All Elite (women’s) Wrestling.
AEW is continuing its impressive romp through the wrestling world, but not without tripping on a few drop-downs along the way. The COVID-19 pandemic largely threw a wrench into the company’s best laid plans, but boss Tony Khan wouldn’t necessarily pin that as a negative.
While the company’s booking decisions, feuds and matches have been largely top-tier over the last year, a vocal minority of critics has also pegged the company’s women’s division as a weak point of the promotion. Khan wouldn’t name that as a detriment either, and with fair reason: The fledgling promotion, in just its third functioning year, has continued to grow its ranks of women competitors over the past year, with “Legit” Leyla Hirsch the latest signing for the company.
The company has seen definite growth in the women’s division, but maybe that growth has come slower than some would have liked. Still, there have been definite bright spots in the women’s ranks: Hikaru Shida is the company’s longest-reigning champion, the division plays host to one of the company’s top feuds and they’ve continued growing their roster with talented wrestlers.
Shida, Hirsch, Red Velvet, Abadon, Serena Deeb and Jade Cargill are just some of the women making waves over the past year, with the company airing a multi-continent women’s championship eliminator tournament just last month, showcasing several Japanese wrestling stars on its airwaves, as well.
The women’s momentum carries into Wednesday, with AEW’s Dr. Britt Baker (DMD) and NWA’s Thunder Rosa set to clash one more time on “Dynamite,” penning the latest chapter in their white-hot feud. This time, the stakes couldn’t be higher, with the rivals facing off in a Lights Out match.
Khan spoke with Sporting News about the development of the women’s division, the growth of Baker, the feud between Baker and Thunder Rosa, and more.
(Editor’s note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Sporting News (SN): One of the biggest criticisms of AEW over the past year or so has been a perceived lack of focus on the women’s division. Given the pandemic, it’s obviously a difficult environment to grow the product. How do you feel the women’s division has grown in the past year or so?
Tony Khan (TK): I think we’ve seen great development of the women’s roster since AEW launched. Wrestling fans voted Dr. Britt Baker the most improved wrestler in the world last year for 2020, in the Wrestling Observer awards, and she’s been a great leader in the women’s division. She’s been a great leader in the women’s division and we’ve added great talent internally.
I think Red Velvet’s come in and done a really good job for us, and Serena Deeb has come in and not only been great for us, but then as a full-time AEW contract wrestler, went out and won the NWA women’s title. Serena, Red Velvet and Leyla Hirsch are great examples of people who weren’t here at the beginning, who I think have upgraded our talent, and stepped in and become really great additions.
Tay Conti is somebody who I’ve always thought had tremendous potential — she has vastly improved and I think she could be a front-runner this year, potentially, to break out and be one of the most improved wrestlers in the world. I think she had all the tools and all the personal charisma that it takes to be a great wrestler. She always had everything it took, and now with more experience, more reps and great coaching, we’re seeing that.
SN: Sounds like you’re very proud of the roster that you’ve helped put together.
TK: It’s just a very different roster. I think we benefited from starting with a roster with some of the great wrestling stars in the world, with Chris Jericho and Jon Moxley, and of course Kenny Omega, Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks on our first pay-per-view, and great stars who would build an international reputation like Hangman Page. We had a lot of really high-upside young wrestlers coming in at the beginning and before we launched our TV show, like MJF and Darby Allin, Jungle Boy and several others. We’ve also had a lot of breakout stars that have come, like Orange Cassidy, who have been with us, really, from our inception and broke out.
The women’s division, we signed a lot of great wrestlers and we’ve seen some development but we’ve also had a lot of huge movement in free agency since then. Hikaru Shida is a great wrestler, she’s a great champion, and has done a lot of work to get us to where we could do a tournament for the first ever eliminator that took place on two continents, and she was instrumental in getting that done and helping to produce the shows in Japan. She wanted to have the best competition to wrestle, and that was a great tournament for us — it did great viewership.
I think now for our women’s division, for us to have great new stars with buzz who have really added to the show in the past six months or a year, it really helped us a lot. I’m so excited for the main event this week of the Lights Out match with Dr. Britt Baker versus Thunder Rosa, which is one of my favorite stories we’ve ever told on all of AEW, really.
SN: Why is that?
TK: Thunder Rosa, top independent wrestler, one of the most respected independent wrestlers in the world, coming into AEW, and the locker room saying, “Hey just because AEW says they’re open to everybody, we don’t want it to be open to everybody, we’re very protective of our territory.” The leader and bully of this locker room, the top heel, is Dr. Britt Baker, and she says, “You know we don’t want you here, top independent wrestler, stay out, go back to wrestling on the internet and stay off TNT. This is our sandbox.” They’ve clashed and it’s been a great story.
They’ve helped “AEW Dynamite” in general by being one of the great stories on the show overall for the last several months. This is a culmination of a great story — the first ever Lights Out match we’ve done on “Dynamite.” We’ve had Lights Out matches main event pay-per-views and the “Fyter Fest” streaming special but never on “Dynamite.” It’s really cool, it’s one of our big matches, and Dr. Britt Baker and Thunder Rosa are two of our top wrestlers. They represent totally different aspects of AEW: Dr. Britt Baker being a lifer, contract, long-term, locked-in wrestler, who’s the face of the company, and Thunder Rosa represents an outside company, who came in and shows that, we’re for outside talent to come in and be treated well, and we do business with other wrestling companies. Treat them respectfully but still make sure we get taken care of.
SN: How impressive is it to you to see the feud that these two have had? They’ve clicked since Day 1.
TK: They’ve been so impressive, and I planned this for six months to pay off in this Lights Out match. It’s been a six-month story, but it doesn’t work if you don’t have people that can pull it off. Everything they’ve done has stayed hot. If you don’t have people who can pull it off, they wouldn’t have made it to six months, we would have had to do it sooner or not do it at all, or call an audible. Sometimes things don’t work and you don’t just stick to your plan if it’s not working. In this case, it’s worked.
Everything they’ve done has clicked, and it’s a credit to to Britt and to Thunder Rosa, and all the people who’ve been a part of the presentation. Rebel has been a great manager and instigator. It’s just really strong stuff and it’s one of our best programs.
SN: I’m assuming the pandemic has changed some of your best-laid plans; now we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. When you look at the challenges you’ve had to face while trying to grow the women’s division and maybe the product as a whole, what’s that been like for you?
TK: It’s been a mixed bag. There’s been some challenges, definitely, in terms of everybody getting to work in front of the big, live crowds at first. But now we’ve had really good crowds at Daily’s Place. The best place in America and on television to get to experience wrestling in front of large crowds has been “Dynamite” for the last several months. It’s been totally safe — outdoor shows with socially distanced fans, in pods with masks. We’ve had zero known transmissions in months and months of doing these shows and dozens of events and thousands of fans.
There were 1,300 fans at the pay-per-view — we’ve had over 1,000 fans for “Dynamite” over hundreds and hundreds of fans, at least, for these shows and it’s the only chance you’re gonna get on television right now wrestling in front of that kind of crowd. So we’ve made the best of it, but it really is the best you’re gonna get in wrestling, so by dealing with the same challenging circumstances everyone’s dealt with and dealing with them probably, honestly, better than anybody else dealt with them, I think that’s been a positive more than a negative.
Everyone’s dealing with the same terrible circumstances in the pandemic, but we tried to be creative and use it to our advantage. By expanding “Dark” and now extending “Dark” into “Dark: Elevation,” we’ve found our developmental system and developed a lot of great, young wrestlers. Tay Conti’s come a long way and will continue to come a long way wrestling a lot of matches on “Dark” and “Elevation.” Red Velvet has really come up and has been very valuable for us, and she got established on “Dark.” Leyla Hirsch is somebody now who’s doing a great job for us and is now signed.
Also, it’s created an environment where a lot of people have come to me looking to work together, or wanting to work together and I think that’s been good for us, too. It’s been a good partnership with the NWA, to have Serena as their champion for them to have such a great star from “Dynamite” as your champion, but also for us, Thunder Rosa has been great here and continues to be great here.
SN: Serena Deeb has been such a bright spot for the women’s division during her time with AEW. Can you put into words just how much she has meant to the division and to the locker room?
TK: One of the really best things that’s happened to us this year has been Serena coming in as a coach. She’s a coach for us and hasn’t just coached women’s matches, she’s coached men’s matches on “Dynamite” and provided that insight and those ideas, so she works with people of all genders. She’s done big stars’ matches on TV, including Cody and Dustin and people like that and works the headset sitting in the chair next to me, while I time and oversee the show, so she’s a really valuable person on screen and off. She’s a great wrestler.
She’s dealing with a knee injury right now, unfortunately … but she’s very important to us on screen and off, and she’s our wrestler — she went to NWA and won the title. She’s really important, as Thunder Rosa from the NWA has been great, and been excellent.
We use Allysin Kay who had been in the NWA, she was a free agent. She’s great. And they have some good really good people there and they’re starting back up. It’s a great relationship for us and Thunder Rosa is one of our great wrestlers, who is their wrestler.
SN: When you look at Britt Baker, just how far she’s come from being the pure babyface to being this old-school heel, how crazy is it to see that she has this much natural ability?
TK: Not that crazy — we knew the real person. In this case, there was nobody in the company who had more presence to them that wasn’t being showcased in the television show that needed to have an overhaul to their character. Literally nobody who had greater opportunity to take their real personality and showcase it on the show than Britt. She was originally presented as a nice person, a good babyface who had a fiery personality, was highly intelligent — a true role model. We were in a meeting, and Kenny once said, “I think Britt would benefit from a heel turn.” I completely agreed, and I put a lot of thought into it.
I knew that Tony Schiavone had been a barista at Starbucks, and I thought, something that could really make you look, frankly, like a real b—, if you condescend to Tony Schiavone, who the fans love, especially the internet fans; we’re going to be on the Jericho cruise where we did this because it was a perfect place. Early on in the early stages of her turn, for her to really throw down the gauntlet on the Jericho cruise and say, “Tony was a lowly barista” and try and act like she was better than him and she was belittling him — that got great heat.
She just brought more and more of her personality, which is all we asked of her. Every great wrestler is themselves turned up a few degrees, and that is very true of Britt. She’s really charismatic and highly intelligent, but she’s very well-suited to play the character she plays on television. She’s got a big personality, and it was hard to showcase it unless she really showed this wild side as a heel.
SN: Obviously, there’s a big main event this Wednesday night pitting Thunder Rosa vs. Britt Baker. What can fans expect on Wednesday and from the women’s division moving forward?
TK: You can expect great matches. We’ve had some really great matches, and this will be, I believe at the top of the list of great matches on the show, in general. This will be one of the top matches we’ve had. It’s a great main event.
Lights Out matches have headlined our pay-per-views and the original Fyter Fest. We’ve had some great ones, and this is a great Lights Out match. This program — the Britt Baker vs. Thunder Rosa — they’re two red-hot wrestlers and two of the best wrestlers in the world.
As we continue to develop great wrestlers who can carry a story like this, I expect more great programs and great matches like this one. We’ve had great improvement in the depth of the roster in the last year and I expect that to continue. This is a huge week for sure, and I think this will be one of our great matches that any of our wrestlers have ever had.