Just over two weeks ago, I penned a column about the status of Daniel Bryan and even though I mentioned that I didn’t think he would be cleared to return to the ring, I was shocked when it was abruptly announced that he retired last week on Raw. If anything, I assumed since he was cleared by multiple doctors previously, that he might wait until his WWE deal expired and work for New Japan if the WWE didn’t want to risk the liability of wrestling there. Take it with a grain of salt, but The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reported that a few days before the retirement announcement that Bryan had actually requested his release, but was told the WWE could keep him under contract for the duration of his deal because he was on the sidelines for an extended time, similar to the Rey Mysterio situation last year.
Obviously, Daniel Bryan is finished an in ring wrestler and he cited the results of a new concussion test that made the decision for him, as a small lesion was found on his brain, which caused seizures in the past. As I said before, if there was ANY risk of Bryan getting injured again and suffering the effects long after he stopped wrestling, I would rather see him retire than jeopardize his health. The retirement speech was a genuine moment from a great competitor that has a true passion for the squared circle and many consider it one of the most emotional segments in WWE history. As sad as it is that Daniel Bryan had to exit the sport before he could truly have the main event run he was capable of on the global stage, the totality of his career provided proof that he’s without question one of the greatest in ring performers of all time.
Long before Daniel Bryan was celebrating as confetti fell around him at the Super Dome in New Orleans at Wrestlemania 30, Bryan Danielson dreamed of wrestling stardom. From the quiet logging town of Aberdeen, WA, Bryan Danielson made the decision early in his youth that he wanted to pursue a career inside the ring ropes and after graduating high school, he relocated to Texas to train at Shawn Michaels’ Texas Wrestling Academy. Danielson trained at the school alongside other notable stars including Paul London, Lance Cade, Brian Kendrick, and others before making his debut in 1999. That same year, when HBK was booked for Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling in Japan as a referee, some of his students were brought along and booked on the card. As “American Dragon,” Bryan wore a mask for the Japanese tour and later adopted the name as part of his moniker.
Another benefit of learning under Shawn Michaels was that at the age of just 19, Danielson was signed to a WWE developmental deal and sent to Memphis to continue to learn his craft. Memphis was one of the few territories the WWE worked with before their deal with OVW in the early 2000’s and it was nowhere near as elaborate as the developmental system in place today. Still, Bryan considered his time in the territory a valuable learning experience, as he had the chance to learn from veterans like William Regal, who he credited during the speech on Raw. After a year under contract, Danielson was released, but this was in 2001 after the WWE roster was flooded with talent from WCW and ECW after both companies closed. Keep in mind, this was also a time frame when the WWE rarely used light heavyweight competitors.
After his release, Danielson went back to his hometown and began wrestling in the northwest United States where he participated in one of the most influential tournaments in wrestling history. All Pro Wrestling, the small promotion that was profiled in Beyond The Mat, gathered the top talent in independent wrestling for a two-day “King of the Indies” tournament that took place in California in 2001. The event featured several future stars including, AJ Styles, Brian Kendrick, Low Ki, Super Dragon, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, and others. Bryan won the tournament and after viewing the event, former ECW office worker, Gabe Sapolsky was one of the people who generated the concept for Ring Of Honor. It’s safe to say that ROH wouldn’t exist today without the King Of Indies influence and many wrestlers that worked the tournament played a pivotal role in the early years of the company. In fact, Danielson is considered one of the founding fathers of the promotion that started in the small Murphy Rec Center in Philadelphia in 2002 and he also worked in the main event of its inaugural show.
To detail Danielson’s ROH career would be an entire column itself, but from the exposure the upstart league provided, “The American Dragon” wrestled across the country and around the globe for seven years before he inked a WWE deal in 2009. Danielson had some of the best matches in the history of Ring of Honor at a time when the group was considered the best in ring product in the world and when he wasn’t working top notch matches there, he was competing international in NOAH in Japan or a variety of independent organizations in Europe. Another notable accomplishment was when he won the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight tag titles with Christopher Daniels’ Curry Man character for New Japan in 2004.
A few of the many highlights of Bryan’s independent career include a tremendous series of matches with Nigel McGuinness, as the two technical grapplers exchanged submission attempts and stiff strikes. Speaking of stiff strikes, Danielson’s matches with Kenta and former GHC Heavyweight champion, Takeshi Morashima were among some of the most physical matches in ROH history. The Morashima series was particularly brutal as a clubbing forearm from the Japanese brute caused the American Dragon a serious eye injury. It was determined that surgery was required to repair his detached retina and fractured orbital bone, but he would still compete with an eye patch while it healed. Along with that, thrilling bouts with Austin Aries, Roderick Strong, and Homicide were all a memorable stage of his career. During Bryan’s time there, ROH was primarily a northeast promotion and would venture into the mid west for shows in Chicago, but hadn’t expanded further at the point. However, Bryan’s wrestling ventures took him literally coast-to-coast as he competed semi-regularly for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla on the west coast since the promotion launched in 2003, even winning the PWG world championship during his final appearance there before he departed the independent scene to join the WWE in 2009. Aside from the PWG championship, Bryan also had an instrumental run as ROH world champion when he held the title for over a year and a half, which helped further elevate the prestigious of the belt and the promotion.
As mentioned, Danielson signed a WWE deal in 2009 and debuted for the promotion a few months later in 2010. Known as “Daniel Bryan,” he was featured on the initial NXT season and received a good crowd reaction. Bryan was briefly released following the infamous “neck tie” incident, but was rehired soon after to continue his WWE run. The next two years could be considered “building blocks” so to speak for Bryan as he won the United States title and the World Heavyweight title, but those scenarios were usually secondary to the WWE title or Raw main events. As the Raw and Smackdown brands merged in 2013, Daniel Bryan was paired with Kane to form an unexpected tag team. The duo provided several entertaining segments and matches as tag champions. The angle itself proved that Bryan was a well rounded performer because he wasn’t just a great in ring wrestler, but also an entertaining character. As time progress, Bryan surged in popularity before winning the WWE title at Summer Slam in 2013, only to drop the belt before the show went off the air when Randy Orton cashed in a title shot. As I said at the time, the WWE had a chance to have a PG version of Austin vs. McMahon with the Daniel Bryan/Authority storyline, but he was minimized after the Orton feud. Daniel Bryan wasn’t the stereotypical WWE main event star and thus, WWE brass had already decided that even though he was one of the most popular stars on the roster, they weren’t going to book him in the title picture.
On January 26, 2014, the WWE audience in attendance at the Royal Rumble at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh had a very direct message to WWE’s writing team and the effect of the reaction to the event can still be seen today. After a great match with Bray Wyatt, Bryan returned backstage, but many fans assumed he would be back later in the show to compete for (and hopefully win) the Royal Rumble match. As number 30, Rey Mysterio, entered the Rumble, the fans started a mutiny as their pick for the Rumble hadn’t even been given the chance to enter the match. A chorus of boos accompanied the rest of the show, which only intensified when Batista won it and was subjected to the heat that was more directed at management than him. In the weeks that followed, “Daniel Bryan” and “Yes!” chants would interrupt WWE programming as the fans continued to protest WWE’s notion that he was a “B+ player.” The bottom line is the fans don’t want to be told who they should cheer or who they should want to see in the top spots so the response to the Batista/Orton feud remained hostile. Finally, not wanting to see the main event getting booed out of the building at Wrestlemania, the WWE booked Bryan in a storyline that saw him win the championship at Wrestlemania 30.
While the win at Wrestlemania 30 should have been the start of a major main event run for him, it was the peak and perhaps the beginning of the end of his career. Less than a month later, Daniel Bryan suffered a neck injury and was forced to relinquish the title. The following year, when fans again rallied behind Bryan to main event Wrestlemania, he was instead booked for an IC title ladder match and he won it. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion in a match with Sheamus a few weeks later and after nearly a year of waiting to be cleared to return to action, he retired.
Outside of the ring, Daniel Bryan met Connor “The Crusher” Michalek and helped provide memorable experiences for the 8-year-old that was battling brain cancer in 2014, including embracing him at ringside after he won the WWE title at Wrestlemania 30. Connor “The Crusher” tragically passed away, but his bravery touched everyone that heard his story and Connor’s Cure was established to benefit cancer research. In 2015, Connor was immortalized alongside many of his pro wrestling heroes when he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame with the Warrior Courage award, presented to his father Stephen by the later Ultimate Warrior’s wife, Dana Warrior.
So, why did so many fans identify with Daniel Bryan? The audience could see an authenticity to him and they saw his passion for the sport. The WWE audience could identify with Daniel Bryan as a genuine competitor that gave 100% every time he stepped into the ring. As I mentioned in the column a few weeks ago, I actually met Daniel Bryan at the World of Wheels convention in Pittsburgh and he was really polite and he seemed happy to be there. Essentially, the WWE audience knew that Daniel Bryan appreciated them as much as they appreciated him. Despite being forced into retirement before he could have the main event run on the global stage, if you consider the entire body of work that he put together during the course of a 15 years in the business, Daniel Bryan had a legendary career.
Daniel Bryan is one of the greatest in ring wrestlers of all time.
Daniel Bryan is a hero.
Quite simply, Daniel Bryan is pro wrestling.
image credit – WWE
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