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Pro Wrestling

Bryan Danielson Saved The Day

12:56 PM EDT on September 5, 2023

Bryan Danielson choking out Ricky Starks
AEW

AEW's annual Labor Day weekend Chicago PPV, All Out, always seems to bring with it the biggest pro wrestling news of the year. In 2021, the show featured the long-awaited in-ring return of CM Punk, whose AEW debut, alongside the arrivals of Adam Cole and Bryan Danielson from WWE, boosted the young company to a new mainstream level and, for a brief moment in time, made it feel neck and neck with the monolith that had dominated the business for 20 years. Last September, All Out concluded with the most consequential press conference in wrestling history, when Punk publicly called out his coworkers to provoke a backstage fight and open wounds that never healed. And this weekend, on the Saturday night before the PPV, Chicago was the place where AEW President Tony Khan informed fans both live in the building and on TV that he had legitimately fired Punk for a violent incident backstage at last week's Wembley Stadium show.

"I've been going to wrestling shows for over 30 years," Khan said in a prerecorded message that kicked off the episode of Collision. "I've been producing them on this network for nearly four years. Never in all that time have I ever felt, until last Sunday, that my security, my safety, my life was in danger at a wrestling show."

Punk's removal potentially starts to erase the big red line that has so obviously divided the AEW locker room. (The tag team the Young Bucks, who were on the other side of that backstage fight last year, made their first-ever appearance on Collision, a new show that had originally been rostered by Punk and those who could stand to be near him.) But it also created a short-term emergency for the company: They were in Punk's hometown of Chicago for a hastily built PPV just a week removed from another show that tons of fans had spent $50 to see, and now they didn't have Punk for what was assumed to be a planned strap match against Ricky Starks. (It's a match where both guys are connected at the wrist by a leather strap.) While firing Punk was probably the only way to move the company forward as a healthy workplace, it also threatened the success of this particular weekend, which has in the past been so pivotal for AEW.

But nobody needed to worry. The wrestlers on All Out produced a very good show in front of a crowd that, if they were upset about missing Punk, didn't show it. And while you can dish out praise up and down the card for All Out's success, a large helping of it needs to go to Bryan Danielson, who unexpectedly slotted into Punk's presumed match against Starks and delivered an intense, unforgettable performance even with only three fully functioning limbs.

Danielson, now 42 years old, could and maybe should have stopped wrestling years ago, with a legendary career already in the books. He defined the identity of the influential indie Ring Of Honor in the 2000s with furious, exhausting, and realistic-feeling matches. He infiltrated WWE in the ensuing decade and, though he was too small and too hairy for Vince McMahon's traditional tastes, inspired a groundswell of support from fans who essentially demanded that he win the main event of WrestleMania in 2014. (The "Yes! Yes! Yes!" chant he popularized will likely stay part of wrestling for decades to come.)

But Danielson was sidelined by a neck injury in the aftermath of his biggest triumph. He was laid low just a few months later by concussion problems. Danielson ended up "retiring" in 2016 but, as so many wrestlers do even when faced with apparent career-threatening issues, found a way to return in 2018, and he continued a successful run in WWE until signing his AEW deal as a free agent two years ago.

Danielson, unlike many who have left that larger company, hasn't broadcast any sharp criticisms of his old employer, but it was obvious from the very beginning of his AEW run that this promotion let him indulge his passion for pro wrestling in a way WWE never would. Danielson's AEW matches were and continue to be a throwback to his ROH days—bloody and visceral and giddy with violence. He was framed as a perpetual underdog in PG-rated WWE, a scrappy guy in a land of giants. But in PG-13 AEW, he's just a badass with kicks that could cave your head in.

But time moves forward for Bryan Danielson like it does for everyone else, and even in AEW he couldn't escape the vulnerability of his own body. Another concussion forced him away last summer. This past June, main eventing the Forbidden Door PPV in a dream encounter against Kazuchika Okada, Danielson finished the match as planned after breaking his arm, using every ounce of adrenaline and every bit of knowledge he'd gleaned from two thousand matches prior to deliver a satisfying conclusion as best he could. When his wife posted this gnarly x-ray of a clean break, it felt safe to assume Danielson would be out several months at least. And when he missed the chance to perform in front of a supersized crowd at Wembley just a week ago, everyone looked ahead to AEW's big Seattle show, at the start of October, as the target for his return.

But since CM Punk suddenly wasn't around this weekend, into the void stepped Danielson. Miraculously, he was not only ready to return to the ring, but also prepared for a heated one-on-one confrontation—as opposed to, say, a tag match where he'd only have to really give a few minutes of exertion. After an invigorating entrance to "The Final Countdown" (in the home of the Bad Boy Pistons' arch-rivals, of all places), Danielson proceeded to have a great match by any standard. There was logical drama in the way it developed, sudden athleticism in a dive from the top rope to the floor, and hardcore, uncut nastiness that made Danielson look like a bloodthirsty monster, to the delight of the crowd.

Ricky Starks played his role to perfection and then some. After the show, Danielson gave Starks all the credit for carrying the match while protecting his right arm. Though the "smoke and mirrors" Danielson hinted at were brilliantly hidden, the beatdown and eventual choke-out plainly doesn't work on an emotional level without the suffering on Starks's convincing, expressive face. He worked his ass off, but it's not a lucky accident that Danielson happened to be part of another classic. Again and again, he has made a connection with the crowd by making them feel in their gut, even if they're too smart to believe it, that there's some level of realness to what he's doing, that this man is actually putting himself through hell. It's a testament to the strength I've always seen from Danielson on TV that this was the first match, finally, that I made sure to watch with special care, because I don't know how many more he could possibly have left.

The fans who love AEW really love AEW, but a persistent problem from the company's start has been the perception that this is "the minor leagues." Deploying a sports metaphor for a business in which athletic ability has little correlation with success is self-evidently flawed—the one I'd use is something like the all-consuming Marvel Studios vs. the still-wealthy but less homogeneous A24—but for those who have spent the last 20 years using "WWE" and "wrestling" interchangeably, it makes a certain level of unavoidable sense that can only be changed by AEW's long-term success as a challenger.

Where this perception is a more pressing problem is in AEW itself, where some former WWE wrestlers might believe that they've taken a step down on the ladder. Andrade El Idolo, last year, was reportedly trying to get fired so he could get back to a WWE where an old supporter in Triple H was newly in charge. William Regal bailed on AEW in under a year. CJ Perry, who showed up in AEW for the first time on Sunday, is on record in 2023 as preferring WWE to AEW, even as her husband's performed for the smaller company since 2020. And most tellingly, at his inflammatory press conference after All Out last year, Punk characterized Adam Page, an AEW cornerstone and former world champion who'd never set foot in WWE, as "somebody who hasn’t done a damn thing in this business."

Not every ex-WWE guy thinks that way. Chris Jericho, whatever you want to say about his work, is clearly invested in making AEW as big as possible. Jon Moxley, who won the All Out main event in another brilliant match, brings a chaotic superstar charisma that belies his metronomic consistency as a performer. Cole is on the run of his life. Christian Cage and Samoa Joe are making the absolute most out of what's probably the final chapter of their careers. And Danielson, we've learned, would sooner destroy himself than deliver a half-assed match. While there's something appealing about the sheer size and visibility of WWE, AEW has provided Danielson the trust and freedom necessary to be unconventional, scary, and more varied in his work. Seeing him over the last two years has been like watching a gifted chef working as a line cook leave to start his own restaurant. Danielson isn't in AEW because he felt alienated from WWE, or because they decided they were done with him. He's in this company because this is a chance, and maybe his last one, to perform the kind of wrestling he loves most.

Danielson's value to AEW extends beyond just stepping up for great matches in vital spots. He's been, not surprisingly, a creative force backstage, to the point where Tony Khan has told his father that, if he ever gets hit by a bus or something, Danielson would be the person he'd trust most to put together a show. And it helps, a lot, that a year removed from such a messy disaster, a bandaged-up Danielson provided a stark contrast to Punk with charming and thoughtful and almost comically selfless answers at the podium. With all the drama that's engulfed AEW, and Khan usually sounding like a Wikipedia page with media training, it was refreshing to hear a Seattle guy in this setting just go on a tangent about the 1996 NBA Finals. (Um, Dennis Rodman was on this show, too.)

But there was also, at the end of his time talking, a window into the sheer panic that Danielson can inspire in those who need him, because of how many times his body has undermined his desires. A little slip by Danielson on his exit elicited nervous groans and made Khan look like he was going to throw up. After everything that's happened to him, you really cannot take it for granted that Danielson's going to be able to make it to another week without a trip to the hospital.

Because of what's he's already put his body through, Bryan Danielson is not the wrestler AEW will rely on to carry the company into the future. But he's exactly the kind of talent it needs right now.

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