This is what I came for, just eight years later.
The very reason I got back into wrestling in 2015 was because of Bryan Danielson. The thing is, I never really got to see him wrestle. Not really, anyway. And yet I kept reading things on sites like this, or hearing from friends, all of which weren’t usually accustomed to discussing wrestling, talk about this hairy murder gnome that had set the world alight in 2014. Danielson’s “YES!” run leading up to WrestleMania 2014 had captured not just the imagination of the wrestling world, but had crept into the mainstream. And perhaps he was the first to do so not because he was just such a camera-friendly star or an outsized personality, but because the actual wrestling was so good. And because he didn’t look like anything WWE had pushed to the top of the company before. He was short, he had a big beard, and his calling card wasn’t a catchphrase, or being exceptional on the mic, but that he could do so much between the ropes.
So I had to see this guy. And I saw him wrestle in the ladder match that opened WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara. And then he got hurt again, and soon after he retired. So that was great. Glad I stopped by.
And now I’m getting what I first came for. All good things to those who wait, apparently.
Danielson has anchored the last five episodes of AEW Dynamite in his run-up to the Revolution PPV, where he’ll face MJF in a 60-minute Iron Man match. In these five weeks, Danielson has faced a wide range of opponents, wrestled a variety of styles, and each one of them has left every wrestling fan kicking their heels off the couch in sheer delight.
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It started with a match against Konosuke Takeshita, perhaps the company’s hidden gem. The two of them put on a show of athleticism and technical know-how, bouncing back and forth between big spots, big slaps, and the kind of grappling that we know Danielson gets off on.
Next came a match against Bandido, which felt like it was straight out of ROH a decade and a half ago. It was a straight Lucha Libre match, and not just the high-flying most associated with the style, but with furious submission attempts as well. It was the experimental album you never knew you needed.
The following week pitted Danielson against Brian Cage, which had some fans feeling a little trepidation as Cage isn’t seen as an in-ring talent so much as a lumbering muscle dude. He’s better than he gets credit for, and Danielson engaged him in a classic big-guy/little-guy contest where he took a hunk of punishment but came out on top due to his higher wrestling IQ.
Last week, MJF called in Timothy Thatcher, formerly of NXT and now doing his work in Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan. Thatcher is a grappling expert, and showed that in some excellent contests with Tommaso Ciampa in NXT. He’s something of a throwback, where most of the work is on the mat and it’s all about technical superiority. But this is also Danielson’s wheelhouse, and the two had a 15-minute grappling exhibition that would have won over anyone, not just the diehards. Danielson can make anything relatable and interesting. The dude once got a crowd frothing simply through headlocks.
So last night, what was left? Just about the only thing to check off was a match where Danielson and his opponent just beat the ever-loving shit out of each other. Enter Rush, who has basically replaced Andrade El Idolo in hand in the company and possibly in life. There are no more bruising wrestlers in the world than Rush when he’s on it, and he had Danielson’s chest looking like eggplant about four minutes into last night’s contest. The two exchanged chops, kicks, punches, headbutts, throws into the barricade, forearms, and whatever else they could think of that exceeded the threshold of violent as fuck. It was the opposite of technical prowess, and no less satisfying. It felt like neither was going to stop until the other was a complete burger.
The unseen gift of this run of Danielson’s is how much better everyone he’s gotten in the ring with looks now. Fans knew Takeshita was a rising star, but now he’s a genuine main-event player. Cage was the object of the main event and immediately flipped into having a justifiable place on the roster. People are calling for Thatcher to be signed. Rush should be a big part of at least the TNT title or All-Atlantic scene. He has boosted everyone’s Q rating. He’s the anti-Cody (I’m sorry, I can’t help it).
All of this sets up what is feeling like an immense match with MJF on March 5th. MJF’s in-ring skills do not get nearly the esteem they should, though that’s partly due to his character and mic skills. But going an hour with Danielson was always seen, and especially now, as the top perch in the actual wrestling portion of the game, where only the gods can walk. Danielson will assuredly make the talk coming out of the match just how good of a wrestler MJF is, even if we can all giggle about the possible shenanigans MJF will use during it. Danielson will make MJF the rare heel who is a heel because he’s so good in the ring that he can’t be beaten, not just a shit stain who will cut any corner to win (which MJF also is). That’s assuming Danielson doesn’t win, of course.
This is what Danielson promised upon arrival in AEW in September 2021, of course. He’s here to fucking wrestle, and that’s what he’s done. It’s not that he wasn’t doing much before, because he’s been having great matches throughout his entire time in the company. But this recent run has hit another gear. While his look might not change in the same way, Danielson is David Bowie in the ring (or St. Vincent for more modern references and to piss off a few friends). He can drop himself into any genre and produce something that is the absolute essence of that style of wrestling and then move on to the next match seamlessly. He’s such a student and devotee that there isn’t anything out of his purview.
This run has let Danielson use all the clubs in his bag, and it’s been pure joy for any wrestling fan. Maybe this is his last great run. He’s talked about stepping back soon for a while. If it is, there can’t be anyone who doesn’t feel satiated with the courses he’s provided.