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Sometimes, getting what you want ends up being a nightmare.
When Tony Khan first conceived All Elite Wrestling, there were two people he wanted to employ—Chris Jericho and CM Punk. Obviously, Jericho ended up being one of the Founding Fathers of AEW; Punk, however, wouldn't come along for another two years.
Yet, after a few months of Punk paying attention to the product and providing Khan feedback, the Second City Saint was successfully lured back into the topsy-turvy world of pro wrestling. Pro wrestling was his first love. He cared about the up and coming guys. He wanted to give back. And also, he did not want an ugly dispute with his previous employer to serve as the epilogue to his career.
Once the ink dried and an entire arena sold out on a rumor, Khan's dream had come true: he had a multi-million dollar pro wrestling company with some of the most talented performers in the world. He pulled off the one thing that many members of the so-called internet wrestling community dreamed of doing. This was real life. This was a real existence. This was really going on.
It's one thing to get what you want.
It's another thing to handle it.
For all of his faults, Khan is a solid businessman. When the company could have easily collapsed during the pandemic, AEW managed to survive. And yes, it also helped that he had TV deal money and a venue his father owns to minimize costs—but the company survived.
Khan—along with Jericho, Jon Moxley, Cody Rhodes, and The Elite—consistently found ways to make things work, even if not everything landed from a creative standpoint.
However, the company matured faster than Khan himself. Admittedly "booking for ratings", Khan often got ahead of himself, overthinking the small things and underestimating the bigger picture. Always thinking about what's next without necessarily considering the implications.
I get it: for a year, plans had to consistently change over and over. Hangman Adam Page requested time off for the birth of his son, which sunk the original All Out main event last year. Fans forgave what happened because Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole debuted at the end of the night.
Later, Moxley did the most admirable thing anyone could do: admit that he needed help. It changed plans for the initial program for new AEW Champion Page. Due to Moxley being on leave, Page's first program ended up being with Danielson, who won a number-one contender's tournament against Miro.
Despite the impeccable quality of matches and an entertaining lead-up to the first match, Page was still not trusted to be the central figure of AEW programming.
This began a trajectory—which was already in progress due to Khan's choice words to Big Swole in responses to fair criticisms she had about AEW—that ended the "honeymoon" and subjected the company to increased scrutiny. Khan's weaknesses became much more apparent in 2022.
Putting on "great wrestling matches" can only cover it up for so long.
"Booking for ratings" meant that AEW Dynamite shows would become uneven and overwhelming, despite being relatively enjoyable. It also meant that CM Punk would emerge as the company's main attraction (and main character). Punk often ended up with more TV time than the person who was supposed to be AEW's headlining act in Page. In fact, Punk, Danielson, and even Cole got more focus in terms of storyline and character development than Page.
While Page was able to prove himself to be a versatile in-ring ace, he was never allowed to be the definitive top babyface. This is even after AEW's brain trust (The Elite) worked together on a two-year angle to build Page into being the company's first great, "homegrown" babyface. Khan had bigger plans, and those plans did not center on Page.
Instead, Khan was waiting for when it was time to put the belt on Punk. Khan will never admit it publicly, but it was glaringly obvious that Page went from being the next top guy to being a seat warmer for Punk. He felt that Punk was best for business—that Punk was going to be the man that would grow AEW. Khan "booked for ratings"—even to the detriment of his own promotion.
As I said, changing things is difficult in the wake of unexpected injuries. But while individual elements of AEW programming were still enjoyable, week-to-week shows as a whole were often bloated and unfocused. Too much. Too fast. Too all over the place.
Khan's plans for Punk were clear. Punk's TV was good TV.
Everything outside of Punk (and maybe The Elite)? Not so much.
By the time Khan decided that he probably shouldn't try to juggle things on his own, the AEW locker room was ranging from being chill in some corners and a five-alarm fire in others. Frustrated talent started leaking. Embarrassing headlines in the dirt sheets began piling up.
All the while, Khan's maturing process has been slow. Sure, he still gave eloquent answers. Sure, he still gave the aura of an affable guy. However, he is still immature.
His immaturity is always on full display when he is confronted with the least bit of criticism. It was evident in that infamous press conference leading up to All Out, where Khan demonstrated how much higher he thought of CM Punk than Women's Champion Thunder Rosa.
It was at that press conference where he uttered the "booking for ratings" line. While he said something that was already well known, it was still surreal to hear him say it. Not only did it bury Rosa, a talent he spent little to no time at all developing into a draw, but it inadvertently buried a lot of his talent on the AEW roster.
Khan was all in on Punk to be his ride-or-die star. He essentially married AEW's fortunes to a 43-year-old performer who is a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it. Que sera, sera for AEW on the back of CM Punk.
Until it blew up in his face last Sunday.
It's one thing to get what you want.
It's another thing to deal with the consequences of doing so.
Ten months ago, "Hangman" Adam Page was set to be pro wrestling's next big, breakout babyface. Khan's handpicked babyface buried him twice in the past 3 weeks. The crowd reaction this past Wednesday on Dynamite shows that it may have had an effect. It was the most muted reaction I've ever seen Page receive in his AEW career.
Overall, Khan has doubled-down on his weaknesses as a promoter and an executive. It's not that he can't put on a good show—he's still a good booker—but his managerial and leadership skills have been severely lacking.
Nothing against Jericho, Moxley, or Danielson, but if Khan is tasking them to fill the leadership vacuum that he himself created, then a lot more issues are going to erupt. In fact, AEW has been solid this year in spite of, not because of, Khan.
This past Sunday showed that AEW's issues have little to do with what happens when the cameras are live. Don't get me wrong, there are issues when the cameras are on. But the lion's share of AEW's current fracas has to do with what's going on behind the scenes. Nevertheless, it starts with the top.
The Elite may have made a decision to confront Punk after a toxic media scrum. Punk may have thrown the first punch. Ace Steel may have thrown a chair. But there's one person that has been front and center of AEW's turmoil and that’s Tony Khan himself.
We’ll see what happens next. Is Khan going to exercise some humility and self-awareness and accept responsibility for how his own (weak to suspect) leadership skills have contributed to recent issues? Or is he going to continue to deflect blame?