AEW’s surge of free agent signings dominated headlines throughout the summer.
CM Punk’s long-awaited return to the squared circle gave AEW Rampage its highest viewership in show history, while Bryan Danielson’s debut match broke the young promotion’s previous attendance record. Speaking with Barstool Sports’ Robbie Fox, AEW President Tony Khan revealed the company has seen half a dozen metrics increase since both Punk and Danielson’s arrivals.
“I’d say since Punk came in, before Bryan, and now with Bryan, we’ve seen at least six business metrics go up,” Khan said. “We’ve had our all-time record for pay-per-view. Those digital numbers, live event attendance – all-time highs. We were already, before the pandemic, the number one attended wrestling company in the world.”
Khan likened AEW’s rapid growth to companies like Barstool, who flourished quickly due to a dedicated and heavily-online fanbase.
“This is all viral,” Khan said. “AEW is a company that has been around for just a couple of years. We just had our two year anniversary show last week. It’s pretty cool. It’s a movement very fitting in 2021.”
While Khan has plenty to look back on fondly over AEW’s first two years, he says the company’s two most recent events are his proudest accomplishments so far.
“I think All Out and Grand Slam are both at the top,” Khan said. “The past few months have been great. It’s a great time to be a wrestling fan and get into it.”
AEW All Out featured the debuts of both Danielson and Adam Cole, but also the in-ring return of CM Punk. The Best in the World arrived in AEW two weeks before his comeback bout, in what Punk has described as the “worst kept secret” by design.
Khan detailed that leading up to Punk’s debut on AEW Rampage: The First Dance, the two sat down to meticulously plan how the Second City Savior would arrive.
“We sat together before he ever came onto TV,” Khan said. “We really built a relationship and a friendship. We then sat down together and put together the ideas for The First Dance, which was his idea to come as a surprise. The First Dance was my thought for the name, after I had seen [ESPN’s Michael Jordan docuseries] The Last Dance. ‘This is only the beginning. We’ll do something really cool.’ He loved that. It was a way to combine the surprise with the big box office event.”
Rumors and rumblings about Punk’s AEW arrival commanded news cycles worldwide, which AEW fed into a bit. Just under a month before Punk’s debut, Darby Allin dropped one of the more blatant hints on AEW Dynamite: Fight for the Fallen when he made reference to Punk’s ‘Best in the World’ nickname.
“We teased it a little more even with Darby’s line. Only Punk and I knew what it was going to be,” Khan said. “We had sat down and worked out this plan. I had this line for Darby and then I was at TV. I gave it to him for his promo, and he was with Sting, so they knew. When they said it, the whole wrestling world exploded. Things have never been the same for AEW.”
Just a month after Punk’s AEW arrival, Bryan Danielson squared off against AEW World Champion Kenny Omega in his first match outside of WWE in over a decade. For a lifelong wrestling fan like Khan, pitting the American Dragon against the Best Bout Machine was quite the “pinch me” moment, but he remained in producer mode for the entire half-hour contest.
“Yes, but I have to time. That was a very important match to keep track of the time because they did a 30-minute draw, and it’s one of the best matches you’ll ever see,” Khan said. “30 minutes of great wrestling. Really, I mean from the entrances up to the 30 minutes of wrestling, the fans were so into it from the very bell. It was one of the most compelling wrestling television events ever. I think people will go back and watch it for many years. I soaked up the moment, but I also have to be very present because I always have to keep track of the time of the show.”
Since his first match, Danielson has caught fans’ attention by bringing back moves that predated his WWE arsenal. Khan noted Danielson’s upgraded move-set is just one of many examples of the collaborative creative process he has with his talent.
“It’s a collaborative thing. It’s working together. That’s what I believe in,” Khan said. “Whether it’s from the very beginning with Chris Jericho or the Young Bucks or Cody Rhodes, sitting with people, making plans together. As I’ve gone on from 2020 and 2021, especially once I got out of the first few months, I’ve been incredibly organized and hands on dealing with each program and each person, major stars and major programs. Even down to the low programs, I’m very intricate when it comes to booking scenarios, booking matches, and stories.”