I remember the first time I heard the name American Dragon Bryan Danielson. It was the summer of 2002 and I was languishing in the WWE developmental system without a contract and no reason to think I’d ever get one. After discussing my feelings with fellow non-contracted wrestler Brian “Spanky” Kendrick, he gave me a VHS cassette of the then-fledgling independent company Ring of Honor, telling me this was where the best wrestlers of our generation were going, and one of his former training partners, Bryan Danielson, was one of the top guys there. I took the tape home and watched the show, half impressed with the believability of the style, half reluctant to think I could ever work that style myself.
Fast forward to the following summer, and a couple of learning intensive tours with Brian Dixon’s All Star Wrestling promotion in the UK, and I was ready with a British style that could find me a spot within Ring of Honor. I remember the first time I saw Bryan - in the locker room, early in the day, before my first show with the company, the first ROH had ever run in Ohio. He was sitting quietly by himself, reading a book. People would come by and he’d look up with a gentle smile as he genuinely shook their hand. He had a quiet air of self-repose and confidence that, even in that moment, made him subliminally stand out of the crowd. And I swear, as I write this now, I knew then in that moment, somehow, that he would play as big a part in my career as anyone else on earth; when at the time there was no reason to think perhaps we’d even ever wrestle.
Over the next year or so, as I had positively received matches within the company, I would watch from behind the curtain pretty much every other match on the show, but certainly every one that followed me, avidly if it involved guys like Samoa Joe, Homicide, Christopher Daniels and Bryan. He had this fluidity, and presence, that drew people to him, and went beyond the moves. I once asked him after a show what he thought I needed to do to move up the card. He told me he had no idea.
By the spring of 2006 I had a solid reputation within the company, developing a harder hitting style, while booker Gabe Sapolsky had brilliantly booked my run as the Pure Champion. I first wrestled Dragon in Cleveland. It was only supposed to be a one-off match. But I realized on that night what I’d felt intrinsically that first moment I’d seen him in the locker room - we had an unmistakable chemistry together. You can call it premonition, clairvoyance, I don’t know. But it was undeniable.
Dragon got the best out of everyone. He never had a bad match; most were outstanding. Like Kurt Angle after him, he had an innate ability to take what I brought to the table and make the perfect match out of it. Because of the success of our first match, Gabe booked us together perfectly in a program that led to a big match in my home country, in August of that year, on the first solely ROH show ever in that country: In the main event, with both his World title and my Pure title on the line.
It would certainly be fitting to call the match epic. I’d thought about it for months beforehand, every angle, every possibility. The crowd that night was electric and as the match progressed, it drew everyone in. Late in the match I got busted open on the ring post, and nearly counted out. The emotion from the crowd when I rolled in at the last second was one of the most visceral, authentic, reactions I ever felt, and I struggle to describe in words. Jimmy Rave, watching in the wings of that old theater in Liverpool, told me afterwards it was the single biggest reaction he’d ever heard from a live crowd. Fists shaking with rage, we clashed in one more exchange before he finally ended the match with elbows.
We had more matches for ROH, including my last ever one for the company. We got to travel the world wrestling in Japan, Australia and all over the US. We became friends outside the ring too, sharing more than just a common interest in wrestling. We argued over philosophical questions like whose feet were better looking, whether dogs were more intelligent than humans, and whether clam-digging was a worthwhile pastime.
After we left ROH our lives went in very different directions and for a long time we lost touch. Just recently, however, we reconnected and even if it is the only time, I will be glad of it, and just as glad of everything else we shared, both inside the ring and out.
For me, however, the memory that will stand out the most perhaps, was from the Manhattan center in New York City, in a match he had with someone else. I’d gone one before him with Naomichi Marufuji, one of the most exciting and talented junior heavyweights in Pro Wrestling NOAH at the time. It was a huge chance for me to stake my claim as a top guy and thanks to Marufuji’s brilliance we tore the place up. In my career I was always my own worst critic, but for once I came to the back half-filled with a notion of “follow that motherfucker,” and half afraid we’d done a little too much.
But Dragon went out there with Kenta, and a torn labrum nonetheless I believe, and put on a classic that is still remembered today. I watched from the corner of the balcony of that iconic venue, drawn on to the edge of my seat every time I, like every other single person in attendance, thought the match was over. After the third or fourth time, I felt the rising noise from the crowd quieten in my head, my breath slow, the hairs rise on the back of my neck, and I’m not afraid to say, my eyes well up with tears, realizing I was watching a special moment, a truly beautiful art in its most authentic form. Dragon is one of those people who, when you see just how talented he is, makes you think there just might be a God after all.
Excerpts from Nigel's upcoming autobiography Bumping Monkeys.