It’s safe to say that 2021 has been one of the more interesting years in wrestling history. CM Punk’s return, Big E winning his first world title, and Katsuyori Shibata’s return to wrestling all made for a very eventful 12 months. From All Elite Wrestling to Pro Wrestling NOAH to World Wrestling Entertainment, it feels like every promotion had at least something special happen for them this year. Additionally, several wrestlers found themselves having the best year of their careers, meaning there are many valid choices for wrestler of the year. One could make the argument that 2021 was the year of “The American Dragon,” Bryan Danielson.
Some may say Roman Reigns, who began and ended the year as WWE Universal Champion, had the best 2021. Some may also say Katsuhiko Nakajima of NOAH, who won the GHC Heavyweight Championship from Naomichi Marufuji as well as boasting several of the best matches of the year. While these are valid choices, today I’m going to make a case for a different wrestler. One who not only has had some of the best matches of the year against a variety of opponents but someone who has transcended the 2 biggest promotions in North America. Today I will make a case for why Bryan Danielson is the wrestler of the year for 2021.
Bryan Danielson in 2021 – A Beginning Disguised as an End
One Last Road to WrestleMania
To get a good overview of Bryan’s year, we need to start at its beginning. As 2021 rolled in, it was very clear that Bryan Danielson, then Daniel Bryan, was being prepared for a championship feud with Roman Reigns pre-WrestleMania. With Edge returning to win the Royal Rumble in January, the company needed to buy time before his match with Reigns. Daniel Bryan was their choice.
At the Elimination Chamber in February, Bryan won a Universal title shot by defeating five other men. Unfortunately, the title match commenced immediately after the chamber match, and Reigns defeated him easily. Afterward, Edge hit a Spear on Reigns, planting the seeds for a triple threat match at WrestleMania, but not before Bryan would have to re-earn his championship shot in a cage match with Jey Uso. If Bryan won then he would receive his title match, but if Jey won, Bryan would have to acknowledge Roman as “The Tribal Chief.” After a very fun match, Bryan put Uso away and earned a second title shot at Fast Lane.
The match would ultimately end disappointingly. Despite what was a very good back-and-forth match between Reigns and Bryan, the finish saw an overbooked mess of Edge getting hit with a chair by Bryan, attacking both men with said chair and leaving to the backstage area. A second referee would come down and count the pin for Roman, who would retain in the end. While a very weakly booked match, it served its purpose in further setting the stage for a triple threat match between the three men at WrestleMania.
A Supporting Role
No one knew at the time, but with night two of WrestleMania came Daniel Bryan’s last WrestleMania performance. After WWE’s biggest event of the year, it wouldn’t be long before his departure. But he had one more important role to play before leaving, and he was going to play it to the best of his abilities; the role of supporting character in a WrestleMania main event.
In the buildup to Edge vs Roman Reigns, it became clear that interest in the match was dangerously low. Ratings for SmackDown episodes that featured segments between the two did very poorly and there seemed to be little interest in seeing a babyface Edge chase a world championship in 2021. Enter Daniel Bryan. Being easily one of, if not the most popular in the company since 2013, the decision to insert Bryan into the main event could hardly be called a bad one. It increased interest in the match, while also adding a much-needed element that the story was lacking; a likable underdog to root for.
Before Bryan’s inclusion, there was just the heel, Roman Reigns, and Edge who was only a babyface via extenuating circumstances, his inspiring comeback being far too respectable to boo. Make no mistake though, Edge has always been a better heel, and so when trying to cut intense promos to build up a WrestleMania match, he could come off very heelish. Like an old, desperate veteran who might be willing to go a bit too far to beat the younger competitors and be champion again. With Daniel Bryan though, now the crowd had an anchor to tie themselves to; a character they could relate to and root for is a much more clear-cut babyface and even a dark horse in the match.
Making Perfection Without Even Trying
Things went much better from here on out. All three men now had specific roles. Reigns the heel, Bryan the babyface, and Edge somewhere in between. It made for interesting segments and promos, allowing all three men to flex their incredible mic skills. By the time the match had come, there was actually a decent bit of excitement and skepticism around it, and was done so well that any of the three men could have won believably. When the match finally took place on Night 2 of WrestleMania, it over-delivered.
Despite Night 2 being the weaker night of the event, this was easily one of the best matches on either night, due to the efforts of one Daniel Bryan. You see, Roman Reigns and Edge did have a singles match later in the year at Money in the Bank. A largely forgettable, uninspired, and boring match with both men spending the majority of its middle in chin locks. We know what that match would have looked because we got it, and it didn’t look good.
Somehow, Daniel Bryan was like the perfect buffer between the two men, finding a way to be on the same page as both men alone. It is even more impressive when you consider the fact that, later in the year in an interview, Danielson admitted to feeling “detached” during the match, claiming he was simply going through the motions. If that’s him going through the motions, you could only imagine what a motivated Bryan would look like, right?
In the end, Roman Reigns would retain in dominant fashion, pinning both men at the same time to retain his Universal Championship. But Danielson’s efforts (or lack thereof according to him) ended up creating magic on the big stage one last time.
A Professional Exit for Bryan Danielson
You’d think that was the end of Danielson’s WWE tenure, but you’d be incorrect. Being the selfless and professional performer that he is, it only makes sense that Bryan would want to put Roman Reigns over in a 1-on-1 match one final time. Following WrestleMania, Cesaro was named Roman’s next major challenger, but not before sending Daniel Bryan packing from SmackDown in a “title vs career” match, with the stip being if Bryan lost he must leave SmackDown forever. Reigns already knew that he could beat Bryan as he’d done so before, and was certainly more confident in his abilities against him than he was against Cesaro.
The match was booked for the April 30 edition of SmackDown, and just like the bulk of these men’s work together, it was a stellar match. They worked a long match with a clean and decisive finish, something rarely seen in WWE nowadays. Reigns managed to defeat Bryan cleanly with the Guillotine Choke and retain his championship. “The Tribal Chief” would go on to face Cesaro as we all know, but for Bryan, it would be a different story. He ended his WWE career as one would expect from him; with class and talent, and a couple of final, memorable moments. However, what seemed like an end was only the beginning for Bryan somewhere else.
Rebirth of the Dragon
Exit the Yes Man, Enter the Dragon, Bryan Danielson
Following his departure from WWE, Bryan took a brief hiatus, but it was always a sure bet of where he was going. It was unlikely at his age, with a wife and children, that he’d want to work regularly out of the country, with COVID restrictions making such a thing complicated anyway. The only other place in the U.S. that could come close to matching WWE level pay would obviously be the second biggest promotion, AEW. and with them recently bringing CM Punk out of a seemingly neverending hiatus that lasted 7 years, the prospect of them snagging Danielson wasn’t as hard to believe as one might think.
After the main event of All Out, an AEW World Championship match between Kenny Omega and Christian Cage, Bryan Danielson (along with fellow WWE alumni Adam Cole) made his debut, rescuing Jurassic Express from a beatdown courtesy of Omega, Cole and The Young Bucks. It didn’t take long after this for Danielson to throw the gauntlet down, challenging Omega to a match at AEW Dynamite Grand Slam just weeks after his debut.
Omega was tentative to put his title on the line against Danielson at first. However, Danielson was able to goad him into a non-title match in the end, a match set for Dynamite Grand Slam. The two men would go to a 30-minute time limit draw in a definite candidate for the AEW match of the year. Bryan may not have beaten Omega, but he proved he could go the distance with the best the company had to offer in his debut match. This made things very open for the company. Bryan could quite literally have done whatever he wanted after this within reason. And that’s exactly what he did.
Dream Matches, and a Refocus on the Gold
From this point on Danielson was/is like a dog let off its leash. Since his debut in June, he has faced a variety of opponents that for years seemed far out of his reach. Kenny Omega, Eddie Kingston, Hangman Page, and even the legendary Minoru Suzuki on what was most likely his final tour of the U.S. It seems Danielson has been on a mission to deliver every dream match the audience, or he himself, can dream of. That’s not to say his run has been without storyline or nuance, or that it’s been nothing but meaningless matches. Danielson delivered hit after hit in the AEW World Championship Eliminator Tournament earlier this year, finishing it off with a wonderful finale against Miro to become the Number One Contender for the world title against Page.
Speaking of Hangman Page, the crowning achievement for Danielson both in-ring and storyline-wise was their recent hour-long time limit draw for the AEW world title. After weeks of Danielson defeating and injuring different members of Dark Order, Page’s close friends, in their respective hometowns, Danielson finally got his title match at the Winter is Coming edition of Dynamite. Danielson’s heel turn, if one could call it that, was a slow one, gaining more and more ire from the fans with every member of Dark Order he put away. Not only did it do a good job of building toward Page vs Bryan, but it gave Bryan several first-time matches that he’d never had before, whilst giving Dark Order a chance to elevate themselves against him.
One Last Classic to End the Year On
On December 15, Danielson and Page clashed in an epic, hour-long battle for the AEW World Championship. The story of the match was not just being Page’s attempted vengeance for his friends, but his first title defense, and against someone the caliber of Bryan Danielson no less. The match’s 60-minute time limit also made for a new element to the match, one that I expect will play a role in any future matches between the two. Anyone who’s followed Bryan Danielson for any length of time, or who’s seen his work outside of WWE, knows his penchant for wrestling incredibly long matches, some being an hour-long or even more.
The match was the ultimate test of Page’s endurance and resilience. Danielson took great effort in making the match long but equally physical, truly testing the limits of Hangman’s pain threshold as well as his cardio. For Page, this match was the ultimate challenge, even more so than his match with Kenny Omega at Full Gear. Page made it to the end of the time limit, even ending the match with some offense in the form of a Buckshot Lariat to Danielson, but “The American Dragon” was still rolling away from Hangman even as the time limit ended, showing that even if the match had gone on longer, Danielson still may have had more fight in him than the champion.
The match was probably one of the best hour-long draws in wrestling TV history. The structure of it, the laying out of big spots leaving enough time for the match to breathe but also keeping people interested. The way they laid out the heat-spots during commercials in a way that wouldn’t be boring to the live audience but also wouldn’t leave TV watchers feeling left out.
Bryan Danielson in 2021 – In Conclusion
By now I’m sure you agree or at least can see why I believe, that the year 2021 belonged to Bryan Danielson. In overview, his accomplishments this year are unparalleled in any company. WrestleMania main eventer, challenger for the two biggest world titles in North America, and host of several of the greatest matches in either WWE or AEW this year. Here’s to Bryan Danielson, and hopefully to another year of classics from him following 2021.