Exclusive: Tony Khan Talks AEW All Out, CM Punk's Debut, Rampage and Much More
On Sunday, All Elite Wrestling will stage All Out 2021, its first pay-per-view in the Chicago area since the same event two years ago.
The show will feature the return of CM Punk to the ring for the first time in seven years, with The Second City Savior set to battle Darby Allin in one of the most anticipated matches on the card.
Punk debuted in AEW on the second episode of Rampage from the United Center in Chicago on August 20, but his arrival had been in the works for some time.
The PPV will also feature bouts for every AEW title, a few grudge matches and a women's Battle Royal to find the next No. 1 contender for the AEW Women's World Championship.
We had a chance to speak with AEW President Tony Khan about bringing Punk into the company, the early success of Rampage, All Out and much more.
Why Now Was the Right Time to Bring CM Punk Back
Punk's AEW debut had been rumored for weeks before his arrival, but Khan and the promotion played coy about whether the speculation was true. Thankfully for fans, it was all real.
While his arrival may have felt like a new development, Khan revealed he and Punk had been in talks for a long time before that night in Chicago.
"It involved a lot of conversations with myself and Mr. Punk," he said. "We had built a really good relationship, I think a friendship. We didn't think it made any sense to bring Punk back to wrestling during the pandemic era. I think it helped that AEW navigated the pandemic era as well as possible."
While AEW was holding a residency at Daily's Place in Jacksonville, Florida, the company was able to slowly bring crowds back in small groups. At the time, it was one of the few live events a wrestling fan could experience.
"We safely brought fans back to the shows doing outdoor events with socially distanced fans," Khan said. "We did those shows in Daily's Place for many months and had no known transmissions. People had a great time and it was a really great outlet for wrestling fans to see live events safely. That being said, it wasn't the environment that Punk or myself wanted him to come back to the ring."
Punk's return was a big moment for both Khan and AEW, so he felt the need to turn it into a special event in the city that would welcome The Straight-Edge Superstar back with the most love.
"When we planned to hit the road again, I was talking to [Punk] all the time," Khan said. "We talked about dates and he really wanted to come back at the United Center. The only person I really worked with this on was Rafael Morffi, our director of live events. We called the United Center and got it booked. That's when I called Punk and suggested 'The First Dance.'
"The Last Dance was very powerful and had a wide audience. People embraced it all over the world. I thought The First Dance would be a special way to capture all of this. I thought CM Punk's return to wrestling should be something very special.
"He wanted to come back as a surprise, but I also wanted to have all of the benefits for the fans and the show. It worked out where the fans would be 99 percent sure he was going to come back, but the one percent of doubt in the back of their minds made it that much better. It delivered such an emotional and indelible moment in wrestling history."
Choosing Darby Allin
For Punk's first match back, he needed an opponent who made sense.
While many of The Best in the World's former rivals now call the AEW locker room their home, one man stood out to the promotion's president as the clear best choice.
"I went to Punk and suggested that Darby would be a great opponent," Khan said. "He had really risen to prominence in AEW.
"I remember that Punk tweeted out this list of five AEW wrestlers he wanted to have a match with and it got a lot of buzz. The most prominent person on that list was Darby, and I thought it was such a perfect dream match. Punk loved it and we started putting it together."
Four weeks ago, AEW debuted its newest show, Rampage. The one-hour program joins Dark, Dark: Elevation and Dynamite in the lineup to give the company four weekly programs across YouTube and TNT.
While AEW's YouTube shows have focused a lot on the developmental side of things, Khan wants Rampage to be equal to Dynamite and plans to continue the streak of success he has built up in the first three weeks.
"I am going to keep putting great matches and great moments on Rampage," he said. "We've gotten really great feedback and for Week 3 to be the No. 1 show on cable was even better. Dynamite ranked No. 1 on Wednesday, so it's pretty cool to have both shows rank No. 1 for the week.
"I plan to keep putting big announcements and segments on Rampage. It should be a great go-home episode for All Out this week. It should be exciting, especially considering who is involved in it. I will tell you now that CM Punk will be there."
Changes Coming to AEW Dark
AEW Dark has been airing almost as long as Dynamite and recently celebrated its 100th episode. The show has featured some of the promotion's biggest names mixing it up with young prospects looking to make an impact.
With AEW getting back on the road, Khan has a new plan for the YouTube series.
"I'm not going to tape AEW Dark every week going forward," he said. "We're filming Dynamite, Rampage and Elevation in the arena, so now I think it's a great time to focus on Dark for developmental. I will be putting together some studio show cards. We'll have some fun events to announce soon for fans to attend AEW Dark.
"I’ve got one venue that I have a hold on and then sometimes, we will still film in arenas. There will still be stars making appearances and working with the young talent. During the pandemic, Dark has been so great at helping us identify the young talent who are making huge strides. A number of young wrestlers who have come from Dark have made it to TV such as Will Hobbs, Red Velvet and The Varsity Blonds. I really think that show has helped strengthen our roster and build our young talent for the future."
One star who has made a big impression recently is Daniel Garcia. He went from Dark matches to fighting Jon Moxley in the main event of Rampage.
So, are there more plans to feature Garcia in the future?
"Yeah, I do anticipate Daniel staying with us in AEW," Khan said. "He has been tremendous, and I like him a lot."
Previewing All Out
AEW has a loyal following and has continued to grow in the two years since it launched. With All Out, Khan is hoping new as well as lapsed fans come for CM Punk's return and stay for everything else the company has to offer.
"I think this would be a great entry point to get back into wrestling," he said. "We launched two years ago and have built a great audience in a short time. I think we have a good track record of providing good PPVs and this is by far the best one yet. It has the most exciting lineup with the most star power. We've got the great wrestling that our fans have been accustomed to getting and have devoted their attention to.
"This show is going to bring back fans who haven't watched wrestling in a long time, and I am going to be cognizant of that and try to make sure we deliver something very special that will make them want to keep coming back.
"There are people who are going to be watching this PPV who haven't watched in a long time, and a lot it will be because of the anticipation of CM Punk's return to the ring, and not just for any match, but coming back for such a hot promotion at such a hot time, and against the hottest young wrestler in the business."
The card for All Out will feature every title in AEW being defended by its respective champions. And the company president spoke about some of the top matchups and what makes them important to this show.
"We've got great champions and great challengers," he said. "We have Kenny Omega defending the AEW title against Christian Cage, who has had this amazing comeback and has won over the AEW fans. I think people were excited when he arrived, and he has quelled any doubts about how he would fare with this current crop of wrestlers. He has had so many great matches, and this is his first one-on-one PPV match. He's earned it.
"Britt Baker is one of the hottest wrestlers in the world right now and has built this massive buzz. Kris Statlander has been a top prospect here for almost two years. She had an injury that put her out, but she has been undefeated since she came back. She looks better than ever and is going to be a big test for Baker. It's a great match for us.
"The Young Bucks have been one of the top tag teams in the world for many years and since AEW launched, we have put a real commitment to tag team wrestling. Because of their change in attitude and use of outside interference, I put in this stipulation that the winners of a tournament would fight them in a steel cage with no interference so we get a fair winner.
"Miro has been so great as the TNT champion. He ended the reign of the longest-reigning champion, Allin, and has become a dominant champion in AEW. Eddie Kingston has really built an international following and this is the hottest point in his career, so this would be a great time for him to become the face of TNT."
A Local Suggestion for People Attending the PPV
The Chicago area is mainly known to tourists for two kinds of food, deep-dish pizza and hot dogs.
While there are many great options for both, Khan offered a recommendation for diners who will be staying near the Now Arena during All Out weekend if they are looking for something different.
"There's a big difference between the experiences you get in the city and the suburbs," he said. "Out in the Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates area, there are a lot of great restaurants. In the proximity of where we will be for All Out, there's a lot of stuff by the Streets of Woodfield. There's a great steak house over there called Wildfire. That's probably my favorite place to eat when I'm in that area."
AEW Movie Reviews
When asked what movies he has seen recently, Khan had a few to mention.
"My friend, Jack Whitehall, was in Jungle Cruise. That was good," he said. "I liked that there were moments that were very faithful to the ride and nods to Disney loyalists. Jack had really good comic chemistry with Dwayne Johnson.
"I saw a movie recently called I Care A Lot. It's so dark and the lead character is so warped. The person I recommended it to was MJF because the lead character was so demented and believed what she was doing was right. I thought it would be right up his alley [laughs]. Rosamund Pike gave a great performance and it was a great character.
"The first movie I have seen in a theater in over a year was Wrath of Man. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoy Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie movies in general. Statham's character was super badass, and it spoke to my wrestling mind to have the badass lead babyface character."