Naysayers told Cody Rhodes it would never happen. But Rhodes wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Rhodes saw his vision of a revolutionary wrestling promotion officially take shape with the recent announcement that All Elite Wrestling was in business.
Unlike the launch for most wrestling companies, this one comes with considerable financial backing and an increasingly growing list of dynamic young stars.
Financing comes from the Khan family, who own the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and have a reported net worth of $7 billion, considerably more than WWE’s McMahon family. While individual monetary worth isn’t necessarily an overriding indicator of a company’s potential success, in today’s wrestling market it’s almost a must to at least get into the game.
On the heels of the company’s ultra-successful All In show last September in Chicago, which sold out in minutes, a corporate structure and game plan have been put into place. AEW is the brainchild of Rhodes (real name Cody Runnels) and his close friends, The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Massie), who in recent years have been one of the hottest commodities outside the realm of WWE.
As founders and leaders of the new company, Rhodes and The Bucks have multi-year deals and will serve as executive vice presidents of AEW. Cody’s wife, former WWE ring announcer Brandi Rhodes (Runnels), will serve as Chief Brand Officer and be in charge of the women on the AEW roster. Matt Massie’s wife, Dana Massie, will be head of merchandising.
It was Rhodes who changed the course of his career when he surprisingly asked for his release from WWE in May 2016, leaving a sizable contract on the table.
Rhodes’ exit from WWE was less than one year after his father, “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, passed away. He would leave the company with five tag-team title reigns, two Intercontinental championship runs and a handful of Wrestlemania appearances on his resume.
“I left WWE not because of the money, but I wanted my soul to fill up with wrestling,” said Rhodes.
Despite many doubters telling him that he was possibly risking his future in wrestling by leaving the all-powerful WWE, Rhodes was confident that he could forge his own successful path, and he succeeded in doing just that and more.
Since leaving WWE, the 33-year-old Rhodes has won the prestigious Ring of Honor world championship, joined the wildly popular Bullet Club, and performed at the last two Wrestle Kingdoms at the Tokyo Dome. A match with New Japan Pro Wrestling sensation Kenny Omega, arguably the hottest free agent in wrestling today, looms in Rhodes’ future, but it could happen in All Elite if Rhodes has his way.
The IWGP U.S. champion would be the crowning achievement if he decides to continue his career in All Elite. Omega, along with Rhodes, The Young Bucks and Adam Page, reportedly have all been offered lucrative contracts with WWE in attempts by the company to derail its latest opposition. Thus far, though, the young talent remain committed to blazing their own unique trail in the industry.
AEW’s biggest catch to date is longtime WWE superstar Chris Jericho, who signed a three-year, non-exclusive deal with AEW that he called “an NFL-level offer” and the best contract of his life.
“Chris Jericho is now ‘All In’ with All Elite Wrestling,” Jericho said after signing. “We’re going to change the universe baby!”
Changing the universe, though, may be easier than going head to head with WWE.
“WWE is the biggest wrestling company in the world – you’re not going to beat it,” Jericho told Wrestling Inc. “We don’t want to beat the WWE. We’re not planning on that. That’s not the mindset of AEW. The mindset is to provide an option, an alternative for wrestling fans. It’s something you haven’t seen before and haven’t seen in a while.”
All Elite held its launch rally Jan. 8 in Jacksonville, Fla., at the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and on the same day WWE was holding Smackdown Live in the city.
Two more major AEW shows have already been announced. Double or Nothing is scheduled May 25 in Las Vegas at MGM Grand Garden Arena, along with a second event planned this summer in Jacksonville.
Doing things differently and giving talent more creative freedom are among the basic tenets of the new organization. Like his famous father might have said, young Rhodes is taking the bull by the horns, willing to take chances and create excitement.
Wrestlers will be the writers in this new venture, and they will not be micro-managed, Rhodes told SEScoops.com.
“There won’t be a writer hired for All Elite Wrestling anytime soon,” said Rhodes. “Because wrestlers are the writers. We’re the writers. Like I said with guys going out there and playing their own music, believe me – the day comes that I see ‘this is something we can really benefit from’ – absolutely, but I knew 40 writers in WWE and about four of them actually did anything.
"The reason I remember them and value them, they helped produce pre-tapes, they were team players, so right now that’s one thing we’ve gotten a lot of questions about. We’re keeping it very in-house for now.”
But today’s brand of pro wrestling, the successful kind anyway, is all about television and talent. Young stars are being recruited, and undoubtedly some WWE performers are eyeing opportunities when their contracts expire. All Elite reportedly is negotiating with two major cable stations.
The blueprint is solid. No U.S.-based pro wrestling company other than WWE had drawn 10,000 fans since WCW did it nearly 20 years ago. Not only did All In sell out, it did so in under 30 minutes when tickets went on sale several months earlier.
Tony Khan, 36, will serve as president of All Elite Wrestling, while Rhodes and The Young Bucks will be the “braintrust.”
Khan was named vice chairman and director of football operations for the Fulham Football Club in 2017.
Khan’s father, Shad, owns both the Jaguars and the Fulham Football Club, which is based in London.
The younger Khan is no newcomer to the wrestling business. A lifelong fan, the businessman and football executive is excited about his new venture. But he refuted a rumor that he was attempting to acquire Impact Wrestling or any other existing company.
“We’re looking to start something new ... I am not looking to absorb,” Khan said on Sean Waltman’s recent podcast. “I am open to partnerships. There are a lot of people doing exciting things all over the world and especially internationally; I am very open to partnerships. And domestically, I think I’ve seen the future and it’s what we’re doing.
"I am very, very happy with where we’re at today … I am not really looking to acquire a lot of other companies or even libraries, but as far as partnerships and things of that nature I think there’s a lot of exciting things that people can do.”
An equal pay scale for men and women talent will be offered, according to Khan, who also plans for AEW talent to be full-time employees of the company, complete with healthcare and benefits.
Rhodes modified that stance in a recent interview with ESPN.
“We want to make this a better world for wrestling fans by making it a better world for wrestlers. So the first step you have is you up that price point and you take care of your wrestlers more. The more that happens, we can continue to go.
“A union in pro wrestling – and that’s this thing that people say all of the time, and they don’t realize it – a union in pro wrestling would put pro wrestling out of business. But, with that said, we should be actively working towards some sort of body, and this is outside of what I’m talking about with AEW and as me in the executive role, but we should actively be working to have the happiest talent you can possibly have.
"Whether that starts as a talent feedback system, or a players’ league, or some sort of body where there’s a complete, transparent communication between those in the office and those in the locker room.”
Shahid “Shad” Khan, 68, who was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States in 1967, is ranked 65th on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, and 217th among the richest people in the world.
One of only three NFL owners who were born outside the United States, Khan bought the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011 for $760 million. The Jaguars are now worth more than $2 billion.
Khan said he will be as committed to All Elite Wrestling as everything else in his life.
He offered the following statement: “I am the lead investor, a supporter and a backer of All Elite Wrestling, and I anticipate great things today and into the future for AEW and everyone who has worked passionately on this week’s launch. I know AEW will be welcomed by wrestling fans here in the U.S. and throughout the world who are ready for something new and authentic. AEW will work hard to deliver on that promise.
“As important, I am the father – the proud father – of Tony Khan, who will serve in a leadership role at AEW during the 2019 launch and in the years ahead. Tony will assemble a great team to take AEW over the top, for the benefit of everyone who loves the wrestling industry, while continuing to serve in his current capacities with the Jaguars and Fulham.”
“AEW will launch with a roster of the top wrestlers in the world,” added Tony Khan, who reportedly is investing $100 million into AEW. “While they’ll clash in what will be some of the most intense and fast-paced contests ever sanctioned in the squared circle, they’ll also share a common goal: to make this the true golden age, to make this the greatest time ever to be a wrestling fan. Likewise, as a business, by treating our wrestlers with respect and warmth, we also seek to make this the golden age for the performers themselves.”
The buzz generated by the fledgling promotion, especially among younger, hardcore fans, has been substantial. An informal social media survey displayed overwhelming optimism concerning the company’s future. While any new major wrestling promotion not named WWE faces an uphill battle in today’s climate, many fans feel AEW has a legitimate chance to become a self-sustaining, profitable enterprise.
Greg Tingle, media and marketing director at the Australian-based Media Man Int and a longtime follower of the wrestling business, weighed in on the new promotion, offering an analysis and projections for AEW.
Tingle firmly believes that AEW could provide a viable alternative to Vince McMahon’s monolith. Much depends, says Tingle, on how long the Khan family is prepared to wait for a return on their investment.
“All Elite Wrestling has their work cut out for them no matter how deep those pockets are,” says Tingle, who lists several positive factors for the promotion, including those deep pockets of the Khan family and their overall success in the sports and entertainment business, along with the signing of Chris Jericho.
“Jericho also is a multi-media and business mastermind. His in-ring skills and being over are only a moderate part of the deal with Jericho. He’s super smart to the business, and defied the odds himself to become the hottest wrestler in the world, and got the deal of a lifetime.”
Tingle also sees Cody Rhodes as a significant piece of the puzzle.
“Rhodes’ management and involvement facilitates positive news, cred and the fans and industry wanting to see him and the crew succeed,” says Tingle. “Worldwide positive news and PR has already been achieved due to the close-knit world of professional wrestling. Soon the news needs to get to the mainstream sports and entertainment world (via a TV deal with regular programming).”
Naturally, adds Tingle, there will be challenges.
“AEW is known to pay good money to performers, so they are burning through cash. Performers will expect big pay packets, and may demand big deals to make the jump over now that the world knows Jericho got a massive payday.”
And then there are the unknowns.
“How long is the Khan family giving AEW to work and show a return on investment (if we can assume that’s also part of the goal, other than just making a mark on the industry)? How long can AEW be a ‘loss leader,’ funded by other Khan business investments? The wrestling world knows the story of WCW’s challenge and success up against WWE. Just how much money does one spend to become successful, then only to see a downward spiral and catastrophic cash burn and collapse?
“Like most fans and sports media commentators, I really want to see All Elite Wrestling succeed and become a true and sustainable alternative to WWE (and even New Japan Pro Wrestling to some extent). I think the odds are against the long-term, decades-plus success of the promotion, but I would love to see it happen. With the right TV deal, international expansion and fans around the world continuing to get behind the Khan clan, it could happen. It would be incredible to see AEW become a sustainable pro wrestling company for decades into the future.”
‘Change the world’
Cody Rhodes’ dream is “to change the wrestling world.” He knows that lofty goal won’t be easy.
Former WCW boss Eric Bichoff recently offered advice to the new promotion on his “After 83 Weeks” podcast.
“They're in a zone right now. It doesn’t come easily, it doesn’t come often, but they’re there. Be smart, go slow, don’t let it go to your head, trust me. Go slow and always surround yourself with people you absolutely trust.”
“What's really cool about (All In) is they did it without television,” added Bischoff. “That is what’s mind boggling. From a guy who’s grown up in the wrestling business who couldn’t imagine being involved in the wrestling industry without a solid TV platform underneath you, these guys go out with their own money and prove everybody wrong.”
Cody Rhodes’ older brother, WWE’s Goldust (Dustin Runnels), told Wrestling Inc. that the venture is big not only for his brother, but for the entire wrestling community.
“It’s something the world needs to grasp hold of because Cody is a Rhodes. The wrestling community loves the Rhodes family, not only loves them, but we know what we’re doing. Everyone makes mistakes along the way, but we learn from our mistakes. We learn and we watch as much as possible before we do any big move like this, and this is a big move.”
WWE Hall of Famer Jerry “The King” Lawler said competition makes everyone better, and history shows that it brings out the best in WWE.
“I hope it does well because believe it or not, competition is the best thing for anything. The best time that the WWE ever had was during the Monday Night Wars,” Lawler said on his “Dinner with the King” podcast.
“You had two wrestling shows on at the same time on Monday nights. Two different companies, and they were getting seven and eight million people watching each one of them. And now you struggle to get two million to watch the only show in town.”
Shot in the arm
Many fans and performers also weighed in on social media with their thoughts on All Elite.
Veteran wrestling star Joel Deaton believes AEW has a great chance to succeed, but only if the company goes the opposite route of what WWE is doing.
“It seems the money is there. If they do the exact opposite of the way WWE’s shows are done, it will have a chance,” posted Deaton. “Something different with solid talent. Shake it all up … create interest.”
Former NWA world junior heavyweight champion Denny Brown says the formula is in place for a successful promotion.
“A good product, a good show top to bottom, and not everyone is a superstar. Going back to the fundamentals of what’s on the marquee. Wrestling. Not every match needs to be a main event. Make everything mean something from top to bottom.”
“I don’t know much about the financial aspect of the biz, but I know TV rights play a big part in the viability of a company,” wrote Jesse O’Quinn of Hanahan. “If they can score a good TV deal, they could make a nice impact. The talent level speaks for itself. I hope they do well. Competition breeds creativity.”
“They can’t afford to sign too many disgruntled WWE talents or they will appear as WWE-Lite. There are too many good talents available that can be developed without taking in WWE refugees,” opined Jerry Wiseman of Sylva, N.C.
Ronnie James Dio of Charleston makes a comparison between AEW and the now defunct WCW.
“Didn’t some billionaire own a brand back in the ‘90s with a gigantic roster of world-class talent? I think it was called WCW? Whatever happened to that?”
Kelly Green of Murray, Ky., believes AEW’s future hinges on a major TV deal.
“Even though streaming has taken over the video viewing world, it won’t pay the salaries. I do believe Cody and the Bucks have the knowledge, work ethic and vision to create a viable product, but a TV deal from a TBS, TNT or Paramount is what it will take to make it profitable from the jump. Oh, and signing Kenny Omega will help with ratings!”
Michael Johnson of Summerville agrees.
“With the backing of the Khan family, it looks like they’re in it to win it. Jericho signed a three-year deal and that tells me that he thinks a lot about it in this stage of his career. We will see what kind of TV deal they can get and that will show what direction they’re going in. Also let’s not forget about how great TNA was, but in the end the talent ended up leaving.”
Chip Collins of Columbia believes AEW will need help from other companies in the first year in order to garner a lucrative TV deal.
“It could be a chicken/egg scenario. In order to get a good TV contract, they first have to sign enough talent to have a deep enough roster to be able to create enough storylines that can sustain a new company. And in order to get enough talent to sign, they may need a TV contract.
“They may be able to get away with making Double or Nothing an ‘All In 2’ by simply putting on great matches, but I think for them to be viable the first couple of years until they can strengthen the roster, they are going to have to make arrangements with ROH, NJPW, MLW, etc. in order to put out an ongoing product.”
Donovan Daniels of Nashville foresees growing pains for the company and, despite the wealth of young talent, questions if that group is ready for weekly prime-time exposure.
“I don’t think people really understand what it takes to be camera-ready. Guys like Finn Balor went to NXT to learn stuff like that for over a year. There’s an art to it, and unless Cody is giving crash courses to how it’s done, there’s gonna be some growing pains.”
Jack Hunter of Washington, D.C., sees a less-scripted format as a positive.
“Co-vice president Cody Rhodes has said they weren’t looking to hire writers and want their performers to get over on their own. No micro-managing. That's a refreshing throwback approach. If they successfully create an alternative to WWE with major financial backing and a solid television deal, why wouldn’t it be viable? Fox didn’t pay WWE billions because pro wrestling is a hard sell.”
Brian Westcott of Meridian, Idaho, says that AEW could be just the shot in the arm that the wrestling industry needs.
“Things haven’t been the same since both WCW and ECW closed their doors. Impact Wrestling is just a shell of its former self. ROH has made huge advances and there is New Japan for true world competition.”
“Steep uphill battle for sure,” adds Eric Buddy Burke of Columbia. “With time, patience, and money and brains, it’s possible.”
Time will tell
Not everyone, however, is sold on AEW.
Former WCW announcer Chris Cruise of Silver Spring, Md., is a hardened skeptic who sees a potential money-loser in the making.
“The opportunity to make money with a national wrestling promotion on TV in 2019 does not exist,” says Cruise.
“Ted Turner thought it would be a great investment as well,” Bill Hazelwood of Greenville remarked on AEW’s foray into wrestling.
“I have never been impressed by Omega and the Young Bucks. There is nothing about the wrestling today that makes me want to watch,” wrote Rick Bauer. “It will collapse when all those egos start to clash.”
Charlie Nash of Loris believes AEW has a chance to be successful, just nowhere near the level of the WWE juggernaut.
“He (Khan) needs to concentrate on a losing football team. Will they be successful? Sure. They have an audience but not WWE numbers and pop-culture relevance.”
Mike Ferrell of Greer says AEW will have to present an edgier product to bring new fans into the fold and compete with the worldwide leader in sports entertainment.
“If they want to compete, they have to bring back a wrestling product that is not PG. Something with an edge more in line with the Attitude Era. They need to sell that it’s wrestling for adults … at least in part. They will not out-PG the WWE; they have that demographic on lock.”
Kevin Pendley of Birmingham, Ala., says acquiring Kenny Omega would be a major get for the upstart promotion and could be a game-changer.
“I don’t know if wrestling has passed him (Vince McMahon) by, or he does not look at his shows closely. Every match is predictable, every angle and outcome is the same. How many matches can you see dive after dive, flip after flip, same match different talents, each match is not staged differently.”
In the end, though, pro wrestling needs more players to flourish and prosper. More places for the boys to work is always a good thing.
Sean Waltman, the former X-Pac, put it in perspective.
“I hope the enthusiasm stays because everyone complains that we need another major player in the industry, so please support it.”