I don’t know anyone who believed 2023 was going to be just a humdrum year for AEW. Brimming with turbulence, drama, and chaos, the promotion nonetheless decided to cap off its tumultuous year on a high note by holding the first edition of the AEW Continental Classic.

Met with equal parts curiosity, excitement, and, let’s be honest, a healthy dose of apprehension, this North American G1 (referred to as such with love or scorn, depending on who you spoke to) came with the promise of a renewal for AEW, where it would return to the roots of its initial mission statement and provide sports-based, no-nonsense matches far away from having wrestlers fish for Captain Insano. To restore the feeling, if you will.

Now that the C2 (as it has been lovingly abbreviated) has come to a close, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to revisit the tournament with the benefit of hindsight. One part recap, one part post-mortem, let’s go ahead and break it down, from its inception to the aftermath.

The Launch

On the November 11, 2023, edition of AEW Collision, Tony Khan, flanked by Bryan Danielson in Civil War vet chic, announced that AEW would be holding the first edition of the Continental Classic, a six-week puro-inspired round-robin tournament with 12 of its wrestlers as its participants. Details were scarce at that moment, with the main reveals consisting of the schedule and Danielson introduced as the first participant, orbital bone injury be damned.

With the foundations upon which the promotion was built, the only surprise that came with AEW holding its own round-robin tournament is that it took so long to do so. AEW doing a G1 makes a lot of sense. But the announcement didn’t seem to generate all that much enthusiasm, with the scant amount of details probably playing a factor. One could also consider that since this came at a time when AEW was under heavy criticism for the creative decisions it had been making since late spring, the reception was a little more tenuous. The skepticism for AEW’s apparent new vision for its product did raise concerns as to whether or not the promotion could provide a compelling round-robin tournament without falling into some of its recent questionable trappings. Tony Khan’s combative challenge to fans at the post-Full Gear press conference to “put their money where their fucking mouth is” and watch the tournament instead of criticizing his new direction, absolutely didn’t help quell the worries for the Continental Classic. Wild, I know. It only added fervor for critics while fuelling anxiety that AEW might not be able to pull this off. In fact, it overtook the cycle at a moment when discussion should have revolved around the tournament and getting hype for it. Because, you know, when in doubt, challenge your critics to a duel. That’s how you win hearts and minds.

The Build

Let’s take a moment to ponder confetti, that most festive little paper delight used to punctuate celebrations and special moments. What’s the superior move, do you think, to obtain a premium celebratory feel: casually tossing handfuls of confetti every so often or firing off a high-powered confetti cannon blower? It’s kind of how I perceive AEW’s decision to drip-feed the reveal of tournament participants as opposed to having one big reveal of the entire field of 12. To be even clearer, I’m not sure it was a good strategy. For one, it exacerbated some preexisting criticism that AEW’s booking is very slapdash and lacks foresight. Had the promotion thrown out the full field in advance, along with matchups and dates, it would have gone a long way to show that the tournament was thought out and planned, therefore breaking the aforementioned perception.

Not to mention that releasing the field of 12 in advance would have raised excitement exponentially. Countless podcast hosts, column writers, and fans on social media would have made predictions, mapped out potential victory paths, and provided just some good old-fashioned discussion. You know, kind of like what happens when NJPW announces the G1 field? AEW could have owned the media mindspace in the lead-up, which I’m sure would have been welcome by their PR people. Instead, the decision was made to reveal some of the participants at very random moments until the Continental Classic Selection Special aired… on YouTube… the day the tournament started.

Not ideal.

How about I do a little devil’s advocate bit here: Could this reveal strategy have been done to not take attention away from the build and matches going into Full Gear? It was, after all, taking place just a couple of days before the debut of the Continental Classic. It’s a plausible scenario. Furthermore, if we continue drawing comparisons with the G1 Climax, promoting tours offers you more luxuries when it comes to building something like this as opposed to having weekly television. So it’s conceivable that Khan may have preferred to stay focused on the business of selling tickets and PPV buys for one of his big shows. This weekly cycle, of course, forces him to immediately jump into the tournament without the benefit of a break or a lull in which he could do a proper hype cycle. But there was certainly a middle ground that could have been reached.

Nonetheless, once the dust settled, the fields were set:

Gold League was composed of Jon Moxley, Swerve Strickland, Mark Briscoe, Jay White, RUSH, and Jay Lethal.

Blue League contained Bryan Danielson, Brody King, Claudio Castagnoli, Daniel Garcia, Andrade El Idolo, and Eddie Kingston.

Objectively speaking, these were good fields with a good mix of guys to fill the necessary roles of a tournament. You could already see that Lethal or Briscoe would be there to take some L’s in the Gold league in order for guys like Mox and Strickland to lead the pack.

As for Blue League, outside of Garcia and maybe Brody King, who didn’t feel like big-impact players, the pushed commodities weren’t so clear. It felt like it could go multiple ways, yet two things seemed inevitable: a dominant performance by Danielson, and Kingston either retaining his titles and getting his moment or coming up heartbreakingly short.

One of the most baffling decisions in the lead-up to the tournament was the lack of clarity on the rules. It wasn’t until the Selection Special that the round-robin rules were laid out. The concept of round-robin tournaments for North American wrestling fans isn’t exactly ingrained and could have benefitted from more explanation, as many on X Formerly Twitter seemed to have their brains broken at the scoring system. But crucial elements to the composition of the tournament remained missing: what is the playoff structure? What are the tiebreaker rules? Because why clarify crucial tournament details when you can enjoy the thrill of pulling teeth for information?

Quick aside: I’ve struggled to relate to fans who couldn’t understand how a round-robin works, especially if they watch pro sports. You have divisions (in this case, leagues) and each team in each division plays the other teams a set number of times, there are playoffs, and the division winners fight each other for the big prize. Why folks treated this like quantum calculus is beyond me, especially when NXT did a round-robin a couple of months ago.

The Prize

So when the tournament was announced at the November 11 Collision, nothing was mentioned in regards to the prize. A trophy? A title shot? Cleaning products? Just throw it on the “elusive details” pile.

Imagine how random it was when Eddie Kingston, who was revealed to be a participant in the tournament during a segment at Full Gear, decided to offer up both his ROH World Title and NJPW Strong Openweight titles to whoever won the tournament. It was a statement that came out of nowhere and confounded fans, particularly when Kingston talked about making this a triple crown. How do two titles make up a triple crown? The confusion was compounded further with reports that NJPW wasn’t aware of plans for their belt to be included in this triple crown, reports which were later clarified by Rocky Romero to be untrue.

Hang tight, though, because it was clarified days later that the prize would indeed be a triple crown title, which AEW eventually started calling the Continental Crown towards the back end of the tournament. This title would be an AEW one, thus completing the “triple” aspect of “triple crown.” If anything, it would stand as a symbol of the close-knit relationship AEW would have with NJPW.

The belt design was only fully revealed when Eddie Kingston finally won the Continental Classic finals at Worlds End. Well, it was accidentally revealed in the pre-match graphic, but hey, let’s give Eddie his moment, here.

As for the lingering questions about how the Continental Crown will be defended and its interweaving dance with the STRONG and ROH titles, Tony Khan did say that he expects the championship to be defended in AEW, NJPW and ROH and that the title holder would be included in next year’s field. But, again, lots of mystery around it.

The Tournament

Despite all the mixed messaging, the lack of clarity, and some eleventh-hour wrangling, the tournament itself was ultimately what mattered. It would be the quality of the matches that would define it as a success or not.

In the opening week, both Gold and Blue Leagues had “good, but not great” vibes. Gold League boasted all fine, well-worked television matches but nothing truly outstanding. No surprises, either: everyone expected to go over, did. As for Blue League, Brody King going over Eddie Kingston was a surprise result, but nothing really stood out. Plus, Andrade and Danielson were absent from the first week’s proceedings. Overall, the first two nights of Continental Classic action (if you’ll permit me some G1 lingo) provided some solid wrestling, but nothing that would begin to establish a legacy of greatness for a tournament that many wrestlers were hyping up to be the greatest in the world. There was nothing that happened that set the matches apart from any other good episode of Dynamite. Which is fine, but in the context of what the C2 was supposed to be, more was expected.

But, as the weeks progressed, league action picked up and picked up big time. Could it be that the guys backstage started egging each other on to deliver bigger, better matches? Could it be that the stakes started to become clearer? But one can immediately pinpoint a change in tone and urgency as soon as the November 29 edition of Dynamite rolled around. Gold League guys were wrestling like the points were important and not going through “just another TV match.” Jay White and Swerve Strickland arguably delivered the first great match of the tournament and suddenly the Continental Classic had a heartbeat. The December 2nd Collision followed suit, with Blue League contenders matching the effort, culminating with the incredible (and crucial) Eddie Kingston loss to Bryan Danielson. Little did we know how important that match would be moving forward.

A next gear was hit and the standard was set. Both Gold and Blue Leagues delivered quality matches, some great matches, and a handful of truly excellent ones. We’re not talking mid-2010 G1 Climax levels, but compelling and good enough to warrant praise consistently and set expectations to make Dynamite and Collision must-watch shows.

This high caliber of matches in the Continental Classic was reflected in Dave Metlzer’s star ratings, averaging an impressive 4.2 stars per match he rated, including the semifinals and the final (note that 6 matches were not rated). Notably, his highest rating went to the Kingston/Danielson Blue league semifinal with 4.75 stars, with six other matches clocking in at 4.5 stars.

Comparatively, if we turn to Cagematch.net for crowdsourced ratings, the average Continental Classic match rating stands at 7.4 (including the finals and semifinals), with only one unrated match because of its short duration. The inmates had Bryan Danielson vs Claudio Castagnoli from the December 23 Collision as their top-rated match, sitting at 8.83. The subsequent favorites were both Kingston/Danielson encounters, with the Blue league semifinals at 8.73 and the December 2 round-robin match at 8.48.

Here are some other standout matches from league action that should be underscored:

  • Bryan Danielson vs Daniel Garcia (Rampage, December 8)
  • Bryan Danielson vs Andrade El Idolo (Collision, December 9)
  • Andrade El Idolo vs Brody King (Dynamite, December 13)
  • Jon Moxley vs Swerve Strickland (Dynamite, December 13)
  • Bryan Danielson vs Brody King (Collision, December 16)

“But where are the stories?” some cried, oblivious to the narrative ballet being happening before their eyes. As much as I’ve written about match quality so far, the C2 showcased numerous stories throughout both leagues to help create drama and throughlines for the participants. Let’s just rattle off some:

  • Kingston’s comeback from losing his two opening matches;
  • Swerve’s continued ascension as a top guy;
  • Mark Briscoe finding his feet as a singles guy;
  • Andrade’s use of the turnbuckle hook padding;
  • Danielson’s orbital bone;
  • Garcia’s ongoing identity crisis and its impact on his matches;
  • Jay Lethal’s inability to win a match without help from his guys.

As for viewership, according to my slightly-above-average ratings analysis, fans were turning into the Continental Classic. Dynamite and Collision were impacted in very different ways.

Dynamite’s cable TV ratings fluctuated somewhat throughout the duration of the tournament, hitting such highs as on November 29, marking Dynamite’s highest results in both viewership (858,000) and the 18-49 demo (0.29) since October 18. Following a lukewarm week, the December 27 Dynamite, featuring the finals, saw a resurgence with total viewership at 843,000 (+8%) and a P18-49 rating of 0.31 (+19%), with the Kingston/Danielson match rebounding with a 5% increase in viewership and a 6% rise in the demo after a dip at the start of the second hour. This trend of C2 match quarter hours performing well is noticeable throughout the tournament, even on weeks Dynamite didn’t perform as well overall.  Case in point: the December 20 Dynamite saw Moxley vs. White pulling in more viewers for their quarter-hour, and Lethal vs. Briscoe making a demo comeback for their match.

Conversely, the effect on Collision ratings was notable. Not unlike Dynamite, quarter hours saw Continental Classic matches directly drawing viewers, showcasing the tournament’s influence on audience engagement. As for overall numbers, let’s break it down: the November 25 Collision, which went head-to-head with WWE Survivor Series, had 317,000 viewers. One week later, on December 2, Collision experienced significant growth with a 42% increase in total viewership (451k) and a 56% rise in the demo (0.14). The December 9 Collision maintained stability in both viewership (455k, +1% growth) and the demo, despite going head-to-head with NXT Deadline, bucking a trend where Collision ratings would drop against WWE PLEs. On December 16, despite the NFL playing in the same sandbox, Collision remained steady in viewership (457k) but rose 7% (0.15) in the demo from the previous week. The December 23 Collision continued the positive trend with a 7% increase in both viewership (489k) and the demo (0.16), marking the highest rating in the trailing four weeks with 16% viewership and 23% demo growth. It’s almost as if providing an alternative to what the others do brings in an audience. Go figure.

The Endgame

As the regular league action wound down, we ventured into the semi-finals. Let’s be honest, though: in-league semis for 6-man leagues may not have been the stroke of genius that was expected. The proximity of inevitable rematches made it a tad underwhelming. Cross-league semis (Gold 1 vs. Blue 2 and Blue 1 vs. Gold 2) could’ve injected the Continental Classic with new matchups that would have ignited curiosity. Even if the grand plan was for Eddie to triumph by overcoming both Danielson and Mox, cross-league semis could have pulled off the same climax, with the Danielson clash being resolved at Worlds End. But hey, as a wise man once said, I digress. The results we did end up with for the finals, though, were… Well, a mixed bag?

Let’s dissect them.

The Blue League Final

Ending up with Danielson vs Kingston to wrap up Blue League was a stellar choice and the culmination of a well-executed story. Danielson entered this tournament with arrogance and conceit, making it clear that humility in victory wasn’t in his playbook – a stark contrast to Eddie Kingston, who was already rattled by losing his opening salvo against Brody King.

Not only did Danielson best Kingston in their round-robin match, but he also humiliated him by laying a fan sign reading “Eddie Is A Bum” on Kingston’s fallen body, who now had suffered two losses in a row. Kingston was in an untenable position to win. Yet, in a Naito-esque comeback, he rose up to the challenge, made it to the semifinal, proudly embraced the King of the Bums mantle, and defeated the guy who told him he couldn’t do it. In the process, Kingston and Danielson would deliver arguably the best match of the entire tournament. It was a straightforward story, one told countless times, yet not force-fed as an underdog tale. It worked because the right guys were in the right spots to provide a dramatic finish to a hard-fought match. A truly fitting semifinal to a tremendous league that was ripe with drama and outcomes to keep us guessing to the end.

The Gold League Final

While the Blue League semi was charged with a compelling narrative that unfolded throughout the tournament, leading to a gripping one-on-one match epitomizing the Continental Classic spirit, the decision to opt for an unbreakable 3-way semifinal in the Gold League felt out of place. In fact, it came off as a bit of a cop-out. Not even Gedo has ever booked a G1 as such.

The match itself? No major complaints: it was well-executed, high energy, and everyone was into it. However, it felt dissonant to suddenly see chairs being swung when the tournament, rooted in 1-on-1, no-nonsense competition, had maintained its integrity thus far. I question the rationale behind it. Some have speculated it was to shield Swerve or Moxley from taking a pin. I’d argue that at this stage in their careers, where Swerve’s ascent has been embraced by fans and Moxley is, well, John Fucking Moxley, it’s hard to fathom how a pinfall would have hurt either guy.

It veered away from the show’s spirit. While I don’t think it’s as egregious as turning the semi-final of a knockout tournament into a triple threat match, it mucked things up nonetheless. It keeps me from showering it with the same praise I had for the Blue league semifinal. For the inaugural edition of the tournament, this detour could’ve been sidestepped.

The Final

It didn’t take long for Kingston and Moxley to dig deep into their long friendship and on-screen rivalry. The moment Eddie triumphed over Danielson on the December 27 Dynamite, Moxley was in the ring to inform him that the path to being like his heroes was going to be arduous. Kingston insisted that Moxley never forget that he allowed him to break into the business and hoped Mox was going to bring his fighting spirit to the finals. Two men cut from the same cloth, yet a stark juxtaposition: one, a confident international superstar, an unyielding force in the business. The other is riddled with self-doubt, out there to live his dreams and be the best version of himself, finally getting his time in the limelight after years of battling those who doubted him (himself included).

All throughout the past year or so, Kingston and Moxley had been trading shots across the bow with only sporadic in-ring meetings in multi-man matches, like at Forbidden Door or All In 2023. Not since 2020 had they fought each other one-on-one. So when this final came together, it carried instant significance.

The result at World’s End was a tremendous callback to old 90s All Japan matches, brutal and hard-hitting, sprinkled with some shoot style… a match embodying “grit.” The finish was as straight up as you could do it in the story they were telling: no nearfalls, no kicking out of finishers, just palm strikes and a sudden backfist to Mox’s jaw to secure the Continental Crown for the King of the Bums.

Eddie, embodying the everyman like a modern-day Dusty Rhodes, was a favorite to win and a crowd-pleaser to boot. Struggle is key to his presentation and that’s what makes him so relatable. But sometimes the good guys have to score a win to keep the hope alive. Being paired up with Moxley was the best possible scenario to guarantee a meaningful outcome. Both men worked hard to enhance Kingston’s already banner year. He became a champion in Japan, had a G1 run, worked Korakuen Hall, and even got to meet his hero. All that was missing was his big North American moment, which managed to remain in the spirit of his own personal King’s Road, as he became the first North American triple crown winner.

The Aftermath

Applauded by both critics and fans (excluding the usual malcontents) the Continental Classic delivered on its promise of providing sports-based, non-nonsense action that would focus on in-ring action and crafting a compelling, quality tournament. Its positive reception reverberated into viewership, as data also indicates a turnaround for AEW’s TV performances.

Despite the shaky start, all of these aforementioned twelve men rallied together to create a memorable first edition of the tournament. One might wonder if this was a deliberate move in the AEW culture war, a strategic jab to the more sports entertain-y penchant the promotion has been exhibiting. It’s intriguing to ponder whether this served as a proof of concept, affirming that reverting to AEW’s core strengths, rather than emulating others, is the most effective strategy.

In fact, Tony Khan, during the post-PPV press conference at Worlds End basically said as much as when talking about doing experiments with control groups. He attributed the increase in ratings and good quarter-hour performances to the more sports-based presentation and will move more toward that style moving forward.

During World’s End, commentary confirmed that the Continental Classic would return in 2024. This makes the second edition rather promising, if only because many of the initial hiccups and uncertainties surrounding this inaugural edition have either been resolved or are in the process of, as we spend the next few months with Kingston as the initial defender of the Crown. With the hope of a full field reveal well in advance to generate early enthusiasm and the lingering memory of a great tournament, the 2024 Continental Classic will likely get everyone excited without any money being put in any mouths.

Big thanks to Kristen Ashly (@kristenashly on X Formerly Twitter) for her help compiling the ratings!