Originally published on my Ko-fi account as “How Daniel Bryan Salvages a Bad Match”
Any match The Fiend gets booked in starts with a negative star rating in my head. That might seem unfair and unobjective but I make no secret of the fact that my star ratings reflect my own personal feelings and experiences watching the match that I later try to validate by providing concrete observations from the match. My subjective experience with The Fiend has been tainted ever since what might be the worst WWE main event of the year at Hell in a Cell 2019.
The horrendous pacing, the finisher spamming, the redundant no selling, the cartoonish weapons, and those stupid, stupid, stupid red lights. The lights are perhaps the most egregious offense that The Fiend as an act inflicts upon the WWE viewer. Tainting the whole experience with a garish red tint that calls to mind all the worst memories of the Virtual Boy.
It’s unpleasant, it’s pointless, and it goes out of its own way to ruin the match.
Conversely, any match Daniel Bryan gets booked in starts with a three star plus rating in my head. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Bryan is my favorite wrestler of all time as well as the performer I consider to be the greatest wrestler of all time. Dating all the way back to his time on the indies in the 2000s, Bryan has displayed an elite level of quality and consistency in his work that shines above pretty much any other worker in the world.
Bryan has one of the best minds for pro wrestling there’s ever been. He’s a master of structuring and putting together matches and can often be relied upon to have a good to great bout with anybody. After all when lifelong midcarder Kofi Kingston needed to guided to a five star classic on the largest wrestling event of the year, who was the man to do the job? Daniel Bryan.
Putting these two acts together made for one of the most interesting matches announced for the Survivor Series card. How does the greatest wrestler of all time dig himself out of the hole of working with a character that refuses to sell under dimmed lights that would put Sin Cara and ‘97 Kane to shame.
Now unlike the two Seth Rollins matches The Fiend wrestled this year, Daniel Bryan doesn’t have any stipulation gimmickry to hide behind. That’s a plus in his column though as the cartoonish turns The Fiend’s weapon spots went to left a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths. Better instead for a man who held the ROH World Championship for over a year to work with what brung him to the dance: his superior wrestling skill.
Bryan’s first decision is to utilize the most basic of pro wrestling structures: the babyface shine, heel heat, comeback three-act structure. For some strange reason, proper babyface shines seem to have died a bit of a death in the WWE even though a well done one can set the tone by popping the crowd and getting them to root for the right person. The opening dropkicks from Bryan set our expectations for the match: this is Daniel Bryan and if anyone can knock the belt off The Fiend when we don’t expect them to, it will be the man who wrestled twice at WrestleMania XXX to win the World Title.
The next decision Bryan makes it to eschew his submission game for a much more babyface-friendly big offense and bump-heavy style. This works on two levels. First, on a character level, Bryan’s bone crunching matwork is most effective when Bryan works as either a heel or the controlling force of a match. It’s why he put it to such good use against AJ Styles in the latter half of 2018 and utilized it to carry Adam Cole to a good match just a few weeks back.
The second way eliminating Bryan’s mat game helps is that he needs big movements to pop out from the dreary lighting. Bryan’s attacks on a limb are very detail oriented and the nuance to that work would be completely lost in the darkened arena. Better instead to focus on crowd pleasing bumps like his suicide dives and even a huge dive off the top turnbuckle to the floor.
Bryan is even able to incorporate character work in this match without overtaking the main narrative meant to put The Fiend over. In the midst of his comeback, Bryan finally once again embraces the YES! chants that first propelled him to international superstardom. For some reason, this moment gets lost on the commentary team but it makes The Fiend’s victory even more impactful: he beat Bryan at his absolute peak form.
But alas, there’s only so much Bryan can do. While The Fiend has some great suplexes and power moves in his arsenal, his heat segments are still for the most part dry and uninteresting. His character work and the visual of his mask does alleviate this a little, he’s still not the most compelling character when working on top.
Then, of course, there’s that damned red lighting. I’ve harped on it a lot here but there truly is no underselling just how damaging these visuals are to the hard work that both The Fiend and Daniel Bryan put into this match. Also, we’ve come to a point where The Fiend’s no selling is no longer impressive or surprising. And try as he might to rise to the challenge of The Fiend’s indestructible nature, Daniel Bryan’s babyface fire just doesn’t resonate as well when washed out in red.
This match is a mixed bag but I’d consider it one of the most fascinating watches of 2019 from a critical standpoint. It’s a brilliant example of how one worker has to maneuver himself around the limitations put on a match by their opponent. It reminds me almost of Bret Hart vs. Tom Magee in that it was structured around the strengths of limited workers.
Unlike the Magee vs. Hart match though, I didn’t leave Survivor Series with any illusions that The Fiend would be the next big thing in the WWE. Even in the dark redness, I could see the real talent at work in this match. If only they turned the lights on so everyone else could see it as well.