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AEW announced the Continental Classic earlier today. While I wrote about how the line-up of participants is below what I was hoping for, it’s still got several intriguing candidates to win and several good subplot possibilities. This tournament, even if I’d rather have a few more main event names in place of some wrestlers who aren’t realistic candidates to win, it still is loaded with good matches (not something that’s holding AEW back, since that’s their strength) and several good stories to tell.
TOP CANDIDATES TO WIN…
Bryan Danielson: As he said in the video during today’s Selection Special on YouTube, this is a tournament that almost feels made for him, other than the grind and possibility he won’t enter at 100 percent or won’t hold up given the worth ethic he’ll bring to the matches. Few will take issue with the final year of Danielson’s full time in-ring career including becoming the inaugural winner of AEW’s first round-robin tournament and win yet another AEW-sponsored championship belt.
Jay White: White’s presentation in AEW has been criticized for being rather lackluster in the sense that it’s been reliant on his promos, most of which have taken place on Collision, a show with fewer viewers than Dynamite. He also was part of a derivative of Bullet Club with three wrestlers who act more like clowns than champions. He’s coming off of a PPV main event in which he lost to a hobbled champion despite help from his cohorts, the Gunns. Winning this tournament, and shining in his six matches, could reshape how fans perceive him. White wasn’t thrilled, based on what I’ve been told, how things went with the build and the match against MJF, so he might be motivated to shine in this tournament. He’s still among the top choices for Tony Khan to build around as a top-top star in his company for years to come. A win here, with a series of standout matches, would elevate him in the AEW universe closer to how his New Japan fans viewed him.
Swerve Strickland: He just came off a big win over “Hangman” Page in a violent, bloody marathon Texas Death match. Winning this tournament would move him another level and place him more within reach of a credible challenge of MJF for the AEW World Title. Tony Khan mentioned that he might not be at 100 percent going into the tournament because of the lingering effects of the Texas Death match, so if he doesn’t win the tournament and takes some big losses, the storyline narrative could attribute a poor showing to that. But, like with Jay White, if he has six standout matches and makes it to the finals or wins it all, it will elevate him.
Jon Moxley: Moxley is a candidate to win any big match or tournament in AEW. He’s arguably AEW’s biggest star regardless of whether or not he holds a title Coming off a clean loss to Orange Cassidy at Full Gear, a tournament win or at least a trip to the finals would rebuild him. The match against Jay White is one to watch, as Mox taking another loss against one of the top wrestlers in his block would risk defining him down a bit, but a win over White could hurt White unless White beat everyone else he faced (which then could be a backstory for an eventual rematch against Mox).
SECOND TIER CANDIDATES TO WIN…
Eddie Kingston: I could see Kingston as a finalist more than a winner. He’s putting his two belts on the line in this match, so it’d make some sense for him to be part of the final with chance to hold onto those titles. If that happens, he’d most likely be up against Jay White or Swerve Strickland. Kingston is a star in AEW in a main event niche category, but I don’t think AEW wants him to be the winner of the first-ever Continental Classic and Triple Crown Champion given the other options. As an ROH Champion, winning the tournament wouldn’t do much to further elevate him.
Rush: If TK aiming to try to move Rush into the top tier of singles wrestlers in AEW, this would be a high-profile way to do that. If he’s in the final, you’d want to book him against an established top wrestler, so Danielson is really the best option by far. Rush ending Danielson’s dream to win a tournament that might be perceived as being created for him more than anything, it’d be a statement win and elevate how fans look at him. His path to the final would include a diverse mix of styles and, in order to get to the final, statement upset victories over several key names such as Mox, Swerve, and White.
THIRD TIER CANDIDATES TO WIN…
Claudio Castagnoli: A Claudio win would feel more like a gold watch victory as a tribute to what an impressive career he’s had and how underrated and underappreciated he’s been along the way a lot of the time. There’d be no shame in him being the first Continental Classic tournament winner and Triple Crown Champion, but it would risk defining the tournament down a bit unless AEW followed up with a huge push for him in the following months. I think there are better options. He’s going to deliver really good matches and be a credible person for others in his block to defeat.
Andrade El Idolo: Like with Rush, if TK wants to use the tournament to elevate someone who has lingered in the second tier as a utility “good match” guy with an occasional main event and off-and-on storylines and promo time, he could benefit from a win here. He doesn’t always seem like the most content AEW wrestler and I’m not anticipating TK going with him over other choices.
Danny Garcia: Garcia has been diminished by his silly dance. It just makes him out to be grovelling for attention and gifs more than wanting to be perceived as a serious athlete. I’m not surprised he’s in the tournament in the sense that he’s well liked and respected by influential people in AEW, including main event wrestlers in this tournament. He’s going to make the tournament better match-quality-wise, but he’s just not well positioned to seem like anything but a wrestler entered to give some easy wins to wrestlers who otherwise are going to be losing to the top people in their block. This tournament could be build around rehabilitating and reframing him as a serious pro wrestler, leaving the “sports entertainment” behind. Booking him to win this would be a risky move as it’d be tough to undo the damage to his character and credibility over the last year or two, but it’d be a hell of a story to tell. If they’re not telling that story and he’s just here to have good matches and lose almost every match, I’d rather have someone else in the tournament in his place.
Jay Lethal: Despite being a former ROH Champion, he’s been part of a clown show with Jeff Jarrett & Co. for too long to be on anyone’s list of candidates with more than even a remote chance to win. It seems he’s there to give some “easy wins” (in a booking sense) to White, Strickland, Rush, Moxley, and perhaps even Briscoe (or wrestle him to a draw). I’d rather have someone else in this spot who isn’t as damaged and compromised as he is.
Brody King: Winning would be a big surprise, but if he goes on a hot run and beats Danielson, Andrade, Claudio, Kingston, and Garcia, and then faces White or Strickland or Moxley in the final, it’d be a hell of a story, win or lose. I don’t think AEW’s ready to push him to the top like that or break him off from House of Black or have him overshadow Malakai Black (who I’d rather be in this tournament, but perhaps Khan put a priority on easier calls in terms of wins and losses than putting the most top tier names possible in the tournament). Even having a series of showcase matches that turn out to be draws and losses could fans’ eyes to how good he is and open up possibilities down the line.
Mark Briscoe: Another wrestler who doesn’t seem to have anything more than a remote chance to win the tournament, but is there to deliver some good TV matches and give points to bigger name wrestlers. Even Mark Briscoe fans probably wouldn’t urge TK to book him to reach the finals in this tourney. He’s more of a role player who adds energy and character to a match, but not someone to book to win the inaugural Continental Classic.
The bright side of this tournament is that, with proper thought and planning, there are multiple stories that can be told not just with wrestlers who win most matches and are candidates to win, but also wrestlers who aren’t in line to make it to the finals but score an upset win or two or just put in really strong performances. There’s also a chance the booking will resort to draws or unsatisfying roll-up finishes anytime two top level stars are wrestling each other.
Banning wrestlers at ringside is a good start and sends a signal that this tournament will be more straight-forward in nature, but ultimately wrestlers winning after hitting finishing moves against wrestlers at their level is going to be key to this feeling less predictable and safe.
By including Lethal, Garcia, King, and Briscoe (perhaps add Claudio and Andrade to that list), it already has plenty of wrestlers who feel like “easy calls” to lose clean to the top half of the participants. Clean finishes amongst the top tier wrestlers is a key for this tournament to win over more than just the loyalists who AEW already has.
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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.