Travel backward in time to before Daniel Bryan famously stood triumphant with two championship belts hoisted above his head amid falling confetti inside the Superdome.
Travel back to a time before his Yes! catchphrase existed, before he hugged it out with Kane, before the Nexus choking incident, before he battled Chris Jericho on the first episode of NXT, before his real life first name became his kayfabe surname.
You’ve arrived in 2008, when he was still Bryan Danielson in and out of the ring. This is when he had his best bell-to-bell year. We have since seen his most engaging storyline, big-time WrestleMania matches, and an all-time great rivalry with the WWE establishment, but between the ropes, 2008 topped it all.
Danielson has been so prolific and productive that choosing his greatest year’s worth of matches is a tough, tough task.
You can’t go by awards, either. Wrestling Observer Newsletter awarded him (h/t Indeed Wrestling) Most Outstanding Wrestler honors five times in a row starting in 2006, and he earned Best Technical Wrestler every year from 2005 to 2013. The American Dragon claimed the Match of Year in 2007 from the Observer, in 2013 from Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and from WWE.com writers in 2019.
Looking at match quality instead doesn’t make it much easier, though.
In 2013, he had superb matches against John Cena and Randy Orton. In 2006, he had an absolute thriller with KENTA, arguably the best match of his career.
You could make the case for 2007 or 2009 being Danielson’s best, too. Plenty of classics, from ROH, Chikara and Dragon Gate USA, comprised those years. 2008 outdoes them all, however. It was simply a special stretch of in-ring magnificence.
Danielson killed it everywhere he went that year. A 27-year-old sensation on the independent scene, he delivered classic main events in England, Germany, Japan and on Ring of Honor pay-per-views in the U.S.
The quality of his work then is staggering. A whopping 17 matches in 2008 were rated 8.0 or higher by CageMatch.net members. That’s more than any other year for Danielson.
In ’08, Aberdeen, Washington’s favorite son brought the house down against his archenemy Nigel McGuinness twice over. He showcased both a young Zack Sabre Jr. and Seth Rollins (then Tyler Black). He shone in technical wrestling masterpieces as well as in two of his most brutal bouts to date.
Danielson kicked off the year at Pro Wrestling Guerilla’s All-Star Weekend with a match against Low-Ki that James Caldwell of PWTorch called a “state-of-the-art technical display.” After Danielson took on Austin Aries at ROH’s Take No Prisoners event in March, PWInsider’s Mike Johnson wrote: “I think this may have been the best match in ROH in a long, long time. This thing was just completely perfectly laid out and brilliant.”
As good as Danielson has been in years before and after this one, it’s hard to beat out the run of classics we will revisit here.
Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuiness (ROH Sixth Anniversary Show)
Rivals seemingly made for each other followed up their many vicious matches with first-rate storytelling in the Manhattan Center.
Citing his mounting injuries, McGuinness tried to back out of defending the ROH World Championship. Danielson offered to avoid attacking his head and to take out his trademark elbow barrage out of his arsenal for the night.
Danielson’s technical skills led the way early. He stretched and controlled the champ, showing off palpable intensity as worked over his opponent’s arm.
An errant blow to McGuinness’ head soon derailed The American Dragon’s quest, though. The Brit whined about Danielson going against his word. And when the referee refused to disqualify him for it, McGuinness clobbered the official.
His attempt to take the coward’s way out didn’t work. ROH stars like Austin Aries and Kevin Steen stood in the entranceway to intimidate him into continuing the fight.
Nigel did. He came back more aggressive, smashing on Danielson’s eye and head. The American Dragon thrived here as the honorable fighter, a man of his word, a proud rep of the ROH brand.
Danielson and McGuinness delivered one of the best matches in ROH history that night. J.D. Dunn wrote for 411 Mania: “In many ways, it’s superior to their 2007 Match of the Year at Driven.”
Danielson was masterful in defeat. And he was just getting started.
Good against evil, gutsy against the coward, pure of heart, anything to win.
Bryan Danielson vs. Zack Sabre Jr. (Wrestling in Coventry)
A hidden gem in Danielson’s storied career unfolded in Coventry, England, in a pub next door to a Chinese restaurant in front of a few rows of people.
Sabre was a burgeoning star at the time, not nearly as skilled as he is today but clearly a technical maestro already. Danielson was the outsider, the indy stud here to take on the upstart. From the jump, he expertly toyed with the fans in what eventually morphed into a 2-out-of-3 Falls match.
The grappling-heavy bout grew more intense as it went on, as mat wrestling gave way to strikes and dropkicks.
What looked to be a botched three-count ended the match before it could truly catch fire. Improvising, the promoter and Danielson asked the crowd if they wanted the battle to continue. The American Dragon let the fate of the bout rest on a young woman wearing his merch. She voted for more action, and soon the two wrestlers fought on for two more falls.
Danielson was ferocious and engrossing here. He managed to both elevate a young Sabre and remind us that he can thrive in any situation.
Bryan Danielson vs. Chris Hero (wXw 16 Carat Gold)
From start to finish, Danielson tugged on his puppet master strings, deftly manipulating the Essen, Germany crowd. He and Chris Hero met in the semi-finals of the WXW 16 Carat Gold tournament, kicking off the show with a highly entertaining bout.
Danielson refused to fight at first, ducking between the ropes. That increasingly worked up the cursing, frenzied fans. As did his middle fingers salutes.
Hero focused on his foe’s arm to the point that Danielson had to essentially wrestle one-handed.
Skilled grappling, playful antics, and the echoing sound of flesh on flesh powered the match. They capped it off with the kind of dirty finish you’d run in the ‘50s if you wanted the heel to get his car burned in the parking lot.
It’s a long one at over 36 minutes, but the match feels big and there are plenty of elements to savor throughout.
Danielson went on to have a strong match on the same card, falling to Bad Bones in the tourney final. Bonus points for tearing down the house in the opener and then starring in the main event a few hours later.
Match Link: (Chris Hero vs. Bryan Danielson)
Bryan Danielson vs. Naomichi Marufuji (A New Level)
In the Hammerstein Ballroom, two top wrestlers fought to prove who was best. ROH’s ace vs. Pro Wrestling NOAH’s ace. A straightforward story with elite performers turned out to be a winning formula.
The grappling-heavy contest served as an exhibition of Danielson’s talents, his smoothness, his technical skill, the bite he puts on every move. That paired well with Marufuji’s kicks and springboard offense.
It’s a methodically paced match with spurts of sprinting. Slick counters and strong chemistry power the bout. Their familiarity with each other is apparent, making them both cautious of each other’s best weapons and able to see what’s coming next and avoid it.
These two always clicked together, and you could make the case that this was the crown jewel of their bouts against each other.
Bryan Danielson vs. Tyler Black (New Horizons)
Seth Rollins, two years before he signed with WWE, was still Tyler Black, a rising ROH star. He and Danielson collided pre-Shield, pre-Authority storyline in a stunner at the Michigan State Fairgrounds.
Black jumped a distracted Danielson before the bell, choking him with his own robe. And thus began what proved to be a match teeming with ferocity, an expertly told story of a young lion looking to prove himself against an alpha.
Once the American Dragon got his footing, he outwrestled Black. He bent him this way and that with an array of creative submissions. The Detroit crowd was left frothing with excitement over the artful mat work.
Black later pounced and zeroed in on Danielson’s neck. The match’s intensity and speed surged. The high-risk moves started flying in.
Just as the two wrestlers really started cooking, a buckle bomb from Black snapped a turnbuckle and the ring ropes collapsed. Danielson and Black had to battle in a half-broken ring. That bit of visual chaos added to the aura of the action.
They capped it off with a slugfest that ended when Danielson’s trademark elbows left Black helpless. The ref called the match. The crowd thundered in applause.
And Danielson had hit another homerun in the main event for ROH.
Match Link: (Bryan Danielson vs. Tyler Black)
Bryan Danielson vs. KENTA (NOAH Autumn Navigation)
Pair a premier technical wrestler with a grade-A striker and you get fantastic results. That’s the recipe Pro Wrestling NOAH followed in Hiroshima as Danielson and KENTA met for the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship.
The fourth meeting between these two rocks. It’s not quite as outstanding as their Glory By Honor masterpiece in 2006, but a special match nonetheless.
Both champion and challenger were cautious early on. As they grappled and looked to gain control, there was a sense of danger lurking. At any moment, either man could hit the other with a game-ender.
Danielson and KENTA’s styles meshed perfectly. And when they started exchanged hard blows, boy did they lay into each other. The animosity between them throughout pulsates through the screen.
They both pounced on his other in the kind of slugfest KENTA has become famous for. Blood smeared on his mouth, Danielson hit his foe with his best shots, a warrior swinging his sword with a fury. In the end, he fell short, but not before thrilling us with his journey.
Bryan Danielson vs. Nigel McGuinness (Rising Above)
Of all the all-time greats Danielson has met in the ring, there may be no one he had better chemistry with than McGuinness. The final ROH world title match between them was, not surprisingly, a grand work of wrestling theater.
In order to earn this title shot, Danielson had to beat everyone the champ had defeated on PPV, a gauntlet match of sorts playing out over the course of several months.
When they finally locked up in Chicago Ridge, Illinois, the aura was unmistakable. A big-fight aura hung over them as Danielson took it to McGuinness. He remained a step ahead of his rival until his knee got caught up in the ring ropes and the villain took advantage.
When McGuinness attacked and focused on his previously injured leg, Danielson howled, limped, and ached in front of us.
He later survived a chair shot from Claudio Castagnoli and if it were not for an assist from Alex Payne, Danielson would not have made it back into the ring before the ref counted him out.
The American Dragon charged on with a snarl on his face and blood on his brow. His fiery comeback is a masterclass in hooking the audience. The crowd is entranced throughout, waiting and wishing. In his stellar video essay series on the Danielson-McGuinness rivalry, Joseph Montecillo called the closing moments “such a pure, emotional final ten minutes of pro wrestling.”
After so many memorable battles against McGuinness, Danielson came through big time again. He was simply on another level as an in-ring storyteller, something we’d see on display a month after this barnburner.
Bryan Danielson vs. Takeshi Morishima (Final Battle)
Danielson capped off 2008 with a moving, brutal tale of a man seeking vengeance.
16 months before these two met in the Hammerstein Ballroom on this night, Morishima clocked Danielson so hard that he detached his retina. Surgery and recovery followed before The American Dragon eventually got this chance to claim his pound of flesh in a Fight Without Honor.
Danielson pounced while the streamers were still falling. His intensity here was enthralling. He was a man possessed, flying at his bigger opponent fearless and unhinged.
Things got even more interesting when the bruiser started clobbering him back.
Morishima busted Danielson open above his left eye. Blood dripped down Danielson’s face. It was soon smeared onto Morishima’s frame.
They choked each other with a steel chain as the level of violence grew, as their hate-filled meeting felt more and more reminiscent of Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine’s famed Dog Collar match.
Danielson survived against the bull by taking an any-means-necessary strategy, and the crowd went nuts in celebrating alongside him. In his autobiography, Yes! My Improbably Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania, Danielson called this “our bloodiest and most violent match.”
Of the ending to his match against Morishima, Danielson wrote: “The crowd erupted when I won, and it was a great finish to a great show.”
It turned out to be a great finish to a great year, as well. Danielson traveled to Mexico, to Europe, to Japan, to the Burbank Armory. He wrestled on AAA’s TripleMania and worked a dark match on WWE Raw. He was the heart and soul of many a ROH show. He captivated small crowds and flourished in grand rivalries. It all culminated with a slobberknocker of a main event, one of many big-time performances in a year brimming with them.
Check out these previous installments of The Year of Years: