These things don’t happen in my lifetime.
I started watching wrestling in 2006, long after the dust had settled from the Monday Night Wars. Growing up, the WWE was a monolith—the only game in town at least as far as North American wrestling was concerned. I didn’t know a wrestling landscape that involved vicious competition between major companies vying for the same space and fanbase. The WWE was it. It took real effort to escape that bubble and learn about the endless flavors and colors of pro wrestling around the world.
By the time I discovered independent wrestling in 2009, Bryan Danielson was already wrapping up his time in ROH. It was only in retrospect that I discovered his famed ROH World Title run, the matches with Nigel McGuinness, the brawls with Takeshi Morishima and so much more. An expertly skilled professional wrestler with an uncanny ability to connect with any crowd? Yeah, it’s fair to say it didn’t take long for me to become a Bryan Danielson fan for life.
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Anyone who’s followed his time in the WWE knows the broad strokes of his career. Held down and booked as little more than a joke until the sheer force of his talent turned him into the hottest babyface in the world, all culminating in the high point of his WrestleMania XXX championship victory.
Even then, the fragile nature of his victory was clear to me. I watched Mania XXX at a public viewing party with some friends and when Bryan won the title, one of the first things I said was, “At least we’ll always have this. They can’t take this moment away from us.”
That sense of fragility was swiftly validated as a series of injuries ate up close to two years of Bryan’s in-ring career to that point. That all led to his forced retirement from in-ring competition in early 2016. The hard-fought victories that led up to Mania XXX suddenly felt like consolation prizes to be admired from a distance as we were left to ponder what might have been.
When Bryan returned to active in-ring competition in 2018, I considered everything that he did from that point on a gift. Another WWE Title reign, a dream match against Brock Lesnar, a WrestleMania classic against Kofi Kingston—all gifts that had so recently seemed impossible. It was while watching that WWE Title match against Kofi at yet another WrestleMania viewing party that I knew, Bryan Danielson was the greatest professional wrestler of all time.
Everything in this final run that Bryan had with the WWE, I approached with that same mindset of resigned gratitude. It wasn’t always what it should have been, the booking didn’t always go the way I wanted, but it was just nice to have Bryan back wrestling as though he hadn’t missed a single day in the ring.
That same feeling was especially clear at the start of 2021. Despite having a far more storied history with Roman Reigns than Edge, he became the third wheel in the Universal Title picture. But hey, at least we got to see Bryan main event Mania twice. We’ll at least have that, they can’t take that away from us.
Then the rumors began.
Once Bryan left the company following an excellent title vs. career match against Roman Reigns on the April 30th edition of SmackDown, the internet started buzzing. All the people in the know began putting it out there that Bryan Danielson was on his way to AEW.
That news was understandably eclipsed by the return of CM Punk from a seven-year hiatus from the wrestling business. But those that knew kept waiting. If Punk had come, surely the American Dragon couldn’t be too far behind.
Unlike the Punk debut which saw both AEW and Punk himself basically telegraph the return in big neon letters, there was no big fuss made about Bryan. Outside of a single quip in a CM Punk promo, nothing on AEW’s official programming even hinted at Bryan’s debut.
They didn’t need to.
The word had gotten out way ahead of time that Bryan was going to be in Chicago for All Out. When I put money down for the AEW All Out pay-per-view, it was because I couldn’t let myself miss the show if all the rumors were true. The show was excellent—a monumental moment for the company and a slam dunk statement of where they were headed long before the bell even rang for the main event.
But as The Elite began their attack on Christian Cage, that’s when I started to lean forward in my seat. That’s when I felt the tension. The unbearable anticipation of being on the precipice of something major, something that may only happen once in a lifetime. When the lights went out in the NOW Arena to cut off Kenny Omega’s promo, I clamped both hands over my mouth because I’d started screaming at home on 10 AM on a workday.
I instantly deflated when Adam Cole’s name appeared on the screen.
The instant heel turn gave fresh hope though. With Adam Cole joining The Elite once again, the show still needed a hero to close out the night.
Ride of the Valkyries
Then the first few notes of Ride of the Valkyries hit. It’s not The Final Countdown, but nearly a decade of WWE-driven conditioning made me leap out of my seat. I was thrashing with joy, the reaction my body had to the moment was overwhelming. Eyes welled up, hands trembled. The excitement seeped into my very bones, it left me shaken long time after the pay-per-view feed ended.
It was the kind of emotional rush that only the best wrestling can truly inspire. The kind of emotional catharsis I didn’t know I needed after living almost two years with a pandemic, a world-altering disease encroaching closer and closer on my family and loved ones with every day. For just a bit, all that melted away and I could just give in to the thrill of professional wrestling.
Unlike those living in the West, I still had the rest of the day ahead of me once All Out ended. I was able to sit and stew in the excitement as all the possibilities that had just opened came to me. This wasn’t just my favorite wrestler of all time coming to a new company to wrestle some dream matches. This was the tides shifting in the wrestling industry in real time.
These things don’t happen in my lifetime. In all my years of watching professional wrestling, I had never seen the entire dynamic of the pro wrestling industry change in a single night. Minoru Suzuki, Ruby Soho, Adam Cole, CM Punk’s first match in over seven years—any of these on their own could have been show-ending game changers for AEW. Having them all on the same night topped off by the greatest wrestler of all time arriving to the company?
That’s something else.
A lot has been made online about the cliché of former WWE wrestlers using the imagery of breaking out of prison to represent a new chapter in their career. With the heights and success that Bryan achieved in the WWE—he main evented Mania in April!—it’s hard to consider him imprisoned or shackled by the confines of that company. But there was really only so much left for him to do in a company that really only let him succeed by accident.
With the greatest wrestler of all time being set loose in the hottest company the industry’s seen in years, there’s no more need for cautious gratitude. I’m no longer having to celebrate the scraps that Vince McMahon and his creative team deign to bestow upon Bryan. I’m no longer counting blessings and small victories.
For the first time in so long, the sky’s the limit.
And I want to see the Dragon soar.