Daniel Bryan Is Back, And Wrestling Is Real

Daniel Bryan always made wrestling feel real in a way that few other wrestlers ever could. He's back, and we're all better off for it.
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If you had told me ten years ago that in 2018 professional wrestling would be one of the great passions of my life, I would have laughed at you. If you’d shown me proof, I would have assumed that something had gone terribly wrong. Like most kids my age, I had followed the WWF through the glory days of the Attitude Era in my early teen years, but when I checked out some time in 2001, I didn't think I would ever have any real reason to come back. As it happened, though, getting back into wrestling turned out to be very easy. I just needed to meet the right person.

When I was reintroduced to WWE in late 2012, watching wrestling was a social occasion. I worked for a small-town radio station in the frozen wilds of northern Canada, and two of my coworkers were die-hard wrestling fans; watching the monthly pay-per-views with them was as good of an excuse as any for a monthly get-together in a place with no nightlife to speak of. But it took a wrestler to take me from someone who liked beer to someone who loved wrestling. Someone my heart chose, or anyway someone with which I quickly developed a connection as deep as my love of a favorite sports team. That was Daniel Bryan.

If you are reading this, you likely know that Bryan is a ring technician known for stellar matches with a work rate comparable to the very best of all time. If you’ve seen Bryan wrestle, you know that only matters so much—beyond the matches, Bryan seems for all the world to be exactly the person he is on camera. That is, a hard-working Pacific Northwest boy trying desperately to make his dreams come true in a company that didn't believe in him and told him in every way it could that he wasn't good enough. As someone struggling to find my own professional footing, how could I not identify with this guy? How could I not be invested in his success, when his pursuit seemed to parallel my own?

Where Stone Cold Steve Austin rocketed to the top of the pop culture zeitgeist as the embodiment of a particular late 1990s workplace fantasy about beating up your boss, Bryan succeeded by tapping into the hopes and fears of the contemporary workplace. The crowd desperately wanted this man to be champion, but both onscreen and in real life the company was not interested. He was too short, too scrawny, too ugly, not conventionally handsome enough to fit the WWE’s preference for beefed-up babyfaces. He wasn't a poster boy or a star; the promotion viewed him as a complimentary piece and didn’t bother concealing it. All of which is to say that Bryan and his plight was familiar to everyone who's been passed over for a promotion they wanted or a job they deserved, whether because they didn't know the right people, or didn't look the part, or for any reason outside their control. That is, he was what every great hero is, and what WWE has always struggled to script or sell—the ultimate underdog.

It's true that wrestling is scripted, but it's also true that Daniel Bryan winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30 was not. Anyway, not at first. Despite the obvious pleas of a crowd who thunderously chanted his name and embraced his Yes Movement with everything they had, the scripted plan for the WrestleMania 30 main event was always a Randy Orton vs Batista match. It was a tone-deaf booking decision that would have died a horrible death in front of a live audience, but that hasn’t stopped WWE before.

Plans changed, in part because CM Punk forced a course correction by walking out of the company in frustration following the 2014 Royal Rumble, but mostly because fans were ready to revolt at the coronation of anyone other than their chosen golden boy—the lumpy, passed-over, complimentary one. In one of the few times in recent wrestling history where the will of the crowd trumped the whims of Vince McMahon, Bryan won wrestling's biggest title on its grandest stage and immediately celebrated in the front row with Connor Michalek, a terminally ill young fan he had connected with through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Even in his greatest scripted victory, Bryan delivered a real moment packed with real emotion, most notably for Michalek but also undeniably for the people watching at home.

A series of champions have followed him to the top. Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, and Shinsuke Nakamura share similar backgrounds with Bryan, at least in terms of not fitting the familiar WWE house style; all have had the crowd behind them during runs at the top. Each of them embodies the indie-fication of WWE's new era, a process for which indie darlings like Bryan and Punk undoubtedly opened the door. WWE's own list of corporate-approved chosen ones in the post-Bryan era have had their turn, too—Roman Reigns, Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman, Sheamus. None of them dethroned Bryan as the crowd’s true favorite.

This was easy to see upon Bryan’s return to weekly television in 2016. As SmackDown Live's General Manager, and especially as the co-host of Talking Smack on WWE Network, Bryan displayed effortless charm and personality, and spoke with the honesty of a man with nothing to lose. The crowd adored him, of course, because Daniel Bryan has a rare gift: when he speaks, his words do not feel like the scripted performance of a character, but like the words and actions of a genuine person. This is another way of saying he’s a brilliant performer, of course, but he never feels anything less than authentic. Of course the men listed above all disappointed in some way or another since Bryan was forced out of action—for all their strengths as performers they are all playing characters, and as such succeed or fail relative to the quality of their writing. They are all just wrestlers on a television show. Daniel Bryan is real.

To be a fan of Daniel Bryan is to have been on a wild emotional journey over the last decade. It’s to have witnessed his rise from indie stardom to the very top of WWE. It was real when Bryan went from the impossible elation of being the improbable hero of WrestleMania and marrying his dream girl Brie Bella, to the crushing low of losing his father in just a 15 day span. It was real when he went on TV and addressed his father's death just hours after the fact. It was real when, less than two weeks after his return from bereavement leave, he sustained a serious neck injury that cost him his championship belt. It was real when his eventual return from a long stay on the injured list was once again derailed, this time by concussion. It was real when he had to surrender a title won at WrestleMania due to injury for the second time in as many years. It was real when concussion issues proved so serious he was forced into retirement at age 34. He stood in front of his hometown fans and told them how grateful he was to have lived his dream, how devastated he was to lose it. It was, as the man said, real to me, dammit. I was in the crowd that night, crying along with him.

And so too of course the thrill of his return is real in that distinctively Daniel Bryan way. Bryan has finally been cleared by WWE’s medical staff to return to the ring, and while there is still some concern for his safety given that the promotion would not allow him to wrestle for more than two years, Dave Meltzer said it best—Bryan is by now the single most medically-examined wrestler or fighter in combat sports history. He has been cleared by every doctor he's seen.

It would always have been welcome, but his return could not come at a better time. In just one segment to close out Tuesday’s television two weeks ago, Bryan turned an otherwise stalled out feud from an eyesore at the top of the card on SmackDown into what is now undoubtedly the storyline of the year. He did this just as he has achieved every bit of greatness along the way so far: by grounding his performance in reality. SmackDown's dominant storyline for much of the last year has been a bitter personal vendetta between authority figure/company heir Shane McMahon and his talented but entitled workers Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. It has felt muddled and confused, and particularly directionless of late. The supposed good guy was a power-mad authoritarian—the son of a billionaire—acting in his own delusional self-interest. The would-be villains righteously beat him senseless after he cost them everything. No one could boo Kevin and Sami as they brutalized Shane, but it felt familiar—an echo of Stone Cold tormenting Shane's old man twenty years ago.

And then, to end the night after he was cleared to come back, Bryan not only returned to in-ring action but restored cosmic balance to the audience's rooting interests. It was a segment steeped in real-life sentiment, as Owens and Zayn hugged Bryan immediately, and spoke earnestly about how honored they were to share this moment with him while dispensing with the necessary heelish character details. "You want to talk about Raw vs SmackDown, A-show vs B-show?" asked Sami. "I'm sorry but any roster that has Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, and Daniel Bryan on it is the dream show."

“You guys have to know this, honestly from the bottom of my heart,” Bryan said in return. “I think that you two are two of the very best performers of this generation. We come from the same place. We've known each other for fifteen years!" And then the glass shattered on the Attitude Era power dynamic of the childhood dream Owens and Zayn have been living for months. "That is not 'just getting carried away,'” Bryan continued, scolding now. “You assaulted your boss." He patiently explained every step in this story, peeling back the cartoonish anger, stripping away the ever-escalating weekly soap opera stakes, and leaving just the reality of the situation. "You guys won. You got what you wanted. And you still felt the need to assault your boss. Guys, I don't get it." In reality, actions like those have consequences, and as that is the medium in which Bryan works best, he promptly fired them both.

What happened next should not be a surprise on wrestling television, and will not surprise you if you’re familiar with it. In terms of Kevin Owens attacking a figure thought to be off-limits, it isn’t even really new—he did it in September when he headbutted Vince McMahon, splitting the chairman's forehead and drawing blood from a 72-year-old man. And Owens did it again last Tuesday when upon being fired, he laid the same beating on Daniel Bryan that he and Sami gave Shane the week previous—only this time, there was no question about who to cheer for, no debate as to who was morally correct, none of the squickiness of cheering for the boss’s kid. Just hours after learning Daniel Bryan was cleared to compete, he took several significant bumps, including Owens' apron powerbomb, one of pro wrestling's most protected devastating maneuvers. It was, if we’re being honest, pretty hard to watch.

Somewhere in the scuffle, though, Bryan got to fight back. For the first time in nearly three years he ran from ringpost to ringpost delivering his signature dropkicks, and I couldn't help but tear up watching him do it—another emotional payoff in the long, winding journey of this man’s life. To watch Daniel Bryan is to care about him, and to know about him—to know how long he fought for this moment, how much he has sacrificed for this dream. Pro wrestling is at its best when it successfully blurs the line between fact and fiction—in the moments when you can't help but ask "is this real?" even when you know it's fake. It's a quality that has made Daniel Bryan one of the best wrestlers of all time.

In one of the most inspirational moments of Tuesday's show, he told the crowd about how his wife continued to push him forward through the darkest moments, how she urged him not to give up. "If you fight for your dreams," he repeated his wife’s mantra again and again, "Your dreams will fight for you." Maybe it looks corny or prosaic here on the page. I’m not the only one that believes it.

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