Cult of ROH: Bryan Danielson – Never Good Enough

Bryan Danielson had to be the hardest-working main eventer in Ring of Honor. He lost in his first night at Era of Honor Begins, and ROH quickly became about the charismatic Christopher Daniels and the naturally gifted Low Ki. He failed to make it into the Crowning a Champion fourway and watched as Paul London and AJ Styles arrived and emerged as great regulars who could beat him. London didn’t even have a contract on the first show; by 2003 he gave Danielson one of the fights of his life at Epic Encounter. Bigger guys emerged, not only slow and plodding Sluggers, but the legend-bound Samoa Joe, who would capture the world title where Danielson couldn’t.

And the rookies kept coming. Paul London left, but Austin Aries debuted and rose up the card to give Danielson another of the fights of his life at Testing the Limit – and beat him. Now guys who hadn’t been on the radar when ROH started were rivaling him. London and Aries were only the first two serious waves in rising talent who would prove themselves against him. Roderick Strong did it at the end of 2005. KENTA and Nigel McGuinness did it in 2006. Tyler Black and Erick Stevens are doing it right now. Unquestionable passion and technical ability make him dangerous, but intelligence and creativity are what have kept him relevant for so long. He knows he’s never been good enough. “Good enough” works for a while, becomes predictable, loses, and stops getting booked.

Danielson is not a stable measuring stick, but an adapting wrestler. He displayed his adaptability in 2005 against Homicide, when he proved he could brawl with ROH’s best. He was already considered the best technical wrestler in the company, but Homicide turned around and beat him in a Submissions Only match. Danielson turned around at the end of the Third Anniversary Celebration and upset Homicide in Falls Count Anywhere to turn the tide of a Best of Five Series. Years later he would rely on that brawling knowledge to revitalize himself with a tighter style, incorporating not just brawling and knock-out blows, but strikes inside of holds that helped him retain his title multiple times.

He wasn’t good enough to win the title in early 2005, though. Austin Aries, that second upstart who’d made a name against him, beat him the night after he ended his series with Homicide. Danielson had to walk away from ROH to assess himself. He was damned good and he knew it. He’d always won enough or fought hard enough in matches to keep up a reputation, but the reputation wasn’t enough.

What he wanted came in September, with a surprise return and the defeat of James Gibson. He made Gibson submit – this, the same guy who had refused to give up in the preliminaries at Battle of the Super Juniors when his back was so bad he could barely walk. This wasn’t luck. It wasn’t just “his night.”

His reign is the watermark of Ring of Honor champions, doing the unthinkable in challenging Samoa Joe’s reign’s popularity. As hard as it was for Joe to make the title that important, it was even harder to eclipse him. But there were many differences between their reigns: Danielson defended more frequently and defended with more serious injuries, while Joe wrestled in a different time and through ROH’s weakest period in publicity.

Perhaps the greatest difference lay in the champions themselves: Joe was huge compared to the average wrestler in an ROH wrestler, seldom defending against someone his own size, and had phenomenal agility to match that size. He was a natural beast whose striking was inherently dangerous, and any technical aspects he added simply multiplied that. From his first night in the company he was able to go neck-and-neck with Low Ki, nearly knocking the man unconscious with kicks and punches alone. With seasoning, he was a monster.

Danielson was smaller, his build naturally lighter, and his style had never lent itself to impressive speed. He had outrageous heart, able to fight back through pain and injuries. Yet heart was never enough, for at Testing the Limit he returned from knocking himself out only to lose. He required focus, skill and ingenuity to take people apart. People like Spanky and Alex Shelley could easily out-run him, so he added in a few acrobatics like a Jackie Chan-style backflip from the corner to throw fast opponents off their game. As champion, Danielson had to wrestle exceptionally smart or he wouldn’t last.

He was reminded of that quickly. Less than a month after regaining confidence by soundly beating Aries at Enter the Dragon, Danielson wrestled Roderick Strong. Strong chopped his chest to hamburger and threw him around with strength that was disturbing from someone so close to his own size. They had two matches in two weeks, and each went over thirty minutes. Danielson had to stall, draw things out and catch Strong in holds that would neutralize his strength. Even that wasn’t enough, though; at the end of the first match (at This Means War) Strong was still challenging him, and it came down to catching the less experienced man in an arm-lock he’d never used before. The next week he produced an Elbow Barrage that’s still never been officially named, which knocked Strong unconscious to end the match. In two matches Danielson had to stop being so fan-friendly and innovate offense to beat yet another kid who was racing up to his level.

There was a time when Strong was just Austin Aries’s lackey. This couldn’t be lost on Danielson.

Despite making up for his past losses, the tone of Danielson’s reign changed. He knew Strong could beat him – fans had actually been calling for it at their second encounter. But it wasn’t only Strong. He had to resort to the elbows to dispatch a surprisingly aggressive Jimmy Rave at the 4th Anniversary Show. Rave, who’d been a whipping boy earlier in Danielson’s career. Delirious, fresh off a losing streak and with half Danielson’s muscle mass, refused to go down and had to be bloodied. KENTA, a visiting Japanese superstar, embarrassed the champ by pinning him in multiple non-title matches. In further embarrassment, the Pure Champion Nigel McGuinness beat him by countout in a Title Vs. Title match, watching from in the ring as Danielson collapsed in a heap of chairs. Danielson was able to best opponents he was familiar with from earlier in his career, but the next generation was on him.

Danielson had to get faster and keep expanding his repertoire. He’d beaten James Gibson with a Crossface Chickenwing, and he continued to explore classic moves the innovation-happy ROH roster wouldn’t expect. Even earlier than his title victory he’d played with classic holds, creating variations of the Abdominal Stretch and Bear Hug that bent guys in half. He kept up with the dexterity of the modern cruiserweight by watching tapes of legends.

In 2006 his most devastating rediscovery was the Small Package. With his careful technical style and hard strikes, he often put opponents exhausted or stunned long enough to pin them with it. The move won him a measure of redemption at Generation Now, when he fooled Nigel McGuinness into looking the wrong way and rolled him up.

So he had an expanding technical repertoire, the old standard of the Cattle Mutilation, the Crossface Chickenwing, the Elbow Barrage and the Small Package. But wrestlers watched his matches and they learned. And Samoa Joe was still out there.

His third match with Roderick Strong, at Supercard of Honor, went 57 minutes – just three shy of the time limit. What an embarrassment it would have been for Strong to bring him to a draw. But a few months later he was relieved to pull a sixty-minute draw against Samoa Joe at Fight of the Century. Joe was much the same man: huge, fast, with incomparable strikes and brute strength that allowed him to escape holds and force Danielson into holds. The draw was an improvement from outright losing to Joe, as had happened at Midnight Express Reunion in 2004, but it wasn’t good enough.

Then at Epic Encounter 2 and Gut Check he took sixty-minute draws in 2/3 Falls matches against Nigel McGuinness and Colt Cabana – guys he’d just beaten. He’d literally beaten McGuinness into unconscious two weeks earlier, and now couldn’t get two falls in an hour. Against Cabana he came within minutes of losing the title and had to use a low blow for his Small Package just to tie the score. He had to cheat to pull a draw. Being better on one night clearly wasn’t indicative of being superior.

He escaped a cage match with Samoa Joe by falling to the floor unconscious. That looked particularly pitiful following their prior match at Irresistible Forces, a No DQ match where Joe choked him out. But with three matches against Joe under his belt he could dodge the big man and started figuring out other guys. He beat Aries for a second time in a year, Delirious for the third time, and Strong for the fourth. In an amazing show of tenacity he beat KENTA in their one title match, though he was lucky to land near enough to the ropes to escape a pinfall attempt from a move that had always knocked him out previously.

But he was hurt, having mangled his shoulder at Gut Check. The combination of talented wrestlers studying him, his injury, and guys being so motivated that they could match his passion undid him. At Final Battle 2006 Homicide escaped the Elbow Barrage, wouldn’t submit to his holds, kicked out of the Small Package and took his title.

Danielson looked disgusted as they met in the ring after the match. Homicide had been on the undercard at Era of Honor Begins. He was the so-called MVP of ROH in 2003, but hadn’t won the title. He’d actually chased the championship longer than Danielson. Was he hungrier? Was he a better striker? Was that enough to beat him after all he’d gone through? Danielson walked away.

Time passed and Danielson rested his shoulder. Homicide stumbled and another Japanese visitor, Takeshi Morishima, captured the title. One can imagine Danielson smirking at a Japanese star giving ROH champions trouble.

In a testament to his devotion, Danielson returned early and without having surgery for his shoulder, leaving it a question in the minds of fans and opponents. He returned as Samoa Joe departed for TNA and ROH arrived on Pay Per View, giving fans hope. He seemed to care more what they thought this time. He returned in time to main event that first Pay Per View, Respect is Earned, teaming with the new champion – though he made it known that he wanted the title.

His title pursuit was one of the greatest disappointments of his career. Morishima was another phenomenally agile giant in ROH. He beat McGuinness, Aries and KENTA soundly and in short order. He was a very different champion than Danielson had been, but one too similar to Samoa Joe for Danielson’s comfort.

Danielson failed at Manhattan Mayhem 2, getting struck in the face so hard that he went blind in one eye, getting dumped on his head and being pinned. In the rematch on the Man Up Pay Per View he came at the champion with even greater fire – greater fire than he’d ever brought at Joe. Morishima resorted to attacking his eye to get the match thrown out, so that he could escape with the title. When Danielson got his third and fourth matches with Morishima the big guy had lost the title, and Danielson was more interested in revenge – resulting in a disqualification loss and a no-contest.

Nigel McGuinness, the champion where Danielson failed? Had he been in the third or fourth waves of guys who had tested themselves against him?

Something was different in Danielson. Maybe losing to an earnest Homicide made him question his morals, but he didn’t go for low blows or cheap time-ups anymore. Maybe losing the title made him realize what it was supposed to mean. Now when he broke the rules it was because he didn’t care if he won. He wanted to hurt Morishima. But he also wanted to be a paragon for the company. Missing the first months of 2007 had killed him. So while he became vicious against Morishima, most of his matches were clean and competitive.

He clearly hadn’t been idle. He brought even more weapons to his matches. Now he seized the wrists of an opponent and kicked them into unconsciousness. Now he grabbed a Triangle Choke and rained elbows down on their skulls. Just like in 2006, he had to keep changing offense. They couldn’t prepare for what they hadn’t seen, and they couldn’t have counters ready if too many moves were coming. Even as he was losing his mind against Morishima, he was eyeing the rest of ROH. He could control Necro Butcher, Mike Quackenbush and Chris Hero. But even as he beat those men in under fifteen minutes, he knew that it might not be the same case next year.

To cement that paragon status he entered a Best of Three Series with Austin Aries, a man who’d returned from TNA and was surging like never before. The commentators asked if Aries wasn’t the ace of the company. Aries answered by beating Danielson two matches to one, winning the first with a hold we’d never seen before – the Horns of Aries, a mix of submissions and strikes to the head. If it hadn’t been so painful, Danielson might have appreciated the irony.

Danielson regained face by beating Aries at the end of a fourway at Final Battle 2007. Like always, Danielson won often enough to save face. His talent was so obvious, and his ingenuity was unparalleled. The people loved him and would overlook his shortcomings where other wrestlers would be called out. He was a damned founding father of this company.

He was also a target. He lost an impromptu match-up to Jimmy Jacobs at Unscripted 3, a loss he’s never recouped. Kevin Steen made him submit at Eye of the Storm. Erick Stevens has pinned him twice this year. Claudio Castagnoli just beat him in their first-ever match. His dream team with Austin Aries has failed in title matches, tournaments and Pay Per View. Tyler Black went out of his way to slap and embarrass Danielson at Breakout, and straight-up pinned him on a later event.

Tyler Black, an upstart with a million beautiful moves. Erick Stevens, another resilient big man. Danielson has seen these men before under other names, in other years. It’s time for Danielson to adapt.

Fortunately Danielson isn’t champion. As much as he’d like the belt, it means somebody else has the target painted on his back. Now Nigel McGuinness has to squirm and bend the rules. Now he gets to watch people he could destroy two years ago come within half a second of ending his reign. Danielson could sit back and enjoy watching the show.

The people who only notice him struggling recently don’t recognize his history. Danielson isn’t “the best in the world” because of a win/loss record. Yes, he found ways to beat Low Ki in 2002, Homicide in 2004, Roderick Strong in 2005 and Nigel McGuinness in 2006. He could beat all the darlings, but it’s never been enough.

Why, then? Why is Danielson called the “Best in the World” by so many fans if so many opponents have given him trouble or outright beaten him? Because nobody beats him easily. Doing one thing well will not beat Bryan Danielson. Just being a great technical wrestler wouldn’t beat him; he beat Alex Shelley and Lance Storm to prove that. Devastating aerial offense wouldn’t work; he grounded and destroyed Jack Evans and Pac to prove that. You have to match his passion, compete with his mat game and striking, sneak aerial offense past one of the best defensive wrestlers on the indies, outsmart one of the sharpest minds anywhere, and ultimately either knock him out or rip him apart – and neither is a simple task. What makes him more formidable is that atop all those challenges, the man you beat tonight will not be the man you wrestle next year.

Also around the net:
-Check out my blog, the Bathroom Monologues, for something completely different than the above.
-Pulse Glazer and the ROH board’s Lonewolf fantasy book ROH’s leap to television.
-Mark Buckeldee gives us a rare look at NOAH’s second show in the United Kingdom.
-David Wells looks around the indies and finds some interesting matches.
-And you can’t go through this week without facing CM Punk’s title victory. I did a victory lap around my house and I don’t even like the guy that much. What’s your story? Here’s Chris Biscuiti’s.
-Did today’s Kayfabe Apologist approach bother you? Find it refreshing? Let me know at Pulse Wrestling, on the ROH board, or at baskadrariren@aim.com.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,