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AEW’s Tony “Great Question” Khan promotes wrestling (and more recently, sports entertainment), which means he’s in wrestling promoter mode nearly 100 percent of the time he’s communicating in public. Sometimes, though, the mask starts to slip. And it’s in those moments that you get to see what he really thinks.
Take the press conference after 2022’s All Out, which is famously known for C.M. Punk’s meltdown at The Elite. Near the end, Khan is asked about WWE putting on a PLE the same Labor Day weekend he’d previously staked out. “I’m serious; I’m not going to sit back and take this fucking shit,” a wild-eyed and visibly-angry Khan said. “I will continue bringing fights of my own, and I have unique ways to do that. I have a lot of money to fight with. And this is not a game to me.” Translation: I’m the son of a billionaire, and I’m not going anywhere, WWE.
Consider the late 2021 tweet he fired off in response to the departed Big Swole’s comments saying there wasn’t enough diverse representation at the top of the company and that women wrestlers weren’t given enough TV time.
“I let Swole’s contract expire as I felt her wrestling wasn’t good enough,” said Khan on the evening of New Year’s Eve, a party night for many. The response was panned as tin-eared and petty – and it was.
But it wasn’t until the media scrum following Saturday night’s Full Gear PPV that Khan really showed his contempt for his core audience.
Khan promised a sports-like presentation when he started AEW in 2019, something to differentiate his promotion from WWE and its sports entertainment approach where matches often are formulaic, and the focus is more on schtick than in-ring action. And fans who watched AEW from the start mostly loved it. Lately, Khan has come under heavy criticism for leaning into WWE-style, skit-based, comedy storylines, especially at the top of the card. Here’s what Khan thinks about that criticism:
“I think if people want to see the sports-based presentation in every match, there’s 33 matches in the Continental Classic. So, get ready. Strap in. Get ready, every Wednesday and Saturday,” he said. “The same people who don’t want to see any outside interference (laughter can be heard). I’m not bullshitting. I’m dead serious. If you don’t want to see any outside interference, if you want to see straight wrestling at its very best and a great field, then put your money where your f—ing mouth is. And Wednesdays and Saturdays, I expect to see you strapped in because we are going to put on the best wrestling tournament with some of the best matches.”
Khan is used to receiving lavish praise. Now, he’s on the short end of the criticism stick from core fans, and he lashes out at those whose financial support and eyeballs have gotten his fledgling company this far.
Tony, I’ve put my money where my mouth is. I’ve either purchased (or attended live) every AEW PPV. I’ve bought tickets to many Dynamites, a couple Collisions, and even a Rampage or two. I watch the three weekly TV shows live and for the whole hour or two hours so I can count as a full viewer in the ratings. And Tony essentially has told me, and hundreds of thousands of people like me, to f— off and stop whining.
Khan is starting to crack. The seams are starting to show. He’s desperately seeking a new TV deal to finally make his company profitable at the very moment that particular gravy train is finally starting to dry up. And so creatively, he’s casting around for quick fixes, growing impatient after four years when the industry leader has been around for 40 (modern era).
Something has been off since the March Revolution PPV, which gave us the amazing Hangman Page vs. Jon Moxley Texas Death match and the fantastic MJF vs. Bryan Danielson Iron Man match that went into overtime. The build toward Full Gear wasn’t great. It’s only gotten worse from there.
WWE brain has seeped into the promotion. You’ve got wrestlers standing in front of TV monitors in the back watching their opponents in the ring, a hacky and cliched production technique. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I guess.
Top star MJF gets to book his own greatest hits of ’80s and ’90s wrestling, his homage to a storyline-injured “Stone Cold” Steve Austin driving an ambulance back to the arena being the latest smash MJF is playing. It’s the theater kid unleashed to do full jazz hands all the time.
There’s the whole “Timeless” Toni Storm gimmick. I cautioned others to let it play out. The problem, though, is that it always was a one-note gimmick that would soon get old. That joke isn’t funny anymore.
And there’s the awful MJF and Adam Cole skits from the summer. The gratingly annoying “Aaaadam!” yelling of Roddy Strong, complete with a stuffed giraffe.
All of it is very WWE, and not the good WWE. It’s the bad WWE. That’s not what many wrestling fans hoped for. You can get sports entertainment from the other company if that’s your thing, and they do it much better.
These acts might be over in the arena, but most things are these days as fans got live wrestling and much else taken away from them during the pandemic and they’re just happy to be there and doing crowd participation to put themselves over. AEW sure isn’t selling tickets or drawing viewers at the rate they used to. Wrestlenomics reported Dynamite ratings down 11 percent in Q3, with the key demo down 14 percent. Ticket sales dropped by 14 percent for Dynamites. Collision hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire, and frequently the once-hot promotion has to deeply discount tickets and do media blitzes to get even 4,000 fans in the cavernous arenas they’re now running.
Now you see Khan flailing about, hoping anything gets hot and puts AEW back into the high 0.30s in the key demo or near 1 million viewers live. I’d argue the new creative direction has run off some fans who don’t want sports entertainment, and it’s questionable how many more WWE fans will add AEW to the mix as a result of the change in direction.
The explanations vary. Is it just that Tony has always let the top stars book their own programs and fill in the details, and now you have MJF and his sometimes-bad instincts as the top guy?
Is it that now there are too many WWE-brained people at the table? Among others, former WWE producer Pat Buck was already there, and then Bryan Danielson committed the sin of recommending that Khan hire Jimmy Jacobs, who has become his right-hand man? He’s a former WWE and Impact producer who, one suspects, was behind the goofy spooky crap with the Women’s Division. And late last year, Khan brought in Mike Mansury, who studied sports entertainment TV production under WWE’s Kevin Dunn.
Is it too many cooks in the kitchen? The Full Gear main event, show-long storyline was correctly widely panned as a case of convoluted overbooking.
In addition to the creative issues, there are too many aged WWE castoffs. Paul Heyman’s thinking was that one legend works, and that’s all you need. Maybe you can get away with a few more in the modern era. This many oldsters doesn’t work. The tipping point was the signings of Adam Copeland, who has made zero different so far, and especially Ric Flair, where the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Flair is a creep. He looks like hell, a lifetime of partying catching up to him, the portrait of Dorian Gray that escaped the attic. And AEW at times looks like Hogan/Bischoff-era TNA.
Whatever the issues are, Khan is sanctioning the product that’s on screen, and he’s telling his core fans who wanted what he originally promised to suck it up and be thankful he’s deigning to give them a New Japan Pro Wrestling G1-inspired tournament, even if we don’t know most of the participants just two days before the thing is supposed to start.
I’ll continue to watch despite Khan’s thumb in the eye, but maybe not religiously live anymore. These days, AEW needs to be treated like WWE, watched on DVR so I can skip through the bad stuff. It takes a lot to kill fans’ interest in a wrestling company. I lived through the downfall of WCW more than 20 years ago, and it was painful.
Dynamite is Wednesday in Chicago where I live, and it’s the start of the poor man’s G1 round robin tournament, which is appealing to me. I just don’t want to sit through the horse crap.
I’m not going to the show. I’m putting my money where my f—ing mouth is, just like Khan suggested.
(Eric Krol is a current PWTorch contributor who was a Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter columnist 30 years ago. You can hear him cohost the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Post-shows following episodes of Dynamite and Collision semi-regularly and he contributes special editorials periodically to PWTorch.com)
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