AEW, the first promotion to challenge WWE in two decades, is ready to make a run

Tony Khan owns AEW, the No. 2 wrestling promotion in the world.

As WWE heads toward this weekend’s presentation of its biggest show of the year, WrestleMania, its strongest competitor in over 20 years, All Elite Wrestling, or AEW, has major aspirations of its own.

The foundation of AEW in 2019 transformed the professional wrestling business. WWE had not had a real competitor since it purchased WCW in 2001. With monopolistic power, WWE’s product quality steadily declined and its fan base eroded. Its programming was often shaped not by the desires of the fan base but by the personal whims and quirks of its longtime head Vince McMahon. It was not unusual for fans to boo and heckle wrestlers presented as the good guys or the juvenile comedy segments that McMahon loved to present. This was most evident with Roman Reigns, who was presented as the company’s top hero but disliked by a significant portion of the fans.

Many wrestlers were also put off by the nature of the product and longed to work for a company with a more serious presentation, where they would have more freedom to talk and wrestle the way they wanted. Pro wrestling historically has used an extemporaneous presentation while WWE turned to scripts telling wrestlers how to act and speak rather than having flexibility to craft individualized characters. As such, both in front of and behind the camera, WWE was vulnerable to a challenge.


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July 22, 2022

Enter AEW and its founder Tony Khan, a lifelong wrestling fan with a deep understanding of the business and disarming memory for its history. AEW was able to appeal to WWE fans disillusioned by that company’s product along with fans of smaller wrestling promotions such as Ring of Honor (later purchased by Khan and running its annual Supercard of Honor event this Friday at the Galen Center) and international wrestling promotions such as New Japan Pro Wrestling. AEW also benefited greatly from wrestlers’ interest in the project as it was able to sign a host of extremely talented grapplers who had been major WWE stars, such as Jon Moxley, Bryan Danielson and CM Punk.

With a pent-up demand for an alternative to WWE and a supremely talented roster, the first few years of AEW presented one success after another. AEW’s quarterly pay-per-view events equaled or increased their year-over-year buys every time for over two years. Its flagship “Dynamite” show became consistently one of the top-rated cable shows on Wednesday night, with a strong following in the coveted 18-49 demographic. As WWE’s signature “Raw” program continued to decline in the key demo, insiders started to predict that “Dynamite” might eventually surpass “Raw” as the top-rated cable wrestling program.

Critically, the promotion was celebrated for the high standard of its in ring presentation. More than anything else, AEW is defined by the high quality of its matches. The other key strength AEW possesses relative to WWE is the sense that more of its performers are speaking in their authentic voices.

“What’s great about AEW is you hear the wrestlers speaking in their own words and I’m not trying to force the words into their mouths,” Khan said. “I don’t write word for word scripts for anybody and we have the best talkers in pro wrestling.”

If AEW is the rebel alliance in the “Star Wars” universe, an underdog crew fighting against the powerful Galactic Empire in WWE, the 2019-2021 period was “A New Hope,” a happy tale of triumph that ended in a medal ceremony. Unfortunately for AEW, 2022 more closely resembled “The Empire Strikes Back.”

WWE for years had coasted on its past popularity, but in 2022 it presented some of its most compelling story lines in a generation, perhaps spurred on in part by the competition. The centerpiece story revolved around the Bloodline, a week-to-week drama anchored by Roman Reigns. WWE finally turned Reigns into the villain he was meant to be in 2020 and he now plays a character that is a cross between Logan Roy and Vito Corleone, manipulating his real-life cousins and a cast of other characters in an effort to maintain power and retain control of a title he’s held for nearly three years. In the process, Reigns has become pro wrestling’s biggest drawing card and most compelling character in over a decade.


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WWE was also buoyed by creative change. McMahon, after the public disclosure of hush money payments for alleged sexual misconduct involving women who worked for him, turned over creative control to Paul Levesque, the former superstar wrestler known as Triple H. Levesque in quick order demonstrated a greater understanding of fan tastes than the long isolated McMahon, as well as more patience to see story lines through and give them satisfying resolutions.

WWE saw year-over-year ratings increases for the first time in many years, with last Monday’s “Raw” drawing 1.7 million viewers. It set records its Peacock live event specials (aided by a growing subscriber base for the Peacock service), with 2 million of Peacock’s approximately 20 million subscribers tuning in to watch the 2023 Royal Rumble. Its live event ticket sales increased and have done particularly well in the last couple of months. In short, WWE is a much stronger competitor to AEW now than it was two years ago. The Red Sox’s success ultimately depends most on what the Red Sox do as an organization, but it’s certainly a lot easier when the Yankees are in a rut.

AEW had its own internal challengers last year as well. Arguably its most high-profile acquisition was CM Punk, the outspoken star who walked away from wrestling nine years ago to try fighting in the UFC. Khan lured Punk out of retirement and Punk helped to raise ratings, but the relationship went sour last September.

After winning the AEW world title, Punk badmouthed the way the company was run in a post-event news conference and then got into a fight with three of the company’s founding wrestlers and executive vice presidents. Since Punk’s departure, ratings have gone down, although they still remain formidable. Last week’s “Dynamite” was fourth on cable for the night and beat Fox, ABC and CBS head to head for at least one hour.

There are other positive signs, such as AEW nearly selling out the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for its Forbidden Door show with New Japan Pro Wrestling when tickets went on sale officially Friday. On balance, however, it’s an open question how Khan will respond to a major counteroffensive in a war that is likely only getting started.

To answer back, AEW has turned to 27-year-old Long Islander Max Friedman, better known as the treacherous villain Maxwell Jacob Friedman or simply MJF (catch phrase: “I’m better than you and you know it”). Possessing a generational gift of gab that belies underrated athleticism and in ring skill, MJF’s talent as a performer is unmistakable. Khan astutely targeted Friedman as an early signing for AEW and since that time MJF has consistently stood out even among talented veterans with decades more experience.


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Nov. 3, 2022

The recurring challenge for today’s wrestling villains is that fans view wrestling more as a show than they did in the past and thus the best antagonists often find themselves cheered. That started to happen too with MJF last year but Khan ultimately settled on keeping MJF as a villain, a role he clearly relishes.

“I listen to the fans,” Khan says. “When the reactions were so massive, I had to at least think about [making MJF a good guy], but MJF is the world’s best young pro wrestler and one of the best pro wrestling heels of any age I’ve ever seen and I think his ability to antagonize the other wrestlers and the crowd is unparalleled. AEW is at its strongest when MJF is at his worst as a villain.”

Of course, every villain needs a hero in opposition. AEW is presently focusing on a couple of homegrown stars in that role, skateboarder and daredevil Darby Allin and the handsome and athletic son of actor Luke Perry, “Jungle Boy” Jack Perry. Another potential answer returns to action Wednesday on “AEW Dynamite” after a nine-month absence dealing with a severe concussion, the charismatic personality and exciting in ring performer Adam Cole.

Cole’s return will also be a selling point in a new AEW series called “All Access,” debuting after Dynamite. Like “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” “Ultimate Fighter” or the more recent tennis series “Break Point,” “All Access” will attempt to create new wrestling fans by showing the behind the scenes lives of the wrestlers. Cole’s story will be front and center.

“It was not a certainty Adam would ever wrestle again,” Khan notes. “I told Adam, I’ll support you and stand by you even if you never want to wrestle again. You’re a part of this family. But he worked so hard, never left the house other than to go to brain therapy and his story will be told on ‘All Access.’ We’ve really missed him and having him come back will be a great boost to us.”

AEW can use all the boosts it can get, because it’s in the middle of a wrestling war and both sides are gathering reinforcements.