Daniel Bryan and Craig Tello, Yes: My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania (St. Martin’s Griffen 2015, 320pgs.)
When Daniel Bryan (real name Brian Danielson) retired from professional wrestling last year, I was devastated. At 5’8″ and barely 200lbs. for most of his career, Bryan went from being a darling of the American independent wrestling scene to one of the most astonishing success stories in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Fired twice by WWE and initially looked upon as a “good hand” in the ring with limited star potential, the unassuming — and, by his own admission, unambitious — Bryan developed a cult following among hardcore fans that steadily spread to all corners of WWE’s audience, many of whom had grown numb to the uninspired, formulaic main-event wrestling the promotion became known for after the early 00s. Unfortunately, Bryan’s ring style — a blend of classic British catch wrestling, Japanese strong and junior heavyweight style, and a bit too much of American indie recklessness — had caught up with him by 2014, the year he headlined WrestleMania, working two hard-hitting and excellent matches before capturing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Not long after this career-defining moment, Bryan was forced to relinquish the belt as he dealt off-air with neck and concussion issues. A brief return in 2015 was cut short by similar injuries, prompting Bryan to make one of the hardest decisions of his life: retire at 35, in the prime of his career.
These sad events are not the main focus of Bryan’s autobiography. Rather, a bulk of the text focuses on Bryan’s life as a working-class kid in Washington state; the ups and downs of his family life, including his father’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism (Bryan himself has never drank); the sacrifices he made to break into the wrestling business, along with the experience of being trained under the legendary Shawn Michaels; and his rapid rise on the American independent scene, quickly going from a “nobody” wrestling under a mask as The American Dragon to being regarded as one of the best all-around wrestlers in the world. Bryan was an integral part of the early years of Ring of Honor (ROH), an independent promotion which helped change the landscape of American graps with stars such as CM Punk, Samoa Joe, and Bryan. Without those early years of ROH, it’s unlikely there would be an NXT today, nor a vibrant U.S. indie scene.
Having come to Bryan’s book with a fairly deep knowledge of his professional history, I was most interested in those parts which focused not on Daniel Bryan the wrestler but Brian Danielson the man. Bryan never shies away from the fact that he is a laid back hippie of sorts who was once awarded PETA’s Animal Friendly Athlete of the Year Award after becoming vegan. (Bryan was eventually forced to abandon veganism after developing a soy allergy.) He also chronicles, in small doses, his relationship with Brie Bella, a former WWE wrestler who is now Bryan’s wife. Despite facing a number of trials during his WWE tenure, not the least of which being the front office’s perception that Bryan could not be a genuine main-event talent, there is no immediate trace of bitterness in the book. Sure, like many wrestlers, Bryan had his share of frustrating moments and ill treatment at the hands of some promoters, but what shines through in this book most of all is Bryan’s genuine love of professional wrestling, not as a low-brow spectacle surrounded by cheap comedy and sex, but as a sport.
There have been a lot of good-to-excellent wrestling autobiographies penned over the years, but Bryan’s stands out for both its genuineness and humor. Bryan has no qualms about poking fun at himself, particularly his youthful naiveté on just about everything. Moreover, Bryan’s account of his career presents pro-wrestling as neither a hobby nor a pathway to fame and fortune; it is, rather, a vocation which, when done right, demands the same level of training, discipline, and desire as any genuine athletic endeavor. Hopefully Bryan’s example rubs off on the next generation of wrestlers.