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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Bryan Danielson vs. KENTA – ROH Glory By Honor 2006, Night 2, by Alex Podgorski

Many people call this the best match in Ring of Honor history. Others claim it’s Bryan’s best match, the one that really put him on the map as a pro wrestler. And others still claim it’s the pinnacle of the 2000s independent wrestling scene. All of that amounts to high praise; yet this match didn’t earn the coveted 5-star rating by the Wrestling Observer, even though many people think it did.

Today we look back at one of the best wrestling matches of the mid-2000s: Bryan Danielson vs. KENTA from ROH Glory by Honor Night 2.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost Five-star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

Bryan went into this match as arguably the best ROH World Champion ever. He had defeated many different challengers, a veritable who’s who in pro wrestling throughout this run. Some of his earlier challengers included: Marufuji, Steve Corino, Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles, Homicide, Chris Hero, Nigel McGuinness, Christopher Daniels, the list goes on.

And how he was facing against arguably his biggest threat to date: KENTA.

During the 2000s, there was no wrestler more feared in junior heavyweight circles than KENTA. He was Kobashi’s protégé and one of the top stars in NOAH during that company’s golden age. He was feared because he was arguably the hardest striker in the world. He kicked people extremely hard; not from inexperience or negligence, but because he wanted to. This was because he was small, even by Japanese standards, and sought to compensate his lack of height with a penchant for brutality.

Wrestling in Japan was (and to a certain extent still is) influenced by size as much as it is skill. More often than not, smaller wrestlers start of in the junior heavyweight division, which is widely considered a ‘lower’ level than the heavyweight class. A wrestler must ‘graduate’ to the heavyweight class before they can compete there, and not every junior graduates well.

KENTA was someone that was pegged as a future star in NOAH, but he had the stigma of being incredibly small, which in turn made it hard for people to take him seriously in a division filled with guys that were usually way bigger than him. So, when NOAH began its partnerships with other companies, KENTA was one of the first to wrestle abroad in the hopes of expanding NOAH’s global presence. And he was successful in doing so; he was one of the most popular and talked-about wrestlers among indy wrestling fans. Many people hoped they’d get to see this no-nonsense ass kicker go toe-to-toe with the other rising stars of his era.

Which brings us to this match.

It’s a dream match of sorts between two of the most famous smaller wrestlers of the 21st century. Not only were both of them known for being incredible wrestlers, but KENTA was probably the wrestler whose style was closest to that of Bryan Danielson. Not only was Bryan a technical grappling master influenced by William Regal. He was also deeply influenced by the Four Pillars of Heaven of All Japan Pro Wrestling; in particular, Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. Meanwhile, KENTA trained in that style in AJPW’s and later NOAH’s dojo, and was thus a better ambassador for the famous King’s Road style than anyone else on NOAH’s roster.

So the question on everyone’s mind was, would Bryan continue his amazing run as world champion, or would KENTA make him go to sleep?

The match

This match originally took place on September 6th, 2006 and was rated 4.75-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It is for the ROH World Championship. Bryan is the villain in this match who has a previously-injured shoulder and KENTA is…well…KENTA. He kicks the crap out of anyone that gets in his way. He has no time for such nonsense as ‘good guys and bad guys’.

They shake hands and the match is on. The fans are evenly split between cheering KENTA and Bryan. They lock up and Bryan ducks a terrifying KENTA kick. Another lockup and KENTA bitchslaps Bryan. But Bryan just slaps himself to show that KENTA’s slap meant nothing. Another lock up occurs and Bryan returns the favor with a bitchslap of his own. They lock up once more and Bryan gets an armlock in and KENTA reaches the ropes. He breaks the hold and knees KENTA in the face.

KENTA pushes Bryan to the ropes and kicks him in his injured shoulder. Back in the ring, KENTA kicks the same shoulder again, and Bryan erupts in anger. He slaps KENTA in the face hard (with the left arm, instead of the damaged right one) and hits hard head-butts and knee strikes to KENTA. He snapmares KENTA and boots him in the back. But KENTA gets right back up and does the exact same move, but with greater force.

Bryan starts dodging KENTA, clutching his right arm. There’s some great selling and psychology there because he knows KENTA will target that arm unrelentingly. KENTA kicks the arm and Bryan applies a headlock to try and stop him. KENTA reverses a headlock from Bryan with a neck lock and spins his way out of it. Clever wrestling there by Bryan as he rolls into a Regal Stretch-like hold.

Bryan keeps this hold in for a long time and sits backwards, adding more pressure to KENTA’s neck. Bryan tries and armlock but KENTA kicks his way out and tries a wristlock on the injured arm. Bryan whips KENTA and lands a nice dropkick. He tries for a pescado but KENTA dodges and punts Bryan hard in the arm once again. Then to show how much of a bastard he is, KENTA smashes Bryan shoulder-first into thaw steel barricade and kicks at the shoulder some more.

In the ring, KENTA applies another submission hold but Bryan rolls through. KENTA sees this and reverses into another arm lock. They keep changing holds and reversing each other until Bryan lands a crucifix pin for a one-count. KENTA continues with knees to the shoulder then teases a tope but lands on his feet and rubs his foot in Bryan’s face. That pisses Bryan off and he tackles KENTA. He tries to attack the legs but KENTA locks in a kimura lock until Bryan reaches the ropes.

Bryan fires back with slaps and head-butt, and he goes for a sunset flip. But KENTA keeps his balance and slaps the taste out of Bryan’s mouth. Damn, that sounded like a gunshot going off. KENTA pins but gets a two-count then returns to the arm submission holds. Each time Bryan tries to out-grapple KENTA, KENTA finds a way back to the arm. Excellent psychology there.

KENTA whips Bryan but Bryan dodges and lands a nice cravate suplex. Bryan lands kicks of his own followed by a vertical suplex. As he pins, he starts choking KENTA. He’s in full control as he rakes KENTA’s face over the top rope. Bryan teases a surfboard, but one of KENTA’s legs comes loose. The crowd chants ‘you f****d up’, so Bryan responds by jumping onto both of KENTA’s knees. Great cover.

Bryan lands a few spinning toe stretches and cinches in a figure-4 leglock. At one point he uses the ropes for leverage and KENTA tries to point this out to the ref, but the ref never sees it. Kenta reaches the ropes but Bryan takes his sweet time releasing the hold. A few people applaud this general dickishness by Bryan.

KENTA reverses an Irish whip and the two of them block each other’s strikes, until KENTA lands a huge kick to the leg and a vertical suplex. Dropkick by KENTA followed by a KENTA rush and a springboard dropkick. All of that gets KENTA a two-count. He goes for a fisherman suplex, but Bryan blocks it, so he transitions into a double arm suplex for two instead. Cross armbreaker by KENTA. On the injured shoulder. Bryan reaches the ropes with his foot, showing great ring awareness. KENTA whips Bryan, he does a tiger mask flip, then ducks under a charging KENTA and catches him with a single leg crab. Great sequence.

KENTA reaches the ropes but Bryan won’t release the hold. Enzuigiri by KENTA. He goes for the Go 2 Sleep, but Bryan escapes and lands a Misawa-style rolling elbow. Superplex by Bryan gets a 2.5-count. Crossface chickenwing by Bryan. KENTA tries to reach the ropes, but he can’t as Bryan falls back and applies a bodyscissors. Kenta breaks the hold and Bryan starts climbing the top rope. He’s moving more slowly now because the pain to his body’s starting to add up. He goes for a diving headbutt, but KENTA gets hit feet up and kicks him in the head. KENTA attempts a springboard dropkick, but Bryan kicks his stomach in mid-air. Great counter.

Both guys get up and start exchanging hard strikes. Then they take it to the next level and exchange running strikes, Kings Road-style. Yakuza kicks and head-butts are being thrown with reckless abandon. German suplex by Bryan. Fisherman suplex by Bryan. Rolling elbow by Bryan. Rolling lariat by KENTA sends both men down. Standing ovation from the crowd.

A clothesline from KENTA sends both of them ringside. Bryan whips KENTA into the barricade, but he blocks it with his foot. He turns to charge but walks right into a belly-to-belly suplex from Bryan. Right onto the ringside mats. Then Bryan tosses KENTA and he goes flying over the barricade into some fans. Bryan isn’t done. He springboards and flies all the way from the ring to the fans. Man, that’s crazy. The entire Manhattan Centre gets to their feet chanting ‘ROH’.

Back in the ring, Bryan lands a shotgun dropkick onto KENTA. He goes for a rolling elbow but KENTA reverses into a Fujiwara armbar. Bryan reverses a back suplex and dives, but KENTA reverses into an Ace Crusher. Back to the Fujiwawa armbar! Bryan’s desperate to reach the ropes and finally makes it, causing fans to erupt in cheers.

Bryan blocks a KENTA rush and lands a regal-plex for a 2.8-count. Super back suplex by Bryan, but KENTA kicks out. Cattle mutilation! KENTA reaches the ropes. Bryan ascends the top rope, but KENTA cuts him off. He teases the avalanche falcon arrow, but Bryan blocks and tosses him away. Bryan flies…but lands on KENTA’s shoulders. GO! TO! SLEEP! The match is over. Bryan’s done. The referee counts one…two…thre—NO! Bryan gets his foot on the ropes. Bryan is the first person to survive KENTA’s dreaded Go 2 Sleep!

KENTA decides enough’s enough. Busaiku knee to the back of Bryan’s head! KENTA charges again, but Bryan reverses it into a rolling clutch for a 2.9-count. KENTA knocks Bryan down again and teases the end. He lifts him up for the GTS again, Bryan reverses into a crucifix, but KENTA kicks out at two. Bryan launches into an elbow flurry to the side of KENTA’s head. Bryan delivers 37 hard elbows to the head. But KENTA absorbs them. He even gets up with Bryan on his shoulders as Bryan hammers away with elbows. Bryan takes him down and goes for Cattle Mutilation, but KENTA rolls into a pin for another two-count.

Bryan maintains control as he still has the arms hooked. Bridging tiger suplex. The referee counts one…two…thr—No, KENTA kicks out at 2.9. Cattle Mutilation! It’s locked in again. More elbows from Bryan. He locks it in once more. KENTA taps out! There’s the match.

Winner and STILL ROH World Champion after 33:02: ‘American Dragon’ Bryan Danielson

Review

This was an outstanding match. I can see why both guys got much praise during those days. Despite being incredibly small by pro wrestler standards, both of them performed admirably in this match. They wrestled in an incredibly stiff, technical wrestling style that you don’t see very often in North America.

This was a fantastic American version of King’s Road wrestling style made famous by AJPW and later NOAH. Both wrestlers beat the hell out of each other with stiff strikes and brutal submission holds. But what makes it stand out so much when compared to many ROH matches of its day is that it didn’t become too much of a ‘showman’s match’. The focus was on the grappling, which made it so much fun to watch.

I loved the psychology here as KENTA did whatever he could to destroy Bryan’s injured shoulder. Injuries like that should always be taken advantage of in wrestling because it makes the story more exciting and the injured wrestler’s struggle much deeper and intense. KENTA demolished Bryan with his insanely stiff kicks and matwork, and Bryan sold for him like a boss.

Unfortunately, KENTA really didn’t return the favor when Bryan attacked his legs. KENTA spent a long time in Bryan’s Figure-4 and in a single leg crab, yet he was springboarding and landing kicks left and right as if Bryan’s work didn’t matter. Just like in KENTA’s legendary match with Marufuji, the no-selling here hurt the match.

I understand that KENTA represented NOAH and had to look as hardnosed as possible. But in simply ignoring what work Bryan had done, it made Bryan’s submission wrestling completely insignificant. It didn’t even play into the false GTS finish, even though it should have. KENTA’s legs had been weakened by Bryan, so hitting the Go To Sleep would’ve been the perfect moment for him to sell leg pain to make for a more dramatic sequence.

Not only would that have made KENTA look like more of a badass by overcoming pain to land that finisher; but if KENTA sold the leg after hitting it and taken some time to pin Bryan, it would’ve protected the GTS as a finisher because KENTA wouldn’t’ve been able to pin Bryan immediately after hitting it, giving Bryan time to recover.

Final Rating: ****3/4

While I think this match is undeniably epic, I wouldn’t consider it a perfect, 5-star classic. It has all the elements of an otherwise perfect match, but KENTA’s lack of selling sticks out too much. He just didn’t work Bryan’s legwork into his selling or his actions, which only hindered everything that followed it.

To me, selling your opponent’s offense is just as important as landing your own. Bryan had the right strategy in attacking KENTA’s legs; his opponent’s finisher is a knee lift and he likes to springboard, so I’m going to weaken his legs to take those options way from him. And while Bryan went out of his way to sell for KENTA and work the injured shoulder into the match like a true wrestling master, KENTA just didn’t do the same with the legs.

Had he done so, even with the smallest subtlety like hitting his knee, falling to the ground after landing the GTS or limping around the ring a bit, this match would’ve reached that upper level of true 5-star epics.

So while it doesn’t reach that mythical level, it’s a fantastic match all the same. Both wrestlers put on dazzling performances here. If ROH ever decided to create a Hall of Fame, these two would both be first-ballot nominees, without a doubt.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.