Hangman Page vs. Bryan Danielson (AEW Dynamite: Winter is Coming 12/15/21)

Match Reviews

Originally published on Fanbyte as “Hangman Adam Page and Bryan Danielson Made an Hour Fly By” on December 22, 2021

There’s a little gem hidden on the Fite stream of this match. About 35 minutes into this hour-long draw, Excalibur throws to another commercial for all the viewers watching on TNT. Meanwhile, the international stream holds on the action, complete with the commentary team still hooked up to their audio. It’s in this moment that Taz mumbles a tiny comment, almost to himself, but still caught on his headset.

“Phew, these guys are working their asses off.”

It’s such an earnest moment. Hangman and Bryan create genuine awe in their colleagues, and it comes it in a small but affecting way. There’s so much joy and admiration wrapped up in that small sentence, but it captures the powerful effect that the AEW World Championship match between “Hangman” Adam Page and Bryan Danielson had.

These dudes worked their asses off.

The craftsmanship of Page and Danielson can be found across all 60 minutes of this behemoth of a match. It’s a care and attention to detail that extends to the build as well. It’s a classic set up: World Championship contender runs through the stablemates of the World Champion.

While I often associate that with the work of a babyface jumping through hoops to get to a cowardly heel, Danielson and Page never make it look like the champion is ducking the challenger. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Page makes it clear that he’s happy to defend the title whenever, wherever, but this iteration of the American Dragon is a calculating bully. He wanted to literally flex on wrestlers he knew were far beneath him on the pecking order.

Danielson running through the Dark Order achieved so many things that were important to the title match. On a storytelling level, it made a match up between two wrestlers who don’t have any shared history intensely personal. No longer was this just a first title defense, but also a revenge mission for Hangman.

Another detail this helped set up was Danielson’s mindset heading into the match. In spite of brutality with which he steamrolled the Dark Order, Bryan Danielson always cowered away from the champion. He threw insults at Hangman, called him an inferior wrestler on multiple occasions, yet any time they came close to fighting, Danielson was the first to break away.

Another function of Danielson’s matches against the Dark Order was to prime the audience on his varied arsenal of finishing maneuvers. Dragon’s AEW run has been characterized by him creating a deep pool of finishers to draw from that he could apply against practically any opponent. Moves like the Triangle Choke, the head stomps, the LeBell Lock, and heel hook had already been established via Danielson’s run in the World Title eliminator. But in his match against John Silver, he introduced a new wrinkle with the Gotch-style piledriver that Silver sold as a devastating knockout blow. AEW understood the importance of these and recapped all of Danielson’s finishes against the Dark Order as the challenger entered for the match.

All those elements inevitably come into play during the match. After all, when there’s an hour to play with, there’s a lot of space for those moves to come out. At the same time, none of them feel burned through or wasted. Even with all that time, no one has to kick out of a Buckshot Lariat or a Busaiku Knee.

All of this leads to the inevitable question: why an hour?

Of course, there’s the surface-level practical reason of it being a classic way to extend a major title feud. AEW has been very careful about booking World Title rematches since they opened. In the championship’s very short history, a single wrestler has never challenged for the title in two consecutive matches. In fact, only two wrestlers have even gotten rematches within the same title reign—Eddie Kingston challenged Jon Moxley twice in late 2020, while Moxley himself lost the title to Omega and later challenged again in the ill-fated Exploding Barbed Wire match.

Tony Khan is on the record about being averse to count out and disqualification finishes, especially in the main event scene, so a draw was the only finish that could get us an immediate rematch. Most people—myself included—seem to believe that Hangman/Danielson II will take place at Battle of the Belts on January 8th.

But that’s how it makes sense to the booker. Did narrative justify the match going 60 minutes?

I think it absolutely did. In this sense, we again turn to the build up for more context. Yes, Bryan blasted through Hangman’s friends in the Dark Order in a rush, the longest match being a 10-minute bout against John Silver, but that’s because the American Dragon already knew he could get through them. The entire build has depicted Dragon as far more hesitant when the champion is directly involved.

So despite all his bluster and bravado, Danielson does fear Hangman. It’s clear in the build, and it’s especially clear in how evasive he acts in the first act of this match. Danielson makes such a show of avoiding contact with Hangman, and goes over the top to celebrate even the slightest advantage. When Hangman finally catches Danielson with a swift kick to knock him back into the ropes, Dragon’s demeanor goes from smug to distressed.

In his heart of hearts, Bryan Danielson doesn’t really know if he can beat Hangman Page, and after 60 minutes of brutal action, he couldn’t get the job done.

And they use those 60 minutes so well.

The match never feels wasteful or indulgent. The closest it gets to real dead air is during the commercial break following Hangman getting busted open. It’s entirely made up of Bryan doing crowd work as Hangman sells his cut on the floor. I can’t imagine it took away too much from those watching on TNT but international viewers could potentially see it as dragging. Personally, I didn’t mind it all too much. It kept the crowd hot, and for a live audience to stay attentive and engaged for a full 60 minutes only speaks to the accomplishments of the performers.

For better or worse, most people are going to approach this match from the perspective of it being a “Bryan Danielson match.” There’s good reason for that. Between the two performers, Danielson is by far the more experienced, having wrestled a decade longer than the champion. Also, between the two wrestlers, Danielson is the one far more accustomed to this type of match. Page had never been closely associated with lengthy epics, whereas Danielson regularly wrestled 60-minute draws during his ROH World Title reign, and even beyond that during his time on the indies. When it comes to molding an hour in the ring, Bryan Danielson knows far more than Hangman Page.

The next reason that many will consider this much more of a Danielson match, is that his performance in this is astounding. It is an astonishing hour of work from the greatest wrestler of all time. Conservatively speaking, it’s the best individual performance in wrestling in 2021. I reiterate, that’s my conservative view of his performance here.

There’s a staggering range of emotion that Danielson conveys in this match. From the cocky smarminess of the first act, to the sudden distressed fear he feels when Hangman presses an advantage, to the cruel malice of his control segments once the champion gets busted open. Danielson navigates these different emotional states with ease, weaving them seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative.

As for the action, well, it’s Bryan Danielson.

Everything Danielson does in this match looks great. His attacks are focused, but never monotonous. He has the capacity to switch between strategies on a dime, picking apart the champion piece by piece. Much of the early match centers on Danielson attacking Hangman’s midsection, an attempt to frustrate the champion’s breathing and make him more vulnerable in the deeper waters of an extended runtime.

Later, Danielson creates two more points of attack. First, he recreates the infamous Unified ringpost spot and busts open Hangman Page. Danielson’s attack on the cut is truly vicious. He spends the remainder of the runtime throwing these mean little punches at Hangman’s forehead, always doing what he can to keep the blood flowing. It’s something that works on both the narrative and practical level—the challenger is being a bastard exploiting an obvious weakness, while Bryan Danielson the performer tries to enhance the visual of a bloodied champion.

Secondly, Danielson works to pick apart the arm, which has a twofold purpose. It weakens Hangman Page’s ability to hit the Buckshot Lariat, while also working towards Danielson’s LeBell Lock finish.

Danielson excels on the defensive front as well. This shines through best when he accidentally kicks the ringpost, creating a weakness on his own body. He does well to sell that weakness in lots of little ways throughout the match. He’s clearly troubled when throwing kicks with the bad leg and often has to switch which leg he uses. When he takes Hangman off the top rope with a back superplex, he’s unable to capitalize because of the impact on his leg. Perhaps the peak of Danielson’s selling comes during one of the commercial breaks when he does his jumping jacks taunt without putting any weight on his bad leg.

I really only stop short of calling Danielson’s performance flawless.

There’s things to quibble about here if one is so inclined. I could certainly see an argument that Danielson went to the taunting well one too many times, especially given how much he deployed it in the opening moments of the match. His heel gestures during the commercial break after busting open Hangman can also be read as basic, cliched stuff. He’s certainly not reinventing the wheel by flipping off the crowd and his opponent. One might say that it’s a fairly cheap and easy way to kill time while the broadcast is on a commercial break.

Here’s the thing though, throughout this entire match, Danielson proved himself so capable at doing the difficult things in wrestling—pacing, selling, aggression—that I don’t really mind when he does the easy things. Little heel gestures aren’t a crutch for Bryan Danielson, they’re just another tool in what might be the most complete and developed skillset that the industry has ever seen.

This was a titanic performance from Bryan Danielson. He gives yet another opponent the best match in their entire career, and somehow makes it look easy. It’s the kind of undeniable performance that overshadows practically anything else in the industry at this moment.

Watching Bryan Danielson in this match, my reaction to it was visceral. It was something I felt in my gut, a bone deep sensation. It was the rare experience of watching someone at the absolute pinnacle of their field, somehow raise the bar even higher. I didn’t know there were heights that Danielson had yet to reach, and somehow he kept on climbing. It’s something one can only experience when watching The Greatest.

We need to talk about Hangman Page, though.

It’s easy to lose sight of his performance, “Bryan Danielson: Great Wrestler” has been so engrained in our brains for the past two decades that the challenger will naturally receive a lot of the credit. But it takes two to tango, and a one-hour match simply can not be this great without both participants turning in top shelf performances.

This is, by far, the best performance in Hangman’s entire career.

Hangman’s popularity meant that he was always the right choice to be the AEW World Champion that the company builds around moving forward. On this night, however, Hangman proved that he could back up the popularity by wrestling like one of the absolute best in the world. It can not be overstated that Hangman didn’t just “hold his own” against Bryan Danielson, the champion broke through his own ceiling and uncovered depths to his game that I hadn’t even imagined.

First and foremost to discuss about Hangman’s performance is his selling. My god, did Hangman sell his ass off for the American Dragon. Hangman does justice to all of Danielson’s offense. Perhaps most impressive was how he sold the midsection attack from Danielson. Not only does he clutch his gut after big bumps—even failing to capitalize when he cuts off Danielson’s attack by nailing a back suplex—he also sells his difficulty breathing. He is sucking wind early in this match, and more than once actually has to pause and catch his breath before continuing.

We get some traditional limb selling later in the match after Bryan’s attack on the arm. Hangman’s real great about this too, there’s even a lovely moment late in the match where his lariats have pretty much no effect on Dragon because of the damage to his arm as well as exhaustion.

On the more spectacular end of things, Hangman takes some gruesome bumps in this. The most memorable ones are the Orihara moonsault to the floor, then later missing a dive off the top rope and crashing through the timekeeper’s table. There’s also a pretty grotesque bump off the top turnbuckle onto the apron that I somehow forgot and caught me by surprise all over again on my second viewing.

Of course, Hangman also gets color in this. It’s a decent blade job, not anything historic, but Danielson does him the favor of keeping the wound open through the final stretches of this match.

The selling can only get him so far though, a top champion needs to dish out an ass kicking after they absorb one. His strikes in this are good, often great when he’s throwing chops. He’s also vicious when he needs to be, his attack on Dragon’s leg is the kind of brutal retribution one wants a top babyface to dish out.

But really, the best thing Hangman contributes is heart.

Hangman gives so damn much, and when he’s firing up to mount his comebacks, it’s magic. In those moments, Hangman embodies the kind of babyface determination that gets the blood rushing and fists pumping. I experienced plenty of both in the two viewings I gave this match. I wanted Hangman to get this win so bad. I’ve never in my life been so personally invested in the result of a Hangman Page match, but on this night, I needed him to defeat my favorite wrestler of all people.

It’s the kind of performance that allayed any of the doubts I might have had at Full Gear. This could be quite an ask, but if Hangman retains this kind of energy through the rest of his reign, there’s no reason he can’t be the best champion the company has seen yet.

I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with this match.

It’s early in the match during his first big control segment when Danielson nails Hangman with a kitchen sink and puts a fist up in the air. While watching the match live, a couple of friends and I in a group chat couldn’t help but throw out an “Oh!” into the digital ether, as though Jumbo Tsuruta himself had thrown the knee.

It’s a small thing, a tiny reference, likely unintentional but that’s when Danielson and Hangman really sunk their hooks in deep. They never let me go through the rest of the hour.

In so many ways, this match feels like a love letter to so many of the things that I personally love about pro wrestling. The small nod to Jumbo Tsuruta, Danielson digging up signature spots from his feud with Nigel McGuinness, all of that is just extra. Nerdbait, sure, but nerdbait tailored towards my interests in wrestling. I can’t help but lap it up.

Watch this match. Watch it without commercials if you can. I’ve seen it twice now, and I’m looking forward to seeing it for a third time. It worked its magic on me and I’ve yet to be released from its spell

If it’s not the match of the year, it sure is something close.

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