Bryan Danielson is the greatest professional wrestler who has ever walked the Earth. Long before his long struggle to the top of WWE as Daniel Bryan, Danielson built a career on the independents filled with unparalleled performances that now influence the medium to its core.
Now that Danielson’s time in Titan has seemingly waned to an end, I see no better time to pay tribute to the work that came before, the work done by the American Dragon, Bryan Danielson.
King of Indies
Bryan Danielson began his wrestling career in 1999, a turbulent time to be sure. Nearly as soon as Danielson started his work in wrestling, the fall of WCW and ECW turned the American scene on its head. Without the territories of old or national promotions other than WWF, a wave of independent promotions stepped up to fill the void.
Even as the wrestling boom came to an end, Danielson’s greatness began to show very early into his career. Following a short stint of WWF dark matches and a Japanese tour, Danielson played a crucial role in the 2001 ECWA Super 8 and APW King of Indies tournaments, two of the most influential independent events of the decade.
As 2001 came to a close, a new journey began for Danielson. Early into the new year, Ring of Honor (ROH) was founded to provide refuge for hardcore wrestling fans; Danielson was featured prominently as one of the fledgling promotion’s “Founding Fathers”.
Era Of Honor
Danielson became an essential figure in establishing the new brand’s identity. ROH could claim host to “the best wrestling in the world” soon after its founding. ROH is where Danielson developed from a good wrestler to world-class. In fact, Danielson’s spectacular work in the promotion is so abundant that trying to condense it into anything short of a novella is near impossible. Against the likes of Low Ki and Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles and Samoa Joe, Danielson perfected his ring style.
From the year of ROH’s founding to 2004, Danielson’s résumé only grew. By 2005, finding a match from Danielson that is anything less than a good started to become a challenge. At this point, he was among the best in the world, independent or otherwise. 2005 was the first year readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter voted Danielson the Best Technical Wrestler, a prize that now bears his name, despite predating his birth.
As the stock of Danielson climbed, places outside of ROH continued calling on his talent, where he only pushed it higher. Across the globe, Danielson captured gold. From the spread of the union, Japan, Mexico, and Europe, Danielson became a decorated attraction the world around.
Yet, one achievement outweighs them all, and it lies in Danielson’s first home.
Best in the World
The crown jewel of Danielson’s independent professional wrestler crown was his reign as ROH World Champion. By the time Danielson claimed the belt, the ROH World Championship already carried great significance, despite the belt’s relative youth.
Following the reigns of Low Ki, Austin Aries, CM Punk, and Samoa Joe, Danielson had gargantuan shoes to fill. After claiming the title from Jamie noble in September 2005, he certainly lived up to the standard set before him. Unlike many champions elsewhere, in early ROH, the belt didn’t make the man; the man had to make the belt.
Danielson’s work surrounding ROH World Champion was nothing short of transcendent, regardless if he was chasing the belt or wearing it. His rivalries with Austin Aries, Takeshi Morishima, and Nigel McGuinness set the standard for what wrestling can be. Danielson’s relationship with the title was similar to his relationship with all of wrestling, which is what makes him exceptional.
As a visual artist uses texture to complete the sum of his image, Danielson incorporates the championship to complete the whole of his character.
Return of Danielson
Perhaps no moment showcases the brilliance of Danielson greater than his time in NXT. After signing with WWE, Danielson, now going Daniel Bryan, competed on the gameshow-ified NXT. After racking up loss after loss and finally being eliminated, the show’s host asked Bryan, “what’s next?” His response, “For Daniel Bryan… that might be the end of him… but Bryan Danielson, God knows what’s going to happen to him.”
Soon after, Titan legitimately fired Bryan for his intensity; choking a commentator with a necktie proved too much. Danielson’s response? — Returning to the indies with a vengeance and more name value than ever.
Danielson’s face and the label of “Violent” soon adorned shirts as the prodigal child returned to the independents. For three months, Danielson restated his claim as “best in the world” by kicking in heads. He was heard.
In August of 2010, just three months after WWE fired him, Daniel Bryan returned to Titan. After returning, he climbed the company’s tallest mountain, despite the forces working against him. As I’m sure everyone reading this is aware, Danielson claimed WWE’s the top prize on their grandest stage in 2014.
I opened this piece with a bold claim; Bryan Danielson is the greatest professional wrestler ever to live. This statement is hard to back up with anything short of a novel, but I still want to shed light on what makes his work peerless.
Danielson’s match quality is undeniable and has been for nearly 20 years. It’s hard to watch a wrestling show anywhere that doesn’t bear his influence. His technical genius and master-level attention to detail pair to make every individual match unique and rewatchable; combine this with the immediate satisfaction provided by his in-ring intensity, and some of the most compelling wrestling of all-time emanates.
Yet, matches alone don’t make Danielson the greatest to ever live. It is his approach to the medium as a whole that earns him this title.
Danielson’s relationship to wrestling is that of a great integrator. His matches serve both as an end in themselves, from bell to bell, and a touchstone for his character’s development. His career integrates into a cohesive whole that is the character “Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan”.
Even as he wears seemingly different coats of paint, the soul of the American Dragon persists. Drawing a line from the character’s beginnings to his peak as the world’s champion is entirely possible. One understands Daniel Bryan’s triumph at WrestleMania 30 all the better if he knows the story of Bryan Danielson.
If you haven’t already, I can’t recommend visiting the past works of Danielson strongly enough. I’m sure you’ll grow in your appreciation for Danielson, if not realising what makes him the greatest of all time.
As for his future, whether he ends up in AEW or elsewhere, Danielson will always be at the top.