If you listen to the generally unbearable WWE lead announcer Michael Cole, Daniel Bryan is a nerd. Cole calls a lot of people nerds as part of his shrill heel act, but when he uses the word on Bryan, a particular form of venomous derision creeps into his voice. Bryan doesn't own a TV, Cole notes. He's a vegan. And he says this stuff with the same tone that I use to discuss UC Davis riot cops, or that one mother who's choosing to raise her kids "houseless." Tough to figure what the WWE hopes to accomplish with Cole's disgusted snark overload on this guy.
Because here's the thing about Bryan: For most of the past decade, he was, by general nerd consensus, the single best independent wrestler on in America. Back then, he was Bryan Danielson, the American Dragon. He'd trained under Dean Malenko, Shawn Michaels, and William Regal. He'd built a rep all over the world. He'd wrestled in the main event of the first-ever Ring of Honor show in 2002. He'd eventually won that company's championship, and the championships of half the other indies in the country. He wrestled a particularly brutal MMA-derived submission style, one that involved twisting people into Slinkys and/or kicking them in the head really hard, over and over, with audible thwacks. He's a bad man.
But being a bad man is never enough. The WWE has built itself on chiseled, charismatic figures, and Danielson isn't that. He comes from Aberdeen, Washington—Nirvana's hometown, near Olympia. In Olympia, a vaguely stoned, permanently bewildered demeanor affects a certain percent of its population. That's Danielson. Given WWE's lack of tolerance toward wrestler weed-smoking and Danielson's ridiculous physical abilities, I have to assume that he's not actually high all the time, or ever. But he sure does seem like it. He's a vegan because he's got some weird health issues, not because of any ethical reason, and he also seems like a guy with weird health issues. When he talks, he often seems to be half-there, mumbling from somewhere in the back of his head. He sings backup on a song from the new Kimya Dawson album. He's a strange guy.
The WWE isn't quite sure what to do with strange guys. It can handle crazy guys just fine: Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior. And every once in a while, someone with Bryan's indie-wrestling pedigree will break through huge in the company; that's happening with CM Punk right now. But Bryan's form of sickly-introverted oddness is a hard thing for the company to sell. All those other guys were/are huge outsized personalities. Bryan is just incredibly good at pretending to fight. That's it. That's all he's got.
Indie guys who come to the WWE often have to face periods of weird ritual humiliation, and a lot of the time they never get the chance to become anything. Low-Ki and Colt Cabana got bounced right out, and the same thing might soon happen to Mexican lucha star Místico, who the fed renamed Sin Cara. The company used to treat old WCW and ECW guys the same way. It's like they don't fully trust anyone who didn't come up through their system. Off and on, that's been Danielson's story since joining.
Danielson, renamed Daniel Bryan so that the company could own his new name, first came to TV in this weird fake reality show called NXT, in which various "rookies" compete for contracts. In a cast full of no-names, Bryan was the first one eliminated. He got to play a part when all the NXT rookies mobbed up to form an awesome devious ring-destroying bad-guy faction called Nexus. But then the WWE released Bryan, and he spent another few months on the indies before the company signed him again.
Since then, they've put faith in him, but only in fits and starts, pushing and then pulling back. For weeks at a time, he'll do nothing but lose, if he's even allowed on TV at all. In one excruciating storyline, the Bella Twins thought he was a virgin because they misheard "vegan," and it took goddamn weeks to get to that punchline. That's what they've got for him.
That's changing, slowly. At Money in the Bank, the same amazing summer pay-per-view where Punk won the WWE title, Bryan won a chaotic ladder match to score a contract that'll give him a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship anytime he wants. (The World title is paradoxically the lesser of the company's two main championships, but it's a pretty big deal nonetheless.) Bryan, at least at the outset, insisted that he was saving his shot for Wrestlemania. Maybe the company will even let him do it.
After that win, of course, Bryan went on a months-long losing spree, but that's finally over. On Smackdown last week, Bryan faced the current World Champion, the gigantic human bulldozer Mark Henry, in a cage match that Bryan actually looked like he might win. He got to kick Henry multiple times in his injured leg, exactly what Ring of Honor-era Bryan Danielson would've done, but it ended with a titanic second-rope Henry bodyslam that looked like it could've driven Bryan into the earth's crust. It was great. And even better: On the episode of Raw before that match, Bryan finally confronted shithead announcer Michael Cole, actually showing some fire. That's what he needs to do. Bryan's still not getting big cheers outside of nerd-dominated cities like New York and Chicago, and I'm still not convinced that the company is willing to take him seriously. It'll be an interesting test case: Whether a weird motherfucker with a homegrown indie-wrestling aesthetic can really get a shot in the big leagues. But this moment right here reminds me of when, like, the Dinosaur Jr. signed to Reprise. We'll see if he has a "Feel the Pain" in him.