All Elite Wrestling
Grand Slam 2021
September 22, 2021
Arthur Ashe Stadium
Queens, New York
Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson’s 30-minute draw at AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam lifted pro wrestling to heights no other event could possibly equal this year. It was the essential peak of the genre in 2021, as an art, a sport, a spectacle, and a celebration of all the things that fans of wrestling long for. If that doesn’t qualify it as the Match of the Year, I’m not sure what else could.
The American Dragon vs. The Best Bout Machine was a meeting of two men with serious claims to be the best wrestler in the world over the course of their coinciding careers. The fact that they’d been separated from one another for over a decade by promotional attachments made this match only more special. It meant this would be their first meeting since both rose to the stature of internationally recognized masters, and they’d be having it out in front of one of the largest and most passionate crowds of the year at a landmark event for a new promotion that came into existence for the purpose of celebrating capital P capital W Professional Wrestling as no American promotion had since a prior era.
It was a perfect storm of elements to turn a dream match into a bonafide classic.
Both wrestlers made their entrance to great reactions and the crowd was electric before they even touched each other. As they stood in opposite corners of the ring it was plain they were feeling the moment. The bell rang and the crowd popped huge. Bryan Danielson couldn’t stop smiling and looking around at the scene. He was visibly overjoyed and soaking in the excitement of his long-awaited return from the world of sports entertainment to that of pro wrestling. Kenny Omega on the other hand projected the intensity of a man who’d been swimming in these waters for years since Danielson’s exit, and he wanted his opponent to know it. He stared daggers at Danielson and mouthed something that couldn’t possibly be picked up by a microphone over the roaring crowd. It looked like “I don’t give a shit.”
They finally squared off and then locked up to yet another big pop. Each subsequent action elicited a huge reaction from an elated crowd. Omega chopped Danielson’s chest, leaving a mark immediately. Danielson showed the American Dragon was truly back by scowling and brushing his chest like it was nothing. The fans let Omega know that he’d fucked up. A Danielson kick to the ribs took Omega off his feet and wiped the grin off his face. Another big pop.
The Dragon and The Cleaner wisely kept it simple to start, relying on stiff strikes and signature moves in a back and forth contest mostly controlled by the reigning Champion, only building to big moves and spectacular high spots as the action intensified. Omega brutalized Danielson’s chest with chops, turning it bright red before they’d even hit the fifteen-minute mark. Danielson twisted Omega’s arm in a hammerlock and forced him to the mat, confidently holding up five fingers as the crowd joined him in reminding ref Paul Turner that he had til 5. Every little thing was played up in the boldest manner possible for maximum dramatic effect, and the audience hung on every moment of it.
Things kicked into a higher gear after a pin reversal sequence that the Dragon transitioned to a cattle mutilation. Omega blocked a kick and dumped Danielson headfirst on the plexiglass ramp with a snapdragon. Next came a V Trigger with the world’s longest-running start and soon Bryan Danielson was in trouble. His selling for the remainder of the match was exceptional and the drama of the contest mounted as he alternately suffered increasingly brutal attacks and fired up with violence to match.
The home stretch featured a series of desperate big move attempts punctuated by brutal strike exchanges, the intensity ratcheting up minute by minute. Highlights for me included Omega catching Danielson’s attempt at a busaiku knee and slamming him down with a powerbomb, and Danielson yelling that Omega was going to get his fucking head kicked in, then kicking Omega’s fucking head in to rapturous applause, and then smoothly transitioning to an attempted LeBell lock that Omega just barely managed to slip.
Could it have been better with a conclusive finish? Maybe. Maybe not.
The draw didn’t welch on the stakes of the match. With no title on the line, Omega and Danielson met to determine who was the best wrestler in the world. Both men performed at the absolute highest level and the lack of a kayfabe conclusion to the question of who was the better man paled by comparison to the more important conclusion of the match: on this night, before this crowd, in this stadium, and with all of the expectations of a dream match years in the making, these men were the two best wrestlers in the world. And one could not have pulled all of this off without the other.
This brings to mind a thought I’ve had about the criteria we use to determine these yearly superlatives. When we discuss candidates for Wrestler of the Year we don’t just talk about workrate, although that’s an important consideration. A more balanced evaluation of a wrestler’s all-around performance including other aspects of the game like interviews or how ‘over’ they were is a more insightful angle to take but we don’t limit it to that either. We don’t even narrow it down to an accounting of how much money they drew or how many major events they headlined, though these factors are as important as any other.
The Wrestler of the Year tends to be a more holistic Most Valuable Player sort of thing, distinct from Most Outstanding Wrestler or Best Box Office Draw. The Wrestler of the Year is the wrestler who meant more than any other. I think Match of the Year can and should have similar connotations.
As an example, a workrate classic of little broader significance doesn’t fit the Match of the Year bill. Chris Benoit and Dean Malenko’s match at Hog Wild was about as good in the ring as anything you could find in 1996 but, to be frank, it meant nothing. Just two great wrestlers proving that no amount of great wrestling can generate even a bit of heat from a crowd of disinterested bikers. It wasn’t a MOTY contender, and it should not have been. The same can be said in reverse for a historic money-drawing match like Hulk Hogan vs Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III. The atmosphere was sensational and the moment was a massive crowd-pleaser. As a pure spectacle, it was untouchable in 1987, but it lacked the artful execution a Match of the Year should have. However, it should come as no surprise that 1987’s grandest event did in fact host 1987’s Match of the Year since Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat put on an absolute masterclass amidst the same breathtaking Silverdome atmosphere.
No match this year had an atmosphere like the main event in Queens on September 22. No match this year came with loftier expectations, and Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson put on a show that exceeded those expectations and justified the grandiosity of Grand Slam’s build.
In the ThROH The Years podcast’s recent episode covering the legendary Ring of Honor showdown between Samoa Joe and Kenta Kobashi, co-host and Joe vs Kobashi attendee Matt Feuerstein said the only match he’s attended since the 2005 Match of the Year that could compare as an experience was, in fact, Omega vs. Danielson. Despite the obvious contradictions of one taking place in front of 20,000 attendees on live television and the other in front of less than 1,000 attendees for a DVD to be released later, the comparison is meaningful beyond just one attendee’s experiences.
The main events of Joe vs Kobashi and Grand Slam had a similar resonance in what they represented for the state of their promotion and even the state of American wrestling. The passion and energy for wrestling that made Joe vs Kobashi the underground triumph it was in 2005 is the same passion and energy that made Omega vs Danielson the most-watched match on AEW television in 2021.
Kobashi was arguably the greatest and most respected wrestler in the world (among dedicated fans, at least) and his taking a match in front of such a small crowd on the other side of the planet was validation for Ring of Honor. This little independent promotion that proudly flew the flag of pro wrestling in a market dominated by sports entertainment boasted a star in Samoa Joe who fans upheld as a serious claimant to the title of best wrestler in the world. Going toe to toe with Kenta Kobashi legitimated Joe and legitimated ROH as the torch-bearing promotion for American pro wrestling, even above TNA.
Joe and Kobashi worked a relatively simple match, brutalizing each other with stiff strikes and building the intensity of the struggle with signature spots and big suplexes while a rabid crowd of a mere 800 responded with an excitement that made every move matter. On that night, in that little room in the New Yorker Hotel, the match exceeded the expectations of a dream match featuring a legendary outsider coming in to test the mettle of the audience’s top guy. In some ways, Omega vs Danielson was the mainstreaming of this dynamic.
In this sense, the main event of Grand Slam felt like a culmination of the journey that AEW has taken us on since 2019. It was the fulfillment of the promise that was AEW, all the way back when Tony Khan was insisting this promotion was going to be a “sport-based” alternative. The twists and turns along the way showed how complicated it would be to build that alternative and the degree to which it was sport-based would prove to fluctuate, but whatever else AEW has been, Grand Slam was proof of concept that wrestling could be the central unifying theme that raises this alternative to new heights.
It was kind of an ‘if you build it they will come’ moment. Khan and The Elite built a mainstream wrestling promotion, with the help of so many others, and at Arthur Ashe Stadium they found a perfect place to declare that wrestling was back, baby on a truly grand stage. To christen the ship the established top guy would finally square off with the once and future Best Wrestler in the World. Danielson had conquered WWE with the support of the fans who never accepted Vince’s McMahon’s attempt to “transcend” wrestling and permanently replace it with his vision of sports entertainment. When AEW announced its first stadium show for September 22, fans from all over the country bought tickets at a rate that would shame the Madison Square Garden show WWE would run on September 10.
These fans couldn’t have known they’d be rewarded for their enthusiasm with the yet-unannounced dream match. This promotion could attract the most ardent wrestling fans and the most accomplished wrestlers. And on this night they got together and made a worked wrestling match feel like the most important in the world for 30 minutes.
As ROH seems set to close up shop, or whatever it is they’re doing, it’s worth reflecting on the journey wrestling has taken since WWE monopolized the market. ROH protected and cultivated the art of wrestling when it was being pushed toward the dustbin of history in the early-mid aughts, and through achievements like Joe vs Kobashi, it paved the way for a renaissance of wrestling in a more hospitable time and climate. 20 years later, Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson’s masterpiece in Arthur Ashe Stadium stands as a testament to the resurgence of wrestling we’re lucky enough to be witnessing.