I didn't know what to expect from Bryan Danielson's return to a ring outside of WWE's purview. Honestly, I should have gone with my gut. He is, after all, the greatest wrestler in the history of the sport, the art, the whatever the fuck this thing everyone reading this rag loves. You don't lose the ability to have a great wrestling match, especially against Kenny Omega, who takes his craft more seriously than anyone ever has at least since Randy Savage was still alive and active. The means by which you have a great match may change. Genichiro Tenryu did not have the same incredible bouts in 2005 that he did in 1985 after all. Yeah, Danielson didn't have the same exact excellent match in 2021 that he had in 2006, but how close a simulacrum it was to what his wars with folks like Takeshi Morishima or Low Ki or Nigel McGuinness was now, post-medical retirement, post-years of being in a WWE environment not known for stimulation was, in a word, incredible.
Old school Danielson matches, hell even new school Omega matches, have this reputation of having moves crammed together, and I think that's just Vince McMahon propaganda taking hold. He's had too much influence over the wrestling discourse, and I think it's time to stop. Anyone who watched this match knows what a "good" indie-style match is, and you could count the number of "moves" that happened on one hand for the first third of it or so. It was a study in how the mash left out to ferment for decades across continents developed its spice, its flavor.
The beginning was based around them feeling each other out, but new-school wrestlers don't do that through the collar-and-elbow and standing switches and arm drags. You get the lay of the land by throwing out little stingers, probing arrows. You land a few and give each other a warning of what's to come. For Danielson, predictably, it was the short kick, or the "mid kick" as Rocky Romero calls them on New Japan commentary. For Omega, it was the knife-edge chop, eliciting crowd noises of a wrestler recently in hot water for how lewd and reprehensible his behavior was in the past. That being said, the "Woo" doesn't belong to Ric Flair anymore. It belongs to the chop, a life of its own. Wrestling is littered with the bodies of brigands and racists, abusers and rapists. Unfortunately, those foul people gave wrestling a lot of its color over the last century. The best our favorites can do is reclaim those pieces and hopefully not have souls as black as those they take from. But I digress.
The second act was almost a paradox, given that the man with visible battle damage was the aggressor. Omega left Danielson with a chest redder than the faces of AEW's biggest critics when the company sets ratings records and sells out tennis stadia in the biggest metropolitan area on the continent north of the Rio Grande. Yet with all his scars, Danielson showed he was one step ahead of the AEW Champion. He promised that what he brought to the table was greater than anything Omega had faced, and the American Dragon is not a liar, no. But for as much as his offense was familiar to the millions who fell in love with him as Daniel Bryan, he sent a message to the thousands who saw him on grainy DVDs or live in rec centers.
"I HAVE UNTIL FIVE."
These were the hallmarks of the American Dragon. He sent the message that he was back, much like John Wick in the first movie. But every great hero needs some bit of hubris. Danielson went outside and took too much time. Omega was able to wile his way into a dragon suplex on the ramp and then a V-trigger in the ropes with an entire-ass head start from the top of the ramp. The violent monster, murder in his eyes and vulgarity at his throat, had been laid in involuntary repose. Omega's turn to lay into the Dragon was nigh. And that's when the bombs started dropping.
What people think of as indie wrestling usually is snapshotted from these insane end flurries, where each wrestler dips into their bags of tricks and tries to put each other down. Without the context, it might seem meaningless, but those who fear change will ignore context and call things that can exist on their own as existential threats to their wholesome and traditional way of life. The only thing is, WWE cannot exist without encroaching on territory, but their own hubris will cause their downfall. The style that their most annoying surrogates and the staunchest company men (and women) have defended with bluster, one that has borrowed from everywhere they could without giving credit, is not what is the draw anymore.
The tide has changed, to be honest. The style, born in women's offshoots of major Japanese companies in the '80s, cultivated in those same jars in the '90s, spilling over into the men's promotions, borrowed by American companies founded and staffed by tape traders, and flavored by trips into Mexico, one that probably can't even be distilled into one singular style if I'm being intellectually honest, is the prime one now. The paradigm has shifted, and it probably shifted long before AEW fired shots across the bow of Titan Towers from a tennis stadium in Flushing Meadows. But Dynamite: Grand Slam was when it became undeniable.
The 90 minutes that followed were as easy a watch as that opening contest, outside of a few excess minutes in the MJF/Brian Pillman, Jr. match and the seemingly superfluous Arn Anderson apron bump in the Cody Rhodes/Malakai Black match. AEW has this nagging little habit of hyping up shows and delivering. Again, changing the paradigm, not only delivering on one out of every ten shows. They're smashing expectations. I think that's the most important thing to take on an analytic level.
But on an artistic level? On a visceral level? Daniel Bryan never died, no. But he was subsumed into the American Dragon. He's back, and professional wrestling is better for it. The best wrestler in history is now a part of the best wrestling promotion going right now, at least in America. That's important. That's satisfying. That makes me happy.