Throughout 2023 and the latter half of 2022, there appeared to be a cloud of ever-persisting gloom hanging over All Elite Wrestling. Many issues contributed to this overriding sense – ‘Brawl Out’ and subsequent events over the following 12 months, other reports of infighting, an overly active cohort of roster members on social media, media-based talking heads routinely discrediting the promotion and owner at every chance, an overly inflated roster, the purchase and ambiguous merging of the Ring of Honor IP into the AEW zeitgeist, as well as an ever-expanding host of championship titles and prizes, reducing the value of the initial three titles offering AEW had at inception.

Following ALL IN Wembley the promotion should have been riding the crest of a wave, driven by newly found momentum, after running the highest-paid attending wrestling show of all time, but this was not to be. Instead, at the immediate post-show press conference, the overriding story following the show was another physical altercation backstage. This escalated as the days followed, culminating in the dismissal of CM Punk as an AEW talent and employee.

To their credit, AEW ran arguably their best in-ring show of 2023, less than a week removed from this unsavory incident. The sentiment among die-hard fans was that this was a fresh start, AEW as a promotion and locker room, would band together in a renewed sense of purpose and unity. Newly announced pay-per-view events Wrestle Dream and Worlds End added to this renewed excitement. However, in this new Punk-less landscape, there was a glaring lack of week-to-week focus, and continually changing identities, across their five hours of weekly Warner Bros Discovery television programming. 

The promotion moved to a more mainstream ‘sports entertainment’ centric product, on their flagship Dynamite / Rampage shows, diverging entirely from their initial promise to be an alternative for fans. Whether this was network-driven, ex-WWE producer pushed, or motivated by certain main event level talents, is up for debate. What was clear, however, was that died-in-the-wool AEW fans were routinely switching channels, as clichéd, convoluted 2010s sports entertainment lite, tropes, and narratives were overwhelming the previously immaculate product. If the market leader was providing this type of hokey content, why double your consumption of said stereotypical, overdone television? The month of October 2023 was the peak of this nadir. Vierwiship figures steadily reduced, with fans changing channels in their droves throughout episodes of Dynamite and Collision. Per Wrestlenomics, quarterly viewing figures for the flagship Wednesday dropped to below 700k in several instances. Likewise the newly minted Saturday night Collision at times was dropping well below 300k viewers. Per WrestleTix, arenas, at times, was less than half full. Per WrestleTix, arena sale advances were regularly dipping below 2,000 tickets. Bad faith actors would circulate images of sparsely attended arenas, and as such, it left faithful fans and viewers with that sense, that the AEW roster was being badly let down by the television content they were being asked to produce. The newly minted Collision felt like an island of sanity at times, but it too faced extreme turbulence, following its impeccable inaugural run to All In, and somewhat of an identity crisis in September and October.

I must caveat all of the above before I proceed. I still believe that every show produced by AEW at this time was significantly more cohesive, nuanced, detailed, and thoughtful than any other wrestling program on television. Collision, in particular, was, and continues to be, in my opinion, the best wrestling program on television, and by some distance, for my tastes.

On Saturday, November 11, AEW Owner Tony Khan appeared in a backstage segment, alongside arguably the greatest wrestler of all time, Bryan Danielson, to announce that the promotion would be running a round-robin tournament for the remainder of the year, called The Continental Classic. This was something fans had been calling out for since the promotion’s birth. Much like the NJPW G1 Climax, wrestlers would be split into two groups facing each other weekly, before proceeding to knock out quarter, and semi-final rounds, with the tournament finals taking place at the Worlds End PPV.

Immediately, these tournament matches were a point of difference in weekly Dynamite, Rampage, and Collision episodes. With sometimes up to three matches per episode, all other angles and content seemed secondary comparatively in importance to this fresh tournament. All twelve participants grew greatly and were appreciated far more in the eyes of fans. Tellingly, this was reflected in event ticket sales and weekly viewership of the product. Per Wrestlenomics, quarterly viewership figures would regularly top 1 million once again for Dynamite, with live event attendances on average returning to above 4,000, per WrestleTix.

Following the coronation of Eddie Kingston as the first Continental Crown champion, Tony Khan would discuss in length at the subsequent media scrum the need to return to a sports-based wrestling product, and that every possible success metric had driven this obvious conclusion.

Talking heads, pundits, Twitter trolls, and casual fans alike, all have discussed this concept at length – how would it look, and what structural changes would be required if this overarching modality, were to successfully return. At this point of writing, Tony Khan has just announced (January 21), the return of the much-clamored-for ranking system, that drove the immediate AEW product.

Off the back of this highly exciting discourse – I have tried to articulate my views on how I would like to see the promotion pivot to achieve these lofty strategic changes. Currently, in AEW, there are 202 on-screen characters – excluding announcers, interviewers, and referees. There are also 19 contestable prizes throughout the year, including the Owen Hart Cups, the Dynamite Diamond Ring, and the Continental Crown.

In the last iteration of the AEW rankings system, there were two men’s titles, two women’s titles, and one set of tag team titles. Evidently – this number has grown considerably. External prizes are also commonly defended on AEW and ROH programming – NJPW, AAA, and CMLL. The introduction of Trios belts, and the reintroduction of the ROH 6-man belts, have greatly hampered the once thriving tag team division. The rankings were previously capped in a top-five format also. 

To curb this lack of focus, I would draw only three sets of ranking grids, and expand them to blocks of ten – Men, Women, and Tag Teams.

Atop these tables would be the World’s Champion for each division. Secondary title holders would be included in these ranking tables. Your World title should always be the focal point of your programming, and should be the absolute focus of all roster members to achieve holding it – much the same as Boxing or MMA. Within these tables of ten, you will naturally develop rivalries and stories as opponents try to take the place of their rivals – again, much like in any sport, drama ensues between those competing with one another directly.

I would treat the Owen Hart Foundation Tournament, the same as cup competitions in traditional football leagues – e.g. in England – the FA Cup / League Cup knock-out competitions, run concurrently with the Premier League, and Champions League. I would treat the Continental Crown as the promotion’s Champions League round-robin tournament. Much like the Champions League, and NJPW G1 Climax, this should be treated with equal gravitas and weight as the World Championship, as a true test of endurance, will, and resolve. This first year has done an incredible job of establishing the tournament, but, in my opinion, immediately devalued the tournament by making the “Crown” defendable, and against much lesser midcard opponents. 

Given the diverse mix of cultures, nationalities, and ethnicities in the AEW roster, I would treat the International Title as it was originally when it was introduced as the All-Atlantic title. This belt was routinely defended all over the world on independent overseas promotion shows. AEW talent competes weekly in other promotions domestically and globally, and this should be used as a showcase opportunity for international, as well as domestic, signed, and unsigned talent.

The wonderful TNT and TBS titles should be defended every week on AEW programming – as it once was. A traditional ‘television workhorse’ championship, to elevate roster members, as well as to feed into the boxing-based concept of ‘every competitor having a puncher’s chance’. 

In regards to the much-maligned ‘Trios’ titles, I am currently praying that the newly Christened ‘Bang Bang Scissor Gang’, are currently building to a unification match between the Trios, and ROH 6 Man titles. If this is done, I would continue to treat the Trios titles and matches as novelties – if they are a mandatory fixture in the programming. They cannot, however, impede on the importance of the Tag Team division. There is nothing in wrestling better when done well than tag team wrestling – see nearly any FTR match over the last two calendar years. I enjoy Trios matches when it is two sets of people with a grudge to settle, or a mix of rivalries combined to give fans a taster and showcase interactions you wouldn’t seen prior, but a title-based division is not needed.

Finally, although I have huge respect for the belt’s history, lineage, and initial place in AEW, the FTW title, over three full calendar years, has only been contested 23 times. It has been used as a device to give characters something to do, and a storyboard device. The utility and value of this belt have significantly decreased since its reintroduction at the start of 2021, and given it goes largely undiscussed, and uncontested – I would remove the title from AEW programming circulation.

In regards to the redheaded stepchild Ring of Honor, currently residing in the corner of each weekly episode of AEW television, I would continue to treat their two hours of weekly content as a developmental brand. Where possible I would return to Universal Studios to film their content as they did originally. The mammoth set of AEW TV tapings, twice weekly, a huge reason as to why fans arrive late, or leave early from these events, and contributed in part to the poor ticket sales at different points. The weekly product they produce is excellent in my view, and I enjoy it significantly more than anything WWE produces every week, but it is still only viewed by a fraction of the AEW audience on the Honor Club streaming platform and sorely needs its own television home.

Much like AEW, ROH has too many titles for the number of competitors who appear regularly on their programming. Assuming the 6-man titles will be unified with the AEW Trios titles, they will still have six titles on offer – Men and Women’s World, Men and Women’s TV, Tag and Pure titles. Each of these has a place in the promotion in my view. The Pure title has a strong point of difference selling point, however, the rule set and presentation of the division are poorly presented in my view. More of an effort should be made weekly for fans to appreciate the additional rule sets and parameters of these matches. Much like tag wrestling – rules being enforced, make the stakes of matches mean so much more. This is not being done to an effective level currently, and more fans are apathetic to Pure matches than invested. If this were to continue, I would advise this title and division be binned. Crucially, on the presumption ROH will have its own television home sooner or later, I would give ROH its distinct roster, free from overlap with AEW weekly TV. Allowing them to develop their own identity and brand will only increase the value of the programming, roster members, and titles. The same rankings, World titles, and TV titles would apply as the AEW format outlined above.

With twelve total episodes of AEW and Ring of Honor programming so far this year, there has been a pronounced tonal shift throughout each of these episodes. Episodes seem significantly less erratic, focussed, and thankfully significantly less skit and comedy-heavy. Crucially the usual WWE grifter / talking heads types are starting to criticise ‘the lack of stories’ on AEW programming once more. These creatures are devoid of nuance, subtlety, and integrity. You can set your clock to negative tweets being circulated immediately before an episode of Dynamite on a Wednesday evening. As a rule of thumb, if they are silent or positive AEW are doing poorly, if they are loudly tweeting redundant, regurgitated, uninformed takes, AEW are on the right path. 

Once more, there is a ‘feeling’ (see what I did there) of excitement, and even more curiously, an underlying sense of unity among the cohort of AEW faithful since Tony and Co’s publicly announced strategic shift in focus. With some minor structural tweaks in focus, this promotion could be back to near-immaculate levels. The suggested changes I have articulated above, are driven purely by my tastes and preferences, but if any, or all, of these were to be implemented, I think 2024 and beyond, could be incredibly special.

Say it internally, or even whisper it quietly to yourself so as not to wake the grifters – AEW might just be Back. 

Appendix:

Personal Current Rankings (Based on recent performances and wins)

Men

World’s Champion Samoa Joe

  1. Swerve Strickland
  2. Eddie Kingston
  3. Christian Cage
  4. Jon Moxley 
  5. Hangman Page
  6. Bryan Danielson 
  7. Jay White
  8. Adam Copeland
  9. Konosuke Takeshita
  10. Orange Cassidy

Women

World’s Champion – Toni Storm

  1. Athena
  2. Julia Hart 
  3. Hikaru Shida
  4. Kris Statlander
  5. Willow Nightingale 
  6. Skye Blue
  7. Thunder Rosa 
  8. Deonna Purazzo 
  9. Anna Jay 
  10. Mariah May

Tag Team

World’s Champions Big Bill, Ricky Starks

  1. FTR – Cash Wheeler, Dax Harwood
  2. Darby Allin, Sting
  3. The Kingdom – Matt Taven, Mike Bennett
  4. The Acclaimed – Anthony Bowens, Max Caster
  5. Les Sex Gods – Chris Jericho, Sammy Guevara
  6. House of Black – Buddy Matthews, Malakai Black
  7. The Gunns – Austin Gunn, Colten Gunn
  8. Private Party – Isiah Kassidy, Marq Quen
  9. Top Flight – Dante Martin, Darius Martin
  10. The Hardys – Jeff Hardy, Matt Hardy

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