Today, not surprisingly, I have Daniel Bryan on the brain. Following his untimely retirement on Monday I thought I'd compile a list of his essential matches, including many of his Ring of Honor highlights. If you haven't seen any of his ROH work as Bryan Danielson you don't know what you're missing. Unhampered by the "WWE style," Bryan was as innovative and skilled as anyone in the business, and frequently put together matches in excess of 30 minutes. Here now is a list of essential Daniel Bryan/Bryan Danielson matches....
10. Sheamus vs. Daniel Bryan - Extreme Rules 2012 - 4.29.12
Here's the match we should've gotten at WrestleMania 28. After Vince McMahon's 18-second booking snafu inadvertently made Daniel Bryan a star while dooming Sheamus's main event push, these two were given a chance for vindication at Extreme Rules in a 2/3 Falls Match. Bryan relentlessly targeted Sheamus's left arm early on, eventually getting himself intentionally disqualified in the first fall before evening the match with a Yes Lock in the second. The climactic third fall was an exciting back-and-forth affair until Sheamus once again caught Bryan with the Brogue Kick to retain the World Title. Easily a show-stealing early MOTY candidate, and the first example of Bryan being effectively used as a top-tier star.
9. Bryan Danielson vs. Samoa Joe - Fight of the Century - 8.5.06
In August 2006 Bryan Danielson was enjoying an ROH Title run on par with Joe's record-breaking reign of 2003-04. The two of them would collide in an epic bout that lasted a full sixty minutes. Danielson played the cocky-but-cowardly heel Champion to perfection, in a performance rivaling 1980s Ric Flair. This was the first Danielson match I ever saw, and I was immediately hooked. Joe spent the early portions of the match chasing Bryan around before finally dominating him for much of the encounter. Joe would come up just short of regaining the belt, but the live crowd ate this up, chanting "Five More Minutes" at the end. Quite possibly my favorite 60-minute draw.
8. Takeshi Morishima vs. Bryan Danielson - Manhattan Mayhem II - 8.25.07
Another of Danielson's ROH feuds against a much larger opponent took place in 2007, as he found himself challenging the new monster heel Champion Takeshi Morishima. Morishima was on loan from Pro Wrestling NOAH and took a similar role as Samoa Joe (who was now TNA-exclusive). Danielson held his own against the Japanese powerhouse in this 20-minute Strong Style war in which he suffered a detached retina from one of Morishima's strikes. Bryan failed to capture the belt here but faced Morishima twice more that year to settle their feud.
7. Bryan Danielson vs. AJ Styles - Dissension - 1.28.06
The crown jewel of ROH and the cornerstone of TNA faced each other in early 2006 in a brilliant, evenly-contested match in which Danielson repeatedly goaded Styles into losing his cool. This match demonstrated Bryan's gift at playing the cocky heel, and after 31 minutes of tremendous back and forth, he narrowly retained the ROH Title. I could watch these two fight all day long.
6. Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H - WrestleMania XXX - 4.6.14
The YES movement took over WrestleMania in 2014, starting with this much-anticipated opening match for a shot at the WWE Title. Both guys played their roles to perfection and told a helluva Face-In-Peril story for 26 minutes. As predicted, Bryan won the match clean to propel himself into the WWE Title match, but Hunter attacked him after the bell in the hopes of rendering him too injured to compete later on. Made perfect sense and beautifully enhanced the drama of Bryan's quest.
5. Bryan Danielson vs. Roderick Strong - Supercard of Honor - 3.31.06
At Ring of Honor's first mega-show held WrestleMania weekend, Danielson and Strong didn't take the ring until four hours in, and wrestled a 56-minute marathon, and yut the exhausted Chicago crowd loved every minute. On a show that featured a Wrestling Observer Award-winning DragonGate six-man tag, this epic bout still took Match of the Night honors in my opinion. You aren't likely to see a more crisp near-hour of scientific wrestling anywhere.
4. John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan - SummerSlam '13 - 8.18.13
Leading into SummerSlam 2013 WWE Champ John Cena had handpicked Daniel Bryan as his opponent, and the two delivered a legendary match. For twenty-six minutes they went toe-to-toe, showcasing memorable, innovative spots and gritty, realistic fight action. Bryan showed he could hang with the big dogs in a WWE main event, and Cena showed he could hang with the king of wrestling workhorses. Bryan's popularity had surged in the months leading up to this match and the crowd popped for everything he did. This epic showdown concluded with Bryan nailing Cena with the baisuke knee to finally win the WWE Title.
3. CM Punk vs. Daniel Bryan - Over the Limit 2012 - 5.20.12
In my opinion the best match of 2012 was this forgotten gem - Punk vs. Bryan for the WWE Title. These two were given a nice cushy 25-minute slot, and man did they deliver. Spectacular mat wrestling, counterholds, submissions galore, false finishes; everything you could ever want in a great wrestling match. This is the closest WWE has ever come to emulating the groundbreaking work these two routinely produced in Ring of Honor. Punk and Bryan would face each other twice more on PPV that year, but this was the standout of the bunch. A stunning display of classic pro wrestling.
2. Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness - Unified - 8.12.06
Danielson's greatest opponent according to me was Nigel McGuinness. These two were tailor-made to wrestle each other and it's a shame Nigel wasn't able to pass WWE's medical so the mainstream audience could've seen this matchup. If you haven't seen any of their matches together you need to seek them out right now. Both European style-influenced, their bouts had a fluidity and poetry unlike any pairing I've ever seen in a wrestling ring. This match was to unify the ROH World and Pure Titles (the Pure Title was a secondary belt contested under "pure rules," which included no punching, only three rope breaks, and the champ could lose the belt via countout). After 25 minutes of rugged action that included Nigel being busted open on the ring post (leaving a grotesque potato on his forehead), Bryan won via ref stoppage with repeated elbows to the jaw. This was the best match of 2006.
1. Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness - Driven - 6.9.07
Not to be outdone, Danielson and McGuinness had an even better match in 2007, which was included on ROH's PPV Driven. This bout was even more technical and both men utilized some of the most innovative holds I've ever seen. Still the action spilled to the outside on more than one occasion and at one point McGuinness suplexed Danielson across the ring barricade in a sickening-looking spot. The match climaxed with both men bouncing off the ropes and headbutting each other (probably not advisable in hindsight given Bryan's concussion issues), resulting in Bryan's forehead being split open. Still Bryan won the match with his old finisher Cattle Mutilation, thus capping off one of the greatest wrestling matches I've ever witnessed. Go watch this. Do it.
And there you have it. There are so many others that didn't make the cut; this man had an absolutely legendary career and it still stings that it's over. Bryan Danielson was a true prodigy who left an indelible mark on the wrestling industry. Comment below with some of your favorite D-Bryan matches!