Bryan Danielson knows we’re uncomfortable


Bryan Danielson

Bryan Danielson
Screenshot: AEW

Bryan Danielson is a liar. Don’t take my word for it.

Even without that admission, we know that Danielson absolutely loves manipulating fans’ emotions. Whether it’s the Yes! Movement or turning heel to face Adam Page, there might not be a better wrestler in the world who can get you to feel something than Danielson. He’s done it as the lovable, ignored-by-the-powers-that-be underdog and as the arrogant, widely accepted best wrestler in the world who doesn’t think anyone can touch him.

And there apparently isn’t anything Danielson won’t use to tell the story he wants. Wrestling storytelling is heavily built on what’s come before, callbacks to history whether it’s previous matches or former alliances and rivalries, or referencing other feuds and famous moments from the business. The biggest story in Danielson’s career is just not the apex of the Yes! Movement and his win at Wrestlemania 30 in New Orleans, but the fact that the story kind of stops there. Because of injury, Danielson’s reign as champ only lasted 64 days, and he could only defend the title once. He returned shortly before the next Mania, where he won the Intercontinental Title, but then had to disappear again quickly after due to concussion issues. He retired not long after because of them.

Ever since his return, all fans have watched his matches with at least a modicum of trepidation. Given what most of them go through with athletes going through concussion issues and how we all wince at the next hit, watching Danielson became that turned up to 11, because wrestling is all hits. Would this be the spot that sent Danielson back into retirement? You couldn’t help it, even as the matches were still as good as they’ve ever been.

Still, that ebbed over time. As Danielson put on great programs with AJ Styles, or Kofi Kingston, or Roman Reigns, and the matches piled up, it felt like we could all stop holding our breath. The farther he got from retirement, the more spots and bumps he took, and the more he returned for the next match, it felt like everyone’s footing got a little more solid as we bought more and more into Danielson’s run.

But Danielson’s defection to AEW came with the declaration that he was there to “fucking wrestle.” Which meant he could do whatever he wanted, tell the stories he wanted, and no longer have to fit within the WWE boundaries. So yeah, he’s been bleeding everywhere. He’s flipped from face to heel in an instant. He’s put “VIOLENCE” on top of the marquee whenever he’s in the ring or on the mic. He doesn’t have to worry about kids and shareholders anymore.

And yeah, he’s going to play off his brain injury past. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s not hard to imagine that any proposal of Danielson using his concussion history as a storytelling device in WWE would have been met with a hard no. There would have been pearl-clutching from some fans and they certainly would have feared a backlash against their medical team even at the mere suggestion that Danielson was hurt again, even if completely in kayfabe. It was still too fresh and too painful for fans, likely. Funny that New York will let wrestlers insult each other’s families or openly talk about boning their wives, but this would have been a bridge too far and made people too uncomfortable.

But in AEW, Danielson has a license for anything. So because he had to take some time off after Double or Nothing, the whispers were that it was the brain injury issues arising again. He missed Forbidden Door, though it was never explicitly stated what kept him out.

It doesn’t matter what is real and what isn’t, not to Danielson. If that’s what people are talking about, then that’s what it is. So in his return match with Daniel Garcia, he was telling the story of dealing with a brain injury again. He stumbled around. He took long pauses. He looked glassy-eyed. And he knew that all of us were squirming at home. And then he lost, and again, he wasn’t around for a little while again. Danielson heightened everything by making us think that yes, this could be the last time we saw him.

His promo last Friday before the rematch with Garcia was only accentuating that, telling fans he would never stop wrestling voluntarily and they would have to stop him from doing so. The fear with Danielson ever since he came out of retirement is that he wouldn’t know where the limits were, that he needed this too much, and that his long-term health was never a consideration. He would simply go too far. That he could really fuck himself up. We know in real life that Danielson doesn’t want to go too much longer and wants to be a present father, but that’s not the character he’s playing.

Last night was no different in his 2-out-of-3-falls match with Garcia. He actively headbutted Garcia. He took shots off the ring post to the dome. He did the glassy-eyed selling again. The match was fantastic, and its stakes were heightened because Danielson keeps fucking with us. And he knows that we’ll never know when he’s fucking with us and when it’s gone beyond that, which gives every moment in every match even more desperation. Is this the one? Is it that move? That bump? He can’t help himself.

Danielson is likely near the end, his chosen end, anyway. But he’s doing whatever he wants until that day comes, and our discomfort at the threat of that day being brought forward against his wishes is just another vehicle, another tool, he can use. It makes Garcia look like a real star because we’re asking, “Is this the guy who ends it? Will it be his legacy?” It makes Danielson’s survival of the feud seem even more epic, because he got that close to the cliff.

Bryan Danielson is a liar, and he loves fucking with people. And none of us will ever stop showing up for more.

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