KELLER’S TAKE: AEW’s Continental Classic field of twelve stays within a comfort zone and comes up short in terms of prestige and novelty


My main takeaway from the Continental Classic field of 12 was disappointment. I’m not disappointed in the potential match quality, though. Bryan Danielson vs. Claudio Castagnoli, Andrade vs. Daniel Garcia, Jay White vs. Jon Moxley, and Rush vs. Swerve Strickland are just a few of what should be excellent matches.

The disappointment is the lack of novelty. This feels for the most part like wrestlers of influence assembling a group of wrestlers who are in their comfort zone. It also feels like a tournament where there aren’t many candidates for potential meaningful surprising big wins.

Danielson is the biggest name in his bracket, with a pretty big dropoff (in terms of stature in the storylines world of AEW and actual likelihood of winning) to a second tier of Andrade, Kingston, and Claudio, and then Brody next and finally Garcia. Danielson seems like the only good choice to be in the final, as anyone else would feel like fodder to lose or a bad choice to win.

Moxley is the biggest name in his bracket, followed by Swerve Strickland and Jay White in the second tier, then Rush and Mark Briscoe in the next tier, and finally Jay Lethal. This is the more intriguing bracket, as it could set up finals of Danielson vs. Strickland, White, or Mox.

This tournament, though, isn’t going to mean all that much compared to what it could have with a stronger line-up. That’s not to say the winner won’t gain something, especially if it’s ultimately a way to solidify Swerve as a top tier threat to the AEW World Title or showcase Jay White to rehabilitate him after he lost to a one-legged wrestler on PPV despite having help from the Gunns.

If Moxley or Danielson win, it’s fine, but not newsworthy. They were already top tier stars and winning this tournament won’t give them a claim to having survived the most loaded, grueling series of matches against AEW’s very best.

This tournament could have offered novel, intriguing matches with Kenny Omega, Darby Allin, Samoa Joe, Powerhouse Hobbs. Malakai Black, Hangman Page, Miro, and Wardlow. Instead, they played it safe and sided with “sure-fire good matches” more than telling a story of a deep field of diverse styles with more possible winners and thus more suspense.

The tournament includes Garcia, who is a talent wrestler who always has good matches but has been marginalized and defined down so much this year to the point of seeming unworthy of being selected to be in this tournament. I’d much rather have seen Kyle Fletcher or Takeshita or a talented tag wrestler testing himself as a singles wrestler (Nick Jackson, Anthony Bowens, Colten Gunn) into in his spot. If any of them beat some of the big names in their brackets, it’d elevate them and not necessarily hurt the wrestler they beat. But if Garcia beats big names in this roster, it’s just the comedy goof with the embarrassing dance scoring a freak win that ultimately doesn’t matter. The fact that he’s an awesome wrestler doesn’t mean he belongs in it from a storyline standpoint.

(That said, I’m open to this being a tournament designed to rehabilitate Garcia by having him score a series of a big wins and make it to the final or even win if the goal is to have him shed everything he’s done since deciding to return to the Jericho Appreciation Society and later deciding that becoming a trending gif was more important than being a serious wrestler with a potential to draw money above the lower-end comedy bit he’s doing now.)

Nobody in this tournament is going to be out of their comfort zone and there’s very few matches that are going to feel novel. Miro vs. Moxley, Takeshita vs. Darby, Wardlow vs. Omega, and Hangman vs. Fletcher feel, to me, like matches a little outside the comfort zone and familiar “friend groups” that wrestlers so often occupy in AEW’s universe and more of a challenge for TK to book finishes for. They’d inject different styles of matches into the tournament, also.

Jay Lethal feels like he’s going to win zero matches and just be used to stack up easy points without political gripes for top wrestlers. Lethal certainly shouldn’t be pinning or even wrestling to a draw anyone in his bracket. I could see a draw with Briscoe or perhaps Rush, but his matches are just Rampage material and he’s taking a spot from someone who could have had much more intriguing matches with everyone else in his block.

The 20 minute time limit, while not unreasonable to have given they’re all TV matches, sets up an escape hatch for tough situations where a win for one wrestler would really mean something because it’d be a shock to see the other wrestler lose clean.

So when Moxley faces Strickland or Jay White, Tony Khan can just book them to wrestle to a draw and tout what “great match” they had without having any of them do a clean job.

Same with Danielson in the other bracket. The bracket isn’t strong enough where Danielson beating any of them is a big deal, unfortunately, but rather than running through the field, Khan can “protect” Kingston or Andrade or even Brody if he wants.

There is a lot of talent in this tournament who will be motivated to make their matches special, and if AEW does its job well they’ll tell a good story with the order of the matches and the race to have the most points by the end. It just doesn’t seem like a “brave” selection of wrestlers as it has very few novel match-ups outside of the usual comfort zone of those wrestlers and the field of potential winners is pretty small unless they’re going to take a chance to try to elevate someone unexpected, but I don’t see a good candidate for that. Takeshita, Hobbs, and Fletcher come to mind as good choices for that, but they’re not in the tournament; Hobbs doing well in the tournament could have helped him make a convincing case for the World Title match he’s been pining for.

A braver and more newsworthy field would have included a lot of matches where the outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion or one wrestler winning over another would have significant impact and a surprise element but also be prudent. Having Lethal pin Strickland would be shocking, but also stupid. Having Fletcher pin Danielson or Moxley would have been not only shocking but also serve a purpose of sending a message to fans that Fletcher is the real deal on the rise.

This is a “nice” tournament, but not what I was looking for and hoping for to establish this as a truly uncompromised top field (with, say, 12 of the top 16 singles wrestlers in the company). It feels more like a gimmick and a showcase for good matches than a true statement to jar disgruntled or disengaged AEW fans out of their apathy and making AEW TV appointment viewing.

AEW is always a place to watch good matches. This tournament is just more of that, but then adds a point system and some consequence to the wins and losses. The Triple Crown aspect of it just feels convoluted and unnecessary and, unfortunately, the field isn’t strong enough to really establish this out of the gate as a game-changer for AEW or incentive to bring many fans back who are feeling apathy toward aspects of the product otherwise.

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PWTorch editor Wade Keller has covered pro wrestling since 1987. He has been a guest on the Steve Austin Show as an analyst of current events and pro wrestling history 40 times, making more appearances than any other guest. He currently hosts the “Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Podcast” and “Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Post-show” along with several PWTorch VIP-exclusive podcasts every week. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for “Excellence in Writing on Professional Wrestling” in 2015. He hosted “The Ultimate Insiders” DVD series in the 2000s including long-from studio interviews in Los Angeles, Calif. with Matt & Jeff Hardy and Vince Russo & Ed Ferrara. He has interviewed more big name wrestlers and promoters in long-form insider interviews over the last 35 years for the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter, usually in the “Torch Talk” transcribed Q&A format, than any pro wrestling reporter. The list of those he has interviewed include Steve Austin, The Rock, Vince McMahon, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Hulk Hogan, Goldberg, Eric Bischoff, Verne Gagne, Lou Thesz, Jesse Ventura, Drew McIntyre, Brian Gewirtz, Paul Heyman, Mick Foley, Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone, Jon Moxley, and dozens of other top stars and influential promoters and bookers/creative team members.

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