Q&A: AEW’s Tony Khan on ‘Full Gear,’ Wrestler Safety, His Favorite ‘Dynamite’ Moments and More

AEW looks to deliver a strong pay-per-view with “Full Gear” on Saturday after falling flat with September’s “All Out.” We spoke with AEW president Tony Khan about the show, how the company stands has weathered the pandemic and more.
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All Elite Wrestling presents its Full Gear pay-per-view this Saturday.

Two title matches serve as the backbone of the show, with Jon Moxley defending the AEW championship against Eddie Kingston as well as the Young Bucks challenging FTR for the tag titles. The card also includes Kenny Omega–Hangman Page, women’s champion Hikaru Shida against Nyla Rose, Cody Rhodes–Darby Allin for the TNT championship, and Chris Jericho–MJF.

Taking place in front of a limited crowd at Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Full Gear has the added pressure of delivering after September’s All Out show missed the high mark AEW has set for its pay-per-views. AEW president Tony Khan, who is also the senior vice president of football administration and technology for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is optimistic that the promotion will put forth a signature show on Saturday.

Khan spoke with Sports Illustrated, discussing the build to Saturday’s card, a stricter policy on in-match bumps, and the potential of a working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling.

What excites you most about the Full Gear card?

It’s the best card we’ve presented, top to bottom. Every match is really strong, and every match has potential to steal the show.

Shifting away from storyline and the in-ring product, how do you assess your COVID-19 policy and its implementation over the course of the pandemic?

I’m proud of the COVID testing policy we implemented. We shut down the company entirely in the beginning of April and took that next month to develop a robust COVID testing protocol. That has served us very well. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve maintained an amazing percentage of negatives, and I’m really proud of how hard our people have worked and put in the effort to distance and isolate in between shows to make this possible. Robust testing has allowed the Dynamite franchise and pay-per-view franchise to remain strong, and we’re doing it safely.

We have seen COVID-19 outbreaks at some indie shows, which is tough because part of AEW’s charm is that talent still has the potential to work indie shows. Moving forward, will you still allow talent to work indie dates?

I implemented a policy where people were only supposed to work indie shows when certain conditions were met. There have been times when people did not take that seriously, so I have tightened up the restrictions. I’ll still allow it under certain conditions, but people need to look me in the eye and say that the conditions are being met. Our talent and their opponent need to be tested before the show, and there also needs to be a good reason why the match is important.

This is important for everyone’s safety, as well as important for our show. I’ve been flexible in the past because I thought it was good for the talent to have the opportunity to earn, as well as great for the fans and the indies as a whole. We also don’t run every night of the week, so it allows for talent to get extra reps, too. So we have a policy, and I’ll be enforcing it strictly.

You obviously need everyone to follow the guidelines, but it does mean a lot for independent promotions to feature AEW stars.

I am not going to end it, but we are taking a closer look at it. More so now than ever, people need to come to me directly about this. I am going to be strict about what people can and can’t do, but I won’t say you won’t see people make special appearances on independent shows because I think there is a lot of merit to that.

It is easy to forget that AEW is still in its infancy in 2020, which inherently means that the company is still learning. Following the frightening incident at All Out where Matt Hardy was injured off a dangerous bump, will there be a stricter guideline on dangerous in-match spots?

I’ve talked to everybody about what risks are unacceptable to take in a match, and everyone heard me loud and clear. We’ve added to our protocol since that show to make sure that we’re always prepared for anything that can happen in the course of a match. We also added another independent neurologist to the staff.

WWE had its mass cuts in April. How has AEW been able to avoid layoffs amid the pandemic?

I’m really pleased that we haven’t done that. We negotiated a great television contract that will keep us going, and that made it possible for us to hang on in a time when there wasn’t a revenue stream of ticket sales. Now the ticket sales revenue stream is very different. We were the No. 1 touring wrestling company per event, but that’s not a major revenue stream right now. The television revenue is such an important part of the business model.

Frankly, I wasn’t concerned about making the biggest profit in 2020. We could have slashed and made some good money, but it’s been a very challenging year. Every company can approach it the way they want, but as the president and CEO of this company, it was important for me to keep people working and getting paid.

Before we get into Full Gear, there have been so many incredible wrestling moments in AEW. But for better or worse, our news cycle is always moving forward, and that sometimes means special moments slip through the cracks.

The Best Friends–Santana/Ortiz Parking Lot Fight that took place in September is an example of the content that makes AEW such a distinctly unique and compelling product. What about the execution of that match—featuring AEW originals—resonated most with you?

That is one of my favorite things to have ever been involved in. The idea of the Parking Lot Fight was originally born in March. We weren’t able to do that, as everything got tabled and we entered an unknown territory with the pandemic.

Everything worked out so well in that story. I expected something really great, a worthy main event, and Santana, Ortiz and the Best Friends worked really hard to make that story so special in a big position. Getting Sue, Trent’s mom, involved was amazing. Santana had great ideas that made a big difference, too. Right down to Orange Cassidy coming out of the trunk, I’m really proud of the way they delivered on an idea that dated back to March. They all came out of it looking so strong, and it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done in AEW.

Another fun moment of Dynamite was the tribute to Chris Jericho’s career in October that ended with credits that played off Saturday Night Live at the show’s conclusion. Part of that night’s festivities included a video tribute to Jericho from New Japan Pro Wrestling’s legendary Hiroshi Tanahashi.

With a shift in New Japan leadership, is there more of a possibility that we will see a two-sided working relationship between New Japan and AEW? And with the potential of Jon Moxley, who is AEW world champ, dropping his IWGP United States belt, it seems like a perfect time to expand the relationship.

I don’t see why he’d lose it. Mox is a winner, and he is the greatest, most recognizable champion in all of wrestling.

Back to your question, nothing is impossible. I’m open to working with companies. You’ve seen us work with AAA and the NWA, among others, so certainly I don’t think it’s impossible that we could do something there. I’ve had good conversations with them in the past, so you never know.

So much was made of the Jericho–MJF dinner segment on Dynamite. It seemed the vast majority of those that criticized the segment noted that AEW claims to be a sport-based wrestling promotion. For complete context, the rest of the show included a No. 1 contender tournament match, a match featuring Dr. Britt Baker, and a four-way tag team main event. There were those, myself included, who thoroughly enjoyed the segment and look forward to seeing the next step of their story at Full Gear. Why was the dinner segment so meaningful for you?

The dinner segment was excellent. It generated a ton of conversation, and it put a big spotlight on the story of Chris Jericho and MJF, which is now a big match at Full Gear. They followed that up with the Town Hall segment, which included some surprises, like a question from Eric B. from Cody, Wyo. I predicted that would do a great number, and it did. They brought it back into the ring, back into the context of the wrestling show. People want to see those guys wrestle, and now they will at Full Gear.

It was very different from what people are presented on a wrestling show, but you can’t say it didn’t make sense. They’re two of the most egotistical, over-the-top showmen, singing right to the camera. They weren’t being resurrected from the dead, which has happened on other wrestling pay-per-views in other companies. People criticized that it took place during a sports-based show, but it was a show packed with great wrestling, including the Penta El Zero Miedo–Fenix match. That was a great show with a lot of awesome wrestling. And that dinner segment with Max and Chris knocked it out of the park, generating a lot of conversation about Full Gear on Saturday.

One of the biggest stories in wrestling is Eddie Kingston’s rise in AEW. There were no long-term plans for Eddie in AEW at the beginning of the summer, as he wasn’t even working for the company, let alone in a discussion of contenders for Jon Moxley’s title. Is he setting an example of what talent can do in AEW?

Eddie is a great example of that. For me, it was a no-brainer for him to come in. The two names I was really excited about when we did the TNT championship open challenge were Ricky Starks and Eddie Kingston.

Eddie came in, effectively, in a try-out match. He hit a home run, and we wanted him back. FTR and the Young Bucks, who are finally going to have a match this Saturday we’ve been waiting so long to see, they teamed together at Fyter Fest against Butcher and the Blade and the Lucha Brothers. Pac was unavailable for a long period of time because of the border being shut down between the U.S. and the U.K., and I thought it would be great to have Eddie step in and create this new super stable.

I was actually the agent on the Casino Battle Royale [at All Out], and I feel really strongly about the ending with Eddie in the ring with Lance Archer. I know those are two heels, but I knew it would be a hot finish. Our crowd is really into Eddie, and he’s built a real following for himself. He’s stepped up and become an integral part of the show, making his presence felt, and he’s such a strong wrestling mind for us, too.

Before we wrap, I’ll squeeze in one final question. What has impressed you most about your fan base during the difficulties of the pandemic?

It’s easy to take for granted that we’ve had changing circumstances, but our fan base has been so loyal. They make this all possible. Dynamite is the lifeblood of the company, and our fans have supported that and our pay-per-views so strongly. That hasn’t wavered at all during the pandemic. Now that we’re doing live shows in this responsible, outdoor, physically distant environment, with everyone wearing masks and sitting in seated pods, spaced out, it’s unbelievable. I can’t thank our fans enough. They are so loyal, and they are the reason AEW is possible. There are so many great wrestling fans in the world, and we have the greatest ones.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.