If there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about fans’ love of AEW, it’s that they love AEW because AEW has stolen WWE’s trademark catchphrase of ‘anything can happen.’ Over the past three years, AEW has been more unpredictable and shocking than WWE through surprise appearances and rare matches that, years earlier, wouldn’t’ve been thought possible.
And today we look back at another one of those so-called dream matches.
The two wrestlers covered here are very interesting cases. On one hand, you have a guy that’s perhaps the best pure technical grappler since Kurt Angle and quite possibly the most popular and admired wrestler of an entire generation. On the other hand you have a pioneer in grappling arts who somehow defied the aging process and hasn’t really slowed down in well over a decade. In fact, the last time I reviewed one of his matches, not only did I consider it a well-deserved 5-star classic, but to this day I consider it to be among the top fifteen matches ever. Let’s see if these two grappling greats can create magic together in their first-ever match together.
Today we look back at the singles match between Bryan Danielson and Minoru Suzuki from AEW Rampage in October 2021.
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.
This is a dream match for anyone that has followed Bryan’s career extensively. Long before Bryan debuted in WWE, he was one of the top wrestlers on the American independent scene. He was a multi-time champion all over the US and especially in Ring of Honor (ROH). And he was such an amazing technical grappling genius that the Wrestling Observer Newsletter renamed an entire award – the Best Technical Wrestler award – after him.
Bryan, like many indy wrestlers of his time, was heavily influenced by the Japanese wrestling scene of the 1990s. He has stated that two wrestlers that inspired him the most (aside from his mentor William Regal) were Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada, the latter of whom being the inspiration for Bryan’s multiple chest kicks. He also adopted KENTA’s Busaiku knee strike as his running knee secondary finisher, and many of Bryan’s wacky holds are inspired by Japanese grappling experts…such as the one he’s facing here.
Minoru Suzuki’s official nickname is ‘the man with the worst personality in the world’. In New Japan, Suzuki inspires fear from everyone from Kenny Omega and Don Callis to all the rookies that watch from ringside. This reputation has gone on to grow a life of its own, with fans commenting across the internet about how Suzuki terrifies them with his sadistic smile and genuinely unsettling presence.
Of course, they’re all right to fear Suzuki: he’s one of the pioneers of mixed martial arts and is one of the most dangerous mat grapplers still active today. In the ring, Suzuki is a cold, remorseless killer that can take the simplest of holds and turn it into an excruciatingly painful experience. All without barely breaking a sweat. Oh, and there’s also this anecdote that’s too important to leave out: one of the people that trained Suzuki was Karl Gotch, a grappler so influential and revered in Japan that they literally nicknamed him “Kami-sama (神様)”, literally, ‘God’.
Needless to say that this match is both a dream and a nightmare for Bryan. He has long wanted to wrestle in Japan or against Japanese talent at their best, and now that he’s with AEW it looks like he’s approaching that goal. But could Bryan survive the walking horror that is Minoru Suzuki?
This match originally took place on October 15th, 2021. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by TJRWrestling’s John Canton as well.
Suzuki is 53 years old going into this match and has 33 years of experience between wrestling and MMA. Meanwhile, Bryan is 40 years old and has 22 years of wrestling experience under his belt.
The crowd’s chanting ‘holy s**t’ and ‘AEW’ as the match begins. The wrestlers start with a Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Suzuki gains control at first. But Bryan then wrestles out and into an armlock and then uses various switches and transitions to maintain control. Suzuki reverses into an abdominal stretch and then into a chinlock but Bryan grapples out of that and into a leglock. Bryan rolls into a kneebar but Suzuki gets a ropebreak and mouths off to the fans, leading to boos.
They tease a strike exchange when Bryan single legs Suzuki and lands a light dragon screw but Suzuki traps him in a chinlock/sleeper. Bryan escapes and kicks Suzuki’s calf, but Suzuki opens himself up and asks Bryan to hit him again. Then Suzuki gets to his feet and pokes Bryan’s forehead and Bryan hits an uppercut. The fans ‘wind up’ as Suzuki hits a nasty chop to Bryan’s chest. The crowd hushes as Suzuki invites Bryan to hit him back and Bryan does, but with a Kawada-style chest kick. Suzuki fires back with another chop. Another kick from Bryan. Bryan lets Suzuki grab hold of him and Suzuki winds up and hits a nasty forearm smash that drops Bryan to the canvas. The entire venue chants ‘holy s**t’ again in unison as Bryan looks like he’s out.
Bryan makes it to his feet and he…is…pissed. Bryan unloads with kicks to Suzuki’s calf and chest. He snapmares Suzuki and then hits his ROH-style collarbone elbows. Suzuki narrowly escapes the Cattle Mutilation submission hold by getting a ropebreak so Bryan lands more kicks and stomps. He goes to pick Suzuki up but Suzuki traps Bryan’s arm and locks in his rope-hung cross armbar. Then he pulls Bryan to the floor and stiffs the hell out of him some more.
Suzuki elbows Bryan’s weakened arm and then pushes him shoulder-first into the ringpost. Both men return to the ring and Bryan tries to hit punches with his bad arm (why not use his other good arm?) as Suzuki laughs and knees him in the face. Suzuki snapmares Bryan and quickly switches between a chinlock, a double-arm stretch, and an arm-trap armbar. Suzuki traps Bryan’s head under his knee and starts demolishing Bryan’s wrist with other arm-targeting holds until Bryan uses his foot to get a ropebreak.
Bryan rolls to the floor but Suzuki hits more stiff strikes and continues mocking Bryan. He goes to whip Bryan into the post again but this time Bryan reverses it. Suzuki hits the ringpost. Bryan gets a moment to recover and goes to the apron. Running knee to the floor. Bryan tosses Suzuki into the ring but Suzuki once again leaves himself open and taunts Bryan to hit him. Bryan obliges and hits a nasty punt kick. Suzuki falls back but sits up and tanks it like a boss. Bryan kicks him again and Suzuki fights through the pain to stay sitting. Bryan lands more kicks and eventually, Suzuki goes down…and finds himself in danger. Bryan traps both of Suzuki’s arms and stomps away. Cattle Mutilation time. But Suzuki rolls onto his side so that the move doesn’t have full effect. Bryan transitions into a double-arm pin. One, two, Suzuki kicks out.
Bryan continues his comeback with corner chops and kicks, and then lands a corner dropkick. Bryan hits an uppercut and goes for an Irish whip but Suzuki reverses it and lands a corner yakuza kick. Suzuki follows with a snapmare/penalty kick combo, but this time it’s Bryan that sits up off the kick. Bryan repeats the very thing Suzuki did minutes earlier. Suzuki winds up and hits a full power kick and Bryan tries to sit up but can’t and sinks down. Suzuki covers but Bryan kicks out, so Suzuki stomps on Bryan’s head as the crowd boos.
Bryan fights to his feet and starts trading strikes with Suzuki. Bryan hits uppercuts and goes for a suplex but Suzuki counters into a Fujiwara armbar. Bryan gets a ropebreak but Suzuki takes time letting go. Suzuki starts stomping when the referee admonishes him so Suzuki gets in his face. Suzuki gently pushes the referee back to get him out of his way. I’m amazed that the ref didn’t soil himself right there. Suzuki goes to pick Bryan up but Bryan counters into a crossface. Suzuki blocks it so Bryan switches to a Rings of Saturn scissored armbar but Suzuki gets a ropebreak.
The two men get to their feet and trade forearms again until Suzuki puts both arms behind his back and again taunts Bryan to hit him. Bryan hits Suzuki with full force and Suzuki doesn’t even leave his feet. He slumps down slightly but still grits his teeth and remains defiant. Then Suzuki smashes Bryan with a forearm and Bryan falls but then gets right back up, shaking his head like Suzuki. More forearm exchanges. Then they turn to stiff slaps. Both men duck and then hit each other and then collapse together.
Both men struggle to get up and then go nose-to-nose. They trade forearms yet again until Bryan fires up. They just keep hitting each other over and over and over with neither man backing down. Bryan lands a kick and runs to the ropes. Suzuki goes after him and ducks a rebound clothesline. Bryan escapes a sleeper hold. Suzuki counter-grapples back into another sleeper and tries to transition into his Gotch-style piledriver. But Bryan cuts him off mid-transition and tries the crossface. Suzuki wrestles out and tries another piledriver. Bryan powers out and the two men charge into the ropes. Bryan hits his running knee. One, two, and three! There’s the match!
Winner after 19:18: Bryan Danielson
That was lots of fun. It was basically AEW’s version of fanservice. The crowd was white-hot and gave both guys a standing ovation. The wrestling was fantastic, especially as both wrestlers showed off their mat grappling skills. And of course there were the brutal strike exchanges that made both guys look tough as nails and did wonders to electrify the crowd. And even though it featured a few overplayed tropes – including nonsensical fan chants and the same old strike exchange seen in hundreds of New Japan matches – it was still very entertaining as a throwaway exhibition match.
This match was both a technical grappling contest and a tough man battle. Bryan was in the ring with an established Japanese legend and wanted to show that he could hang as a grappler. And he did. Bryan out-grappled Suzuki many times and did so in an entertaining way. He grappled in a way that surprised Suzuki – himself an excellent and world-class mat technician – which forced Suzuki to do the same back to Bryan. A great example was when Bryan applied the scissored armbar and Suzuki intentionally put himself in a pinning position to touch the ropes with his feet. Small details like that amplify a great match by highlighting the importance of ring awareness and ring psychology. But for each trick Suzuki had, Bryan was one step ahead of him. Bryan was able to be entertaining by simply wrestling in the purest sense: by escaping one hold after another and wrestling control away from an opponent that was much older, experienced, and heavier than himself. For fans out there that have never seen Bryan before he came to WWE, this was more or less how he wrestled.
And when Bryan and Suzuki weren’t chain wrestling on the mat they, well, beat the s**t out of each other. I know some people out there might not understand this strong style concept and accuse this match of being phony. But there’s an inherent element of toughness and manliness in these strike exchange that make them so crucial to big New Japan-style matches. Since punches are – depending on the promotion – either discouraged or outright banned in Japan (since the Japanese believe a close-fisted punch should be forbidden in a grappling sport), wrestlers resort to trading forearms/elbow, kicks and chops. They absorb these more or less full-contact strikes, grit their teeth, and fight through the pain. That’s what both Bryan and Suzuki did here. They hit each other as hard as they could and didn’t block or dodge during those exchanges. They were telling each other (and the fans) that they were willingly exposing themselves to full contact strikes to prove how much grit they had. And while some out there might question the need for full-contact physical strikes in something scripted like pro-wrestling, it made sense in this match. Bryan and Suzuki were two smaller guys famous for being ‘real’, or as close to real as one can get. Their styles combined amateur-style and shoot-style grappling and submission holds with martial arts-inspired strikes. So to convince the audience and other skeptics that these two wrestlers were legit and believable, they needed to go the extra mile to convince people they were as tough as their reputations proclaimed.
Did they go overboard with the no-selling? A bit, yes. A lot of the submission holds were rendered largely useless by the end when they kept hitting each other and stopped selling basically everything. And yet, that no-selling from both Suzuki and Bryan did move the story forward. Both of them endured extreme pain throughout the match yet still kept going. No matter how hard each man hit the other, neither man backed down or succumbed to the pain.
My only other gripe here is that I wish Bryan made more out of Suzuki’s armwork. Bryan had a perfectly healthy arm to strike with when he was stuck in a corner yet he chose to use the weakened one without really selling for Suzuki. He also didn’t sell too much after Suzuki nearly broke his fingers, and once the extended strike battle started, the armwork was all but forgotten. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the intense exchanges between Suzuki and Bryan as much as the live crowd did, if not more so. I just wish Bryan would’ve remembered another key lesson from his inspiration in Kawada and sold in a bit more of a realistic way.
Imagine if Bryan started trading forearms with Suzuki and then screamed ‘OW’ and slumped over clutching his own arm. That would’ve both put Suzuki’s earlier armwork over and would’ve made Suzuki winning a bit more believable. But alas, there was just no chance that Suzuki was winning here. He basically came in to put on a show without ever really having a chance at winning. That’s all fine and good, but it also robbed the match of its tension and sense of competitive believability. And all the entertaining strike exchanges couldn’t mask the fact that Bryan was going to beat this legend without a doubt.
Final Rating: ****3/4
I always appreciate seeing technical wrestling done in an entertaining way and that’s what we got here. Bryan came to AEW to, in his own words ‘goddamn wrestle’ and that’s exactly what he did. We got the Bryan Danielson of old who knew how to roll on the mat and slip through his opponent’s fingers like an eel. He entertained viewers by being a technical wizard that could also hit hard and endure a ton of punishment. I’m glad they picked Suzuki out of all possible New Japan wrestlers to be Bryan’s first opponent in AEW. Suzuki had the perfect reputation as a legitimate athlete to sell how good of a wrestler Bryan was.
Even though AEW’s regular programming can be hit or miss, sometimes you do find a diamond in the rough. This is one such a match.