Pro wrestling is a great escapist medium because it allows people to suspend their disbelief. In pro wrestling, crazy and unrealistic things can and do happen. One of the most common tropes in pro wrestling that never seems to go away (because it’s so successful at drawing people) is the David vs. Goliath battle. It’s the time-honored classic of seeing a smaller person fight a giant. And while most people assume that the smaller guy has no chance (because *everyone* knows the bigger guy would win in a fair right, right?), there’s still something amusing about seeing the smaller one try and find a way to win.
Today we revisit one of the best retellings of that story: The ROH World title match between giant Takeshi Morishima and Bryan Danielson from ROH Manhattan Mayhem II.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
During the 2000s, Ring of Honor (ROH) formed a working relationship with Pro Wrestling NOAH. This relationship led to talent exchanges and interpromotional matches hosted by both companies. Then in early 2007, NOAH’s Takeshi Morishima defeated ROH’s Homicide to become ROH World Champion. As a wrestler, Morishima was a major threat: a 6’3, 300-pound monster that hit people brutally hard while also moving around with surprising agility. Think Umaga meets JBL.
During that title reign, Morishima defeated many different challengers to retain his title: Nigel McGuinness, Shingo Takagi, Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, and many others. Eventually, Morishima was challenged by a man that, at the time, was virtually synonymous with ROH, Bryan Danielson. At the time, Bryan was a top threat in any big ROH match, despite his small stature. He was a technical wrestling marvel that combined pure grappling technique with stiff strikes inspired by the likes of Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada.
But in this match, Bryan was up against a man that had trained directly under one of those inspirations. So not only was Bryan outsized by Morishima, but Morishima was already used to taking brutally stiff strikes courtesy of Misawa. So the question fans wanted answered was, could Morishima continue his destructive title reign, or would Bryan find a way to defeat this behemoth and become world champion once again?
This match took place on August 25th, 2007. It was rated 4.75-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and the Observer’s readers voted this the 2007 Match of the Year. Let’s see if it’s still that good over thirteen years later.
As the bell rings the crowd is FIRMLY behind Bryan. Not just because he’s the small, local underdog facing the gargantuan foreign monster. But also because they’re chanting, “YOU’RE GONNA GET YOUR F***ING HEAD KICKED IN” at Morishima. I wonder if that actually happens.
Bryan offers a handshake but Morishima backs off, getting more people to hate him. He starts by kicking Morishima’s leg and then lands more kicks to the leg in the corner. Morishima slaps his leg to show Bryan how ineffective those kicks are, but Bryan kicks on undeterred as the fans chant for both guys equally. It’s a cat-and-mouse game now as Bryan continues to kick away as Morishima tries to get some head clubs in. Morishima gets a few stiff shots in on Bryan’s back but he still relies on the kicks to the leg to slow Morishima down. Another break on the ropes ends with Bryan ducking a clothesline and landing even more kicks. Now Morishima’s starting to lose his footing as those kicks start to take their toll. Bryan lands another explosive surge landing a ton of kicks to the thigh and forearms to the head to Morishima in the corner. The crowd erupts in cheers for Bryan as Morishima tries to catch a breather. Bryan goes for one kick too many as Morishima cuts him off and wails on him with clotheslines to the head. Then one particularly stiff lariat drops Bryan to a sitting position. No one knew at that point, but that lariat actually detaches Bryan’s retina. Good God, that’s horrifying.
Morishima chokes Bryan with his foot then kicks him in the chest like it’s a football, then continues with more kicks and stands on Bryan in the corner. Bryan goes back to the leg kicks but Morishima drops with a forearm and stomps on him in the corner. Morishima whips Bryan into the corner and lands a big yakuza kick then lands a running ass to the face. Bryan tries to kick Morishima some more from a grounded position and tries to crawl away from his monstrous opponent, but Morishima just walks up to him and lands kicks of his own.
Morishima tosses Bryan out of the ring then throws him hard into the barricade. A big yakuza kick to Bryan in the barricade corner, followed by an Umaga-style running hip attack in another. Bryan dodges a second hip attack and lifts Morishima over the barricade. Springboard dive onto Morishima into the fans. And he did this while blinded in one eye. The fans chant ‘holy shit!’ it’s hard to disagree with them.
Bryan places one of Morishima’s legs against the barricade and smashes it with a steel chair. He tosses Morishima into the ring and lands a direct hit with a missile dropkick. But Morishima doesn’t move. He doesn’t even flinch. What a beast. Bryan ducks a lariat after a kip-up and kicks the leg some more. he charges, but walks right into a giant LARIATO! Morishima with a Backdrop Driver, no, Bryan counters into a crossbody pin in midair. He pins, but Morishima kicks out at two. He tries to capitalize but Morishima knocks him down with a big forearm smash. Bryan dodges another hip attack and kicks Morishima’s thigh. Achilles tendon hold by Bryan. Morishima gets his shoulders up to avoid being pinned but that only adds more pressure onto his leg. But Morishima counters into a German suplex. Bryan lands hard. Uranage by Morishima. Bryan kicks out at two.
Morishima climbs the turnbuckle, Bryan cuts him off and teases a superplex. But Morishima counters and dives, but Bryan dodges his missile dropkick. Morishima hurts his leg in the process and Bryan capitalizes on it right away. Another leg submission hold. Morishima reaches the ropes. Bryan goes for a German suplex. Morishima fights out and goes for his own. Bryan elbows out and charges, only to walk into a Thesz Press. Morishima clubs away at Bryan’s head, but Bryan counters into a single leg crab again. Amazing counter. Morishima can’t reach the ropes, but escapes by kicking Bryan in his injured eye.
Both men get up slowly and Morishima has to slap his own leg to put weight on it. Morishima goes for a Backdrop Driver but Bryan lands on his feet. Small package, but Morishima escapes. Bryan lands two Misawa-style rolling elbows, including one to the back of the head. Roll-up of death. No, Morishima doesn’t die that easily. Bryan goes for a sunset flip, but Morishima sits on his chest Rikishi-style for another two-count. Morishima charges for a lariat, but Bryan ducks. Bridging German suplex! Bryan actually gets him off his feet. One, two, no, Morishima kicks out at 2.9! Elbows to the collar from Bryan. Morishima tries to lift Bryan onto his shoulders as Bryan elbows away. But his leg buckles. He can’t lift Bryan up. All the kicks finally pay off. Morishima goes down. He can’t even stand up. Bryan stomps on his head. He pins but Morishima still kicks out. Cattle Mutilation. The ref checks Morishima to see if he’s passed out. The arm drops one…twice….thr—no, Morishima’s still in this. He crawls to the ropes, breaking the hold with his foot.
Both men are down as the crowd is split down the middle between them. Bryan places Morishima on the top turnbuckle and tries an avalanche back suplex. But Morishima counters into a midair crossbody. Just like Bryan did earlier. Bryan slaps sluggishly as Morishima lands a big running kick. But Bryan fires up. except Morishima’s having none of it. Big forearms and elbows. Followed by a massive lariat that turns Bryan inside out. One, two, no, Bryan still kicks out. Backdrop Driver! The referee counts one, two, three! That’s it. There’s the match.
Winner and STILL ROH World Champion after 20:17: Takeshi Morishima
This was one of the best David vs. Goliath wrestling matches I have ever seen. It was a brutal showdown between Bryan the underdog the monstrous Morishima. But Bryan’s struggle to win wasn’t due to his smaller stature alone. He had to fight with basically one eye because Morishima detached his retina with a stiff strike. He could’ve had the match stopped right there, but decided to continue wrestling for another fifteen minutes instead. Talk about dedication to one’s craft.
The story of the match was that Bryan had to fight from beneath due to disadvantages in almost every category. He had to counter Morishima’s size and strength advantage with speed and precision, and that nearly worked. He kept trying to literally kick Morishima down to size, getting closer with each kick and near-fall. And Morishima was just great as the monster here. He didn’t do much at first, but what he did do looked vicious and devastating. He threw Bryan around like he was a toy, and came across as a true monster that would be incredibly hard to slow down, much less defeat.
And yet, there was never a sense that Bryan had a chance to win. As the match progressed, it became less a question of whether Bryan could beat Morishima and more of how long could Bryan survive Morishima. Because of the size disparity, Bryan had a narrow avenue to victory here, which made him focus on Morishima’s leg for most of his offensive approach. But Morishima didn’t do much to sell that damage. He slowed down as the match progressed, but he never reached a point whereby Morishima was in danger. Even after Bryan locked Morishima in punishing leg-based submission holds, Morishima still ran and basically no-sold all of Bryan’s legwork towards the end. He did sell it on a few key occasions, but that selling was spotty, at best.
As a result, the match never reached that dramatic apex in which both wrestlers were believable as winners. Since Morishima basically ignored any damage done to his legs, Bryan found himself out of options. He couldn’t rely on high-risk suplexes to get a quick pin since it was nearly impossible for him to lift Morishima up. He couldn’t suddenly lock in an armbar or another submission hold targeting a different body part since he was too tired to start a new strategy and Morishima looked to be simply outlasting him. And while he did land some sick elbows to the neck that could’ve given him an opening, he didn’t capitalize on that enough to find another opening to weaken Morishima. Simply put, Bryan had only one real strategy in this match and it fell apart once Morishima started no-selling. From there, Bryan’s credibility as a possible winner all but disappeared, which in turn made this match’s result more predictable.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Even though I think this was a great match as it was, I wish they did more here. They were on their way to putting on an all-time classic fight, but never reached their zenith. The match never reached a point where Bryan was inches away from winning, regardless of how many kicks Bryan did or how long he held Morishima in different submission holds. Maybe if the match went another five minutes with Bryan on offense, and maybe if Morishima told the story of ignoring the pain early on but succumbing to it closer to the end, thereby giving Bryan the remote chance of winning, this match would be at a higher level.
But for now, it’s a testament to just how awesome Bryan Danielson was during this period, and how he was able to get a star-making performance out of virtually any opponent.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.