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Bryan Danielson’s Pro Wrestling Vision Lives

In the modern pro wrestling era, you’re either enjoying Bryan Danielson matches, or enjoying matches from the students of the Bryan Danielson era

AEW/WWE/Ringer illustration

There’s more great pro wrestling in 2022 than we know what to do with. So The Ringer brings you a regular cheat sheet with the three best matches of the past week—one from WWE, one from AEW, and one from the rest of the immense wrestling world.

Bryan Danielson vs. Daniel Garcia

AEW Dynamite, August 17

One of the things that made Bryan Danielson’s initial months in AEW interesting is the variety of types of matches he worked. He went in with Dustin Rhodes and worked a 1990s WCW TV match like a souped-up Brian Pillman, had a blistering chop fest–test of wills with Minoru Suzuki, and went big-match at the Tokyo Dome, New Japan style with Kenny Omega twice, like Kazuchika Okada. Danielson is tremendously versatile, working nearly any kind of style at the highest level. But this match was a textbook example of Danielson’s vision for pro wrestling: intense, hard-hitting, full of stiff strikes, building from a base of matwork and veering out into violent suplexes and tendon-snapping submissions. It is stylistically similar to the hybrid shoot style of Battlarts in Japan, in addition to the kind of wrestling being practiced by men like Lord Steven Regal and Fit Finlay in WCW. It was the kind of battle that Danielson and Low Ki fought to jump-start the independent wrestling revolution in the early 2000s, or the kind of battle he and Nigel McGuinness fought over the ROH title, but that was only occasionally present in his WWE stint, most notably in his miniseries against Drew Gulak and some of the pandemic-era matches he had with guys like Sami Zayn and Shinsuke Nakamura. Danielson’s vision has become increasingly popular among a younger generation of wrestlers; I have written a lot about matches like this one against Garcia since I started this column—including fights like Tom Lawlor vs. Matt Makowski or Daniel Makabe vs. Dominic Garrini—and in many ways, those wrestlers are children of Danielson, showing their appreciation for his work in their own.

Daniel Garcia is one of those children, and is also a part of the Jericho Appreciation Society. As part of this current feud, he has admitted that Danielson was his idol, but he is also taking out his heroes. Seething resentment is what Garcia does best—he wrestles like a latchkey kid from a broken home, someone who life has kicked around a bit and now wants nothing more than to kick it back harder. You can almost see him yelling “You’re not my dad!” as he kicks Danielson in the head. Their two-out-of-three-falls match on Dynamite was the rubber match in their series, and showcased both Danielson’s vision and Garcia’s ability to roll with the punches, kicks, and armbars.

The first fall saw both guys attack each other’s limbs to both work toward submissions and to create openings for hard shots. Danielson locked in a Romero Special, dropped it down, and then started to rain forearms on the side of Garcia’s head while Garcia’s legs were trapped. Later, Garcia hit Danielson with a side suplex on the floor. Despite that, Danielson was able to lock on a triangle choke in the ring—however, in one of the cooler counters I have seen in years, Garcia was able to get to his feet and turn the triangle into a neck-compressing piledriver. He then locked in an arm-trap dragon sleeper to make Bryan pass out. This was a really decisive first-fall victory for Garcia, which came after he also made Danielson pass out several weeks ago. While Danielson ended up winning the most recent match, Garcia couldn’t have looked stronger in defeat.

Garcia dominated the second fall as well, opening up Danielson’s forehead with a DDT on the floor and attacking his damaged head. It was a 10-8 round on the scorecards, but Danielson was able to steal the fall when he turned another dragon sleeper attempt into a roll-up.

The third fall was more back and forth, with Danielson driving Garcia’s forehead into the ringpost (in a safer version of the famously gross Danielson and McGuinness spot). Danielson also taunted Garcia by absorbing kicks and chops while sitting in Lotus position. I am not normally a fan of no-selling spots, but I have to appreciate a guy using his chakras to become one with the pain.

The finishing run was worked almost entirely around a Greco-Roman knuckle lock with both guys throwing elbows with their hands interlaced, using leverage to work each other into submission attempts. Garcia tried to counter a triangle again with a piledriver, but Danielson adjusted and grabbed the ankle, maneuvering Garcia into a LeBell lock with his thumb driven into Garcia’s eye for the tap. Chris Jericho came out post-match to attack Danielson, but Garcia stepped in his way, setting up a battle for Garcia’s soul. I actually hope Garcia ends up staying with Jericho or going out on his own; he is more intriguing as an antagonist to the Blackpool Combat Club than as another member.

Despite wrestling for more than two decades, Danielson is still coming up with new notes to play, there were a half a dozen different twists on moves I hadn’t seen before and I have been watching the American Dragon since he was feuding with the Board of Education in Shawn Michaels’s TWA promotion. This was also the match in which Garcia fulfilled the promise he has shown for a while—he has been a blue-chip prospect since returning from his car accident, but here he felt like a bona fide star, someone who could go into Bryan Danielson’s world and look like he belonged. I am excited to see what the next 20 years of his career look like, and whether he can take the legacy of the American Dragon and make it his own.

Wheeler Yuta vs. Timothy Thatcher

Beyond Americanrana 2022: Blackout, August 21

In many ways, this was the independent wrestling version of the Danielson vs. Garcia match on Dynamite, featuring one of the younger generation of grapplers testing their mettle against a seasoned veteran of brutality, all to show they can bark with the big dogs.

Timothy Thatcher is part of the second generation of U.S. indie mat demons. When guys like Claudio Castagnoli, Danielson, and Low Ki moved on to major promotions, the mantle was picked up by wrestlers like Biff Busick, Gulak, and Thatcher, who battled each other across the independent scene, including in a round-robin series in Beyond Wrestling. Thatcher went on to NXT for a spell, and is currently wrestling in Japan for Pro Wrestling NOAH. Wheeler Yuta is part of the next class, along with Garcia and indy wrestlers like Garrini and Makowski. They grew up watching Thatcher and his peers the way Thatcher formed his style watching Danielson and his cohorts. This was Yuta’s first match in Beyond since joining the Blackpool Combat Club in the AEW, and he wanted to show his growth and aggressive approach.

Thatcher started the match by grinding away, driving his knee into Yuta’s calf and ripping at his nose to set up a bow and arrow. Thatcher erodes his opponents like a river against a rock, punishing them slowly and overwhelming them with constant pressure. Yuta was able to grab an arm lock to give him a bit of control, but then just got dropped with uppercuts. All of that training with Castagnoli and Regal paid off, though, as he was able to counter an uppercut with a forearm to Thatcher’s bicep, putting a sizable dent in his armor. Yuta then landed a spinning Divorce Court on the arm and continued to work Thatcher’s shoulder, landing European uppercuts to the elbow and driving it twice into the ringpost. Thatcher is a great facial storyteller, and you could see him go from smug confidence to wild-eyed pain, like a raccoon caught in a bear trap.

Thatcher fought through the pain to add some of his own, driving his knuckles into Yuta’s ribs, his knee into his spine, and later smothering him with his hand. Thatcher is a master at making the little things look good; he is constantly looking for ways to add discomfort and pain to his opponent. Yuta went on a strike spree leading to a German suplex, but Thatcher was able to counter it with a violent-looking Kimura, only for Yuta to break free, unload with a another flurry of strikes, maneuver him with six Goodridge elbows, shift into a crossface with a jaw lock and, when Thatcher reached for the ropes, roll into a pin to get the three-count.

This was a more compact match than the two-out-of-three-falls match Danielson and Garcia had, but they both felt like gauntlets of fire. Thatcher, when he gets in his groove, feels inevitable; Yuta facing that inevitability and cracking Thatcher’s shell felt like as big a moment for him as his bloody match with Jon Moxley. It is pretty great that AEW exists, to be the big-league home for this kind of wrestling. While Thatcher, Gulak, and Busick all had their moments in WWE, they were never really able to fully showcase their style. Garcia and Yuta are both growing in AEW, but they don’t have to shift who they are, and both can still have opportunities like this to test themselves outside of AEW.

Sami Zayn vs. Happy Corbin vs. Ricochet vs. Madcap Moss vs. Sheamus

WWE SmackDown, August 19

SmackDown this week was in Montreal, and the ovation for hometown hero Sami Zayn was truly electric. It might be the loudest crowd reaction I have heard in the WWE this year. Zayn started his wrestling career as El Generico in the early 2000s, primarily in International Wrestling Syndicate, a promotion in Montreal that styled itself as a Canadian version of wild death match promotions like CZW (it is a lot easier to be a death match wrestler in a country with nationalized health care). His longtime partnership/feud with Kevin Owens started there and eventually got them both noticed by U.S. promotions like PWG, ROH, and the aforementioned CZW.

The modern WWE era had traditionally booked against expectations with hometown wrestlers, often having them lose or be humiliated, or cut promos trashing their fans. Post–Bret Hart, they seemed to want to homogenize the fan reaction rather than take advantage of unique atmospheres. This could possibly be changing in the Triple H era. No, Sami Zayn didn’t win the match on Friday night, but he was showcased in a way that WWE stars are normally not in their hometowns.

It was a really great Zayn performance. Early in the match he was still wrestling like 2022 Sami Zayn, the opportunist cheap-shot artist. You could see, however, as the “Olé!” and “Sami!” chants rang out over the arena, he morphed into NXT Sami Zayn, or flashed back to the Le Skratch billiards bar and grill in Montreal where El Generico reigned supreme. He dumped Happy Corbin and Sheamus onto the floor and took them out with a huge Tope Con Hilo, which led to a huge roar and standing ovation from the fans. He then dropped Ricochet with a Michinoku Driver and caught Madcap Moss with a Blue Thunder Bomb, both for big-time near falls. Sheamus, however, met him on the top rope and drilled him with a second-rope White Noise, which left Zayn on his back with a damaged shoulder.

While this was a Sami Zayn showcase, we were treated to some fun performances by the other wrestlers in the match. Even when he’s not the focus, Ricochet is going to do a couple of athletically mind-blowing things per match, which in this match included a gorgeous knee tuck shooting star press and some wild flip bumps on clotheslines and kicks. Corbin has become very good at being a mechanic in matches like this. He knows the perfect time to cut someone off, sneer at the crowd, and build to a punch-out with Sheamus, just doing the little things that paste a match together. Sheamus was just wandering around pasting people with forearms, chops, and boots. Sheamus hasn’t had a focused push in a while, but he is a killer and it is always fun to watch him crack people. Moss is great in a multi-man match like this, too; he may not be completely there as a singles star, but he is a big-time athlete and in a match like this he can pick his spots to really showcase that. Moss is also one of the fastest runners in wrestling; I would love to see him in a 40-yard dash with Bron Breakker. Even in simple spots where he just hits shoulder blocks into the corner and jumps off the screen, his ringpost-to-ringpost sprint speed is jaw dropping. There was an awesome near-fall toward the end of the match when Moss built up speed and just catapulted himself jaw-first into Sheamus’s knee; it looked like a crash test car going 85 miles per hour into a brick wall.

Zayn got the classic pro wrestling babyface return-from-injury spot. He came out from the back clutching his shoulder, unwilling to go gently into that quiet night. Zayn got one big near-fall with the Helluva kick, but got pulled out by Corbin and thrown into the post. Sheamus then hit a big Brogue Kick for the win. It felt a bit abbreviated for all the buildup—even if you were going to beat him, Zayn should have gotten one or two more big moments after his return to the match.

Sheamus vs. Gunther at Clash at the Castle next month should be incredible. I remember what the then-WALTER did to PCO’s chest at Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 in 2018, and Sheamus has the best bruise-highlighting skin in wrestling history (he even had a nasty one on his thigh in this match). I am imagining Gunther turning his entire torso the color of Cody Rhodes’s pec. Still, the reaction Sami Zayn got in Montreal was so special it feels like the company missed out on creating an iconic moment by not giving him the win. It feels like eventually Zayn is going to get tired of being the punching bag of the Bloodline and challenge Roman Reigns, and if WWE runs that match, it should go back to Quebec.

Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.