Any wrestling fan could be excused for having their brains scrambled by the sight of Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson staring at each other from across the ring before actually engaging. It was not something we’d ever conceived of actually happening, and even when we knew it was going to happen months ago, it’s still hard to wrap one’s arms around. It’s like seeing your favorite band for the first time. You may have had the tickets for months, but until the lights go down, it’s not really real.
These two were the subject of just about everyone’s dream booking, which, by definition means it can’t actually happen. Certainly it couldn’t live up to anything that you had in your mind, because it’s not even supposed to happen.
These are two of the very select few over the past five-to-seven years who have been widely regarded as the best wrestlers in the world. But what they represented, beyond that, was supposed to keep them apart. Omega was the one WWE would never get. The one who achieved mass popularity with matches on in the middle of the night in Japan, which might be the biggest testimony to his skills. He was the guy wrestling fans had to find replays and feeds from wherever they could to see what he’d done, because the buzz was that loud. He was the one showing the wrestling world all the things you could be off the main road.
And Danielson was the indie wrestler WWE couldn’t stop. The one who, however briefly, took over the company that was specifically designed to keep him out. He and Omega came from the same roots, both starring in ROH way back in the day, but had taken severely different paths. This was not the first time they’d been in the ring together, of course, but it was the first time they were after they’d become KENNY OMEGA and BRYAN DANIELSON. And those two names were never supposed to clash. They were opposite poles, no matter how much alike they were.
But this is why AEW is here. Sure, it might all be a rich failson using dad’s money to play with his favorite wrestling toys. But isn’t that what fantasy booking is anyway? The desire to do that? AEW was designed as a platform where any kind of match could happen, where they would let wrestlers just do what they do to create moments like this.
And it’s why we’re all here. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a match where the fans went nuts for the initial lock-up (admittedly I haven’t watched my entire life, but I feel like it’s still pretty damn rare). Maybe we all needed that moment to know it was actually real, that however many rubicons had been crossed and here they were. Yes, your favorite band is onstage and playing the opening riff. It’s going to happen. And that realization just had to be expressed vocally. Fuck, I was doing it on my couch, so I can’t imagine what it sounded like in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
We’re here to get lost in stories, moments, matches, whatever you want to label it. Again, it’s theater. You want to be immersed. And who better to immerse you than two of the best to have ever done it, and likely still two of the best currently doing it?
Omega and Danielson were able to pull off a different kind of story last night that played on all of this. It didn’t follow the usual Shine-Heat-Comeback structure of a match. It wasn’t mostly filled with Omega working from above as the heel. It was back-and-forth, because of course it would be, because if these are two of the best, then they would have an answer for everything the other one tried. They’ve seen it all and done it all. They would stonewall each other. There would be ebbs and flows because neither is a code that the other can crack.
What makes these two so good is their sense of crescendo, which they didn’t even have to complete last night. While the opening of the match would have been slow for any other wrestlers, these two use it to portend more drama. Sure, maybe they get more leeway than others, but they use it expertly. The match slowly picked up pace and action as it went through the 30 minutes, but it never felt like the gas pedal was jammed on at any point. It just built and built at a solid pace that had you melting into it without ever realizing how transfixed you were. The boiling frog fable, as it were. Twenty minutes in and you had no idea how much time had gone by.
What these two can do, and the trust that AEW has built with its fans, meant that the match ending in a time-limit draw wasn’t greeted with a torrent of boos. Partially that’s because a draw leaves the story incomplete, which means more of this, and no one’s going to complain about that. It’s only an opening chapter. But AEW and Omega and Danielson showed their work and laid out the details, so that ending in a draw was a logical ending and not merely the easiest and cheapest way to get more matches out of the story without any justification. Omega wants to prove he’s the best in the world, so he left the heel shenanigans aside. But without any underhanded tactics, there was no way through Danielson. But Danielson couldn’t find any way through Omega either. What will he have to change? This match was so good, neither of them even pulled out their finisher. They couldn’t get to them. The match didn’t end in some furious chase to get in before the clock ran out, but with the two of them just slugging in the middle of the ring. There was an acceptance that this wouldn’t be enough time to solve this, so they’ll just get their licks in now. These were all the layers these two could convey in half an hour with their bodies. That’s the art. That’s why we watch.
And it was on TV! Not a pay-per-view, not airing in the middle of the night on a 13-hour time difference. They just put this on TV for everyone and anyone. Come enjoy this and see what the fuss is about.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time picking on AEW’s foibles, and they’re still there. The criticism comes from a place of knowing what the company could be, but never while ignoring what it is right now. It is the company where anything could happen, and where fans are encouraged to believe that it will, and enjoy the moment when it does. What opened the show last night was next to impossible even just a year ago. And then it happened. And it was great. It was beyond great. And everyone was delirious. That’s why AEW thought it could exist, and that’s why we all went along with it.