Now more than ever, great matches aren’t uncommon, especially in AEW. Even with those increasingly high standards though, outliers remain. They may not be unanimous examples of course, as taste will vary but regardless, I think we all have an internal playlist that fits the description. For whatever reason, there will always be matches that hit you a little harder, stories that strike a step deeper. It doesn’t have to be one genre or style either, that’s the beauty of this nonsense in truth.
Unsurprisingly, the latest addition to my collection came on Friday, as Bryan Danielson and Eddie Kingston painted a masterpiece on AEW Rampage. Physically, this match spoke for itself, a brutal affair packed with a violent brand of drama. Two of the promotion’s top stars fighting for every inch, combining their contrasting styles and so seamlessly existing in the middle ground within. The audience’s raw reaction told the tale, as Danielson and Kingston earned a stunning show of respect, a spontaneous standing ovation to be exact.
Beyond that though, there was an emotional weight to this war that for me at least, followed Kingston through the ropes. Before the bell, Danielson questioned Kingston’s work ethic, drawing a predictably emotional response. Kingston’s short fuse is central to his identity, but the content in this case was a little different. Disrespected by Danielson’s dismissal, Kingston cited his battle with depression, bringing that always present backdrop to the fore. Kingston’s mental health message certainly wasn’t muted before, though there was a certain anguish to his presence here.
Eddie Kingston is beloved, no matter where AEW goes, no matter who he’s fighting or why. Part of that is his unwavering vulnerability, wearing his heart on his sleeve at every turn, even in the heat of battle. In this scenario though, Kingston wasn’t opening up for anyone but Danielson himself, delivering each admission with that familiar rage. Kingston didn’t need or even want Danielson to understand, he just had to counter that concern. Win or lose, he wouldn’t be outworked, he’d have to be outfought.
A self-proclaimed master of self-sabotage, Kingston’s physique wouldn’t fail him, any frailties far outweighed by the fight within him. If there was any doubt before, this segment cemented the reality that on Rampage, Kingston would be bringing a frightening aggression, excessive even for him. This wouldn’t be a case of Kingston failing to prepare, it’d be a case of the brave gunslinger giving everything against his generation’s greatest. In many ways, the result always felt inevitable, but Kingston wouldn’t give himself, or Bryan, an easy way out.
With that brief but powerful pre-match context, Kingston’s arc felt like the hook here, even against Danielson. As usual, Kingston wasn’t just fighting the man opposite him. In fact, he wasn’t even sharing another round with himself, there was an idea that stood in front of Kingston here. After all, though their careers have run a comparable length thus far, Danielson is the antithesis of Kingston. The ultimate pro, Danielson is above critique at this point, an industry mega-star that could even qualify as a celebrity.
The irony of that of course being that Kingston doesn’t really want any of those things, it’s just the shining example he’s so often contrasted with. Danielson is the standard, a headliner in any setting and the era’s artistic centrepiece. On the other hand, Kingston is a rugged throwback, until recently struggling to stick in a major league setting. With those struggles came inevitable evaluations, as onlookers questioned Kingston’s attitude, commitment and style. Against Danielson, he could erase every doubt, with this pre-match exchange only the first example of exactly that.
Kingston’s performance never lacks intensity, his matches seldom without violence. This was a visible tier or two above the norm though, as Kingston swiftly made a mark on Danielson’s chest. Within the overarching narrative that I was so fervently following, Danielson’s brilliance was obviously integral. The only wrestler more selfless than Kingston, Danielson’s lack of ego allowed this to stand alone from his usual outings. Here, it was Kingston on the attack, not battling uphill but instead, the unusually dominant aggressor.
At one point, it was almost discomforting, as Kingston maintained offensive control in a fashion that’s hardly ever been the case throughout his incredible career. Kingston has made a living as the often overly charitable punching bag, selling for every foe, generous to a fault. In this match though, perhaps the biggest of Kingston’s career, it was quite the opposite. Danielson fits that same description and as a result, Kingston suddenly spread his wings on offence, absolutely brutalising the legitimately iconic WrestleMania headliner.
Even with that trend though, the endgame still felt set in stone, unbeknownst to Kingston of course. There was a focus to Kingston that even at his most intense, usually feels wavering. Though the aggression could’ve suggested otherwise, this wasn’t even desperation, it was a committed pursuit of victory. This was Eddie Kingston at his most professional ironically, producing a performance befitting Danielson’s status. Though it was absent both before and after, the respect was palpable, Kingston acknowledging his opponent’s excellence by maximising his own famed potential.
The Eddie Kingston story has familiar beats though, no matter the circumstance. In the end, that would be his undoing but not before an incredible visual that got Kingston in trouble along the way. In complete control, Kingston refused to relent on his ascent of the top rope, climbing up only to be knocked back down. Twice though, Kingston gathered himself and defiantly fought Danielson off, heading back up against his better judgment. On the third occasion, Kingston paid the price, as Danielson’s counter shifted the match’s momentum.
Though on the surface, it was just a fleeting sequence of action, it felt more significant than that within this particular story. In many ways, this minute or so was symbolic of the match itself, Kingston gallantly pursuing the industry’s mountaintop. No matter what came in response, Kingston kept climbing and ultimately, it was all for nought anyway. I don’t know, there’s something to that for me, both regarding this story but beyond that, within Kingston’s career journey too. On every rewatch, that transition carries more weight.
A few minutes and many strikes later, Kingston finally landed his signature Spinning Backfist, falling to the floor as the arena rose to its feet. Finally, Kingston was on a level playing field with Danielson, proving himself as ‘The American Dragon’s absolute equal. Though not the conventional headline act, Kingston quite clearly belonged on this night, and that couldn’t have been clearer as he crawled toward his hard-fought advantage. Not for the first time though, Kingston seemingly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, or something like that anyway.
Suddenly caught in a Triangle Choke, Kingston was swiftly choked unconscious, offering a rebellious middle finger before the lights went out. I’ll always remember Handwerk Reviews’ description of Kingston as “the greatest and most captivating loser of a generation.” Certainly, Kingston’s role on Rampage couldn’t fit that any more perfectly. As Danielson stayed frozen in exhaustion though, this finish appeared to be conveying a different conclusion altogether. Kingston had lost, clearly, but this was very much a case of Danielson winning.
With a point to prove, Eddie Kingston had produced an effort that would’ve conquered almost any titan of his or any generation. Unfortunately, Bryan Danielson was the outlier, because of course he was. I suppose that in some ways, that’s as Eddie Kingston as it gets, saving his best night for the one man that’d still be just a touch too good. Kingston didn’t feel much like a loser as they both laid lifeless though, the momentary moral victor before inevitably taking himself back to square one.
Clearly, this story is incomplete, hopefully still quite a few chapters from its conclusion too. Perhaps the ultimate triumph remains ahead of Kingston, or maybe this is just the latest example of a never-ending curse. Time will tell but on Rampage, Kingston validated his whole career. For two decades, Kingston has showed signs that he’s worthy of this spotlight and against the world’s best, he couldn’t have felt more at home. There’s glory in that, it’s just that as usual with Kingston, it’s never quite as visible as his hand high in victory.