Ring of Honor made this 2004 match from St. Paul, Minn., between Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan) vs. CM Punk available on YouTube after having some technical problems when so many fans wanted to watch the match for free in a limited window on ROH's website.
It's a happy accident for us, because it's unsurprisingly as great as you'd expect at 26-minute between two of the best wrestlers of this century to be.
And the best thing for me, who is a bit of a minimalist in my view of wrestling, is that both of them accomplished a lot by only doing a little.Punk deployed great heel tactics like antagonizing the fans, getting cheap shots and then ducking out the ring, using his shin to choke Danielson, and bantering back and forth with special referee Ricky Steamboat (with goatee).
Danielson had great execution as you might expect and showed really good fire in his comebacks and really good fatigue in his selling. Everything was crisp and sound, and it told a good story. All the chest and abdominal work by Bryan came to play in the finish when Bryan submitted Punk with an abdominal stretch.
There were some big top-rope moves and some brawling, but these two, wrestling in the heart of AWA country, felt like they could have adapted to a ‘70s style Verne Gagne vs. Billy Robinson mat classic.
I should perhaps have known better, but I was kind of expecting an overabundance of big moves, reversals and kickouts that I've come stereotype as Ring of Honor's style of wrestling, but that didn't happen. Even the crowd didn't bother me, with only minimal annoying chants.
It was cool to see Danielson get his boots to Punk's throat as they were hanging on the bottom ropes, at the end of Punk taunting the crowd, Bryan and Steamboat.
They had dandy knucklelock battles, with Danielson countering on by rolling backward. I also enjoyed Danielson slamming Punk's arm full force into the mat.
There were some nifty submissions by Danielson, including head wrench, a surfboard/dragon sleeper combo, and the final abdominal stretch and grabbing Punk's head.
Punk caught Danielson on a leapfrog and turned it into a forward roll (like Finlay or Sheamus does). He followed it with a split-legged moonsault that caught Danielson's knees.
It was great when they spun each other to counter abdominal stretches, and then Punk dumped Danielson outside.
I loved Punk cutting off Danielson's chops in the corner with a classic Roddy Piper thumb to eye. Punk also had fun moments antagonizing Steamboat, one that led to a nearfall when Danielson rolled him up.
A fun moment: Danielson had a super long airplane spin with fans stomping their feet and clapping. He sold dizziness afterward but went to the top anyway, and Punk avoided the splash.
Also, given how Bryan's "Yes" chant has taken off, I was amused by dueling "Yes" and "No" chants while Punk setting up the Pepsi plunge off the top that eventually turned into a Bryan superplex.
So why haven't I seen this match until now?
It's a bit of a long story, but it begins when I stopped really caring about wrestling around 2001.
I still watched it for years after that, but my emotional investment largely ended with the cancellation and sale of WCW (which at its peak represented just about everything I loved about wrestling) and Steve Austin forming an alliance with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania (which felt like a slap in the face at the time, though I later grew to appreciate Austin's work as a villain).
(The end of ECW had little effect on me, other than sympathy for those who lost their jobs).
In 2002, when I was still wrestling with all of this, I went on a pilgrimage with a friend to Philadelphia to attend an independent show that included a match with my favorite wrestler Eddie Guerrero, who was out of WWE at the time, and with wrestlers I'd heard about or barely seen, like Low-Ki, American Dragon (Daniel Bryan) and Christopher Daniels. This startup, called Ring of Honor, seemed like a novel approach that was more like Japanese wrestling.
I expected the show to be a revival of sorts for me as a wrestling fan. I was hoping for a quasi-religious experience similar to a show I attended while studying in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1999. Even though most of the details of that show have been lost to my memory (believe me I've tried to find results online), I still remember that crowd filled with families and old ladies enraptured with the saga unfolding, particularly in the final mask vs. mask match. I don't recall what exactly what happened, but I remember what a warm feeling I had coming out of that arena.
But after the Ring of Honor show was over, I felt strangely empty.
I certainly enjoyed aspects of the show, including Guerrero vs. Super Crazy and especially Low Ki vs. Dragon vs. Daniels, one of the finest matches I've seen live. I saw some exciting guys I'd never heard of, including Spanky and Amazing Red. (There was also turnoff of two beefy guys beating the hell out of two stereotypical gay characters who had just French kissed in the ring. I guess the message was no shenanigans of sports entertainment, but it felt like gay-baiting aimed at an audience of macho idiots).
Even without that, I felt badly out of step with that crowd. They seemed like true believers, and I felt like someone who was just passing through. I've seen probably fewer than 30 ROH matches since.
So am I sad I missed a lot of Ring of Honor's glory years?
I'm sure I would have liked ROH as it developed more in 2004 for a few years if I'd been paying attention know about great talent but haven't seen many of the matches that are regarded as classics. Usually when I watch older matches, I tend to go back to territorial wrestling or WWE, WCW, ECW and TNA pay-per-view main events for my podcast.
My passion for wrestling would be revived at certain times, such as 2004 when Chris Benoit and Guerrero were WWE's top champions. But it would never last and never feel the same as it did when I was deeply invested like in the late 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps it was age or the natural course of my interests.
But in the late 2000s, I came to terms with the fact that wrestling would never feel the same to me again. I just came back, starting watching WWE more regularly for fun and approached it differently. I grew to enjoy the small moments and not worry so much about the big picture. Maybe it's not what it once was, but it's certainly still a blast when done well.
I don't have a favorite wrestler today, but certainly Bryan and Punk are among them. I only have passing knowledge of their accolades on the independents, but they've contributed so much to WWE over the past few years that I have a deep affection for them. It's not quite what I felt for Benoit and Guerrero, but it's a start.