Return of the Dragon

“I’m excited for people to see the American Dragon because it’s a little bit different than what they’re used to. There’s a man who kind of walks beside me, and it’s the person I used to be. But that’s not who the American Dragon is. He’s more vicious. He’s more violent. He’s going to kick some heads in, and he’s gonna tap some people out.”

This Wednesday, in Queens, New York, Bryan Danielson returns to the professional wrestling ring. For the first time in more than a decade, the Dragon will once gain fly. As Danielson himself said this week, the man formerly known as Daniel Bryan is gone. Now, mainstream wrestling fans on a national level will finally see what the Ring of Honor faithful knew so well. The Dragon is going to kick some fucking heads in.

The Daniel Bryan who captured hearts worldwide while performing for WWE is a much different man than the Dragon. From day one, Daniel Bryan was portrayed as a skilled grappler with a lion’s heart of gold. He was a people’s champion who inspired an unlikely movement that propelled him from an 18 second Wrestlemania loss to the main event two years later. Daniel Bryan was an affable guy next door, blessed with the talent to stand tall in a world of giants. He was WWE’s answer to Rudy. As popular and as successful as Daniel Bryan was, he was not The Dragon.

Daniel Bryan, WWE Credit: WWE

The American Dragon had the charm of Daniel Bryan but carried himself with an edge. The confidence which helped him become a believable underdog in WWE was there. But the Dragon was never an underdog. He was dangerous. The Dragon’s feet were weapons, his elbows sharp and fierce. Daniel Bryan would lock a Yes Lock and force a submission on a larger foe.

The Dragon would pummel his opponents with vicious strikes, sometimes forcing referee stoppages. Like his far east kindred spirit KENTA, the American Dragon carried a presence that told crowds they were about to witness a fight. Those crowds would bang on metal guardrails to the tune of Europe’s The Final Countdown, chanting, “You’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in.” More than anything, the Dragon was a killer.

Bryan Danielson had already won the legendary King of the Indies tournament before the creation of Ring of Honor. In October 2001, the WWF reinvention of WCW was on its last legs when All Pro Wrestling hosted the 2001 King of the Indies tournament. The American Dragon was one of sixteen men chosen to battle in a two-day tournament to crown the best performer on the burgeoning independent scene. AJ Styles, Donovan Morgan, Low Ki, Doug Williams, Adam Pearce, Bison Smith, Vinnie Massaro, Super Dragon, Spanky (Brian Kendrick), Tony Jones, Scoot Andrews, Jardi Frantz, Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, and Samoa Joe were chosen for this legendary event.

Credit: Ring of Honor

In the end, it was Low Ki and The Dragon who found themselves standing against one another. In the early 2000s, both were spurned by the WWF’s edict of bigger and better bodies. When it was finished, the American Dragon was the champion. The event went on to inspire Ring of Honor.

Many of the competitors in the 01 KOTI tourney found their way into the fledgling workmate promotion. What ROH lacked in big-budget production, they made up in smart booking and the most exciting, genre-redefining wrestling in the era. Of course, it would be here that American Dragon would make his first mark. In the company’s first main event at the Era of Honor Begins, Danielson faced Christopher Daniels and Low-Ki. The match is a harbinger of things to come.

Danielson wouldn’t win the ROH World title until September of 2005 when he defeated James Gibson (Jamie Noble), the man who ended the epic Summer of Punk. As champion, Danielson was immediately thrust into a violent inter-promotional war with blood and guts promotion Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) and their champion, Chris Hero. Danielson competed in the ten-man Cage of Deathmatch during this rivalry, pitting the best of the two companies against each other.

Team ROH featured Adam Pearce, Samoa Joe, Homicide, Ace Steel, and Danielson against the Combat Zone team of Hero, Claudio Castagnoli (Cesaro), Eddie Kingston, Spyder Nate Webb, and Necro Butcher. The virtual who’s who featured Danielson turning on Joe during the match, leaving his team and setting up their epic Match of the Century. Why? Because the Dragon isn’t necessarily a good guy.

Ironically, one of the most violent feuds of Danielson’s championship reign was against ROH Pure Champion Nigel McGuinness. The ROH Pure style, a major focus of the current company, was supposed to feature more mat-based, technical wrestling. But when McGuinness and the Dragon fought to unify the titles, the matches were ruthless and bloody. The Dragon repeatedly runs McGunniess’ skull into the ring post during their pure rules clash until it bursts open. The Dragon is a tad sadistic.

After another particularly brutal feud with Homicide, Danielson briefly left ROH to heal his body after accumulating wounds built up over his fifteen-month reign atop the company. When Danielson returned to Ring of Honor in May 2007, he challenged the new champion, Takeshi Morishima. Morishima came to ROH as part of the company’s relationship with Pro Wrestling NOAH. Morishima was essentially a Japanese Terry Gordy, a massive brute with stiff strikes who towered over most of the roster. NOAH had invested a lot into making Morishima a major player, but it didn’t quite take.

This feud with Danielson, who now played a hero looking to reclaim his title, gave way to matches which were stiff and brutal. Morishima leaves Dragon a bloody mess during their first title match, giving Danielson a real-life detached retina. Though Danielson could not wrestle the title from Morishima, their feud culminates in a Fight Without Honor. During the conflict, the bloody Dragon wraps a chain around his arm and elbows Morishima in the face thirteen times before cinching in the cattle mutilation submission and finally thwarting his Japanese rival.

As Daniel Bryan, he collected more than his fair share of championships and epic encounters, the viciousness of the Dragon was long gone. Kenny Omega has agreed to bring the best bout machine to Arthur Ashe Stadium next week. One has to wonder if the AEW fanbase is ready for the true spirit of the Dragon to awaken?