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Nick Khan talks WWE releases, worrying about them going to AEW

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WWE President & Chief Revenue Officer Nick Khan covered a lot of topics beyond the rebranding of NXT when he sat down with his old client* Ariel Helwani this weekend.

Helwani asked Khan about both WWE’s recent talent releases, and if the company is concerned that many of them are signing with AEW.

On the cuts, Khan first explained who is making the call to let wrestlers go. Then he talked a bit about what they say about WWE’s approach to roster construction. His answer also provided the segue for Helwani to bring up AEW (without specifically saying “AEW”) :

Helwani: As you know, there have been a lot of cuts over the past year. And again, you get blamed. I see it, “Nick Khan, Nick Khan, he’s the reason for this guy and that guy.” Are you involved in those decisions, or is that a completely different department?”

Khan: There’s a collective of us. Keep in mind, as you know, there’s one boss - that’s Vince [McMahon] as we all know. So between Bruce Prichard, who oversees the entire creative process, to Kevin Dunn who oversees all of our production, between Stephanie McMahon, Paul Levesque [Triple H], all are involved in these decisions, with ultimately Vince making the final decision on everything.

Helwani: Could you explain why, why have there been so many releases this year?

Khan: I don’t know that there’s one explanation for it. I think ultimately what’s looked at is, is this person - for us - going to move the needle now, or in the imminent future. So, by the way, we had a tryout, a two-day tryout in Las Vegas which ended yesterday. Which Triple H, and Johnny Laurinaitis, and Bruce Prichard were all across, as were the rest of us. We’ve signed over a dozen new talent coming out of that tryout. And I’m not suggesting, “Oh that’s why we cut the other talent.” But we’re always looking for what’s next. We live in the present, we live in the future. We don’t live in the past. So when people leave, and they move on with their life and their careers? That’s good by us. For us, it’s what works for us and our product at that moment in time, and again, what’s gonna work down the road. And largely in part the existing roster is based on that.

Folks ranging from reporter David Bixenspan to the NWA’s Mickie James have picked apart this answer, particularly Khan saying it’s “good by us” when wrestlers “move on”, as if everyone gave notice as opposed to the majority of released talent being laid off. It is a bit jarring, but - at least in this writer’s opinion - not much more than when most bottom line-focused business people talk about things like “human capital”.

Khan’s line of thinking there informs a later bit of his conversation with Helwani, which is about competition.

Helwani: Okay. The theory that you’re letting go of talent to build competition - they’re all going in one place, let’s be honest. Let’s call a spade, a spade. They’re going to one spot. And so it’s one thing for the competition to kind of come up, and now you’re going head- to-head, but it’s another when the majority of the guys who are the faces of the competition are guys who were under contract with you. Is that not a weird thing to see develop in front of your eyes?

Khan: Just one clarification on the “Sleep is our competition.” What I had said on their earnings call is, “Hey, someone had said that and we were all talking about it.” Ultimately it was Reed Hastings, the co-CEO of Netflix who said it. So I want to make sure he gets credit for the great line.

Everything we look at, so I’ll ask you a question back, and then of course, I’ll answer your question. You and I have known each other now for how long?

Helwani: Since 2015.

Khan: I’ve known of your work for far longer than that. Maybe you knew a little bit of my work. Have you ever seen me talk about, or think about any competitor of mine?

Helwani: Mm-mm [shakes head]. That’s - that’s the honest truth.

Khan: Never. It’s not what I do. It’s not what we do at WWE. What I do and what we do, we look ahead. “Where are we going?” It’s almost like, and this was from Jimmy Iovine, in the Dr. Dre, Iovine HBO doc [The Defiant Ones] a couple of years ago? He said at the end, he’s like, “You got to look at these things like a horse in a race.” They put a blinder, they put blinders on the horse. Why do they do that? So you’re not looking back to see what the other horse is doing. The horse does that, they’re gonna trip and break their leg. I believe in my career. I’ve always operated that way. I know WWE has always operated that way. We look ahead. So our decisions are based on what’s best for us, and whatever anyone else does with that? Good for them.

There’s speculation of course about whether things like the return of Becky Lynch & Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam were moves made in reaction to AEW debuting CM Punk the night before. We’ll likely never get a smoking gun answer. But whether or not you believe this “blinders” approach is true during Khan’s tenure with WWE, it certainly hasn’t always been Vince McMahon’s approach. The company itself glorifies Vince’s competitive nature when talking about consolidating the territories, or The Monday Night War with WCW.

It’s an interesting interview with someone who has a lot of power at WWE, and who hasn’t sat down for many of these talks since gaining that power. It’s also an interview that’s upset a fair number of people, which is understandable.

But the big takeaway for me is that Khan is a salesman, and parts of all his answers are designed to impress certain WWE stakeholders. It just so happens the stakeholders he’s concerned with aren’t internet wrestling fans.

Whether or not that affects your viewing habits is something everyone has to decide for themselves.

* Helwani and Khan disclose at the start of their interview that the latter was the former’s agent before joining WWE.