A year ago, Tony Khan and AEW were in the midst of a pro wrestling revolution. Sure, the company had been around since 2019, but last summer Khan’s promotion was able to sign and debut three massive talents — all wildly popular with fans — in a matter of weeks.
The debuts of Adam Cole, Bryan Danielson and CM Punk should have represented the start of one of the most exciting times in the company’s brief history, unlocking myriad potential matchups most enthusiasts had only dreamed of. Instead, AEW was forced to scramble somewhat over the past 10 months due to several health issues among its three new signings as well as three of the company stalwarts in Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega.
“Looking back at a year with these wrestlers, it’s been the strangest thing because of the availability,” Khan told Yahoo Sports. “We had the first three champions in the history of AEW — Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega — and then we added these three stars in the summer of last year. Within a couple of months, Omega, due to a variety of injuries, had to step away in November. Moxley, for his personal health, had to step away in November and right after that, Jericho had a blood clot. All of a sudden we went from having these six huge stars — on top of the talent up and down the card — to having our first three champions need to take time for their health.”
The absence of three foundational stars forced Khan to adapt, quickly crafting programs involving Cole, Danielson and Punk against other talent in MJF, then-champion Adam “Hangman” Page, and Orange Cassidy. As AEW continued to march along during the first half of the year, leading up to one of the companies signature events, “Double or Nothing,” it seemed as if the roster had finally turned a corner health-wise.
Although Omega, one of AEW’s executive vice presidents, was still recuperating, Jericho and Moxley returned in peak physical form and provided an extra level of star power.
Once again, however, the injury bug struck and AEW would lose newly crowned champion Punk to a foot injury, Cole to a torn labrum and concussion, and Danielson to a concussion.
“We felt like things were really clicking and then boom, we lose Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson on the same night to injury and CM Punk gets hurt not long after,” Khan said. “It all happened in the matter of about a week. The summer was way different than what we had planned, but thankfully we had Jericho and Mox back.”
Complicating matters was the fact that Khan and AEW were on the cusp of launching an entirely new tentpole pay-per-view event, “Forbidden Door,” where AEW talent would compete against overseas stars from New Japan Pro Wrestling. All of a sudden, AEW needed to crown a new, interim, world champion, setting the stage for a reinvigorated Moxley and Japanese wrestling legend Hiroshi Tanahashi to square off.
“I think Forbidden Door was the most challenging pay-per-view we’ve ever put together,” Khan said. “People don’t know half of the stories about the challenges. It was really pushing and pulling to get the wrestlers from New Japan sooner than they were originally scheduled to arrive. New Japan worked with me and we got Will Ospreay and Tanahashi in a little earlier than planned. Nobody will know the full plans, but I’ve publicly admitted there were some really cool matches that had to change in the build to Forbidden Door and that changed the rest of the summer.”
Moxley versus Tanahashi lived up to the hype, with the former AEW champion emerging as the winner and essentially becoming the driving force behind the company for a summer that looked to be uncertain at best.
It was a fitting, full-circle moment for Moxley, who stepped away from the company last November to seek treatment for an admitted alcohol addiction.
“[Since he’s been back] His mind is clearer, his body is healthier, he’s leaner, he’s more fun, he’s having a better time,” Khan said. “Jon’s always been a great professional and great to work with, but honestly he’s been better than ever since he got himself totally clean and sober. A total breath of fresh air since his return. It’s fitting that he had this great run throughout the summer and is the AEW champion. He’s been one of the driving forces that has helped us beat this injury bug.”
The burden on Moxley and Jericho would be lifted as the summer went on, as Danielson returned to action in July and then Punk and Omega in August at two of AEW’s bigger shows, “Quake at the Lake” and “House of the Dragon” — a direct tie-in to one of the most coveted and successful intellectual properties in entertainment, requested by Warner Bros. Discovery, AEW and HBO’s parent company.
“It was great to get Danielson back at the end of July after he had been gone for a few months and he has been a huge part of the show since he returned,” Khan said. “He had a great comeback match with Daniel Garcia — it was more than a great match, I believe it was a star-making bout for Garcia. We built something really cool around ‘The American Dragon’ versus the ‘Dragon Slayer.’ It was a classic and one of my favorite matches we ever had on Dynamite. I think it showed that we can adapt and work to be a really good partner for Warner Bros. Discovery and promote their projects.”
Now, this Sunday, AEW is holding its signature event, “All Out,” with as close to a full-strength roster as it has had in a calendar year. Moxley is set to face Punk again for the AEW World Championship and in what is Khan’s most-anticipated match, Jericho against Danielson — Lionheart versus The American Dragon.
“I was sitting in an audience wearing a Tazz shirt holding a Chris Jericho sign as a 13-year-old at Jericho’s last two matches in ECW,” Khan said. “His second-to-last match against Sabu and his match the very next night against 2 Cold Scorpio. When he came back in this kind of condition [having lost 30-plus pounds], where he looked like Lionheart again, it was very fitting for him to bring it back.”
Sunday’s card represents somewhat of a reset for AEW and the start of a new season – hopefully for Khan, one that comes with fewer curveballs and less treacherous waters to navigate than the past 12 months have provided him.
“The goal is to strike a balance between having happy fans, good stories and a happy locker room,” Khan said. “I think for the most part we do have that. I think the really exciting thing about All Out and this week for AEW is that we are approaching a full-strength roster again.
“It felt like last year we kicked off a season — it was a wild, tumultuous, one — but we had some of our greatest business heights. It has been challenging but I do believe this will wind up being one of our greatest pay-per-views.”