Tony Khan navigating ROH acquisition, Cody Rhodes’ departure and new talent

Tony Khan had never worked in professional wrestling until 2019 when he started AEW. Now, after three years of success with the upstart promotion, the longtime fan of the company also owns Ring of Honor (ROH), a staple in independent wrestling for 20 years.

Last Friday, Khan revived ROH with Supercard of Honor, an event that drew more than 2,000 fans to the Dallas metro area and incorporated old-school AEW and ROH storylines into the show. The main event between FTR and the Briscoes was one of the most critically acclaimed matches of the year. A day later, in the same city, Cody Rhodes, former AEW Executive Vice President and founding father of the promotion, returned to WWE at WrestleMania 38.

It was a busy and exciting time for professional wrestling and Khan himself. He also held managerial positions under his father Shahid with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC.

How does Khan plan to make AEW and ROH work together? What does he think of Rhodes leaving the company? And how does he see the future hot market for free agents in pro wrestling? ESPN spoke with Khan after Supercard of Honor and ahead of an AEW schedule that includes a big Rampage on Friday, featuring Jon Moxley and Wheeler Yuta, and Battle of the Belts 2 on April 15.

Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.

ESPN: What are the short-term plans for Ring of Honor?

Khan: It’s hard to say. I’m very grateful to AEW’s media partner, WarnerMedia, for allowing me to do this show. I really tried to make it a Ring of Honor show — with the Ring of Honor announcement team and using a lot of people who had recently fought for Ring of Honor — and then have faces from the past , with some of Ring of Honor’s great legends appearing on video or in person as a surprise. Like the Young Bucks. Or Samoa Joe returning to Ring of Honor and signing with AEW that night.

I used some AEW assets with permission from Warner with the understanding that I wasn’t going to make it an AEW show. It would be a Ring of Honor show. I was asking them to use some AEW resources to make it a great pay-per-view event. For Ring of Honor, this turned out to be one of the most successful events in their history.

You said your plan, at least initially, was to book Ring of Honor yourself. How can you do that when you already have AEW, Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars on your plate?

It’s very conducive to the work I’ve done. I already do so much work in the professional wrestling world. It seemed very natural to me to create Supercard. We are on a big series of shows. I wanted to continue that hot hand and I think we did.

Is ROH going to be weekly TV? How often will the pay-per-view be?

WarnerMedia was really cool for me to do Supercard of Honor. I think there’s great potential to continue Ring of Honor as a weekly series.

Should it be contractually on Warner? Because I felt like you owned ROH separately from AEW.

I own it as a separate entity from AEW. But I also have a television contract with Warner where I will produce wrestling shows for them. I had these conversations with Warner, because I think it would make sense for everyone. And I think they are open to it. But in the short time we had, what I asked for was basically an exemption because it was not part of the portfolio.

Do you consider ROH to be in development? Or create some sort of integration between ROH and AEW?

I’ve had more conversations with WarnerMedia about what we can do together to grow Ring of Honor. I think it would make sense for Ring of Honor to continue as a weekly series and major events, like we just had with Supercard. I think the success of Supercard, critically and commercially, will bode very well for WarnerMedia who are really interested in Ring of Honor, as well as AEW. I think there is great potential to have a complementary wrestling brand.

What are your plans for former UFC fighter Paige VanZant in AEW?

Well, she trains as a professional wrestler, but she is very knowledgeable in combat, mixed martial arts, and grappling. She is natural when it comes to charisma and the way she carries herself like a star both on TV and with live fans. She has such a great presence. She is developing her wrestling skills. With her potential and presence, I think there’s a real chance that she’s a force to be reckoned with in pro wrestling.

I see this all the time: Why is AEW signing so much talent? How can he welcome and properly use everyone? What do you think about this?

I think people may see it a little differently after we had the success with Ring of Honor’s Supercard, because I think we took some people who were important in AEW and presented them again under a new day in Ring of Honor.

For example, Tully Blanchard and Brian Cage together in Ring of Honor, and Tully Blanchard starting Tully Blanchard Enterprises with Cage and a new team, Kaun and Toa Liona. I think this is a great example of the potential fluidity between AEW’s roster and Ring of Honor, which would be great for both companies.

What can you tell me about the Owen Hart Cup?

I’m very excited about it. There will be a men’s tournament and a women’s tournament. It will culminate in the Double or Nothing finale in Las Vegas at T-Mobile on May 29 on a pay-per-view.

How involved will Owen Hart’s widow, Martha Hart, be?

She is involved. She signed on it. We had been talking to him for two years now. We spoke to her throughout the pandemic and agreed that when people could come back for live events and Martha Hart herself could attend, we would. So, Martha herself will definitely be in the final in Las Vegas. She was great working with her. It was a pleasure to establish this connection between AEW and the Owen Hart Foundation. Martha is a very demanding and educated woman. She does nothing without doing a lot of research. She wanted to make sure it was an event worthy of Owen’s name.

AEW released a statement when Cody Rhodes left the company. There have been developments since then, including his return to WWE at WrestleMania. Were you surprised he went to WWE?

No. It’s a binary decision. He wasn’t going to be there and from the conversations we had – he never told me that outright – but it was obvious that was what was happening.

What do you think of that, as he was one of the guys you initially spoke to about making AEW?

Not something I want to comment on. Like I said, I appreciate the things that Cody and his wife, Brandi Rhodes, have done in AEW and I’ve seen Cody show up in WWE. Like I said before he showed up there, it’s all still true: I still love him and I wish him the best. I appreciate what he did in AEW. We have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours together and we know each other very well. I think we parted on very good terms.

The Monday Night Wars in the 1990s was a very hot time where guys went back and forth between the WWF and WCW as free agents. Do you foresee that happening now?

We’ve seen a lot of people who were huge stars around the world in many promotions come to AEW and one of those major promotions is WWE. I think we’ve had big stars from WWE, Ring of Honor and New Japan and other places over the years.

We just brought Samoa Joe to AEW and he’s one of the biggest wrestling stars in the world. Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole. Jeff Hardy is one of the most popular wrestlers of all time. Many more have come to us by choice and many more have been fired from WWE, whose contracts have been terminated. Toni Storm, I guess, called for her release and came here by choice. She just made her AEW debut last week. There have been other names like Ruby Soho, Malakai Black, Andrade El Idolo and a number of others that have been dropped. Keith Lee, Swerve Strickland.

It’s not unusual to see stars come from other promotions, including WWE, into AEW. I think it’s a little different now to see an AEW star go on WWE TV. I think over the years – we are a young promotion – it had to happen sooner or later. And now it is.

When it comes to free agency and this movement of talent, I think AEW is now at a point where some contracts are expiring. Is that something you’re prepared for, that there might be bidding wars for guys like MJF or maybe even Kenny Omega? Do you expect bidding wars in the future?

Yes I am. We have a lot of great wrestlers here. I expect there will probably be interest in some of them, because we put on such strong shows. I think there’s bound to be a free agent move. Both sides of the competition. I think it’s great for wrestlers.

Will there be a Blood & Guts match this year?

Yeah. I would say wait for Blood & Guts this summer.

Will there be a Stadium Stampede this year?

I will have to come back to you. I thought about it. It’s a very different wrestling world now than it was during the pandemic. I think it’s a great game, a signature game for us that people really enjoyed. But some of the reasons why we presented this game were because of the challenges that existed in the world because of the pandemic, in terms of presenting sporting events with live fans. That doesn’t really exist in this live event pandemic.

If you could sign any combat athlete to wrestle for AEW, who would it be?

Excellent question. I’m not as familiar with the MMA box office as I am with the wrestling box office. I think Conor McGregor or Floyd Mayweather are probably the two biggest draws, I think. I don’t know for sure. I would say probably one of the two. They are both big stars.

AEW is doing a big show next month in Las Vegas, Double or Nothing on pay-per-view. An integration with the UFC?

I asked them to come. I do not know. We would have to see. If we could figure out a way to make this work, I think that would be great.

I’m just excited to be there for the week. Hopefully I can see UFC President Dana White and UFC Business Manager Hunter Campbell in Vegas. Always great to have them here in Jacksonville for UFC 273 this weekend. This will be the first time I have returned to Vegas since the pandemic began. When I’m there, they’re definitely people I look up to. The only people I talk to when I’m there are Dana and Hunter. It was Jon Moxley and his wife Renee Paquette, but they moved to Cincinnati.