Originally published on December 30, 2021
Look, I get it.
Of course, Bryan Danielson’s run in AEW is going to be the centerpiece of his Wrestler of the Year case. That’s to be expected, and it’s not at all the wrong approach to take. Hell, I’ve spilled a lot of ink this year covering many of the matches he’s had in AEW that make him such an easy, slam dunk candidate for anyone’s Wrestler of the Year list.
One thing that I’ve noticed though is the sentiment that Bryan’s case lies solely in his AEW work. There seems to be this impression that Bryan is rushing to catch up to more popular frontrunners such as Kenny Omega or Shingo Takagi. A few people online have taken to describing it as Bryan speed running his Wrestler of the Year case.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Bryan started the race in January, and he’s been in the lead ever since.
Enter Daniel Bryan
To fully understand the qualities that make Bryan’s 2021 so powerful, one cannot dismiss the work he did in the WWE. Daniel Bryan laid the foundation for what might be one of the most exciting and impressive years of work from a wrestler in recent memory. And that’s because while Bryan’s work in the WWE isn’t always the most bombastic, it is far more impressive because of the innate restrictions and challenges that he faces in the WWE that he wouldn’t experience anywhere else.
The WWE at the start of 2021 provides one of the truly great obstacles that any professional wrestler could imagine: the Thunderdome.
Bryan was the wrestler most adept at adjusting to the unique challenges of the Thunderdome. There’s such an unnatural feel to the entire setting that it takes something real special to cut through all the strangeness. At no point was that an issue for Bryan. His focus on sound, realistic wrestling lends an actual soul to proceedings to the dystopic nightmare that is the Thunderdome. The crowd noise may be fake but when Bryan’s caving someone’s chest in with a vicious kick, nothing feels more real.
Because of that, he’s able to have excellent matches in a variety of different settings. Early in the year, he has a pair of matches against Cesaro on January 15th and February 5th. The January bout is a real fun TV bout packed with a lot of small details such as dueling limbwork and all the great selling that type of match entails. It takes a lot of twist and turns for a standard Smackdown match including a gruesome monkey flip bump where Bryan sends Cesaro right into the ropes causing Cesaro to ricochet off and land head-first on Bryan’s face.
The February 5th match, meanwhile, sees Bryan overcome another challenge: limited TV time. The match is a textbook example of the microbanger. With the limited space of just four minutes, Bryan comes hot out of the gate with some really vicious striking. He even takes a wild bump off the top rope to the floor with a great looking crossbody. The match is so brutal in this brief space that Cesaro actually gets cut at the top of his head from all the action. Perhaps Bryan’s best moment in this match is the insane bump he takes going from Cesaro’s shoulders into a backbreaker over the knee. Just the kind of nutty violence that stands out in stark contrast to the WWE’s lifeless plastic sheen.
Violence is something that Bryan has always excelled at. That’s why even though he’s best known as a very grounded, technical wrestler, Bryan has shown that he’s incredibly well suited to gimmick matches. Luckily, the WWE gave Bryan plenty of opportunities to showcase that this past year.
The crown jewel of this display is Bryan’s performance in the Elimination Chamber. Through his time in the WWE, Bryan has actually amassed quite a number of notable moments and performances inside the Chamber. There’s his 2012 finishing stretch against Santino Marella, his near victory against Randy Orton in 2014, the 2019 battle against Kofi Kingston that made the perfect lead into their WrestleMania classic.
This year, Bryan adds another great Chamber match to his portfolio. He wrestles the ironman role by starting the match with Cesaro and figures as a major part of the match all the way to his eventual victory. It’s fair to say that this may be the least of Bryan’s accomplishments in the Chamber but it’s still a great performance in its own right. There’s his leg selling that plays into most of his run through the match and even a real fun finishing stretch with Jey Uso.
Speaking of Jey Uso, I’d say that Daniel Bryan’s most impressive feat of 2021 might just be his elevation of Main Event Jey. These two have been wrestling in singles matches since late 2020 when Bryan returned from paternity leave and each outing felt like an improvement on the last.
This year, Bryan wrestled two great gimmick matches against Jey Uso. The first, a steel cage match that main events the March 5th Smackdown, features what might be the best Jey Uso singles performance ever. With Bryan so reckless and talented at selling, Jey’s encouraged to really unleash a vicious streak that one wouldn’t even find in his matches against Roman Reigns in 2020. A particular highlight for me is Jey stomping on Bryan’s knee while the latter is caught in a Tree of Woe. This match also features one of the best finishes of the year with Bryan taking Jey off the top rope with a butterfly suplex that he transitions right into the Yes Lock. Just beautiful stuff from the greatest ever.
The two clash again on April 2nd, this time in a street fight. Where Bryan helped unleash Jey’s aggression in the cage match, this was entirely about heating up Bryan for the WrestleMania main event. As such he comes to this with the kind of vicious meanness that’s gotten him so much praise since joining AEW. He’s relentless with his chair shots, he thrashes Jey around the ringside area, he even brings out the chain-assisted elbows to the head that call back to his wars with Takeshi Morishima in the 2000s.
The Universal Championship
And I haven’t even touched upon the most obvious parts of Bryan’s case: the Universal Championship matches. Every time Bryan was put in the same ring as Roman Reigns this year, they did something pretty special.
The Elimination Chamber title shot was a great angle to put even more heat on the unstoppable Reigns. The Fastlane match is highly regarded as a slam dunk match of the year contender that saw Bryan and Reigns finally clash in a lengthy main event with the proper heel/face dynamics in play. The WrestleMania main event is diluted by having Edge around but Bryan is still the glue holding the match together as evidenced by what Edge and Reigns do later in the year when left to their own devices.
The last match they have from the April 30th Smackdown isn’t too far behind from the Fastlane match either. It has a quicker pace than the Fastlane match as well as a more cohesive narrative device with Bryan attacking Roman’s arm. More than just being a great match, this also presents a real rarity in WWE booking: closure. While we never get Bryan conquering Roman Reigns as would have been the dream in the late 2010s, given that he’s on the way out, there’s really no better way to wrap up his time in the company. Bryan gets to go out finally letting Reigns decisively overcome the one person who defined his failures as a top star in the last decade.
Daniel Bryan was every bit the great wrestler in 2021 that Bryan Danielson was. From a certain perspective, his achievements might be even more impressive given that there are far more limitations placed on him in this run—whether it be the hollow Thunderdome or the need to put over other talent.
So yes, absolutely give Bryan Danielson his due. He’s secured himself a spot on most people’s Wrestler of the Year lists. But when you list his name down, make sure you don’t exclude Daniel Bryan from your consideration.