From Katie Vick to 18 Seconds at WrestleMania, we're fond of discussing when wrestling promotions screw things up. "This Is Going To Work" is a column intended to point out ways in which those same wrestling promotions are getting things right, and to explain how it's going to work out for the best.
Admit it; we've all been worried for Daniel Bryan. Ever since that stupid tie incident got him temporarily released, we've questioned just how much support WWE is going to give the man many consider to be the best wrestler in the world. Then came the infamous 18 second WrestleMania debacle, followed by what many assumed would be a dead end gig as half of a comedy tag team with Kane. Between this and a string of losses to the higher profile members of the WWE roster, CM Punk and John Cena included, we all had that lingering sense of dread that accompanies our favorites that don't, for whatever reason, neatly fit the mold of WWE successes that came before (looking at you, Dolph Ziggler).
Even this latest feud with John Cena, and the climactic match that ended it, came to its conclusion with Randy Orton, another man built in the mold of obvious stardom, holding the WWE title that we had hoped would belong to Bryan. It felt too brief, as if the WWE was trying to avoid the mistake it made with Chris Benoit, who took the title riding the same wave of fan goodwill only to have his championship reign become a dull afterthought that also ended in a Randy Orton title win at SummerSlam. Once again thrust into the limelight, now as the undivided fan favorite with Cena injured, it's hard not to worry that the WWE isn't once again setting up a fan favorite for eventual failure, with Bryan facing off against not just Orton, but also against Triple H, who modern era "smarks" have long resented but who still carries weight with fans nostalgic for the Attitude Era. It's a tension that feels as if it could break with Daniel Bryan as a noble but failed project, biding time until Cena returns, then reestablishing the status quo.
Except the Daniel Bryan headliner moment is different from the Benoit failure or the previous stutter-steps in Bryan's career; this is going to work. Here's why:
1. Daniel Bryan is a catchphrase machine built for WWE promo success.
When we think of the master technicians that never "made it", we routinely come back to men like Benoit and Malenko, who were savants at in-ring storytelling but who were stiff to the point of awkwardness on the microphone. Certainly, earlier in his career, there was some cause for concern that this could have been the case with Bryan, except when his brilliant heel turn as World Champion arrived, he revealed a gift for creating memorable promo moments that have become signposts along his career. Whether it's the more subtle trolling of his "I'm a vegan" act, the more memorable "YES!" and "NO!" moments that came later, or even the silliness of "I AM THE TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS!" with Kane, the man is a genius at boiling down character or storyline points into promos that easily generate fan responses and turns of phrase that move merchandise ("Respect the Beard" being the latest iteration, almost certain to be followed by something regarding being a "B+"). Whatever concerns we have for Bryan's ability to make this moment as the top face in the company into his launch pad to superstardom, his mic work shouldn't be one of them.
2. The WWE denied us the smark gratification moment in favor of a bigger story being told.
This is important. Looking back on Benoit's WrestleMania victory, the whole moment was built around what it meant for Benoit, what it meant for his fans, and what it meant in the scheme of his career. The mountaintop was reached then and there, in that self contained instant. For a moment at this past SummerSlam, it felt the same way, with Bryan even mugging for the camera and thanking his parents and loved ones. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it was snatched away. This enraged Bryan fans in the short term, but for fans of Bryan's WWE career, nothing could be more promising. The story of "the culmination of Daniel Bryan's career" is interesting only to more hardcore fans, and even then its shelf life would have been limited. The story of Daniel Bryan wronged, and now Daniel Bryan pursuing justice and the validation that will come with it, has the potential to last much longer, and will almost certainly resonate with even casual fans. Instead of giving Daniel Bryan his moment in the sun, the WWE has given him the potential to become the new Stone Cold Steve Austin, chasing his goal with the single minded focus of a man who has had everything taken from him by injustice. Of course, none of this would work if it weren't for the third reason why this whole storyline is going to work for the WWE, for fans, and for Daniel Bryan, and that is because…
3. Triple H is the perfect villain to set against Daniel Bryan, and makes him a greater hero as his foil.
The collective eye rolls for Triple H as special guest referee at SummerSlam were well deserved, and the trepidation over watching Triple H deliver the Pedigree to our hero en route to costing him the title was also understandable, but anyone who watched last Monday's RAW has to understand just how good this is going to be for this story. Triple H is, by virtue of his long career and his positioning himself as a sort of Old God, ruthless, cunning, and almost invincible, everything that Daniel Bryan as hero is meant to overcome. Daniel Bryan made his career outside of the spotlights, in the "gyms and armorys" he frequently references when discussing his independent wrestling; Triple H built his legacy during the highest times for the most well known wrestling business in the world. Daniel Bryan stands under six feet tall, with a scraggly beard and a physique that, while obviously powerful, is far from the action figure standard of modern day WWE champions; Triple H, by contrast, is a behemoth, representing both in himself and his selection of Randy Orton as his champion the image of everything we've been trained to believe the WWE wants in the appearance of its superstars. Perhaps most importantly, Daniel Bryan is an outsider whose WWE career has always seemed precarious, whether fairly or not; Triple H is literally a company man by bloodline.
In setting himself up as Daniel Bryan's opposition, Triple H has given him the quest that every great hero narrative requires, and thanks to his own natural opposition to Bryan in the ways discussed above, he is perfectly equipped to highlight everything that makes Daniel Bryan someone that the common man should root for.
Watching Triple H condescend to Bryan as he was being beaten, then as he dragged himself up to the apron on his last legs, all we wanted was to see Bryan kick Triple H's teeth in, and even though we were denied that moment then, we still want that gratification. Hell, it's the natural climax that everyone, even casual fans, want to see.
Triple H makes Daniel Bryan into a totem for us as viewers, giving us a relatable John McClane hero instead of the superheroes we're used to seeing. If he does what is right for the story, and I think he will because I think he values grooming the next main even superstars in his role as COO, he's going to give Bryan the revenge that will be a defining moment in Bryan's career, bigger because it appeals to both hardcore and casual wrestling fans.
To get there, it's going to take Triple H positioning himself as the perfect villain to Bryan's hero, and that's why this is going to work.
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