Disc 1 kicked off with the two out of three falls match with Paul London from Epic Encounter, a match that's achieved a somewhat legendary legacy in ROH circles. After about ten minutes of sportsmanlike mat wrestling, Danielson became more and more aggressive until he became his usual sadistic self and did things like catching London in an abdominal stretch and repeatedly blasting him in the face with open hand palmstrikes. London weathered the assault and countered a top rope backdrop suplex to win the first fall, but slipped when attempting a move off the top rope and got his leg tangled in the ropes. Danielson smelledblood and viciously attacked London's knee like a shark, working it over for several minutes before trapping London in a high angle half crab. Cuaght in the middle of the ring and unable to reach the ropes, London was left with no choice but to tap out and concede the second fall to Danielson. Now we're all tied up at one fall apiece and Danielson went back after London's leg, but London repeatedly kicked Danielson square in the face to keep him from inflicting any more damage. At this point the match turned into a straight up slugfest as London and Danielson pummeled one another into oblivion. Danielson hit the top rope backdrop suplex on the second attempt and went back to the half crab, but London somehow survived over a minute in the hold and hit a really ugly tornado DDT and the London Star Press for the win. I have to admit, this didn't stand out to me the first time I watched it years ago, but these two really tore it up in the third fall and, while I still won't say it's even clsoe to the best or most important match in ROH history, it was still very good and an impressive showing of stamina since they went over 40 minutes.
We now flash forward to November of 2003 as Danielson took on AJ Styles in a match for the #1 Contender's Trophy, which also happened to be Danielson's first ROH match since Epic Encounter. For those who aren't familiar with the trophy, its primary function was obviously that the person who held it was in line for a shot at the ROH World Title and would give it up after receiving said opportunity, but it was also a sort of secondary title in that the holder would defend it until they got their title shot and could lose the trophy as if it were a title in its own right. It may have been a bit more complex than necessary, but was a cool idea in theory at least and provided for a bit of extra drama. In addition to being extremely stiff, this match also marked the debut of something ROH used to pull out for the biggest matches, as the commentators signed off at the beginning of the match so the match and crowd reactions could speak for themselves. It's a feature ROH added years later when they added an option on the DVD menu to watch the show in its entirety without commentary. Danielson hurt his knee going over the top rope and AJ worked it over in much the same way Danielson had done to London in the last match, and Danielson kept yelling at AJ to give him more as AJ continued destroying him with stiff kicks. Danielson finally caught a break when he countered AJ's moonsault/deathdrop combo to a three quarter nelson suplex, and then they went into a great finishing sequence where Danielson caught AJ in a triangle choke, AJ lifted Danielson off the mat and countered to a Styles Clash, but only got 2 so he hit a second Styles Clash and got the win.
We move on to Final Battle 2003, as Danielson took on Jay Briscoe, who was at that time in the midst of his first ROH World Tag Team Title reign with Mark. This opened a historic show, as Final Battle 2003 was the first ROH show in the Philadelphia National Guard Armory, which became their new home in Philly except for a few years they moved to the ECW Arena during the HDNet era. Danielson controlled Briscoe for the first several minutes and tried to psych him out by wrestling to embarrass Briscoe as much as he was trying to beat him, but Briscoe finally had enough and turned the match into a brawl. Briscoe hit several hard shots, but Danielson turned it right around out of nowhere by countering the Jay Driller to a Dragon suplex before tapping Briscoe out to Cattle Mutilation.
Next up is a match that I think will be very interesting to WWE fans, as Danielson took on CM Punk at Reborn: Stage One with Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat serving as the special referee. Danielson and Punk of course engaged in a good series of matches earlier this year when both were champions of their respective brands, but they had wrestled probably dozens of times on the independents before either one signed with WWE, and this was their first encounter in an ROH ring. This was a very important show for ROH as they were in the midst of trying to rebuild the company coming out of the Feinstein Incident, and Steamboat was a big part of that, as he made several appearances for ROH throughout 2004 and his name value and storyline with Punk helped bring the company some desperately needed credibility. While this was a great match, much of the focus was on the heat between Punk and Steamboat, and also Steamboat's somewhat suspect officiating that may havebeen slightly biased in Danielson's favor. I was frankly pretty shocked at such obviously biased refereeing from someone who is supposed to be a babyface, but I guess we should have expected that from a notoriously angry sociopath like Ricky Steamboat. Danielson tortured Punk with a series of very painful looking stretches, but Punk finally got a bit of an advantage by using a back suplex to dump Danielson over the top rope and to the floor. Punk really tried, but in the end he was unable to overcome Steamboat's crooked officiating and, after being on the receiving end of numerous fast counts and a blatant low blow that Steamboat nonchalantly ignored, Danielson caught Punk in a seated abdominal stretch after working Punk's ribs over the entire match. After twisting Punk into a position the human body simply isn't supposed to bend, Punk finally decided that he would not be able to overcome such unfavorable odds and, clearly disgusted with the position a supposedly respectful company like ROH had put him in, tapped out with fire in his eyes that burned with a desire for revenge.
Luckily for Danielson, he checks out of the whole Punk-Steamboat mess at this point and we now move on to the finals of the first ever Survival Of The Fittest tournament, which came down to Danielson and a man who would become one of his greatest rivals in ROH, Austin Aries. Aries had only made his debut in ROH as a part of Generation Next about a month earlier, but even at this point you could tell there were plans for him since he was in a pretty prominent position here in the SOTF finals, as well as other matches he would be involved in over the next few months. A lot of Danielson's matches in 2004 and 2005 saw him approach his matches in a somewhat sadistic fashion, as he rather casually tied his opponents up in all kinds of submission holds, and he would also throw in similarly sadistic strikes, such as a couple of points in this match when Danielson slumped Aries on the ropes facing away from him, and delivered hard chops to the back of Aries' head. This match really went a long way toward making Aries, as he had a very competitive exchange with Danielson where he repeatedly rammed Danielson into the barricade, and then escaped Cattle Mutilation and countered right into a Rings of Saturn. Aries hit a brainbuster and tried the 450 splash, but Danielson got the knees up and proceeded to destroy Aries with several roaring forearms and a seemingly neverending barrage of bodyslams, but Aries still refused to lose. Danielson finally trapped Aries in a vicious bearhug (and if you've never thought of a bearhug as a dangerous hold, watch this match as Danielson shows you how to do it right) and then when Aries began to fade out, Danielson took him to his back and cranked him over into a sort of waistlock variation of a Boston Crab that looked like it would have broken Aries in half if it weren't for him finally tapping out to end the match as Danielson became the first ever winner of Survival Of The Fittest.
We wrap up the first disc with another legendary Danielson-Aries encounter, a two out of three falls match that went over 75 minutes. I recently reviewed the ROH show from South Carolina where the eight man elimination match broke the record as the longest match in ROH history, and this match set the record the eight man broke. This match was expected to go long coming in given that they went about 25 minutes in just the last fall of Survival Of The Fittest, and each fall here was given its own one hour time limit. An interesting bit of trivia: the original plan here was for Danielson and Aries to do two one hour draws in the first two falls before giving us a winner in the third, but they got to a point where they both realized they wouldn't be able to last nearly three hours and decided to cut it short at 75 minutes. They spent about the first fifteen minutes just mat wrestling, smartly telling the story on the mat to try and conserve energy for the long haul. They picked up the pace after that as Aries began drilling Danielson with some high impact shots, but Danielson started working over the ribs of Aries, picking him up for a vertical suplex and dumping him on the top rope before putting him in an abdominal stretch, no doubt setting up another painful submission that will hopefully incapacitate Aries for the other falls. Danielson showed that he would do anything he could to win this one by using the ropes while he had Aries in the abdominal stretch, and then took him down for a modified version of the seated abdominal stretch he beat Punk with. After what seemed like an eternity of punishment to the ribs, Aries backdropped Danielson to the floor and hit a dive over the ropes to turn the tide. They slowed back down and went back to the mat at the thirty minute mark and Danielson got Aries in an Anaconda Vice, but nobody used it as a finish in the United States yet, so it was just a wear down hold here. They pick the pace back up at 40 minutes as Danielson hits a superplex and flying headbutt, then they trade pinning combinations until Aries hits the crucifix bomb and trapped Danielson in the Rings of Saturn, but Danielson wouldn't tap out so Aries released the Rings of Saturn and instead put Danielson in Cattle Mutilation and forced him to tap out to his own hold at the 42 minute mark.
They proved they're insane because once the second fall started, Aries went to the top rope and Danielson simply shoved him to the floor where he landed right on the barricade. Danielson went right after him and began attacking the knee, repeatedly ramming it into the guardrail and then locking Aries in a half crab with his knee buried in the back of Aries' neck. Aries got out of that, so Danielson went about torturing Aries with several variations on the Indian Deathlock, but then he dumped Aries out to the floor and went for a dive, but something went wrong and he crashed and burned hard. The match stopped completely for a minute or two as Aries tries to pick Danielson up, but Danielson is completely out and is dead weight, so Aries goes to the top rope and hits an elbowdrop to the floor onto Danielson in another insane moment. Even once Danielson began moving again, Aries continued the assault and rammed him into the ringpost and barricade before rolling him back into the ring and going for the kill. He hit several splash type moves and then tossed Danielson back outside, but Danielson dodged a charging forearm and Aries hit the ringpost, and now Danielson seems to be re-energized as he goes to work on the arm of Aries as we hit the one hour mark. Aries hit a brainbuster, but was unable to follow up and Danielson got Cattle Mutilation, but wasn't able to make Aries tap, so he circled Aries' head and rolled him into a double arm stack to get a three count and win the second fall.
Danielson attacked Aries with a vengeance, smashing him with forearm shots and then putting Aries on the top rope for another superplex, but Aries blocked and countered to a top rope DDT. Now Aries is in the driver's seat and he begins bodyslamming Danielson over and over as Danielson liked to do at the time, but Danielson returned fire with a series of even harder bodyslams and got the bearhug he used to win Survival Of The Fittest. He squeezed as hard as he could, Aries escaped and got Danielson in a bearhug of his own, but Danielson managed to counter back to his bearhug and went for the waistlock Boston Crab like last time. Aries prevented Danielson from completing the move by pulling himself up fro the mat and headbutting Danielson until he released the hold, but Danielson hit another top rope backdrop suplex and got Aries in Cattle Mutilation again. Aries made it to the ropes, so Danielson tempted fate by putting Aries on top of the corner yet again, but Aries fought him off and knocked him to the mat. Aries went for the 450 and Danielson dodged out of the way and Aries hit the mat hard. They trade forearms in the middle of the ring, then Aries puts Danielson on the top rope and hits a super brainbuster, but Danielson still somehow kicks out, so Aries picks Danielson up and hits a conventional brainbuster, picks him back up and hits yet a third brainbuster, then goes back to the top rope and hits the 450 splash to win this insane marathon.
That match was simply incredile, you had two of the best wrestlers around telling an amazing story out there, and both men were so determined to win that they survived untold amounts of punishment for well over an hour, to the point where Aries practically had to kill Danielson to beat him. This is the kind of match that both men win because of how good it made the two of them look, and Aries in particular was made as a main eventer because of his performance here, momentum he rode to Final Battle 2004 when he beat Samoa Joe to end his record 21-month reign as ROH World Champion. As for Danielson, however, he had already earned his title shot by winning Survival Of The Fittest, so without further ado...
Danielson gets his first shot at the ROH World Title next on Page 2!