(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Bryan Danielson vs. Paul London – ROH Epic Encounter (2003)
The last time I reviewed a Paul London ROH match I was pleasantly surprised by how awesome it was. London put on one of the best matches of the decade opposite AJ Styles and it made me seem him in a different light.
As it turns out, that wasn’t London’s only big singles match with a fabled wrestling workhorse. He also had a tremendous yet somewhat forgotten match against ‘American Dragon’ Bryan Danielson that main-evented one of ROH’s earliest shows. But was this London match also great? Let’s find out.
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.
Not much of a story here; just two rookies looking to show each other who the better wrestler is. Neither one had more than four years’ worth of experience in wrestling so we get to see how well they fought before ROH really got put on the map. Also, London had a bit of a gimmick whereby fans would chant “please don’t die” at him due to his high-risk style. But would he go back to those roots here? Or would Danielson’s technical and mat superiority ground London and force him to adapt?
This match originally took place on April 12th, 2003. It was never given a formal rating by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, so we don’t have that influence looming overhead as we revisit this match almost twenty years later.
This is a two-out-of-three falls match. The bell rings and a lock-up leads to a stalemate. They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Bryan overpowers London. London tries escaping with a headscissor but Bryan maintains control and pushes London into a pinning position for a one-count. Bryan steps on London’s head and throws him aside to force another stalemate.
Bryan goes for a single leg but London blocks and the chain grappling begins. Bryan applies an armlock and takes London down via headscissor, and then keeps it in as London tries and fails to escape. London manages to switch into a bridge for a two-count and then escapes a backslide. Both guys fake each other out and Bryan pulls his hand back on a handshake to start playing games with London.
Bryan hammerlocks London but London gets a quick ropebreak. London gets an armlock of his own but Bryan escapes in a clever way: he walks between the second and third rope, then back in between the first and second rope, and then wraps London’s arm between the bottom two ropes and kicks it. It’s always nice to see something new being done in wrestling, especially when it makes sense.
Bryan takes London down and applies a camel clutch and then a front chancery. London tries flipping it over but Bryan counters into a standing cravate hold. Bryan takes London down again while still holding the cravate and London has to stay on only one shoulder to avoid a pin, thus worsening the pain from Bryan’s hold. London counters into a full nelson but Bryan gets a ropebreak leading to another stalemate. They lock up again and London lands a headlock takedown. Bryan rolls over for a one-count and then sends London into the ropes but London lands a shoulderblock to send Bryan down. London applies another headlock and Bryan tries sending him into the ropes but London does a Spike Dudley-style run up the turnbuckles to maintain his headlock. London gets some quick two-counts and does another Spike run to maintain control over Bryan. Bryan manages to counter into a headscissor and uses his elbows to keep London’s head in place. But London still escapes and the two wrestlers hit some stiff strikes as they separate.
London applies yet another headlock but Bryan does some clever counters this time and applies his own. Bryan tackles London down but London kips up and then hits an overhead belly-to-belly suplex for a two-count. London gets a two-count off another headlock takedown and goes for the Spike run but this time Bryan has it scouted and lands a counter single-knee backbreaker. It’s great seeing a wrestler learn from earlier and block a move that gets repeated later.
A strike exchange ends with an ax handle from, and a two-count for, Bryan. Bryan applies a grounded abdominal stretch and uses his free hand to hit palm strikes to London’s head for another two-count. Bryan gets yet another two-count off an uppercut and a small package, and then he wins another strike exchange with London. A back suplex yields Bryan yet another two-count so he goes to the abdominal stretch again. But this time London clasps his hands together to prevent it from being applied. Bryan manages to fight through London’s resistance and lock in the hold but London escapes with elbows.
Bryan lands some head-butts as the crowd chants for both guys. Bryan gets another two-count off a kneelift and then uppercuts London so hard he falls through the ropes to the floor. Both guys go for the Ric Flair over-the-rope suplex trade spot and Bryan lands one despite London’s best efforts. Another pin and another two-count for Bryan. Bryan sends London into a corner and charges but London kicks him back. London follows with an Irish whip and a lariat, relying on the weakened arm Bryan targeted earlier. Bryan reverses an Irish whip but London counters with a springboard sunset flip for a two-count. Bryan goes for a slingshot into the ropes. London lands safely and headscissors Bryan to the floor. As Bryan climbs onto the apron, London lands a Jericho-style triangle enzuigiri. London goes for a back suplex into the ring. Bryan lands on his feet and teases a dragon suplex. London counters with a rear waistlock. Bryan rushes forward and sends London back to the floor and hits a suicide dive.
Back in the ring, Bryan lands a single underhook suplex and a diving head-butt for a two-count. Bryan goes for a Misawa rolling elbow. London dodges and gets a 2.7-count off a backslide. Bryan gets a similar close count off a small package. London avoids a corner charge and hits a diving wheel kick and a unique cradle for another close call. Bryan cuts London off to block a dive and tries another dragon suplex. London blocks it so Bryan switches to a bridging armtrap German instead. One, two, London kicks out. Bryan goes for the top-rope avalanche back suplex. London resists and turns into a press in midair. One, two, and three! London gets the first pinfall of the match!
Winner of the first fall after 20:31: Paul London
The wrestlers are given about thirty seconds to recover and then the second fall begins.
London offers a handshake to start the fall and Bryan both returns it and slaps London’s face. Another strike exchange ensues and London fires back. Bryan reverses an Irish whip but London jumps over him and hits a flying forearm. Bryan ducks a superkick. London ducks another rolling elbow. London connects with two kicks to Bryan’s head and goes to the top rope. Bryan cuts him off and tries the avalanche Backdrop again. London stops him with a strike barrage. London gets ready to dive with the shooting star press. Bryan cuts him off with a dropkick to one knee. That causes London to end up hung upside down in the corner. Bryan attacks that knee immediately despite the referee trying to stop him since doing so isn’t “pure”. Bryan gets a mixed reaction for his strategic attack as he lands a shin breaker into the corner. London falls to the floor but finds no safety as Bryan goes after him some more.
Back in the ring, Bryan hits some elbows and charges but London ducks a clothesline and lands a German suplex. London hits some desperation strikes and tries chasing Bryan but Bryan gets London right where he wants him. Bryan catches London’s foot, ducks an enzuigiri, and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Then Bryan locks in a single leg crab. London gets close to the ropes. Bryan pulls him back. London reaches for a different set of ropes. Bryan pulls him back and turns it into a torture crab with his knee on London’s neck. London has no choice but to tap. Bryan gets the second fall!
Winner of the second fall after 26:24: “American Dragon” Bryan Danielson
After the thirty second rest period, the bell rings and Bryan goes after London’s leg. London blocks with an enzuigiri and then uses his free leg to kick out of another crab attempt. London lands some nasty kicks but Bryan keeps going after the leg. But he tries one time too many as London counters a single leg attempt into an Oklahoma roll pin for a two-count. Bryan hits some uppercuts and London escapes a scoop slam, but even landing on two feet causes London to wince and hobble on one foot. London somehow manages a leg hook DDT but only gets a two-count.
London tries a scoop slam of his own but can’t even lift tiny Bryan Danielson up because his left leg lacks the strength. Awesome selling. London has no choice but to cover but only gets a two-count. Both guys trade forearms while standing and London staggers around long enough for Bryan to score a Misawa rolling elbow smash. One, two, and – London kicks out. Cattle Mutilation by Bryan. London reaches the ropes with his feet. Bryan hits a running elbow and goes for the dragon suplex again. London slips out and tries a victory roll pin but only manages a two-count. Another desperation strike exchange ensues and London overpowers Bryan with stiff slaps. He covers but Bryan kicks out.
London uses Bryan to lift himself up but Bryan hits two enzuigiris. Bryan charges, ducks a clothesline, and lands a bridging dragon suplex. The referee counts one…two…and – London survives. Another single leg crab from Bryan and another ropebreak for London. Bryan chops London into a corner and lands different corner strikes when suddenly London catches and traps Bryan in a cradle hold. London drops Bryan with a sort of chokebomb and then slowly pulls himself to the top rope. But Bryan knocks him down and put him in position for another avalanche Backdrop. Bryan lands a flurry of forearms to London’s back and connects with that top-rope suplex. One, two, and th – London kicks out. Bryan applies yet another single leg crab and the fans chant “please don’t tap”. Bryan pulls London back and then does the torture version with another knee on London’s neck. But London keeps going. He keeps pulling himself to the ropes. Some fans even wave him over to give him hope. Then London reaches the ropes. Bryan has to release the hold.
Bryan can’t even lift London up because London’s completely spent so Bryan covers for a two-count. Bryan tries another Avalanche Backdrop, but this time to the floor. Sensing danger, London fights out and knocks Bryan down. Bryan fights back but London fights back even harder and hits a diving spinning DDT. But London knows that’s not enough. He rolls over to a corner and slowly climbs to the top. Shooting/London Star Press connects. London covers Bryan. One, two, and three! London gets the third fall to win the match!
Winner of the match after 40:39: Paul London
Another fantastic match from ROH’s early days. If you like pure wrestling without gimmicks or anything over-the-top, you’ll love this match. This match was basically a classic technical marvel but on a much smaller scale. It took place in a tiny venue with much less crowd noise, but that didn’t really diminish the wrestling quality this match had. It was forty minutes of simple wrestling with holds, psychology, and a more technical approach. It’s a bit of a challenge getting through the whole match, but it’s worth it in the end, especially if you’re a big fan of Bryan’s.
The first fall set the tone with Bryan and London jockeying for control. They tried to one-up each other and keep their wrestling as pure and scientific as possible. both guys were very impressive with the innovative and unique moves they pulled off here; I’ve seen countless big matches and it’s always refreshing to see something new that as surprising as it is meaningful to the match.
Both wrestlers wrestled in a more ‘indy’ style, but it was WAY more serious and realistic than what’s been on display over the last decade. It was like watching a miniature Bob Backlund or Bret Hart wrestle against an even smaller Owen Hart or a smaller Eddie Guerrero. Everything was so smooth and the match was centered on showing off wrestling skill above all else.
It’s strange; the independent scene from 2000 to about early 2006 was composed of straight-laced, serious wrestlers who all wanted to be the next Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, or Mitsuharu Misawa, but simply lacked the height and weight. Then that Dragon Gate Six-Man match took place and the indy scene’s priorities shifted. It became all about speed and bedazzlement, and then the PWG influence seeped in and the more serious and professional style seen in this match became more of a rarity.
That’s not to say there wasn’t any emotion; believe me there was. But that was the idea here; what started off as a purely professional contest became emotional and intense. Insults were thrown, stiff strikes hit both wrestlers’ faces, and all that professional technical wrestling ended up putting one guy – London – at a severe disadvantage. Once Bryan got the second fall with a simple single leg crab, the match became more emotional and intense. London couldn’t even walk or complete a simple scoop slam, much less mount an offensive comeback. He hit these quick punches and swung at Bryan to keep him at bay because he was like a wounded animal defending himself without a working limb. He sold like a boss for Bryan long after he tapped out the first time and made sure to incorporate Bryan’s limbwork into whatever he did as much as possible.
London showed how to make moves in a match mean something, which is like a lost art these days. So many matches shown today are all style and no substance but this match was the opposite. There were no over-the-top characters, little in the way of angles or gimmicks, and the action was realistic and competitive instead of being emotional and over-the-top. I know some fans like the sillier stuff, but to me, if you want to take wrestling seriously then it’s better to appreciate the more serious matches, even if they aren’t as famous or as commercially successful.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Just like in his match with AJ Styles, Paul London proved that you shouldn’t dismiss a guy because he’s small. I expected greatness from Bryan Danielson, even though he was much younger and hadn’t really established his persona at this point. But London more than surpassed my expectations. Just like Sheamus in his match with Gunther, London put on an amazing match here. But even though this match’s crowd was far smaller, the action was of similar quality even though it was a very different kind of action.
As a standalone wrestling match, this was outstanding. Long, but outstanding nonetheless. Those forty minutes flew by thanks to some great wrestling psychology and action. This is one of those cases that show that pure action can be just as great as a match with characters and angles.
But most importantly, this match proved that crowds don’t matter as much as they used to. Having great crowds used to be central to a successful wrestling match, company, or career. But not anymore. Wrestling has survived a pandemic that saw matches take place in front of empty arenas. And yet, in that time, we saw some matches that were just as great as matches with crowds. So even though the crowd for this match was relatively small, their noise wasn’t as important as the action that took place in the ring.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.