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AEW’s Tony Khan Looks Forward to Breaking New Ground in 2022

He reflects on 2021 and discusses his plans for next year as the brand emerges as pro wrestling’s premier destination.

Following a memorable stretch of back-to-back shows, AEW Dynamite will air its final episode on TNT this Wednesday before moving full-time to TBS.

AEW owner Tony Khan has put the company in position to have even more success in 2022, especially as the brand continues to market itself as the premier destination for pro wrestling. The past two weeks of Dynamite have been particularly noteworthy, featuring a 60-minute world title draw between Hangman Page and Bryan Danielson, as well as the debut of Kyle O’Reilly. Formerly an NXT staple, O’Reilly now rejoins Undisputed Era partners Adam Cole and Bobby Fish in AEW.

The last year has yielded a number of successes for AEW. Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Khan discussed the addition of O’Reilly, his philosophy in roster-building, and why the time-limit draw has been such an important element for AEW.

Sports Illustrated: Kyle O’Reilly’s debut this past Wednesday on Dynamite was a genuine surprise, adding to the constant level of unpredictability in AEW. As soon as O’Reilly—who played a major role in NXT, especially as the brand competed head to head against Dynamitebecame a free agent, why was signing him an immediate priority?

Tony Khan: Kyle O’Reilly is a huge addition for AEW. He’s a great, great wrestler. And not only did we get Kyle O’Reilly, we also got Bobby Fish and Adam Cole. These are huge signings individually, but even more massive together. Adam Cole’s debut at the end of All Out, that’s one of the most important moments ever in AEW, and now he’s surrounded by his former partners. To have Kyle O’Reilly debut and help Adam Cole get the win over Orange Cassidy in a great wrestling match last week on Dynamite, that builds more interest in AEW.

Kyle makes his debut in the ring this week, and it’s symbolic that it is happening on the final Dynamite on TNT. So much of our run on TNT was spent battling these guys—Adam Cole, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly. When we were head to head, it was threatening to us every time they were on camera. Now we’ve added them to our team in AEW, which is such an advantage. Having them here is tremendous. I wanted Kyle to sign with AEW as soon as he was a free agent.

This week on Dynamite will be special. We’ll see Adam Cole make his first appearance at Daily’s Place, and so will CM Punk. Sting will be there. And at the forefront of it all will be Cole and Bobby Fish teaming with Kyle O’Reilly, making his in-ring debut.

SI: You just mentioned such a collection of stars. Can there ever be too much talent on the AEW roster?

TK: We’ve been expanding our programming over the past year, and I’d like to always keep AEW at the forefront of the fans’ minds as the home of professional wrestling. It’s the place where you will see the best pro wrestlers, so the roster is constantly evolving.

There is a ton of great talent in the world of wrestling right now, and I’m always looking for ways to make the show more exciting. I always want to upgrade the roster. That’s what we did with Kyle O’Reilly, CM Punk, Adam Cole, Ruby Soho and Bryan Danielson. We also have Thunder Rosa under a full AEW contract. Christian Cage came in as a free agent and wrestled at as high a level as he ever has. Malakai Black, Andrade El Idolo, we keep adding to our roster, expanding our programming and growing.

SI: Over the past year, you have highlighted the life and career of Brodie Lee. Primarily used as a tag-team wrestler and someone that added value to the middle of the card in WWE, you provided him with an opportunity on top of the card in AEW, where he flourished. Do you have a favorite memory of Brodie Lee?

TK: I have a lot of memories of Brodie Lee that I really cherish. At the beginning of the pandemic, the very first pandemic show was his debut in AEW. That was the first time Brodie appeared. He had no fans ringside when he had his first match at Daily’s Place, so it was a strange time. He became such a leader for us, and we really got to know each other when there weren’t many other people around.

I ended up reaching out to Jon Moxley and saying it should be him and Brodie for the title at Double or Nothing. Mox loved the idea. We didn’t have a ton of time, only a few weeks, but we built to Mox and Brodie. We had a three-way call to talk ideas, and that was really a lot of fun. Then we made him TNT champion over the summer, and it was a great run. But I’ll really always remember that period during the pandemic when we really got to know each other.

SI: Over the past few decades, a time-limit draw had become obsolete or a groan-inducing finish in pro wrestling. AEW has brought back meaning to the draw in a way that has not been experienced since an era when Ric Flair was NWA champion. More recently in AEW, we saw a 30-minute draw between Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson at the “Grand Slam” edition of Dynamite, and then a breathtaking 60-minute draw at the “Winter Is Coming” Dynamitepitting Hangman Page against Danielson. Was there a specific inspiration for these draws? Or you are just choosing to highlight your talent in the most remarkable manner possible?

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TK: We’ve had some time-limit draws in AEW, and it is important to note that there have been great rematches to those draws. Cody Rhodes and Darby Allin [from June 2019] is a really strong example of that, and of course there was a title change later on between those two. Moxley and PAC wrestled to a draw on one of the first-ever Dynamites, then had a great match on the Jericho Cruise. That led to Mox challenging Jericho at Revolution, which led to a title change and a great title run. So the key is the rematches and the interest that builds from those draws.

SI: Following the draw, what led to the decision to hold the Danielson-Page rematch on the Jan. 5 Dynamite?

TK: Page and Bryan was really special. It was the first 60-minute time-limit draw in AEW, and one of the first I can ever remember on a live pro wrestling show. There was Kerry Von Erich–Ric Flair in Hawai‘i [in 1985], but that didn’t air live. Nick Bockwinkel-Curt Hennig [in 1986] is another good example of a world title draw, but that also didn’t air live. I can’t think of another example of it within the past 30 years. It’s generated so much interest in the rematch, which will kick off the era of AEW on TBS. It is two wrestlers fighting over who is the best. What is better than that?

SI: The rise of Dr. Britt Baker is another one of the most important stories in AEW over the past year. What gave you your initial belief in Baker, who has thrived as champion?

TK: Sometimes you get to know a person in real life and you see an element of their personality they should be presenting in wrestling. Kenny [Omega] thought Britt would be better as a heel, and I agreed. She got a lot of great coaching from people like Kenny, Cody and Chris Jericho, but she also committed to it. During the Jericho Cruise, we talked about doing a promo where she belittled Tony Schiavone for working at Starbucks. We thought that would generate a lot of heat, and that was the start of it.

Not everyone gave Britt a chance at first as a heel when she was developing. I remember all the criticism she received, so it’s an important lesson not to give up on a young, determined wrestler. She was clearly getting better every week, and she kept getting better and better. She focused on her character, and I made it a priority to expand her presence on the show. She found such great chemistry with Reba, and it’s been really fun to see her grow into this role as a top champion and villain. Her wrestling in 2021 took a huge step forward, too. She had some great, great matches, and I’m really looking forward to her match against Riho at Battle of the Belts, which a live special we’re holding on TNT on Jan. 8.

Britt has great matches when she’s defending the title. She had the great match last month against Riho. The pay-per-view match against Tay Conti is the best match in Tay’s career. Ruby Soho at “Grand Slam,” the title match against Hikaru Shida. And the “Lights Out” match against Thunder Rosa is one of the greatest in AEW.

SI: Cody Rhodes put the finishing touches on his three-peat as TNT champion on the Rampage that aired on Christmas night. We have watched Cody develop since the start of his career and mature into one of the best in the world. He had the great moment in Boston at the Dynamite in October, when he was booed when he entered the ring, then cheered as he cut an outrageously good promo. What makes him such a critical factor in AEW?

TK: Cody is important on and off camera. He’s a great person backstage, but he’s also a tremendous star on camera. That was a great pro wrestling main event he had with Sammy Guevara on Christmas, with a very polarizing result that got people talking. It’s great buzz going into this week.

Cody has the ability to generate that type of buzz and have that caliber of great matches. He’s also doing a lot of charitable work off camera with our community outreach team. He worked with WarnerMedia to become a prominent part of their shows, too, but his bread and butter is still pro wrestling.

SI: The future of AEW is bright, and there is nonstop opportunity to grow your audience and become the sole destination for fans that seek pro wrestling instead of sports entertainment. Looking ahead at some of your key players, is there potential for Hook to be your rookie of the year in 2022?

TK: Hook could be rookie of the year in any year. He has the marketing machine fully behind him. He’s had great coaching from his father, Taz, who is his mentor, and he’s learned from a lot of very intelligent pro wrestlers. It bodes really well for him, and he is going to be special every time you see him on screen. There is so much to look forward to in 2022, and Hook is a big reason for that.

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