One thing I intended to do when I started this blog was profiles on wrestlers. I like thinking about their pasts, where they are currently, what they might do in the future, and what they mean to me personally. I haven’t yet written one, but with news that one of my favorite wrestlers is on the shelf indefinitely, I think it is time.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Bryan Danielson changed how I watched and view professional wrestling. In college I discovered that there were people, on the internet, who loved professional wrestling as much as me. And from these people, I learned about Ring of Honor. I’m not going to claim to be the biggest Ring of Honor fan. I was actually pretty casual about the whole thing. I like staying up to date on matches and stories, and it was hard to do that with ROH. There was no weekly TV show, only faceless people on the internet telling me “such and such is the best wrestler anywhere” and “you need to watch this match to be a wrestling fan.” Even I though could go back and watch some of their classic matches, I found it hard to get too excited about the product. There were a few exceptions. The CM Punk vs. Samoa Joe trilogy hooked me, but it was someone else who made me seek out every one of his matches.
Bryan Danielson was smaller then most. but unlike most small guys, he didn’t fly around the ring. He didn’t do a bunch of flips and spins. Instead, he grappled. He wrestled. He would twist around his opponent’s limbs until he could tie them into a submission maneuver, or he would trap them and leave them helpless. His size, small for even the independent scene, was not detriment. No one took him less seriously because of it. No one made fun of him. His skill overrode any of that. He was called the American Dragon, but he was more like a pitbull. Not the biggest guy in a fight, but he might have been the fiercest and the meanest.
I had never seen someone win matches like he did. He didn’t really have a set finisher. Sure, there was his specialty submission move, the Cattle Mutilation. But sometimes he would lock on a Bob Backlund-esque Crossface Chickenwing. Sometimes an MMA style triangle choke. And sometimes he would trap his opponents arms in his legs and elbow them mercilessly in the face until the referee had to stop the match. With so many dangerous moves in his repertoire, it seemed like anything he did could end a match.
He was without a doubt the best technical wrestler I had the chance to appreciate. And unlike other great wrestling technicians like Dean Malenko or Lance Storm, Danielson had a subtle charisma about him. His detractors might have called him a “vanilla midget”, but he could captivate the live audience with everything he did. Long before arena’s were chanting “Yes!” With him, the whole crowd sang along with his entrance song “The Final Countdown.” People who go to independent wrestling shows are some of the most jaded, miserable people you will meet, (and I say that with all affection) and here was a guy who got them all to sing along with freakin’ Europe. It might be his greatest achievement.
Danielson would put someone in a submission, and after they reached the ropes he would crank back on the move even harder as the referee counted. “1…2…3…4…” at which point Danielson would drop the hold at the last second and scream at the ref “I have ’til five!” I really want to know why he never tried this later in the WWE, as it seemed tailor made to his douchebag heel persona he had for a while. It was just one more thing he would do to connect to the crowd. Critics would say he didn’t have a personality, and it was obvious they had never actually watched him wrestle.
Bryan Danielson was a badass. No one, from technical wrestlers like Nigel Miguiness to monsters like Takeshi Morishima, scared him. While other wrestlers tried to find the coolest, darkest music to come down to, Danielson came down to goddamn Europe. He didn’t need entrance music, or ring attire, or promos to prove he was a badass. He proved it in the ring.
There was quite a bit of trepidation when he signed with the WWE. He was, without a doubt, the biggest name on the independent scene at the time. He could have made a comfortable living working the independents and in Japan. And the WWE doesn’t have the best track record with smaller guys. I’m not going to spend a lot of time recapping his WWE career. I assume if you are reading this you are already familiar with most of it. But there are a few things I want to touch on.
The first is the constant, and I mean constant, disrespect Daniel Bryan faced. I don’t claim to know how he was treated behind the scenes, but on screen it was unbearable at times. He went from being a badass, to having Heel Michael Cole, the worst announcer of all time, making fun of him every week. From the second he debuted on the original NXT, it seemed like he was only there so the WWE could prove it did things better then the independents. He was pushed to the preshow for his first Wrestlemania. His next Wrestlemania he lost the opening match in 19 seconds. Everyone from Sheamus to the Big Show tried to steal his “Yes!” Catchphrase. He was pushed aside on his own storylines. But no matter what chicken shit the WWE gave him, he turned it to chicken salad. It must have been maddening for the creative team trying to figure out why this guy kept getting some of the loudest crowd reactions with every thing he said and did.
It worked out pretty well for him, there’s no denying that. But the unanswerable question will always be how far could he have gone if the WWE machine had actually gotten behind him. What if they had pushed him after beating Cena at Summerslam? What if they listened to the crowd and had him win the Royal Rumble? What if they put him in their top stories instead of continually shuffling him down the card? But maybe they did get behind him? Bryan, more then any other wrestler in this generation, has bridged the gap between reality and kayfaybe until it’s all an indistinguishable blur, even more then CM Punk. The crowd was behind Bryan, and undoubtedly pushed him to his biggest successes.
The WWE would tell you that all of it was intentional, from cutting his title reigns from underneath him, to his flaccid Royal Rumble appearances, to Micheal freaking Cole burying him on commentary. That Bryan wouldn’t have had the groundswell of support behind him if not for them. I don’t believe that for a second. The reason I don’t believe it is simple. There was never any attempts at a payoff. No matter how the WWE mocked him, there was never any attempt to give him any storyline retribution. During his WWE title run, he was continuously screwed, and never got any revenge. He was taken out of his own story and replaced by the Big Show. The Big Show! I cannot possibly believe that someone who thinks replacing Daniel Bryan with the Big Show(!) is a good idea is also able to plan a year long story culminating in a Wrestlemania redemption angle.
There are two more things about Bryan’s WWE career I want to talk about before wrapping this up. First was his fantastic run with the World Heavyweight Championship at the end of 2011 through the summer of 2012. The World Heavyweight Championship was perfect for Bryan. He was never going to be the main guy, the “face” of the company, we knew, but he was perfect in the role of secondary World champion. His slow descent into a cocky and arrogant heel was great, and so were his series of Champion vs. Champion matches against CM Punk. His title reign was ended ignominiously, but it brought up two of his best matches in the WWE. In the Pay Per View after Wrestlemania, he fought Sheamus in a brilliant 2 out of 3 falls match, and the month after that he stole the whole show against CM Punk. That match was so good that I’m going to ignore the fact that the PPV was main evented by John Cena vs. John Laurenitis.
Then there’s the goat. The goat sums up Bryan’s time in the WWE perfectly. It started as mockery, for a way to belittle Bryan. Daniel Bryan, as he always did, turned it into money. The more the WWE made fun of him, the more popular he became. WWE could claim it was the catchphrase that was popular, or the facial hair, or anything else, but the fact was it was Bryan who was the most over wrestler in the company. And every time JBL or Cole called him a goat, it didn’t make me think of farm animals or ugly facial hair. Because GOAT has another meaning, and while I’m not positive Daniel Bryan is the Greatest Of All Time, he’s certainly in the discussion.