By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
What if Tony Khan waited three years before he decided to start AEW?
I know. “What if’s” are trite and fatalistic and irrelevant and an all-around silly exercise – especially in professional wrestling. You can’t change history and history shapes the present so why even bother? It does nobody any good. And as a whole, it’s a practice in which I almost always refuse to dabble because current-day reality is depressing enough – trying to figure out what might have made it better had x, y and z happened is as much an indictment on today as it is a longing for memories that never existed.
But for just this one time, humor me.
If the online databases are to be believed, AEW was initially founded January 1, 2019. The company didn’t debut on television until October 2019 and even by that time, it had produced four shows – Double or Nothing, Fyter Fest, Fight For The Fallen and All Out. By the time 2020 came around, Khan’s business had about three months on TNT in its pocket. We all know what happened from there – three months into the year and six months into AEW’s TV run, the world shut down and the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
One thing it changed fairly dramatically in the wrestling world was Ring of Honor. Having struggled to keep its head above water for some time anyway, the pandemic proved to be the knockout blow and the company announced that after the 2021 installment of Final Battle, it would effectively shut down. Or, well, something like that. The reported plan was to return in April 2022, but in the interim, all Ring of Honor talent would be relieved of their contracts. So, you do the math.
Enter Tony Khan, who went ahead and bought Ring of Honor in March of 2022 and the results have been … mixed? Ridiculed? Celebrated? Disappointing? Appreciated? I don’t know. The right word is somewhere in there. Regardless, AEW has since seen an influx of ROH talent appear on its television shows, muddying the waters, confusing viewers, presumably taking away precious time from actual AEW wrestlers and introducing what feels like 4,000 belts into the mix.
The question of when Ring of Honor will get its own standalone broadcast presence was presented to Khan a million and one times and he kept dangling the string in front of the proverbial cat, promising announcements would come soon and, of course, that he was working on it. That led to the post-show presser at Saturday’s ROH Final Battle pay-per-view, where Khan ostensibly said … “Yeah, we’re just going to head back to the Honor Club platform, have a good day.”
Sure, there are other bells and whistles some apologists might want to tout – apparently New Japan Pro Wrestling will be involved in some way soon (my guess is NJPW’s “Strong” series gets in bed with ROH programming and you’ll be able to find that on the rebooted Honor Club in addition to NJPW World) and the PPVs will be on Honor Club 90 days after they initially air – but the reality is the announcement fell somewhere between a fart in church (as Jim Ross would say) and much ado about nothing (as Bill Shakespeare would say).
And so, now that we’re all caught up, I’ll ask again: What if Tony Khan had waited three years before he decided to start AEW?
The narrative on Tony Khan is that he’s a pro wrestling geek. Before the AEW logo ever saw the light of day, you had influencers within the wrestling business going to bat for the guy on podcasts or social media, telling stories about how true of a fan Khan was because he could recite a Mid-South card from the 1980s without blinking an eye. The guy had a wealth of historical knowledge, was a super-fan even today and, oh yeah, had an endless pocketbook that could help get something like a No. 2 pro wrestling promotion in America off the ground adequately.
Thus, in 2019, the trigger was pulled. It was exciting. There was a press conference hosted by Conrad Thompson and the announcements of signees felt like Christmastime over and over again. Then Jon Moxley showed up. It was the underdog that could, a reason to believe in wrestling again after WWE watered down the landscape for so long, alienating so many fans in the process. The future was bright for AEW and especially when you considered how it was armed with a major television deal to boot, the wrestling world felt invigorated for the first time in a long time.
But let’s pretend the success of 2018’s All In, the independent event that in many ways (according to many reports) pushed Khan over the edge toward green-lighting the company, wasn’t acted upon right away. And let’s pretend there wasn’t a rush or clamor for a brand new promotion to hatch in the wake of the success of that 2018 event. And then, let’s say that instead of targeting 2019 as its birth year, let’s say AEW wanted to get its ducks in a row even more than it did and let’s say Khan targeted the announcement of AEW existence to come Jan. 1, 2020.
Well, assuming the same model would be kept – run four spot shows/PPVs and then aim to begin TV in October – I would have to guess the launch of the company would have been wildly compromised, considering how three months into 2020, the world shut down for the better part of two years. So, perhaps, the pause button would have been utilized. In the interim, Ring of Honor, due to the aforementioned pandemic, would in theory still not survive COVID-19. Tony Khan, instead of having this thing called AEW to cultivate, grow and push, would have his choice.
One, move forward with your own brainchild that would instantly launch you into the pro wrestling mainstream as somewhat of a competitor with WWE (even if that competition is heavily lopsided). Or two, sit back, save the AEW idea for another more stable day, buy Ring of Honor and learn the wrestling world ropes on a smaller scale within due time as the world navigates through a pandemic and the once-in-a-lifetime surroundings wouldn’t have such a drastic impact on your business because you could take your time with a Ring of Honor relaunch.
The second option is why I’m writing this. Think of all the stories of privileged rookies who saw too much too soon in the wrestling world. Erik Watts or David Flair come to mind first. They were catapulted into the bright lights without honing their craft and those bright lights weren’t all that kind to them because above all else, bright lights promise the most vivid exposure. They were thrown into the fire and they got burned – so much so that they are both no longer in the wrestling business. It wasn’t their respective faults as it was the way the wrestling world works – those who work their way from then bottom almost always have a better chance at achieving success and longevity at the top.
You don’t think that can’t apply to promoters, too? If Tony Khan put himself in a low-risk/low-reward situation by learning what it’s like to run a smaller (but prominent) independent promotion before jumping onto TNT and TBS – where his failures will forever be 100,000,000 times more magnified and his successes will be 100,000,000 times more refuted – you don’t think that approach might have done good by an eventual AEW in the long run?
Look at some of the loudest criticisms of AEW currently. There are rarely consistent, long builds to 80 percent of marquee event matches. The Ring of Honor/AEW partnership/crossover is confusing at best, channel-changing at worst. Khan needs to let go of some control and consider handing over the book for at least one of the two companies he owns. There are rumblings of attitude problems and the now-infamous CM Punk observation that AEW is ripe with “children.” There are too many wrestlers and not enough ideas and/or TV time. The list goes on and on.
Do I think starting with ROH before birthing AEW would fix all those issues? Of course not. But I do think it would have given Khan the space and time to more thoughtfully consider some of the criticisms rather than smack back at anyone who dare test him for any of those things. I continue to be convinced that part – albeit a small part – of the problems surrounding AEW is the fact that it’s learning how to walk in front of the wrestling universe. Pressure is there and expectations grow. It’s hard enough to do on a small scale; confronting it on the large platform AEW has seems recklessly impossible.
Now, of course you have to consider the outstanding tangential elements to this hypothetical, too. If Khan waits three years, does he secure The Elite? Does Cody just immediately head back to WWE? Is Chris Jericho available? Is there a television network ready to take a chance on an eventual AEW? Would Ring of Honor have found a national television home with the absence of AEW? Would the glow of All In be so far forgotten that nobody would care at that point? Does CM Punk ever come back to wrestling? Does New Japan emerge as the second biggest wrestling promotion in the world and does it find a way to fill the space that AEW has filled since 2019?
There are a lot of things working against this notion, but as I sat on my couch to watch the ROH Final Battle pre-show on Saturday, I couldn’t help but allow this story to play out within the bowels of my brain. There was no way I was paying $40 to watch that PPV, but would my mind had been different if it was Ring of Honor that gained steam over the last few years, there were no AEW PPVs to think about, and some of the current AEW wrestlers managed to become the leading personalities in ROH?
For now, though, we’ll never know. And, especially with the burp of a distribution announcement that ended up being the return of Honor Club in mind, it feels like Tony Khan has bitten off more than he can chew by running two companies without seemingly having an immediate plan for the most recent one he purchased. As a result, both brands suffer. Will that change sometime in, say, the next three years? Here’s hoping it does. Because the last question anyone in AEW or ROH will want to answer then is one as improbable today as the notion of Khan buying Ring of Honor was all the way back then …
“So, how much do you think Paul Levesque will pay to get all that Honor Club stuff on Peacock?”
It wouldn’t matter. He’s a clueless putz who has no idea what he’s doing. What company he starts with is irrelevant if he’s still the one making the decisions.