wrestling / Columns

Top 10 Daniel Bryan Matches of the Decade

December 30, 2019 | Posted by TJ Hawke
Daniel Bryan Brock Lesnar Image Credit: WWE

10. Daniel Bryan vs. Brock Lesnar – 11/18/2018


This one is probably a great example of the futility of reviewing all wrestling matches in the moment that they happen. Aspects of this one that were irritating as they were unfolding might prove to be meaningless upon reflection or might only grow in in regards to holding down the match. It would be easy to guess how history will judge this one (or even if it’s deemed worthy of reflection), but it’s impossible to know for now.

In theory, a lot of this match was genuinely great, and the theoretical structure for it certainly played a role in its success. Bryan taunted Brock for the first couple of minutes. Brock was getting quite annoyed.

Brock dominated for a long time in a manner that once seemed fresh but now has been dull for years. At this point, this seemed to be another dull defense for Brock.

Bryan, as per his newly made heel ways foreshadowed, only managed to make it competitive after the ref got bumped and he was able to kick Brock in the nuts.

From that point forward, the match got objectively awesome. Bryan threw absolutely everything he had at Brock*, and Brock desperately fought back on pure instinct as he moved and operated like his life was on the line.

*Sidenote: no one falls from the ring to the floor better than Brock Lesnar. He makes it seem like he’s shoot falling and has no coordination whatsoever that would allow him to cushion the fall. It’s amazing every time. If only all wrestlers could work fewer than a dozen dates a year which would allow them to always fall like that. 

The crowd was electric. Both guys were working as well they have done in recent years. The in-ring story was flawless and organically came about through the action in the ring. Everything was on fucking point, and Brock’s last-second clean F5 win even felt earned.

So, what’s the problem?

This is WWE. And it’s really hard sometimes to even accept good things that happen in a bubble just for what they are.


I’m just gonna accept it anyway though.

For the moment, I will forget that Brock’s annoying as a human and that WWE catering to him at all times is annoying (especially when there’s a perpetual real need for new and younger talent to get the torch already).

For the moment, I will forget that Bryan should be treated like a star, and that the only reason he got to make this match competitive for so long was that he allowed himself to look like a dweeb who needs to cheat.

For the moment, I’ll just accept that an exciting main event happened on main roster WWE programming.

For the moment, I’ll just accept that Brock Lesnar managed to get pressured into actually working a real match for the first time in a long time.

For the moment, I’ll just accept that Daniel Bryan got to show off why he’s one of the greatest of all time yet again.

For the moment, a great match happened and everything comes before and after the bell on the programming does not have to matter. Because WWE is awful and a great thing bell-to-bell is more than you should ever expect from them anymore.

Time will likely make a fool of all who praise this match, but it was fun in the moment if you turned your brain off. And turning your brain off is the only way to get any level of satisfaction from WWE’s main roster. (****)


9. Daniel Bryan vs. Kofi Kingston – 4/7/2019

This was for Bryan’s WWE Championship.

What a pleasant surprise this all turned out to be.

Bryan was trying to use his technical wrestling advantage to maintain control. Kofi naturally countered with some high-flying maneuvers. Bryan was ready for one of Kofi’s big dive attempts, and it caused Kofi to crash and burn.

From there, Bryan methodically worked over Kofi. While this was not the most scintillating control segment ever, it did effectively establish a number of counters that Bryan had ready for Kofi and clearly showcase that Bryan was much better in the ring.

Kofi hung in there and eventually made his comeback. They did an excellent job of teasing the win before  they finally delivered on it. The match was an excellent combination of broad emotion-based WWE in-ring storytelling with a ton of a small details along the way that made it all the more satisfying.

History tells us that Kofi’s title reign will go absolutely terribly, but he at least got to win the title in one of the better Wrestlemania WWE Championship matches ever. (****)


8. Bryan Danielson vs. Munenori Sawa – 9/11/2010

While this did not have the in-ring storytelling or long-term character work of Bryan’s Evolve match with Bobby Fish, this was great in its own right. This was simply an execution of violence. Bryan was the same lethal wrestler that he was in the FIsh match only this time he got a challenge from someone more on his level. Sawa brought his A game, and both guys worked as if they were trying to kill one another. It was just a joy to watch and a beautiful way for Bryan to leave Evolve. [Bryan won cleanly via LeBell Lock.] (****)


7. Daniel Bryan vs. John Cena – 8/18/2013

Image result for daniel bryan john cena summerslam"

This was for Cena’s WWE Championship.

Originally reviewed here.

Triple H was the special guest referee. The chemistry these two have was just incredible. Despite rarely working matches together, they looked like they worked together as often as Cena with Orton or Bryan with Nigel. They actually were telling a pretty cool story too about Cena’s power and Bryan’s craftiness. Bryan was not having a tremendous amount of success early on, and he actually began to briefly target Cena’s padded arm to make it competitive. Then it basically just became a question on who was going to connect on a finisher first or apply their finishing submission in the middle of the ring. Bryan ended up winning with the Baisuke Knee, which he debuted on the show. A great match. (****1/4)


6. Bryan Danielson vs. Jon Moxley – 9/26/2010

bryannThis was one of the final indie matches of Bryan Danielson’s career. In other news, Moxley was doing this awful gimmick where he was casually assaulting his nameless female valets while being in an implied abusive relationship (with many different women on different shows). This was sadly completely in line with the awful portrayal of the only female “characters” in the WWN universe at the time. Just terrible, exploitative stuff.

Anyway, this match was GREAT and genuinely one of the best singles matches that I have ever seen from Moxley. The key was Bryan establishing an urgent and intense tone right away. Bryan ran through the young boy for a good while. Moxley managed to cut him off while they brawled on the floor though and worked over Bryan’s left arm to get control of the match. Bryan eventually fought back, and they went back and forth until Bryan made him tap out to the LeBell Lock.

This was exciting, fun, and made Moxley look truly great for the first time in his WWN career. In some ways, this was the best way WWN used Bryan in his brief return to DGUSA and Evolve. (****1/4)


5. Daniel Bryan vs. CM Punk – 5/20/2012


This was for Punk’s WWE Championship.

This was an odd, yet great, world title match. The story of the match was basically that Bryan was much, much better and dominated the world champ for a majority of the time. Punk fought back valiantly and never looked weak at all. Bryan was just flat-out better. They did not work in much in-ring story telling other than that, but the broad story worked because of the physicality, pacing, and sense of importance that Punk and Bryan worked with. Bryan seemed to have Punk on the metaphorical ropes with the LeBell lock late in the match, but Punk managed to reversed the leverage into a winning pinning combo mere seconds before tapping out. This was an incredibly compelling and satisfying world title match on PPV that called for a rematch in an organic manner. Huzzah. (****1/4)


4. Bryan Danielson vs. Bobby Fish – 7/23/2010

This was essentially Bryan Danielson, the greatest wrestler of his generation, at his peak as a performer. This was Bryan as a ruthless and precise killer. He was wasting no movement. He did not bother with any of the broad character work that defined prominent periods of his career. Instead, it was just Bryan being the violent weapon against which there was no escape.

While watching him work like this in a bubble was fantastically satisfying enough on its own, it was made even better by how well his work contributed to the story of Bobby Fish.

Fish’s story in #EvolveYearOne was questionable in theory and was an odd use of the one regular on the roster who basically captured the ideas of Evolve perfectly. But Fish embraced his role fully and the story led to fun matches so who fucking cares.

The story was simple and brilliant. Bryan was picking FIsh apart at the seams. Sure it was competitive for a while, but Bryan was never not in control. Eventually, he got firm control and was just destroying one of Fish’s legs.

Fish was being metaphorically cornered in this match. Much like how he was being cornered in Evolve overall.

Fish was 0-3 in Evolve coming into this match but looked great in every match. Fish looked down and out in this match, but he was looked competitive on his way to that point.

Despite suffering defeat after defeat in Evolve, Fish never backed down from a new and greater challenge. Despite falling desperately behind in this fight with the best wrestler in the world, Fish refused to back down.

Fish threw everything he had at Bryan for the rest of the match. He was tossing Bryan around and throwing strikes every which way. He even did a big dive that nearly took out a guardrail.

Much like Fish in Evolve though, looking great in matches did not actually get him anything when it was all said and done. Fish lost this match to send himself to 0-4 in Evolve.

This was great pro wrestling in a bubble. This was great long-term character work. This was great long-term storytelling. Seek out this match. (****1/4)


3. Daniel Bryan, Kane, & The Ryback vs. The Shield – 12/16/2012

Image result for daniel bryan kane the ryback shield"

Originally reviewed here.

This match benefits greatly from how random the match is and that the match is worked as if to create as much chaos as possible. Everyone is put into a position to succeed and made to look as talented as possible (even Kane!). They work it like a street fight and don’t have to force any climbing situations. They manage to make The Shield both look dominant and violent, but clearly vulnerable enough that they can one day be taken down. That can sometimes be key in pro wrestling. The Shield eventually won after putting Bryan through a table. This was a fantastic match and an even better debut for The Shield. (****1/2)



2. Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus – 4/29/2012

Image result for daniel bryan sheamus extreme rules"

This match was for Sheamus’ World Heavyweight Championship.

Originally reviewed here.

The story of the match is quite brilliant. Bryan is on a quest to prove himself in the first fall. Sheamus is not completely overmatched or anything, but Bryan is clearly working on another level. He realizes he cannot quite put Sheamus away though and decides to eat the first fall to do some extra damage to Sheamus’ left arm while he’s caught up in the ropes. The first fall was basically worked at the pace of a G1 match, which is obviously A+. The second fall is just Bryan applying the LeBell lock and making Sheamus pass out. The third fall started with a brilliant twist. Just as you think Bryan is in full control and has the victory in his grasp, Sheamus catches him with a Brogue Kick to kick off the third fall (that is also a great callback to their Wrestlemania match). That evens things up, and Sheamus eventually wins with the Brogue Kick. Sheamus’ win ended up being a bit anti-climatic. That fact could not bring down this great match though. (****1/2)


1. Daniel Bryan vs. AJ Styles – 10/30/2018

This was for AJ’s WWE World Championship.

In an age when it seems to be nearly impossible for WWE to produce anything on the main roster that feels genuinely great and inspired, this match felt like a near miracle in some ways. Obviously, you see Bryan vs. AJ on paper and expect good if not great, but WWE has been artistically stuck in (self-made) quicksand for so long you forget that genuine greatness is possible.

Both guys easily could have relied on their standard stuff to put on a crowd-pleasing affair. Instead though, they clearly set out to do something unique for WWE programming. This match was as physical and as vicious as a WWE match could possibly be. From the jump, both guys were looking for openings and scouting telegraphed moves to cause as much damage as possible. There was just a meanness to all of their movements that was born, not from a melodramatic story, but instead from an organic sense of competition.

They also included a story to hold the match together when needed. Bryan tweaked his knee on a tope suicida early on in the match. That did not immediately wreck his knee, but his knee got in progressively worse condition as the match wore on.

That decision allowed them to build to this dramatic sequence down the stretch where Bryan desperately went for various submissions to put away AJ before his knee fully gave out. It was all for naught though as AJ managed to reverse a triangle into the Styles Clash and immediately finish Bryan with a calf slicer on the damaged leg. Fantastic match. (****1/2)

As I started watching stuff from the early 2010s back, this was the Bryan match I was most shocked to not be super high on.

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My list of 5-Star Matches

article topics :

Bryan Danielson, TJ Hawke