Tony Khan says ‘gloves are off’ with AEW Rampage set for WWE SmackDown battle

Tony Khan has no problem counterpunching WWE if they are going to bring the fight to him this Friday. The All Elite Wrestling president has reacted to WWE’s “SmackDown” on FS1 being supersized and running a half-hour and commercial free into “AEW Rampage (10 p.m., TNT).

Khan responded with a tweet welcoming the challenge and by also adding an hour-long “Buy In” preshow on YouTube during SmackDown at 9 p.m., headlined by New Japan Pro Wrestling legend Minoru Suzuki vs. Bryan Danielson. Rampage will feature CM Punk and the in-ring debut of former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. It is part of a big weekend for AEW with Dynamite moving from Wednesday to Saturday night because of the MLB playoffs.

Khan took time for some Q&A with The Post’s Joseph Staszewski ahead of it all.  

(Edited for clarity and length)

Q: Why did you feel like you needed to send that tweet to respond to WWE adding the commercial free extra half hour to SmackDown and challenging them and challenging AEW to have a big ratings night?

From the beginning of the launch of AEW, before we even had TV, a lot of the strategy was rallying the fans on the internet, rallying the fans online around the company and our wrestlers. And people really liked AEW, the people who watch the shows, they like the wrestlers. We have a very positive sentiment and in the position that we’re in, like I said, actions speak louder than words and I’ve always wanted everyone to watch all the wrestling they want. So if somebody’s going to put a show head to head with us I want people to know, very much in the spirit of wrestling competition. (With) the “Monday Night Wars” there was a lot of pride in the companies and people wore that on their sleeve. In this case, there are a lot of AEW fans and a lot of them are online. That’s how we were built, through a digital fan base.

We can build a big audience for this weekend. We’ve never had anything like this before with three hours of live wrestling on TNT on a weekend other than a pay-per-view. There are a ton of things happening at this time of year, there’s a lot of sports. There’s a lot of competition outside of wrestling. So if we’re going to start trying to directly head-to-head compete with each other at this time of year where there are all these other things happening in sports, let’s go. I’m not the one who threw the gloves off, but if somebody has to do the talking and sell the fight I will be the one to do it. In this case, I am doing all the talking and all the selling of the fight. I do think we need to go back to an era where there is all this excitement about the shows. It’s clearly built buzz because a lot of people are talking about it.

We got a great opportunity to draw people on the weekend in a new position for us. Rampage has launched very recently and we’ve had this great run of Wednesdays where we’ve had six straight weeks as the No. 1 show on all of cable television on Wednesday. And now Dynamite is being moved to a relatively unfamiliar Saturday night time slot. Three hours of weekend wrestling is very different. I put together the Buy In as a response, but that took some time. I wasn’t able to do that right away. So I wanted to let people know the gloves are off.

Q: The next tweet you sent said it was part of your business plan to recreate this competition, this back-and-forth spirit that was there in the 90s.

A: In wrestling, we’re worth more against each other and we’re better off against each other. I believe there is greater value in the wrestling market when we’re fighting and people want to see competition in wrestling. I think it’s one of the reasons people lost interest in wrestling was because there was not true competition for 20 years. Now with AEW in the mix and competition back in wrestling, I think there are more people excited about wrestling than there have been in a long time with the free-agent movement and good shows. At the end of the day, it has to be good shows. Through the 90s there were a lot of great wrestling shows. Every week, every month there would be great stories and great matches and you couldn’t miss it. I think it’s starting to get that way again.

Q: A lot of the AEW talk during the Wednesday Night Wars was, we concentrated on ourselves and didn’t care what the other company was doing. Does this go against that and why was this the right time to do something like this?

A: It’s a little bit different than the Wednesday Night Wars because that was from the very beginning of Dynamite and we put our head down and it was an every-week thing. This seemed like pretty predatory, which is fine if that’s how you want to play it. It’s not outwardly how they’ve (WWE) shown they wanted to play it.

I’ve coined a phrase which is WYW, watch your wrestling. Whatever people what to watch, I want them to watch it. Unfortunately, if we are on at the same time it’s harder for people to watch their wrestling, at least live. We can take the commercials out of it. If you want to take the commercials out of it, I can do that too. It doesn’t seem very civil but I have more money than they do so I can afford to do that longer than they can. But that’s how we make money at the end of the day, so I was surprised when they took those out.

CM Punk delivers an elbow to Will Hobbs.
AEW

Q: Outside of All Out, we’ve only seen CM Punk wrestle on Rampage. We are getting Matt Sydal with him this week. Was that something done by design to keep Punk there and will that continue?

A: He’s given a great lift. When he’s wrestled they’ve been the high quarter hours (ratings) and his appearances have helped lift the audience and we’ve seen on Friday nights that people do want to see him, even this past week when there was great competition from baseball.

Q: How do you envision the women’s TBS championship being used? Will it be used similar to how the TNT title is used where matches are on TV almost every week and we get some open challenges?

A: I think it will be very similar once it gets established. We’ll have a tournament. We had a great tournament for the TNT title. I think we’ll have a great TBS title tournament with a field that is just as strong, which really shows how far the development of our women’s division has come since we launched Dynamite two years ago because we have built a number of new stars and a lot of the women in the division have improved a ton and we signed some new stars as well.

Q: How did the partnership with American Top team come about and why was that something important for you to do and feature on Rampage?

A: (Founder) Dan (Lambert) is a really good friend of mine. I got to know him through (Jorge) Masvidal. I wanted to talk to Jorgy about coming in and doing the stuff he’s doing right now, being one of the world’s top MMA fighters and lending that credibility to AEW and kicking some asses in AEW. That was over a year and a half ago before the pandemic hit. I met Dan through Jorgy and what a great guy and what a huge wrestling fan. I connected with Dan and through the pandemic, he was in Florida and he came and he was part of our (COVID) bubble. He was backstage and he was in the crowd.

He was really good (as Bobby Lashley’s manager in TNA). The more I got to know him, the more I got to like him. I had this idea that he could be this really good manager and maybe it would make some sense for some of the fighters to come in and be stable. I had put together Scorpio Sky and Ethan Page to be foils for Sting and Darby and they worked great together. They have been really great heels for us and they have the legit fighting background.

AEW
Former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos takes it to Chris Jericho.
AEW

Scorpio Sky’s got a winning MMA record and is a tough guy and Ethan Page, people don’t think of Ethan Page and think double black belt in karate and Tae Kwon Do and people should be thinking that. That was my point to him. That should be part of your presentation. It’s crazy it’s not. I didn’t know that. I had no idea when I put those guys together. I had no idea Ethan Page has two black belts. And then I’m learning more about it and I’m like his what we should do. He didn’t even tell me that, I was researching it.

I put them together with Dan and they just clicked as people. People had doubts about it. The ratings have been really good and I think the chemistry has gotten better every week.

Q: I don’t know how much longer Minoru Suzuki is available in the US, but would it have been a mistake not to use him against Bryan in a match everyone wants?

A: In looking for a great opponent to test Bryan ahead of his big match (Saturday versus Bobby Fish) something possessed me to call up New Japan and put this together to get Suzuki back. While he was in America I really wanted to take advantage of it. I felt like I had to do it. It felt like the right match at the right time and it also felt like the right place for it on the Buy In, without the constraints of live television that exist. Bryan versus Suzuki to me would really appeal to that digital audience and also a worldwide audience.

AEW
Minoru Suzuki takes a bite out of Jon Moxley.
AEW

Q: For you what was the significance of AEW Grand Slam, the size of that show in New York, to have it be received as well as it was. New York is been a market other companies have had trouble breaking into in a big way.

A: To put together the AEW Grand Slam was something that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time since before the pandemic really to make Arthur Ashe Stadium AEW’s home in New York City and it was a perfect debut in the market. We had so many great things about the show to have that Bryan Danielson-Kenny Omega match to begin and so many great moments through the show. It was truly a Grand Slam home run for AEW I thought.

Q: You said on WFAN that you haven’t talked to Bray Wyatt yet. Is that a conversion you’d like to have at some point if the timing is right for everybody?

A: Yeah. I really like Windham (Rotunda). I know him a little bit and I really enjoy him. The last time I saw him was at Chris Jericho’s birthday party and that was a long time ago. I like him as a person very much and he’s a really talented person. At the right time and place, sure I’d be interested to talk to him. I’m interested to talk to him in general because he’s a great person.