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By Mike Johnson on 2021-10-05 22:10:00

Mike Johnson:  It is Tuesday, October 5th, 2021, which means we are 24 hours away from All Elite Wrestling returning to the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for their AEW Dynamite anniversary show.   We're here with Tony Khan. Sir, two year anniversary tomorrow for Dynamite, two year relationship with Warner Media that you cultivated and that you've helped grow into numerous franchises for that conglomerate. As you look back on the last two years and you look at a big card that's going to take place tomorrow in Philadelphia, are you surprised at how quickly and how far this has grown or did you believe at the beginning of all this, this is where you would be two years into this project?

Tony Khan:  I believed we would go a long way in two years. I'm not sure I believed in two years, we would've reached as far as we have. These were long term goals and two years is a long time. But for long term goals, I would say we're ahead of schedule and I'm really excited about the anniversary show to be going back to Philadelphia to celebrate the two year anniversary of Dynamite. It's one of the most special wrestling towns and to be able to celebrate the anniversary of Dynamite there is very special to me with a lot of the hardcore fans I grew up with.

Mike Johnson: When you think about Philadelphia and all the history there, how important has the Liacouras Center become to AEW in general? How important has The Liacouras Center become to AEW in your mind?

Tony Khan: It's been very important. It's great to go back there. We had the third episode ever of Dynamite there two years ago, and it was a very, very special card. There was a great tag match that I felt really strong about that I loved. John Moxley and PAC versus Kenny and Hangman, the first ever Kenny and Hangman tag match and it did a big number. We also had a great main event, Chris Jericho versus Darby Allin in a Philly street fight for the world title. And it was one of the several matches that really put Darby on the map as a big star and I've always really loved that show.  It was really special to go to Philly for me. And I've been wanting to come back and do this show there for a long time. This show's been rescheduled and postponed because of the pandemic, and I do think for the fans now, it's going to work out because they're going to get one of the best cards we've ever put together with the Casino Ladder Match, which has got a stacked group of wrestlers in it, with the 8-Man Tag, eight of our top stars in this big four on four match that's been building up since the end of All Out, Shida going for her 50th win, what a great opponent it would be to get it against if she was able to get a win against Serena Deeb. That's going to be a great match. And Sammy Guevara defending the TNT title for the first time ever in a true open challenge against Bobby Fish, who's one of the top wrestlers, even a top independent wrestler, a top wrestler for New Japan, a top wrestler for NXT, a top wrestler in all these companies, never been to AEW until this week, Wednesday Night Dynamite on the two year anniversary show. So, there's a lot of great wrestling and I'm going to have some fun announcements, and it's going to be a really special show. And I can tell you right now, I have one huge announcement on the show. It is going to be a lot of fun, and it should be just a really, really good night of wrestling for Wednesday Night Dynamite, two year anniversary show.

Mike Johnson: I know you well enough to know you're not going to hint that the announcement, but I will ask you, if you can reveal any details regarding the Joker for the Casino Ladder Match because traditionally, when the Joker shows up, it's someone people aren't expecting, whether it's Brian Cage or Ruby Soho. Any insight into who the Joker may be tomorrow evening?

Tony Khan: I will not give you any insight into who the Joker is going to be. I will not tell you that, but I will go back to the announcement, actually, instead and tell you that it's been something a long time coming. I'm very excited about it and proud of it, and it'll really add a lot to the company, I think.

Mike Johnson: I wanted to ask you about your excitement, as someone who grew up as a die hard wrestling fan, about being able to bring Owen Hart back into the pro wrestling community through the nostalgia and action figures, the AEW video game, the Owen Tournament. Like as a wrestling fan, put all the business stuff aside, but as a wrestling fan, what did it mean to you to be able to be the conduit to help Martha Hart and the Owen Heart Foundation be able to bring this, bridge them back to wrestling?

Tony Khan: I'm so happy. I'm so happy because wrestling was a huge part of Owen Hart's life.   Martha Hart is a very intelligent, very principled woman. She's not the biggest wrestling fan, but she knows that for Owen Hart, it was a huge part of his life, and she has a very nuanced, articulate thoughts on it. She's very well aware of Owen's career path and the different places he wrestled and, believe me, he wrestled for more than one company in his career, and she has a lot of knowledge of it, including his matches with New Japan, his brief stint with WCW. He worked with Joel Goodhart and of course, his wrestling in Stampede and also in Europe for Otto Wanz in the Catch Wrestling Association. So, Owen Hart, incredibly well traveled wrestler, one place we never had the good fortune to host Owen Hart was AEW.  He's a favorite of so many of ours, and it meant a lot to be able to connect with Martha and offer this olive branch and say that we would love to have you and Owen be a part of AEW. We would love to work with the Owen Hart Foundation and reestablish the legacy of Owen Hart in professional wrestling where we haven't seen him in terms of being in video games and action figures and on TV, on wrestling each week and celebrating his great career. It's just we don't hear that name enough, Owen Hart.   [Martha] was very principled and she wanted to make sure this was something that would benefit the Owen Hart Foundation, which it will, that it was something that will be respectful of Owen's name and legacy and of Martha, herself. And absolutely, that's what we're here to do. And so I'm very, very excited about it.

Mike Johnson: Well, all eyes are on Philadelphia tomorrow, but I want to ask you to go back a couple of weeks and reflect on Grand Slam in New York City. To me, I felt like it was almost like ECW's Barely Legal for AEW, where the company leveled up  and went to another plane of existence compared to where it had been prior. What are your thoughts on how the show went? Did everything go according to plan? And how soon do you, obviously you're coming to Long Island in December, but how soon would you like to be back at Arthur Ashe Stadium?

Tony Khan:  That's a lot of questions. I'll take them in reverse order.  Arthur Ashe Stadium. I would love to return for AEW Grand Slam next year, and I think we're working towards doing that and I think it's a great annual event for us. I know that we'll be back in Long Island in December, and I have plans to return to the market several times between now and the next Grand Slam event.  Even though we may not always run the same venues or in the same exact parts of the New York area, New York-New Jersey area, I should say we, it means a lot to be up there. There's great fans, and we had great turnout when we ran Newark. We had great turnout at Arthur Ashe and I expect a great turnout in Long Island when we we're one of the first events at the new UBS Arena.  [Grand Slam] was absolutely a level up event for us. It's very gratifying to hear you, Mike, compare it to Barely Legal because I know how much that event meant to you, means to you and meant to so many of us hardcore fans when I was a kid.  It was a really special night for us. Really three great TV shows with AEW Dynamite ranking number one for the week of cable, and we had two parts of Rampage and the shows ranked number one and number four on cable. So getting two shows in the top four was pretty great, and that's why I had asked to split it into two episodes, two shows, because I felt like that would be possible. And we've had a lot of great cards, a lot of great episodes of Dynamite and some great Rampages since we started that show just three months back, but this was, to me, the most special night for either show. It was one of the biggest things we've ever put together, and it was really a pay-per-view kind of feel for an event. And sometimes I do try to put huge cards into Dynamite or a lot into a Rampage, but again, that's packing a lot into a two hour show or packing a lot into a one hour show. Rarely have we gone someplace and put together four hours of great wrestling like that, unless it was one of our biggest pay-per-view shows. And that's what I wanted to do for our debut in New York City, to give the best possible card, something that would be the equivalent of one of our best pay-per-views and do it on TV and make new fans and show people what AEW all about and I think this was a great card to show people what AEW's all about.

Mike Johnson: You mentioned opening up the eyes of newer fans and attracting them, and obviously, CM Punk was a big catalyst for that. I think Bryan Danielson and, even Adam Cole coming in, help that mission statement, as well. What's it been like collaborating with Punk and Danielson and Cole? Obviously, this has been a collaborative effort since AEW was first formed, but you've got a lot of new veterans who have had great success elsewhere, and especially in Punk, someone who's had seven years off and has to be completely refreshed mentally when it comes to pro wrestling. What's it been like having these new names to collaborate with?

Tony Khan: It's been excellent. All three of those people I really enjoy working with. They're all great names in wrestling, and they've all had different paths that led them here, and each of them is somebody I talk to a lot. I spend hours on the phone with each of those guys, and they all bring something really special to AEW. CM Punk coming for the First Dance and debuting it all out helped drive us through our record business and has really changed AEW in many ways, and he's added so much. And then, that all out pay-per-view with a great audience that we were able to build. We debuted these two huge stars that both arrived on the same night on opposite sides of the fence with Adam Cole and Brian Danielson and really tried to set up a situation that will come to a head tomorrow night.  If you're listening to it on Wednesday, I guess tonight, will come to head this week on Dynamite with the 8-Man Tag. We saw at the end of All Out, you had Bryan Danielson standing tall with Christian Cage and Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus and you had the reunited Elite with Kenny Omega, the Young Buck and now, Adam Cole. And I really wanted to set up a big 8-Man Tag and foreshadow it, and that's what we did.   So, we've been foreshadowing, trying to set up this huge match for Dynamite this week, this 8-Man Tag, the culmination of a story and a moment at All Out that really captured a lot of fans' hearts and made All Out such a great success for us. So each of them has come in and been so important to the company already in just a very short time. I think all of them are really important to our future. And just right now, in the present, they're all huge, huge stars in the mix for us. And I'm very grateful to each of the three for taking the chance and coming to AEW, and I think all three of them are happy they did it. It's really been a great ride so far.

Mike Johnson: With AEW, there's been a number of established stars who have come in even from day one with the Elite and Chris Jericho. You've also worked very hard to cultivate talents who haven't had any real national exposure prior to AEW existing. MJF, obviously, Jungle Boy to an extent, Orange Cassidy. Is there anyone that you are surprised at in terms of they took off and became a far hotter commodity for AEW than even you could have planned for? Like was there one that you were shocked at the reaction or at the momentum or maybe some of the data merchandise or ratings or whatever, and that changed the course of how they were used and you went, "oh, we got to get behind them quicker than I expected?" Was there anyone who was a surprising asset behind the scenes in terms of they got hotter and they became a more important part of the company than even you could have conceived when AEW was born?

Tony Khan: Well, absolutely. If you want to go back to the very beginning of AEW, a really good example of that is Orange Cassidy. I had seen him on the Independence and go back and watched an Orange Cassidy match from before AEW. They're very different and, he clearly had a lot of fans, but he was doing a lot of things that I didn't consider wrestling and that I wouldn't do on AEW TV. It wouldn't have happened on Dynamite. And he had a great reaction and Matt Jackson mentioned to me, he's really, really good. And he would be excellent maybe as a manager for the Best Friends and occasional trios partner, and I thought that was interesting. But I told Matt, some of the stuff I've seen him doing, I would never do on our show and we haven't ever done that stuff on a show, but he's clearly really talented and he's got a lot of fans, I'll talk to him.  I did. I sat down with him and ended up forming a connection that I think has served us both very well and talked to him about the character and some of the stuff that I thought was great about it and some of the stuff that I didn't understand, and he really opened my eyes and helped me understand it. You know, the kicks, a lot of people talk about those kicks. And over two years ago, before the first Dynamite, he talked me through it and said, those aren't something anybody's ever supposed to sell. Those are a talk, like it's like getting in the head of the opponent, essentially. Not in so many words, he doesn't talk in so many words, but effectively, that's not what it is. And in fact, he told me only one person of who I'll let remain nameless.   He told me that only one person had ever sold the kicks. And he told me who it was and it made me laugh, on an independent show. And then that's not what they're for. And then that made sense to me. Okay. That's like a taunt, right. That makes sense. 

The more I talk to him about the spots and different things that we could do, the more I realized there's really something to this guy, and to be honest, since this is an insider interview, I think now it's been a couple years, a lot of people have figured out, he used to wrestle as Fire Ant and he told me that, and I was much more familiar with Fire Ant than I was with Orange Cassidy. Fire Ant's a great wrestler. And so I knew what he could do. And then we sat there and I, from when I first saw him, I didn't know what he was going to be, but by the end of this first conversation, I thought he could be something so special. And I'm just, I was really grateful that Young Buck told me to talk to him and they thought he had something and they were right. And then I started working with him really closely and now, Orange and I, it's no secret to people that have seen all the videos and stuff I've done with him. I am very close to him and I work him really closely and he is a huge part of AEW. And when I first saw Orange Cassidy, I wouldn't have expected that, but then when I first sat down and talked to him and learned what he's all about and who the person is and how intelligent he really is. And that he promised me some of the stuff I'd seen him do on the independence that I just didn't want to see on our show, he's never done any of it and I really think a lot of him and from when I first saw him on tape to now in the two anniversary, and he's one of the top stars in AEW, a top contender to the World Title and in this huge Casino Ladder Match with a great opportunity to get another chance to become World Champion. I think he's a great example of someone who's come really far in AE, and somebody who the first time I'd ever seen them. I, I hugely underestimated.

Mike Johnson: I know we're starting to run out of time here, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you about the fact that the story is popping up again. A couple of years ago, I know that there were some changes behind the scenes leading into 2020, but there seems to be a narrative floating around once again that the EVPs have lost power and that Cody and the Bucks and Kenny, et cetera are not in the mix when it comes to behind the scenes stuff. As the owner and as the Booker of the company, can you clarify on record, have there been any changes of late and where does everybody stand in terms of their responsibilities for the company?

Tony Khan: Yeah, I saw those reports this week and I thought that was pretty disingenuous stuff from some of the internet wrestling writers because nothing has changed in recent months and really, the structure changed for me at the end of 2019 and it was because of me.  I felt like I needed to take over and be more accountable as the CEO and as the Booker. I was the final say, but there were probably too many different people with input on segments and this show wasn't as organized at the end of 2019 as I thought it could be.

So for the past two years, we've been a lot more organized and I've written every show by hand, which allows me to know which segments are where and I think the shows have gotten significantly better. The fans have enjoyed them more. They've performed better in terms of the ratings and it's been a good change for us, but I saw somebody reporting that recently in the news and it's not because, we talked about this, like over a year and a half ago we talked about this, and I went on the record. I talked to you about it and Dave Meltzer, this week in The Observer, even wrote a pretty good account of it that nothing has really changed.

This is all stuff that came into effect at the beginning of 2020. I had said my New Year's resolution, myself, [was that] I was going to get very organized or I told myself if there's something I didn't feel good about, I wasn't going to do it and that I was going to create much more of the work product myself, that I was going to lay out the matches, the stories and format everything into a nice package, myself, and I've been doing it for over a year and a half with the collaboration and help of a lot of great people, including the people I started with.

I think the biggest difference has been instead of five people getting in a room and putting a format together, I get in a room and put a format together. I also get very amused when people refer to QT [Marshall], like the guy on the creative team. He's effectively my assistant and he's great. He works his ass off. He'll show up in my room whenever I need him, and I sometimes will call him up at one in the morning to come up and I want to reorganize the show or make card changes, or I'm putting stuff together for Elevation or Dark or whatever I need. He's usually there for me, but I'm very hands on with this stuff and it's been that way for a long time. So I thought it was really disingenuous.

Somebody talked about it this week, like it was news and then people acted like there'd been some change, but there's been no change.  I've been in that position for a long time. And I think we've had our shows, in my opinion, have gotten stronger, recently. And there are a number of things you can attribute that to. One of the things I think you can attribute it to is the great star power that come in, and we're getting a lot of great wrestlers who bring tons of great attributes, including their experience, their great ideas, and trying to integrate those things.  Then me, myself personally, I think I gotten better and more organized over the last couple years at doing this job and have learned a lot in the past two years.

So as we go into the two year anniversary of Dynamite, the way the show is put together is different than when we started, but it's a better show. It's performed better.  If you look at where we are going into the two year anniversary compared to a year ago, we're up huge year over year, and we've added another show in Rampage. We've set new milestones for live attendance.  Multiple times we've broken our own records at the gate in recent months. We've set new highs in pay-per-views multiple times. Each of our pay-per-views, all of the four quarterly pay-per-view specials have been up year over year, over the prior edition. And our TV ratings, as far as maintaining consistent high audience, it's the best it's ever been. We had never been the number one show on cable until April of 2021. We did this show for a year and a half before we ever hit number one. And now we've hit number one so many times, and it's been six straight weeks that AEW Dynamite's been the number one show on cable and the two your anniversary show, we're going for seven straight weeks. And it's all a credit to the wrestling fans. I am a wrestling fan, and I know this wouldn't be possible without our fellow wrestling fans.   I knew that there were so many of us out there starving for something like AEW and it's grown faster than I would've ever imagined, but I always believed that we could get to this point. I just didn't know it would happen all inside of two years, that we would've accomplished this much and then so many great legendary stars in the world of wrestling would've come in the past year, in particular. So we're really in a great place. And I think we have a lot to celebrate, but I thought it was a very strange story that popped up in the past week. And again, kind of disingenuous because sure, there were some changes and yes, I did take more control and become a more organized Booker, but I think those things started happening around the end of 2019 going into the January 1st, 2020 show, not so much recently,

Although, I would like to think I've been trying to do a better job and get better at this and with the launch of Rampage, it gives more TV time to different wrestlers and it's allowed me to experiment with different formats. So, I think it has helped and the shows have gotten better for a variety of reasons and I think the shows did get a lot better in 2020, also as a result. So I think we're growing and evolving, but as far as a report that I just took over and took all the creative control a few weeks ago, that's crazy.  I did that a long time ago.

Mike Johnson: Tomorrow is the second year anniversary of Dynamite, but the story of Dynamite dates back many years prior to even there being an All Elite Wrestling. It was the show that you fantasy booked as a teenager. When you think about how far you've come from that period of time in your life to where you are now, with this big celebratory moment in Philadelphia at the Liacouras Center, I ask you this, what's the best part of this job? Obviously you've loved pro wrestling, pretty much your entire life, but being in the catbird seat of being able to create and present and cultivate, not just a wrestling TV show, but a moment in time that kind of changes the entire pro wrestling culture. For you, what's the best part of this job? What's the most enjoyable part of this experience for Tony Khan, the person, throwing out everything else and all the responsibilities, the person who loved pro wrestling his entire life, what's the best part of this job?

Tony Khan: As a wrestling fan and as someone who loves wrestling, for me personally, the best part is putting together great cards and great stories that I know so many of my fellow wrestling fans will love and appreciate and thinking like a wrestling fan, I always really am very gratified when people enjoy the shows and we've had some shows that were incredibly well received, and it always means a lot to me when people have that kind of great feedback about say AEW All Out or AEW Grand Slam. It means a lot. And that's why I stay up all night and do the work and think about these things constantly because I just want the fans to be happy. And it means so much to me that there are wrestling fans that wake up on Wednesday that go to work that go to school and they have something to look forward to because I know it's like to be very passionate about a wrestling show that's really firing on all cylinders and get up and look forward to it and to care about who the champions are and to have a title change or a turn or a free agent signing, where you go to bed more excited about it. You wake up more excited about it. You're thinking about it during the day. Like that's really cool. I think we had reached a point in wrestling where before AEW launched, the fans were clearly starving for this. The success of AEW proved that there was an appetite for it, which I told the TV networks, which I told my dad about when I was looking for funding that this existed.  There were a lot of skeptical people and we've proven ourselves to them and at anytime I can lay out cards, stories, matches that make the wrestling fans happy, that is the best part for me because I love the wrestling fans and I am one of the wrestling fans.

Mike Johnson: Well wrestling fans can tune in tomorrow night at 8:00 PM Eastern on TNT for the AEW Dynamite Second Anniversary show. Tony, I want to thank you so much for sitting down with us. I look forward to doing it again, and we wish you nothing but the best, not just with TNT tomorrow with Dynamite, but with Rampage and everything going forward with AEW. Obviously, the promotion is on a roll and it's the best thing possible for pro wrestling fans and the pro wrestling industry for that to continue. So, we wish you nothing but the best, and we thank you so much for being so giving with your time today.

Tony Khan: Thanks, Mike.

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