At least in the corners of the internet wrestling community that I hang around in, the tribalism that’s developed among fans over the past three or four years isn’t something that’s widely celebrated.
But AEW owner Tony Khan has always said that recreating the WWF vs. WCW feel of the Monday Night War era was part of his vision for competing with the now-WWE. In a recent appearance on The Dan LeBatard Show he reiterated and expanded on that.
For background, Khan told LeBatard and crew about two high-profile business clashes he’s had with WWE over the past couple years. Regarding WWE’s alleged flirtation with New Japan (which led to this Twitter promo from TK), he said:
“About two years ago, there was a rumor I read on the internet that my business partner, New Japan Pro Wrestling, had gotten a phone call from [then WWE President, now CEO] Nick Khan about switching over to work with them. And I was really just getting started with New Japan, we’d only been working together a short time and that also had been, frankly, a tumultuous relationship but it was getting pretty good and to this day it is an amazing partnership.
“I called the New Japan executives and said, ‘Is this true? Did WWE call you and try to get you to turn on me? And they said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well, are we still doing the stuff we had planned?’ Because at the time we had a match set up for Wednesday Night Dynamite where there was going to be a New Japan title match in AEW. It was the first of many of those such matches. And they told me, ‘No, we don’t trust them, we want to work with you and we want to stay with you.’ And ever since, our relationship has been incredibly positive.
“Again, I don’t know if that’s true or not, I only know what my business partner alleged to me and what I read on the internet and they were both the same thing. So, following up on that, if that’s the case, I know they’re out there to get me, I know they’re out there to hurt AEW’s relationships with our business partners, if that’s the case, allegedly. And it made me want to work that much harder to make AEW stronger and that ended up being the biggest year for growth we’ve ever had. “
He also covered reports that, after Triple H took control of WWE creative last year, his team reached out to former WWE wrestlers currently under contract to AEW.
“I’ve had a lot of wrestlers come to me and allege that WWE reached out to them to tamper with their contracts and ask them to break their contracts. I can’t confirm that specifically. I can only tell you what the wrestlers have come to me and said but I’ve had multiple wrestlers and staff report that to me. It was very disturbing. I’ve had to go out and try to put on good shows despite this alleged tampering and stuff like that. Frankly, I don’t think it’s stopped us because the quality of the product and the quality of the shows is at an all-time high right now.”
As you can tell from those quotes, Tony has a positive spin for those run-ins with the competition. That’s because he still believes they’re good for business.
“Again, I don’t know if these things have happened, I only know what people have come to me and alleged. But I do know that it’s a real war between AEW and WWE and the fans are interested in it and that was part of the original business model of AEW, was I knew wrestling fans, frankly, are very interested in wrestling free agency and wrestling wars. And I believed we could create a free agent market that is definitely a real thing now and that would be a big part of the story.
“I think wrestling fans, at the end of the day, appreciate that a lot of what happens in wrestling shows is sometimes story and that’s why people like watching the shows, they like the stories and the exciting matches and especially the combination of the two when the stories lead to exciting matches and vice versa. Now, what’s interesting is the story that is the most real, the most intense, and the most hatred in all of pro wrestling is that between the two wrestling promotions. I think we truly, truly hate each other and I think it makes for really exciting TV and it makes for an exciting wrestling war.“
As Becky Lynch likes to say, pro wrestlers are in the conflict business. By that logic, it makes sense that TK sees conflict with the biggest company in the industry as good business. And to be fair, he’s not encouraging AEW and WWE fans to hate each other, just saying that the corporate entities do.
But like a few of Tony Khan’s other approaches to running his company, it could be something that limits AEW’s appeal to new or so-called casual fans. Those folks knowledge of wrestling is likely defined by their past exposure to WWE, and if those memories are positive, “hate” might not be the best sales pitch to get them to try out your product. And that doesn’t even get into how unpleasant it must be if they’re googling something they saw on Dynamite and stumble into a “war” between diehard AEW and WWE loyalists.
Or maybe that’s just another example of an “in the bubble” criticism that wrestling fans who don’t spend a ton of time online don’t care about? WWE’s business is booming, and while AEW’s hasn’t maintained the growth rate it had in its first few years, its numbers are still very impressive.
Let us know what you think. And in case you think TK doesn’t know what he’s doing with quotes like these, when asked to “say all the things that would get aggregated,” Khan replied:
“I mentioned that AEW and WWE — it is a real hatred and competition. I think that will probably get picked up.”
Tony came up on the message boards. He knows this audience.