The Lost Gem and Potential Future That Is Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr.

From Botch to Beauty

Much has been made of the long-awaited return of CM Punk to All Elite Wrestling. The internet had been ablaze with the rumors of Punk’s return weeks ahead of his appearance on AEW Rampage. Even before AEW began hinting at the eventual arrival of Punk, multiple online news sources had already reported that he’d put pen to paper for the company.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Punk news came off the back of another major scoop that made the rounds. Though the news has yet to be confirmed, it’s generally accepted as truth at this point that Bryan Danielson has signed with AEW. It would be a natural career move for Bryan. Despite his great success in the WWE, he’s spoken frequently in the last few years about the many things in wrestling he still wants to achieve that simply can not be done under the WWE umbrella. Chief among those are a return to Japan and time in Mexico that the WWE simply wouldn’t be willing to facilitate.

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Of the many, many dream matches that could come of this, Zack Sabre Jr. comes to mind. After all, since Bryan Danielson left the indies, Sabre has been the one to really take up the torch of high-level technical wrestling for a new generation of fans. Sabre is so synonymous with modern day technical wrestling that he has won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s annual award for Best Technical Wrestler for seven consecutive years. He’s only two away from matching the record set by Bryan Danielson between 2005 and 2013—a record that has led to the prize being named the Bryan Danielson Award.

A Chance Encounter

What some may not know is that these two had already wrestled before. These two met in their first singles match at Triple X Wrestling on March 2, 2008. At this point, Bryan Danielson’s time in ROH has cemented him as arguably the most popular and valuable independent wrestler in the world. His ROH World Title reign has attained mythic status and he’s already put in close to a decade of work on the independent scene.

Zack Sabre Jr., meanwhile, is little more than a very promising prospect from Europe. He’s yet to have his extended tour with NOAH and the European independent scene is far from what it would be in the 2010s.

With his floppy hair and skinny build, Zack Sabre Jr. makes for the perfect hometown hero against the monolith of indie wrestling that is Bryan Danielson. Bryan, for his part, is perfectly comfortable working as a heel, especially in England. In fact, he often credits his tours in the country in the early 2000s with helping him sharpen his character and promo work.

The match plays on this dynamic easily. Bryan’s in full heel mode, antagonizing the few dozen fans in attendance with the same sanctimonious smugness that characterized his ROH World Title run. Bryan dominates Sabre on the mat from the go, establishing the enormity of the challenge that Sabre faces. Sabre has a fighting chance though—when given the right openings, he’s able to use his technical ability to catch Bryan in a few surprise holds. The brief flurries of offense are enough of a threat that Bryan ups the intensity and starts really bullying the kid to the chagrin of the fans in attendance.

Bryan’s great working the heat segment, running Sabre through a gamut of punishment that does well to draw the sympathy of the crowd. Bryan’s mastery of the ring is on full display here. While it’s clear that he’s not out to wrestle some ROH-style epic, he perfectly balances his cocky character work with believably brutal punishment to keep the crowd always against him.

Of course, this all builds to a big Zack Sabre Jr. comeback. Try as he might though, his own inexperience still comes through like when he can’t quite get the full elevation on a rolling dropkick. But it’s a small room of mostly hardcore fans fully willing to buy into their hometown boy pulling off an upset, so the match isn’t hurt any by these problems. If anything, it only further emphasizes the gulf between the two men.

There’s a hot stretch of attempted submission attempts and an exchange of quick pinfalls. Any longtime fan can see where things are headed. The match will reach a fever pitch of close nearfalls that prove Sabre’s skill and toughness before the established indie legend inevitably gets the win.

Except that doesn’t quite happen.

Instead, right in the middle of an escalating sequence of action, Bryan counters a cross armbreaker into a pinning combination that gets him the three-count and the victory. The vibe immediately changes. There’s a slight hesitation to the bell that signals the end of the action. Despite being a cocky heel validated in victory, there’s surprise on Bryan’s face when the referee counts to three. There’s an instant atmosphere of panic and confusion, especially with the referee who is clearly on edge. The ring announcer pauses before naming Bryan Danielson the winner.

A quick hushed exchange between the referee and the ring announcer occurs. It’s announced that the referee believes that he made an incorrect call and that the winning count was only a two.

Eventually the ring announcer offers a compromise.

The ring announcer is quick to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, one more fall!”

With this option on the table, it would have been so easy for Bryan to simply accept and for him and Sabre to run through the remaining material they had to get to the intended finish. Yet Bryan continues to go above and beyond.

First, he takes the mic and says that he’ll leave the decision to the only member in the crowd that matters—a young girl in the front wearing a Bryan Danielson t-shirt.

“Do you want five more minutes or do you want that to be the end of it?” he asks.

“Half an hour!” she replies.

“Well, the decision has been made! Get in here and we’ll go another half hour if we have to!”

Sabre, to his credit, doesn’t hesitate once the decision is set. He fires off, feeding off the momentum of the big announcement to fuel his babyface comeback. Still, Bryan’s able to cut him off. When Sabre survives a triangle choke combined with elbows to the head, Bryan gets desperate and goes for a superplex. He nails it perfectly in the middle of the ring.

Then Zack rolls him into a small package and gets a three-count.

The crowd is ecstatic. They chant, “That was three!”

Playing off the confusion in the first fall, Bryan grabs the referee by the shirt collar and demands he revoke the pinfall. It’s a perfect piece of improvisation, making the most of the earlier mistake while acting as a natural set up for what’s to follow. This time, there’s far less question about what needs doing. The promoter is quick to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, one more fall!”

The two wrestlers run through what one can only assume is the last of the material they prepared for the match in what becomes an incredibly fun and impromptu two out of three falls match. After a few more minutes of action, Bryan again nails Sabre with a suplex off the top—this time, Bryan’s patented belly to back superplex. Sabre again responds with a small package, trying to sneak the win, but Bryan reverses it to get three count and the decisive victory.

Talent and Grace

I love this match. What could have easily devolved into a comedy of errors forever enshrined on some episode of Botchamania instead becomes living proof of the immense talent and grace of one Bryan Danielson. Given their respective places in the industry at the time, there’s absolutely no way that Bryan owed Sabre a fall on this night. It’s clear that he was meant to come out the winner at the end. Yet, just to make good on an accident, just to make sure no one left the show unsatisfied, Bryan Danielson let himself get pinned by some British kid before wrestling a final fall on top of that.

Bryan Danielson and Zack Sabre Jr. may just meet again should Bryan come to AEW. Personally, I doubt they can top this—even with both men having since matured and improved as performer. Few moments in professional wrestling embody generosity and service the way this does. It is quite simply, a gift from a legend that could not have existed under any other circumstances. It’s that ability to pull beauty from a botch that distinguishes Bryan to me as the greatest wrestler of all time.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the ring announcer was not also the show’s promoter.

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Joseph Anthony Montecillo

Joseph Anthony Montecillo is a writer from the Philippines where he has been publishing short fiction since 2008. He currently maintains a YouTube channel where he discusses pro wrestling of the past and present.

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2 Comments

  1. I was in the front row for this! Some extra context:

    – This was a one-off effectively unbranded show ran by the promoters of Triple X Wrestling, a cult promotion who’d run this venue for the previous 2 years or so but had hit some difficulties and decided to wrap up. They ended up coming back a couple of times, the last one of which I worked as a referee (and made VERY sure all my counts were correct, heh). This show was played fairly straight for the most part, but with TXW being more minded towards tongue-in-cheek comedy in between seriously good wrestling, the next show they ran, in this same venue with mostly the same crowd, featured a ref bump in every match, suggesting a karmic revenge against all officials for the mistake in this one. It was so goddamn fun.

    – Speaking of the referee: at the time he was wrestling elsewhere as Omen, one half of the Bill and Ted-aping team the Wyld Stallyons, but he later became Damian/Chief Deputy Dunne, original tag team partner of Pete Dunne and leader of the Anti-Fun Police faction, a key part of Pete & Mark Andrews’s Attack promotion and made an appearance in Chikara’s King of Trios when it was held in the UK in 2017.

    – The entire arc of the first TXW run, concluded in the first few shows after this match, was building Zack as the top guy. You’re right to say he was a continental-level prospect at this point, but in March 2006, he was NOBODY. He’d wrestled basically nowhere outside his home turf of NWA-UK Hammerlock, who hardly ever ran shows by then. I don’t want to overstate things, but if you ask the man himself, he’s full of praise for TXW and basically credits them with getting him discovered. Also, you can literally directly blame my friend Alex for Zack using the Penalty Kick, which stemmed from the time Alex lent him a bunch of Katsuyori Shibata tapes.

    – Given the above, by the time this show came around, Zack was OUR GUY. Almost everyone in that crowd – circa 60, for accuracy’s sake – was a clued-in internet-using fan who’d watched a bunch of imported ROH and absolutely adored Bryan Danielson’s work (except my friend Lee, who just reminded me on Twitter that despite being a clued-in internet-using fan, this was the first Danielson match he ever saw, in person or on video. Lee was primarily a WWE-and-local-shows guy at the time, but shortly became a die-hard fan of women’s wrestling who used to make frequent cross-Atlantic trips to see Shimmer tapings). This is to say, very few people in that crowd were giving Danielson shit because he was the unknown invading foreigner – we were giving him shit because we knew that’s the role he was cast in, and we knew he’d absolutely kill it. This isn’t me saying “oh look at us we’re so smart and understand the biz”, it’s me saying that despite the crowd being full of smark cynics, everyone was fully bought into the moment because of our good faith towards both guys. This meshed with the obviously fantastic match to create an absolutely magical atmosphere, utterly unlike anything I’ve been a part of since. This is my favourite live match ever, and Zack is my favourite wrestler in the world. I never tire of telling people I saw him when he was nobody, and I saw him become somebody, and I always knew he’d make it, because as much of a tiresome cliché as it might sound, it’s true, and it happened, and when I see him tearing it up with Okada, Tanahashi and Naito, it hits me just how wild that really is.

    I love wrestling. Stuff like this is why.

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