Redefining the Iron Man | MJF vs. Bryan Danielson
Updated: Mar 19
At last week's AEW PPV, Revolution, the main event was a match that I would argue was a genuine masterpiece, on multiple levels. I believe that this is a match that will reverberate though both competitors' careers and even have lasting influence on the art of professional wrestling itself, and so warrants the deep dive I'm going to give it here in this piece.
When, two months ago, Bryan Danielson agreed to Max Friedman’s typical opponent-gauntlet to earn a shot at him, in return for his choice of stipulation, and Danielson chose “Iron Man,” many fans were excited at what seemed the prospect of a long and technical match between the two. But many others were disappointed, or at least doubtful.
In an Iron Man match, rather than a fall, or a number of falls, determining the end of the match, the match goes for a certain amount of time, usually 60 minutes, and the winner is whichever opponent has more falls when the time expires. The Iron Man stipulation tends to get three knocks against it: that it’s too long, that it’s too slow, and that the fact that the audience knows there's nothing the competitors could do, even in theory, to lead to a sudden defeat or victory, leaches out the drama. And, normally, I would be the first to doubt if an Iron Man is really a better option, if you want to promise a long and technical match, than a two out of three falls match, or a match that just happens to run a long time. However, Bryan Danielson happens to be a wrestling genius, in the stage of his career where he’s done everything and the only thing to keep him engaged is the opportunity to prove he can pull off something challenging better than it's been done before, and he’s matched against Max Friedman, a wrestling prodigy at the opposite end of his career, but equally out to prove things, in his case that he’s everything he claims, and it hasn’t just been beginner’s luck taking him this far.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated a few days before Revolution, Bryan Danielson said, in reference to his match needing to go on after Page & Moxley's Texas Death:
The promoters from yesteryear would say that you don’t follow blood with wrestling, but that’s exactly what we’re doing. So it presents those types of challenges. To me, that’s exciting. This is maybe the biggest challenge I’ve put in front of myself in my entire career.
This is the type of need to push boundaries and prove that there's more that he can prove that Danielson feels at this point in his storied career that I was talking about. He went on to say:
It is very important to have statement moments scattered regularly throughout the match. Having just read two books by Cormac McCarthy, he’s a great study in minimalism when it comes to fiction. He has these incredible sentences that hit you right in the heart. We need those sprinkled throughout the match, and plot twists. Overall, it needs to be a compelling narrative where the live crowd feels it.
...which I feel says a lot about the kind of mind Danielson has, to take inspiration from the most disparate sources and apply them to this challenge. Not to mention, serving as a thesis statement of the sort of great, dramatically-effective match that Danielson set out to create here, and that, I would argue, he succeeded in creating.
From the moment the bell rings, before the competitors even touch, they are already telling the story, with their eyes. As color commentator, Taz, insightfully points out, one man is "stressed," and the other is not. In fact, Friedman looks deeply concerned at the prospect of 60 minutes that no shortcut could make any shorter, whereas Danielson has a glint in his eye of sheer delight, like a man about to enjoy his favorite treat.
A common trope in an Iron Man match is to have the antagonist work an injury, perhaps take a strategic DQ fall to lead to submission falls later, emphasizing the villain's cruelty and intelligence while highlighting the hero's valiance and grit. Whereas, this match made a point of repeatedly acknowledging your expectations, giving you something completely different, and making you like it! Danielson had a bull's-eye on his shoulder, true, but it wasn't till ten minutes in that Friedman found an opening to start working the shoulder. Meanwhile, Bryan started working MJF's pre-existing knee injury at only 8 minutes in!
Both Friedman and Danielson took on traits and tropes that are more commonly associated with the opposite alignment, and rather than leaning into a double-turn, they instead showed the opposite sides of those very traits. Danielson went into the fight cocky and sort of vicious, reminding us all of the edge he had in his feud with the Dark Order a little over a year ago. But, (even though we know his primary motivation in this feud is his righteous desire for comeuppance on the loathsome Friedman,) he never seems like a man driven by anger or hatred so much as a man glowing from within with a love for the life he has chosen and joy in his work. Meanwhile, Friedman was making short-sighted choices, (overzealously choosing offense that could exacerbate the knee issue,) of the sort normally used as the Achilles' heel of a protag driven by valorous pride, but in Maxwell, commentary makes it a point to clarify that he's driven rather by a deep insecurity.
The pace of this match was absolutely insane for a match of its length. In the Sports Illustrated interview, Danielson made it clear that that would be his intention for the match, and why he felt that would be important. Regarding the first and still most famous major-show-closing Iron Man match, the Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart match from WrestleMania XII, Danielson said:
That was billed as these two great wrestlers wrestling for an hour, and it meant a big deal to me when I watched it.
It was a slower match upfront, and I just don’t think you could do that today at the end of an AEW pay-per-view. The undercard on WrestleMania 12 wasn’t nearly as exciting as the undercard of Revolution is going to be.
We’re going to be following a lot of great stuff...
Below are the stats on the number of all types of moves over the course of this match, for sake of comparison:
Comparing it to other 60-minute matches, Danielson's offensive pace is comparable with that in his draw with Hangman, but, unlike Page, Friedman comes close to keeping pace with Danielson!
This despite the fact that MJF does some stalling, (at the six-minute mark,) and makes a joking point of it, mocking the idea that it might cost him a Meltzer star. To make a comparison outside AEW, Omega vs Okada IV ended up almost the exact same length as this match at about 65 minutes, and Omega, the higher production of the two: his production stats are very comparable to Friedman, the lower production of the two competitors in this match!
One stat that is a major outlier is pin attempts: with each competitor attempting pinfalls on the other exactly 23 times. In these other two hour-or-more matches there were 31 pin attempts total, adding together all four competitors in both matches! The chain-wrestling pin-attempt sequence, starting 23 minutes in, (led up to by a pumphandle driver on Danielson that makes Taz wince!) is one of the best of those you're likely to ever see: incredibly skilled and athletic, but at the same time not staged-feeling. With every pin attempt, each man seemed to be genuinely trying to score the fall, not simply to roll smoothly into the next hold in the sequence. And I can't imagine any other Zebra to match this pace than Bryce Remsburg, the man behind the "Invisible Man vs Invisible Stan" performance.
Then, at 25 minutes in, something happens that you'd never see in any prior Iron Man match: the babyface hits his finisher and goes up 1-0! I've heard a theory that the idea behind this is dramatic irony: Danielson hoist by his own petard, since if he hadn't insisted on an Iron Man, he'd be champion right now. I don't buy this, because both competitors would've approached a standard-rules match entirely differently, so it wouldn't have gone the same way. Instead, this was about inverting our expectations (dramatically) in an Iron Man. Normally, they lean heavily on the protagonist desperately trying to punch up from behind to highlight his grit and determination. This match instead has the antagonist coming from behind to highlight his nervy insecurity.
This is followed with a tribute to the classic "collapse" moment from Omega vs Okada II, leading straight into MJF (more out of desperation than calculation) going for the sacrifice disqualification fall with an uppercut to Danielson's testicles, thus going briefly down 2 falls, but immediately using the "no rest periods" rule to his advantage to bring himself back up to even 2-2 with two quick roll-ups in succession. (And that rule is why that was a desperation play—if MJF hadn't found a way to turn the momentum around, Danielson could hypothetically have pinned him over and over, gaining an insurmountable lead.) Everything happened so fast, only Excalibur at the announce desk was able to correctly keep track of the current score, both Tony and Taz were under the mistaken impression that the antagonist had taken the lead!
Then the two competitors go back and forth with escalating offense trying to take control. Friedman frequently makes that mistake—more typical of your overzealous protagonist—of going for offense that isn't necessarily wise taking into account his knee injury. Then he goes for a move that clearly shows his desperation: at 37 minutes in, a man who had always eschewed and mocked high-risk aerial offense hit his opponent with a top-turnbuckle flying elbow to the outside, through the time-keeper's table.
Immediately after this, Excalibur points out that Friedman is now officially in deep water: this is now longer than any match he's been in before. And Friedman follows up with a tombstone pile-driver through the remains of the table, and then bringing Danielson back inside with the "heat seeker" draped pile-driver, all of these moves sacrificing his knee in his single-minded pursuit of a fall. And while he's able to get a pinfall off the heat-seeker, the knee injury prevents him from taking advantage of the "no rest period" rule to get multiple falls ahead.
This is followed by a ten-minute heat sequence, where an enraged MJF desperately attempts to get more falls to create a buffer of a lead, but Danielson shows his grit and determination. This was the most traditional section of the match, and yet not: because MJF never seemed like a man confidently glorying in his lead or playing with his food, but rather like a man for whom one fall up didn't feel safe enough (otherwise he might have done as commentary suggested, and switched up to a keep-away defensive posture!)
Danielson then turns the momentum back to himself again with a flying nothing to the outside, followed by a move I'd never seen before, but Taz immediately identified as a Spider Superplex, where he tosses his opponent over his back like a superplex, but remains hooked to the top turnbuckle with his legs, falling back into the "tree of woe" position and using core strength to sit back up, in order to avoid taking a back bump himself as with a standard superplex. He follows this up with a flying headbutt over halfway across the ring that opens up Friedman's forehead in a crimson mask. This leads to another busaiku knee, but instead of going for the pin, Danielson then puts Friedman in the LeBell Lock. Despite being in a hopeless position in the hold, MJF doesn't strategically tap quick to save himself harm like you might expect. This isn't pride, so much as dread at losing that one-fall advantage 50 minutes in. But after a struggle, Friedman gives in and the score is again even, at 3-3.
This leads into an exchange of reversals of submission holds between the two men, and then to the two blasting each other with hate-filled strikes and headbutts from their knees and struggling up to their feet and then striking each other back down to their knees. At 55 minutes and counting Friedman is in tears of pain, frustration, and exhaustion, while Danielson is laughing with the sheer joy of doing the job he loves, and the crowd is on their feet chanting and clapping.
Then, with two and a half minutes on the clock, MJF hits a second-rope tombstone, once again sacrificing his knee to put offense on his challenger, but this time he pays for it and can't follow up at all. After a full minute of MJF struggling with his injury and Danielson just laying there after the piledriver, Friedman finally makes a cover, but the ref's two smacks to the mat urge Danielson into action, transitioning into a submission, but not a signature hold of his, but the most logical hold based on MJF's injury, a simple single-leg crab. But even though it's agony, and there's no escape, Friedman only needs to survive for one minute to force the draw. Friedman seemingly retains his title based on a 3-3 draw, but as the medical staff attend to the competitors, including giving Friedman oxygen, we hear half of a very one-sided conversation between Schiavone and somebody, which he seems quite delighted to go down to the ring to share with everyone.
Schiavone shares the news with Justin and Bryce, and the ring announcer lets everyone know that the match will continue in sudden death. The delight on Bryan's face and the horror on Maxwell's at this news is a treat! MJF manages to manipulate the view of the ref to get in another low blow, this time without being seen, but that along with pulling the trunks for leverage still isn't enough to keep Danielson down. Then he uses the belt fake-out to distract the ref to put the Dynamite Diamond on his finger, but Danielson ducks the loaded punch and hits a POISONRANA after over an hour of action! Danielson calls for the "yes" chants, and hits his flying-knee finisher, and it all seems to be over.
I admit it, I bit. For that moment, I believed. And all the credit goes to Maxwell Jacob Friedman. Because normally one would say, "of course, he has to kick out." Because this is Friedman's first big defense and it's too soon for him to lose, it would be damaging to a guy they intend to build the company around as the primary antagonist. But, seeing the way that his fatal flaws of insecurity and arrogance led him to this point, made me believe he could hold his value as an antagonist even in a loss, and not be sent back to square one to rebuild, like after his crushing defeat to Wardlow.
But, no. MJF kicked out! But this transitioned to him back in the single-leg crab with Bryce confiscating his ring, and this time, no timer to allow him to be saved by the bell, and tapping out doesn't just mean going down a fall; rather, it's the end! Then he gets to the rope and gets a break, and strategically fake-taps—where the ref knows the hold was already broken, but his challenger doesn't—and rolls out to get another weapon: this time the oxygen tank!
Danielson crawls to the edge of the ring and reaches down to draw MJF back, allowing the champion to hit him in the head with this makeshift weapon out of the referee's line of sight. Rather than use the Salt of the Earth armbar, MJF instead goes for the added humiliation of putting Danielson into his own LeBell Lock. Bryce does the three-arm-drops test, and on the third Danielson seems to start to revive, and signals for the "Yes" chants again! Danielson starts to fire up, but Friedman struggles him back down and after everything, Danielson is forced to tap to his own signature submission hold.
We later learn that the reason Danielson suddenly runs out of steam, in spite of the support of the crowd, is that he was losing feeling in his limbs (at least within the story!) and was worried that Max was right all along and that he'd never be able to play with his children again, after this. Friedman making Danielson surrender, in spite of a full-on "Yes Movement" is as big as if he had shut down Hogan in the midst of a "Hulk Up," or made John Cena say "I quit!"
Sorry, that was a very long summary of the story of Sunday's main event, but this was a match where every one of the 65 minutes of action was filled with action and drama, and I think it was worth every drop of ink. This was a match for the ages, and turned an entire stipulation on its head—instead of a match that one might hesitate to use because of worry of falling into lazy tropes or boring the audience with stalling, now the Iron Man is a match that one may be reluctant to pull out simply out of trepidation at the prospect of living up to this example! And Maxwell Jacob Friedman is now firmly established as a threat to absolutely anybody, but more importantly, as someone who will be able to maintain their danger and menace, (and value as a primary antagonist!) going forward even through future losses.