Tony Khan is a busy man.
The Premier League season has started. There’s also the impending transfer deadline — with Fulham needing to reshape its squad by the time the window closes on September 1. Khan is the vice chairman and director of football operations at the club his father, Shahid, owns.
There’s also the small matter of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL team also owned by his dad, where he’s the chief football strategy officer.
Before Khan spoke with The Athletic, he’d just finished a 90-minute Zoom call with the manager and senior figures at Fulham. The call came two days before the London club made a record-breaking sale, with striker Aleksandar Mitrovic joining Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal for a deal worth £45million ($57.5m).
But for the 40-year-old, there’s another focus looming. On August 27, Khan will promote what’s being advertised as the biggest professional wrestling event of all time.
The Athletic spoke to Khan; wrestlers Chris Jericho, Jeff Jarrett and Paul Wight; and Fulham chief executive Alistair Mackintosh to find out how he’s done it — and about how Khan balances his responsibilites.
If you want to understand Tony Khan, you have to ask him about wrestling. He’s been a fan since the early 1990s, when he tuned into the then-WWF (World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE). He was hooked.
“Between 7 and 8 (years old), I had soaked up so much information about wrestling,” he said. “Within a year, I learned so many facts, figures and dates.
“Probably by the time I was 9 years old, I had watched hundreds and hundreds of wrestling shows.”
In 1995, he went on a pre-Google search engine and asked the question every child with an interest in wrestling wants to know: “Is wrestling real or fake?”
Khan found the answer, but he also received “a lot of answers to a lot of questions I’d always had.” And that set Khan up with the next phase of his fandom. He jumped on message boards and chat rooms and learned about a wider wrestling world.
Ask him about how big a wrestling fan he was and is, and he tells this story: “I gained admission to the University of Illinois Laboratory High School. It was the top public academic high school. I did not want to attend because none of my friends would be going there. I took the exam, and I did very well. My parents told me they really wanted me to go. I said, ‘Well, you told me I didn’t have to go if I passed the test.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but you passed it, you got the top score, and we really think you should go.’
“I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna miss all my friends, and they said, ‘Look, we get that. We understand you’re upset, we’ll make it up to you. Please go to the school, and we’ll do pretty much anything within reason.’
“I said I wanted to go to the RSPW — which was the newsgroup (a precursor to internet forums and social media) Rec.Sport.Pro-Wrestling — Internet Fan Convention 1996 weekend.
“This included two shows at ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling), including (future AEW wrestler) Chris Jericho’s final two matches in ECW.”
Who went with him? “My dad — (who was) not a wrestling fan at all — took me on this trip. I was almost introducing him to people I’m meeting for the first time, like (ECW promoter) Paul Heyman when I was 13 years old.”
While on these chatrooms, Khan also came across a text-based video game called Lance Haffner’s Rampage Wrestling, which allowed users to set up their own virtual wrestling cards, matching wrestler against wrestler, deciding the outcome and tracking these events. In the game, Khan would play the role of promoter and booker. Wrestling bookers are the people behind the scenes who decide the outcome of matches, who wins title belts, and who takes part in the main event of the biggest shows. In a sense, they’re the person who ultimately nods and says Dwayne Johnson can become The Rock.
“I posted shows in newsgroups, chat rooms and different mediums and platforms online,” he said. “This began when I was 12 years old.”
Khan kept booking virtual shows. They were always called “Dynamite” at first. When he was 28, he wrote a show called “Rampage” for the first time.
Today, Khan is living out his virtual dreams. He is the founder and co-owner of All Elite Wrestling, which he set up in 2019. He is the promoter and booker. He produces two two-hour live television shows a week: “AEW Dynamite” and “AEW Collision.” A third one-hour show, “AEW Rampage,” is taped after “Dynamite” each week. They are broadcast on TNT and TBS in the U.S., ITV in the U.K. and on additional TV channels around the world.
In the last two years, AEW has promoted five pay-per-view events. This year, it is adding a sixth. All In takes place on August 27 at Wembley Stadium.
As of last Saturday, All In had distributed 80,846 tickets. Dave Meltzer, the editor and publisher of the Wrestling Observer, put that into historical context: “It’s early to say (it’s the biggest ever). The largest paid is believed to be around 80,000 for a 1934 match in Athens, Greece.
“Wrestlemania 32 was about 79,800 paid and 80,709 in the building — but announced at in excess of 101,000.
“It looks like this show will have more in the building than either of these shows but I don’t know how many tickets are paid and how many are comps.”
He adds: “It will be the largest gate by far for any show not produced by WWE.
“It is very clearly the largest gate in Europe, the largest non-WWE gate of all-time and the biggest attendance and gate for a non-WrestleMania show in pro wrestling history.”
There’s a good chance they do break the biggest paid-for attendance record. It’s a serious moment for AEW, as Khan wants to challenge the behemoth that is the WWE — founded in 1953 and valued this year at $9.1 billion as part of their merger with UFC.
“I do believe we have a chance to fight market-by-market to be the No. 1 (pro wrestling) promotion,” he said. “There are major markets now where we’re the industry leader.”
Before the success, there was an elephant in the room around the launch.
Khan is in the unique position of having billionaire Shahid Khan as his dad. Shahid fronted more than $100 million for the launch of AEW.
AEW is a private company, but a source inside the business, speaking under condition of anonymity as they did not have permission to speak for the article, told The Athletic that AEW did post revenue of comfortably over $100million in 2022, and now stands on its own two feet. The source also explained that this revenue is growing even further courtesy of the release of the video game AEW Fight Forever, the addition of Collision and the gate for the event at Wembley, all occurring this year.
Meltzer adds: “If we go back to 2019, when this was starting, and if you told me that by 2022 they would gross $100m in a year, draw several $1m live gates and do the PPV numbers that they’ve done, I would say that is very impressive.”
A man of many hats: Tony Khan is everywhere, from the NFL to AEW and beyond
How has Khan from zero to 80,000-plus at Wembley in four years?
In 2001, WWE bought World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and ECW, eliminating its only serious competition. Khan spoke about how it was a “one-horse race” in wrestling in 2018. “There was one promotion (WWE) and a number of niche brands, but not a true challenger.
“I was able to cultivate relationships with media partners that had great experience broadcasting wrestling.
“It started in two of the greatest media markets in the world, in the US with TBS and TNT, the longtime partners of WCW. And then in the UK, ITV, which had also been the home of WCW, but has much deeper roots, going back to World of Sport.
“There were a number of stars in the wrestling business who were going to be out of contract in 2019. So in 2018, I worked through a business plan and made the connections, and by the end of the year, I felt we had a strong media plan and commitments from a number of great pro wrestlers.”
Jarrett has been in the industry for 37 years. His father, Jerry, and his grandmother, Christine, all promoted wrestling in the U.S. Jarrett said people craved an alternative.
“Tony walked in the door with the right capital, the right relationships with media partners, the right team of talent, administrative executives, production people — it’s all very top-notch,” Jarrett said. “The time was right to launch a new company.”
Chris Jericho is a former six-time WWE champion. He was AEW’s first-ever world champion. Jericho said the company started hot but had to adjust during the pandemic.
“I think that camaraderie really helped us get closer. Once we came out of the pandemic, you had a really strong commitment and conviction from our entire roster,” Jericho said. “We went through this together right out of the gate, and we survived it and we thrived.”
He added: “How many wrestling companies can fans say they were there since day one? The answer is zero on a major level. If you started with us, you take great pride in that.”
Ask anyone and Khan is key. “He essentially got this industry; that is very unique,” says Jericho.
“Tony, he’s a fan and I say that with all due respect — I’m a fan,” adds Jarrett. “But the passion that drives fandom means you can really capitalise in business.”
Paul Wight, who was a champion in WWE as “The Big Show,” recalled his first encounter with Khan a decade ago.
“I met Tony, I talked to him for five minutes. I’m like, ‘Oh, he gets it,’” Wight said. “He understands at its core what it’s about.”
In his working life, Khan has entered three different industries in the sporting realm that he had never worked — and succeeded.
Mackintosh has been with Fulham since 2008, including the transition between the ownership of Mohamed Al Fayed and Shahid Khan. He recalled the first time he met Tony Khan: “My initial impression was Tony had tremendous energy. He’s had a great teacher in his dad. His dad has the most energy that I’ve ever come across. That energy was reflected in Tony. He’s very personable and very humble for someone who comes from such a successful family.
“He sat down and presented what they did, which was really nice and a surprise when you’re being taken over and you’ve got new bosses. They were really open and shared ideas.”
Mackintosh mentioned a virtual call he had with Khan last Thursday: “He goes around the room and gets everyone’s opinions. He really doesn’t have to.
“They say great men are the ones that can change their opinion when they listen to others. He’s not just listening: he will change. He doesn’t assume his way is the only way.
“It makes the room a place where you feel you can give your opinion.”
Fulham head coach Marco Silva agreed: “My relationship with Tony, my relationship with the chairman, my relationship with Alistair is really good. And more than that, it has been honest because I know we don’t agree on everything. In football, it’s almost impossible to agree on everything.”
Jarrett said Khan surrounds himself with the right people. “If there wasn’t some very skilled, very, very competent teams put together, you wouldn’t see the success that’s going on.”
Jericho adds: “He was really smart to know that he didn’t know everything (when he started AEW).
“He connected with guys like myself that could kind of give him help with some of the behind-the-scenes things that you don’t know about wrestling when you’re on the outside looking in.”
Khan’s run of holding All In at Wembley just days before the transfer deadline is only a microcosm of the chaotic nature of his working life. He also owns another wrestling promotion — Ring of Honor — which runs a two-hour weekly show. In any given week, he can produce up to 10 hours of television.
Khan lived in London on and off between 2015 and 2019. He had a long stint in the UK in 2016 when he first took over transfers at Fulham, demonstrating how involved he had to be at the west London club.
Given his commitments on the other side of the globe, how available is he these days for Fulham? “He is in contact with me on a daily basis and that often involves many moments in the day,” Mackintosh said.
“A normal day would involve a lot of text messages and then a late-night UK call. Today, he was still up in America, so he does a morning UK call as well. Sometimes, I haven’t achieved that much between the late-night call I receive and the morning call — apart from sleeping.”
“He is always available. That includes during Jags games. We will often be texting about soccer and then, you know, what the Jags did on the fourth down.”
Wrestling promotions do not have an off-season. Soccer barely has a break, too. The NFL season might be shorter, but talent scouting and evaluation — which is where Khan is most involved — is a year-round process.
“I think it’s very impossible to talk about work-life balance,” Mackintosh says. “You have to talk about work-life integration. He’s not had a holiday that I’m aware of. I would put money on it.”
“I was still in my 20s when I started to build the football analytics and statistics team at the Jaguars that did not exist when my dad bought that club in 2012,” Khan said. “AEW, the Jaguars and Fulham are such a big part of my life that it is part of my balance.”
Khan holds a unique badge of honour. “I am now the only person in the world who has been to every AEW event. There was Paul Turner, the referee, who was the same. But he missed Collision (on August 12), breaking a streak of over four years.
“I am now the lone Iron Man.”
When asked if Khan ever has a holiday, he simply answered, “I do not.”
It’s impossible to tell the Tony Khan story without talking about his dad, a Pakistani-American who earned his money in motor vehicle components and owns the Jaguars and Fulham and is co-owner of AEW. According to Forbes, as of 2023, he has a net worth $12.1 billion. In 2012, he was featured on the front cover of Forbes magazine and dubbed the “Face of the American Dream.”
“My dad is completely self-made and he’s a very caring person,” Tony said. “He cares about everybody and, in particular, people he works with and builds relationships with. He’s very loyal and very honest and hardworking. I tried to be like him and it’s been very beneficial to me because my dad is such an amazing role model.
“I’ve been able to learn from him up close and he’s been very giving of his time to me and is always very willing to explain why he does things or how the mechanics of certain processes or situations work in business.”
Of Tony, Jericho said he “treats his roster with respect and he is a very loyal guy.”
“I had never had a hotel paid for — unless it was international — with WWE. In the U.S., you pay for all your own expenses.
“Tony took care of that because that’s what an NFL team would do.”
“Vince was always the boss,” Wight adds. “You never for one second made the mistake of thinking that Vince McMahon was your close friend. Vince could respect you; you could respect him. You could go out and have a few drinks with him and have fun with him. But I never, for one second, didn’t understand that I was a talent and I had a responsibility to WWE first.
“Tony wants you to do well for you to do well, versus you to do well for the company to do well. At first, I was like, ‘Boy, this guy really cares about me.’
“I can text Tony and get an answer from him. I had to wait 12-13 years in WWE before I could do that with Vince — I had to earn the right to do that.”
Khan’s passions come across to those around him.
“Tony is obsessed with wrestling,” Jericho said. “When I have meetings with him, I go to his hotel suite and he’ll be watching WCW Worldwide, which was this Saturday-morning show from the 1990s that nobody used to watch, but he pulls them up on YouTube and just watches them constantly.
“But he mentions Fulham and the Jaguars all the time. Fulham is his baby, in a lot of ways.”
Mackintosh can still remember the first time Khan discussed opening a wrestling company with him. “In his story, he was designing something that he had in his mind, from what I could tell, all his life.”
“I first met Tony in, I believe, in 2016 or 2017 in Jacksonville,” Jericho says. “I had heard rumors that there was this guy who was gonna try and start a new company up. We had a conversation. We had heard so many times before that guys were gonna start new companies. Tony was obviously a little bit different. I realized that he was serious and then it was something to really consider.”
But could it lead to Wembley and a record crowd? Wight recalls: “When I first signed with Tony, I’m like, ‘Tony, we’ve got to get to the UK.’ I was thinking, like, the O2 Arena (with a capacity of 20,000).
“He said, ‘We’ll do Wembley Stadium.’ ‘Oh, OK!’”
Shahid Khan even tried to buy Wembley for £600million in 2018. “I believe Wembley Stadium is the premium sports ground in the world,” says Tony. “We’re now the No 1 most-watched wrestling promotion in the UK. And for our first event, I felt we should put on a show consistent with being the top wrestling promotion in the UK.”
That’s the reasoned perspective, but Khan also offers up another explanation — and it goes back to those virtual wrestling events. “The biggest show I ever did in my mind was at Wembley Stadium. I wrote it 15 years ago.
“It was the culmination of everything that I had ever wanted to do. We’ve even managed to surpass my dream for the attendance at such an event.
“I feel that we’ve accomplished virtually every goal I would have dreamed of from the very beginning.”
(Top image — photos: AEW, Getty Images)