For many years, wrestling fans online wondered why Bryan Danielson had never earned a 5-star match from the Wrestling Observer. It was one of pro-wrestling’s biggest mysteries. How could Bryan, an amazing in-ring athlete so gifted at pro-wrestling that there’s an entire award named after him, have never earned that (in)famous 5-star rating from pro-wrestling’s most notorious critic?
That mystery came to an end a few months ago when Bryan wrestled Kenny Omega on AEW Dynamite and got that rating for the first time. If you ask me, though, that match from September 2021 wasn’t the best match of Bryan’s career. Not even close. I’ve scoured the internet to find as many of his best matches, and for the longest time this one eluded me.
After a long search, I’ve finally found what many people consider the best match of Bryan Danielson’s career. Not only that, but many people have also called it the best match in ROH history. But was it really that good? Let’s look back and find out.
Today we revisit the title vs. title match between Bryan Danielson and Nigel McGuinness from ROH Unified 2006.
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 ROH’s early years, the company had two important singles titles. The first was the World title, which signified the top wrestler in the entire company. The second was the ROH Pure title, which was unique because it could only be defended in ‘pure rules’ matches. Basically, ROH sought to create a title that represented pro-wrestling in its purest, most basic form. ‘Pure rules matches’ had special rules that discouraged non-wrestling tropes like punches to the head (which made complete sense; if wrestling were real, would anyone be able to keep going after taking a full-contact close-fisted punch to the head?) and limited the amount of ropebreaks a wrestler had in a match. These stipulations made these contests feel closer to amateur or ‘shoot’ wrestling as one could get. So instead of being a less significant or ‘worker’s’ title like the early WWE Intercontinental title, ROH’s Pure title signified the best in-ring grappler in the company.
That made Bryan Danielson angry.
During the 2000s, few wrestlers were as talented in the ring as Bryan Danielson. He was a technical grappling master that made up for his small stature with amazing in-ring ability. He also hit extremely hard thanks to his training in and influence from 1990s Japanese wrestling legends. And in 2006, he was ROH’s World Champion. But going into this match, Danielson, who saw himself as the best in the world, wanted to prove that was more than a moniker by becoming the ROH Pure Champion as well.
To do that, he had to beat Nigel McGuinness. McGuinness was one of the top British wrestlers in the world at the time He came to North America and managed to win the ROH Pure title from Samoa Joe. And just as Joe had embarked on a long and successful reign to elevate the ROH World title’s credibility, so too did McGuinness with the Pure title. Going into this match, McGuinness’s reign was the longest to date lasting 350 days and 17 successful defenses. Here, he sought to continue his reign as Pure champion while also dethroning Danielson and becoming World champion as well.
But could he do it? Could this Englishman pull off the underdog story of the decade and beat the best wrestler in the world (according to both Bryan and ROH) in front of his own countrymen? There was only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on August 12th, 2006 at an event called ROH Unified. It was originally rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back now, let’s see how well this match holds up.
This is a ‘Pure Rules’ title-vs-title unification match for Danielson’s ROH World title and McGuinness’s ROH Pure title. Each gets only three ropebreaks to break up a pin or submission attempt. Once those are done, the ropebreaks are no longer in effect for that person. There is a 20-count for count-outs and closed-fisted strikes to the face are forbidden. Both titles can change hands on a ropebreak or a countout here. If there’s a double-anything (count-out/pin/DQ) the match will be restarted.
The bell rings and McGuinness gets a clean break on the ropes. On the next lock-up Bryan gets control and slaps McGuinness’s face. Bryan applies an early standing armlock does some excellent scientific grappling to escape and land an arm drag. He returns the favor with a huge slap of his own to Bryan, which leads to a ‘you got bitchslapped’ chant. Bryan gets McGuinness into a corner following another armlock and applies another standing armbar, but once again McGuinness wrestles out. But his own armlock is short-lived as Bryan grapples out and lands a dropkick, leading to a stalemate.
Bryan lands a standing shoulder armbreaker but McGuinness pulls a Misawa and flips out and then into a snapmare, followed by a punt to Bryan’s back. He tries another snapmare but this time Bryan flips over to escape. He escapes McGuinness’s follow-up front chancery but once again McGuinness chain grapples back into control. They grapple back-and-forth like that for a bit until Bryan gets McGuinness in a corner. The ref orders a ropebreak and Bryan lets go, only to throw McGuinness shoulder-first to the mat from the second rope.
Bryan’s in control as he stomps on McGuinness’s left elbow and shoulder. He continues dismantling that arm with more shoulder armbreakers and shoulder thrusts, which is smart considering one of McGuinness’s finishers is a running lariat. Bryan applies more grounded arm-targeting holds, and each time McGuinness either reaches for the ropes or gets to his feet, Bryan regains control by attacking that same arm. Bryan lands a dropkick and pins but only gets one. He goes for a butterfly suplex but McGuinness powers him into a corner so Bryan follows up with uppercuts. McGuinness tries to fight back with a throat chop but Bryan answers with harder uppercuts and a butterfly suplex/armbar combo. Bryan tries to stretch McGuinness’s bad arm but McGuinness reaches the ropes. McGuinness now has two ropebreaks remaining.
Bryan whips McGuinness into a corner and charges but McGuinness lands a back elbow. He flips over Bryan and lands a back kick/chest elbow drop combo using his good arm, and then lands an arm-targeting slam of his own. He attacks Bryans’ arm in the corner and lands a corner running uppercut for two. More uppercuts take Bryan down. McGuinness applies a cross-arm submission hold and the crowd chants for Bryan to tap. But Bryan says ‘screw you’ to the fans and fights to his feet. McGuinness goes for a Rainmaker (long before Okada made that move famous) but Bryan ducks and lands an enzuigiri. Bryan teases going for the surfboard/Romero stretch, but when he hears the crowd rallying behind him he yells ‘screw you people’ and stomps on McGuinness’s knees. Someone throws toilet paper into the ring in response. And people say Bryan isn’t convincing as a heel.
Bryan lands a superplex/diving head-butt combo but only manages a two-count. Then he locks in the Cattle Mutilation submission hold, targeting both arms. McGuinness gets to the ropes with his foot. He now only has one ropebreak left. Bryan goes back to the top rope. McGuinness cuts him off and drops him with the Tower of London RKO from the corner. One, two, no, Bryan survives thanks to the ropes. Now Bryan only has two ropebreaks left. McGuinness follows with Cattle Mutilation. He locks Bryan in his own hold. The fans erupt in chants, screaming for Bryan to tap out. Bryan uses the ropes again to escape the hold. Now both men have only one ropebreak each remaining.
Bryan escapes to ringside but McGuinness follows and lands more uppercuts. He goes to smash Bryan into a table at ringside but Bryan counters and smashes McGuinness instead. Bryan tries choking McGuinness, first with his foot and then with the edge of the table, all as the ref counts. He gets to fifteen and Bryan makes it back in. McGuinness struggles but manages to get in at nineteen, but barely. The fans chant for both wrestlers as they trade elbows, with McGuinness using his stronger left arm. Bryan goes for a Misawa rolling elbow. McGuinness ducks and lands a massive discus lariat. One, two, Bryan kicks out.
Bryan counters a corner Irish whip and McGuinness tries another headstand escape but Bryan sees it this time and dropkicks him right in the face. Rolling elbow connects. McGuinness kicks out of a pin. Bryan locks in a crossface chickenwing with bodyscissors. The fans jump to their feet screaming ‘please don’t tap’. McGuinness gets to the ropes with his foot, using up his last ropebreak. Bryan gloats as he lands a German suplex. He goes for another top-rope dive. McGuinness gets a foot up. Both men fight to their feet and trade stiff strong style slaps. Bryan gets the upper hand since he has two strong arms and McGuinness does not. Bryan lands a corner clothesline and goes for a dragon suplex. McGuinness powers out and drops Bryan crotch-first on the top rope. He goes to the second-rope, and leaps off with a lariat. One, two, no, Bryan gets to the ropes. Now neither man has any ropebreaks left.
McGuinness goes to the top rope but Bryan cuts him off. McGuinness fights out of a superplex with head-butts but Bryan manages another dropkick. Then Bryan climbs onto the same corner and applies another crossface chickenwing. McGuinness can’t use the ropes to break anymore. Yet he still manages to power out and land another Tower of London. One, two, th – no, Bryan kicks out.
Both wrestlers end up ringside near a ringpost. They grab each other’s arms and McGuinness pulls Bryan’s shoulder into the post. But Bryan powers through and does the same, but instead of hitting McGuinness’s shoulders he damages McGuinness’s head. McGuinness is bleeding as he staggers around. Bryan follows with a baseball slide dropkick that sends McGuinness over the barricade and into the fans. Bryan sees McGuinness stirring and grabs the top rope. Springboard senton onto McGuinness into the fans. Amazing move. Both wrestlers crawl to the apron but McGuinness grabs Bryan’s foot. Bryan manages to kick McGuinness so hard that McGuinness goes back over the barricade. Bryan’s already in the ring as the ref’s count reaches fifteen. He’s over the barricade and on the floor at seventeen. The ref reaches eighteen and collapses. The entire arena chants his name as the ref reaches nineteen. Then, with all his might, McGuinness rolls into the ring to keep the match going. McGuinness starts hulking up ROH-style. He has everyone in the arena on their feet. Bryan looks mortified as this (literally) bloody Brit marches towards him. McGuinness lands a flurry of head-butts and charges. Bryan ducks but McGuinness lands on the apron. He rakes Bryan’s eyes and lands more head-butts. Bryan tries firing back with his own head-butts. But McGuinness answers with a rebound lariat. Both men collapse.
McGuinness can’t pin right away due to the damage he has sustained. Finally, McGuinness pins. One, two, NO, Bryan kicks out. Not only that, Bryan rolls into Cattle Mutilation. McGuinness has nowhere to go and can’t use the ropes. His instincts force him to the ropes but the ref tells him he can’t get a break. Bryan wrenches the hold as much as he can. The fans chant for their hometown hero. McGuinness manages to roll over onto his stomach and then into a pin. One, two, Bryan kicks out while still having McGuinness’s arms hooked. Bryan lands his trademark elbows to the neck and collar. He hits McGuinness as hard as he can and no one can stop him. McGuinness starts fading. He sinks to the mat and goes limp. The referee calls the match. Bryan has knocked McGuinness the f**k out!
STILL ROH World Champion and NEW ROH Pure Champion after 26:24 due to referee’s decision: ‘American Dragon’ Bryan Danielson
This is the kind of match I wish Bryan had with Omega on Dynamite. Point blank, this was marvelous. It was without a doubt one of the best matches in ROH history. I searched for this for a long time and I’m glad I found it and that I’m able to share it with all of you. This is without a doubt one of the best matches of Bryan’s career.
This match came across as a legitimate and serious competition from the very beginning. There was no wasted motion here as everything done in the match had a purpose. Even as Bryan gloated to the fans, he didn’t really waste time because he remained in control for most of the match and still found an avenue to victory. This match had such an airtight feel to it that nothing felt out of place. It was refreshing to see two wrestlers treating a match they knew was scripted like a legitimate competition, or at least as close to one as possible in pro-wrestling.
While there was a lot to enjoy here, what I liked most about this match was how the ‘pure rules’ stipulations made this match special. Both wrestlers wove those parameters into the match seamlessly. The three-ropebreak rule made something that’s usually mundane and insignificant into a focal point of the match. Both wrestlers were smart to save those ropebreaks for the most critical of pins or submissions. And once they were done they gave an already tense and exciting match even more urgency. That was especially true for McGuinness, who used two of his ropebreaks before Bryan used one. It put him at a brief disadvantage, and helped rally the crowd behind him. That was crucial because it made Bryan’s work as a heel more convincing. He’s such a small guy that he comes across as non-threatening. But he put on a convincing performance as a villain through how he decimated McGuinness’s arm.
The opening moments had some terrific scientific wrestling that served as a game of one-upmanship while both wrestlers tried to weaken each other’s limbs. Bryan scored the early advantage and kept going back to that throughout the match. It reached the point that McGuinness couldn’t rally much of a comeback, especially since he relied on lariats to win his matches. That’s how McGuinness – the larger guy – was able to pull off an underdog performance against his smaller opponent. It’s hard to flip that script and pull it off convincingly, but these two guys did it perfectly.
By the time the match reached the fifteen-minute mark, the fans were going nuts for McGuinness. Bryan had made the entire crowd despise him and McGuinness had them eating out of his hand. But he knew there was more work to be done. He had to go down in a blaze of glory. That’s why he fought through everything Bryan dished out at him. He fought through immense pain and a weakened arm and still tried to pull off the underdog win that he and his fellow countrymen were so desperate to see. But it wasn’t meant to be. Bryan out-wrestled him and did a better job of technical wrestling, despite McGuinness’s best efforts.
But in the end, not even Bryan’s legendary submission holds were enough to keep McGuinness down. So Bryan had to resort to something base and brutal. After countering McGuinness at every opportunity and hitting him with every hard object he could find, Bryan had only one choice left: he had to knock McGuinness out. And knock him out he did. Bryan wrecked McGuinness with some of the most brutal elbows to the neck he has ever landed. McGuinness’s size and power advantage couldn’t help him at that point. McGuinness’s own technical wrestling, as solid as it was, couldn’t get the job done either. Bryan was too crafty and had reached that point in the match healthier relative to McGuinness. And so McGuinness went down eating elbow after elbow until the referee decided he couldn’t let the match continue. It was a win for Bryan, but a win with an asterisk. McGuinness never gave up, never tapped, and never got pinned. He endured the shit-kicking of a lifetime but he still wanted to keep going. The only reason he couldn’t was because his body gave up on him. He lost, true, but he was defiant to the bitter end. There isn’t a more heroic outcome for a babyface in the face of a merciless heel raining punishment down on them.
Final Rating: *****
If the wall of text above hasn’t made it obvious by this point, I adored this match. It holds up incredibly well after over fifteen years as one of the best matches in ROH history. Thanks to some amazing in-ring wrestling and precise actions, both these wrestlers told an amazing story. Bryan proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be convincing as a villain despite his small size and McGuinness put on a masterful performance as the fighting champion that refused to go down without a fight. All of this match’s various great elements came together perfectly to create one of the most must-see matches of the 21st century.
Bryan might not have been the biggest wrestling draw in 2006, but damn if he wasn’t the best in-ring fighter that year. This was yet another amazing performance from him, and McGuinness stood as his equal here. This really is a gem of a match, and I’m glad I was able to find a link for it so that you too can enjoy this great wrestling.