Tony Khan has built A.E.W.’s roster around a combination of fan favorites from the indie circuit and older veterans of televised wrestling. A kind of mark himself, he claims to have kept notebooks since age 12 that detailed characters and story lines for shows that would eventually become “Dynamite” and “Rampage,” A.E.W.’s Wednesday- and Friday-night programs. Khan is 40, wears his hair bushy and speaks in a fluent monotone, with the confidence and peculiar affect that signal generational wealth; his father, Shahid Khan, is an auto-parts billionaire and co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham Football Club.
There seems to be no aspect of A.E.W.’s operation in which Tony Khan is not involved. Our formal interview backstage during Memorial Day weekend’s “Rampage” event took place while he was on a headset with the production truck, the in-ring referee, the announcing team and the veteran wrestler Dustin Rhodes, who assists with the live show in various ways, including by identifying each in-ring move for the broadcast announcers. Khan’s role in this process is to ensure that the largely improvised show progresses according to the schedule determined by the television deal; during our conversation, he repeatedly interrupted himself to give timing instructions to the referee, who then surreptitiously communicated them to the wrestlers in the ring. Partly because we were behind a curtain and partly because of the subwoofer-reinforced booms of wrestlers slamming each other onto the miked-up canvas, speaking to him was like meeting a less defensive but more distracted Wizard of Oz.
Khan regards the indie circuit as an invaluable source of talent. “I like to take people’s presentation once it’s gotten over, once it’s gotten popular and been accepted,” he told me. “Getting over” is a term of art; wrestlers are “over” when the audience starts enthusiastically responding to them, positively or negatively. “If you find people that have gotten over with a smaller, hard-core audience, often if you give them a chance on national television, the hard-core audience will vouch for them.”
‘I think we’re all weirdos, and they can connect with that. In a good way. Good weird.’
He was placing a big bet on this strategy Memorial Day weekend. Khan had already kept Danhausen on the roster for months while an injury he sustained at an indie event in Knoxville, Tenn. — a broken tibia and fibula — left him unable to wrestle. Now Khan had decided to make Danhausen’s match the buy-in for A.E.W.’s annual “Double or Nothing” event in Las Vegas — the first match of the event, which airs on free TV as an enticement for ambivalent fans to buy the pay per view. So not only would it be Danhausen’s first major in-ring performance after returning from injury, in front of the largest crowd of his career — at that point, T-Mobile Arena had sold out at a little over 14,000 seats — but it would also be of crucial importance to his new employer and set the tone for the biggest event in company history. Which would all be fine, Danhausen assured me, because the main lesson he had learned from wrestling was that you couldn’t really control what happened to you, but you could maximize the opportunity in whatever did.
“If you get cut and you have a minute,” he said, “you just make the most of your minute.”
By 10:45 on Saturday morning, the line to meet Hangman Adam Page at the “Double or Nothing” Fan Fest event in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center threatened to stretch past the logistically important center of the room. The line for the announcer and former wrestler Taz was the second-longest, and Danhausen’s was third. He stood at a cafe table at the end of a tension-barrier chute and steadily autographed a stack of playing-card-themed promotional photos A.E.W. created for the event. No cellphone pictures were allowed, but a company photographer was on hand to snap one picture of him with each fan or group of fans. He made the curse gesture for just about every photo.
Danhausen was in makeup but not in character, a choice that seemed equally jarring and thrilling to his admirers. One fan brought him a copy of “An American Werewolf in London” on DVD — something Danhausen already had, but not on Blu-ray, which the fan insisted was hard to find — and they conversed briefly about the genius of David Naughton. One element of Danhausen’s appeal seems to be that the panoply of pop-culture references in his gimmick — to “The Simpsons,” to B-horror movies, to cartoons like “The Venture Bros.” and “Space Ghost” and to the shared inheritance of wrestling history — creates a series of recognitions among fans, who may not get what he is doing at first but immediately understand that the person doing it is somehow like them. “I think we’re all weirdos, and they can connect with that,” Danhausen said. “In a good way. Good weird.”