Bryan Danielson vs. Miro Was a Classic Mismatch, But Was That Enough?

Even before they made their entrances, Bryan Danielson vs. Miro seemed like an odd fit. Danielson’s half of the pre-match promo vignette was warm, personable, naturalistic: “I saw AEW as the place where real professional wrestling lives,” he said, the scene cutting from clips of his recent matches to a tight close-up of Danielson’s face. “To be the best professional wrestler, you’ve gotta go where the best professional wrestling is, and that’s AEW.”

Danielson gave the impression that he is talking to friends, with all the ease and intimacy of that relationship. He didn’t seem like he was playing a character at all, that his on-camera persona is entirely identical with the off-camera person. When he talked about Miro, it’s as an athlete, or an artist, comparing bodies of work: “Miro, now, is just more experienced, knows exactly who he is as a person,” he said, breaking out into a huge, frankly shit-eating grin. “In some ways, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

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But when we cut to Miro, we find his performance is somewhat more mannered.

“MY ROAD HOME NOW IS CLEAR, AND IT’S GOING TO BE PAVED WITH THE SKULLS OF THOSE WHO DARED TO STAND IN FRONT OF ME,” Miro bellowed. Where Danielson was chatting with us in a cheery, well-lit studio, Miro was smoldering at the camera against a formless void, framed in chiaroscuro light the color of hellfire. Which seems appropriate, given the subject matter: this is a guy who says things like “MY GOD, MAKE NO MISTAKE — YOU WILL MAKE ME YOUR CHAMPION OR YOU WILL MAKE ME YOUR ENEMY” without a trace of irony.

Two great characters, at odds

Now, I love both of these characters. Danielson’s work in WWE, with the exception of the hyperbaric “New” Daniel Bryan in 2018, was also built on the seeming lack of distinction between Daniel Bryan, the character, and Bryan Danielson, his actor. He rode that identification all the way to two WrestleMania main events. Meanwhile, Miro’s reinvention from “The Best Man” to “The Redeemer” has quietly become one of the best parts of AEW, turning wins and losses into a Manichean drama where he calls out the Lord Almighty like he’s Matt Riddle fishing for a program with Goldberg.

So, two great characters — but not a tonal match for one another, Danielson’s easy-going verisimilitude crashing hard against the bombastic grandeur of Miro’s rage at the heavens. The other marquee matches at Full Gear had been built with consistent themes: Hangman Page and Kenny Omega had been telling their story of self-doubt and redemption for years, while in just a couple of weeks CM Punk and Eddie Kingston created a passion play around Punk’s condescension and Kingston’s resentment. Danielson and Miro’s match did not have that kind of thematic power.

Not that we can really blame them for this: Danielson was transparently supposed to meet Jon Moxley at Full Gear in the finals of the Eliminator Tournament, not Miro. But Moxley’s (righteous and commendable) decision to enter rehab for substance abuse led him to exit the tournament. Rather than have Danielson’s pay-per-view debut come against a charming joker like Orange Cassidy, who by rights should have advanced in Mox’s absence, Miro got pulled into the tournament and kicked Cassidy out of the bracket.

Things might have been different if Miro were in this position from the start – Mox certainly had seeded a few ideas into his recent promos that would have played well against Danielson, and Miro might have been able to do the same with more notice. But as it was, the two men in this match were on their own trajectories, and simply happened to intersect here. There is no real story about what the two players mean to one another, which is the foundation of a truly great match.


The underdog match

The match itself played out according to the underdog archetype that Danielson developed to perfection during his WWE career. Early on Miro and Danielson established a pattern that carried throughout the match, where Danielson landed three blows for every one of Miro’s, but Miro hit hard enough to send Danielson to the mat. The camera spent a lot of time focusing on Danielson’s face as he reacted to Miro’s sheer power advantage. It became clear that on purely physical terms, Danielson couldn’t compete with his opponent — he would have to think his way out.

Miro, for his part, plays the monster as well as anybody going today. Despite only being a few inches taller than Danielson, he managed to make himself seem huge, an ogre. The camera, too, often focused on his face, full of fury and bravado. For my tastes, he spent too much time shrugging off Danielson’s offense — the story was that Miro’s weak point is his bad neck, and to emphasize this, he spent much of the match refusing to even acknowledge strikes to other points on his body. I liked the spectacle of Miro daring Danielson to kick him in the ribs and then laying the smaller man out in return, but that spot did not need to be repeated three times in a row. But, that criticism aside, Miro continued to prove why he’s the promotion top brute — he has a particular physical charisma that nobody else in AEW matches, even larger wrestlers like Wardlow or Lance Archer.

During the action, commentator Jim Ross could stop himself from referring to Danielson by his old ring name, no matter how many times Excalibur followed up with a pointed reference to Bryan Danielson. But perhaps we shouldn’t blame JR, because this felt exactly like a Daniel Bryan match. Now, I love Daniel Bryan matches — they brought me back into wrestling in 2013 after I fell away in the aftermath of the Monday Night Wars — but Danielson has not been playing an underdog hero in AEW. Sure, in interviews he’s still the laid back wrestling nerd the audience has always identified with, but his ring work has been that of an analytical killer, even a sadomasochist. He has been an equal, or even the dominant force, over his opponents thus far, matching them blow for blow and picking them apart with his library of submissions. It’s a subtle but real difference in philosophy: Daniel Bryan won because he had the biggest heart, even in the face of incredible odds; Bryan Danielson wins because he kind of likes having his chest chopped into hamburger meat, and he definitely likes bending joints at unnatural angles.

The best parts of the match to my eyes were the sequences where Danielson and Miro broke out of their Jack and the Giant pattern and fell into some spectacular sequences of submission attempts and reversals. At one point toward the middle of the match, Danielson managed to trap Mir in a kneebar, and it looked like Miro would tap. But Miro struggled to his feet like a surfacing whale and gutwrenched Danielson to break the hold. Later, there was a terrific exchange where Danielson charged from the corner with his running knee, only for Miro to catch and powerbomb him back to the mat in one fluid motion. Moments like these established not just Miro’s raw power, but his intelligence as well. This is the direction I would like to see Miro’s work take going forward — the Redeemer makes for a great warrior-philosopher.

The theological portion of the act comes up just after this; Danielson kicked out of a cover and Miro reached his hand to the sky, his face twisted in a bewildered expression of betrayal. But that doubt vanished quickly, as he and Danielson started to exchange holds in the final minutes of the match. Miro, getting frustrated, leans too hard into heavy strikes, which gave Danielson the opening to wear him down with submission holds. Miro went into one last round of no-selling Danielson’s kicks, then dragged him to the turnbuckle for a superplex — but Danielson managed to twist it around into a super DDT, and, well, Miro’s got a bad neck. Danielson grabs him into a chokehold, but he’s already out cold before he can even get it applied, prompting referee Aubrey Edwards to call for the bell.


The Most Dangerous Man In Wrestling

I imagine this is the last time we will see a match like this from Danielson in the near future — he’s now set as the #1 contender against Hangman Page, who is not the same kind of physical specimen as Miro. If Danielson runs through Hangman’s friends in the Dark Order on his way to the title match, he will be back in his mode as the most dangerous man in wrestling — there’s no way Evil Uno or Alan Angels are anything but a sentimental favorite against Danielson.

I admit, this was the scenario that seemed least likely to be coming out of Full Gear: it seemed like a Danielson win would presage an Omega victory, and Miro would have made a fine first opponent for Hangman. Where Miro will go next is an open question, but I will be glad to see a more dominant Danielson going forward.

I worry that I have given the impression that this match was mediocre, or even outright lousy in some parts, and I don’t think that’s true. On the contrary, Danielson and Miro worked according to a classic formula and did so expertly, and even spiced that formula up with some great counters and reversals. I had a good time watching this variation of the underdog overcoming. But there is a certain dissatisfaction, too. Perhaps nobody wrestles an underdog match as well as Bryan Danielson — but nobody wrestles a dozen other kinds of matches as well as Danielson, either, and I’m itching to see more of those. He’s outgrown the underdog formula, at least for a while.