Up until a month ago, current WWE champion Daniel Bryan had a big problem. The greatest wrestler of his generation, the man who headlined maybe the greatest WrestleMania of all time nearly five years ago, had grown terribly stale.
This wasn’t entirely Bryan’s fault. The story is well-known, but a brief recap is welcome: WWE’s doctors discovered lesions on Daniel Bryan’s brain after the closure of his legendary underdog story arc at WrestleMania XXX, the result of a high impact style of head first dives and his willingness to take just about any bump someone could think up. He lingered in the background for a couple of years, then tearfully retired in one of the most heartrending pro wrestling moments in recent memory.
He was cleared to return this year, and he did, but it wasn’t the same. To be clear, he still got cheers and some nights he was even the most over guy on the show, still. How could you not cheer Daniel Bryan, the everyman of average looks and average physique, with an aw shucks smile and as normal a domestic life as you can get when it’s two pro wrestlers—his wife is Brie Bella—raising a family together? What monster couldn’t root for him after the concussions and tears, when he’d given so much to wrestling and fought so hard to return to it?
You couldn’t. But you could develop a wandering eye, cheering just a little less than before. Bryan’s style was a little slower, so maybe that was it. Or it could’ve been his character work, which was trapped in a sympathy story which never changed. Match after match played on this, with Bryan taking a hard bump to the skull or neck before him rolling around clutching his scientifically proven to be broken head, leaving the crowd to wonder whether they were about to watch a man die in the ring.
Bryan was trapped. His injuries were too well known to ignore and relegated him to an object of sympathy, sometimes even pity. His style was too flashy to boo. The cheers died down and, outside a brief flash during a too short feud with The Miz, he spun his wheels.
So a month ago, he did what everyone figured he couldn’t do: he turned heel and made everyone hate him.
The initial turn was simple enough: he kicked A.J. Styles square in the balls to win the title on an episode of SmackDown Live. Even that wasn’t enough to get the boos really rolling in. He was still too beloved, his story too well-known, to hate him. A heel nobody hates isn’t really a heel, but pro wrestling still needs heels, a conundrum WWE hasn’t figured out. WWE claims that there are no more heels or babyfaces, but this is mostly a reaction to the fact that its heels are all cool and smart, while their babyfaces are all corny and stupid; if they’re cheering people you want them to boo, just claim that you meant it to be like that all along.
To get around the confused moral landscape of WWE’s storylines, Bryan did the simplest, most unfashionable thing and simply berated the audience. It was slow at first—standard “it’s not me, it’s you” promos—but took a turn which wounded the audience deeply, judging from just how lustily he got booed. He called the fans fickle with who their support, with the mostly unstated coda that they were dumb enough that any nimble indie guy from the 00s would do, since his recent opponent A.J. Styles became the hottest commodity on SmackDown.
Bryan’s rhetoric about the way the crowd felt entitled to his body slowly ramped up over the past couple of weeks until it reached a crescendo in a promo before Sunday’s TLC pay-per-view. It’s worth watching. The entitlement of the crowd becomes a vector for criticizing modern consumer capitalism. He rails against the WWE branded sweaters the interviewers are wearing after ranting about how bad social media is. He talked about the planet dying due to consumption and how the pressures of being a brand are corrosive. Then he declared that he was replacing the leather strap on the World title with a vegan alternative.
A few things are obvious. One is that—to some extent which we can't pinpoint beyond "more than none"—Daniel Bryan believes some of these things. He is left wing in his politics, is mostly vegan, and has always seemed ambivalent about the excesses of pro wrestling. Like most good character work, Bryan’s promo cuts deep because it’s "him." Another thing is that most of what he said was true. The planet is getting ready to wipe us out and when it happens it will be because of a capitalist system which cannot and will not declare itself sated.
Where the trick happens is in the preachiness of it all, a long staple of pro wrestling promos. It’s not what he’s saying, but how. It hasn’t ever mattered whether the one doing the heated lecture is a right wing preacher character, a left wing hippie, or a somewhere in between straight edge punk rocker, nobody likes to be yelled at. For it to come from someone who was once one of the most loved wrestlers in history, however briefly his peak was, stings all the more.
Mostly, Daniel Bryan no longer seems fun, which is exactly what he wanted. His match with Styles at TLC was a masterclass. It had all the psychology and athleticism you’d expect, but Bryan very smartly pumped the brakes sometimes. He’d walk away at an opportune moment, grinding the match to a standstill. He begged off, Ric Flair-like, towards the end and, when he won, it’s wasn’t through an exciting move or even cheating, but a small package, the most vanilla of moves.
It was glorious, a mix of stuff he’d done before—ask Bryan aficionados about his initial run as Mr. Small Package in ROH—turned into an anti-WWE gimmick, in the sense that he doesn’t talk or wrestle the way they want anymore, but it matters because he’s Daniel Bryan. Even the announcers, who usually mess up even the simplest storylines, clicked into place, telling the home audience that it wasn’t just consumerism Bryan was going after, but capitalism.
Nobody else does this sort of thing like Bryan. The way the no-fun ringwork matches the no-fun promos, while never actually being boring, is remarkable on its own. But it’s also the way Bryan creates questions which linger that makes him one of the greatest to ever do it. Why are we booing a guy saying not to destroy the planet? Is it possible we did just make a new Daniel Bryan for ourselves, in A.J. Styles, once the old one was used up? What do the implications of the answers to those questions say about how we think of people and products, or is there any distinction at all anymore?
It’s no sure thing that this is the best Daniel Bryan we’ve ever seen—he’s had too many brilliant runs, and the sheer euphoria of his magical 2013-14 run eclipses so much other work. But it’s certainly up there and watching a master at work is such a rare treat that we should enjoy him while he’s here.