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Tony Khan Had Been Dreaming of Keith Lee’s ‘Incredible’ AEW Debut for Months

The former WWE star was a surprising release in November, opening the door for him to jump to the competition.

All Elite Wrestling delivered two noteworthy surprises Wednesday on Dynamite. New Japan Pro-Wrestling star Jay White appeared in a backstage segment, and then former NXT champion Keith Lee made his arrival in AEW, delivering a statement in his debut victory against Isiah Kassidy.

Speaking with Sports Illustrated, AEW CEO Tony Khan expressed his excitement about signing Lee as a full-time member of the AEW roster.

“Keith’s debut was incredible,” Khan says. “Much to my amazement, Keith got released. As soon as I saw that he was released, this was the moment I dreamed about.”

Only days removed from his wedding and honeymoon, Lee looked spectacular on Dynamite, making it even more unbelievable that WWE released such a versatile, talented star.

“It was crazy timing,” Khan says. “I’m so happy with how the debut has been received. It’s very well deserved, and I am very excited to have Keith in AEW.”

There was endless speculation over the identity of the mystery debutant, even including some who thought it might be Shane McMahon, the son of WWE CEO Vince McMahon. The younger McMahon was widely criticized for his work behind-the-scenes at last month’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view, reportedly leading to his departure from WWE. But McMahon clearly has a unique skill set, and he is an extremely well-known wrestling commodity. There would be major buzz if McMahon were to appear in AEW.

If McMahon ever reached out, Khan would be open to exchanging ideas.

“I’d certainly take the call,” Khan says. “I’m sure he’d be an interesting person to talk to about wrestling. I’m not sure exactly if he would be a fit. I have not heard from him, and I don’t expect to hear from him, but in this business, you never know.”

One star that did cross the threshold of wrestling’s “Forbidden Door” on Dynamite was Jay White. The current Bullet Club leader, White helped headline Wrestle Kingdom 15 a year ago for New Japan. He is one of only five New Japan Grand Slam winners, having held the IWGP heavyweight championship, the now-defunct IWGP intercontinental title, the NEVER openweight championship, and the IWGP United States belt.

White aligned himself in AEW with Adam Cole and the Young Bucks—three former members of New Japan’s Bullet Club—on Dynamite, giving a backstage beatdown to Roppongi Vice’s Trent Beretta and Rocky Romero, who also stars in New Japan.

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“Expect to see more Jay White in AEW,” Khan says. “He came through the ‘Forbidden Door’, and there were many reasons his arrival transpired the way it did on Dynamite. That wasn’t finalized until Sunday, and I’m so happy that we could bring that excitement to the fans.

“I wanted to have that ‘Forbidden Door’ element to our show. It was intentional to have that moment backstage, reuniting members of the Bullet Club against their old rivals from Chaos in Rocky Romero and Trent Beretta.”

This week’s Rampage is centered around the Young Bucks against Roppongi Vice, and the show will also feature White.

“It’s going to be a great tag match tonight on Rampage,” Khan says. “The first time I saw any of those four—Rocky, Trent, Matt and Nick [Jackson]—wrestle live was in Long Beach at New Japan’s first shows in America, and they were all amazing. I’m thrilled we have this match on Rampage, bringing it to such a wide audience on TNT.”

This past Wednesday’s Dynamite brought in over 1.12 million viewers, the largest overall audience for the show since Sept. 29.

“We were the No. 1 show on cable this week [among the 18–49 demographic], beating the Olympics, the NBA and a huge property in South Park,” Khan says. “That’s a credit to wrestling fans and our hard-working wrestlers and staff. We’re very appreciative to everyone that made that happen.

“And we’re building off that with Rampage, which is going to be a great hour of wrestling. We have a rekindled rivalry between two teams that dominated the junior heavyweight tag scene in Japan and now are battling on this huge stage on TNT. And I’m very excited for the world tag team championship match—Jungle Boy and Luchasaurus vs. Austin and Colten Gunn, who are very well coached by their father Billy Gunn. I’m also really excited to see Hook in action, and it’s always great when we get to see Dr. Britt Baker. She’s wrestling a student of Thunder Rosa, Robyn Renegade, and we’re learning new revelations in her story against Thunder Rosa that make the championship picture even more exciting.”

Even though there is no pay-per-view for AEW, Khan still has an eventful weekend in store as he is in Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI. As co-owner of the Jaguars, Khan oversees a franchise that is rebuilding in an effort to become a perennial Super Bowl contender. That process will benefit from having the leadership of newly hired coach Doug Pederson, who won a Super Bowl four years ago with the Eagles.

“Doug is the head coach we need in a variety of ways,” Khan says. “We needed stability and a calming presence, and that’s naturally what Doug brings to all of his teams. Doug brings great experience in the NFL. Only four years ago he led Philadelphia to its first Super Bowl title. That’s a city and franchise that’s been waiting a long time, as we have in Jax.

“He has great knowledge of quarterbacking, and we have one of the most promising names at the position in recent memory in Trevor Lawrence. They’ve already clicked personally and professionally, so that bodes well for us. And before he became a head coach, he was an offensive coordinator under one of the game’s best minds in Andy Reid. This is an exceptional hire for the Jaguars that has the team, the staff, and the entire city fired up.”

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