Bryan Danielson’s career is in question. More importantly, his well-being is in question, after undergoing neck surgery last week. Not even half-way through 2014, it’s already been a roller coaster ride for Bryan. We all know the story: he was forever the underdog chasing the title, as it was repeatedly yanked beyond reach. He overcame the odds and tasted sweet victory at the year’s biggest show – many say only because CM Punk walked out. But no matter, everyone savoured the payoff. That, and his marriage to Brie thereafter, seemed to make up for the years of toiling (and the sad event of his beloved dog passing away just before Mania).
While Bryan was on honeymoon, his father passed away. Then came the neck surgery, and now talk of surrendering the title. It may be that his very real neck issues can be used to elevate the on-screen drama, but no one knows how long he’ll need to heal. As much as we can say that The Authority would love to kick Bryan when he’s down, it’s also a fact that the show must go on. While Stephanie McMahon has really come into her own in terms of masterful heel promos, she can only act as a placeholder for so long, and all signs point to Bryan needing more than a few weeks to recover. So while they may ask that he forfeit the title – be it for the sake of the story, or for the vitality of the company – one must wonder if this is the turning point for Bryan’s career?
One year ago, Dolph Ziggler lost all momentum (and corporate favor) after a concussion. One might argue that Dolph wasn’t “face of the company” material. Does Daniel Bryan have what it takes to be That Guy? Will his name ever be spoken in the same breath as the three men who opened WrestleMania XXX: Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and The Rock? Could he be the next John Cena?
We saw what happened after his huge win at Mania: nothing. A stale, forgettable feud with Kane that showed a lack of foresight backstage. So we can say that they’re handicapping Bryan by not giving him interesting opponents or opportunities for character development. But there has been skepticism that Bryan is no more than a catchphrase, and doesn’t have the depth to carry the company beyond the “YES!” chants.
I needed to know more about him before I could judge his potential. I decided to watch the Wrestling Road Diaries documentary (which features Bryan, Colt Cabana, and Sal Rinauro, traveling the independent wrestling circuit in September 2009, shortly before Bryan joined WWE). To balance that evidence, I also watched as many clips as I could find of Bryan from Total Divas, an obviously more recent demonstration of his personality (such as it is, when projected through the lens of a reality program).
Based on this research, I’ve created a point and counterpoint for Bryan being a franchise player.
YES! Daniel Bryan Can Be the Face of the Company
Bryan Danielson is a special person. He’s a good wrestler and a nice guy, but he wins the loyalty and respect of fans just by being himself. That is a very special, intangible gift.
Picture this: he had already signed a contract with WWE, but was finishing up his deal with Ring of Honor. It is amazing to watch Bryan walk out to a crowd of less than 50 people, all pounding on tin foil barricades in a cheesy Ohio theme park. At every stop on his farewell tour, fans lined up to wish him well, profess their dedication to him, and shed a few tears. One guy had driven for 7 hours to see Bryan’s last hurrah in ROH. Another guy was going to all of the shows on the Final Countdown Tour. After his match and a heartfelt speech, Bryan gets changed on the cement floor, with only a tarp separating him from the ring area. There’s a nobility in it that differentiates him from most of the other big names in WWE. The scrappy determination is one thing – CM Punk had it too, along with the indy cred – but Bryan comes off as more graceful in the face of adversity.
He carries that indy cred like a badge of honor, but without the accompanying attitude. The long hours, sparse crowds, late nights, and little sleep (sometimes on strangers’ couches and floors) are all an acceptable exchange for being able to wrestle. He was small and pale, but became the AMERICAN DRAGON once he came through that curtain. The less-than-polished locations, tiny crowds, and cheap production values didn’t fade away once he was wrestling; rather, they were a meaningful part of the experience for Bryan. Someone who loves wrestling that much is really a new offering for fans. Fast forward to Total Divas, where he advises Brie on singles competition: “Soon the nerves will start to feel good. And once you hear the fans appreciating how much work you’ve put in, it makes you feel alive.”
He is an honest, hard-working guy who appeals to the masses because he doesn’t have delusions of grandeur. He doesn’t know how to put a publicist’s spin on his work. If it is a good match, he has no trouble saying so, plain and simple. If the match doesn’t live up to his expectations, he is equally candid – at one point expressing his disappointment that the fans didn’t react as loudly as he wanted, and that if given more time, he could have garnered that reaction. He seeks excellence in his own performance, but also in the diligence of the wrestlers he trains. It’s the type of ambition that’s contagious, because it’s ambition for the greater good of wrestling, and not just the elevation of an individual.
It’s not often that we’ve had a champion who was more about the wrestling, and less the “big character”. It’s refreshing, because you can’t help but fall in love with how he loves to wrestle. He comes off as honest to the point of nerdy (hey, Michael Cole was right!) because he doesn’t quite have that finesse in interviews. He doesn’t care if he comes off as looking cool – actually, just watch him try to air guitar in celebration after beating Cabana at ping pong – but there’s a fearlessness in it, a freedom to be himself. How sweaty does The Rock get, coming out to do his song and dance? It’s all so fabricated that it comes off looking awkward sometimes.
And in the current corporate climate of WWE, they could really use a “mascot” who won’t do anything stupid, either on or off the clock. Bryan lives clean, follows the rules, and has learned to make new sacrifices, sleeping on floors just one choke-out away. He makes me think of Harry Potter, The Chosen One. Meek, soft spoken. Yet he commands respect, and leads by example.
On Total Divas, he judges Cameron’s superficial garbage music, but does so in a way that makes everyone laugh. He clearly can’t stand the party-party bling-bling message, and questions whether that’s what she wants to express to her younger audience, or to her hypothetical future daughter. And everyone, Cameron included, is charmed by his questions – I think because they respect his opinion, and the fact that he dares to say what they all want to say, but does so in a gentle manner.
Essentially, he’s a grown-up who appeals to all ages, and would mark a changing of the guard if he carried the title for a long run.
NO! Daniel Bryan Cannot Be the Face of the Company
I don't consider myself someone you'd want to spend 8 hours in a car with." I’m not sure that Bryan was just being overly humble when he said this in the Diaries documentary. It felt like he meant it – just another matter of fact from The American Dragon. He was speaking in relation to Cabana being the ham, and Saul the ever-willing participant. Bryan’s ego seems most tied in with his wrestling, a great quality in a champion, but is it the WWE way? Do you want your main promo guy to see himself as a bit of a bore? He’s got very little game in terms of improv, one-liners or comebacks. Granted, he was excellent during the Team Hell No era, but a lot of that was playing off of Kane’s gimmick.
Everyone needs a straight man, but should he be The Man? He is literally the guy who won’t cross on a red light, even when his companions have crossed. He will adhere to his job description I’m sure, but is he the pioneer we’re looking for? He’s happy to be buddies with everyone, but he doesn’t want to be the alpha male – he’s That Guy, the one who’s forgetful and is always late, but everyone forgives him because he’s just so darn earnest about it! I have friends like that, so unapologetically themselves, for better and for worse, that you can’t help but let things slide. He’s focused and passionate about the things that he’s focused and passionate about, but does he have the killer instinct to lead the charge? I feel like I have a lot of questions.
Bryan is real. And his sense of reason is a rare trait in pro wrestling. He doesn’t veer into smarminess in an effort to be liked, nor does he pander to people in order to belong. In one scene from the Road Diaries, his sister gives him a pie, which he brings backstage after a show. It’s clearly positioned as Pie For Everyone, but then digs right in as if it’s Pie For One, undeterred by his colleagues’ drooling protests. Eventually, he grins and offers it around, but there are fewer takers. In another scene, the boys take a road trip in order to give an all-day wrestling workshop. Bryan clearly states that he’s not a fan of the seminars, as the attendees don’t usually have good enough intentions to make it worth his time. THAT’S a guy I want to hang around with. I always get a good chuckle out of people who don’t have a filter between their brains and their mouths (shout-out to Andrew Johnson). But is that a guy I want as a long-time champ in a volatile financial climate?
We love him because he’s not a stereotypical WWE Superstar. We love him because no one told us to. But is our love enough to vet him as a true champion?
Maybe This Is the End of the Story
I’m not going to get too melodramatic about this. I don’t want to talk about Bryan retiring, or reverting back to a mid-card position to protect his body. But I have to admit that it’s on my mind.
He lives in his parents’ old house, and plans to raise a family there with Brie. He doesn’t have anything resembling the lifestyle of the other greats – except for CM Punk. Punk walked away, at least for now, with all signs pointing to him needing to heal (I’m guessing both physically and mentally). Punk and Bryan are both men of simple needs, who seem to have saved their earnings rather than spent them. It wouldn’t take a titanic crop of earnings for Bryan to hang up his trunks.
There is that love of wrestling that I feel is in his blood, but his pragmatism may override his passion. Prior to joining WWE, their wellness test showed that Bryan had unusual liver enzymes –ironic given his sober lifestyle. For several weeks, they had to conduct further tests to rule out cancer: “If I can’t wrestle for WWE because I have cancer, well hey, at least I found out I have cancer.” Before he’d even boarded the bus to the big leagues, Bryan was cautious in his outlook. His willing acceptance – that his contract might be derailed – was baffling to me. There was no hand-wringing nor anguished phone conversations. I admired his perspective.
He’s already got it all: the love of the fans, the most coveted title, and a soul mate. Maybe fore Bryan Danielson, that’s enough. Cue the “No!” chants.