It started, innocently enough, with a kiss.
About 14 seconds later, Daniel Bryan had lost the World Heavyweight Championship at the grandest stage of them all, Wrestlemania 28, a night he would say was “the worst night of his career.” But little did we know it would be the start of one of the greatest two-year journeys for any WWE Superstar.
The decision to have Daniel Bryan lose the World Heavyweight Championship in record time was just the icing on the cake for WWE’s treatment of him since he began his career on NXT in 2010. At that point, a freshly heel-turned Michael Cole would openly bury Bryan on commentary for his lack of charisma and general goofy nature. Since that point, the audience was beaten over the head repeatedly about how Daniel Bryan didn’t deserve to be in the WWE, although he was proving he belonged night in and night out by having the best matches on the card. He was rewarded with a Money in the Bank ladder match win and successful cash in for the World Heavyweight Championship, where he developed the “Yes” catchphrase after squeaking out of title defenses, but the overriding theme was that Bryan was undeserving to be the champion and it was only a matter of time before he’d lose it.
With the 18-second defeat, the fans had finally decided they’d had enough.
The next night on Raw, when new World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus came out, he was drowned in a chorus of boos and Daniel Bryan/Yes chants. The plan had completely backfired on WWE. Rather than Sheamus looking like the conquering, dominant champion, he stood as the living incarnation of Vince McMahon telling us he knew what was best for us (a theme that would pop up later as the force behind the Triple H/Daniel Bryan feud of 2013/14).
And so we rebelled against the system and rallied behind Daniel Bryan, even after he dumped AJ and maintained his heel status by rejecting our “Yes” chants and beginning to chant “No!”
A strange set of circumstances led to Bryan forming an unlikely tag team with Kane, dubbed Team Hell No. Bryan’s time in the Team Hell No tag team proved instrumental to the success he’d have a year later, as Bryan got to showcase his entertaining side in vignettes where the two were sent to anger management classes as well as in the ring. This led to a reluctant Bryan accepting the Yes chants and acting as a Tweener. But you could tell that the writing team was starting to come around to the idea of Bryan as a serious fan favorite, and the team with Kane had a lot to do with it.
The team would be integral parts of the TLC 2012 (in a six man TLC match against the Shield), Royal Rumble 2013 (in a tag title match as well as the Royal Rumble), and Elimination Chamber 2013 (in the Chamber match) Pay Per Views. At Wrestlemania 29, Bryan got a little bit of redemption by picking up the pinfall in a tag title defense against Dolph Ziggler and Big E Langston before leading MetLife Stadium in a round of Yes cheers.
After dropping the belts to The Shield at Extreme Rules, Bryan’s big solo push began, as he started to assume everybody thought he was the weak link of Team Hell No. This led to some amazing performances by Bryan, including taking The Shield out single-handedly on an episode of Raw and defeating Randy Orton in a Street Fight on another episode of Raw. His momentum peaked at Summerslam, where he defeated John Cena to win his first WWE Championship, before having it snatched away from him by a Triple H heel turn and a Randy Orton Money in the Bank cash-in.
The next few months would be agonizing as Bryan would have the WWE Championship in his grasp (literally) at Night of Champions before having it taken away again, and being screwed by Shawn Michaels at Hell in a Cell. The crowd favor did not waver, even as Bryan kept getting gypped out of the belt.
A small detour in Bryan’s championship path had him feuding with the Wyatt Family at Survivor Series, TLC 2013, and the Royal Rumble, culminating in a singles loss to Bray Wyatt at the Royal Rumble.
It was after that loss where his hard work and connection with the audience led to his destiny being altered forever.
The rumor was that Batista was back as a babyface to face (and defeat) Randy Orton for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania 30, effectively negating Bryan’s entire championship chase storyline. Bryan was slated to face Sheamus, who would turn heel at the Elimination Chamber Pay Per View to set up the singles match. Deciding not to chance the crowd reacting negatively to Bryan being eliminated from the Royal Rumble, WWE brass decided to leave Bryan out of the Rumble altogether, a decision that would prove disastrous. Once the Pittsburgh crowd realized that Bryan would not be in the Rumble match after number 30 was announced, they proceeded to rebel against the program, booing huge babyface Rey Mysterio for coming in at 30, and heavily booing Batista for doing relatively little in the match and staying until the end.
The fans’ reaction, coupled with the sudden departure of CM Punk from WWE, forced the writers to do a re-write of the entire Wrestlemania card. They realized (correctly) that putting a singles match with Randy Orton and Batista as the main event of Wrestlemania would be a mistake of epic proportions, and so plans were put in place for Daniel Bryan to not only face Triple H at Wrestlemania (which was originally CM Punk’s slot), but to also put him in the main event.
Which brings us to last night. The fans got the ending that they wanted, and in retrospect, it’s impossible to think of any other scenario to end Wrestlemania that would make sense other than Bryan triumphantly holding up both belts as “Ride of the Valkyries” blares on the sound system and confetti rains down from the ceiling. However, the scenario of Batista in Bryan’s position was all-too-real until Pittsburgh collectively told WWE brass that they were making a colossal mistake. That’s an incredible testament not only to the power of the WWE fans to foster change, but also to the power of Bryan’s relationship with the fans that would prompt that kind of adverse reaction to Batista.
It all comes back to the kiss. I firmly believe that Bryan’s loss to Sheamus at Wrestlemania 28 had a direct impact on him winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania 30. It fostered a unique connection between Bryan and the WWE Universe that proved to be strong and lasting, and Bryan stood as a symbol of fighting injustice and the belief that hard work (not nepotism or cronyism) pays off in the end. It’s been an amazing journey to watch.