LONG READ: Why Bryan Danielson is the best wrestler in the world

Main-eventing Wrestlemania, defecting to AEW to show a new level, changing the game – 2021 was a banner year for Bryan Danielson. Brandon Bethune dissects his career, exploring how the perennial underdog is finally being treated as more than a miracle.

It’s a banner year across the two biggest promotions in the world for Danielson. (Photo Credit – AEW)

Closing out 2021, we were hit with wall-to-wall ‘best of’ lists, discussing the very best professional wrestlers in the world today. And perhaps the most consistent name on each of these lists was ‘The American Dragon’ Bryan Danielson.

Working across two different promotions with vastly different styles and vastly different rules, in WWE and AEW, Danielson entered a seminal year of performance, despite taking a summer vacation, proving himself worthy of sitting atop anyone’s best of 2021 list.

However, understanding the difficulty in which he not only succeeded in such differing environments, but thrived in them, is most important in deciphering the genius of Danielson.

Let’s begin with the ‘fed.

Entering the quasi-developmental black hole of game-show era NXT under the guidance of…(sighs)…The Miz, WWE saw they obviously had SOMETHING in the newly christened Daniel Bryan, but it was also obvious that they didn’t understand the extent of the genius they had under their restrictive umbrella.

As a viewer with developing taste, I too was ignorant to the extent of his ability, but as time flew by and Bryan’s popularity began to soar year on year, it became impossible to ignore.

Repetition breeds routine in WWE, with the focus on excessive heat segments in matches bleeding into the designated comeback, flip-flop near falls, shocked face.gif, etc.

And despite being limited to his own routine of suicide dive, diving headbutt, top rope drop kick, running knee and/or Yes Lock, Bryan excelled.

Memories of Bryan’s relentless desire in his 2013 series with The Shield are prime examples of him successfully adjusting to the company style in uncharacteristically well-booked six-man battles, through a revolving door of Kane plus Rybacks, John Cenas, Undertakers, and Randy Ortons.

Each and every time, Bryan was the heart and soul of the match, anchoring the audience as a through line to the matches narratives, seeing him grow from heat target to hot-tag beast. 

When Bryan entered the ring, he made believers out of fans who had long since stopped believing in getting what they wanted.

Unfortunately, the belief in Bryan from the fans didn’t extend to the presentation of the ‘Daniel Bryan’ character.

WWE loved to undercut its talent both in and out of the ring. (Photo Credit – WWE)

Not so subtly, WWE love to consistently undermine the wrestlers they reluctantly push, by emphasising the improbability of their success. 

Michael Cole and The Miz were the voices of WWE management throughout the early days of Bryan’s run, highlighting an apparent lack of charisma and the infamous height problems which was clear to nobody but themselves.

Eventually they decided to cut the middlemen altogether and just have Triple H, Vince and Stephanie all address him with frighteningly realistic sincerity as a ‘B+ player’ at the exact time he had pulled fans firmly on his side through his aforementioned 2013 breakthrough.

Even in his peak moments in the company, they never let him truly have his flowers. 

The WrestleMania XXX victories against Triple H, Batista, and Randy Orton were all achieved through the lense of an ‘underdog’ story that served more as a backhanded compliment than anything else.

In WWE world, it was never Bryan’s technique or ability that got him where he was. It was luck or a miracle, in a beyond frustrating sub-genre of the ‘stole one’ mindset.

Much of this idea of Bryan as someone who was good but perhaps not good enough to succeed in WWE informed much of his early 2021. Bryan being Bryan, he manipulated the work done against him to act in his favour.

Danielson proved the perfect opponent for Reigns on his way out at the start of the year. (Photo Credit – WWE)

Roman Reigns had become THE guy in WWE through the blood of the Daniel Bryan character.

The less said about the 2015 Royal Rumble the better, but as WWE intentionally tread on the grave of Bryan’s main event status, their push of Reigns grew evermore aggressive. 

Yet still, Bryan’s main event presence persevered, to the point where he and Roman became spiritual career rivals from the sheer fact that Bryan was the physical embodiment of everything WWE tried to make Reigns.

So when Reigns finally embraced his heel roots as the Tribal Chief, Bryan provided him with the best rival he’s had in this run at a time where he perhaps needed it the most: WrestleMania season. Perhaps even more impressive, a WrestleMania season where Bryan’s involvement wasn’t a necessity.

It wasn’t as if Bryan was forced in by the fans. It was a rare acknowledgment by WWE that he could IMPROVE a lacklustre situation THEY created. Unlike WrestleMania XXX, their hand wasn’t forced. This was recognition that Bryan belonged in the WrestleMania main event by WWE’s own volition. And by the evidence of the eventual Edge/Reigns singles match at Money In The Bank in July, they were right.

Not that Bryan did give them much choice though, as the drama created in yet another predictable, seemingly filler Fastlane match with the unbeatable Head of the Table was just Bryan and Reigns elevating material beyond what they were given. Remember, the workers not the process.

Bryan worked his way around the well-built aura of Reigns’ new, dynamic uber-heel character to make the most of what could have been another run of the mill world title defence between Rumble and ‘Mania.

Becoming the first man to incite weakness in the dominant champion by tapping him out and getting the visual win, Bryan was only denied by a vengeful Edge, who delivered a chair shot that ultimately crowned Reigns the winner.

The following WrestleMania three-way was just as good as the memes inspired by Bryan’s forceful insertion into the main event. And that’s a key phrase there, the MAIN EVENT, OF WRESTLEMANIA, AGAIN.

Among the WWE lifers in Edge and Reigns, Bryan completed a wonderful comeback story of three men threatened with career and life threatening ailments, who overcame the odds to reach the peak of their profession once more.

Unlike his counterparts though, Bryan sought fulfilment beyond another ‘Mania run. He wanted a new challenge.

The World Title rightly slipped through Bryan’s fingers on this night, because as much as he’d defied a system built to break wrestlers like him, he’d now done all he could in the land of the giants. And he knew it.

Through a public statement of unfulfillment at walking down the aisle at Raymond James Stadium, Danielson made his future intentions clear months before he became #AllElite.

One last effort to prove Reigns the best of the bunch on the 30th April episode of SmackDown. The life Reigns choked out of Bryan in their final main event match was the end of his WWE journey, but invited new life into fire of the dragon, who would dominate the rest of the year to come.

Because at the end of the day, this was never the air the dragon was meant to breathe, nor the canvas he was meant to grace.

AEW was the home Bryan Danielson needed in 2021. (Photo Credit – AEW)

In 2021, AEW signed Christian Cage, Ethan Page, Andrade El Idolo, Lio Rush, Malakai Black, Thunder Rosa, Ruby Soho, Daniel Garcia, Lee Moriarty, Adam Cole, Bobby Fish, Kyle O’Reilly, Jay Lethal, and brought back god damn CM PUNK.

Kenny Omega was in the midst of a year long title reign, with The Young Bucks just reaching the conclusion of an epic tag title run, and the peak of the anxious millennial cowboy story was coming to fruition. The Four Pillars were all making their own strides. Cody Rhodes was solving all the world’s problems.

Yet still, his three months in the promotion saw the now-renamed Bryan Danielson stand head and shoulders over each and every one of them by the year‘s end.

Ending All Out 2021 with a wonderful double debut alongside Adam Cole brought upon by a whole other kind of genius, Danielson was now in a place that elevated his already stellar work by treating it with the respect and gravitas it deserved.

This change of pace informed the build of an immediate dream match with AEW World Champion Kenny Omega. The framing and presentation of Danielson as Omega’s equal could perhaps be viewed as less important considering a hardcore crowd were always going to embrace Danielson, but compared to the work WWE refused to do to place him on Reigns’ level at WrestleMania, the difference was night and day.

The mere idea of an unleashed American Dragon opposite the ring from a Kenny Omega in career-form was one thing, but this match with a story and machine behind it was another thing.

This story was as simple as who was the best wrestler in the world.  Some may have been sceptical to the legitimacy of the conundrum. Omega had proved himself in classic after classic across New Japan and AEW for years, earning those raved about 5, 6, 7 star matches for which he had now become famed.

Danielson, with even his best WWE work, hadn’t yet received that 5 star Meltzer-classic. By the end of his first match with Omega and his first AEW match, Danielson had his first 5-star match.

AEW wasted little time in showcasing the best of Bryan Danielson. (Photo Credit – AEW)

The Omega match was your perfect reintroduction to The American Dragon. He was moving a million miles an hour, maintaining the speed and intensity of the most brutal Omega strikes and sequences. He sold the various V-Triggers delivered throughout the match with frightening effect. And you know he stiffed the shit out of Omega with those strikes and stretches throughout the 30-minute runtime.

The man who wanted to do a TV draw with Adam Cole in 2019, was doing a TV draw on his match on Dynamite: Grand Slam, and it wouldn’t be the last.

This Danielson character KNEW he was the best f****** wrestler in the world, and if the result didn’t prove it on this night, each night afterwards he backed up his word.

Nick Jackson was the next opponent as Danielson began working his way through the roster to get back to Omega. Grounding the athletically gifted Young Buck to play in his environment, Jackson worked a Danielson-style match to accentuate the positives of AEW’s newest acquisition, as if they needed accentuating.

The strikes and holds present in the Omega match were doubled down on here, in a showcase for Bryan specifically, rather than an instant dream match fodder.

And in yet another example of Bryan being able to make everything mean more in AEW, he beat Jackson with the Cattle Mutilation submission, beginning a brilliant psychological, long-term crowd control trend of being able to beat his opponent with any move possible.

While a concept difficult for western fans to grasp in the era of finisher spamming, the differing finishes played to the strengths of Danielson’s character. A master of the art whose range knows no bounds. Whether it was a strike, submission or grapple, Danielson could beat you with it.

My own personal realisation of the brilliance of Danielson came in his next classic effort, however. 

In a year full of them, Danielson’s YouTube epic with Minoru Suzuki provided in my opinion, his best in a year chock full of bests for anyone’s career. In 2021, Danielson was pumping these classics out with insane regularity.

It was clear this was a man who had been dying to let his inner wrestler out, and as someone who had never fully seen this wrestler properly realised before, beyond the odd Nigel McGuinness clash in Ring of Honor, I was delighted by finally witnessing what I’d been missing.

Wrestling another completely different style of match, Danielson exchanged strikes and submissions with Suzuki throughout the low-key dream battle, in a match which began with a glacial pace but built to a magnificent crescendo.

In isolation, the match could be viewed as Danielson’s version of CM Punk’s current AEW character arc, compressed into a single bout. A wrestler long gone returning to rediscover himself by testing his skill. Up against Suzuki, and believing himself to be the best, Danielson had to fully embody The American Dragon to survive.

Danielson’s arrogance was punished instantly against Suzuki, with a forearm exchange leaving him cold on the canvas in another selling masterclass. The force with which he dropped to the mat emphasised how outmatched he was in the striking game, but slowly, and through much pain, he’d find a way to become Suzuki’s equal, and eventually his superior.

Building throughout the match, Danielson withstood much of the harrowing violence New Japan’s scariest grandad was known for, with a level of realistic fighting spirit that’d be evident in future AEW show-stealers to come.

The bout came to a close with another new, yet familiar, finish, with the running knee being enough to down Suzuki in a match that, on another night, could’ve gone the other way. But on this night, ‘The American Dragon’ had rediscovered himself.

Battling in the eliminator tournament informed the diversity of Danielson’s character. (Photo Credit – AEW)

In rediscovering himself however, Danielson’s arrogance caused him to fall further into the depths.

The nuance of The American Dragon character allowed Danielson to walk the line of traditional babyface/heel alignments in a more enlightened version of wrestling storytelling that Cody Rhodes could only dream of.

Bad faith actors would bemoan Danielson’s lack of characters, but his character was that of a wrestler who would beat the shit out of you until you know, like he knows, who the best is. 

This was all in the name of proving and testing himself, whether people saw his perhaps excessive aggression as good or bad, was meaningless. He was winning matches, that’s all that matters.

The AEW World Title Tournament provided another opportunity to win matches with stakes, as the ultimate end goal of AEW World Champion Kenny Omega remained in sight. 

And as Danielson had already begun working his way through the roster with no remorse, what was three more men, right?

Another banger with Dustin Rhodes positioned Danielson opposite another veteran of equal pissed off prowess, and a spiritually similar semi-final battle with Eddie Kingston. It saw Danielson up against someone with the same unrelenting fighting spirit he brazenly embodied.

Both matches featured instances of Bryan daring his opponents to rise to his level, pushing them beyond their limits to see if they’d break. They all did.

Rhodes was a veteran like him who had the worst the industry had to offer and come out the other side. But he couldn’t withstand the running knee.

Kingston, as informed by pre-match Danielson promos and post-match context via CM Punk, was a lazy wrestler who couldn’t compete on Danielson’s level. Kingston proved Danielson wrong by keeping up with him bell to bell, but still fell in the end. 

The complexities of his character were explored further here. He called out Kingston TO get the best of him, and he did. Yet in offering respect with a post-match handshake, Kingston rebuffed him, in the first case of disrespect Danielson was going to grow tired of, which would in turn instigate one last evolution in him to close a 2021 that had otherwise covered all bases.

Just as he was for Reigns, Danielson proved magnificent foil for another World Champion to end the year. (Photo Credit – AEW)

Everything Danielson says and does is informed by his incessant need for competition and respect. His journey through the AEW World Title Eliminator Tournament informed that idea. His goal was Omega, and to get there he picked apart each aspect of his opponents and uncovered what would end them best.

The lone gunslingers in Rhodes and Kingston had to be choked out to be defeated, as did the monster Miro through the targeting of his well known neck problems.

‘Hangman’ Adam Page’s weaknesses were his friends. In further wonderful character development, Danielson felt slighted by Page post-Full Gear, as while Danielson had said he personally wanted Omega in the ring opposite from him, Page responded by undermining Danielson’s ability to beat Omega at all.

Disrespected once again and having his core values questioned, Danielson sunk into a darker place to exact understandable, if excessive, revenge for Page’s negligence.

Members of The Dark Order were told to step up, before being torn down one by one, with a violent edge hidden under the guise of a combative match, but what was in reality an ego trip gone wild.

Not so much a heel turn ,but a wrestler disrespected one too many times lashing out at competition he believed to be beneath him. The brash side of The American Dragon had come out and was here to stay.

He’d shown everyone he was the best around, and he wasn’t going to take any shit, cowboy or otherwise. Page had what Danielson wanted, the AEW World Championship, and he was going to take it.

And in a fun twist of fate, just as he entered AEW in 2021 with a time-limit draw, he ended 2021 with a time limit draw. Unlike the 30-minute Omega tie though, ‘Hangman’ was up for the whole hour. How very sexy this all was.

The fighting spirit evident against ‘The Best Bout Machine’ had been replaced by jumping jacks and pompous grinning however, as he believed his new opponent to be inferior to his last. 

Having dismantled all Hangman’s friends in relatively short order, this new champion was unproven and would surely suffer the same fate.

The way Danielson was able to shift from beloved babyface to hostile heel without having it call his character into question was masterful, all the while wearing the white gear, reflecting the hero he believed himself to be. 

Throughout the match, Danielson slowly became more aware that his games designed to anger Hangman wouldn’t cause him to make the mistakes expected of someone with a long line of emotional match breakdowns. The escalation of violence was the only way to keep up with him.

The challenger revelled in every kick thrown and submission executed. The blood pouring from the champions head was a trophy on par to the tooth he’d kicked out of Colt Cabana’s head in Chicago, all in the name of the real trophy above all trophies.

This may have been in the name of the title, but this Danielson ENJOYED fucking you up on his way to doing it.

The plethora of finishers he’d used to put down and punish others were all put to use, this time to no avail. Gotch style piledriver on the apron, Labell Lock, neck stomps, triangle choke, heel hook, nothing was working. 

Eliminating the champion’s ribs, then the arm to stifle his own finisher, then his head as the blood continued to pour. This wrestling chameleon would show the skin of whichever style he needed to unlock the new gold skin around his waist.

But his uncharacteristic undermining of his opponent’s skill proved to be his downfall. While he noticed the weaknesses of a Rhodes, Miro, or Kingston, he respected their ability enough to take them seriously. Hangman Page had been disrespectful to a point that Danielson refused to take him seriously, just as Page had done to him by calling into question his ability to beat Omega.

Avoiding the Buckshot Lariat became the name of the game in a match he denied to himself he was ever going to lose.

In a rare straying of his wrestling code, Danielson had exposed his own weakness, and had beaten himself before the match had even begun.

But when the Buckshot eventually struck, not once but twice with the first variation playing against the work Danielson had done to eliminate the arm in the first place. The Dragon was beaten, saved only by the hour time limit.

If the hour-itch hadn’t been scratched by Cole on SmackDown, or Omega on Dynamite, it had been by Hangman at Winter Is Coming, the opponent that in character, Danielson believed would’ve deserved it the least. 

And just as Danielson had entered AEW in 2021 with a five-star match, he was also going to end 2021 with a five-star match. He’d been in the company three months, and something that some circles felt had wrongly eluded him his whole career had been earned in such a short amount of time. Such was the effect of his AEW work.

Unmatched. (Photo Credit – AEW)

To call 2021 Bryan Danielson’s year would be a vast understatement for reasons I’ve just spent 3000+ words explaining to you.

He reached the main event of WrestleMania for a second time after doing the best work the company has seen all year, in a company he shouldn’t’ have been realistically headlining in. He then had the belief in himself to take the leap elsewhere to explore his artistic freedom.

He joined AEW, and wrestled classic after classic with a brand-new edge and demeanour in surroundings that matched his ambition. He wanted to wrestle, and Tony Khan let him wrestle.

He was the underdog against Reigns, the equal to Omega, the abuser of Jackson and so many more. He survived Suzuki and outthought the field of an entire tournament. Then he went toe to toe with the World Champion and came out the other side, all the while having such a strong character, able to shift in any direction at any time with finishers that could follow the same path.

In every category, he was unmatched in 2021, the year Danielson proved the master of sports entertainment and professional wrestling in equal measure.

Entering 2022, Danielson wrestled Page in a rematch of their 60-minute classic for the AEW World Championship. I want you to guess how good it was.

Start writing your best wrestlers of 2022 list ladies and gentlemen, we already have a front runner.

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