The human skull protects a vital, yet incredibly fragile organ: the brain. Impacts to this casing are inevitable, with some being violent enough to send the brain crashing into its protective shield. Concussions are a rare occurrence for most people, but sometimes a skull is attached to the body of someone like Daniel Bryan.
On the February 8 episode of RAW, Daniel Bryan retired from his life’s passion. Over his sixteen year career, Bryan suffered so many concussions that his brain simply couldn’t heal as it should. He found himself faced with a rather simple choice: walk away now or forever put his life in jeopardy.
On it’s face, this seems like a rather simple story. Man has career that puts him at risk for concussions and gets them. Of course, there is the wrinkle that is the cruel twist of irony that said man has to walk away from the thing he loves because that very profession did potentially irreparable damage to his brain. But abbreviated version fails to tell the tale of Daniel Bryan.
The story of the man once known as The American Dragon is unique in the world of pro wrestling. He conquered a world created for people completely unlike him. Superstars don’t just happen, they are slowly crafted over time – carefully handpicked because of their undeniable charisma, Hollywood good looks, otherworldly physical physique, quick wit, a family name, and personalities that are larger than life.
Bryan Danielson is none of these things. Had he walked into a WWE locker room a couple of decades ago, he’d likely earn the label of pencil-neck geek label rather than WWE champion. At heart, Bryan is much like the rest of us, wrestling nerds and complete dorks at heart.
Bryan’s bio on WWE.com lists him as 5-foot-10, 210 pounds. Anyone that’s ever played sports will tell you that listed height and weight are almost always lies. Back when I had a dream of playing baseball, I listed myself as 5-foot-11 despite maybe being a hair over 5-foot-9 when wearing my spikes. I gave my fastball a few extra MPH on college recruitment questionnaires. Because when you enter a land of giants, you have to create a mental illusion that you aren’t physically far away from belonging. Daniel Bryan was no different.
Bryan’s work-ethic and effort in the ring was unparalleled. The size of the crowd and importance of the show didn’t matter. He simply didn’t have a lower gear to settle into. It didn’t matter to him that he would put in twice the effort and get the half the reward. That same mindset bled into angles that had no business working. Bryan had a tag team title run with Kane as Team Hell No, which should have been a mid-card comedy act distraction at best. In Bryan’s hands it was must-see TV. His trademark “YES!” chant started with him jumping around screaming it like a complete lunatic after every win in his first world title reign. He even created an opposing “NO!” chant as a heel and that took off too.
Much is made in the WWE about performers grabbing the brass ring or breaking through the glass ceiling. Stone Cold Steve Austin needed his 3:16 promo. CM Punk had to drop his pipebomb promo. Mick Foley had to be thrown off Hell in a Cell.
Daniel Bryan was simply himself. The character Daniel Bryan and the performer Bryan Danielson were intertwined. His everyman persona – whether it was the delightful dork, the too-small underdog, or the guy that just busted his ass – was something people gravitated toward. As fans we all grabbed the brass ring for him and hurled it at the glass ceiling.
Many people, myself included, often criticize the WWE for failing to recognize what the fans want. But with Daniel Bryan, it was far too obvious to see what they had on their hands. They just needed to craft the right angle and, if everything went to play, everyone would become believers and his push to the moon would be inevitable.
The angle of a small underdog eventually winning it all had been done before. Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, or even now scrubbed-forever-from-WWE-history-forever, Chris Benoit, are great examples of recent successes. However, each of these superstars’ eventual triumph felt like they reached their natural conclusions. For Bryan’s story to be a success, the WWE had to create a feeling that Bryan, as well as his fans, forcefully took a success that never should have happened.
Luckily for the WWE, a terrible booking mistake had already given them the basis to do this. Back in Bryan’s world title reign, he defended his belt against Sheamus at WrestleMania 28 to open the show. Bryan never got his WrestleMania moment or even a chance to steal the show. Sheamus Brogue Kicked him off his peak in just 18 seconds.
Fast forward to SummerSlam a couple of years later and Bryan had a chance to capture the WWE Championship. This was the big belt, as there were two separate titles at the time. Bryan, having only ever held the lesser of the two titles, looked primed to capture the company’s biggest prize at one of their top PPVs of the year.
He won the match, against John Cena no less. Torch passed, glass ceiling shattered … that is until Triple H, the televised personification of corporate WWE who had dubbed Bryan a “B+ player” and unfit to be the face of the company, came to the ring. He attacked Bryan and allowed his buddy, Randy Orton, a man whose physique, good looks, and family name made him the prototypical WWE superstar, to cash in a title shot on an incapacitated champion.
In mere seconds, the WWE once again threw Bryan off the peak of the mountain, screwed from the storybook endings that other wrestlers like him had been granted. Fans revolted against Triple H and Randy Orton. Our connection with Bryan also grew like never before.
We, the people, wanted Bryan crowned as our hero and our champion. The WWE wouldn’t allow it. The Authority pushed this concept to the point that Daniel Bryan was noticeably absent from the Wrestlemania 30 card and had no intentions adding him.
Then, within one month of the event, Daniel Bryan staged an “Occupy RAW” movement in which fans flooded the ring inside and out and shut the show down. Bryan and his legions of loyal fans wouldn’t leave until he was granted a match against Triple H, who eventually gave in out of anger that some B+ player showed him up and shut down his show. Knowing that Triple H would be too eager to put him in his place, Bryan doubled down and demanded that if he won, he would be added to the main event, a match between Randy Orton and Dave Bautista for the newly unified WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Bryan got his wish. Fans got our wish. We forced the the WWE to give in to demands. Fans had united with a WWE superstar like never before. So when Bryan emerged victorious after winning two matches at WrestleMania 30, it felt like a collective victory.
At heart, we watch wrestling because we want to see dreams come true. In our lives, our dreams stay confined in our heads because of the hard, cold reality that we live in. Wrestling succeeds when it taps into a desire to vicariously live dreams through our in-ring heroes. The more we can relate to a hero, the stronger that feeling becomes.
Daniel Bryan proved that dreams can come true, but that they also come at a cost. There is no exception to this rule, even in the magical land of pro wrestling. Behind every story of success there is pain and sacrifice. So as close as we all felt to Daniel Bryan in his success so too do we share in his pain as he walks away. He may have spent Monday night talking about the gratitude that he felt for the experiences in his career, but we were all just as lucky to witness it.
Far too many legends of the squared circle pass far too soon because they did not understand the true price their bodies paid. Thankfully, Bryan will walk away and only pay the price of a shortened career rather than a shortened lifespan. While this is a painful day for wrestling fans, we are lucky that we can celebrate his triumphs with him rather than in memory of him.
So was the price that Bryan paid to achieve his dream worth it? I can only imagine he’d respond just as his fans would: YES!