How AEW Was Born: Inside Tony Khan and the Elite's Attempt to Disrupt Wrestling

Kenny Herzog@https://twitter.com/KennyHerzogFeatured Columnist IMay 17, 2019

Kenny Omega (left), Cody Rhodes (center) and Nick Jackson of the Young Bucks (right) are among the talent—and executive decision-makers—at AEW.
Kenny Omega (left), Cody Rhodes (center) and Nick Jackson of the Young Bucks (right) are among the talent—and executive decision-makers—at AEW.New Japan Pro-Wrestling/Getty Images

It's about 24 hours before the NFL draft, and Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan has just exited a meeting with a Pro Bowler he's eager to sign. "He'd be a great one for us if he comes back healthy," teases Khan, who shares ownership of the team with his father, Shahid Khan.But the last thing Tony wants to talk about on this call is football, or futbol, though he and his dad also own the English soccer club Fulham FC. The 36-year-old scion yearns solely to discuss his passion project, All Elite Wrestling, of which he is president and CEO. Ever since the upstart promotion—which boasts a constellation of former WWE, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling superstars, including Cody Rhodes, the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega in its executive ranks—was publicly launched this New Year's Day, its operations have barreled forward at breakneck speed.     

AEW's first official live event, dubbed Double or Nothing, takes place May 25 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and is being monitored with mutual fascination by wrestling faithful and followers of the Khans' many moves. Talents as wide-ranging as bona fide WWE/WCW legend Chris Jericho and ascendant indie darling MJF (aka Maxwell Jacob Friedman) have legitimized the early roster, while a blockbuster TV deal with TNT was announced this past Wednesday (full disclosure: It was also announced that AEW will live-stream some of its events via B/R Live). And industry observers wonder aloud whether WWE Chairman Vince McMahon—who's had a near-monopoly on the wrestling business since he absorbed Ted Turner's WCW in 2001—is suffering a crisis of confidence. To Khan, the tidal wave of expectations before his fledgling company has even broadcast a televised match is merely proof of the vacuum AEW is positioned to fill.

"I expected a big buzz," Khan says. "It's maybe a bit bigger than I expected, to be honest, but I expected it to be huge, so it's not a surprise. Everything is going pretty much according to our plan."

The key word there is "our." AEW is setting out to function more like a cooperative than the top-down organizational structure that's typified wrestling promotions since the dawn of territorial tussles. Rhodes, Omega and the Young Bucks will all be performing in-ring while simultaneously spinning plates behind the scenes in the role of executive vice president. Rhodes' wife, Brandi, herself a wily veteran of WWE and Ring of Honor, will multitask managing outside partnerships as chief brand officer while headlining bouts in the women's division. And Dana Massie, who's overseen Young Bucks merchandise since 2011, has already made a mark as AEW's chief marketing and merchandising officer. When you speak with the promotion's collective brain trust, it's clear that AEW is figuring out in real time what it means to function with DIY ethos while readying for an endeavor of massive mainstream scale. And to be sure, there is a learning curve.

"Matt and I didn't even want to announce the start of the company until closer to May," confesses Nick Jackson, the younger of the Young Bucks at 29 (real-life brother Matt recently turned 34). "We even thought of the idea of announcing the company at Double or Nothing, and Tony was completely against it. He wanted to announce it as soon as possible. Well, we can't say no to him. As soon as we announced it in January, we were like, 'We gotta start working and start getting shows ready, gotta find buildings, build a ring.' Right away, we felt the pressure of getting everything going."

To further underscore the surreal speed at which AEW materialized, Matt adds that, "Just a couple of months ago, AEW was basically just a conversation between myself, my wife and Tony Khan. I was literally on the phone on my patio bench. We're talking zero employees, and now we're still pretty small compared to other wrestling companies. In the beginning, it was a sprint, but once we announced it, it was a lot of working from home in the office. And it was different for us because we're so conditioned to being on the road every three days. But now that there's some stuff to talk about and announced, I can tell the pace is starting to get quicker, and it's like, 'Man, how are we gonna get all this information out?' That's the best thing about having certain people who are hired to do these things now."


It was all a dream

This might be an opportune moment to unravel how the most moneyed new wrestling promotion in decades, led by a motley crew of creative athletes, lurched into being. In brief: Rhodes, the son of late industry icon Dusty Rhodes and brother of WWE/WCW legend Dustin Rhodes (long known as Goldust, now booked to battle Cody at Double or Nothing), left WWE after 10 years in 2016. He shuffled through various worldwide indies, ultimately signing with Ring of Honor—whose long-standing partnership with New Japan led to regular appearances overseas, as well—and joined its dominant faction, Bullet Club. Omega and the Young Bucks were principal members of Bullet Club, which also featured up-and-comers such as "Hangman" Adam Page (now with AEW) and Marty Scurll (still with ROH). That consortium cliqued on and offscreen, eventually forming a splinter group called The Elite, which took on a life of its own via an eccentric and popular YouTube series titled "Being the Elite." Then, in September 2018, more or less on a dare, the Elite staged what turned out to be the most well-attended American indie show in a quarter-century—All In.

Khan and Omega
Khan and OmegaDimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Before long, the Jacksons and Khan were conducting their back-patio chats, and in short order, the Rhodeses and Omega were brought aboard. By that winter's dawn, AEW had become a reality, at least on paper. It was a dizzying period for all parties and necessitated parting ways with companies like ROH and New Japan that had been home base for most of AEW's founders for so long. It would be convenient to sum it up by saying that changing allegiances came down to seizing the entrepreneurial spirit (though Matt is quick to note that creatively, "We always wanted more"), but the reality was far more pragmatic, if no less bittersweet.

"You know what's sad? New Japan and ROH could have easily come together and offered us the contracts they wanted, but they just didn't do it," Nick laments. "New Japan never saw the value in Matt and I. They never paid us good. We would have had to work with New Japan for another two decades to even get close to retiring, and the style they demand is backbreaking. Ring of Honor paid us a lot better than New Japan. We could have probably retired there, but we would have to work probably another decade with them. We pitched it to both of them: Why don't you guys get us a dual contract? And they just didn't get it done. We would have easily stayed, and there would have never been an All Elite Wrestling if they would have met what we wanted, but it didn't get done."

Ultimately, everyone had their own reasons for anteing up with the Khans and AEW, be it supporting their family, slowing down the wear and tear on their bodies or, as Matt puts it, recognizing that with this new venture, "We could basically make our own movies."

Pardon the disruption

Invariably, WWE will loom over AEW's formative months like a shadow antagonist, even if those at AEW prefer not to invite comparisons or say there is no comparison. Jim Ross, the longtime WWE commentator and talent evaluator who amicably split ways with the McMahons and soon joined AEW as a senior adviser and occasional play-by-play man, is the most matter-of-fact on the issue.

"Who the hell said a believable goal would be to even utter the words, 'We're gonna put WWE out of business or take their market share?'" he deadpans. "That's so ridiculous. It shows how ignorant some people are, because it's not the goal, and it shouldn't be the goal. There's no vendetta. How could it be a rivalry, for God's sake? If you're paying attention to WWE and how much money they're making and how great their stock price is, then you're spending a lot of time on them and no time on us. I am going to spend all my time on AEW."

David LaGreca, host of Busted Open, SiriusXM's popular wrestling-themed talk show, advocates continuing that forward march. "There are going to still be the WWE loyalists, who no matter what are going to criticize anything outside the WWE," he says. "But what AEW has is that 18- to 35-year-old fan. I know it firsthand because my daughter is in high school, and her and all her friends are wearing AEW shirts and Young Bucks shirts. That's hot. When's the last time that pro wrestling has been quote-unquote cool? And the one thing that's cool about pro wrestling right now is AEW."

Ross' remarks underscore that AEW's aspirations aren't merely to reenact the late-20th century Monday Night Wars waged between WCW and WWE, or even to define their potential relative to how they shake up the wrestling world. Khan and the Rhodeses, in particular, view their insurgency as a Silicon Valley-like disruption of industry norms, one that reverberates throughout the culture at large.

Rhodes and Khan
Rhodes and KhanMike Coppola/Getty Images

"This is the disruption era," Cody says unabashedly, citing his friendship with Adi Shankar, the Indian-American idea man behind Bootleg Universe's controversial, unlicensed fan-fic short flicks who has since risen to produce Netflix's Castlevania series. "He's somebody I've learned a lot from, because these old models [in wrestling] of old people talking, young people dying—it's not the way the business is going to be five to 10 years from now. The greatest resource for professional wrestling in generating a show is the wrestlers. If you hire wrestlers and don't let them have freedom of expression, you're doing yourself a disservice. In the golden age of wrestling, these were men and women who knew, 'Here's my time. Here's my finish. That pay-per-view six months from now—I know I gotta get there.' But today, we're allowed to go out there and create. This era of people trying to control every aspect of creation kills creation. There's no micromanagement in AEW."

Ross affirms as much, suggesting that his primary function as senior adviser will be as a mentor, someone who can "be on call to help these younger guys advance in their roles as administrators if they ask for it and if they need it," whether that be recruiting possible roster additions or booking anticipated finishes.

The juicier unknown is whether Khan—the lifelong wrestling fan-turned-bankrolling benefactor—will focus on the bigger picture of his portfolio while his EVPs handle the day to day, or if he plans on getting in the weeds creatively. The latter scenario could complicate AEW's plutonic ideal of horizontal leadership, led in principle and practice by the proverbial "boys in the back." Asked how he'd handle a scenario in which Khan requested a bit of awkward cross-promotion for the Jaguars or Fulham FC, Cody replies sharply that, "The best part is it will never come up, because these are separate entities that Shad and Tony have gotten involved with. In the hypothetical world it would come up, Tony respects my creative judgment. I respect his business acumen. I'm positive we could work something out."

Brandi Rhodes, who'd be a likely candidate to liaise any closed-door conversations about brand integrity, is equally optimistic. She confirms: "We haven't run into anything like that so far...[and] in the case that anything like that were to occur, I'm pretty sure we'd be able to navigate quickly and easily. Tony is amazing in his ability to have his hand in everything all at once and not miss a beat. He's that guy that always gets back to you and you're never left hanging."

Cody and Brandi Rhodes
Cody and Brandi RhodesMike Coppola/Getty Images

That, as it turns out, might be an understatement. Khan audibly recoils at any intimation that he'd operate at a distance from AEW, whether it involved corporate synergy or the nuances of a storyline. "That's not what's happening here," he says assertively. "I'm not taking a hands-off approach. We work together really closely, but I'm day to day managing the business. This is a very collaborative process. I talk to Cody and Kenny Omega and Matt and Nick every day, and we group chat and share ideas. When one of us has an idea, another can take it and run with it. The five of us have a great working relationship, and when you add in Brandi and Dana and Chris Jericho and [Ring of Honor veteran] Christopher Daniels, we're all in constant communication. I'm very active with it."

In talking with Khan, one gets the sense that he's both a purveyor of and a participant in a wrestling fantasy camp that happens to have real stakes. And for the inner circle of pro athletes at its core, the experience is equal parts crash-course business seminar and surreal exercise in self-determination. It's put-up-or-shut-up time, and this bunch might be poised to make good. "Mine and Nick's entire career has been one giant disruption," Matt Jackson muses. "Why can't it work now?"


The rising tide?

The better question for Matt to ask might be: Will it work for everyone? Meaning not only AEW's pioneers, but the wrestling industry in toto. As Ross alluded to, WWE is moored where it stands, barring some spectacular episode of self-sabotage. But what about the galaxy of mid-level and mom-and-pop indies that pitched their tents in VFW halls and rural backyards nationwide since the McMahons' early-aughts consolidation of mainstream competition? However benevolent AEW's intentions, there's no getting around the fact that they've already seduced some of the circuit's biggest draws from comparatively bootstrapping outfits like Major League Wrestling, Combat Zone Wrestling, Warriors of Wrestling and Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide (e.g. Jimmy Havoc, Sammy Guevara, Britt Baker) into, at minimum, dual deals across promotions. Nevermind how they've depleted ROH and New Japan of roughly half its shared upper card, including all four AEW EVPs. And when their regular TV broadcast hits the ground running with big-budget sheen and blockbuster names, it will further fragment wrestling fans' already divided attention (MLW, ROH, New Japan, TNA and Lucha Underground are a handful of the companies with current or archived serial programs available via cable and/or streaming networks). 

The rosier way to look at it is that AEW can be the rising tide lifting an ocean of schooners to at least the lower deck of where it's comfortably setting sail. Court Bauer, co-founder and CEO of MLW and MLW Radio Network (which does function with the benefit of regional-investor backing), says, "I want them to succeed, because it's proof of concept to networks, licensing companies, international touring companies, investors, advertisers and everyone that non-WWE leagues are viable. It proves there's other people that can do this. If they fail, it spooks people off."

Taking that point of view, the worst-case scenario in the short term is that AEW's turbocharged start lights a fire under everyone else's ass. In Bauer's assessment, competition merely "encourages more talent to get in the game. It creates more opportunity for talent. It's not like [AEW are] bogeymen. They're just competing. People love baseball and all these sports, and they watch more than just their own team. If the action's good, they're gonna watch it. That's how I look at it. I want them to succeed. As an entrepreneur, you want to show the world that pro wrestling is this vibrant business center and not just feast-or-famine WWE. And I believe it can be, but you need the right people managing these properties."

12 Jul 2000: Vince McMahon talks during the XFL Press Conference at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, California.Mandatory Credit: Tom Hauck  /Allsport
Tom Hauck/Getty Images

No one doubts that Cody and his co-EVPs, along with Brandi and Dana Massie and the rest of AEW's recognizable staff, are in theory the individuals for the job. If anything, Khan is the real wild card. As we saw 20 years ago when Vince McMahon tried and failed to translate his success in wrestling to the gridiron with the XFL (though he is in the midst of rebooting it), such pursuits can fall squarely into the category of vanity misfire. But Ross, who worked side by side with McMahon for more than 20 years and doesn't mete out platitudes lightly, sees it as apples and oranges.

"Tony's background as being an analytics guy, a research guy, is pretty amazing," Ross effuses. "He has a great foundation with today's metrics. He's a ubiquitous entrepreneur with a tremendously high IQ, but more important for wrestling fans is the fact that he's an old-school fan who can talk history with you. Wrestling infiltrated his psyche when he was a kid, and it never left."

And it's true that, throughout a 25-minute phone interview, Khan repeatedly reiterates his love for the game, if you will. It's hard to imagine, frankly, that the Young Bucks and Rhodeses and Omega would have been—pardon the expression—all-in with the billionaire's plan if he didn't pass the smell test as a student of their chosen profession. While breaking down his and his cohort's respective utility as they gear up for Double or Nothing, Cody pinpoints AEW's essential employee mandate: be at least a somewhat convincing mark.

"We only hire people who like wrestling, and we only will hire people who like wrestling," he promises. "If you don't know who Lou Thesz is, you can get out. It's that simple. My dad ran an independent promotion, and I thought it was the coolest place ever. And the first question he would ask people is he would just pick a random world champion and ask do you know who Harley Race is, who Gorgeous George is and Buddy Rogers."

That approach, augmented by—as Cody himself concedes—the infrastructural might accessible to them via Khan's Jaguars enterprise, is AEW distilled.

Taking care of their own

Cody makes one other pledge on behalf of AEW, and that is to preserve the health and wellness of in-ring talent at all costs. Cody, like so much of America, watched as HBO satirist John Oliver exposed WWE's persistent negligence toward its performers and pulled the curtain back on wrestling's fundamental allergy to guaranteed contracts and all of the perks and privileges they encompass (quality insurance coverage, time off and so on). Even prior to that broadcast, he'd already been struggling to articulate his—and therefore, as far as the public was concerned, AEW's—stance on unions within the sport. Despite frequent efforts to clarify his position, the prevailing interpretation has been that AEW is fundamentally wary of organized labor but has an in-the-works model for how to properly treat their "greatest resource" in-house. One that could, to Bauer's point about setting new benchmarks across the board, compel all promotions to follow suit.

"When I said a union would kill wrestling, I was specifically talking about your mom-and-pop indies that can't afford an ambulance to come to the building," Cody elucidates. "There's a lot of people who saw the story John Oliver did and immediately called for a union or better care for their wrestlers. Better care is paramount, and one of the first ways you do that is raise the pay floor, which we've done."

While hedging on the semantics, he says he and Matt Jackson have discussed a desire to "continue to push to a place where there is some sort of governing body that helps protect the current generation but also older veterans that will soon be retiring." And on the matter of job security, he hesitates momentarily before disclosing: "At AEW, our contracts aren't blanket contracts. There are several wrestlers outside the EVP element that are going to receive benefits and health care. That's a first for wrestling, and these are slow and steady steps and I'm super proud. But it can't happen overnight. That's what I should have said all along."

Drilling down, Cody confirms AEW will "100 percent" cover any injuries sustained in the ring, as well as the rehab and recovery. "We're not gonna have a PayPal fund going around for somebody who gets hurt," he adds. "You know me. You've seen my smile. I am above board."

That much he and Khan are in total lockstep about. Out of necessity, a considerable slice of Khan's focus at present is on making entry into the pay-per-view market and ascertaining the wisest way to insinuate AEW s into peoples' weekly DVR schedules ("I'm not gonna go on Monday night or Friday night, and I would never go head-to-head with the NFL or pay for time on television," Khan allows). But without prodding, he outlines how his "big goal is to establish a better work-life balance and quality of life for our performers with less time on the road [and] very good money comparable to what you'd get at the highest level in the world of wrestling, because we can make the bulk of our revenue from pay-per-view and television. I'm not planning on doing hundreds of non-televised events on tour, because I don't think that would represent a large enough revenue stream for us and profitable enough business sector for us to risk the health and well-being of all these wrestlers. I'm not gonna have an offseason, but there will be a lighter schedule and we'll work people in and out."

In other words, AEW fans will be entering into a social contract of sorts: fewer house shows at your local county center and less likelihood that all of your favorite fighters will be on every card, in exchange for the comfort of knowing your ticket purchase isn't hastening their untimely death.

Fun and WarGames

All of this preemptive analysis—prompted as it has been by the company's own rollout—has clouded the fact that a single bell has yet to ring at an AEW event, though that date is fast approaching. By the morning of May 26, All Elite Wrestling will no longer be think-piece fodder but a living, breathing organism in the infinite ecosystem that is professional wrestling. And it will sink or swim on its merits.

"At this point, there's nothing to even judge," Matt Jackson acknowledges. "We need to have that first show to show people what we are and what this project is. I don't know if we know 100 percent yet. We won't until the end of Double or Nothing that night, and we'll go, 'OK, that's how that went and that's what that felt like.' For me, as a writer, I am trying to tune out of what everyone else is doing. I don't want to subconsciously book a similar show to anyone else. I genuinely haven't watched WWE television in years. I don't want it to sound and look the way their show feels. This needs to be different for it to succeed."

Matt Jackson, Britt Baker, Kenny Omega, Nick Jackson and "Hangman" Adam Page
Matt Jackson, Britt Baker, Kenny Omega, Nick Jackson and "Hangman" Adam PageMike Coppola/Getty Images

The irony is they needn't look any farther than wrestling's past. The culture changes and trends come and go, but wrestling, befitting its soap-operatic strains but unique to its combative nature, charts an emotional arc that's resistant to the spoils of time. At least when it's done right.

For Cody, that boils down to two words: "physical storytelling." He audibly perks up recalling WCW's WrestleWar 1992: War Games, a PPV concept dreamed up by his father that, in this particular year, also featured his brother Dustin on the card. But the primary drama surrounded top babyface Sting and his unpredictable teammate, Nikita Koloff. "If you watch it, it is literally magical," he beams. "It is something as simple as a double high-five after [Koloff] rescuing Sting that told everybody in the audience, 'Phew, it's OK.' It's some of the most beautiful stuff ever, and it's one thing wrestling can do that movies, comics don't do the same. We're telling you this bell-to-bell story. It's live. It can change. There's a real difference between a written show and a booked wrestling event, and I think we're going to lean toward a booked wrestling event—sports-centric, physical cues telling the story. That's what wrestling is."

Or, at least, that's what he and the Khans are betting on.