As I’ve written in the past, I got back into wrestling in 2015 because of (then) Daniel Bryan. Thing was, I didn’t get to see him wrestle. Ok, once, in WrestleMania 31’s opening ladder match, which was the usual spot-fest between seven different guys. And he did win that, but it wasn’t the best showcase of what he could do, or what he had been doing.
No, it was the buzz he created the year before that had captivated sites like this one, which didn’t usually or regularly write about wrestling. It had my wrestling-fan friends telling me that I had to see it, because anyone who did, no matter how agnostic, would be hooked.
How did this overgrown garden gnome create such a furor that everyone in the mainstream had to take notice? Also I couldn’t help, at first, laugh at Triple H being in the middle of the Bryan story, because of course he was, and then cry at the image of HHH being in a suit all the time in a true indication of how one’s childhood is killed by adult responsibility. I had to know.
Bryan went on the shelf after that Mania, and never returned before his retirement. Luckily for me, and I guess for the various companies I have bought tickets and merch from, there was enough on that card. I was just determined enough to find other things to keep me locked in. Bryan would eventually return, of course. His heel run as champion that culminated with Kofi-mania was excellent, though the playbook felt a little too forced to go back to Bryan’s original “Yes! Movement” but in reverse. His last feud in WWE, with Roman Reigns, which gave us the Mania main event and eventual singles match with Reigns that were his signoff, and both were also top-notch. Again, though, it felt just a little forced to try and play off the original Bryan surge of 2013-2014.
So though I’d gotten to see flashes of what the man could do, both in the ring and the frenzy that would surround it, and felt like it now all made sense how this very un-WWE person could take over said company, I still felt this tinge of missing out on the original. What must it have been like to tune in every week and see Bryan steal every show, simply because he loved wrestling so much that he could and would put on any match? The momentum built week on week to that night at WrestleMania 30, that nearly put the Superdome in orbit, when he became the most unlikely center of the company. The sheer force that WWE, no one watching it, or no one even aware of it, could ignore, because it was that good. I’ve gone back and watched all of it, in some cases multiple times. And you can appreciate it, maybe even feel it just a touch, but not in full.
His introduction and start in AEW makes me feel like I was there.
(Now) Bryan Danielson promised much when he arrived at All Out in September, but mostly what he promised was he would get back to the roots. He came to AEW to have all the matches he wanted, most of which he would never get to have with “New York.” Stripped of the usual bullshit that WWE will attach to both narratives and individual matches, Danielson could do all of his storytelling in the ring. Mostly, he was going to show that not only was it an art form, but what that art form was capable of.
And… my god. His first match with Kenny Omega has already been documented, but it will go down as one of the best of all time, just two performers at their peak providing a tale that had people frothing before it even began. And it was on free TV!
But this run has been so much more, somehow, someway. He took a usual tag-team participant in Nick Jackson and spun gold, allowing Jackson to not only do his normal acrobatics but join Danielson in exhibiting his technical skills too. Then it was just a slug and kick fest with Minoru Suzuki, the world’s leading Murder Grandpa (it’s definitely a category). Danielson took it upon himself to show why Suzuki is so revered in Japan and the cult corners of these shores, never shying from the viciousness that is Suzuki. And he did it all in the ring.
Then it was grapple-palooza with Bobby Fish. Then at the start of the championship eliminator tournament, he drew a classic out of Dustin Rhodes. While the Omega match will still be the headline, his latest with Eddie Kingston came closer than it had any right to. While Kingston has built his rep on being street tough and a brawler, Danielson went there with him and then made Kingston show that he too can be a damn good technical wrestler too. Danielson has an unmatched ability to have his and his opponent’s style match in the same and blend the two. Everyone who has gotten in the ring with him has looked like a star, and seen their next stories launch pretty much directly from their match with Danielson.
Most impressively, Danielson has ended each match a different way, with different submission holds or finishers. We become accustomed to a wrestler’s wins coming the exact same way, and there’s value in that. The anticipation of the build to a finisher is part of the excitement and story. There is a comfort in it, a familiarity that gives us a platform for the one big moment. But it doesn’t have to be the only way.
Danielson has gone the other way, depending on what that match and story needed. You can’t really submit Suzuki, because he relishes pain. So you have to knock him out. So Danielson did. Kingston’s pride won’t let him ever quit, so you have to make him pass out. Danielson did. Rhodes is excellent in his own right, but he can’t get out into the deep water with Bryan for too long given his age. He outlasted him.
It’s not quite the same as 2014. Danielson isn’t an underdog anymore, and he isn’t being kept down by The Authority because he doesn’t look the part. It’s not going to culminate with a title, and even if it does, it won’t be in defiance of a vision of how wrestling should be. It would be a celebration of how AEW sees wrestling.
But it doesn’t have to. It’s already a celebration of how Danielson sees the industry, the art, and how his new bosses agree with him. It’s not a revelation, but an ode. It’s been a masterclass in the form of storytelling, leaving all of us dying to see what he has in store the next week. Just like everyone did then.
I wasn’t around then. But because of his run now, I feel like I was.