Follow Voices of Wrestling’s Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame coverage at http://www.voicesofwrestling.com/category/columns-2/2015-won-hall-of-fame/
I was a teenager in the early 2000s. Like an angsty kid who did not yet know that he needed a Twitter account to vent his frustrations, I had already denounced and reconciled with the WWF/WWE on multiple occasions. My ears also learned to become very acute to detect the diesel grind of the rectangular US Mail truck as it rounded the corner and approached my home’s mailbox. I had discovered tape trading and was blown away at how great wrestling from all over the world could be. So young and sure of many things, I often wondered: What was wrong with my country? Why didn’t The Rock and Steve Austin chain-wrestle and drop each other on their heads for 43 minutes with absolutely no outside interference as well? It was a disgrace.
In 2001, perhaps in an IRC chat, there was talk about what the best matches of the year were. I knew of all the alleged candidates, but then someone brought up these names I’d never heard of: Low Ki and American Dragon. Was this a match that occurred in some sleazy Japanese promotion? Was it lucha? No, this was a match on the US indies before maybe a couple hundred people. Was it possible there were wrestlers on the US indies as good or better than those in the WWF or other major companies? I obtained a VHS copy of All Pro Wrestling’s two-day King of the Indies Tournament to find out. On that video I found many talents who would go on to make bigger names for themselves: Doug Williams, Brian Kendrick, Adam Pierce, Christopher Daniels, AJ Styles, Frankie Kazarian and Samoa Joe. The shows were before a small crowd, but what I saw was very fresh. I had probably never seen so many athletic matches with clean finishes in an American setting before. But the final match between Low Ki and American Dragon was something else.
There are very few moments in wrestling where you feel like you’ve come across something truly new and innovative. Their match was a dramatic, near-30-minute mixture of so many styles that I had seen on various other tapes and never thought I’d see put together, much less appreciated by a live crowd (albeit a small one) in the United States. Re-watching the match for the sake of this article and seeing the finish and the reaction to it still gives me goosebumps. The tournament, which put over American Dragon in four matches, directly inspired the launch of Ring of Honor four months later, beginning an era where independent promotions could gain a worldwide following with no television distribution.
As anyone reading this probably knows, American Dragon went on to become known by his real name Bryan Danielson and, eventually in WWE, Daniel Bryan.
Matches like the King of the Indies 2001 final and the rest of Bryan Danielson’s body of work that followed slowly changed wrestling at a fundamental level. Those changes (both in terms of in-ring style and in terms of what a star can be), which started on the obscure outskirts of wrestling, have finally trickled out all the way to WWE in recent years.
The criteria for the Hall of Fame is a combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in one’s field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner. A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion. – Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame Ballot
Now in his first year of eligibility, does Daniel Bryan fulfill any or all of those three criteria (drawing power, in-ring work and historical significance) enough to be a worthy Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Famer? I will approach the three criteria in order of difficulty, least difficult first.
You won’t find a lot of good arguments that Bryan wasn’t one of the best wrestlers in the world over the last 10 years. He won the Observer’s “Best Technical Wrestler” award every year from 2005 from 2013. That’s impressive and should bear some consideration, but it’s very arguable he won that award in latter years based on reputation alone, particularly in his WWE years where he was no longer doing the same technical wrestling style he’d become known for on the indies. So let’s look more closely at his performance in other award categories.
From 2004 to 2013 he placed in the Observer’s “Most Outstanding Performer” award as follows:
And how his about “Match of the Year” contenders in the Observer awards?
2002 – #5, vs. Low Ki (3/30)
2003 – #5, vs. Paul London (4/12)
2006 – #4, vs. Nigel McGuinness (8/12)
2006 – #8, Cage of Death (7/15)
2006 – #3, vs. KENTA (9/16)
2007 – #3, vs. Nigel McGuinness (6/9)
2007 – #1, vs. Takeshi Morishima (8/25)
2008 – #7, vs. Nigel McGuinness (2/23)
2009 – #8, vs. Davey Richards (9/25)
2009 – #4, vs. Naruki Doi (9/6)
2010 – #10, vs. Dolph Ziggler (10/24)
2010 – #3, vs. Shingo Takagi (7/24)
2012 – #8, vs. CM Punk (5/20)
2013 – #5, vs. John Cena (8/18)
2014 – #8, vs. Triple H (4/6)
Let’s take out Cage of Death because it had 11 other participants. Over the course of 12 years, he’s had 14 matches finish in the top 10, including winning the category in 2007 for his match against Takeshi Morishima.
Bryan’s performance in these awards indicates that not only was he a great in-ring performer, but he had longevity as one.
Longevity should be a prime consideration rather than a hot two or three year run, unless someone is so significant as a trend-setter or a historical figure in the business, or valuable to the industry, that they need to be included. However, just longevity without being either a long-term main eventer, a top draw and/or a top caliber in-ring performer should be seen as relatively meaningless. – Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame Ballot
Bryan was a top caliber in-ring performer, one of the best in the world, for a 10-year run. His performance in these awards strongly suggests he’s regarded as an all-time great in the ring by fans who should know. He’s clearly among the top five or so his era, and arguably among the best ever. For over a decade, he consistently had some of the best matches of the year against a wide variety of opponents, on the indies in the US, the UK, in Japan, as well as in WWE. This should be enough for a Hall of Fame vote.
But let’s pretend you’re not satisfied there. Let’s say you think he doesn’t quite meet the Hall of Fame standard just based on this one criterion.
I don’t think it’s far off to liken the early 2000s indie stars (Bryan Danielson, Low Ki, CM Punk, Chris Hero, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, etc.) to experimental artists, only some of whom had mainstream success, who paved the way for a generation of talents to come after. These talents made independent wrestling in the United States truly relevant and not just a wasteland of mostly random events at best headlined by once-televised old-timers.
Talents like Danielson became relatively big stars to a hardcore section of fans, even though they didn’t get themselves or anyone else immediately rich at that level. Still, today there are a number of independent wrestlers, many of whom have never had notable runs on television, who are making a living working indie shows on the weekends — far more than before 2002. That wouldn’t be so possible today if not for the revolution on the indies built around the first “indie names,” such as Danielson.
On top of that, he defied another perception about independent wrestlers. And I think CM Punk is in a similar boat. By then known as Daniel Bryan, he and CM Punk proved WWE’s preconceived notions wrong. WWE never took top independent wrestlers seriously as potential major stars until Bryan and Punk proved, against all political odds, that they could be. Do other talents with outside success — who don’t have the size or look of John Cena or Batista — such as Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor and Hideo Itami get the same opportunities in WWE if not for the success of Bryan and Punk? I doubt it. 
The argument against Bryan as a Hall of Famer is that while he may have been a very good wrestler he was never a top draw for any period of time. He placed in the Observer’s Thesz/Flair award eight out of nine years from 2006 to 2014, but through 2009, he wrestled only on the independents, most notably for Ring of Honor in front of crowds of usually under a thousand people. His run on top in WWE was brief and might be permanently abbreviated as WWE’s medical staff will not clear him as of this writing due to a concussion issue.
Drawing power is Bryan’s weakest point, for sure, but it’s not a criterion he’s totally nondescript on either.
Bryan’s strongest point as a draw is that he saved WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans in 2014. The show drew about 65,000 fans and a $9.8 million gate, most of whom expected Bryan to beat Triple H early in the show and go on to the main event, which he did. That’s the third biggest pro wrestling gate ever. Yes, the show likely would have done similar business regardless. But without Bryan available for WWE to make the late decision to put him over for the title in New Orleans, would they really have gone forward with their original plan of a Batista vs. Randy Orton main event? Number-two star CM Punk had just split, as well. How would the crowd have reacted? Would the main event at WrestleMania have been showered with nonstop chants for Punk and Bryan and various other frustrations? The value of the WrestleMania brand might have suffered from a show so out of tune with what the hardcore vacationing wrestling fans wanted.
With WWE, Bryan did have a short run where he was relied on to be the biggest name at house shows as the new number-two star in the largest wrestling company in the world. However at his peak in WWE he was just okay as a house show draw. When directly comparing the house show drawing performance of John Cena versus that of Bryan, doctor of Wrestlenomics, Chris Harrington once delivered the verdict in an April 2014 analysis:
[I]t’s clear that Daniel Bryan has not yet been established as a major live event draw. Daniel Bryan is still a distant second to John Cena… [W]hen you take into account city size, it appears that the difference of headlining a card with John Cena instead of Daniel Bryan is about 800 more people. That’s almost 10% swing at the gate, and that’s still a significant gap in drawing power.
Danielson had greater longevity as a top star while wrestling for Ring of Honor, where he was pushed as a main event-level wrestler throughout his tenure. There’s a case to be made that at times Danielson did improve ROH’s attendance. But does it matter to his consideration as a Hall of Famer? I don’t think it does.
Some might argue that it’s unfair to compare the absolute drawing power of talents from the one era versus those of another one. Maybe with a fragmenting media environment it’s going to be harder and harder for even the top stars from this era to achieve comparably at the box office to the top draws of the 80s and 90s or prior. Perhaps we should judge the Hall of Fame criteria by comparing the candidates to their peers from the same era.
Without opening that can of worms, let’s assume that’s true. Even so, I still don’t think Bryan’s ROH drawing power, to the degree it exists, matters with any significance to the “drawing power” criterion of his Hall of Fame candidacy.
Ring of Honor’s biggest crowds during Danielson’s run with the company (2002 to roughly 2009) seldom consisted of over 1000 fans. It’s not as if there weren’t other shows during the same time and even in the same country that drew crowds several times larger on a nightly basis. I grant, almost all of the shows I’m referring to were run by WWE. But if the argument is that it’s something about the era and its environment that’s inherently making it harder for everyone to draw, and therefore, we should adjust our scales and give, for example, the top stars of ROH in the 2000s some consideration under the “drawing power” criterion when judging their Hall of Fame worthiness, then that argument doesn’t hold up at all in light of the fact that WWE greatly outdrew the largest ROH shows on a nightly basis, without exception. Yes, WWE had a far bigger machine and massively greater television distribution. Nonetheless, they drew several thousands to all their house shows, proving nightly that it’s possible to draw larger crowds than the stars in ROH did.
But you might reply that it’s not necessarily the raw numbers alone that matter; it’s the trajectory that matters too. Based on the data I’ve found, it appears ROH’s attendance did indeed rise almost every year from 2002 to 2008. And I would not dispute the argument that Bryan and other top ROH stars helped the company build a reputation that has allowed them to get where they are today as the number-two pro wrestling company in the US. Bryan and other ROH stars from this time deserve credit for that. But that credit shouldn’t be registered under the “drawing power” criterion, but rather “historical significance.” ROH’s absolute business numbers were dwarfed by other promotions in the same era. The value in the upward trajectory of those numbers or the fact that they built the foundation for a promotion to be viable long-term is not necessarily (and is not in this case) evidence of drawing power, but rather, it’s historically significant.
But if you’re not convinced and you think Danielson’s track record as a draw for ROH should matter in this conversation, let’s look at it. Based on partial data from cagematch.net, here’s what I found:
Keep in mind, as the charts note, this data is not the complete attendance data for every ROH show for each year. Attendances for many shows are missing. The bar graph above has each year noted as to how complete its data is. On top of that, we should consider that all attendance figures to begin with are likely based on eyeballed live reports from fans.
So let’s stick with the years there’s over 50% of the data available, and therefore just look closely at 2003 to 2006.
In 2003, he appeared 4 times for which we have attendance records. Those shows drew about 200 extra fans (+30%). But that’s misleading. One of the shows Danielson appeared on was main evented by a special appearance from the Great Muta on December 27, 2003. The attendance recorded was 1500, which skews the data. Taking that event out, Danielson’s three remaining appearances for 2003 average 600 fans; shows without him average 633 (-6%).
In 2004, he appeared 10 times for which we have attendance records. Those shows drew about 50 extra fans (+13%).
In 2005, he appeared 17 times for which we have attendance records. Coincidence or not, those shows drew over 100 fewer fans (-15%).
Danielson won the ROH title for the first time and only time on September 17, 2005 and held it for 462 days, until December 23, 2006.
In 2006, his run as champion was a relatively large success. Shows with him drew over 100 extra fans. His main events drew over 200 extra fans as opposed to shows he was not on (+23%).
As we can see, Danielson’s appearance on a show, at most and in his most important year with ROH, mattered to 200 fans per show. When he main evented or semi-main evented, there were just under 800 fans in attendance on average, which is great for an indie. That’s relatively significant, but not absolutely significant in an era where other top stars in the business were drawing thousands. Things don’t get a lot clearer either if we just look at individual cities that ROH ran regularly during those years, though it looks like Danielson might have had a positive effect in Philadelphia. For those reasons I don’t think we should consider these numbers significant to Danielson’s Hall of Fame worthiness.
His importance to WWE as a short-term number-two star and the savior of WrestleMania 30, however, does enhance his case, giving him some credit under the “drawing power” criterion. For some voters, his short run as a top star with the largest company in the world may be what pushes him over the edge to win their votes, especially among the older voters who are in the business who would be barely aware of him otherwise.
I think the Hall of Fame case for Daniel Bryan is similar to that of modern wrestlers already voted in, such as Manami Toyota, Rey Mysterio, Dynamite Kid, Chris Benoit (voted in before his death) and Jushin Thunder Liger. All those wrestlers were voted in primarily based on their outstanding performances and the influence (i.e., historical significance) those performances had on the industry. None of the aforementioned were vastly bigger draws than Bryan, especially Dynamite and Benoit, the two wrestlers who seem to be Bryan’s predecessors in terms of ring style and renown for their work.
Benoit’s career is very similar to Bryan’s in that both were considered arguably the best performer in the world for almost a decade before being given a shot in a major company, and both were finally put over huge for one night at a WrestleMania, without a ton of follow-up or protection afterward.
I think Bryan’s case is stronger than Dynamite Kid’s. Although Dynamite was a bigger star in Japan than Bryan ever was, it was usually as a junior heavyweight or tag team wrestler. Dynamite was never a top star in the WWF like Bryan was in WWE. Let’s say their cases as draws are a push. Likewise for their historical significance, both strongly influencing a generation of wrestlers who came after them. As in-ring performers, though, Bryan had greater longevity as one of the best in the world, for 10 years, as noted. Dynamite’s peak was at most eight years if we start with his debut in Stampede in 1978 and end with his back injury in 1986. So Dynamite and Bryan seem about even on drawing power and historical significance, while Bryan is slightly ahead on in-ring. Therefore, if you think Dynamite Kid is a Hall of Famer, I think you have to vote Daniel Bryan in is as well.
Daniel Bryan belongs in the Hall of Fame based on in-ring work alone. His track record and longevity as an elite performer are unlike all but a very select few in wrestling history, all of whom have already been elected to the Observer Hall of Fame: Dynamite Kid, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Manami Toyota, Rey Mysterio and Chris Benoit. I believe those are his peers for in-ring work. Indeed, his achievements as a draw fall short of most of those wrestlers, but not all.
He is one of the two or three greatest in-ring performers of his era. If that’s not enough, he helped break down barriers in WWE for what the standard is for who can be a star. Thanks in-part to Bryan, independent wrestlers who aren’t 6’5″ or who don’t have bodybuilder physiques are given greater opportunities in Vince McMahon’s company. If that’s not enough, he was an indie pioneer who had a large hand in revolutionizing independent wrestling as we know it today in the United States and United Kingdom.
^ Perhaps when all is said, a great deal of credit goes to William Regal for having the apparently rare awareness to become familiar with such talents as he likely played a large part in changing WWE’s mentality about who has the potential to become a star.