11 Years Apart, Bryan Danielson and Eddie Kingston Dropped a Pair of Bangers

For some reason, this is a match that was never really supposed to happen. It’s strange to think about considering how both Bryan Danielson and Eddie Kingston are emblematic of the 2000s super indie boom that came to define the direction of North American pro wrestling down the line. Even when these two are discussed on AEW commentary, it’s often mentioned that Bryan and Eddie have a long, shared history together.

Technically, that’s true. They both gained prominence at around the same time on the indies, they even often shared multiple locker rooms through the years. They’re both clearly familiar with the work and reputation of the other. It’s a match that really should have happened more than it did, there was plenty of opportunity for Eddie Kingston vs. Bryan Danielson to happen in the 2000s. Yet somehow, it’s just one of those match ups that never really got any attention.

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In fact, the first time that Eddie Kingston and Bryan Danielson are even in the same match together—the famous ROH vs. CZW Cage of Death in 2006—they don’t even get the chance to interact as Bryan leaves the match long before Eddie even enters. The first time these two actually touch in a squared circle is for an opening round match in the 2009 King of Trios. Their pairing isn’t in the spotlight though as they share the focus with four other men.

By the time that Bryan signs with the WWE in 2009, it feels like the match had slipped through the fingers of every major independent promoter in the world. Bryan was primed to go and have a long and fruitful career in the WWE, far from the independents where he had made his name. As for Eddie Kingston, his rough demeanor and fraught backstage history meant that many assumed no national promotion would ever bother to give him the time of day.

Then Bryan got fired.

Many already know the story. In the midst of the infamous Nexus invasion angle, Bryan chokes out Justin Roberts with the announcer’s own tie. Deemed too violent for the company’s PG-13 product, Bryan would be released from his WWE contract within days of making his debut on the main roster. The best in the world was a free agent yet again.

I waited every day after the news of Bryan’s firing for an announcement of his first match back on the indies. The obvious move I anticipated was Bryan making some sort of return to Ring of Honor, a company that many perceived to be Bryan’s home promotion during his indie run. A return to ROH never came to pass, however, as instead Bryan’s first match would be a for a promotion I had never seen before: CHIKARA. Where Bryan went, I followed.

For Eddie Kingston, this match comes just as he’s receiving a major singles push as one of the top babyfaces in CHIKARA. The momentum and good will from this push would eventually culminate in him becoming the first ever CHIKARA Grand Champion at the end of 2011. On this night in Michigan, however, he had no gold and only pride on the line as he tested himself against the best in the world.

If there’s something that can be said for both these wrestlers, it’s that they’re both incredibly purposeful workers. Any time they’re in the ring, the amount of thought and craftsmanship they put behind matches always comes through. This match is a very structured, thoughtful piece of work that makes the most of very simple narrative through lines.

The main story of the match, as with many great Eddie Kingston matches, is Eddie’s bad leg. Bryan targets Eddie’s leg early in the match with kicks and it hobbles the bigger man for the rest of the bout. Bryan exacerbates the problem by stretching out Eddie’s leg down on the mat every chance he gets. Despite being the larger man, Eddie wrestles the match from underneath, with Bryan staying in control for most of the match.

In an attempt to fight back, Eddie tries to turn the match into a firefight. Every chance he gets, he throws a wild strike in an attempt to gain the advantage back. But the American Dragon is no stranger to throwing hands, Bryan puts Eddie down with strikes just as easily as he does with his grappling.

The match is a real great display of pacing in wrestling. It’s slow and steady at first, but only because these two are laying the groundwork for what’s to come. The early leg work puts Eddie into a hole that he has to scratch and claw his way out of. By the time he’s tossing about Bryan with suplexes and trading shoot headbutts with him, it’s because Eddie has to bring out all the stops to defeat Dragon.

That attention to pacing applies to even the most minute details. Early in the match, Bryce Remsburg delivers a warning five count to Bryan twice. On both occasions, the crowd chants Bryan’s signature taunt for him: “I have ‘til five!” Bryan, however, noticeably doesn’t say it himself. Later on in the match, at a much more high stakes moment, Bryan again is forced to release a hold on the count of five. Only now, on Bryce’s third warning, does he remind the referee that he has until five and the pop for the catchphrase is huge.

The match doesn’t quite end decisively though. Claudio Castagnoli comes out to distract Eddie Kingston, even getting physically involved by grabbing Eddie’s leg as he’s hitting the ropes. The distraction is enough to allow Bryan to sneak in a small package for the victory. An understandable result, Bryan’s far too celebrated and high profile to lose his first match back on the indies, but Eddie Kingston’s too important to CHIKARA at this point to just drop a clean fall.

One leaves the match with the sense that they might have something bigger in them, something grander. There’s something left on the table there especially with the interference in the finish. But, at least, we finally got the match before Bryan returned to the WWE. It’s a win that they got to have this match at all.

Then it happened again.

It’s 2021 and Bryan Danielson has yet again left the WWE, this time on his own terms. He makes a momentous debut for AEW, distinguishing himself as a top-level signing that adds to the budding company’s credibility. Meanwhile, Eddie Kingston is proving all his doubters wrong. After years toiling on the independent scene, he finally gets his due and is signed to a major national promotion. He main events for the AEW World Championship on pay-per-view within months of his signing.

Just a couple of years beforehand, these two being part of the same roster seemed an impossibility. But once the brackets for the AEW World Championship Eliminator tournament were announced, the eventual rematch felt inevitable. It was the only booking that truly felt right, two veterans of the independents clashing yet again, this time on a massive stage for a television audience.

Unlike the CHIKARA match where Eddie and Bryan came in cold for a dream match, this bout had emotional stakes attached to it that enriches the experience. In the week leading up to this match, Bryan plays psychological games with Eddie in a pair of excellent backstage interview segments.

In the first, Bryan taunts Eddie, claiming that despite Eddie’s abundant and obvious talent, The Mad King simply never applied himself or worked hard enough to make himself a success. In the second segment, Eddie Kingston—perhaps a top five mic worker ever—retorts with his usual fire and realistic delivery, telling Dragon that he knows nothing about the mental struggle Eddie faces every day. After Eddie walks off, Bryan smugly acknowledges that this fired up, motivated Eddie is who he wanted to face.

When it’s finally time for the match, the opening moments draw on some of the ideas from the first bout. Again, Bryan tries to chip away at Eddie with leg kicks but Eddie’s far more wary of that tactic this time around. In an attempt to fluster Bryan, Eddie turns to violence early, quickly busting out his brutal chops. The two even start trading the headbutts that marked the end of their last match. Again though, Bryan proves capable of holding his own in a strike off and easily regains control.

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It’s a Taue-style standing dropkick that finally earns Eddie the control. From there, he targets Bryan’s historically bad neck. For the first time in any of their singles bouts, Eddie Kingston is in the driver’s seat. He tosses Bryan into the steel steps, backdrops Bryan onto the concrete, wrenches Bryan’s neck with a Misawa face lock and the Stretch Plum. Eddie’s pissed off enough that he’s not beyond being a little more vicious and underhanded than usual—he bites Dragon’s ear and throws a poke to the eye to cut off a comeback. Bryan poked and needled at Eddie, and now pays the price.

Bryan, for his part, sells beautifully for Eddie here. Not only do we have the always welcome visual of Bryan’s chest smashed into bloody raw meat, but Bryan’s moment-to-moment selling puts over the fact that Eddie Kingston is laying in a real beating. Bryan’s always slightly wobbly, just a little unsteady on his legs, the viewer can see the effort he puts into pushing through the fog of his own pain. It’s an excellent display of vulnerability from Dragon.

Bryan makes his comeback via a belly to back superplex off the top rope. After one of his signature head kicks, Bryan sets up for the Busaiku Knee only for Eddie to flop to the mat before the move can land. Rather than hesitate and mope about not hitting his move, Bryan goes right back on the offensive, following Eddie to the mat and throwing hammer shots right to the head. This recent run of matches in AEW has shown Bryan at the most brutal he’s been in his entire career. Every piece of offense in the ring carries so much malice that one can’t help but be in awe.

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At the apex of the match, the two engage in another strike off. I can understand those that find this trope overplayed and cliched at the point, but with two all-time greats doing it, there’s a few added details and nuances that separate it from the norm. For example, towards the end of the exchange, Eddie goes for a gamengiri which Bryan’s able to block. The block damages Eddie’s knee which leaves him vulnerable to Bryan’s discus elbow, as opposed to Eddie just standing there waiting to take the move. From there, Eddie’s able to push through to finally hit his spinning backfist.

Too battered, Eddie’s unable to capitalize in time to get the victory. As he crawls towards Bryan to grab a cover, Bryan locks in a Triangle Choke which he combines with some elbows to the head. Middle finger up, Eddie passes out in the hold to give Bryan the victory.

While the ending might come across as abrupt and a little silly for those seeking something more straightforward, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail early in the match that lends it a little more weight. Obscured by the picture-in-picture in the middle of the match, there’s a moment during Eddie’s control segment on Bryan where the American Dragon flips off his opponent. If I hadn’t gone back to watch the feed without the commercials, I would never have seen it. It doesn’t fully alleviate some of the issues I have with the finish, but it’s a nice touch all the same.

It’s odd to think about how unlikely these two matches actually are. What could easily have been a rivalry of the 2000s somehow only produced two singles matches across two different decades. They are both great matches despite being tonal opposites in a lot of ways. The 2010 match features an intimate indie setting and has a measured and steady pace. The 2021 match is a main event-style television match, packed to bursting with flashy violence and big emotions. It takes a certain level of talent to be able to do both with such ease and without one feeling like a betrayal of the other. I can not recommend these two matches enough. Make a day of it, settle in and watch them back-to-back, see the masters of the craft at work.

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