Celebrating Bryan Danielson's 10 Defining WWE, AEW Moments on His Birthday

Erik Beaston@@ErikBeastonFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2022

Celebrating Bryan Danielson's 10 Defining WWE, AEW Moments on His Birthday

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    Credit: All Elite Wrestling

    Bryan Danielson is one of the greatest in-ring competitors of all time.

    A match technician with a penchant for violence who can twist and stretch opponents one minute and throw punishing strikes the next, he has wowed WWE and All Elite Wrestling audiences between the ropes and entertained them away from them.

    Whether he was kicking Triple H's chest in or hugging it out with Kane, he has long been one of the most beloved and respected professional wrestlers on the planet.

    A planet he has unabashedly championed on occasion.

    On this, his 41st birthday, relive these 10 defining moments from the Blackpool Combat Club member's WWE and AEW runs and why they are so significant to his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

10. Bryan Overshadows a Championship Ascension

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    By December 2013, WWE fans had become disenfranchised with the company over its treatment of Daniel Bryan, who had captured the company's world title at SummerSlam the previous August, only to be beaten for it minutes later by Randy Orton.

    Subsequent screwjobs followed before it appeared as though the bearded wonder would be removed from championship contention. Not content to sit back and let that happen, the fans in Seattle for the Dec. 9 episode of Raw decided to make sure the spotlight remained on their home state hero.

    During a special Championship Ascension segment in which the company hyped the upcoming Tables, Ladders and Chairs match between Orton and John Cena for the top prize in wrestling, the fans broke out into a "Daniel Bryan" chant. It became so loud that it interrupted the proceedings.

    Triple H was noticeably distracted by it as he attempted to cut a promo. Shawn Michaels acknowledged it by trying to get the crowd to go quiet. CM Punk visibly laughed at the crowd taking over the segment, understanding their frustration with WWE's failure to give them what they wanted. Finally, Mark Henry raised a grinning Bryan's arm in the air, acknowledging the true star of the segment.

    What was an otherwise throwaway segment was essential to Bryan's story. Here was a segment devoted to Orton and Cena, two of WWE's golden children, and the crowd quickly turned on it to voice their support for the underdog Bryan.

    It was the YES! Movement takeover three months before WWE actually booked it on a pre-WrestleMania edition of Raw, making this one more organic and fun. The look of frustration on Triple H's face as he attempted to get through his promo, only to be continuously cut off by the chants for Bryan makes the segment worth a watch alone.

9. Cashing In

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    Wrestling fans rejoiced when Bryan won Money in the Bank in July 2011, recognizing what it meant to his WWE career. After months of wallowing in mediocrity and moving from match to match with no real rhyme or reason, he captured the prestigious briefcase—inside a guaranteed shot at the WWE or World Heavyweight Championship anytime and anywhere.

    He chose that December's TLC pay-per-view, where Big Show had just captured the world title, only to be DDT'd onto steel chairs by Mark Henry. An opportunistic Bryan rushed the ring, pinned the giant and won the title.

    It was not quite the magical moment fans had hoped for, but it was proof, at least for the time being, that WWE saw enough in Bryan to give him that opportunity. His first world title victory with the company, it remains a defining moment in the career of the celebrated in-ring competitor, even if it would be just over two more years before he officially and unequivocally established himself a main event star for the company.

8. The Retirement

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    Bryan was forced to the sidelines in both 2014 and '15 as a result of head and neck injuries that prevented him from competing. A severe neck injury and a history of concussions raised enough red flags that the improbable happened: The former WWE world champion was forced to retire.

    On the Feb. 8, 2016, episode of Raw from Seattle, Bryan took to the squared circle and addressed the fans and officially announced his premature retirement from professional wrestling.

    It was a gut-wrenching moment for fans, who had so passionately supported him throughout his journey in the industry. Tears flowed, including from future All Elite Wrestling referee Aubrey Edwards, who watched that night's show from ringside.

    It was not a permanent retirement, but it is reflective of the peaks and valleys that have helped to define Bryan's legendary career and the emotional connection between performer and audience.

7. The Planet's Champion

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    A heel turn in 2018 rejuvenated Bryan's career. After a magical return to the ring earlier that year, he had become somewhat stale and desperately needed to change things up. Enter, The Planet's Champion.

    He was critical of fans and his fellow Superstars for their treatment of Mother Earth, lashing out at them for destroying the only planet we get. On the Jan. 29, 2019, episode of SmackDown Live, he dumped the prestigious WWE Championship in favor of his own custom title made of Earth-friendly materials.

    It was the latest in a series of promos and vignettes in which Bryan touted the advantages of clean living and venomously criticized those who failed to follow his example.

    It was a fresh, unique and modern twist on the wrestling heel. He still absolutely believed what he said was right and, in reality, it was. But it was delivered so condescendingly and, at times, violently that it took this defender of the planet and turned him evil. 

    The character became the best thing about SmackDown for months before he ultimately dropped the title to Kofi Kingston in one of the most memorable WrestleMania moments of the last three decades.

    That five-star classic, a match that could have only excelled with Bryan's involvement because of his ruthlessness and physicality, was the perfect exclamation point on the last truly great run of Bryan's time with WWE.

6. Hug It Out

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    After dropping the world title at WrestleMania 28 and failing to defeat CM Punk for the WWE Championship in a monthslong feud after that, Bryan found himself engaged in a midcard program with Kane that, to say the least, did not spark excitement among his fans. 

    Here was a guy embroiled in championship rivalries, only to be dropped down the card and stuck working with a character that had long ago become stale. 

    What fans did not understand was both men's desire to make the most of the situation. 

    On the Sept. 3, 2012, episode of Raw, fans selected a stipulation for Bryan and Kane that called for them to "hug it out." The audience chanted, demanding the rivals embrace. After several moments and teases, they finally did, drawing a huge pop from the crowd.

    It was the start of Team Hell No, a comedically genius pairing. There would be anger management counseling, pre-taped vignettes and an unlikely tag team title run. In 2013, the duo partnered with Randy Orton to become the first trio of Superstars to defeat The Shield in a six-man tag team match.

    What started as a significant step down for Bryan after months of battling for world titles proved to be one of the most important steps in his WWE career. No longer was he simply an elite in-ring technician, but he had proved he could do the one thing that company officials most value: entertain.

    The popularity he enjoyed during that run, and the bond he forged with fans, would be absolutely key in everything that would follow.

5. Bryan Danielson Is Elite

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    When Bryan departed WWE in 2021, it was only a matter of time before he made his way to AEW.

    The Tony Khan-owned competition had built considerable momentum and was firmly established as the alternative to Vince McMahon's entertainment-heavy promotion and the most logical place for him to continue his career.

    Under his real name of Bryan Danielson, The American Dragon shocked the wrestling world in the closing moments of AEW's All Out pay-per-view by hitting the ring and confronting The Elite. It was a statement from Bryan to the rest of the pro wrestling world that the greatest technical wrestler of his generation had arrived and would take great pleasure in kicking the heads in of anyone who stood between him and accomplishing the goals he had set for himself. 

    Up first: Kenny Omega and the world heavyweight championship.

    More on that in a moment.

4. The Comeback

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    By all accounts, Bryan never should have been able to return to the squared circle.

    His history of neck and head injuries forced him to the sidelines, and WWE had no intention of letting him step back between the ropes to continue his wrestling career. Then it happened: Bryan was cleared by doctors to return.

    An incredibly thankful Bryan shared the news with fans on the March 20, 2018, episode of SmackDown, just weeks before his first match in three years at WrestleMania 34. 

    The moment understandably brought a considerable amount of excitement with it as both performer and audience longed for the moment that Bryan would be able to return to wrestling. Bryan talked about being grateful; grateful for his family, friends, "the best fans in the world" and his wife, Brie.

    The fans broke out into a "YES!" chant as Bryan revealed that the doctors had cleared him to return to the squared circle. It was the moment they both had waited three years for and gave hope to other competitors who had been forced to the sidelines with seemingly debilitating neck and head injuries, like Hall of Famer Edge, hope that they, too, could return to the ring one day.

3. A Grand Slam on Dynamite

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    The excitement and energy was palpable inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, New York, as Bryan and AEW world champion Kenny Omega took to the squared circle for a dream match of epic proportions. The title was not on the line, but that mattered little. Fans from numerous states traveled to the world-renowned tennis stadium to watch the best wrestlers of their generation square off in one of the most anticipated contests ever.

    And neither The American Dragon nor The Belt Collector disappointed them.

    For 30 minutes, they battled in a grueling, physical, dramatic match that had fans inside the arena biting on every near-fall, waiting for one man to deliver a strike or apply a submission that would secure them the victory. Except, that never happened.

    The equals fought to a time limit draw that may have been somewhat unsatisfying but proved Danielson could still hang with a guy who had seized recognition as the world's best from him years earlier. 

    A five-star classic that felt every bit as enormous as it was, it was the first taste of what is, hopefully, to come between them. A multitude of injuries for Omega forced him to the sidelines two months later, robbing fans of an immediate follow-up. When that match comes, though, it will surely have all of the excitement and anticipation of the original.

    If not more.

2. Defeating John Cena at SummerSlam 2013

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    When Danielson was announced as the opponent for WWE world champion John Cena in the main event of SummerSlam 2013, there was reason to be cautiously optimistic about his chances of finally ascending to the mountaintop in Vince McMahon's company. 

    Cena had been outspoken in his belief that the bearded competitor was a top star and deserving of the opportunity and no Superstar on the roster, himself included, was as popular with fans at the time. It is only fitting then that the top star of his generation opted to do the honors and put an exclamation point on Danielson's ascent.

    In a five-star classic in which Cena wrestled with a torn triceps, Danielson proved to be every bit the main eventer's equal en route to pinning him clean in the center of the ring after a running knee to the face. Bryan's victory popped the crowd and served as proof that there was no stopping the YES! movement. 

    That was true even if, moments later, special referee Triple H dropped him with a Pedigree and Randy Orton cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase to rob him of the gold and jump-start The Authority faction.

    Though he did not leave Los Angeles with the title, the best and most popular wrestler in the world was firmly established as the people's champion. The fans would not rest until he was standing on the grand stage with the very championship he had just seen slip through his fingers once again around his waist.

1. YESleMania

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    Despite every hesitation on the part of WWE management, and a few moments in which it looked as though his story would not be privy to the fairy-tale ending, Danielson entered WrestleMania 30 as the event's central figure.

    The entire show had been built around him and his quest to regain the WWE world title.

    To do so, he would first have to defeat Triple H in the night's opening match. He did, besting The Game in a brilliantly wrestled match that ended with his trademark running knee. Then, he would have to defeat Batista and Randy Orton in a Triple Threat main event.

    Limping to the ring after having endured a powerbomb/neckbreaker combo through the announce table, Danielson was hellbent on doing just that. And he did, tapping Batista out to the YES! Lock to the delight of the 75,000-plus fans inside the historic Louisiana Superdome. 

    The image of Danielson kneeling in the center of the ring, with the WWE and world titles in his hands as pyro erupted and confetti fell from the sky, once felt improbable. The company had done everything it possibly could to shift the focus away from him, but the performer's resiliency and the will of the fans earned him that moment. 

    It was the culmination of months of hard work, unwavering dedication from his supporters and one of the best stories in modern WWE history. Most importantly, it was a WrestleMania moment the likes of which define its participants. 

    For Danielson, that is exactly what has happened. No matter what happens moving forward, how much he accomplishes in AEW or if he returns to WWE, he will forever be defined by the night that WrestleMania became YESleMania.