The suspension of disbelief. This is exactly what recently retired WWE superstar Daniel Bryan had restored for me as a wrestling fan. Too many years in the past decade had gone by when old favorites like Bret Hart, Steve Austin, and The Rock had left the squared circle which left us with company manufactured stars like John Cena and Randy Orton. I had blogged about my frustration about WWE’s booking in the past and why guys like Bryan deserved to be main eventers. Some of that frustration came out of the moments when the company got it right in having us sympathize with him because of the uphill battle he faced on television every week against “The Authority” to prove he was not a B+ player. Though his career feels as if it was cut short by serious injuries, Bryan left a legacy behind him that is relevant to myself and to wrestling fans worldwide.
The close circle of friends and I first heard about this indie darling named Bryan Danielson back in 2006. Though he had been wrestling since 1999 with past training under the likes of Shawn Michaels and William Regal, it was in ’06 when most of us were seeking an alternative to WWE’s stale programing. Word was spreading around about this American Dragon who worked for Ring of Honor and was considered to be the best wrestler in the world. All we had to do was watch a match between Bryan and Samoa Joe just to see how badass he really was in the ring. As a result, Bryan along with Christopher Daniels, Jack Evans, Colt Cabana, and various others made me a fan of the indie wrestling scene.
My first time witnessing Bryan wrestle live was in the Hammerstein Ballroom for Final Battle 2008. He wrestled Takeshi Morishima in a Fight Without Honor match as the main event. It was arguably one of the most brutal matches I ever witnessed live. What Bryan lacked in size and strength, he made up for with his intensity and his willingness to take risks. It was brutal. It was bloody. It was worth the price of admission. I watched him frequently at other ROH live shows as well as the short lived TV show on HD Net before he signed with WWE.
Bryan entered the WWE as a rookie on the new NXT show back when it was a Tough Enough-style contest. He came in with plenty of fan fare; however, it was just the beginning of the WWE machine trying to downplay him. He made big statements early on by wrestling some impressive matches with Chris Jericho and Batista. Then when he got eliminated from the competition, he cut an amazing promo about the company holding him down in favor of bigger guys that Vince McMahon preferred. In a strange way, it felt like the prototype for CM Punk’s infamous pipebomb promo on Monday Night Raw a year later.
In these initial years in WWE, Bryan was constantly being pushed down while fans loudly voiced their support for him. When he got fired after the Nexus debut for choking Justin Roberts by his tie, fans hijacked shows for weeks until he was rehired. When they tried to make him a cowardly world heavyweight champion the following year, he started getting fans unintentionally to start chanting YES! When the company jobbed him to Sheamus in 18 seconds at Wrestlemania 28 to lose his title, the chants got louder. Whatever this company threw at Bryan to make him a comedy act, he twisted it up and made big money out of it. Even his overgrown beard that was supposed to be his Achilles Heel became popularized.
Though we as fans supported Bryan and got a tremendous amount of entertainment watching him perform, the higher ups in WWE just could not buy him as a legitimate star. I wrote a blog after he was left out of the 2014 Royal Rumble where I broke down a number of past stars who grew popular on their own versus the ones that management hand picked as main eventers. Bryan falls into the former category as someone who got over by luck and chance. Not because anyone told his opponents to make him look strong. The company had no choice but to make him the WWE Champion at Wrestlemania 30 given the circumstances of CM Punk leaving the company and the negative fan reaction to the company’s intended draw for Batista vs. Randy Orton. Still, making Bryan the champion did not mean he was pushing John Cena aside. Before his injuries forced him to relinquish the title that summer, WWE was booking him in a terrible feud with his former tag team partner Kane which put him in ratings killer segments. They also intentionally left out his two big matches on the NBC rebroadcast of Wrestlemania and had plans for him to get destroyed by Brock Lesnar at Summerslam prior to the injuries. So regardless of the fan support and the loud YES! chants, this company had an agenda to do everything possible to hold Bryan down in favor of moving up their hand picked star in Roman Reigns. Unlike CM Punk, however, Bryan rarely ever complained about his spot in the company. He was happy to have a job and willing to learn what it took to be a sports entertainer.
As a fan, I would be satisfied with Bryan getting his big moment just one time as long as he was allowed to give us a few more memorable matches with guys like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, Finn Balor, etc. As a human being, however, Bryan’s health and future plans for family are top priority and we can’t be selfish about that. Too many legendary stars have passed on too soon because of off the wear and tear of life on the road. His retirement speech on Raw was one of the most emotional moments ever witnessed on TV. The press he received for it was proof of how big of a star he really was despite WWE’s simplistic view. To be a man who made his dreams come true to main event on the grand stage, win the big title, have many great friends and memorable matches, and to have his family witness his unbelievable achievements, Daniel Bryan certainly had a lot to be grateful for. I’m grateful for the times he made us care about good storytelling in the ring and the doors he broke down for other indie stars to make it into the WWE. Only one could dream of an HBK-like comeback in a couple of years. But for now, Daniel Bryan hangs up his boots and Bryan Danielson is going to be all right.