Reflecting on a life you have led can be a prickly path. Decisions in retrospect weigh heavily and regrets can sink in. Myself having a natural inclination toward pessimistic slants in life, these thoughts can teeter on depression levels. I discussed the crossroads my wrestling fandom was at around a month ago and the waters have only been more muddled since that time. Yesterday was a grave day of realization. Being “in” on the ground floor of someone gives yourself an arbitrary boost of clairvoyance. I still remember American Dragon having a match on the second ROH show and Phil Schneider remarking how great Dragon had become as a wrestler. This was after the 2001 boom in which Dragon was generally seen as the #2 guy in the explosion in the Northeast behind Low-Ki. Low-Ki, Briscoe Brothers, Red and S.A.T, AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, CM Punk and Super Dragon all either possessed more outwardly dynamic personalities or maneuvers that made the viewer stand up and say wow the first time they witnessed them on the independent scene. Dragon was more refined. The viewer became unsure as to whether he was more representative of Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit or the old school NWA champions from the lexicon of Lou Thesz. The first grouping was still a huge internet contingent in 2002, where someone was looking for the next Benoit that would go on be representative of the outspoken minority of wrestling fans and break the conventional mold that had plagued the wrestling industry for the past twenty years. Benoit at that point and Danielson as late as 2014 were here to right the wrong that had been pushed down the viewer’s throats. One thing became clear with each match Dragon wrestled throughout 2001-2002, he was special and could have a great match with anyone.
I think back to that timeframe of 2001-2004 and think of those big names. It is arguable that the best match they had with anyone was with Bryan. He had a classic with Samoa Joe on the Midnight Express Reunion show. His series with Low-Ki produced four ****+ matches by my count and really helped personify the culture and indy community as a whole. He also was able to reign in AJ Styles in a fantastic 2002 and 2003 match. When breakout star Paul London needed a breakout opponent, Dragon fit the bill and they produced the first Epic Encounter in ROH history. Dragon also started refining his style more and more. Starting out with the high flying ability that was a core of his training with Shawn Michaels, he started attending camps held by William Regal and took tours of Europe to sprinkle in that mat-oriented style into his arsenal. Dragon started touring Japan and he also mixed in some of those influences. He really became a complete package and the best wrestler in the world.
2005 marked a pivotal point for ROH. The lengthy Samoa Joe title reign was over and he was TNA bound. They lost CM Punk to WWE and it appeared that the critical success they had enjoyed since their inception was coming to a halt. Bryan Danielson in ROH up to that point was seen as a gatekeeper of sorts. He was someone that Austin Aries, AJ Styles, and Paul London had to overcome and defeat in order to prove themselves worthy to the ROH contingent of fans and a contender for the ROH title. Like usual, Danielson was in a secondary role. That changed when he defeated James Gibson for the ROH title at Glory by Honor IV. Danielson then went on a wonderful string of matches against Steve Corino, Austin Aries and Roderick Strong. Another creative flair entered in Gabe Sapolsky’s mind in the onset of 2006. The ROH vs. CZW feud brought new life into the ROH promotion and helped establish guys like Chris Hero, Homicide and Necro Butcher as big time main event stars. Beyond all of this, Danielson was at the core. Not only was he adding help in that department with matches vs. Hero and Alex Shelley on the Arena Warfare show, but he was also establishing yet even more stars in Nigel Mcguinness, Jimmy Rave and Delirious. Japan was also becoming more dominant in ROH and Danielson did his part to put over Marifuji and especially KENTA, as best as he could.
This run is the true testament of Danielson. Points of criticism could be entered in that his matches were too long and self-serving and that the heel role Danielson was playing wasn’t generating legit heel heat for portions of the World title run. I think there are a couple of instances that counteract these notions. One, Danielson was not above editing himself when he realized he had been too ambitious. The most notable case of this is the infamous 2.5 hour match with Austin Aries that merely became a 70 minute affair when they changed the booking on the fly. His heel run does garner tons of claps from the macho male audience of ROH at the time, but it does strike me as legit heat when the moment presents himself. Danielson was convinced he was the best wrestler in the world and was willing to go to the extreme to prove that point. That is emphasized in the Night of Tribute match vs. Daniels were Danielson is miffed that he is the one having to prove his worth as ROH champion against a pioneer, the Roderick Strong match where he is so confident in his abilities that he is willing to go blow for blow in strike exchanges vs. Roddy and eventually snaps in the This Means War match picking up the flash victory. A moment in the Best in the World tag match that is also brilliant is where KENTA enters the ring for the first time and is calling for an exchange vs. Samoa Joe on the apron. Danielson fakes out a tag to Joe before doing the slick back your hair routine you pull on your friends in middle school. Of course some clapped that exchange, but it also got legit boos in other corners of the arena. I found it to be great character work that KENTA didn’t need to concern himself with Joe right then as he was in the ring with the world champion. The most obvious extreme that Bryan went to was the headbutt into the ring post vs. Nigel. This is one of those retrospect spots that really make you cringe looking back on the match as a whole. For a moment in time though, this was two guys that had been told “no” and were not accepting that in the current state. A badly injured Bryan would go out a month later and have a wonderful match vs. KENTA in NYC that was worked as a new imagined main event style, hard hitting contest. The title change to Homicide is an emotional roller coaster and another wrinkle to Bryan that he could have amazing storyline matches as well as technical masterpieces. It also showed Bryan doing his best to get another man over; are you sensing a recurring theme?
With his main ROH run done, the remainder of Danielson’s ROH run felt like a long, extended victory lap. He worked in getting over new talent like Tyler Black, he had a WON MOTY with Takeshi Morishima in a nasty feud, and he flourished in brief Chikara appearances dazzling the mat with icons like Johnny Saint. His most refined run in the last two years of his indy career probably occurred in PWG. Here he was given a championship reign in 2007 before another company decided to give Low-Ki a nod again over Danielson. Danielson was able to work with a really new group of talent though that was starting to break out and get noticed in ROH such as El Generico, Kevin Steen, and Kenny Omega. His Final Countdown run was an appropriate sendoff filled with matches vs. some of his most iconic opponents. The internet perception to Danielson entering WWE in 2009 was interesting. Of course most were happy that he was finally getting his due after others including Punk, Low-Ki and Cabana had been signed years earlier. On the other hand, when Danielson did sign there was a sense of accomplishment for his indy career and for the first time a general indifference to him from some fans. Danielson had wrestled and done it all and going to WWE was seen as a way for him to cash in while he could.
Danielson’s WWE career is pretty amazing in retrospect, from the positioning they clearly had in store for him compared to what he mapped out based almost solely on fan reaction. In NXT he was given the role as Miz’s protégé which was a cute angle designed to get Miz over more as a dick heel and have Michael Cole bust digs on Bryan. Bryan also first wrestled Jericho in a “showcase” match on tv as his first singles match. So his first feud was with Miz and he was put over for a strong showing by Jericho, sound familiar AJ Styles? The Nexus angle would have provided something unknown for Bryan as him choking Justin Roberts resulted in him getting a sabbatical from WWE and actually having an awesome little indy tour run where he worked for EVOLVE, DG USA, Chikara and AIW. Danielson returned and in late 2010-2011 he had what honestly felt like what his peak in WWE would be: feuding for secondary titles. This changed in June when CM Punk dropped the pipebomb and by proxy, Bryan benefited by picking up the Money in the Bank briefcase. Once again, circumstances led to Bryan being chosen. Bryan won the World Championship and entered into a very effective heel role that was refreshing. I for one was looking forward to WrestleMania 28 and the two title matches as a chance for the not-so-young anymore but fresh on the top talent to really shine in WWE. Then we have Sheamus beating Bryan in a matter of seconds to the disgust of a large portion of the crowd. This was actually a landmark moment for Bryan in retrospect as it was a clear sign that WWE had a certain plan in motion and a reaction they had a track history of expecting to garner. The crowd had other plans and the chants for the heel Bryan carrying throughout the first hour of the show should have made a lasting impression.
The rectification came in the sense that they placed Bryan in more high profile matches and feuds, but he was always the second banana and didn’t achieve a big win. He was able to produce some amazing matches Including the 2 out of 3 falls match with Sheamus at Extreme Rules 2012 that holds up wonderfully and the masterful match vs. Punk at Over the Limit 2012. That match vs. Punk in particular was critical. Punk and Danielson had many encounters on the indy circuit and they all ranged from good to very good level, but they never were able to produce that one match that reached classic status. That theory was put to rest with the Over the Limit 2012 match. Bryan also started interacting more with Kane. On the surface, this was good and bad for the viewer’s eyes. Kane was a maligned figure that had been with the company for fifteen years at that point. On the other hand, Kane was a part of the WWE establishment and Bryan being associated with him does show that Bryan was at least stabilized being an upper mid card talent in the mind of the company at that point. It also helped Bryan evolve his personality and mix in his wit and comedy aspects of his character. The TLC 2012 match vs. The Shield is a brilliant, violent spectacle that Bryan is right in the middle of. 2013 started out with more of the same. Bryan was switching tag belts and in tag title feuds usually 3rd or 4th from the top on the card. I can recall being in the crowd from WrestleMania 29 and it is arguable that Bryan got a top five pop on that show for his appearance and he certainly garnered more heat that Alberto Del Rio and Jack Swagger did after him when fighting for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Summer 2013 felt like a new beginning again for Bryan. Rumors were rampant that Vince had changed direction and wanted Bryan vs. Cena to main event SummerSlam and for it to be an epic contest with Bryan winning and taking the belt in new directions with a heavy emphasis on wrestling. Earlier I talked about the KENTA match being a re-imagined World title match for ROH fans. The match Bryan has at SummerSlam 2013 is in my mind the evolution of a modern classic. It is the Flair vs. Steamboat of the aughts. A relentless, physical match that hit all the right notes in being exhausting without feeling overdone. It took John Cena, the most selfless major wrestling star of all-time, to get pinned right in the middle of the ring for Bryan to have a shining moment. Throughout his career, Bryan had beaten everyone but it was usually a receipt or an exchange. John Cena provided Bryan the opportunity that he had provided so many other people. Triple H then pedigreed Bryan allowing Randy Orton to cash in and a hotly contested period in WWE history was kicked off. I am fully in the camp that Bryan was supposed to be seen as getting his opportunity and then shifting down the card much in the way they had established CM Punk by that point. The crowd responded with revolt to this notion. The most powerful visual in that narrative occurs in the 12/9/13 Raw with Triple H addressing the crowd. The crowd outbursts in a Daniel Bryan chant that is so loud, no one in the ring can ignore it and everyone from Punk to Big Show end up breaking character over that. That ring was full of WWE legends that night, but the crowd was only chanting for one.
So I sat in the Consol Energy Center poised for a coronation of Daniel Bryan, one of the good guys, to win the Royal Rumble and march on to WrestleMania. We know that didn’t happen, but the crowd never relented. The forcing of Bryan into the main event picture at WrestleMania 30 was crucial and empowering. The world as a whole feels like a protest of sort on many levels. Through the Ferguson and Occupy Wall street movements, people are relishing the fact they want their voice to be heard and acknowledged. Of course Bryan in the main event at WrestleMania is minuscule to these real world issues, but it was empowering to the fanbase as a whole that change could still occur. WWE is seen as such a juggernaut in the industry currently that having the clout to veer direction on a marquee anniversary show felt monumental. So much in fact that I detoured our plans for a Spring Break trip to include a stop for one night in New Orleans. WrestleMania 30 will be a night ingrained in my memory forever. The gambit of emotions from the opening promo to the streak ending to the lasting image of Bryan with Connor was an amazing culmination and peaking of 25 years of wrestling fandom from me. I have only gotten hoarse twice at a wrestling show. Goldberg winning the WCW title and chanting YES leaving the Superdome. I remember calling Justin and Brad on the way to the hotel going 90 mph and talking a mile a minute on pure adrenaline. My wallet was stolen that night and I didn’t care because I was a wrestling fan and experience one of the biggest highs in my life.
The final chapter of Bryan’s wrestling career is depressing and antidotal. We know about his injuries and his return. The casual nature he was displaced in the 2015 Royal Rumble and the refusal of the company to again acknowledge they could have something more. I always thought it was so hollow how when Bryan won the IC belt at Mania 31, they made a point of saying he ended the previous Mania with a title and now he had one again. Whether WWE knew at that point or not how fragile Bryan was physically or not, it doesn’t excuse the neglectfulness they personified with using him as a bargaining chip for their next big star down the pike. It was the final time Bryan was passed over for someone else that seemed like a sure bet.
Dave Meltzer shared on the latest Wrestling Observer Radio that Bryan was originally supposed to lose the 2001 King of Indies semi-final match vs. Donovan Morgan. It was only at the insistence of Nick Bockwinkel and Red Bastein that Roland Alexander changed his mind and had Bryan advancing to the finals. This is an incredible story on multiple levels. King of Indies was the genesis of Ring of Honor and an indy that featured talent from across the world under one roof. It is possible that without ROH, Bryan would have been seen in the same light historically as someone like Reckless Youth. The other is that Bockwinkel and Bastein recognized the talent in Bryan. Bockwinkel and Bastein both passed away with mental diseases that have some correlation to a long career inside the ropes. It is fitting that Bryan is hopefully escaping the clinch of peril that Bastein and Bockwinkel were unable to working well into the twilight of their life.
Raw has been anything but appointment television for me lately. Last night, I unplugged from social media and just observed. The whole day since Bryan made his twitter announcement, I had so many emotions. Some were of the selfish variety that I was saddened that he won’t wrestle again, some were of the mark variety that I hoped this was a groundbreaking angle, others were of the relief that Bryan won’t go the way of some of his predecessors who were proclaimed the best wrestler in the world at one point or another. Bryan’s speech and segment last night was empowering. It was full of genuine emotion and uplifting to anyone in the walk of real life. WWE deserves credit for allowing it to take place and took a classy approach to the presentation of it all. Christian was not given a dramatic send off. Bryan joined the ranks of Edge and Flair in getting emotional farewells which shows how made he became in the profession of wrestling. Bryan’s word choice of Grateful was especially endearing. Here was someone that had been consistently passed over as the guy and was so selfless in helping a multitude of other wrestlers jump start their career. Here was someone that we have almost every integral match he performed on tape right at our fingertips. Here is someone that has helped raise me from different doldrums of my personal life and encourage me that wrestling is my life hobby. Through all of that, he is the one that is grateful? We are grateful. Daniel Bryan was called a B+ player and a goat face in a demeaning way on promos. I view Daniel Bryan as a GOAT in another category, as the greatest of all time. More encouraging than any of that, it seems like Bryan could win that award for not only wrestling but humanity itself.