Unless it’s one of the more deceptive (and some might say tasteless) works in years, Daniel Bryan (formerly billed under his real name Bryan Danielson) is set to retire from professional wrestling tonight on World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) flagship show Monday Night RAW. Bryan, who started making noise on the indie circuit back in 2001, emerged into one of the most unlikely wrestling superstars in history despite having neither “the look” WWE goes for when pushing main-event players nor their usually narrow definition of charisma. Bryan, who has never been known for his work on the microphone, leveraged his quirky but straightforward personality into becoming something of an “everyman’s champion,” an unassuming guy you’d love to have in your work place but never expect to be saturated with raw athletic ability or pure wrestling talent. To a certain degree, Bryan followed in the footsteps of the late Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, combining high-risk aerial moves with a more legitimate catch-style approach to mat wrestling punctuated with martial arts-inspired maneuvers and strikes reminiscent of New Japan “Strong Style” wrestling. Though some wrestling purists lamented that Bryan rarely had opponents in WWE who could “go” in the way only Bryan could, he managed to adapt his in-ring approach to gel with a wide spectrum of performers.
I first encountered Bryan during his days with Ring of Honor in the early 00s. There, under the nickname American Dragon, Bryan established himself as one of the best talents in North America. When WWE finally scooped him up, most of his hardcore followers assumed it would amount to nothing. Bryan was smaller than the average WWE performer; he looked bland and unimpressive; and his ring style, as mentioned, was not what the WWE normally gravitates toward. After years of wallowing in the midcard (and even once being fired), Bryan started to break out into his own in 2011 even though the top brass in the WWE seemed to have little interest in pushing him as a top guy. Then, quite unexpectedly, the fans took control of Bryan’s destiny. When WWE booked Bryan poorly, such as opting to have him neither win nor even participate in the 2014 Royal Rumble (the match which determines who goes on to headline WrestleMania), the live audience literally boo’d the product out of the building. For weeks afterwards, fans effectively hijacked WWE live shows, including RAW, using Bryan’s signature “Yes!” chant to drown out matches and interviews they couldn’t care less about. Finally, WWE relented and at WrestleMania 30, Bryan had his career-crowning moment by walking out champion.
Unfortunately Bryan’s story took a turn for the worse after that. Years of high-impact (some might argue reckless) performing in both the indies and WWE had taken their toll on Bryan’s physical health. A significant neck injury and serious concussion issues plagued Bryan after WrestleMania, forcing him to relinquish the WWE Championship and miss the rest of 2014. After returning in early 2015 and winning the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania 31, he again had to step aside to deal with his injuries…and is now apparently never coming back from them. While it has been widely reported that Bryan received medical clearance to return to the squared circle from two top-tier physicians, WWE’s official doctor has time and again refused to give the green light. For reasons which may be explained tonight on RAW, Bryan believes the time has come to hang up the boots and trunks once and for all.
As a fan of the sport of professional wrestling, I am saddened to see such an amazing talent like Bryan step away from performing. As a human being, however, I am glad he is doing it. Most know by now the tragic tales that follow the lives of many professional wrestlers. Though few performers actually die in the ring, a shocking number have driven themselves to early graves from drug and alcohol addiction spurred in no small part by the sheer amount of physical pain they’ve been forced to endure over the course of their careers. Bryan, who has always had an old-school “tough it out” mentality, could very well have been heading in that direction had the doctors and no doubt his wife (WWE female wrestler Brie Bella) not intervened. While I admire Bryan’s passion to return to doing what he does best, the last thing I or any true Daniel Bryan fan wants to see is him stretchered out of the ring or steadily deteriorating in retirement until news of his untimely death hits Twitter. Had a few of his bumps not gone the wrong way, Bryan would have undoubtedly delivered the goods for years to come. But that’s not how it worked out and moving on is the best decision Bryan can make for himself and his family.
I suspect it will take some time for people to realize how important Daniel Bryan has been to the wrestling industry over the last decade. While performers like Guerrero, Benoit, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, and Kurt Angle helped set the stage for a more athletic style of American wrestling in the 1990s and 00s, Bryan introduced it to a new generation of fans and helped inspire many of the up-and-coming performers in the WWE and other promotions today. He is surely why WWE has been willing to seriously invest in independent and foreign-based wrestlers like AJ Styles, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Sami Zayn, and Samoa Joe and push NXT from being simply the company’s developmental territory to a standalone entity with a personality all its own.
Although I am quite positive he will never read this web-log post, the only words I can conclude with are the same ones trending on Twitter right now: #ThankYouDanielBryan. You are one of the reasons I have remained a wrestling fan for nearly 28 years. You’ll be missed.