Tony Khan needs to stop and take a breath, for AEW’s sake

Tony Khan needs to stop and take a breath, for AEW’s sake

To be frank, AEW is the product of impulse. Tony Khan saw the momentum that the original All In had generated, the legions of fans loyal to the Young Bucks, Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes, and a host of other wrestlers in NJPW or on the indies on these shores, and Khan dove headfirst into forming a new, major wrestling company. The whole attitude was, “Why not, let’s do it.”

After All In, AEW was founded with the same ethos. For its entire four-year history, the promotion threw together matches and stories, mostly on free TV, that no one else would do. Khan’s AEW just kept giving fans what they wanted, what they thought wrestling could and should be, and if that meant guys bleeding everywhere or Stadium Stampede matches or one-hour time limit draws on cable, so be it. AEW would live in the impulse zone. And it was great.

The problem is that if you keep running headfirst through walls without really looking where you’re going, you might eventually end up in a blind alley. And it certainly feels that’s where AEW is at the moment.

While Khan has been able to produce three banger PPVs in the span of about five weeks — All In, All Out, and WrestleDream — his weekly product on TBS and TNT has suffered. The matches haven’t been quite to the quality we associate with Dynamite, the stories are all tangled, and everything seems a bit jumbled, as if it was just thrown onto a sheet of paper without any oversight. Which is probably what happened, considering how stretched Khan must be from all the jobs he has given himself.

Take the Kenny Omega-MJF match from Collision on Saturday, one of AEW’s best in recent memory. The premise was that MJF was about to break Omega’s record and become the company’s longest-reigning champion. Fair enough, works for everyone, easy to understand. And having that level of match, arguably the company’s two biggest stars, on TNT instead of a PPV wasn’t all that out of left field. Putting great matches on TV has been the company’s calling card. Three days of build? A little weirder, for sure, but not unheard of from AEW.

What made it something of a gaffe was that it was shoved into the middle of another MJF story, the build to his match with Jay White at Full Gear in two weeks. That build has been going on for two months. Why did it need to be that long? It would have been simple and clean to run a two- or three-week MJF-Omega program based around MJF closing in on Omega’s record, then get to White-MJF afterward for the PPV build. That would have been cleaner and easier, and it’s what AEW used to do.

That’s hardly the only instance of eyebrow-raising booking. The Full Gear card is shaping up with a fair amount of rematches and feuds that haven’t ended simply because they haven’t ended. That was a staple of WWE booking that drove fans to AEW in the first place. Nothing ever stopped or moved on. Hangman Page-Swerve Strickland is getting a rematch, even though their first match at WrestleDream should have launched Strickland to the top tier and into a new program. Jon Moxley and Orange Cassidy will be running it back from All Out as well. Both of these will be great matches to be sure, but feel thrown together simply because of that, and that Khan didn’t really put much thought into anything else. Christian Cage has been dealing with Darby Allin for three months.

Khan’s also gotten into a boy-who-cried-wolf situation with his “huge announcements” that often turn out to be marginally important at best. Is it really “huge” that they’re running Wembley again next year and tickets are on sale in a month? Shoving Ric Flair in front of an audience that doesn’t really want anything to do with him? These aren’t well-considered decisions.

What a lot of fans are starting to feel is that Khan is simply stretched too thin, and he’s stretched too thin because he kept acting on impulse. It’s easy to understand how buying Ring Of Honor sounded like the most exciting thing in the world to a lifelong fan, as Khan was. But was there any plan beyond that? ROH is now a weekly streaming show that few watch, mostly because the most interesting wrestlers on it spend most of their time on AEW television. And when they’re carrying ROH titles on AEW TV shows, fans certainly get a little confused as to what they’re watching. There are just too many titles on every show. Even last night, both sets of trios titles were on Dynamite, and it was bewildering. And those are trios titles, which always take a backseat to others. That purchase of ROH still feels like something Khan did because it felt good.

Starting a second TV show also felt like a damn-the-torpedoes headlong dive. Sure, the roster was big enough, and Collision has a different feel than Dynamite, and the WBD overlords asked for it, but did Khan really have time to book five hours of AEW TV, another hour of ROH, and run Fulham FC, and the Jaguars all at the same time? Centering the show around CM Punk without a Plan B, because everyone knew the chance of a blow-up was certainly high, was another I’ll-never-get-my-comeuppance piece of strategy that has left him a little rudderless.

Bringing in Adam Copeland certainly grabbed some headlines and probably sounded exciting when the possibility first came up. But now what? He’s been around six weeks and wrestled once, and any feud with Christian Cage already feels like it’s been in neutral for a couple weeks. Was there a real plan behind it or just a figure-it-out-later shrug while eating the cake?

We all have bosses, but the expansion of TV programs, and now the expansion of AEW’s PPV slate all feel like an attempt to eat up space for the sake of eating up space. Is the company really ready for all this?

AEW has suffered from low ratings and some rocky ticket sales, and one can’t help but wonder if the novelty factor wearing off has a part to play in that. Thanks to the pandemic, not that anyone wants to go through that again, AEW got an extended amount of mileage out of going to places, and arenas for the first time, or for the first time in a long while. Easier to sell tickets in that environment. But AEW has been everywhere now, and now it’s bringing more programming and events to those places that have seen it before. Yet it’s still trying to fill the same volume.

A lack of atmosphere always permeates through the TV, and last night’s Dynamite certainly suffered for it (as well as some wonky sound production, which shouldn’t happen to a four-year-old company). AEW would benefit from downshifting to smaller, completely filled venues that bounce instead of ones where the TV audience can hear the vacuum, and try to recapture some of that initial excitement.

AEW still is unique and capable of greatness. The Full Gear card, for all its warts, will probably continue the company’s trend of serving up classic PPVs. But if it can’t get the gaps between those back to where they were, the buzz for those PPVs will start to wane, and then it could be real trouble. Khan needs to stop diving in, stop gobbling up whatever’s on offer in front of him, and get back to what got him those opportunities in the first place.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.