Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness (ROH Weekend of Champions Night 2 4/29/06)

Match Reviews

Featured image by Wayne McCarty

This Bryan Danielson kid? Pretty good.

Anyone familiar with my work might be aware of my correct assertion that Bryan is the greatest wrestler of all time. This makes his highly recommended matches such as those from his run as ROH World Champion in 2006 some of my absolute favorite matches to watch. Bryan remains so consistently excellent across the board that he always has something to offer whenever he’s in the ring.

For longtime fans of Bryan, few of his opponents stand out as much as Nigel McGuinness. Their famous series of matches from 2006 to 2009 stand out as a defining rivalry for Ring of Honor and the American independents at the time. In fact before Bryan signed with the WWE, it would be fair to say that this was the rivalry and match-up that most associated him with in the way that one associates Steamboat with Flair. Much like the Steamboat vs. Flair series, a few of their matches are held in much higher regard than others. Specifically, the Unified match in London, the Driven match from Philly, and even my personal favorite, the 6th Anniversary match from New York.

But with as many times these two have wrestled each other, so many other excellent bouts get lost in the shuffle. Among them is this clash from 2006, the very first match between Bryan Danielson and Nigel McGuinness.

This match sets the table for the Unified encounter later in the year as both Bryan’s ROH World Title and Nigel’s ROH Pure Title are being defended in this match. The match is contested under pure rules: each man gets three rope breaks, closed fists get penalized by having a rope break taken away, the Pure Title can change hands on a count out or disqualification. The stipulation has attained an almost cult-like support in recent years from both fans and wrestlers who were fans of the the championship and the stipulation from this time in ROH. Pure rules have cropped up since on the American independent scene as the Gateway Heritage Championship in the south utilizes the stipulation. As of this writing, Ring of Honor itself has announced that the stipulation and title will be making a return to the company within the year.

And of all the champions within its short lived original reign, Nigel McGuinness might be the man most associated with the belt. His heel tactics that play with working around the pure rules made him a key player in the division and one of the hottest acts in ROH at the time. Despite this, he was still solidly a midcarder in early 2006 as Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, and Roderick Strong ruled the roost at the top of the card while the CZW vs. ROH feud raged on as well.

This match marks Nigel’s first challenge for the ROH World Title. As a champion in his own right, he carries some credibility already but currently lacks the main event status in the company that Bryan has. It’s to his advantage then that the match is contested under pure rules as his familiarity with the stipulation gives him the kayfabe edge against Bryan. From there, the match layout and ringwork need to be relied upon to paint Nigel as a believable threat to the ROH World Title.

There’s a palpable tension in the air from the start. Before the bell even rings, Nigel taunts Bryan–threatening to lunge at him before the match starts, forcing Bryan into a defensive stance. It’s such a small movement but it makes two things clear: Nigel is ready to take the fight to Bryan and Bryan will refuse to let Nigel get the better of him.

Much of the match plays out on the mat, being centered around grappling and technical exchanges. Bryan spends a good five to ten minutes in the open working Nigel over with a cravat as the challenger tries to slip free. Bryan remains so tenacious with the hold that the simple wear down maneuver forces Nigel to use up his first rope break. Bryan stays cool in control, going after constant holds on Nigel in an attempt to have him burn up his rope breaks.

Unfortunately for Bryan, Nigel’s experience with pure rules begins to pay dividends. As the referee gets between the two men to break them up in the corner, Nigel catches Bryan with a short punch to the face out of the referee’s line of vision. Enraged, Bryan fires back with a stiff punch of his own. This time the referee sees the strike and penalizes Bryan a rope break. And something magical happens: the crowd boos.

At this point, the value of the pure rules becomes immediately apparent. For the first time in years, the closed fist punch–one of the most common moves in pro wrestling–drew heat. By creating a concrete consequence that affects the rules of the match, a closed fist punch becomes a significant spot in the match instead of filler offense in between bigger moments. It’s a brilliant example of how what seem to be restraints–the pure rules format–actually make for creative possibilities that the workers can utilize to draw reactions from the crowd.

Nigel retaliates by going after Bryan’s arm. He focuses his attention on it, really wearing it down to the point that Bryan finds himself selling the arm for the rest of the match. I love Bryan’s selling here. It’s the perfect balance of what the match needs. Just enough to show his own vulnerability and add to Nigel’s credibility but not so much that his performance takes away from the focus of the match–elevating Nigel. It’s the kind of subtle nuance one expects to see from the greatest wrestler who’s ever lived.

The pure rules continue to pay off later on in the match as the action continues to escalate between Bryan and Nigel. As they do less wrestling and focus on trading strikes and nailing bigger offense, the two spill out to the floor. Nigel uses the timekeeper’s table to choke Bryan on the floor and hold him down as the twenty count proceeds. Nigel slips in late in the count and Bryan just gets the table off and staggers into the ring at nineteen. Given that Nigel won his last Pure Title match via count out, the moment carries some actual tension and danger with it as the fans have been conditioned to expect these kinds of finishes from Nigel. It’s so rare in wrestling these to have truly tense count out teases but by the time Bryan slips back into the ring, the pop is massive.

As the finishing stretch continues to escalate, both men are fighting without the benefit of rope breaks. When Bryan locks in his Cattle Mutilation, the crowd is roaring for the entire extended spot. Submissions, much like count out finishes, have become a bit of a hard sell in some pockets of modern wrestling (see: New Japan main events), so to see a crowd’s attention sustained through the full spot was refreshing. Similarly, Nigel’s simple escape of dragging himself out of the ring to break Bryan’s grip again gets a massive pop from the crowd. Although these two are synonymous with big American indie epics, this match shows how excellent they were at getting the most out of very little.

The match ends with Bryan dodging an attack on the outside and tossing Nigel into the crowd. When Bryan attempts to follow up with a springboard dive off the top rope, Nigel is able to get a chair up to defend himself. The damage of crashing into the chair keeps Bryan down on the outside long enough for Nigel to make it back into the ring to beat the twenty count. Nigel wins the match and retains his Pure Title but as the ROH World Title can not change hands on a count out, Bryan still remains World Champion. As Dave Prazak notes on commentary, nothing is settled.

What a brilliant start to their series. I actually can’t recall ever having seen this match in full in the past and visiting it now after all these years has been incredibly rewarding. Bryan again shows his talent for building matches around simple ideas (the cravat) and merging them with bigger action setpieces that have been teased over a longer period (the count out teases). Nigel for his part, keeps up with Bryan both in the ring and with the character he brings. An excellent introduction for Nigel to the main event that would pay off in a massive way for ROH down the line. This match gets buried beneath the weight of their much more revered classics but it is an excellent match all the way through and definitely worth your time to check out.

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