When I started this 5-Star Match Reviews series, it was meant to shine a spotlight on supposed historically-great matches and to see if they held up well to time. As things progressed, I started feeling that pro wrestling’s best days were long gone.
As I write this in November 2021, I’ve reviewed well over 200 of the best pro-wrestling matches from the past forty years, and thus far, most of the truly greatest matches happened a long time ago. Because of that, the more I moved closer to the present the more I found myself seeing fewer and fewer great matches. As such, I started to wonder if this series was turning into a requiem for a better time in wrestling.
Then this match happened.
Like many of you, I was beyond excited when this match was announced. It was a genuine dream match, one that was over a decade in the making. It pitted two wrestlers that could reliably claim the title of best pro-wrestler in the world. They had spent years apart from each other, cultivating their respective legacies and reputations. Then, in September 2021, the stars aligned in a way that, for the longest time, few people thought would happen. And then it did. And so came one of the best dream matches in modern pro-wrestling.
But was it really that good? Did it truly deserve the praise, or was it another case of something great being praised simply because of its novelty? There’s only one way to find out.
It’s time to review the singles match between Bryan Danielson and Kenny Omega from AEW Dynamite Grand Slam 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.
The story here is simple: Bryan debuted in AEW three weeks earlier at All Out 2021 to a thunderous ovation and immediately set his sights on Omega. Omega was angry that Bryan embarrassed him in front of the fans, so he challenged Bryan to a match. And thus the stage was set: it was time for one of the biggest dream matches of the past decade. On one hand, there was Bryan Danielson, now ‘unchained’ from the limitations imposed on him by his former employer, free to wrestle in his preferred style. This would be the Bryan Danielson of old, the one that became world-famous for his matches in ROH and beyond during the 2000s. On the other side, there was Kenny Omega, the man that set the world on fire with his explosive and standard-shattering matches.
Bryan. Omega. The best grappler in the world versus the Best Bout Machine. The dream match to end all dream matches. Would it live up to the hype, or would it be another overrated match that simply benefitted from having a hot crowd?
The match was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. It was also rated five stars out of five by John Canton of TJRWrestling when he reviewed it live the night that it happened.
The bell rings and the crowd is insanely loud. Can’t say I blame them, this is a genuine dream match, after all. Bryan has a Cheshire Cat grin on his face while Omega mouths ‘I don’t give a s**t’ about that crowd reaction. Sure you don’t. Absolutely nothing happens in the ring for the first minute but the crowd’s going nuts all the same. And when they do finally lock-up they get a monster pop. For a lock-up. This is going to be fun.
Omega gets a clean break on the ropes and lands a single chop, but the fans go nuts for it. They lock-up again and this time Bryan takes control with a kick and again, the fans cheer wildly. They follow with some chain-grappling and Omega wraps himself in the ropes, which gets loud boos. So Bryan literally kicks him out of the ring and the fans cheer. Back in the ring, they lock-up and have a basic sequence that ends with Omega handspringing to avoid a monkey flip. Omega lands a chop and then they do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Bryan grapples out and starts working over Omega’s left arm. He lands stiff chops and kicks in two corner corners (and the fans cheer) but then Omega fires back with chops of his own (and the fans boo). Omega blocks a back body drop with a kick and charges but Bryan ducks and Omega goes flying over the top rope. Suicide dive by Bryan.
Bryan smashes Omega’s shoulder into two ringposts and then lands a diving double ax handle onto Omega’s extended arm in the ring. he applies an armlock and stretches Omega’s face with his free hand, which prompts the referee to count and Bryan to respond with his “I have till 5”, which causes several fans to jump to their feet. Bryan lands one standing armbreaker but Omega blocks a second by raking Bryan’s eyes. Omega lands more stiff chops and then chokes him in a corner with his foot. The fans boo loudly as Omega stomps on Bryan and lands more chops. Bryan starts firing up and lands a few chops of his own but Omega shuts him down with a kneelift. Omega follows with more stiff kicks and knees to Bryan’s spine and then mocks Bryan further. He taunts Bryan as the crowd boos but Bryan answers with a slap. Omega thumbs Bryan’s eye and goes for his ‘you can’t escape’ fireman’s carry/moonsault combo. He lands the slam and flies through the air but Bryan gets his knees up. Bryan fires up with chops and kicks in the corner. Omega counters a corner whip but Bryan flips over him and lands a big clothesline. More corner kicks by Bryan, followed by a top-rope hurricanrana. One, two, Omega kicks out.
Omega counters another corner whip despite eating a standing armbreaker but he misses a corner elbow. He does manage to flip over a charging Bryan and lands a snap hurricanrana of his own that sends Bryan out of the ring. Omega does the Terminator taunt…and connects with a suicide dive to the floor.
Omega tosses Bryan into the ring as the fans chant ‘this is awesome’. He goes for a jumping leg drop bulldog but Bryan dodges and goes for a roll-up. It only gets two, as does Omega’s follow-up roll-up. Bryan counters into his Cattle Mutilation submission hold. Omega reaches the ropes right away and rolls onto the entrance ramp. Bryan follows with a diving knee strike from the top rope. Omega gets to his knees and Bryan starts kicking. He winds up for a big one…but Omega counters. Snapdragon suplex onto the entrance ramp. The fans boo loudly as the ref checks on Bryan. Omega walks up the ramp…and lands a full power running V-Trigger knee. Right to the side of Bryan’s head.
Bryan collapses at ringside as Omega gloats during the referee’s ten-count. Midway through, Omega goes out and slams Bryan onto a table that doesn’t break. Bryan eventually returns to the ring but Omega doesn’t go for a pin. Instead, he gloats and tries to lift Bryan up for a move but Bryan collapses back down. Omega follows with a massive running Bucklebomb that sends Bryan out of the ring. He follows that with a missile dropkick for a two-count and then goes for another dragon suplex. But Bryan counters with a roll-up for two. Omega ducks a clothesline and goes for another dragon. Bryan fights out. Omega answers with a kick to the neck and a second V-Trigger as the fans chant ‘fight forever.’
Omega goes for a top-rope dragon suplex but Bryan escapes and crotches him on the top rope. Bryan follows with a big top-rope backdrop suplex. But he hurts his own arm in the process. Both men get up at the referee’s count of six. Bryan starts kicking again. Omega blocks one and lands a big right hand. Bryan fights back and charges…into another V-Trigger. Omega charges this time…into a Misawa rolling elbow. Regal-plex by Bryan. Omega kicks out. Standing ovation from the crowd.
Bryan goes to the top rope but Omega cuts him off. He hooks Bryan in the full nelson and connects with a top-rope dragon suplex. Bryan flies through the air and lands on his stomach. One, two, NO, Bryan survives. V-Trigger #3. One-Winged Ang – no, Bryan counters with a poisoned Frankensteiner! Omega powers through the pain and charges for another V-Trigger. But he misses. Bryan kicks him in the side of the head. Bryan fires up again and charges for his running knee. He reaches Omega…but Omega counters with a powerbomb. He follows with another V-Trigger (4). One, two, no, Bryan survives. Phoenix Splash by Omega…misses. Bryan hits back with more kicks. Then he grabs both of Omega’s arms and stomps the hell out of Omega’s face like he used to do in ROH. Bryan tries for a crossface but Omega keeps wriggling his arms and reaches the ropes with his foot.
Sixty seconds left.
Bryan lands a running knee in the corner. Then he goes for a second one. Omega chases him and lands a fifth V-Trigger.
Forty-five seconds left.
Omega goes for a Rain Trigger knee strike. Bryan counters with another Misawa rolling elbow and tries for a third. Omega hits first with a V-Trigger (6). Both men collapse. Thunderous applause echoes throughout the arena.
Thirty seconds left.
Both men get to their knees and trade head-butts. They do the yay-boo strike exchange until both men get to their feet. But just as it starts getting good, the bell rings. Time has run out. The match is a DRAW.
Match Result After 30 Minutes: Draw
Post-match, both wrestlers continue wrestling. Bryan applies a guillotine choke and transitions into a LeBell Lock. In come Omega’s allies the Superkliq who pull Bryan off of Omega as Justin Roberts announces the decision. The fans boo louder and louder at both that decision and the Superkliq triple superkicking Bryan. The scene ends with a big brawl as Bryan’s allies come in to even the score.
When I started watching the match, I was as hyped as the live audience. I genuinely believed that this was going to live up to the hype and become some kind of legendary epic. But as the match unfolded, I became less and less certain. Once it was done, the first question I asked myself was, “that’s it?” And as much as I want to say that this match was indeed epic, I just can’t. It was simply outstanding as a free TV match; but I don’t buy it as some kind of legendary 5-star epic.
Let’s start with what was good in this match…which was most of it. The match was intense from bell to bell. These two wrestlers had great chemistry together. They put on some great reversal sequences and hit each other as hard as possible. Omega in particular was smart to target Bryan’s neck to take advantage of his history of neck issues. That gave Bryan something to overcome, which in turn led to an exciting comeback sequence. And despite his best efforts, nothing Omega did really had a lasting impression as Bryan overcame challenge after challenge. Bryan looked amazing here and fought from beneath like a genuine underdog. He rallied the crowd behind him masterfully. He had one of those great comebacks that grabbed everyone’s attention. He was fantastic here, to the point that he established himself as being on Omega’s level and not beneath him.
But let’s be real here: the real MVP of this match was the audience. The fans helped this match feel like something special. It was like an NXT TakeOver crowd turned up to eleven. They were fully engrossed in the match and reacted to every little thing. They cheered everything Bryan did and booed Omega loudly whenever he did anything. But by the end, both wrestlers had hit so many big moves and endured such punishment that the audience couldn’t help but cheer for both guys equally. Were some of their chants tacky and clichéd? Yes. But this was one of the rare cases where such chants were deserved. Bryan and Omega hadn’t wrestled each other in twelve years, yet here they were putting on a clinic as if they’d had hundreds of matches together. It was wild. It was a testament to how skilled these two men were/are at their craft and how they were able to put on a competitive match that benefited both of them equally.
Yet as great as the match was, it wasn’t without its faults. And while it might come across as nitpicking, I think it’s necessary to point out minor flaws in supposed great matches, especially when they’re billed as supposed 5-Star, perfect contests. And for this match, there were three issues that bothered me.
First, there was the small issue of Bryan’s earlier armwork leading to, well, almost nothing. I’ve seen that many times now, where wrestlers will spend minutes in the beginning of a match working a limb to try and tell some sort of story, only for that to be forgotten soon after. Bryan put plenty of effort into weakening Omega’s arm, yet it didn’t play into the rest of the match outside of a very short Cattle Mutilation submission hold. There was no sustained weakness from Omega, nor did he parlay that work into some kind of struggle to land his moves later on. And considering that Bryan has long been lauded as a submission specialist, it made no sense for Bryan’s scientific wrestling to be sold so poorly and disregarded so blatantly in this match.
Second, there was a massive plot hole here centered on the spot right before the commercial. Omega hit a vicious dragon suplex that send Bryan literally sliding backward on his neck. And this was a guy with a noted history of neck problems. He followed that up with the V-Trigger to end all V-Triggers and then…proceeded to stall. Yes, I know, there was a commercial and they had to deal with it somehow. But the way they executed this part of the match was completely illogical. Omega didn’t go for any quick pins, work the neck with rest hold, or stomp away on a defenseless Bryan like a true heel would. Instead, he just stood there smirking and did some random ringside action that accomplished nothing. Omega’s self-indulgence during the break came at the expense of common sense logic. If he was so desperate to beat Bryan and prove he’s better than him, why didn’t he go for a pin right away and put Bryan more on the defensive once the commercial ended? Maybe I went into this with expectations that were too high, but for something hyped up so much as a genuine dream match I hoped for a more airtight match flow.
But those issues pale in comparison to the more blatant one: the disappointing finish. And no, I’m not criticizing the type of finish, but now they worked this finish. Or in this case, didn’t work the finish.
Time-limit draws can actually be spectacular when done properly, regardless of length. But the key to a successful time-limit draw is building tension down towards the very last second. That can be accomplished in many different ways: having wrestlers exchange quick pins, have both collapsed on the mat with one crawling over towards another to pin, have one in a submission hold with their arm up in the air as if they’re about to tap, have one wrestler hold onto the ropes for dear life to avoid eating a final move, and so on. What you don’t want is for the time limit to come out of nowhere with the wrestlers looking as if they had no idea how much time was left. And that’s exactly what happened here.
Bryan and Omega spent the tensest part of the closing minute trading elbows like this was some sort of comeback moment leading to the finishing stretch instead of it being the actual finishing stretch. Because of that, it was obvious that they had more they could do but failed to incorporate that into the match. I understand that they did this finish to build to a future rematch. And yet, in execution, this finish came across as rushed and lacking in drama. It could’ve been much better if both Bryan and Omega knew how exactly much time they had left. Of course, there’s an easy solution to that problem that I’m astonished none of the big American wrestling companies have grasped yet: have the announcer call time increments.
I’ve seen this concept in countless matches in Japanese promotions. Basically, the ring announcer announces how much time has elapsed over the house mic so everyone in the venue can hear. Not only does that tell the fans how long the match has gone, but it also helps the wrestlers know how much time has passed/remains as well. This concept has proven especially useful in tournament and title matches with time limits because it reminds the wrestlers how much time they have left to finish their match while also selling to the audience how tough the wrestlers are for fighting so long.
For this match, it boggles my mind how AEW couldn’t apply this concept, especially given how important this match was. It would’ve cost AEW nothing at all to have Justin Roberts say the following lines on the house mic: “Fifteen minutes remaining”, “Ten minutes remaining”, “Five minutes remaining”, “Three Minutes Remaining”, “One Minute”, “Thirty Seconds” and finally “Ten Seconds”, with him adding more intensity the closer he got to zero. It wouldn’t have taken away from the match at all; in fact, it would’ve made the already wild crowd even wilder as they’d be far more invested in the match closing moments. Instead, there was an announcement out of nowhere that there was suddenly sixty seconds left (and it was by the commentators for the TV audience, not for the live audience). That announcement had little to no impact on either the match itself or the fans, thereby robbing the match of having a significantly better finish.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Despite all of the above-mentioned issues, this was still a terrific match. I don’t think it’s 100% perfect, but it’s amazing nonetheless. It’s extremely rare for a TV match to get this much time and be this good. This was by far the best TV match of the year and definitely one of the best matches in AEW history thus far. Even if it is a tad disappointing, it does live up to the title of ‘dream match’ and is definitely worth seeing at least once.
Thankfully, the finish, while abrupt and shoddy in its execution, had a silver lining. Based on how the match ended, it’s basically guaranteed that there will be a rematch between these two. And when that happens, they’ll probably have fewer restrictions and be able to fight at their maximum potential. For that match, it isn’t a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’, and that gives me a sliver of hope for where things are going in pro wrestling.