All Elite Wrestling is pulling out all the stops for its first event in New York City. AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam will take place at a jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens on Wednesday, marking the ascendant wrestling promotion’s first trip to the five boroughs. It will also be the first time that the signature U.S. Open venue has hosted a wrestling show.
Grand Slam is expected to draw AEW’s largest crowd ever, perhaps more than 20,000 people. (The venue has more than 23,000 seats, but some will be blocked off to accommodate the stage and production equipment.) AEW is riding high off the recent debuts of four former WWE stars: Bryan Danielson (formerly Daniel Bryan), C.M. Punk, Adam Cole and Ruby Soho (formerly Ruby Riott). All four will be in action at Arthur Ashe, with their matches airing either live on Dynamite on Wednesday or Friday on tape delay on Rampage.
Q.T. Marshall is a wrestler for AEW, as well as an associate producer, with backstage duties that include overseeing Dark and Dark: Elevation, AEW’s two weekly YouTube series. He also runs a wrestling school, The Nightmare Factory, in Norcross, Ga., along with AEW wrestler and executive vice president Cody Rhodes. Marshall (36-year-old Michael Cuellari) spoke with Sports Illustrated about Wednesday’s show, his work behind the scenes with AEW and the company’s rise.
SI: You’re from the New York area (Freehold, N.J.). Does that make this show something of a homecoming for you?
QM: Sort of. I think [last week’s show in Newark, N.J.] is more of a homecoming for me. Growing up in Freehold, I was a Garden guy and a Yankees fan, so going to Queens was kind of rough for me because that means I had to go to a Mets game. And unless they were playing the Yankees, there was no reason for me to go there. But I am excited just to be in the Northeast in general. Right when the pandemic hit, our next week waas either Newark or Rochester. I don’t remember exactly how it was supposed to go, I just know that I was slated to debut with Dustin [Rhodes] as the Natural Nightmares. I was super pumped because, you know, friends and family and all that stuff. But I get to do it again.
SI: Is there something about doing a wrestling show in a tennis stadium that stands out to you as particularly exciting?
QM: Arthur Ashe, the people there are taking a huge chance on us, and we appreciate that. I don’t really get into those things but I’m sure WWE probably doesn’t want us at the Garden, right? And we’re not going to piggyback off of them. But at the same time I know with Tony [Khan]’s connections with other sports, I think this was the right fit. It’s never been done before. It’s a huge building, it’s a nice building and it goes more up than out. So, there’s not really a bad seat in the house. I’m very excited and I think we’re going to put on an amazing show like we always do, but I think we’re gonna maybe do a little extra just because it’s our first real stadium show. The people of New York, I think they need it. I think they need AEW just as much as we need them, just to kinda let them know, “Hey, there is other wrestling in town.”
SI: When they have the U.S. Open there, that crowd is known for being really raucous, certainly much more so than other tennis tournaments. What are you expecting from the fans Wednesday?
QM: A lot of the people that come to our shows, they travel. There’s going to be people from all over the Tri-state area. They’re just these rabid, die-hard AEW fans. There’s nothing like it. Pandemic wrestling really kinda, I don’t want to say it hurt us, because we’ve been doing really well no matter what. Tony had great ideas with putting those wrestlers in the crowd. Even that week that we couldn’t put anyone in the crowd, he had people in trailers that were miked up, so they could still make noise and still get the ambiance of wrestling. But there is nothing like being in front of an AEW audience. They’re as loud as they possibly can be. Even with myself out there. The Twitter universe is going to say that I have what we call “go-away heat,” where they don’t want me out there at all, but the live crowd says different. When 16,000 people at the United Center are chanting, “Q.T. sucks!” I think I’m doing something right.
SI: Every wrestling company struggled to adjust to the absence of the live audience, and it could have been especially harmful for a young company like AEW. But, you’ve come out on the other side of the fan-less era stronger. What do you credit that to?
QM: I think it also helped that, even though we don’t have a Performance Center [like WWE does], Tony had Daily’s Place. It was outdoors, so there were no real restrictions when it came to—heck, we filmed Dark until 3 a.m., which is absurd. But that was how we were developing talent. We have such a young roster—and, when I say young, I mean age-wise, but also age in wrestling. You know what I mean? There are people that have been wrestling for years and years and years, but they’ve never been on TV, so it’s completely different. That’s why, anyone that traveled during the pandemic—it was Tony’s idea, like, hey, if you’re willing to travel during all this stuff that’s going on, you’re not just gonna come and sit down and do nothing. You’re gonna work. And that’s when Dark went from four matches to 10 matches, and sometimes we were up to like 20 matches on an episode. People could complain but it’s getting guys and girls reps, and that’s what we need, especially now that we’re ready to perform in front of these live crowds again, it actually helps a lot.
SI: One aspect of those larger Dark tapings, because independent promotions were shut down, was that you gave opportunities to wrestlers who would not otherwise have them. In that way, was the pandemic perhaps almost a benefit for AEW because you were able to introduce other performers who might not have been there otherwise?
QM: Yeah, 100%. When the pandemic hit, I remember Tony said, “A lot of these guys are missing out on WrestleMania weekend. It’s a lot of money in these independent wrestlers’ pockets. Let’s help them out.” I don’t remember what the number was. It was absurd, I remember that, the amount of money they were getting paid per match. And then it was, let’s put them in the audience. We’ll put them in the audience for Dynamite and they can make noise, but we repay them by giving them a match on Dark. And most of the time the matches are back-and-forth. They’re not just straight-up squashes. Of course, there are gonna be those as well, and if you draw that stick, I’m always very honest with the local talent. Hey, today might be your day; it might not. But you’re still gonna get out there. You’re still gonna get seen. And if there’s something that catches our eye, they’re gonna invite you back. And if they invite you back, it could lead to something. I mean, how many guys and girls have we signed from the pandemic alone? It’s crazy the amount of people we’ve brought in to do a match on Dark and Tony has come up with an idea for or they just stole the show. One of them was my student Lee Johnson. Like you said, there are a lot of independent wrestlers that—even if they just wanted it to boost their own careers, because maybe they didn’t see AEW as a fit for them or we didn’t see them as a fit for us, that doesn’t mean that we’re still not going to give them opportunities.
SI: You’re back in front of live crowds again, and they’re big crowds. You were at a sold-out United Center a few weeks ago and so Wednesday is going to be the second time in a month that you’ve performed in a venue with more than 23,000 seats. What does that say about the growth and the popularity of the company?
QM: That’s the other thing. Fans had no choice but to watch us on TV because they couldn’t come to live shows, and I think the popularity, it’s just like anything, if we were touring, I think our popularity would continue to grow as well, but because people had to watch it on TV for so long without being able to get there, it’s almost like starting over. That first episode of Dynamite [in 2019], we sold that arena, in Washington, D.C., right away. I think it’s sort of the same thing now. We’re gonna have another first round of all these cities that we’re gonna go to where all these fans are gonna be waiting and waiting and salivating to be there. And on top of that, now you have guys like C.M. Punk and Bryan Danielson that, again, C.M. Punk, he could [sell out an arena] on his own. I don’t mean he could wrestle on his own but at the same time, there’s a whole country that has been waiting for C.M. Punk to wrestle in front of them. So that’s just like a bonus now, that I think there’s gonna be a whole year of people waiting to go see C.M. Punk live. It’s very exciting.
SI: You mention that people are itching to go see AEW live after being unable to for so long. How much pressure is there on you to make sure it lives up to their expectations?
QM: I think there’s always going to be pressure no matter what. Even the first round of touring before the pandemic, there has always been pressure. And on top of that, during the pandemic, [we knew] these are shows where it’s going to be a little awkward because there’s no people here, but you’re wrestling for the 40 wrestlers in the crowd. You’re wrestling for the, hopefully, million at home who are watching. There’s definitely pressure, which is why Tony was really adamant with these Dark tapings that were going on forever and ever and ever, because it was like, we need these guys and girls to be crisp and ready. Again, we don’t have a Performance Center. I have a school but it’s not mandatory to come train with me, or it’s not even mandatory to get reps at your local school. I’m not knocking people who train or don’t train, but that’s on you guys. And that’s something that, I think, differentiates us from NXT or something like that, is we don’t require you to move to another state and do all this stuff. But at the same time, if you don’t have those reps, this is where Dark comes in, plus it does give everyone a chance to be seen as well. That way, when you do go on Dynamite, it’s not like, “Oh, who’s this guy?” The view counts are a lot different—about four or five hundred thousand, compared to the million—so there are 500,000 people that might not know who these people are. But hopefully they enjoy what they see and then they go back and they start watching them more and more. Like with Dante Martin, who has really exploded over the past couple of weeks.
SI: Is it challenging to develop a wrestler when basically every match that you’re putting on is being broadcast either on TV or YouTube? How do you develop somebody when you know that there’s always going to be that microscope on them?
QM: You’ve got to keep reinforcing that. Don’t mess up. I’m a firm believer that I’m not going to do something that I don’t know that I can do 100 out of 100 times. That’s just my mentality. That’s why I always do stress, to my students at least, it’s not mandatory to train, but you should. And I’m not saying that you have to bump around like crazy, but you should practice your stuff, keep your mind fresh. Two years ago in Dallas, I did that cartwheel flip over the top and I did it in a way that looked terrible, but because of the story we were telling, it was O.K. But of course two days before that, I was hitting them 10 out of 10 times perfectly. It’s just the idea of making sure I can do these things because I’m not gonna go out on live TV and mess up. It’s just coaching. We have great coaches backstage. Dean Malenko, Jerry Lynn, Dustin Rhodes, Serena Deeb, all these guys that are really working hard to make sure that these people are crisp at what they do and they’re paying attention to the audience and stuff like that. Especially now. A lot of guys and girls, they rush when they’re new. They get nervous. They’re thinking too much. Professional wrestling is one of the hardest things in the world. I don’t care what anybody says. It really is. There’s so much that goes into it.
SI: How much production experience did you have before you got to AEW?
QM: I call it interning because the money wasn’t great, but when I moved to Georgia I struck a deal with Ring of Honor where I would show up to the shows, I would do Women of Honor commentary, but I would also be allowed to sit in the production meetings and stuff like that. Because, in my mind, I was just gonna have my school and run my own little shows. This is back in like 2017. I wanted to learn as much as I could, because I still didn’t know if in-ring was gonna happen for me. I was still doing matches. Really, I was doing the indies to meet people and try to meet workers down in the Atlanta area and try to gain students and guys to work out at the school. I didn’t have a crazy amount of experience, but when they did All In and Cody texted me the morning of the show like, “Hey, I need you to be on Gorilla.” Now, I’m thinking in my head, I have no idea how to do this. I had done some stuff in Ring of Honor, luckily it was the same production equipment. I kinda ran the first half of the show. And Cody, I guess he had told his agent at the time, I don’t know what’s happening next for us but this guy is coming with me wherever we go. I make a lot of mistakes. I told Tony that in the beginning, I’m gonna make a lot of mistakes. But I work really hard and hopefully that balances out.
SI: So it’s been a lot of on-the-job learning.
QM: 100%. Like I said, I’m not the be-all, end-all, so that helps. There’s always someone I have to go to. A lot of it is just creativeness but it’s not fully my creativity, obviously. I’m just the one that puts it on paper. That’s what I think is the biggest misconception was when we first started doing interviews and talking about writing the show. I don’t write the show. I just physically type it. These are not my ideas. If they were, I’d be world champion. I definitely wouldn’t be getting beaten in three minutes on TV. But at the same time, even three minutes on TV is a dream come true for me.