benefiting with hundreds of millions of dollars across their TV and pay-per-view, and that is, of course, WWE and now AEW,” said Khan. “And for a long time, there was only one company that would do in excess of eight figures in rights fees annually and was seeing millions of dollars in pay-per-view revenue on an annual basis. But now there are two companies that have those benchmarks, and I think it’s great for pro wrestling.”

AEW, indeed, has been fantastic for pro wrestling, providing fans with an alternative-but-still-mainstream product, one that boasts a star-studded roster featuring top names like CM Punk, Bryan Danielson and Jon Moxley. While AEW has been bitten by the injury bug in recent months, with Punk and Danielson among the headliners who’ve been sidelined, Khan believes the roster is finally getting back to full strength in route to this Sunday’s All Out pay-per-view.

“I believe by the end of this week at All Out, this will be the strongest the AEW roster has been,” Khan explained. “We’ve had some missing people over this summer largely due to injury, and now, a lot of them are coming back.”

Among the most critiqued aspects of AEW programming in recent months has been the lack of exciting happenings on Rampage, which is widely considered to be AEW’s B-show, an issue that has resulted in lower TV viewership but one that Khan says will be solved with AEW’s roster now back at full force.

“Coming out of the [All Out] pay-per-view, I want to make a really strong push for AEW Rampage, and it involved a lot of the top talent coming back. And then, we’ll have the depth to put the top stars regularly back on Rampage again,” said Khan, who also touted Dynamite’s recent strong viewership even as its roster depth took a hit. “This summer, even with a lot of people out, we’re looking at 13 straight weeks of Dynamite in the top two shows on Wednesday on cable and the vast majority have been number one.”

Last week’s episode of Dynamite, headlined by a blockbuster AEW World Title unification match between Jon Moxley and CM Punk, delivered Dynamite’s strongest viewership since February, but many within pro wrestling questioned Khan’s decision to hold such a high-profile match on TV, especially less than two weeks away from a major show like All Out. Khan has a rather simple philosophy, however: Both TV and pay-per-view matter.

“Just like in football, you have to have a great offense and a great defense. They’re independent in some ways, but the actions of one impact the other,” said Khan. “Pay-per-view and TV go together like the offense and defense, and you need them both.”

There was widespread speculation that Khan booked Moxley to upset Punk in such shocking fashion as a response to the reported backstage drama involving Punk, who has been at the center of controversy in recent weeks and had even been blamed for the TV disappearance of his real-life friend-turned-foe Colt Cabana. But Khan wanted to make it clear that Punk has had no effect on Cabana’s roster status or the statuses of any other members of the AEW roster.

Khan said, “There is certainly a perception out there that I don’t think is accurate that when I purchased Ring of Honor and also [as] some of the contracts were coming up and I was starting to make moves—whether it was renewing them in most cases or not renewing them or in some cases reassigning people—there was a misconception that was perpetuated unfairly that CM Punk had anything to do with me wanting to move Colt Cabana to the Ring of Honor roster when his contract came up.”

Punk, according to Khan, did not play a role in this decision, at all.

“I will clarify that, just to take it head on, that he [Punk] had nothing to do with any of the contracts I picked up, whether I did or didn’t. But in particular, I did pick up Colt Cabana’s contract and gave him a similar contract to do different work,” said Khan. “I don’t know if it was fair that that got perpetuated…I also didn’t think that was fair to Punk.”

Punk’s situation has ignited plenty of debate regarding AEW’s backstage morale and overall atmosphere, and some of the company’s own stars, like Ricky Starks, have expressed frustration with behind-the-scenes drama potentially overshadowing TV storylines. Reports of a backstage talent meeting regarding AEW’s workplace environment were even referenced by The Acclaimed’s Max Caster during last week’s Rampage, but Khan shot down the notion that AEW’s performers are going rogue and said that Caster has done a “first class job”of running promo ideas by him just in case Caster’s raps might not sit well with AEW’s network TV partners at Warner Bros. Discovery.

Likewise, Khan put the kibosh on the idea that AEW was told to “tone down” its use of adult language and curse words on its TV programs, noting that it was a company directive. “It was actually us making a point to the wrestlers in an all-talent meeting last week, and I think this got taken out of context a bit,” Khan said. “I was saying to them and a number of people [who spoke at the meeting] were making a point….[to] all the wrestlers and TV talent that it does not serve us well if anybody goes into business for themselves.”

Khan stressed the strength of AEW’s relationship with Warners Bros. Discovery and says the company has been complemented by executives from TBS, TNT and HBO for its cross-promotion—such as the recent “House of the Dragon” episode of Dynamite—across both main roster shows. He did add, however, that he wants to be aware about anything that might be deemed controversial before it takes place on TV.

“While we don’t script promos, if somebody is gonna go out and…do something or say something that might be considered by a network [to be] pretty questionable, I’d like to know so I can ask them [the network executives],” Khan said. “I communicate with them every Wednesday about things we’re gonna do, and if I’m surprised, then I can’t talk to them and then ask them on stuff that I might think is questionable.”

In regards to AEW’s talent meeting, Khan added, “We’re just trying to make a point, ‘Hey we’re in good standing. Don’t jeopardize our standing by going into business for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen,’ because if you’re gonna do something questionable, tell me.”

What isn’t questionable, in Khan’s eyes, is AEW’s recent success on both TV and pay-per-view. “We made a big change this year to the [pay-per-view] model adding Forbidden Door, which was an unprecedented success, the biggest debut of any of our pay-per-views actually,” Khan said. “We hit new highs with even bigger numbers for the third Revolution and the fourth Double or Nothing.”

Khan touted AEW’s “record year” on pay-per-view and said that he expects Sunday’s All Out pay-per-view to set the stage for more success later in 2022 as its roster gets back to full strength, even hinting that All Out will be a show for the ages. “Now we are getting to the point where many or most of them [the injured stars]–hopefully all of them–are coming back, and it’s a really exciting time. I think it’s gonna lead to something really cool at All Out for the fans,” Khan said. “I’ve never been more excited for any event that I’ve participated in and…I think All Out is gonna be the culmination of, for the fans, something really special.”

Exactly what that is? That’s not clear yet, but Khan has plans beyond AEW, too. After purchasing Ring of Honor last year, he is looking forward to growing the ROH brand and potentially expanding AEW’s partnership with other promotions following the success of the join Forbidden Door show with New Japan-Pro Wrestling.

“I’m still having very exciting conversations about the future of Ring of Honor and where it will live, but my goal is to do a weekly Ring of Honor show,” Khan explained, noting that ROH’s recent Death Before Dishonor show “far exceed expectations” and was a big success for the company. “We are for sure 100 percent gonna continue the Ring of Honor franchise.”

Ultimately, says Khan, “The next step is hopefully [to] find a home for Ring of Honor” and “continue the partnership with New Japan for Forbidden Door and maybe expand to other partnerships.” As for AEW’s long-term goals and what the future might hold, only time will truly tell how AEW grows and what may become of the biggest non-WWE promotion since the early 2000s, but Khan is hopeful that AEW is here to stay.

“I think success for AEW in five years is if we are still doing great audiences on a weekly basis for Dynamite and Rampage and hopefully continuing really strong traditions on pay-per-view for Full Gear, Revolution, Double or Nothing, and of course, All Out,” said Khan.

And Khan again hyped All Out as a pay-per-view that could be one for the ages. “I think All Out 2022 this weekend will be one of the best shows we’ve ever done and will set up for a really exciting time in the wrestling business for AEW,” said Khan. “It’s gonna make the whole wrestling business more exciting.”