In the ever-shifting landscape that is the WWE, it's a constant struggle to maintain focus on all of the top performers without someone falling off the map. One need only witness the payroll-hemorrhaging WCW glory days to see the difficulty of keeping so many big names fresh and relevant. With World Wrestling Entertainment, though, it's always been about the dollars and cents, and who the back office feels can sell the merchandise the fastest and to the largest degree. It's an understandable concern, naturally, but can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if management doesn't think a wrestler is capable of generating excitement and revenue, how can we as fans think they are?
This serves as an entry point to someone who in my mind (despite a vast, vast amount of candidates) remains the most poorly utilized member of the WWE's roster: one Daniel Bryan. Since his arrival in the WWE, Bryan has bounced from one missed opportunity to another without ever seriously getting the opportunity to showcase his talents on a main event level. The amount of time WWE announcers have spent painting Bryan as an internet hero before he even wrestled his first match with the company puts a very thinly-veiled coating over the very real dilemma facing everyone involved. Can this guy really carry the company on his back, despite not having the look and personality that the company craves? Will the fans that know nothing of Bryan's background buy him as a real, authentic wrestling "superstar"? This columnist thinks it's high time to find out.
Bryan came up through the business in the right way, training under Shawn Michaels and William Regal. He went to Japan and wrestled in New Japan Pro Wrestling, achieving some success and allowing himself some experience on the other side of the world. His tenure in Ring of Honor is legendary; it would take me several columns just to explain how amazing he was in that promotion. His long-standing feud with Austin Aries speaks for itself; in short, it is an example of wrestling at its finest. Each of these gave Bryan two extremely important things in the business of pro wrestling: experience and perspective. That might explain why, after toiling away for all that time before getting to the biggest promotion in the industry, he asked to head down to Florida Championship Wrestling to get acclimated with his new home. That sort of humility is not something that plays particularly well on the big screens of the WWE, but it shows just how passionate and respectful this man is regarding the business he's in.
Bryan's entry via NXT is a very good example of the WWE failing to capitalize on anything they didn't create (or buy). Knowing his history and the fact that "smart" fans were salivating to see him in action on the big stage, the braintrust paired him up with reality-TV stalwart The Miz and had him lose pretty much every single week. No offense to The Miz, who has most certainly improved since that time, but calling him a "pro" and pairing him up with someone with a ridiculous amount of experience was the first of many cheap shots. Another was having everyone's favorite announcer, Michael Cole, bury him at all times on commentary. WWE removed him from the competition and kept him idle until he defeated Miz on Raw and got involved along with the rest of the NXT rookies in the infamous attack on the company angle. The utter absurdity of a company which has featured birthing of hands and sex in coffins terminating a wrestler because he choked someone by his necktie is nearly unworthy of mention. I will say that Justin Roberts never sounded better. Exit part one in the saga of missed opportunity.
The next couple of months saw Bryan return to the independent scene, appearing for Chikara and the IWA, amongst many other promotions. It was not long before the WWE realized the error of their ways and brought Bryan back in time for Summerslam, where his rivalries with Nexus chieftain Wade Barrett and The Miz were renewed. While achieving important milestones like defeating Miz for the United States Championship and beating Dolph Ziggler in an excellent contest at Bragging Rights, the best the writing room were able to do for him was plotting him in romantic plotlines with the Bella Twins and Gail Kim. He would eventually drop the US strap to Sheamus and get drafted to Smackdown. A feud with Cody Rhodes (remember those wonderful "paper bag" days?) would segue into Bryan's quest for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Finally allowing the hardworking wrestler to achieve some glamour via a Money In The Bank ladder win, the WWE promptly let it fizzle by having him declare the exact moment of when his challenge for the title would be (Wrestlemania 28) thus negating the whole point of winning the briefcase, and having him embark on yet another high-profile losing streak. A feud with Mark Henry would follow, not exactly the best opponent to augment Bryan's considerable in-ring skill. It also led to Bryan attempting to cash in the briefcase before he said he would do it, and then feeling bad about it. This is a perfect example of what is wrong about the presentation of a wrestler to the fans. Either have Bryan cash in the briefcase, showing he will do whatever it takes to win, or have him stick to the original plan. As it was, this wishy-washy back-and-forth came across as odd at best and demeaning at worst. Bryan's initial attempt to cash in the briefcase was overturned, and he would eventually use it successfully to pin The Big Show at TLC.
This win, particularly with an athlete of Bryan's size going against a much bigger opponent, could have propelled him to stardom. Instead, the WWE began turning Bryan heel, yet another in the long sequence of events which allow them to thumb their noses at the online darlings. Turning Bryan heel allowed the WWE to once again use the opportunity to have him achieve his victories by less than honorable methods, such as causing disqualifications or outside interference. It also placed him into an interesting storyline with AJ Lee, missed casting on both sides, as AJ clearly makes a much better manipulative heel. This downward spiral would culminate with the Wrestlemania 28 challenge from Sheamus, who famously pinned Bryan in eighteen seconds thanks to him being distracted by an AJ kiss. The chance to see Bryan take on all comers and add to his legend went by the wayside, coincidentally for the second time against a wrestler bred in the WWE and its minor leagues. The fix was undoubtedly in.
We as fans finally got our wish to some extent as Bryan rebounded to engage WWE Champion CM Punk in a feud. Their stellar match at Over the Limit ended in a controversial Bryan loss, but gave us a chance to witness firsthand what we already knew as it relates to his talent. Despite that match, Bryan was relegated to the love triangle storyline with Kane and AJ, which famously ended with AJ officially going rogue and dumping Bryan at the altar on their wedding day. This would lead to Bryan's increasing frustration (mirroring the fans) as AJ did anything possible while in the Raw GM role to keep the title away from him. It also pushed Bryan to Kane as unlikely allies, leading to Team Hell No.
I'll be the first to admit that I wouldn't think Hell No could work; mixing a man of Bryan's background and storied history with Kane seems a mismatch from the start. But it's the mismatches that sometimes oddly work, and this one has. It's provided a series of extremely entertaining vignettes with Dr. Shelby, it's gotten "No!" and "Yes!" over as catchphrases, and more importantly, it's allowed Bryan to find his footing as an entertainer. I'd love to pretend that skill and talent are all that matter in the WWE, but we both know better. Just like CM Punk, Bryan has been able to get across to the WWE's target audience using a microphone. The difference, of course, is that Bryan is being packaged and presented as a comedy act. It's certainly great to see a personality attached to the street cred, but this is not Santino we're speaking of.
Tag team wrestling has been on the downswing in the WWE for years, and quite frankly it's most often employed as an excuse to further individual storylines. There is no reason to think that will change, so keeping Bryan in a tag team is just an easy way to keep him out of the big title picture. Kane at this stage in his career is the means to an end. He can be used as a fan attraction and a name in the business, but his matches are never going to steal the show. The odd couple gimmick has run its course. Bryan shouldn't have to make anybody better at this point. It's time for the company to make HIM better, at least on paper if nothing else. Turning Kane heel would be the logical move; it would enable Bryan to garner sympathy defending himself from a monster and allow him to ultimately vanquish an opponent without relevance while the main storylines played on. That can position Bryan to be a major player by the end of the summer, challenging for Ziggler's title or perhaps once again engaging with the returning CM Punk. These have been some of the finest opponents of Bryan's WWE career, and would re-establish him as a serious threat and someone deserving of attention outside of a backstage segment.
The fact that Daniel Bryan has been so accepting of the way he's been presented should be seen as a credit to the man. It's very clear to any observer that he understands the game and is comfortable playing it. The trajectory of Punk should serve as an illustration that the tenuous bridge between the writers and the wrestlers can lead to very good things when both parties are interested and willing to make it happen. Bryan does not need to be sold to your huge wrestling fan, especially not your huge wrestling fans who don't exclusively watch WWE. He does, however, need to be sold to those who've never seen a lick of anything outside of World Wrestling Entertainment, and the way to do so is not to make him an evil vegan or a frequent hugger, but to let him wrestle his ass off against great competition as he has so often in the past. The tremendous thing about a wrestler of his caliber is that you're not forced to put a belt on him to make him authentic. That said, you do have to afford him the ability to steal the show and upstage the top talent, something that I've yet to see the WWE embrace fully.
For someone who frequently speaks out against what I don't like, I appreciate that my tastes are not everyone's. I am ecstatic that Dolph Ziggler is a champion, but reluctant on where it leads based on early returns. Positioning Bryan as one of the premier talents in this company is more important now than almost at any time in its history. Punk has made it clear that he's running on borrowed time to some extent, Cena's act is a strong seller but lacks originality, and the older talents are moving into part-time supporting cast roles. Guys like Bryan don't come along very often, and perhaps even less so in this new era of instant gratification. Why go do it the right way in promotions around the globe when you can just hope onto the reality show big-time express train? The reason is the same thinking that led Bryan to fulfill independent dates after getting re-signed by the WWE: honor. It's a word that isn't used very often in any form of athletics anymore, and one that should be both appreciated and applauded.
I know it pains the WWE to admit that maybe they should have acted sooner or done more with what they had, but in this case it's cutting off their nose to spite their face. Daniel Bryan should be presented as a main event ready superstar. He's earned it and we, the paying wrestling community, deserve it. Let's not hang around in the land of might have been anymore. Let's bust down the door and present the next generation of talent. I'm aware that Entertainment is part of the title of the company. Are they aware that Wrestling is too?
* I was fascinated by Chris Jericho's recent comments regarding Fandango. As you will often read in this space, he is exactly right. In case you haven't seen it, Jericho told us that Vince McMahon loves the character because of Jericho's own appearance on Dancing With The Stars. To say that I believe that completely would be the understatement of all time. I tend to picture Vince sitting in his office flipping through the channels and having his assistants feverishly take notes on whatever trend might catch on. I am fearing the debut of the Duck Dynasty wrestler, but it's right around the corner. Jericho also admitted being unhappy with being presented Fandango as his opponent at Wrestlemania, but eventually embraced it because of the challenge it was. Refreshing honesty from one of the best in the business. I've said before that where Fandango goes as a character will have way more to do with his development as a wrestler than it does with his theme song. Piping it into the arena and showing us every YouTube (whoops, Yahoo) clip it's on won't change that.
* Of all of the former WWE talent sitting on the sidelines, the man I miss most is John Morrison. He's been rumored to return pretty much ever since he left, and he's continued to stoke the fires by reminding us of the good terms he left on. Morrison definitely has the look the WWE loves, but he matches that with a varied arsenal of moves and a uniqueness that is highly prized. He's made his mistakes (most of them in the locker room) and he needs to improve on the microphone, but this is a guy who should be on our television sets every week. While others worry about the return of Batista or whether Goldberg will ever appear in a WWE ring again, I'll be hoping to see Morrison's mojo in the squared circle again.
* As Extreme Rules shapes up, I see it being an average card. I think the stipulations will add another dimension to the matches, but I can't say that any of them are filling me with anticipation. Part of it is due to the matches themselves, which as mainly rehashes of what we've already seen, but the other is the sense that no major belts are likely to change hands. Removing the title from either Cena or Ziggler this early would be a mistake, so unless injury forces their hands it's not going to happen. The match I am least looking forward to thus far is Sheamus and Mark Henry. While I always enjoy Henry beating the hell out of people and feel he's actually improved quite a bit on the mic, I can't recall the last time I saw a strap match that was worth writing home about. There's a limited number of things you can do with them to begin with, and it's just not something I see being exciting. At least it's better than tug of war.
That wraps it up for me this week. I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to read these ramblings and encourage you to check back on me next week in this same space and also to provide feedback and cutting remarks on Twitter @coffeyfan77 or right here in the comments below. Until next time, this is Mike Holland saying have a great week and please, please, please Hulk Hogan...no matter how hard you're working to get that sex tape off the internet, work harder!