Tony Khan went from a lifelong wrestling fan to one of its most talked about figures seemingly overnight.
The 36-year-old football executive is the son of Shahid Khan, a billionaire with deeper pockets than Vince McMahon. Tony is using his wealth to financially back The Young Bucks and Cody, popular independent performers, to start their own promotion. All Elite Wrestling.
With news circling over high paying contracts and famous venues being booked, fans are theorizing which superstars will make the jump and how much of an impact this start-up will leave.
The talk of All Elite Wrestling reminds me of a tale which spans over 30 years. Although not identical, there are similarities with the group of ‘rebels’ that almost put WWE, the leader of Sports Entertainment, out of business forever.
In 1983, a chance encounter between colorful pop star Cyndi Lauper and WWE manager Captain Lou Albano inadvertently led to wrestling’s biggest boom era. Lauper asked Albano to play her ‘father’ in the upcoming music video for her first major single. The song ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ was a worldwide hit, earning a Grammy Award and being regarded as one of the greatest pop songs of all time.
In 1984, WWE partnered with MTV to create the Rock n Wrestling Connection. A cross-promotion of wrestling and music, helping Vince McMahon’s brainchild reach a Golden Age of mainstream success. Instantly WWE was everywhere from The Tonight Show, to breakfast cereals, to Saturday morning cartoons. At the forefront of this marketing juggernaut was WWE’s greatest star, Hulk Hogan.
The Hulkster was a superhero come to life with his bright red and yellow colours, endless charisma and bulging muscles. He motivated kids to eat their vitamins and say their prayers, which gave him the power to triumph over powerful monsters with his mighty leg drop. Hulkamania was truly running wild.
“To draw that type of crowd and response,” Hogan said in an out-of-character interview on Good Morning Britain. “You have to have charisma and be an entertainer… It’s sport. It’s entertainment. It’s all of the above.”
WWE was on a hot streak, breaking attendance records, beating television ratings and leaving every other wrestling promotion in the dust. But everything that goes up eventually comes crashing down.
By the early 1990s, WWE ratings were beginning to decline, kids who hung on Hogan’s every word were growing up and growing out of wrestling. Things went from bad to worse when Vince McMahon was accused of distributing steroids to his wrestlers. A neck brace wearing McMahon was forced to testify in court to the United States Government in face of imprisonment.
The jury acquitted McMahon of the charges, but the damage was done. The lawsuit left a black mark on WWE and the bad publicity left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths.
WWE began to phase out Hogan, Randy Savage and the other 80s legends to build new stars for the new 90s. WWE hoped fresh faces like Bret Hart, Lex Luger, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker and Yokozuna could bring in young non-jaded fans. However, the new batch of talent wasn’t as successful financially as their predecessors.
The audience weren’t the only ones leaving, so was the biggest star. Hulk Hogan always had a good eye for business and realized it was time to cash out. The Hulkster left WWE with aspirations of Hollywood success and the goal of becoming the next big action hero.
During the 1980s, billionaire Ted Turner decided to jump into the crazy world of ‘rassling.’ Like Tony Khan of today, Turner was a fan of the unique blend of characters, spectacle and athleticism.
At first, he tried working with Vince McMahon. But the deal fell through when Turner brought in other promotions after the decline of WWE ratings. McMahon felt double-crossed and ended their partnership.
In 1988, Ted Turner purchased Jim Crockett Promotions and renamed it World Championship Wrestling. Turner had the goal of becoming the number one organization in the country. However, things didn’t go smoothly. After various business and creative leaders for five years, WCW couldn’t turn a profit.
Turner Executives wanted to pull the plug on the failed wrestling experiment, but Turner, the only supporter of pro wrestling in his company, decided to give it one more shot. Instead of handing the keys to another wrestling personality, Turner wanted somebody from the outside, somebody with television experience to turn WCW into a goldmine.
Eric Bischoff was a young, handsome WCW commentator with bold ambitions. He had a vision to make a successful TV show and craved an opportunity whether it was in the wrestling business or not. Bischoff’s confident bravado and smug smile, either irritated people or charmed them, but no matter what, he made himself known.
With WCW on the verge of cancellation, Bischoff saw the writing on the wall and decided it was time to leave. But when he heard about the executive producer vacancy, he decided to throw his name in the hat. What was the worse that could happen? He had nothing to lose because he was leaving anyway.
Surprisingly, Bischoff got a call back from Turner offices. They wanted to interview him. Bischoff went into salesman mode and sold his vision of WCW. He took props from a children’s show he was selling to FOX Kids and marketed a colorful adventure series. This new show would emphasize the strengths of TV and match the production level of WWE.
The entire WCW locker room from wrestlers, to producers, to the crew were shocked when they found out who their new boss was. Bischoff quickly got to work and did everything he could to turn the company around. Gone were the dim sports arenas, replaced by bright new studios. Models were placed in the audience; high-flying cruiserweights were hired to perform death-defying stunts and Bischoff used Turner’s checkbook to lure famous superstars to his ranks.
By the end of the year, Eric Bischoff was the first person to turn a profit in World Championship Wrestling. WCW was a success, but they still weren’t number one.
Bischoff, though, had larger aspirations.