On February 23, 2002, Ring of Honor's first event was headlined by a three-way match between Low-Ki, Christopher Daniels, and "The American Dragon" Bryan Danielson. They had a fantastic match that became the benchmark to which all American independent wrestling would be judged for many years. The match launched the careers of all three men, made them cornerstones of independent wrestling, and put Ring of Honor on the map.
Over the next few years, Danielson's reputation only grew. In short order, he gained the reputation of being the best wrestler in the world. A man who could do no wrong in the ring. Every opponent, every match was a must-see. He put on technical showcases. He had some wild brawls. He did a small bit of flying, but above all, his execution and ability to structure a match were unparalleled. His ability was such that he won the Wrestling Observer's "Best Technical Wrestler" for four straight years from 2005-2008, "Most Outstanding Wrestler" from 2006-2008, and his August 25, 2007 match against Takeshi Morishima was voted Match of the Year, one of the highest honors attainable in modern professional wrestling.
Now that Danielson has signed with the WWE, where does he go? Will his star shine as bright as it has on the independent circuit for the past seven years? We take a look at some of Danielson's comtemporaries and how they fared in the WWE, and try to determine how Danielson will fit into the big picture of the biggest game in town.A perhaps-surprising amount of ROH alumni have signed WWE contracts or developmental deals over the years, all with as varying levels of success as you can imagine.
Kendrick wrestled with Danielson in the early days of Ring of Honor, as "Spanky". In fact, Danielson and Kendrick both trained together at Shawn Michaels' wrestling academy and were tag team partners for a long stretch of their rookie years. Kendrick has had a long history with WWE, as he signed his first developmental deal in 2000 with Memphis Championship Wrestling. He was released from his contract when the developmental territory closed down, but signed with the company again in 2002. He appeared on Velocity and Smackdown and actually had a feud with John Cena back when Cena was a despised dickhead wanna-be rapper (as opposed to a despised wanna-be soldier rapper). Kendrick left the WWE in late 2004 and returned to the indies, but signed with WWE again in late 2005.
During Kendrick's most recent run with WWE, we was one-half of the longest-reigning WWE Tag Team Champions of all time, and one of the longest-reigning tag team champs in WWE history. During this time, he and his partner, Paul London, were singled by online wrestling fans as being the most talented underutilized talents in WWE. When he and Paul London finally split up in 2008, he was repackaged as "The Brian Kendrick", a seemingly can't-miss gimmick that had everyone drawing comparisons to the greatest days of Brian Pillman. WWE quickly ran out of ideas for Kendrick and he found himself in the doghouse several times before being released last month.
When Jamie Noble was released from his contract following testing positive for steroids in 2004, he went on a worldwide tour of wrestling promotions as James Gibson. He impressed crowds and drew off-the-charts praise for his work in 2005, culminating with winning the ROH World Title in August 2005. Though he lost the title to none other than Danielson the following month, his ROH legacy was assured. He returned to WWE in December 2005, and has been employed there ever since. The highest-profile feud in his past four years was a short feud with Chuck Palumbo which served more to expose Michelle McCool to the audience and get her over as a babyface. He has not been seen on television much at all since February, when he was injured in a segment with Mike Knox. His diminished role on television is due in part to his role backstage as an agent and mentor. He is reportedly extremely happy in his job and his role with the company and has a good deal of job security.
Jimmy Wang Yang
Jimmy wrestled for ROH quite a bit between stints with WWE. After his time with ROH in 2005-2006, he returned to WWE in the comedy role of a fun-loving Asian cowboy. He's never been much more than opening-match talent or a jobber to more established stars. After failing a drug test and being suspended in 2008, he has barely been seen on television at all in nearly a year.
Wrestling for ROH for years as Matt Sydal, the high-flying Evan Bourne signed with WWE in 2007. His first major role with the company was to assist Floyd Mayweather with preparing for his match at Wrestlemania 24, since the two are roughly the same size. Bourne was brought up to the ECW roster and quickly got over huge with the ECW audience, thanks in large part to his solid skills and Shooting Star Press (a move that was long banned by WWE until they gave it to Bourne as a finisher). Just when it looked like Bourne was primed to be the top dog on ECW, he was traded to Raw, where he has experienced significantly reduced on-air time and has not been involved in any feuds.
The other half of the "London and Kendrick" equation, Paul London was a huge star in the early days of Ring of Honor. One of his most well-received matches was against Bryan Danielson, and his insane risk-taking prompted chants of "Please Don't Die" from fans. London's departure from ROH was the first in what would become a long tradition of "final" Ring of Honor matches. In later years, for wrestlers like CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and now Bryan Danielson, this concept has been expanded into "farewell tours".
Somewhat amazingly, London was gainfully employed by WWE, without interruption, from 2003 until 2008. He had three different tag team title reigns and was one of the last holders of the WWE Cruiserweight Title. He was featured somewhat heavily on Smackdown in various feuds but was most well-known for his tag team with Kendrick. Over the last year or so of his WWE tenure, the story was that he had a bad attitude and didn't take criticism. His release from WWE was less than amicable, as he went on various radio shows badmouthing WWE employees. His return to the independent circuit has been marked by rambling promos, odd behavior, and many cancelled bookings.
Claudio signed a developmental contract with WWE in 2006, but was back on the independent circuit and in ROH almost immediately. No one knows the story behind what happened there.
Long believed to be the best fit for WWE of any ROH wrestler, Cabana had the size, charisma, promo skills and move set that all pretty much screamed "can't-miss" for WWE. He finally signed a contract and everyone predicted big things. Unfortunately, he suffered through some bad experiences in OVW and FCW, the WWE developmental territories. When he was finally brought up to the main roster as "Scotty Goldman", they didn't have any ideas for him. He was jobbed out to several Smackdown wrestlers, had a bad match against Umaga, got fired and showed up at a PWG show in California the next evening.
ROH's first world champ and indie wrestling's first legitimate superstar, Low-Ki is currently under a WWE developmental contract in FCW, wrestling as "Kaval". He's injured at the moment, so only time will tell where he ends up with WWE when all is said and done. The number one rumor is that he's a potential future opponent for Rey Mysterio.
Hands-down, CM Punk is the most successful ROH alumnus of all. Although many fans loved his ability and considered him one of the biggest potential stars of this generation, no one quite expected...this. After winning every title in OVW, he was brought up to the fledgeling ECW, where he was nearly instantly one of the biggest stars on the show. When he teamed with D-Generation X at Survivor Series in his rookie year, the "CM PUNK" chants overshadowed the ovation for Triple H and Shawn Michaels at times. Punk's first two years with the company were basically defined by wrestling fans saying, "Yeah he's on TV, but they don't give him any chances." "Sure, he's the ECW Champ, but they'll never really give him an opportunity to shine." "Sure, he's the Money in the Bank winner, but that just means he'll be the first one to lose his title match."
And in the year 2009, CM Punk has just main-evented his second straight WWE pay-per-view, captured his third World Heavyweight Title, and is about to begin a feud with Undertaker as Smackdown's number one heel. It seems unthinkable and it seems like it took forever to happen, but CM Punk is officially A Really Big Deal.
So where does this leave Bryan Danielson? Honestly, I like his chances. Over the past six months, he's gotten into the best shape of his career. He's put on a lot of muscle and looks really cut. He's let his hair grow out a bit so he doesn't look like just another faceless doof. There has been more than one occasion where WWE has offered Danielson a contract, which indicates they've wanted him for some time. Michaels and William Regal have always praised him. He's a true veteran of professional wrestling at this point, but still young.
By all accounts, he's never had a drug problem, never had an attitude problem, always been a consummate professional. My prediction is that he'll work hard and do everything asked of him, learn fast and listen to advice and criticism. He isn't "too small" or "too generic" like Yang and Noble. He isn't too goofy like Cabana. He isn't abrasive like London.
Although I don't think we can say he'll achieve the level of success that Punk has, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if someday Bryan Danielson held a WWE world title. My prediction for Danielson is that he'll be with the company for several years, be a great mid-card wrestler, give indie wrestling fans a reason to tune into WWE every week, and win either the United States or Intercontinental title.
I hope for nothing but the best for The American Dragon and I genuinely hope WWE gives him a fair chance. Their repeated offering of a contract indicates that they may actually have some ideas for him. I think he has everything it takes to have continued employment with WWE, even if he doesn't set the world on fire during his time there.