Liking Daniel Bryan
Hey creepers of all ages, sorry for missing last week’s article. I had finals. They were very stressful and made me soil my textbooks with tears. Let’s forget the impending grades and a work-filled summer with a tall glass of escapism.
In light of the stressful week I and any college-aged reader or otherwise hard-working individual has just endured, I thought it’d be refreshing to lay back, nuzzle up into our cushy computer chairs, and instead simply enjoy one of the wrestlers I appreciate most, one whose work I find constantly inspired, and one who I often find myself summing up in just one word that speaks volumes: likable.
As far as I’m concerned, in an industry whose fans are constantly at odds with each other over who’s the best, which promotion is worth watching, whether CM Punk’s Pipebomb was legitimate or not, and an unfathomable, murky and frankly sleazy slew of similar subjects, being able to satisfy fans without polarizing half the audience is an enormous accomplishment. One of the few names to bear this laurel is Shawn Michaels. He was a showstealer in the ring, putting on legendary matches with Steve Austin, Bret Hart and The Undertaker. He was incredibly well-ranged on the microphone, leaving us with nuanced performances that wrapped us in emotions as much as any monologue of theatre, like when he lost his smile and when he said his goodbyes the night after WrestleMania 26. He battled personal demons throughout the late 90s and the early 00s, emerging a born again Christian with a greater appreciation for his life and those who make it worth living. Through it all, he did something few other wrestlers could and have since: made himself a man – not just a character – who was likable on all fronts, who could satisfy our desire for good wrestling, dramatic stories and the simple knowledge that the man behind it all has a good heart.
In following this brief homage to Shawn Michaels with a discussion of Daniel Bryan, I don’t mean to imply he is as good as Shawn Michaels. Both are incredible in the ring, though I might give Bryan a slight edge in the technical department, whereas Michaels was superior in the dramatics. And though Bryan has shed the reams of criticism about his promo work, he’s still yet to demonstrate the same range of expressiveness Shawn Michaels did. What I mean to examine in Daniel Bryan, and perhaps what I’ve come to enjoy most about him, is this quality I think the WWE has yet to tap into in developing his onscreen persona, yet I believe he, Bryan Danielson, the man and the wrestler, possesses regardless: the ability to be liked.
When we think of the WWE’s top wrestlers, CM Punk and Daniel Bryan are usually at the top of the list. When I look at CM Punk, I see someone whose persona is founded on his ability to create polarities between himself and others (the disparity between him and John Cena was instrumental to his success), even tearing rifts in the WWE’s fictive world to position himself as the one who goes so far in being an anti-hero that he won’t even accept the terms by which his program’s fiction operates. And despite a similar background and the label of being an “Internet darling,” CM Punk couldn’t be any more different from his fellow ROH alum, Daniel Bryan.
Whereas CM Punk’s persona is hinged on his ability to emphasize his otherness, his rebelliousness, Daniel Bryan is someone who is innately relatable. I don’t know if it’s the shaggy hair or his old entrance music, but to me, Daniel Bryan is classic rock. He’s Teenage Wasteland, he’s The Final Countdown, he’s a Rocky montage, he’s long hair and natural vocals – he’s a man who embodies hard work, inspiration and right-mindedness, the sort of things valued in America and any part of the world. He’s the classic lawful good archetype, as well as an underdog, a scrapper, yet unassuming, humble even. He’s someone I’d be comfortable with meeting my future kids, Owen and Chloe. I’d invite him over for Thanksgiving dinner and let them call him Uncle Danny.
Not all of this is communicated through WWE programming, however. In fact, his character hasn’t articulated much to this effect since his early work on NXT. The to-me-classic line, “They need to pick guys who are the best people for this job, and the best person for this job is me” echoes some of the virtues, the humility and the respect he articulated more frequently in his independent days, like when he said, “If you look at all the guys in this ring, at how much each and every one of us has bled for this company, has been hurt for this company, who all come out and wrestle our ass off and do anything to please you people, all they ask from you people, is for you guys to just keep coming up.” Before cashing in Money in the Bank, he definitely got the underdog quality across in his battles with Mark Henry, but after that he became a vintage douchebag skier boyfriend (is that a thing? I feel like that’s a thing), an unbalanced and aggressive gnome, and finally a lovable dolt. I believe he still articulates his underdoggedness and his classic rock vibe just by his style and appearance, but for me, learning about Bryan Danielson, the kind-hearted person, was through sources outside the WWE.
If you keep up with dirtsheets, you’ve probably read, seen or heard a Daniel Bryan interview before. Through these dialogues, you can find a Daniel Bryan who is dedicated and hard-working: “I love being on the road two weeks at a time. I can be on the road all the time, 365 days of the year, but we don’t have that right now” (Fighting Spirit Magazine).
You can find a Daniel Bryan who is humble: “I thought the [post-WrestleMania 28 “YES!” chants were] unreal, that all these people were getting behind me. Or maybe they weren’t getting behind me. Maybe it’s just fun to chant “Yes!” But it was really cool” (GQ). And you can find a Daniel Bryan who appreciates pro wrestling on an artistic level: “It’s a form of performance art. And there’s so much that goes into it that other people aren’t seeing” (Washington Post). Though you can never be certain the Daniel Bryan of interviews is the same man in private life, as close as we can get as fans looking into the industry and a celebrity’s life, he seems an all-around nice dude.
While interviews can be entertaining and revealing, they might not say as much as when Daniel Bryan met Connor, a seven-year-old cancer patient who just thought the goat-faced D-Bry was tops.
(Look at him! He’s just so damn likable!)
The cynical observation is that it’s simply part of his job and that it would have been harmful to his reputation to have ignored the Facebook campaign that brought attention to Connor’s plight. Of course, I really can’t confirm Daniel Bryan’s intentions were amiable short of asking him in person, and even then you can never be certain. However, after all I’ve seen in him, the humble words, the inspiring matches, the self-degrading humor – I’m confident that Daniel Bryan’s selling that No! Lock out of compassion, not because the WWE machine told him it was good for public relations.
Looking forward, what could the industry have in store for Daniel Bryan? As of last night, he and Kane are no longer the WWE Tag Team Champions. I imagine in the meantime, Team Hell No will play clean-up, going through the usual routine of rematches. However, from there I believe the WWE has an opportunity to develop Daniel Bryan into one of the top faces in the industry. He already gets great pops and has a likable character. The next step is introducing his persona into storylines that will emphasize all the tools he’s used before: his relatability, his work ethic, his virtues. Play up the charity, play up the compassion – the sort of things we normally associate John Cena, only I imagine won’t be nauseating when paired instead with an underdog who also happens to be a master of technical wrestling.
I don’t believe Daniel Bryan doesn’t have critics. I wouldn’t even say some of his criticisms aren’t justifiable. However, what should trump it all – and I hope WWE runs with this – is the intangible quality that few possess and far too few attempt, to simply gather people around one’s self, put smiles on their faces and occasionally tears in their eyes, to make a career of sacrifices that speaks to who we are as a moral people – to simply be liked.
As you might remember from two weeks ago, today I was supposed to be continuing a series called, “Worlds of Wrestling”. That’s not happening. Really, I didn’t feel like I was able to contribute anything beyond the obvious, except when tying it to the original “To Chart a Universe” article, although even that only felt like restating. Perhaps I’ll return to the idea if I think up a more engaging way of examining the two other promotions. I apologize to anyone who was interested in the series.
Until next week, I’m going to go get pumped for Tuesday’s Xbox reveal, and then possibly disappointed. In the meantime, check me out on Twitter and shoot me an angry email.