On April 1, 2012, Daniel Bryan competed in the opening match at WrestleMania 28, dropping the World Heavyweight Championship to Sheamus in an embarrassing 18-second comedy bout and stunning the many fans he had in the audience that night who were hoping to see him shine on the biggest stage of his career to date. It seemed to confirm the worst fears of his most highly-devoted acolytes: As good as he was, he just didn’t have what it took in the eyes of Vince McMahon and the WWE braintrust to be considered the very best of the best. The next night their disappointment turned into outright revolt and the resulting “Yes Movement” propelled Bryan onto a two-year odyssey that saw him become the most popular wrestler on the planet, and culminated when he finally came full-circle and won the now-unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 30 in a Triple Threat Match against Randy Orton and Batista.
It was one of the greatest long-term underdog stories WWE has ever told, filled with iconic moments, seamlessly weaving together fiction and reality—like all great wrestling stories do—as both character and performer struggled to be taken seriously as the top talent in the company. Then, just as Bryan was ready to take the next step in his career after finally ascending to the absolute highest peak the industry had to offer, it was all over.
He relinquished the title due to injury a mere 64 days after his “Miracle on Bourbon Street,” and after a brief comeback in 2015, he was forced to retire for medical reasons—specifically a series of concussions and an apparent, as he described it, “brain lesion.” For those that had followed him on his journey from obscurity to superstardom, it was an incredibly disappointing end to the saga to see Bryan, a wrestling savant who went about his work with an unmatched intensity and passion, forced to hang up his boots, only to later return in a non-physical, authority figure role where he was tantalizingly close to the action but never able to participate in it.
Then, on Tuesday night, he un-retired. In an emotional promo on SmackDown Live, a teary-eyed Bryan announced that he was finally medically cleared to return to the ring, declaring triumphantly that “If you fight for your dreams, they will fight for you.” By the end of the night he was mixing it up with bad guy best friends Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens, eventually taking an apron powerbomb from Owens—one of the riskier moves there is—before being carted off on a stretcher, finally, at long last, just pretending to be injured.
It appears that Bryan really is back, and has eschewed the training wheels. His return is going to have a seismic impact on WWE storytelling moving forward, and while it raises many interesting questions about how he’ll be used, in a broader sense it’s also worth wondering why it took so long for him to return. What about his brain has changed between now and the last time he was able to compete, nearly three years ago?
Bryan hasn’t been shy in talking about the events leading up to his retirement, and it’s been clear for months that the only thing keeping him out of a WWE ring were WWE doctors, a position that he respected but didn’t seem to necessarily agree with. In a candid podcast interview with former WWE Superstars Edge & Christian from July 2017, Bryan admitted that after his last concussion, he was repeatedly cleared to return to the ring by outside specialists only to have WWE deny him each time he raised the issue of returning to the active roster.
Eventually, after a last-ditch experimental treatment, a doctor told him they discovered a lesion on the temporal parietal region of his brain, which appeared to be the last straw. He was gently nudged by Vince McMahon himself to immediately retire at the Monday Night RAW in Seattle, Washington just days later.
But throughout his subsequent return and on-camera stint as retired authority figure, he’s continued to get rigorously tested, and the results have repeatedly said that his brain is healthy. He now classifies the lesion diagnosis as a “misunderstanding” in terminology and claims that he’s no more at risk of serious injury than any average person. But if that’s the case, why has he been retired for the last three years?
WWE conspiracy theorists may very well look at Bryan’s injury timeline and come to the conclusion that the company simply didn’t want to deal with the constant pressure to make him a top draw that resulted in debacles like the 2015 Royal Rumble, when Bryan loyalists in Philadelphia booed the winner, Roman Reigns, along with his cousin, The Rock, out of the building at the conclusion of the event.
It’s also entirely possible that they just didn’t want to take a chance with Bryan’s health—he did have a particularly scary moment in a match against Randy Orton during the buildup to his WrestleMania triumph, when a “stinger” caused him to temporarily lose feeling in his arms and ended in the first medical stoppage of a match in the modern era, something that might feel more commonplace now, but at the time was extremely rare. Bryan does come from the old school wrestling mindset of continuing to perform through any injury—he once finished a match with a detached retina—so perhaps WWE, by keeping him away from the ring despite technically being medically cleared, was simply doing what it thought was necessary to protect him.
Questions as to why WWE is finally re-activating him now are sure to linger, but the easiest answer is that Bryan has clearly indicated that he plans on performing again, and if WWE passed on the opportunity, it’s impossible to ignore the value he could add to a company like New Japan Pro Wrestling, currently riding an unprecedented wave of stateside popularity. Or the Young Bucks/Cody Rhodes-masterminded, 10,000 seat home run swing indie supershow, All In, coming up Sept. 1 in Chicago. If Vince McMahon has demonstrated one quality over his career, it’s a pathological refusal to let his would-be usurpers get a leg up on him.
Whatever the exact reason for Bryan’s three-year-hiatus, or his upcoming in-ring return, he is back, and that is going to have a profound impact on the WWE landscape. His brief pseudo-feud with The Miz in 2016 produced some of the most compelling television the company aired all year, and did a lot to legitimize Miz as a genuine A-List star and not just a gimmicky pretender. His old roommate and opponent Shinsuke Nakamura, a long-rumored Bryan dream opponent, has already expressed interest in finally making that match a reality. Bryan was having classic throwdowns with current WWE Champion A.J. Styles over ten years ago, and has missed out entirely on Styles’ dominant, long-overdue run in the company. His rivalry with Cena was a massive part of his run to the wrestling stratosphere in 2014, and it will be fascinating to see them interact, or possibly step in the ring together, given their storyline and real life connections. He’s instantly elevated the Zayn/Owens feud with Shane McMahon, which had been fizzling, into absolute must-see TV and finally turned the two longtime friends/rivals into the hottest, most despised act in the company. Really, the WWE roster is perhaps at its highest ever peak when it comes to the level of sheer in-ring talent on contract, so there’s no limit of Daniel Bryan dream matches that, all of a sudden, feel like they could become reality.
It’s become immediately obvious, though, that WWE is going to be faced with the same problem it faced throughout the last few years of Bryan’s run with the company—that audiences simply refuse to accept anything less than a starring role for him, regardless of the creative machinations that are happening behind the scenes. Even throughout his tenure as a non-wrestling authority figure on SmackDown Live, Bryan never stopped being the most popular performer on the roster. His ability to connect with and unify crowds, which could never fully get behind anointed top stars like Cena or Reigns, remains unparalleled.
How WWE walks that line creatively in the coming months or years is going to be fascinating to watch. For now, it’s enough just to soak in the moment as we collectively realize we’re once again going to see Daniel Bryan get to do what he loves to do more than anything else. Yes, indeed.