In 2010, I was an avid fan of ‘WWE.’ I watched almost every programme the WWE had to offer, including the new ‘NXT.’ Back then, NXT was a talent show, where eight ‘rookies’ would fight to gain a contract to the WWE. On the first season of ‘NXT,’ one of the rookies was Daniel Bryan. I’d heard of him before (thanks to the ‘Power Slam’ magazine), but hadn’t seen him in action. On that night, he fought Chris Jericho in a blinding battle. From that point on, I knew I was seeing the next big WWE superstar.
However, he was not your archetypal WWE superstar. He looked like a normal (but ripped) human, not the typical muscle-bound WWE wrestler. His tutor on NXT, The Miz and the Michael Cole constantly criticised and belittled him. The old WWE attitude of ‘what you did in wrestling before WWE doesn’t matter’ was alive and well in relation to Daniel Bryan. Whilst introducing Bryan, Miz said that Bryan needed a catchphrase. He also asked Bryan: “Where’s your personality? Where’s your charisma?” Oh, the irony! He didn’t win a single match in NXT, but the crowd loved him. And so did I! He had brilliant feuds with both The Mix and Michael Cole, and was easily the standout performer out of the eight rookies. Both led to a brilliant confrontation between Cole and Bryan. After the confrontation, The Mix berated Bryan, who quickly took him out with a forearm and battered him. It was easily the highlight of the first season of NXT. Of course, he was eliminated (the eventual winner was Wade Barret), but found his way into the WWE.
Bryan was one of the most compelling wrestlers in the fading and stale WWE, along with one CM Punk. And just like Punk, he was given a derisory World Championship run. Bryan turned heel, but the crowd still loved him. It was during his heel turn that the famous ‘Yes’ catchphrase begun (take that, Miz!). He was booked as something of a joke; as a lucky champion. His reign ended at WrestleMania XVIII, in an embarrassing eighteen second defeat by Sheamus. However, this was the night where the ‘Yes’ chant, and consequently Bryan, really exploded in popularity. From that night on, he had a great match with Sheamus (even as a heel, Bryan was chanted), superb matches against CM Punk, and formed one of the most entertaining tag teams of the modern era with Kane.
In the summer of 2012, John Cena granted Bryan a shot at the WWE Championship at Summerslam. The incredibly popular Bryan won the match, but his reign only lasted a few minutes. HHH (the guest referee of said match) turned on Bryan, and allowed Randy Orton to cash in his Money in the Bank contract to pin Bryan and become champion. From that point on, we were told that that Bryan was a B+ player. He wasn’t worthy of the title. HHH, Stephanie McMahon, and Orton constantly reminded us of that. Bryan lost the feud with Orton, and looked like facing the oblivion of the WWE mid-card. However, even being booked like a B+ player, the crowd still treated him as an A+ player. Look at his feud with the Wyatt Family. The night he turned on Bray Wyatt inside a steel cage met with one of the hottest reactions in the modern WWE.
However, he would lose to Bray Wyatt in a singles match at Royal Rumble 2013. He wouldn’t even be entered into the Royal Rumble match, even though the crowd were chanting his name throughout. When it became clear that Bryan wasn’t in the Rumble, the crowd turned on the match. They especially turned on the perceived chosen winner of the match, Batista. Batista, the returning babyface, was booed out of the building during and after his victory. The predestined main event for WrestleMania XXX was Randy Orton (still WWE Champion) vs Batista. The problem was, nobody wanted that match. Batista hadn’t earned a title shot. The WWE Universe’s choice was Daniel Bryan, and in an unprecedented turn of events, the entire storyline was changed to involve Daniel Bryan. People power changed Vince McMahon’s mind! How amazing is that? In one of the most memorable Raw segments ever, Bryan staged an ‘Occupy Raw’ movement to secure a place in the ‘Mania XXX main event. However, what he really wanted was a match against HHH. If he defeated HHH, then he’d be entered into a triple threat match, along with Orton and Batista, for the WWE Championship.
WrestleMania is supposed to send the fans home happy, and WrestleMania XXX sure did that. Bryan toppled HHH in the opening match, and then forced Batista to tap out in the final match to become the new WWE Champion. The perennial underdog had done it! On the grandest stage of them all! In a vignette on NXT, Bryan said that all he ever wanted to do is headline WrestleMania. His tears after finally achieving his dream proved his ultimate desire.
Daniel Bryan wasn’t handpicked by Vince McMahon to become the WWE Champion. The power of the WWE fans handpicked Bryan to become the Champion, and McMahon had no choice but to accept their choice. His WrestleMania storyline easily interwove with what happened after SummerSlam the previous year, but that was not by design. It seemed as if McMahon and company wanted to prove that Bryan was a B+ player. Thanks to Bryan’s all-too-human physique and indie wrestling fame, the WWE higher ups saw Bryan as just another wrestler. We knew that Bryan was more than just another wrestler.
I watched Bryan’s retirement speech this morning, and found myself welling up with tears at several points. It’s a tragic story, really, of a man who can’t do what he loves doing because of the failure of his body. Bryan was one of the most relatable wrestlers ever; an underdog who looked like an underdog. Who doesn’t cheer for the underdog? And Bryan was the classic underdog. He looked like he didn’t belong in the WWE, but proved that he did belong in the ring. A meek and humble individual, Bryan was easily likeable. He gave us plenty of five star matches in the WWE, with a wide range of opponents.
And he proved that, if only in the rarest of times, people power can change things. Yes, it may only be on a television show, but crowd reaction to Bryan convinced the writers (and McMahon) to change the outcome of the biggest event in the WWE’s yearly calendar. Bryan’s connection to the crowd was organic and real, and that is something that rarely happens in the modern, overly-scripted and dictated WWE. See, for example, the fall of Zack Ryder, or even Dolph Ziggler. Both firm crowd favourites who got over with the crowd without the WWE’s permission, and were punished for it by facing loss after loss. Bryan faced the same punishment but fought through it, and his connection with the crowd only increased.
Daniel Bryan’s confirmed retirement leaves a massive hole in the WWE. When we are being force-fed the generic Roman Reigns (in an all-too similar storyline to Bryan’s WrestleMania XXX storyline), and firm fan favourites are being lost in the shuffle, it’s disheartening to see the peak of people power retire. But, as one of the most popular superstars ever, his name will live on. So, Thank You Daniel Bryan! Yes, Yes, Yes!