If you’re new to the blog, then you should know I am a long time fan of professional wrestling (or, sports entertainment).
I just celebrated my 30th Anniversary as such.
Ok, I didn’t celebrate.
I apologize for the picture.
On Monday night, following multiple concussions over a 16 year career, Daniel Bryan retired with a moving thirty minute speech on USA’s Monday Night Raw. If you’re not a wrestling fan, you may not know why Daniel Bryan is. He doesn’t look like the 24 inch bicep built Hulk Hogan. He doesn’t have the Hollywood blockbuster charismatic shine of The Rock. The phenomenal character of The Undertaker.
His wrestling name was Daniel Bryan.
5’8″. 190 lbs.
World Wrestling Entertainment (maybe you knew it once as the World Wrestling Federation) is the major leagues. It’s where the money is. For the first ten years of his career, Bryan Danielson was an independent darling all over the world, wrestling as The American Dragon. In 2009, Bryan signed with the WWE.
And that’s where the story becomes interesting. Because six years later, 5’8″/190 gets a half hour retirement speech on the WWE’s flagship show.
Daniel Bryan did not stand out among the Mount Olympus like physiques of the biggest names promoted by the WWE. He was not John Cena. He didn’t have Randy Orton’s face. Two years in, Bryan was a well established mid-card act. After all, he was 5’8/190 and never going to be main event in the eyes of WWE. In late 2011, early 2012 a pairing with AJ Lee (Beauty & the Beast?) and a slow turn towards being a ‘bad guy’ (Stockholm Syndrome?) led to Bryan’s stock rising. He even won the World Heavyweight Title.
When Bryan lost that title in the opening match of Wrestlemania 28 in 18 seconds, the fans took notice. They began chanting his name when he wasn’t even in the ring. They started chanting ‘YES’ as he was prone to do being an overly excited/slightly obnoxious heel. Bryan & AJ together were bound to do great things together, because surely the character ‘dark side’ would be shown the light by the fans and his lady love.
Instead, WWE focused on AJ’s soaring popularity (which it most certainly was soaring), closed out the storyline with a failed wedding, and separated them permanently. I was sad. This was a storyline that was growing organically. It was fun to watch peripheral to the main events WWE wanted you to focus on. Bryan was going to remain a mid-card. Bryan was 5’8″/190.
Daniel Bryan was placed into a tag team with the diabolical, demonic, monster Kane. They did a lot of comedy together. There’s one way of telling the fans that their guy isn’t going to be up fighting the big boys – have him do a heavy amount of scripted comedy.
This time, the fans stayed with him. Bryan committed to everything that was given to him. And, just like the physical moves he took, he sold the scripted ones like a million dollars.
If there is one thing that will get you over with a large fan base it’s that committing to the moment – being as close to genuine as you can be as a character – staying completely connected… these are the things that will endear yourself for life.
In the Summer of 2013, art began to imitate life. It was clear that Daniel Bryan was the most popular man in the WWE. He was going to have to get a shot at the WWE Title (which is more prestigious than the World Title – draw your own conclusions).
And Daniel Bryan the world title. The WWE gave the fans what they wanted.
For two and a half minutes.
The title was immediately taken from him. The story embarked on a three month storyline where the evil corporation asserted that Daniel Bryan was never, ever going to be the face of the company. They made sure the villain, Randy Orton, was the face of the company. It was typical that at the end of the storyline, the hero would triumph.
The hero did not triumph. The storyline faded away.
Art imitating life? Life imitating art?
The fans… became pissed. In one of the great moments in televised wrestling history, Daniel Bryan stood in the background with other previous champions as the evil corporation presented the next main event of their pay per view – the (storyline) face of the company, Randy Orton vs. the (actual) face of the company John Cena.
This segment took place in Bryan’s home state.
But, this was Bryan’s home state… This was merely a microcosm of how the fans really felt. Therefore the WWE, instead of placing Daniel Bryan in the Royal Rumble a month after the fans hijacked a live television segment – a Royal Rumble in which a victory would have guaranteed Bryan a main event match at Wrestlemania 30 – elected to not place him in the 30 man match AT ALL!
The fans in Pittsburgh waited patiently. Maybe their hero would be a surprise at #15. Or #20. Or #25. As the number grew closer to 30, the more the fans knew it wasn’t going to happen. Pittsburgh destroyed any performer-audience relationship on that night and the end of the match fell completely on its face.
Now, we may never learn if the plan all along was to tell a different story in getting Daniel Bryan a title shot at Wrestlemania. Pride may never tell. Most believe plans and directions changed with fear of the fans becoming completely disengaged at every live event.
The line between art & life was never so fuzzy.
And Daniel Bryan became the Unified Champion at the conclusion of Wrestlemaia 30.
The story should end happily there. And it does.
Except there was another concussion soon after. Daniel Bryan fought a good fight to get back to the ring. He returned for Wrestlemania 31 and won another title.
And then there was another incident a few weeks later.
Daniel Bryan kept fighting. His medical doctors cleared him. WWE doctors would not clear him.
Was the art and life line still so fuzzy?
It wasn’t. A test came back from Bryan’s doctors and he was finally convinced.
He had to retire.
This is a rare story these days. The performer who genuinely connects with a live audience in a media based universe. A performer who defied all odds. A performer who was 5’8″/190. A lot of articles discuss how Bryan was the everyman. How Bryan was the underdog.
He was a genuine performer who knew how to connect with his audience. It was an unbelievable sight to see. One that might not be seen for some time. Go to a sporting event or, I bet before to long, a political gathering…
When you hear that ‘YES’ chant with the fingers pointing upward and the arm motion and the whole thing.
That was Daniel Bryan’s doing.