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AIPT's 2021 Wrestler of the Year is Bryan Danielson
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Pro Wrestling

AIPT’s 2021 Wrestler of the Year is Bryan Danielson

Whether he was main eventing WWE’s WrestleMania or changing the AEW landscape, nobody had a better 2021 than Bryan Danielson.

2021 was a year of new beginnings and rebirth in professional wrestling. After a deeply depressing 2020, 2021 saw the return of fans, as the ThunderDome closed its doors and Daily’s Place got a much-needed break. But there is one wrestler who best exemplifies the year of change and growth that 2021 was, and he also happens to be AIPT’s 2021 Wrestler of the Year: "Daniel" Bryan Danielson.

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Whether it was as one of the pillars of WWE’s SmackDown roster or as one of AEW’s hottest talent acquisitions in a year that saw many of them, whether he was the Yes Guy or the American Dragon, Bryan Danielson was consistent throughout 2021 as one of the best performers of whatever brand he was competing on. In one calendar year, he played the roles of classic babyface, somewhat obnoxious tweener, and jerkwad heel all to perfection. He gave both WWE and AEW multiple match of the year candidates. If not for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, he likely would have tore it up in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 tournament as well.

Bryan’s year was cleanly split into two chapters: the last hurrah of the "Yes" guy, Daniel Bryan, and the rebirth of the American Dragon, Bryan Danielson.

Just Say Yes, One Last Time

AIPT's 2021 Wrestler of the Year is Bryan Danielson

WWE

After an unsuccessful appearance in the Royal Rumble, 2021 saw Daniel Bryan win his third Elimination Chamber match — placing him tied with John Cena for second place, just below Triple H’s record four victories. It didn’t win him the Universal Championship that he had his sights set on, but it did give him an argument for being inserted into the Roman Reigns vs. Edge WrestleMania main event that had been pencilled in — an argument that was convincing enough to WWE Officials Adam Pearce and Sonya Deville. Bryan wouldn’t win that match either, but it was his second time main eventing WrestleMania, which is pretty impressive for a guy many thought had a low glass ceiling in the Land of the Giants.

Roman Reigns vs. Edge vs. Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 37 didn’t go the way Bryan had hoped, but it was a match of the year candidate in a career full of match of the year candidates. In a weird time for WWE, Daniel Bryan stepped up to the plate one last time and knocked it out of the park. Following the Mania match, Bryan weaseled his way into one last chance at Roman’s Universal Championship, promising to leave SmackDown forever had he lost. Much like every single other person who has stepped up to the Tribal Chief since his return in August 2020, Bryan failed one last time, and was banished from the brand he had dedicated much of his career to revitalizing.

It capped off a Shawn Michaels-like second half of Bryan’s WWE career that many thought would never happen — after being forced to retire in 2016, simply seeing Bryan back in the ring at all from 2018 on was a gift. That his second WWE run was nearly as good as his first was the icing on top. 2018 saw the birth of my personal favorite incarnation of the Daniel Bryan persona: the cardigan-wearing, hemp-belt-carrying eco-warrior who chided the WWE Universe for being "fickle" while unleashing a new level of brutality against the likes of AJ Styles, Brock Lesnar, and Kofi Kingston. That heel character was unlike anything he had done in WWE up to that point, and evolved his character in a way that brought him all the way to that second WrestleMania main event.

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

After losing on the April 30th edition of SmackDown, Bryan took some time away from pro wrestling, leaving members of the Yes! Movement to wonder what was next. In an interview with BT Sports, Bryan noted an "odd detachment" from the WrestleMania main event he had just participated in.

It’s taken me time to fully process what the experience was like because it wasn’t like a normal thing. It was really weird, [I was] like out-of-body in it. When I’m wrestling, I feel everything and feel like I really enjoy it. This was weird, I was out there and it felt like I was detached. It was so strange in fact that before the match started, I got this strange feeling like, ‘Is this what it’s like before you die? Am I going to die? I was like huh, well, okay.’ I don’t know why or how it happened, but it was unlike anything I have felt while wrestling.

This was not great news for members of the WWE Universe who were hoping their hero would return to the promotion he’d called home since 2010. And indeed, later that summer, rumblings began that suggested the five time WWE World Champion was about to take his talents to Jacksonville.

The American Dragon Rises

AIPT's 2021 Wrestler of the Year is Bryan Danielson

After months of speculation, Bryan, reverting to his real name of Bryan Danielson, made a surprise debut at AEW’s All Out on September 5th, interrupting the debut of another former WWE Superstar, Adam Cole.

Bryan, once again calling himself "The American Dragon", a moniker he had carried with him all throughout his pre-WWE career, immediately set his sights on Kenny Omega’s AEW World Championship. And at AEW’s special Grand Slam edition of Dynamite on September 22, Bryan got his match: Bryan Danielson vs. Kenny Omega for the AEW World Championship in Bryan’s first match outside of the WWE system in over 10 years.

While Bryan didn’t lose the match, per se, he was unsuccessful in his quest for Pretty Platinum, as the match went to a 30 minute draw. Despite not having a winner, the match was absolutely incredible, added another match of the year candidate to Bryan’s 2021 quiver (Dave Meltzer would award Danielson his first-ever five star match for this one), and left the fans salivating at the thought of a Bryan/Omega rematch.

After that, Bryan continually put on bangers in rapid succession, scoring victories over the likes of Nick Jackson, Minoru Suzuki, Eddie Kingston, Rocky Romero and more, all while beginning to show his true colors as someone who isn’t merely just happy to be in a new environment: after a decade of dialing it back a bit as a sports entertainer, this was a violent individual hell-bent on proving he’s still the most dangerous professional wrestler on the planet, and like it or not, he’s gonna kick some f*cking heads in.

While Danielson was running roughshod on the AEW (and NJPW) roster, "Hangman" Adam Page fulfilled his destiny and defeated Kenny Omega at Full Gear to win the AEW World Championship, giving Dragon a new target. The two would clash at the Winter is Coming special edition of Dynamite, where Bryan would once again put in a time limit draw, this time sixty minutes, the first full-on Broadway on national television in who knows how long. Danielson came up short again, but he made one thing clear: he isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

The Year of the Dragon

2021 was a year full of immensely talented wrestlers pleading their cases as wrestlers of the year, but none showed the range that Bryan Danielson did. Starting the year as one of WWE’s most beloved Superstars and closing it out as one of AEW’s biggest acquisitions, Bryan has had the unique opportunity to throw down with the best talent North American wrestling has to offer — from AJ Styles to Eddie Kingston, from Roman Reigns to Kenny Omega. Constrained by the WWE style or allowed to let his violent imagination run wild, it didn’t matter. Bryan was the year’s best wrestler, no matter what brand he was performing under.

While CM Punk is arguably AEW’s most important signing to date, Danielson may prove to be the most valuable. In AEW, Bryan Danielson has fused the innovative in-ring talent of his Ring of Honor days with the character and promo ability of his WWE days. At the age of 40, after 22 years of wrestling his way to main events and world titles, Bryan showed he’s still at the top of his game, and arguably, better than ever. That makes Bryan Danielson AIPT’s 2021 Wrestler of the Year.

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