Despite everything great about AEW, some people have noted that they have, thus far, failed to have a singles match on the truly "elite" level. For a company largely built on talent who made their names in New Japan Pro Wrestling, who excel in singles action, this is surprising and perhaps even a valid criticism.
For many people Kenny Omega vs Bryan Danielson at AEW Grand Slam was the end of that. This is a singles match which truly screams "dream match" the way Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada did in 2017. On the surface it may appear that is all there is here, a dream match for AEW's biggest ever crowd. But the reality is there is a lot more story to this than simply a dream match.
It didn't just fall into our laps, as fans, as much as it may have felt that way. Bryan had to win this match from Omega. He had to embarrass him, by making him tap, and then goad him into the match by teasing the question of "who is the best?" Because that is what this match centres around.
Omega's entire championship reign has meant, to his character, that as long as he holds the AEW World Championship then he can claim to be the best. Even though in the back of his mind there is that fear that he isn't "the best bout machine" like he used to be, and that certain upcoming stars might be coming for his spot. The belt means that nobody can ask any questions, he is unquestionably the best.
But now someone who can also claim to be "the best" is standing in front of him and challenging him to a match. Omega knows that if he runs away from this challenge that he cannot claim to be the best and that eats at Omega deep down, until he accepts.
For Bryan Danielson it is a lot simpler. Long term he wants to win Omega's AEW championship, and he knows beating Omega means he has a legitimate claim at a championship opportunity, saying "what kind of rankings system would it be if you beat the champion and you're not the number one contender?" But for the time being Bryan is content simply wrestling the best AEW has to offer and the best, for now, is the champion.
It's not simply a dream match, it's two men with the confidence and ego to call themselves "the best" having to go out and prove it in the ring. This is huge pressure, not just in kayfabe where the stakes are huge, but in real life where the expectation of "AEW's first truly elite singles match" was thrust heavily on the shoulders of these two men.
The Key Stats
Despite Bryan Danielson having a big advantage in total match offence, with 64%, this match was actually a fairly even bout. Danielson focused on volume striking, whilst Omega focused on big hits, which we can see with Omega's advantage in the big offence stat.
Omega focused on strikedowns and grapples, most notably his trusted V-Triggers and Snap-Dragon Suplexes. Meanwhile, Bryan focused on quick striking combinations such as his Yes Kicks as well as his superior submission game.
The similarity in reversals and pin attempts shows how equal this match was. Despite spells where each man dominates, it was back-and-forth in large portions of the match with 39 reversals in total and thus, by the numbers, it is no surprise this match ended in a draw.
One stat that really jumps out is Omega's 21 taunts. This illustrates how cocky Omega gets at points of the match. He drinks in any small win he gets and lets the crowd know how great he is doing. A masterclass in character-based wrestling as Omega, masking his insecurities, was incredibly easy to see through, whilst remaining irritatingly arrogant, keeping the crowd hot during moments where the match slowed.
The stats are a testament to the excellent wrestling of both men to tell this story of an even match where Bryan actually gets the better of Omega for a lot of the match, whilst allowing Omega just enough for him to keep his claim as "the best" – even if we as fans still think that maybe he isn’t.
A good comparison would be Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder's first fight, which ended in a draw (despite widely considered a Fury win). Fury dominated the fight, but Wilder delivered the bigger blows. If Bryan vs Omega was scored by judges, Bryan would have won on points, but Omega still looked great in landing the bigger blows. That is assuming wrestling judges wouldn't be as corrupt as boxing ones.
How It Played Out
Great storytelling is built on cause and effect. Conflict built on reacting to the previous action. This match is this concept enacted in pro-wrestling perfectly. Both men react to the action of the other with Omega constantly chasing Bryan, constantly trying to prove he's as good, if not better, than Bryan. Until he snaps and forces Bryan to start reacting to him.
1-5m: Feeling out period.
The first five minutes are a feeling out period. More of a chess game trying to one-up each other more than trying to actually hurt each other.
Omega wins the first exchange, delivering a chop, but Bryan wins the second, delivering a kick which drops Omega. This is the first instance of Bryan one-upping Omega, and Kenny looks rattled. When Omega matches Bryan's grappling game, Danielson drops him with a kick. Whenever Bryan gets one over Omega, Kenny responds with a chop.
This period ends with a test of strength which Omega gets the advantage with, utilising his size and strength advantage, but once again Bryan responds utilising his superior technical background to gain an advantage himself, once again introducing a new part of his game to push the action forward.
6-16m: Bryan sets the pace.
The feeling out period ends at the start of the sixth minute as Bryan takes control, coming out of that test of strength to stamp on Omega's arm. The first serious blow landed in this match. Danielson continues to push the action, targeting the arm, as well as delivering a variety of strikes. Initially Omega tries to fight back but Bryan keeps control before managing to hit a dive to the outside.
Omega responds but his offence is nowhere near as effective as Bryan's in the minutes previous. There is a moment where Omega looks embarrassed, so he delivers stomps on Bryan who is sat in the corner and taunts the crowd as if he's proven a point.
Bryan fights back before having an early peak in offence. Lots of strikes, notably running strikes, before Bryan hits Omega with a top rope hurricanrana and going for a cover.
Omega responds by hitting a hurricanrana of his own, albeit a standing one, which forces Bryan to roll to the outside, before Omega hits a Terminator Dive - a classic move from Omega's "best bout machine" era and a move he hasn’t used much since turning heel. This is Omega copying Bryan (with the hurricanrana) before outdoing Bryan's earlier dive with the Terminator Dive. Again, he looks happy with himself, as if he's proven a point.
Omega's cockiness gets the better of him as Bryan regains control, reversing Omega's pin-fall attempt into his Cattle Mutilation submission hold. Omega makes it to the rope and rolls out to the ramp. Bryan hits a diving knee before starting to hit Omega with his Yes Kicks on the ramp.
17-22m: Omega changes the course.
Bryan has been the protagonist in this match and like any great story, around the middle, just as things are going well, a huge obstacle hits the protagonist which defines the story moving forward. Omega delivers exactly that by blocking Bryan's final Yes Kick to the head and hitting a brutal snap-dragon suplex on the ramp outside, before winding up for a huge V-Trigger.
Over this six-minute period Bryan delivers zero offence, spending most of the time selling the effects of Omega's brutal offence whilst Omega basks in the glory, hitting as many offensive moves (10) as he does taunts in this time. Omega's focus on delivering big hits allows him time to recover as well as gloat.
Omega's big hits include a buckle bomb that sends Bryan to the outside and a missile drop-kick to the neck. Bryan reverses a snap-dragon suplex into a roll-up, which only makes Omega respond by delivering a spinning heel kick to the neck before hitting another V-Trigger on Danielson in the corner. Omega is calculated and ruthless in his offence during this period with one mission; incapacitate Bryan.
The match up until this section had been Bryan setting the pace and pushing the action forward, but now Omega has completely taken over. As you can see above, in the 16th minute there is a significant difference between Bryana and Omega's accumulated offence, but by the 22nd minute Omega has closed that gap and overtaken Danielson.
As Omega tries to set up a top-rope dragon suplex, Bryan gets out of the way and delivers an avalanche back drop from the top rope, ending Omega's period of dominance. Bryan mounts more offence, and even when Omega attempts a v-trigger, Bryan hits a rolling elbow and a Regal-plex for a near fall.
As Bryan goes to the top rope, Omega meets him, delivers headbutts to the back of Bryan's neck and then hits that dragon suplex from the top rope for a near fall before hitting a V-Trigger. However, when Omega goes to hit Bryan with a One Winged Angel to finish the match, Danielson hits a reverse-rana out of it.
The two men lay flat on the ground. When they rise Omega attempts another V-Trigger, but Bryan reverses and hits the final Yes Kick to Omega's head, which he failed to hit earlier in the match on the ramp.
Bryan goes for the running knee, but Omega catches him and hits a powerbomb, before hitting a V-Trigger for another near-fall. The accumulative offence had swung back in Bryan's favour but is back in Omega's again.
Omega looks to close the match by hitting the Phoenix Splash, a move from the wheelhouse of his "golden lover" Kota Ibushi. The last time Omega attempted this was against Jon Moxley in 2019 during their Lights Out match. Omega missed then and it led to his defeat. Omega missed here also, as Bryan rolls out of the way. However, Bryan is unable to capitalise immediately with neither men registering any offence in the 28th minute.
29m-30m: Bryan's Match to Lose?
Bryan and Omega, back to their feet, exchange shots before Bryan hits the Yes Kicks, laying Omega out again. Danielson then shouts to the crowd, "he's gonna get his f*cking head kicked in", before doing exactly that. Bryan then goes for the LeBell lock, but Omega, knowing he's moments from defeat, scrambles to the ropes. The accumulated offence has swung significantly back in Bryan’s direction as he looks to close in on victory.
The final minute is a race against time. Both men desperately try to hit their big shots. V-triggers and rolling elbows fly. The bell goes for a time-limit draw as the two stand there exchanging kicks and chops, just like they did at the start of the match.
The post-match action, and Excalibur's commentary, suggests that if this match went much longer that Bryan would defeat Omega as the two continue to fight. Bryan applies the LeBell Lock before The Elite come down to make the save and superkick Danielson out of the way.
Was a Draw the Correct Decision?
Was a draw the right decision? When you consider that AEW now have this match to revisit on a bigger stage with bigger stakes, one would have to say it was. It's currently not clear when we will get a rematch, but the result guarantees there will be one.
If that rematch were to come at AEW's upcoming pay-per-view, Full Gear, it would allow AEW to put the title on the line, raise the stakes and, most importantly, put an hour's time limit on it. The draw is a teaser on TV so you know that it will be worth paying for, come time for the rematch.
From a story perspective it's also fantastic as it allows Kenny Omega to deny a rematch. The story of that match shows us just how close Bryan was to defeating Omega, but now that Omega has faced Bryan his character will feel like he's answered those questions. A draw may not be a win, but it's also not a loss and that allows Omega to keep claiming to be the best because he still has the one thing Bryan doesn’t.
It also allows Bryan Danielson to have a host of matches with other opponents as he climbs the rankings to become number one contender to force Kenny Omega into a rematch that he won't accept.
Bryan Danielson vs. Kenny Omega at AEW Grand Slam has received critical acclaim as well as the adoration of fans all around the world. Many have called it the greatest wrestling match to ever air on TV (as opposed to PPV). Whether you believe that to be true or not, what is clear is that it's certainly in that conversation and, thus, surely has lived up to the expectations of AEW's best singles bout ever.
What is truly frightening about these two is that this was them working with the limitations of TV and a 30-minute time limit. Neither even hit their finishing move. Just imagine what they can do with 60-minutes and a PPV headlining spot.
Match Star Ratings (out of 5):
Grappl: 4.74 stars.
PWM Writer's Opinion: 5 stars.
With thanks to Scott Lesh for photography.