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: Tony Khan vs. Vince McMahon is wrestling’s biggest smackdown in years

By business philosophy and demeanor, All Elite Wrestling Chief Executive Tony Khan could be the polar opposite of his rival, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. chief Vincent K. McMahon — the upstart babyface to McMahon’s grizzled heel.

Pro wrestling’s hottest impresario at age 39, AEW’s Khan has embraced story lines with gusto, though rarely appears on camera. A bubbly conversationalist brimming with ideas and historical references, Khan writes the intricate story lines himself, imbuing rich character development that lasts years and rivals the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“It’s lots of wrestling, with compelling matches,” Khan said of his upstart three-year-old organization. “People like deep storytelling. That’s how you build it.”

A televised AEW show (Dynamite airs Wednesday on AT& Inc.’s
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TBS, Rampage is on Friday on TNT) typically starts with a compelling match. A roster stocked with young talent and a blend of veterans hurtle through a fast-paced show with finishing moves and lots of blood. (Indeed, AEW incurred the wrath of advertiser Domino’s Pizza 
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+0.64%

after it televised a deathmatch in which Nick Gage used a pizza cutter on Chris Jericho.) 

“Everything is done with a purpose on AEW,” Malakai Black, an AEW wrestler who has also worked for WWE, told MarketWatch. “There is a slow build for stories. The thing about wrestling is when the business is good, it is great. I’ve never been more successful and made more money than in AEW.”

AEW is the WWE’s
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+1.02%

greatest challenge in 20 years. Since its television premiere in October 2019 on cable channel TNT, the upstart organization based in Jacksonville, Fla., has built a loyal following that attracts more than 1 million TV viewers weekly on two shows. The company has deep pockets because Tony Khan’s dad, Shahid, is the billionaire owner of auto company Flex-N-Gate as well as the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

AEW is taking a decidedly different plan of attack than the last true competitor to WWE, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), the star-studded company founded by Ted Turner in 1988. WCW spent lavishly for high-price talent such as Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and Kevin Nash while developing a highly regarded cruiserweight division that helped it surpass the then-World Wrestling Federation in TV ratings for 83 straight weeks from 1996 to 1998. Eventually, creative missteps and ludicrous story angles hastened its demise and eventual sale to WWF in 2001.

AEW, by contrast, has developed talent from independent wrestling circuits and judicious signings of available talent like Jericho, Kenny Omega, Adam Page, the Young Bucks and Cody Rhodes. [Rhodes jumped to WWE this month, sparking speculation WWE would raid AEW for rising stars such as MJF and Wardlow.]

If Khan is the young prince of pro wrestling, McMahon is the venerable dark knight by choice. Raised in a wrestling family, McMahon, 76, has lorded over the WWE empire he largely created for nearly 50 years. What he has overseen is a pop-culture phenomenon that left an indelible stamp on America and led to a successful IPO in 1999 during its so-called Attitude Era heyday. WWE shares are up 25% this year through Wednesday, with a current market value of $4.67 billion, while the S&P 500 index
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is down 6% by comparison.

McMahon often plays the antagonist in sketches as the malevolent “Mr. McMahon” on Monday Night Raw (USA Network) and Smackdown (Friday on Fox). He pinned announcer Pat McAfee before being pummeled by “Stone Cold” Steve Austin at WrestleMania on Sunday in Arlington, Texas.

Hands-on in all aspects of the operation, McMahon oversees a team of writers, though he maintains final veto power.

“Over the last 15 years, the company [WWE] has acted as a heel toward wrestlers and fans,” Lance Storm, a former WWE wrestler who now works as a trainer at rival Impact Wrestling, told MarketWatch. “This has created an adversarial relationship that has badly alienated the fan base.”

Both Raw and Smackdown start with long wrestler interviews or promos before the first match. Matches are usually less than five minutes between a small group of wrestlers that often abruptly end in disqualifications, Storm and Bryan Alvarez, a former wrestler and podcast host on Wrestling Observer Live, told MarketWatch. [WWE did not respond to voice and email messages seeking comment.]

Story arcs are short and jarring, seemingly with the intent to grab the largest possible weekly audience even if it leaves fans scratching their heads. Impatience and short-term results with the WWE product are to be expected as byproducts of the pressures McMahon faces as CEO of a publicly traded company with shareholders. Accordingly, many of the matches are inoffensive with no blood.

“WWE is the Disney
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of the industry; it works in a PG-rated realm,” pro wrestler Doc Gallows, who has worked for both McMahon and Khan, told MarketWatch. “They are a public company and they need to keep their corporate sponsors happy. AEW has more latitude and can take risks as a startup.”

“Vince is all about creating television content, and selling it to Peacock and Saudi Arabia,” Alvarez told MarketWatch. “Tony needs to get ratings and sell tickets” with a new promotion, he added.

Khan and McMahon have the resources to make this an expensive war. In addition to lucrative TV and licensing deals, McMahon is worth an estimated $2.3 billion, while the Khan family fortune is pegged at $9 billion, both according to Forbes.

“The vibe is that WWE is no longer the leader of the day-to-day rhythm,” National Wrestling Alliance President Billy Corgan told MarketWatch. “WWE is like a big walled castle. It rules the land, and has earned its successful standing, but its hegemonic, unilateral vision has led some people looking elsewhere for entertainment.”

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