Featured image by Ryan Loco

All Continental Classic 2023 reviews linked here.

It must be an extremely difficult thing to follow up on a performance in a match as widely beloved and violent as the Texas Death Match that Swerve had with Hangman Page. There’s the obvious difficulty in that people can’t peak that high on a regular basis unless they happened to be truly of an elite class of professional wrestler, the likes of which appears to be getting rarer and rarer. But there’s an added difficulty for Swerve here in that everything that made the Texas Death Match, and specifically his performance in it, so damn great runs contrary to the things he normally does. 

Week to week, Swerve doesn’t cut himself deep enough to make us reconsider the name of the Muta Scale or regularly staple himself in the chest to fire up or smash his opponents with chairs with loose ends of barbed wire. Those aren’t things that Swerve can just access on a weekly basis. But there are some philosophical things that can be taken from that performance and carried forward: the sense of urgent bumping when Swerve’s taking an ass beating, the deranged, sadistic energy of his performance, the cumulative selling that helped hold together the final stretches.

Things seem to be further complicated by how the crowd wants to receive Swerve right now. The Texas Death Match firmly placed Swerve among AEW’s villains, but it was such a thrill to behold that we have crowds that want to love Swerve. Hell, I want to love Swerve after that performance. And now Swerve’s in a round robin setting that sort of necessitates us getting behind him to see him advance. A round robin like this isn’t just something you can steal, and nothing seen from Swerve so far makes it seem like his character’s looking to steal it all.

There’s a lot of complicating factors here, a mixed bag of feedback and inputs that Swerve has to constantly juggle from week to week. I wouldn’t say he’s dropped the ball, but the struggle feels a little clearer than I’d like.

The mixed messaging on Swerve’s reception from the crowd probably does the most harm to a match like this against Jay White. Jay’s firmly among AEW’s more overt heels, everything he gets he steals and he’s already cheated once to win a match in the Continental Classic. 

The match follows that structure for the most part, Jay’s playing an antagonist against a very beat up Swerve. Jay’s work here is a bit of a mixed bag for me. He’s clearly aware enough of Swerve’s bandaged arm as a target to try to exploit it when transitioning into control, but Jay’s arsenal of work also has never really focused on arm work to begin with, which means he’s limited in what he can do to attract heat from the attack. 

The problem here is that a large part of Swerve’s eventual comeback is gaining revenge on Jay’s arm attack by doing a rather brutal looking arm snap spot, similar to the one we’ve seen Penta use regularly in the past. Much like Penta’s use of that arm though, the result feels oddly muted. The spot itself looks great, and sounds great too (thigh slap perhaps?), but Jay’s selling of the arm never feels entirely proportional to the spot itself. It’s present, sure, and arguably even plays into the finish with Swerve controlling the bad arm to get the pin, but it feels less like “Jay’s arm snapped off” than “Jay’s arm’s probably sore.” These are smaller micro issues that fuel my bigger problem with the spot: it feels better suited to the malicious heel that Swerve was in the Hangman match than the kind of babyface-leaning tweener he probably should have emphasized here. It’s a real thin line, I suppose, but the idea just never really clicked right for me here.

On top of that, investing in Swerve’s comebacks was a struggle too when he does it here primarily using the kind of offense I never cared for from him in the first place. I’ve described it as “floaty” and “airy” in the past, but it feels especially rough here. Perhaps Swerve’s feeling or selling the effects of the Texas Death still, but those set ups and transition moves felt much slower here than usual, further dulling the effect. 

Mechanically though, there’s a lot that Swerve’s really good at that show promise though. There appears to be this real strong feel for ring positioning and timing that shines through at certain moments. One can see it in the early moments of the match when just taking a brief second to sell his arm, work out a kink, provides the tiniest fraction of an opening for Jay to exploit. Swerve also has some rather decent strikes in him peppered throughout. Perhaps not in the elbow exchange in the deep waters, but he has a mean lariat and a few solid body shots. I also think that Swerve’s arm selling in this match was actually quite appropriately done–given just enough focus to be present to the viewer, but still matching it to the fact that Jay doesn’t focus on it nearly as much as he should. 

The good mostly outweighs the bad, and that’s so far been the story of how I take to Swerve Strickland. There’s rough edges, but there’s really no denying that, in this moment in time at least, he demands the spotlight.

Rating: ***

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