WRESTLING

Farewell to the Utterly Undeniable Daniel Bryan

Daniel Bryan was an indie wrestling grinder who became a beloved WWE champion because of how uniquely talented he was. His career is over, but his legend is secure.

by Ian Williams
10 February 2016, 2:16pm

Photo by miguel.discart/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

The long expected and always dreaded has finally happened, and right about when it should have: Daniel Bryan (real name Bryan Danielson, AKA American Dragon, answers to People Chanting "Yes") has retired at age 34. On Monday, Bryan tweeted that he was done, TMZ confirmed the news, and Jonathan Coachman stressed that it was not a work. After a long struggle with concussions and neck injuries, it wasn't quite a surprise, but, for everyone who cares about wrestling, it was a damn shame.

Bryan was, against any realistic expectation, the hottest commodity in WWE the past five years. What began with CM Punk's notorious worked shoot and subsequent summer-long title reign reached its apex with Bryan's white-hot run into WrestleMania XXX, a run centered on the very real fact that a significant segment of the fan base was sick of WWE's perpetual Cena-Orton motion machine. That sentiment found its personification in Bryan's scruffy look and one-word chant of "YES!" That one word was repeated over and over until the stadiums shook. Often, and with feeling.

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It's not effect to say they shook. Huge arenas vibrated and thrummed with the force of chants for the man. Bryan was hot like nobody had been since Cena's initial just-dangerous-enough glory days of a decade ago; it's telling that, more than anything else, WWE seemed to truly resent it. The resentment crossed from real to storyline and back again until we weren't sure how the promotion felt about Bryan.

Certainly, in the cold light of the Reigns At All Cost present, the notion that Vince McMahon would be willing to leave money on the table to get his guy over is a lot more believable than it was when we were debating whether the seeming antipathy toward Bryan was a work in the summer of 2013. But what a work it was, with Bryan double-crossed by the WWE machine in the form of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon over and over again, before he won the title at WrestleMania XXX in one of the greatest moments in WWE history.

When you're good as hell. Photo by Megan Elice Meadows/Wikimedia Commons

In retrospect, it seems that it all burned too bright to last long. Bryan was as close to a countercultural force as WWE has had since Stone Cold Steve Austin told Jake Roberts that he was going to write his own Bible verse about beating people up. But it's weird that Bryan was the figure he was. He is a thoroughly normal guy, a Pacific Northwest hippie with a goofy grin who just happened to love pro wrestling so much that he worked his ass off to become, however briefly, the best pro wrestler in the world. He simply made himself undeniable, to the point where even WWE couldn't deny him.

Bryan was, in every way, not a Vince McMahon guy: he was too hairy, too short, not mean enough backstage, and not a smooth enough talker onstage. He was doubted, belittled, fired once only to be rehired as a perennial midcarder who nevertheless became The Man because he was just too good. Fans can tell his story and it doesn't seem real without the footage of crowds losing their minds while Daniel Bryan basks in their adulation with a smile of giddy bewilderment. But then you find the video and, my god, everyone is going apeshit for the least likely guy, and they're chanting "Yes!" at basketball games and nothing makes sense anymore. Wrestling doesn't make sense and it's wonderful.

Bryan is, in almost every way, a role model for the next generation of pro wrestlers. He stayed grounded through the whorl of pro-wrestling madness despite being a regular on Total Divas. He came up through the indies prior to his WWE run, making his name as a stiff yet highly technical worker in various podunk bingo halls, armories, and gymnasiums alongside an entire generation of hungry young men and women who would opt for a surprisingly old-school approach to making it in the business—the aforementioned Punk, Samoa Joe, Cesaro, Sara Del Rey, and a host of others.

Without them and especially without Bryan, who gave the indies of the mid-2000s an emotional and physical heft nobody else provided, the rebirth of indie wrestling would look very different than the renaissance we have now. The dues-payment roadmap that WWE has embraced, from indie to NXT to WWE, might not exist. Jon Moxley probably doesn't become Dean Ambrose, Tyler Black doesn't become Seth Rollins. Things might just have gone on, as predictable and steroidal as ever.

Bryan didn't want to retire. News of a struggle behind the scenes between Bryan and WWE leaked in dribs and drabs over the past year. The latest, per SB Nation, is that Bryan tried to give notice so he could wrestle elsewhere only to discover that he didn't have legal standing to do so. Since WWE has a fire-at-will clause in their contracts, and employees are mostly considered contractors, the fact that Bryan couldn't give notice is incredibly unfair; he is locked in, paid a downside, and unable to wrestle until the clock runs out.

When you already know the answer. Photo by Snerkie via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

And yet, unjust as it is that WWE is preventing him from leaving, there is a palpable risk that he ends up in a wheelchair or worse if he does wrestle again. Here, in all its dark contingency, is the ugliness of pro wrestling—the ruthless unfairness of WWE's corporate engine tangling with another pro wrestler who doesn't want to hang up his boots, but also the possibility that wrestling any longer could hobble him for life.

In time, we will forget all this. What we'll remember—and it will be remembered—are Daniel Bryan and those crowds chanting his name. He's only 34 and it seems so nakedly unfair—to him, to us as fans, and to pro wrestling. If there is hurt here, it's because Bryan was and is good enough to have a career like his mentor, Shawn Michaels—multigenerational in multiple styles, triumph to triumph unfolding over decades. Beyond that, Bryan is truthfully one of pro wrestling's good guys, a man of genuine affection for others and with no guile behind his smile. For it to end ten or more years early for him is rotten.

This is wrestling, and nothing is changing the bad neck and the bad head. Still, there's some happiness to be found here. Bryan Danielson can retire to the farm he and his wife, Brie Bella, have talked about. He can be, if not healthy, at least healthy-ish in a way few retired wrestlers are; he can go out with a family and career as a dad, a la Edge, or like any other pro athlete who was wise enough or lucky enough to get out while the getting was still good.

Remember: even ten years ago, this concussion blooms into five, which bloom into ten. Ten years ago, Daniel Bryan is hurt, he dies. Today, he doesn't. He gets to live a long life, we can only hope, in which he someday gets to tell kids about the time he had the wrestling world at his feet. That's not so bad at all, even if he'll be sorely missed in the ring. The kids may not quite believe him when he tells the story, but then Daniel Bryan's rise was always hard to believe, and always in the best possible ways.