It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a WWE fan or an AEW fan, the majority of fans will agree that one of the biggest negatives in today’s world of professional wrestling is ‘tribalism’. A term given by the Internet Wrestling Community that the issue runs deep within, tribalism in the context of the wrestling world today it is a belief within a small pocket of the IWC that as a consumer of wrestling media you must pledge your allegiance to one Empire of Khan whilst rejecting the other as blatantly as possible. Defending their chosen brand of sports entertainment at any opportunity possible, the arguments between the fans of both respective companies have often flooded the pages of forums and social media sites at an unbearable level. This was turned up to new heights the night of the 10th of October, 2023. What most experts would describe as ‘the perfect storm’ forecast for the day of Tony’s 41st Birthday, the scheduling of the Major League Baseball Playoffs would bump All Elite Wrestling’s flagship television product to Tuesday Night as opposed to its usual Wednesday slot. Riding a wave of momentum following their record-setting All In 2023 event (even though Khan would later change what record was broken, which we’ll touch on briefly) as well as coming into the contest as the defending champions after it scored 76,000 more viewers the last time it went head-to-head with NXT nearly a year prior,
So how exactly did we get to the point that we’re at today, where some of the most loyal of AEW supporters have been turned off of the Elite product thanks to the conduct and poor decision making of AEW’s most important representative? In a world that was once ruled by Vince McMahon, someone who’s morals closer resemble those of Satan than his fellow human, how has the once beloved superfan become public enemy #1? Let’s take a few steps back to look at the bigger picture, the warning signs we may or may not have seen, and the chain of events that lead to Tony Khan being exposed to public scrutiny like never before.
It’s important to remember that nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, the growth that can come from confronting your own personal errors is something that ultimately can be beneficial if criticism is taken on board. However, if you’re provided with similar feedback time and time again and you don’t make an active effort to improve, and at times even double down on those very issues, the faith held to you by the devoted followers that support you will inevitably dwindle. There have been plenty a warning signs about Tony Khan’s erratic behaviour, whether it be erratically appearing on AEW Dark: Elevation in the exact style of authority role that he and the company had not long prior denounced, or publicly outlining the reason he allowed for former employee Big Swole’s contract to lapse, citing a lack of in-ring ability and ignoring multiple opportunities to apologise for a wildly uneducated opinion. It would also be remiss to ignore Tony Khan’s decision to broadcast the firing of AEW’s #1 draw in CM Punk, an announcement he made directly to the Chicago native’s hometown crowd before AEW’s All Out event.
I could name another 50 incidents of Tony Khan’s lunacy trickling down into his role as President of AEW, but if there was a red flag that exists as a precursor of what might come of the head honcho of AEW and the fanbase that exists around it, it would be Tony Khan and his connection to the Cottagers of Fulham F.C.
The world of English Football is as cutthroat as it gets, and if you ever needed to experience tribalism in its rawest form, all you need to do is observe a fanbase after its beloved organisation comes up short after 90 minutes of regulation time. Players and coaches alike will all find themselves in the firing line from those that follow the team closest, and as Vice Chairman, Director of Football Operations, General Manager and Sporting Director of Fulham F.C, Tony would face just as much heat as the players that ran onto the pitch. If anyone was worthy of critique it would be Tony, the son of the owner of the club itself who held no prior experience outside of developing football technology & analytic programs that produced inconsistent results for the team. Most people in the spotlight tend not to acknowledge the uproar in hopes that it will fizzle out like most of the online smear campaigns do, but Tony Khan is not like most people.
Years before All Elite Wrestling’s existence, Tony Khan had already been infuriating his own audience and supporters through his actions online, regularly replying to tweets directed at him, often flip-flopping between tirelessly defending his team or acknowledging their faults and criticising their performance online. Infuriating Fulham fans through his inability to read a room, his most controversial statement was his referral to Fulham as a ‘yo-yo team’ across his Twitter (now X) account, stating that they “would’ve absolutely killed to be a yo-yo club” at the time that he took over in 2016. A yo-yo team is a way of describing a side that is regularly promoted and relegated, and at the time Fulham were in the midst of their 4th consecutive fluctuation between the Championship and Premier Leagues. Needless to say the devoted Cottagers were filthy with Tony, and as All Elite Wrestling continued to develop the fans of Fulham believe that Khan has comparatively no interest in the club anymore.
Now we switch back to what we know today. Tony has already built a bit of a reputation for poor social media management, but thanks to the love affair the head of AEW has had with professional wrestling dating back to his formative years his emotional responses online have been far more prominent than they were while his focus was on his sporting endeavours with Fulham and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The first prominent presentation of this behaviour online was shown on New Years Day of 2022 when Big Swole, an African-American female professional wrestler, suggested that while she had a good relationship with the President of All Elite Wrestling, there was a lot of room for improvement as it pertained to the structure and overall opportunities that someone like Swole faced as both a woman and as a person of colour. Tony had an opportunity to either apologise to his former employee over the situation and vow to do better going forward, or to potentially allow for the online chatter to dissipate and let it be left to speculation.
Tony Khan decided to channel his inner Austin Aries and landed on ‘Option C’, however unlike Aries’ version, ‘Option C’ was in no way advantageous at all. Tony Khan decided to respond in the most emotionally charged way possible, pointing at the wrestlers of colour that were succeeding in the company, and the 2 top executives including himself were brown in complexion, before pointing out to his mass followers on Twitter that the reason he allowed Swole’s contract to expire was that “her wrestling wasn’t good enough”. This managed to upset a vast majority of people online due to his lack of care around improving the situation while focusing more around defending himself and his company, with the recently signed Lio Rush going on an online tirade against Khan and the company in defence of Swole, stating that it was “completely disrespectful, not only to Swole, but to the black community that AEW has consistently not listened to”, demanding Khan apologise; something that Tony Khan did not do.
Just shy of 2 years later, Tony Khan’s overall trust with his fanbase and the wrestling community as a whole has stayed fairly strong, but would continue to show instances of concern. Things would start falling apart after his hiring of CM Punk, however, as it started to become evident that Tony was starting to lose control over the roster he had put together. His response to the press conference and the events of ‘Brawl Out’ that followed it at AEW All Out 2022 were chastised heavily, after 8 wrestlers and 2 backstage agents were suspended as a result of a backstage fracas that could have been avoided had Tony taken control over the situation. With fans criticising Khan and his ability to maintain order, the overall opinion of the boss would begin to change as many would suggest that Khan displayed favouritism towards either The Elite or Punk against one another or the rest of the AEW roster itself. This wouldn’t improve in the time between All Out 2022 and All In 2023, nearly a year removed from the infamous post-show incidents, as Punks backstage incident with Jack Perry and eventual firing would be wildly mocked and criticised by the industry.
With the overall direction of All Out 2023 surrounding Punk and his ‘Real Worlds Championship’ storyline, one that had been birthed from the suspension he received post-All Out and the stripping of the AEW World Championship that he had won at AEW All Out against Jon Moxley, the decision Khan made to walk out onto the stage at the United Center to address Punk’s employment to a ruckus hometown crowd was one met with confusion and criticism. There were supporters of this choice of action, with many claiming the strength of the boss to tackle the situation head on, however the long-term result of this decision has effectively killed any chance that All Elite Wrestling have within the Chicago market, arguably one of professional wrestling’s most dedicated regions outside of New York. Of all the details that Tony would focus on during the All Out pre-show live announcement, the opening segment in which his live announcement statement was pre-recorded for the audience at home to witness, as well as his post-show press conference statements, the one that received the most backlash was his claim that he felt his “life was in danger” during the scuffle between Punk & Jack Perry, opening up opportunities for online critics to deem him ‘soft’ and allowed comparisons to Vince McMahon’s handling over a much more volatile and difficult to handle roster during the Attitude Era.
Arguably the biggest pin to fall in regards to Tony Khan maintaining a level of trust with his not just his audience, but the overall wrestling world with both it’s most devoted and casual viewers, occurred in the build to and the events that followed AEW All In 2023. In the lead-up to the event it was marketed as the ‘biggest event in pro wrestling history’, emanating from Wembley Stadium in the United Kingdom. Offering AEW’s first stadium event opportunity, it became apparent that Khan was aiming to break the record for the largest attendance at a professional wrestling event (not including the Collision in Korea event held by New Japan Pro Wrestling and World Championship Wrestling, in which attendees were forced to be there). So when the announcement was made during the proceedings of All In that AEW had in fact broken the record previously held by WrestleMania 32’s turnstile figure of 80,709, fans of All Elite Wrestling rejoiced. The collective wrestling world came together to celebrate the promotion and their work in getting a win over the industry giant in WWE, but it wouldn’t be long until this celebration became a mocking of Tony Khan.
With public information able to be acquired through the local council, many requests were made to find out the official attendance at AEW All In, and after a couple of days filled with Tony Khan and the company as a whole rightfully gloating about their achievement including Will Ospreay getting permanently inked with the announced attendance figure of 80,846, it was then revealed that the turnstile figure was 72,265. Tony Khan was met with a new wave of criticism for effectively jumping the gun and participating in the same figure inflation tactics of the WWE, once again going back on AEW’s mission statement of providing an alternative within the marker. When once again provided with an opportunity to apologise for the mistake, to ensure they wouldn’t make a similar error or to generally ignore the statement and wait for it to fizzle out, Khan instead opted to change the record that they set, instead claiming it was the largest paid ticket distribution rather than attendance, focusing on the number of tickets sold rather than the amount that actually showed up. Understandably this was met with astronomical levels of critique and opened Tony up to mocking from all angles, with Will Ospreay posting a video himself describing the ridiculousness of his now inaccurate and permanent ink.
That leads us to October 10, the night in which AEW Dynamite and WWE NXT would go head-to-head once again. With a history of beating NXT in head-to-head competition, his self-enforced pride surrounding the attendance of All In, and the acquiring of the legitimate talent that is Adam Copeland, Tony Khan would come across almost arrogant in his belief that they would outperform their competition and announced a special ‘Title Tuesday’ for the show, with the AEW TNT & the AEW Women’s Championships both on the line for the evening. Unwilling to be beaten by the Jacksonville conglomerate, NXT’s leading man Shawn Michaels stacked the deck like no other NXT had been stacked before, in an attempt to devalue Tony Khan’s premiere program as well as his birthday as a whole. With the announcement of John Cena, The Undertaker, Cody Rhodes, Paul Heyman and Asuka among many other highlights across the show, Khan would not allow this to ruin his day. Perhaps he should have let it slightly dampen his mood surrounding the evening, as it may have stopped the chain of events that followed.
Listen, we’ve all been there. It’s the day of your birthday and you’re fired up for a good day. Perhaps you’ve got the entire day to prepare for a celebration, you would probably treat yourself to a nice cold beer, a glass of wine or two. Now I won’t jump onto the bandwagon that surrounds Tony Khan and whether or not he partakes in the nose beers, the Charlie, the champagne stardust. Whether or not the son of Shahid partakes in the usage of Cocaine is up for pure speculation, and while I personally think it would more likely be the use or abuse of lower-level stimulants like Adderall, we’re going to assume that Tony Khan is part of the majority of Americans that drink Alcohol. Therefore, will assume that on his birthday he would’ve had a celebratory drink, and would therefore also accept the fact that he would more than likely have a few more after that, Thats completely understandable, knock yourself out.
What needs to be highlighted is the fact that Tony Khan, a self-professed superfan of professional wrestling with a near endless amount of funding, is surrounded by professional wrestling stardom from the past and present. He’s in a dream job in which he lives out the fantasy that he had while booking a fantasy federation through e-wrestling in the 90’s onwards, and for the first time has an episode of his now global television program that lines up with his birthday, and it happens to be going head-to-head with a larger competitor that you have beaten in your last encounter. Coming from someone who has had similar dreams in their early years, if I was in a similar situation, I too would be more than likely inclined to celebrate a little harder than usual.
This is where the integral change needs to occur for Tony Khan going forward needs to happen, because if it doesn’t happen All Elite Wrestling’s stock will fall and the overall image of AEW, Tony Khan and all those below him will be damaged time and time again. Tony Khan needs either a team in charge of his social media team, or he needs to avoid using it entirely, as his ability to put his foot in his own mouth outweighs his promotional abilities. The events before and after the head-to-head between AEW and WWE show a change in response from some of AEW’s most diehard fans.
With it being said internally within the WWE that the 10/10 episode of NXT was designed to send a clear message to Khan & AEW, Shawn Michaels would announce, along with the aforementioned star-studded guest list, that the first 30 minutes would be commercial free. Tony Khan would respond by offering the same for Title Tuesday in a move that was mocked by critics, which is to be expected when there’s a level of tribalism between the two promotions. Usually he would respond with retorts that, while disguised in some way, would be clearly designed to counter the online trolling. Like most of us who have previously participated in the consumption of alcohol, usually the usage of social media after a couple of beverages does not go well, and so Khan would reply to these critiques with animated GIF’s calling said critics ‘dicks’ and telling them to “go fuck [themselves]”. These posts were then followed with more criticism, and if you have experienced someone who is inebriated being challenged for their actions whilst intoxicated, you will know that it is usually followed up with a response that only makes matters worse. This was no different, as Tony would defend himself against a reply to a tweet that questioned whether or not Vince McMahon would respond in the same manner that Khan was. Bringing up McMahon’s sexual allegations, Khan stated that Vince allegedly “used his influence to shoot a lot of shots”, a fairly unprofessional comment to make as one high profile executive to another, regardless of how truthful they are.
The most direct shot of all however would come once again on Twitter (a sign that maybe this is an avenue of Khan’s that needs to be monitored or closed), responding to the report that stated that Triple H & Shawn Michaels intend to use the NXT episode as a way of reminding AEW who really dominates the pro wrestling world, Tony tweeted a picture referring to the pair as ‘bald bastards’ hours before air time. This would also be the peak of all tribalism in favour of AEW, with many of the devoted fanbase getting behind Tony’s online warfare, praising his willingness to push the envelope online and act as a no-nonsense executive willing to spark controversy for the good of the company. Arguably still potentially intoxicated from the night prior, he would follow up after the completion of both NXT and AEW by replying to a tweet referring to Shawn Michaels as ‘Promoter of the Year’, an award given through the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that Tony has won 4 years back-to-back, stating that he was “pretty sure that last night blew whatever chance he had at winning that award”.
It may have been a better idea to wait for the numbers before posting that tweet, as NXT would soundly defeat AEW in the rankings by a large number, with nearly 300,000 more viewers and scoring a higher ranking in the 18-49 key demographic. This is where the perception of Tony Khan changes, largely thanks to the overconfidence he displayed going into the event, but mostly because of his refusal to take the loss like a normal executive would. Rather than taking the high road, letting it go and focusing on the future and how to come back bigger and better for what many expect to be another head-to-head this year, Tony decided he would focus on what NXT didn’t do, as well as continuing to disparage the WWE in an attempt to get some heat back onto AEW. This was not the kind of heat they wanted unfortunately.
First Khan would point towards the number of viewers that NXT managed to garner of 921,000. In particular, the focus was on the fact that for 20 years, neither The Undertaker nor John Cena had appeared on a WWE TV Program and failed to break past 1 million viewers, calling that a win for AEW in itself. Fans took this rather than an attack as a childish attempt to make himself and his company look better, and immediately swarmed to his replies to call him out. This wasn’t just WWE fans either, with many AEW fans urging Tony to ‘take the L’ and move forward to focus on his own television product. Did the boss who has always stived to listen to his audience take this advice into consideration?
He did not, rather, he made matters worse by bringing up an alleged contract tampering claim against the WWE from last year while Khan’s mother was in hospital. There are a few reasons why this in particular was the final straw for some of AEW’s most dedicated tribalists. For starters, in a period of time where costs of living are becoming too much for some of the most stable of households, the decision to discuss the patriarchal female of the Khan family’s stay in the Mayo Clinic displayed a clear separation between Khan and his audience, with the Mayo Clinic being one of the most unaffordable health care clinics in America. This wasn’t the crux of the issue though. The issue was that this was completely unrelated to the WWE. The addition of the contract tampering claim attached to a post about a family member nearly dying in hospital reeked of desperation, as Khan attempted to garner any potential support behind his company once more.
What remains to be seen is whether or not this will play a long-lasting effect on the overall perception of the brand. With reports of confusion and embarrassment coming from within the AEW camp surrounding the boss’ tweets, Wrestling Observer’s Bryan Alvarez claiming that people within the company are of the belief that he shouldn’t have access to Twitter at all, as well as many fans voicing their disapproval or disgust at the way that Tony Khan has handled the situation and how he’s taken this loss, will viewers switch off? Will wrestlers opt. away from the Jacksonville-based camp? In the short-term, probably not. In the long-term? That remains to be seen, but all we can say at this point is that if Tony wants AEW to be treated as at the very minimum the #2 brand of pro wrestling, this kind of activity needs to stop sooner rather than later.