Following the announcement on Monday that Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan has been forced to retire, it’s time to reflect on the career of the former American Dragon. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be going through the career of the future Hall of Famer and recapping several matches that made Bryan Danielson at his peak one of, if not the, top wrestler in the world.

In this first part, I’ll be taking a look at Danielson’s first matches on WWE TV, a good 13 years before his eventual retirement, plus his only televised match in WWE developmental, and an unusual match from his 2010 sojourn on the indie scene.

Jamie Noble vs. Bryan Danielson (WWE Velocity, taped January 12, 2003)

We’ll start the ball rolling with Danielson’s first ever televised match in WWE, coming back in 2003 when he was used as enhancement talent against Jamie Noble on an episode of Velocity. The two would go on to have another match eighteen months later in Ring of Honor, this time for the ROH World title.

Danielson is already in the ring, and unfortunately we’ve got the SmackDown commentary B-team of Josh Mathews and Ernest “The Cat” Miller providing coverage of this. The pair lock-up to begin with, as Noble takes down Danielson with a rolling armlock, transitioning into some grounded headscissors. Danielson bridges out of it and manages to switch things into a STF, then briefly applies a surfboard stretch before rolling through for a one-count.

Noble goes to work with an arm-wringer on Danielson, which needs two attempts to be reversed as the American Dragon locks in a grounded headlock on the former Cruiserweight champion. After getting back to their feet, the pair trade hammerlocks, but Noble takes down Danielson and gets a quick one-count, before the Noble keeps a knuckle-lock on Danielson, and nailing a Northern Lights suplex for a two-count. Still in the knuckle-lock, Danielson retaliates with a couple of headbutts (that in hindsight, are hard to watch), then a couple of kicks before throwing Noble to the grown in a snapmare-style to release the lock. A kick to the back of a seated Noble gets Danielson a two-count, as Danielson continues his kick-based offence, only to be tripped throat-first into the middle rope in desperation by Noble.

Back on their feet, Noble clubs Danielson with some forearms, then drills him with a high angle belly-to-back suplex for a near-fall. Danielson gets draped across the middle rope, as Noble successfully lands a knee across his back, working on the throat of the American Dragon some more, as Nidia interferes with a kick to the head of a prone Danielson. Noble locks in Danielson with a cross-arm surfboard stretch, but Danielson manages to get back to his feet, only to be met with a kick to the midsection and a whip to the ropes. Danielson slides underneath Noble’s attempt at a back bodydrop, and catches a sunset flip for a near fall as the pair start to chain together a variety of two-count combinations.

After a brief period of offence, Danielson starts to fire back with some European uppercuts, following up with an Irish whip and a clothesline to take Noble down, before clobbering Noble with a running forearm into the corner, only to be cut off at the pass as Noble hits a Randy Orton-style scoop slam to counter another running attack. Danielson blocks a whip into the corner by mounting the ropes and moonsaulting over Noble, but an attempt at a Dragon suplex is blocked, with Danielson opting for a Roaring Elbow to the back of the head instead. Danielson then goes for a Dragon suplex, but switches it at the last minute to a bridging German suplex for a near fall.

Noble ducks a kick to the head, but Danielson reverses a Tiger Bomb attempt with a back body drop instead. Danielson goes to the well again for a Roaring Elbow, but Noble blocks it, and connects with a swinging neckbreaker for the win.

Given that this was a throwaway match on a WWE B-show, this was quite entertaining, but nowhere near as good as what they’d put on (albeit with a lot more time) 18 months down the line.

Rico vs. Bryan Danielson (WWE Heat, taped February 3, 2003)

Fast-forward a month later, and Danielson’s second televised match comes when he resumes B-show duty, this time acting as the opposition for Rico back when Heat was serving as the secondary show for Monday Night Raw. At the time, Heat had the pairing of Jonathan Coachman and Lita on commentary, and at the start of the match we are presented with a countdown clock to the eventual firing of Eric Bischoff on the next night’s episode of Raw.

Danielson has swapped his Velocity tighty-whiteys for blue trunks this time around, and they again start with a lock-up, with Rico getting the upper-hand with a headlock in the early going. The headlock’s reversed, as Rico shoves Danielson into the ropes, only to be taken down by a shoulder block, before Danielson takes him down with a kravat into a snapmare. Rico manages to regain the upper-hand with a Dragon sleeper-type hold, as Danielson manages to reverse out of an attempt at a reverse suplex. After grabbing the ropes to avoid a roll-up, Rico turns into a dropkick, but is able to avoid the charge of Danielson in the corner, allowing the former storyline stylist to connect with a series of kicks to the upper body of the American Dragon.

Rico maintains some offence, and lifts Danielson up for a backbreaker submission, but Danielson manages to spring off the ropes to bridge out of it, and take down Rico with a back body drop. Rico kicks out, and goes back to his kicks, including the armbar set-up into a donkey-kick to the head of Danielson (again, unsettling to watch in hindsight) for a near fall. They remain grounded as Rico locks in a surfboard stretch, which Danielson is able to break out of before connecting with an enziguiri kick to send Rico back to the mat. Danielson ducks out of a clothesline attempt and goes to work with some European uppercuts, before hitting a snap suplex for a near-fall.

Rico gets back to his feet and immediately lands some forearms to the head of Danielson, and although Danielson cuts him off with a forearm of his own, he runs into a spinning heel kick from Rico for the match-ending pin.

This was a completely different match to what we saw a month prior with Jamie Noble, and in spite of Rico, it was a pretty good exchange, giving us a glimpse into the kind of worker that Danielson would prove himself to be.

Bryan Danielson vs. Kaval (Florida Championship Wrestling TV, taped January 14, 2010)

After being re-signed by WWE in 2009, we go to Danielson’s first – and only – match on TV for Florida Championship Wrestling. At this point he’s about a month from getting his WWE name, and not much further away from appearing on TV in the debut of the NXT show. Danielson is pretty much the same character he was in ROH, with his red robe and entrance music that could pass as Europe’s “The Final Countdown” if you listened hard enough.

On commentary is the mish-mashed team of Byron Saxton and Wade Barrett, as Danielson takes on the former Low-Ki, who had been renamed as Kaval by this point.

The two former ROH champions start with a handshake, before a tie-up results in a long battle, ending with Danielson being pushed into the rope as Kaval makes a clean break. They move onto a test of strength, which Kaval wins by forcing Danielson to bend over backwards, but he does not break, even when Kaval leaps onto Bryan’s chest. A knee strike to the stretched Danielson sends him flat onto the mat, and Kaval gets a two count before Danielson bridges back up. Kaval repeats the spot again and gets another two count, before Danielson works his way out of the hold, and applies an arm-wringer onto Kaval’s left arm.

Kaval goes to flip out of the hold, but instead rolls onto his shoulders and delivers a stiff kick to Danielson’s head, forcing him to break the hold. They lock up again, with Danielson this time forcing Kaval into the ropes, but doesn’t break cleanly, as he delivers a European uppercut as the referee tries to separate the duo. After whipping Kaval into the ropes, Danielson misses a clothesline and eats two dropkicks from his foe, before taking a knee-lift as he cowered out of a possible third dropkick. A headlock by Kaval restrains Danielson, but the pair end up in the corner, as the rope break allows Danielson to sneak in a few kicks to the chest of Kaval.

Danielson whips Kaval corner to corner, but Kaval springs up on the ropes to leap over a rushing Danielson; however, Danielson catches his legs, but that only serves to give Kaval a base to fire off a kick to send Danielson to the mat. Kaval beats down Danielson in the corner, but is met with yet another cheap kick to the head as the referee attempts to split the two up, with Danielson following up with a dropkick to the back. The left arm of Kaval starts to get targetted, with Danielson hitting an armbreaker, and then a grounded hammerlock which transitions into an unbelievable foot-assisted stretch that flows into a pinfall attempt, gaining Danielson a two-count.

Danielson tries to go for a Tiger bomb, but Kaval escapes out with a back body drop, and after a few seconds recuperating, Kaval fires back with a barrage of kicks to the upper body, but an attempt to pull off an Irish whip is halted by his own damaged arm. Kaval manages to keep the offence going with a few running elbows, before hitting the front and the back of Danielson with separate heel kicks. As Kaval looks to go to the top rope, presumably for the Warrior’s Way double foot-stomp, Danielson grabs Kaval by the ankle, preventing his progress, but that only serves to anger, as Kaval responds with some more devastating kicks.

Another arm breaker by Danielson neutralises his opponent, but Kaval manages to pull off a sunset flip. However, instead of going for the fall, he continues to roll through, and connects with a double foot-stomp to Danielson’s chest for a two-count. Kaval misses with a top rope assault, and staggers into a unique butterfly suplex from Danielson that floats into a seated armbar submission attempt. Kaval makes the ropes, but Danielson quickly goes for a bodyslam, and sets up for a swandive headbutt. Kaval gets both feet up to block it, and as both men stagger back up to a vertical base, Kaval rushes in with a two-footed dropkick, sending Danielson to the mat for another near-fall.

After the kick-out, Kaval repositions Danielson and climbs to the top for the Warrior’s Way, only for Danielson to pop up and crotch him on the top rope. Danielson goes up top and tries to hit a butterfly superplex, but Kaval breaks free and lands a series of headbutts that eventually sends Danielson falling back into the ring, leaving him susceptible for the Warriors’ Way footstomp, and that is enough for Kaval to get the win.

As long as you understood going in that under the auspices of WWE developmental, you were never going to get anything close to their ROH efforts, you can’t have left this one disappointed. At the time, WWE had high hopes for Kaval, and Danielson was new on the scene… of course, history would see both men’s careers in the company take on completely opposite trajectories (eventually!). On a side note, it’s amazing to see how different the current day NXT is to the FCW territory that it replaced; with a funding boost for NXT, it’s like night and day compared to the production values in FCW.

Tommy End vs. Bryan Danielson (WXW Ambition, July 4, 2010 – viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPs_Y-djBBU)

We wrap up this first part with a trip to Germany, and a match from the “inbetween” phase in Bryan Danielson’s final WWE run, namely the weeks he was excommunicated from the company after choking Justin Roberts with his own tie during the Nexus debut. Here, Danielson takes on Holland’s Tommy End in the first round of the WXW Ambition tournament. End made his debut in 2003, and has mostly wrestled in Europe, with Westside Xtreme Wrestling being considered his “home” base.

It’s worth going into this one with a little bit of background knowledge – WXW’s Ambition tournament is strongly based on “shootfighting” rules, with a winner being decided only by knock-out, TKO (at the referee’s discretion), submission or disqualification. As such, the entire tournament had a MMA flavour to it, and could be quite jarring to those expecting the standard wrestling format of “move > pin attempt, move, move, pin attempt”.

End jumps Danielson at the bell and immediately sends him into the corner with a flying knee to the face, with Danielson taking a seven-count to get back to his feet. The feeling out process starts with a few attempted kicks by Danielson, who then stuffs a takedown attempt as the match wanders distinctly into MMA territory, with the duo jockeying for position on the mat. Unable to get any joy with the upper body, Danielson looks for a heel hook, but End is too close to the ropes and immediately gets the hold broken.

Once both men stand up, they resume the feeling out process, with End eventually taking down Danielson with a double-leg, but Danielson immediately works his way into an attempt at the LeBell/Yes/No Lock, only for End to again make the ropes in what looks to be a smaller-than-average ring. With End back on his feet, Danielson this time is successful with a low kick. End grabs Danielson’s wrist, but another low kick causes him to recoil and relinquish the grip.

End once again goes for a takedown, and starts to grapevine Danielson’s leg, but Danielson works free and briefly locks in an armbar until End makes the ropes. After standing up, End changes his game plan, and launches Danielson into the corner with knees to the midsection, sending Danielson to the ground for the second time in the match. Danielson beats the ten count, and returns the favour, sending End to the mat with another stiff low kick.

Once End beats the ten-count, Danielson succeeds with a double-leg takedown of his own, and launches some more kicks to the legs of the grounded Dutchman, before transitioning into some MMA-style ground and pound. A grapevined leg lock predictably doesn’t last as End easily makes the ropes – a trend which is making any submission attempt look increasingly pointless at this stage.

Both men engage in a knuckle-lock and begin to trade kicks, with a strike from Danielson again breaking the lock, prompting a frustrated End to once again charge his opponent into the corner with knee strikes. Danielson catches a knee and levels End with a kick to the back of the leg, sending him to the mat once more. End gets back to his feet and repeats the charge into the corner, this time with palm strikes. Danielson fires back with low kicks, knocking End down yet again, and after two aborted attempts to get back to his feet, End drop to the mat as the referee waves off the contest.

Given that Danielson would wrestle three times on this night, the match was about the right length. It was certainly a unique outing for the American Dragon, and perhaps a glimpse of what the WWE’s ill-fated Brawl For All could have been like had they chosen to ape MMA rather than boxing, and had the rules been more refined.

In the next few parts, we’ll revisit Danielson’s matches elsewhere on the independent scene around the world, as well as his storied career in ROH (once I receive the compilation DVDs!), and of course, his run in WWE that saw him reach the top of the mountain.

If you have any suggestions for other matches to feature in our Random Reviews, please send them across to us, either by reaching out on Twitter, Facebook, or using the contact form on the website.