When it comes to all-time greats, you never know how the twilight of their careers will go. In other sports, we've seen Hall of Famers like Peyton Manning (despite winning his second Super Bowl title), Dan Marino, Shaquille O'Neal, and Paul Pierce are just a few of many who looked like shells of themselves before hanging up their respective jerseys.
It's the unfortunate reality we all have to confront; as we age, it gets harder to do things that seemed so effortless in our 20s. Even those who successfully fend off Father Time for a bit longer know they can only keep him away for so long. One such person engaged in this struggle is AEW's Bryan Danielson.
When Danielson joined the young promotion in 2021, he instantly fit in as the ultimate utility guy for the company. Whether playing an affable babyface or a diabolical heel, he has seamlessly filled whatever role AEW has needed him to, especially when it involved having great matches with everyone from up-and-coming midcarders to top guys. That value to the company reached a high point in what was Danielson's last year as a fill-time performer.
Bryan Danielson's efforts in 2023 made him that year's AEW Wrestler of the Year.
AEW wasted little time showing us what makes Danielson such a pliable worker. After spending most of 2022 as prodding jerk (even when the Blackpool Combat Club feuded with the Jericho Appreciation Society), "The American Dragon" slid right back into his fiery babyface persona to take on then-AEW World Champion Maxwell Jacob Friedman.
In this feud with MJF, AEW hoped that Danielson's status as a bonafide main eventer would help the fans see the nascent champion in the same way. Before that match happened, though, the company needed to build Danielson up with some televised wins, which likely led to fans reacting the same way that cop did when Batman returned in The Dark Knight Rises.
The "heel makes babyface jump through hoops" trope is about as common as short passes in a football game quarterbacked by Daniel Jones, but it also allowed Danielson to work with a variety of talented guys in matches that looked very different from week to week. The man went from having a strong-style exhibition with Konosuke Takeshita to playing a traditional babyface in peril against Brian Cage to facing Timothy Thatcher in a technical chess match.
Much like we saw in 2021, these matches showcased not only Danielson's adaptability depending on the opponent, but also those opponents' immense respective skills opposite one of all time greats. And when the time came to finally take on Friedman in an Ironman match at Revolution 2023, it more than lived up to expectations.
In what felt like multiple matches wrapped into one, Danielson once again brought out the best of himself and his opponent. An hour later, he had another classic match in his catalog and Friedman became a made man.
From there, it was time for the wrestling chameleon to once more change colors. After taking some time off, Danielson re-emerged as a diabolical heel to wage war with the Blackpool Combat Club against The Elite. This crusade against Kenny Omega, "Hangman" Adam Page, The Young Bucks, and anyone else that Danielson identified as "amateurs" included several other major developments, including Don Callis' betrayal of Omega.
The biggest of all, however, was the long-awaited dream match between Danielson and Kazuchika Okada at Forbidden Door. Even though the match didn't meet most fans' outsized expectations (having to follow Omega vs. Will Ospreay II didn't help), it was still an excellent outing, a testament to how good both men are bell to bell.
Danielson picked up a cherished submission win over Okada that night, but it came at a cost: his arm, which he fractured 10 minutes into the bout. It seemed like that would be the last we would see of Danielson for a while, but "a while" ended up only being two months.
When AEW needed a make-good for fans following CM Punk's firing, they of course turned to Mr. Reliable Danielson to take his contemporary's spot opposite Ricky Starks. This led to two violent, thrilling matches in a Strap match at All Out and in a Texas Death match on an episode of Collision.
Those masterpieces marked the beginning of the end for Danielson, as he's nearing the end as a weekly attraction. But Danielson vowed to make the most of his final year, and he got things started against Zack Sabre Jr. at the inaugural WrestleDream pay-per-view, another anticipated dream match.
Unlike the first Okada match, Danielson/Sabre lived up to the hype, as the technicians put on a grappling clinic in Danielson's home state. Danielson kept up this tremendous pace in the first-ever Continental Classic, taking advantage of another platform to showcase his talents despite suffering another injury during the tournament, this time to his orbital bone.
In a lot of ways, the Continental Classic reflected Danielson's 2023: working babyface or heel as needed and doing so to great effect, being as malleable as possible against an assortment of adversaries, having outstanding matches, and putting over popular stars (Eddie Kingston, in this case).
Danielson has continued that trend in 2024 as he continues to play keep away with his career mortality. But as we saw in 2023, his claim to being the best wrestler in the world is far from dead, and this Daily DDT award honors that high-level consistency.