The year was 2000. April 17, to be exact. On that Monday night, Triple H used his kayfabe powers as “the husband of the boss’ daughter” to overturn a Chris Jericho victory and re-award himself the WWF championship. It was the ultimate example of power run amok and only further solidified Triple H as the villain willing to do anything to get, keep, or reclaim the world title. He was not yet the real life son-in-law, but everyone on message boards and anyone who read the dirtsheets knew the power he was already wielding backstage.
You see? They hate the new guys. They’ll never let them get over!
If you’re wondering, around this time a youngster named Bryan Danielson, fresh out of high school, was winning his first pro wrestling championship, one half of the Texas Wrestling Alliance’s Tag Title.
Fast forward to 2010 and Triple H has moved to a more prominent backstage role. Now he really is the boss’s son-in-law and has all the power that comes with it. He had just finished up a feud with Sheamus that saw him beat the rookie Irishman at WrestleMania and then lose at Extreme Rules (clearly John Cena was taking notes). Recognizing the future would feature him more in a suit than in tights, he took a greater role in the development of the next generation of superstars.
And who better than The Game-uh to help promising upstarts get over, amirite? (I kid).
Around this time, a little watched game show called NXT debuted on SyFy. The show featured eight wannabe superstars competing in all manner of rigorous exercises you’d expect from someone with WrestleMania main event aspirations.
Insert your own “Rock-em-Sock-em Tournament” or “juggling” joke here.
Bryan Danielson, now re-christened Daniel Bryan, had recently signed with WWE and debuted as one of the shows first contestants. In the decade he had been wrestling, Bryan had made quite a name for himself in the minor leagues of pro wrestling. He was one Ring of Honor’s original superstars and had competed in thrilling matches against men like Austin Aries, Christopher Daniels, Samoa Joe, and Chris Hero. He had wrestled in cage matches, Iron Man matches, ladder matches, and even went 80 minutes in a single bout. He left for WWE as one of Ring of Honor’s best to ever compete in the company’s history.
He was then kicked off NXT for what they called “lack of self-confidence.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in one of pro wrestling’s great ironies (second only to the baby Shawn Michael as announced by Vince McMahon on Letterman), the man who later would pin John Cena clean 1-2-3 in order to prove he was not a weak link was removed from NXT by “management” because they thought he lacked the necessary “heart” to make it in “this business.”
You see? I knew they’d never give him a chance. They hate the little guys.
And then a little thing called Nexus happened.
Someone had the idea that the NXT rookies should all move up to the main roster (despite the entire premise of the show being that only one guy wins a contract…let’s not over-think these things). Led by Wade Barrett (the NXT winner), the team of rookies mounted an invasion of WWE, and laid waist to all in their path. This is great. This is a big deal! Daniel Bryan is involved in WWE’s hottest angle in years!
But I’m afraid I have some
choke you with your own tie because you said “sell intensity” before I came out bad news. PG sponsors did not like seeing Daniel Bryan choking Justin Roberts with his own tie. As punishment, Bryan was fired. After only one night on Raw, he was gone.
Are you kidding? What a double standard! They didn’t defend him like they would a bigger guy. They don’t see a future with him so they don’t care!
But it was not the end. Instead, he returned at SummerSlam and was hand-picked by Cena to be on his team of WWE superstars fighting against Nexus. That’s a big deal. But we don’t remember that. We remember Michael Cole taking a dump on him on commentary.
After SummerSlam, Bryan did not disappear. He entered into a feud with The Miz. At the time, Miz was U.S. champion and Money in the Bank briefcase holder, soon to be WWE champion. And he won the title! On PPV! In fact, since he won the title, there has yet to be a more consistently booked mid-card champion. Dean Ambrose currently holds the U.S title and does nothing with it. Big E currently holds the Intercontinental title and can’t stop losing. Bryan won the U.S. title and defended on house shows, on SmackDown, on PPVs. It’s not the main event but this is his first year with the company. This is a big deal!
All things considered, Bryan had a pretty great 2010. But we don’t remember that. We remember him getting bumped from WrestleMania 27 to the pre-show, and then bumped from the pre-show in favor of a battle royal he didn’t even win.
Ugh! They refuse to let him get over! Best pure talent on the roster and he doesn’t even get to compete!
But again he didn’t get lost in the shuffle. At least not for long. He had a bleak spring after WrestleMania 27 (remember “Daniel Bryan, dorky ladies man”?) but rebounded and won the blue briefcase at the 2011 Money in the Bank PPV (yes, THAT Money in the Bank PPV). As a babyface he promised he would not do a cheap cash-in on a wounded duck. He vowed to cash in at WrestleMania 28. Instead, a few months later, he cashed-in on and beat Big Show, who had just defeated a white hot Mark Henry, for the world heavyweight championship. That’s a big deal! Did we celebrate? A little. But with every “I can’t believe he did it!” there was:
It won’t last. They’ll treat him like a joke. He’ll lose to a guy that looks the part and he’ll just end up…
Bryan entered WrestleMania 28 around his two year anniversary with WWE. He had been one champion or another for literally half of that time. That’s impressive, no? Not only had he carried the world heavyweight championship for months, he had found a hook to get his character over with the wider audience. A memo from Vince said “Daniel Bryan should celebrate every win, no matter how cheaply attained, as though it were the greatest victory of all time.” That memo was condensed into one word — YES — and the rest is history. That’s impressive. But we don’t remember that. All of that gets lost in the haze of the 18 second debacle.
Are you kidding me! He didn’t even do one move! He just turned around and lost! What a joke! I told you, Vince hates the little guy! This is it for Bryan. Hope you enjoyed it. You won’t sniff a major title again for a long time, if ever.
Do not think, dear reader, that I’m implying that this is all some long slow burn from 2010-2014. No. Never. Without one important element, Daniel Bryan probably would have been just another Dolph Ziggler. He’d be remembered as a former title holder with a loyal “Internet” following who was used as enhancement talent for the real stars. But one thing kept him from slipping out of the mainstream spotlight. One thing kept him from being the guy people say “should have made it.”
We (the people) refused to let Bryan disappear. Every time he reached a new career peak we celebrated but we refused to be content. SummerSlam main event? Not enough. U.S. champion? Not enough. World title on the B-show? Not enough. Not only that but we refused to believe it. We refused to relax. We kept saying “It’s too good to be true. They’ll take it away from him. They’ll take him away from us.” With every new career low we refused to give up. We refused to listen to the people tell us to be content with all he had already accomplished.
We set rationality aside and just went and acted like he was being held down, held back, and pushed aside. And maybe he would have been pushed aside if we hadn’t just kept yelling. So we yelled. “YES” was our war cry. Though it started as a taunt from Bryan to the crowd, it became a taunt from the crowd to everyone who would listen.
And though we love to say they don’t listen, Daniel Bryan wrestled WWE Champion CM Punk three times in the spring of 2012. He got the rub from the then-hottest act in the business (who worked a full-time schedule). AJ Lee and Kane joined the fun, Punk went on his way, Bryan and Kane started feuding, and we just complained and complained and complained.
What is this? Comedy? They are WASTING him! THIS IS NOT WHAT WE WANT!
The feud between Bryan and Kane happened in spite of the fans’ protests but their partnership and odd-couple vibe won us over. Bryan, who for so long was the quiet guy who wrestled really well, had slowly become a fully dimensional character. His work with Kane is still the highlight work of his career in terms of entertainment value. Sure, the crowds are more rabid now, but that magical mid-2012 to mid-2013 kept giving me something to make each three hour episode of Raw worth it.
He and Kane were featured heavily. They worked big angles, had hilarious skits and backstage segments. And to top it off they had great ring chemistry. But through it all there was the worry.
I’m enjoying it but I don’t like it. I’m afraid after it’s run its course Bryan will end up getting lost in the shuffle. He deserves better than this. I don’t want to see him…
And ending up like Sheamus (a former champ without a story or a purpose)
That’s a paraphrase of a statement I made sometime in the lead up to WrestleMania 29. The talk was “when will Team Hell No finally break up and feud.” I figured they would sometime in spring and lead to a match at SummerSlam 2013, book-ending their marvelous year together.
Little did I know…
We remember the highlights that led to WrestleMania 30. It all started the previous summer. Bryan was once again hand-picked by Cena to main event SummerSlam, only this time it wasn’t in a tag match. It was for the big one. Not the U.S., not the Big Gold Belt; This was for the WWE championship. This was against Cena. This was the spotlight.
Cena picked Bryan because through it all we have cheered for him. The small little pocket of fans who knew of his work cheered him when he debuted. We didn’t forget him when he was fired. We cheered when he returned. We cheered him when he won the U.S. title from Miz, and we picked up some fellow supporters. We cheered and rooted for him as he languished in the spring of 2011 and rejoiced when he won the Money in the Bank briefcase and the world heavyweight championship. And we picked up some more supporters. We spit fire at 18 seconds and turned it into a movement far bigger than the “Internet Wrestling Community crowd.” We all made “YES!” a thing long before it was trademarked and usurped by “The Man”. We enjoyed his fun tag team but through it all we were restless.
When are they going to pull the rug out? When are they going to wake us up from the dream? When’s he gonna get …
And then he hit that Busaiku Knee on Cena and the champ took the pin, 1-2-3. It was, to that point, the most decisive victory anyone has had over John Cena since he became THE guy. Looking back, it might be the most decisive victory over any of the true top guys in the modern era. Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena. That’s it. You can make a case for Rock to slide in alongside Austin but the point still stands. Rock did a lot of jobs in his career, but as the top babyface, he never lost so clean. Austin never lost so clean. Hogan? Get outta here. There was no foot on the ropes, no kick out at 3 ½, no distractions. Bryan beat him fair and square and won the WWE championship.
And we know what happened next. We remember the endless bait and switch finishes. The insufferable Big Show hijacking of the feud. The Wyatt Family heel turn that seemed to mock how beloved Bryan had become. The Royal Rumble fiasco. Through it all we never gave up. We never stopped cheering.
And we made them change the script.
The story of WrestleMania 30’s main event is perhaps the most unique in the history of WrestleMania. The little guy rising up and winning has been done. The underdog overcoming the odds has been done. The anti-authority guy sticking it to the boss has been done. But this was different. It had all of those things, sure, but it also had Daniel Bryan personally involving the so-called “universe” of fans. We became part of the story. Our relentless and unyielding desire to see THIS GUY in the main event could not be denied or ignored. I cheered like he had won the title on the night of the Raw hijacking. Not during the occupy segment to book the match with Triple H at WrestleMania 30, which, happening live, was hokey. It was when he said “that’s not ALL that I want” and coaxed Triple H into giving him a title shot.
I leapt up and cheered.
This is it. He’s getting it. We’re getting it. We’re gonna win.
And then Triple H made the match a play-in to the main event. Whoever wins gets it.
Oh no they wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Not on this show. Not WrestleMania. Not after all the crap we went through.
Why be nervous? Austin had stakes against him, he overcame them. We knew he would. Not in January or February, but we knew at WrestleMania, he was going to stick it to Vince. Hogan had near-impossible challenges and he faced them. For 30 years the near-certain mantra of WrestleMania was “This one’s for you. The good guy wins. Happy endings for all!”
So why was I so nervous?
Because I had spent four years watching Bryan slowly climb up the ladder. With every step up I thought “this is the one where he slips. This is the one where they say ‘no more’ and he moves back down.” After tease after tease with no payoff I thought “this is too good to be true.”
But they were playing me. They weren’t playing me “the whole way” as the saying goes. No no. This wasn’t a slow burn. This was a course correction. Punk leaving and Batista bombing worked alongside the unrelenting desire of the fans. But sometime in February they set the wheels in motion and started playing with me.
Triple H finally became the perfect heel.
If you were around in 2000 you probably saw his work and said “this guy is the perfect heel.” And he almost was. But there was one thing he had working against him. The Internet-savvy fans knew he had stroke and we knew he used it on occasion. He had it when he turned babyface, which prevented a lot of fans from fully embracing him as a good guy. All his bluster and bravado always felt a little hallow because you knew he was, in a lot of ways, the one pulling the strings, orchestrating our love for him. As a heel with Evolution it was hard to really hate him the way we’re supposed to. We see him beat Booker T after a pedigree and taking nine and a half minutes to cover him, and we’re not mad that the heel won, we’re mad that the power player “buried” this guy or that.
This time it was different. This time he was embracing it. The Triple H who screwed Jericho out of a world championship 14 years prior was basically playing the same role who was trying to screw Bryan out of the main event. Just a little tweak (winking to the “reality” of his actual power) gave him a new dimension and allowed to do the absolute best work in this, the twilight of his career.
Look at his ridiculous entrance. Coming out looking like a Mortal Kombat final boss, carried out like a Pharaoh, his wife personally introducing him, herself having an outfit that made her look like a French maid in hot pants. It was so over the top it was great. But though we loved the character, we were still nervous.
Bryan needs this win. He doesn’t need to look weak. He has to be put over strong or its all for nothing.
No way Triple H loses in the opening match. This will be a smoz or there will be a restart. He’ll do something to work his way into the main event. This is Triple H we’re talking about. He’s not going to put him over clean.
And then Triple H put Bryan over clean as clean can be.
There was a wonderful callback to the WrestleMania 20 finish halfway through, where he had Bryan in the
crippler crossface. Bryan reaches for the ropes, comes close, then Triple H rolls him to the middle, still locked in with the submission hold. It’s the same sequence that caused Triple H to tap to Chris Benoit at WrestleMania 20. Only, unlike Triple H, Bryan didn’t tap. He reached the ropes. The match continues and Triple H hits a pedigree. It’s the same sequence that beat Booker T and countless others. But this time? Nope. Kickout. The match continues until BUSAIKU KNEE! 1-2-3. One finisher. No kick out for “The Game”, just a decisive victory for Bryan!
He entered the main event to a crowd that needed a happy ending to a very bittersweet evening. The match was laid out almost like a less bloody mirror to the WrestleMania 20 triple threat match. It even had a sick table spot that kept the hero out of action for a spell. The problem when comparing it to WrestleMania 20 is that Orton isn’t as good of a tweener as Shawn Michaels was, and Batista isn’t as good of a heel or a wrestler as Triple H was (and still is). The Orton vs. Batista 1-on-1 portions of the match kept the fans on their hands. But when Bryan popped in, they came alive. Watching the match a second time I was struck how the crowd cared so little for anything Orton or Batista had to offer. If this had been the main event…it would have been bottom 3.
Instead we had our man and we were ready to cheer for him. There were some good near falls that make my heart skip a beat, but I wasn’t given a chance to dwell on pessimism. The match was moving too quickly. Once Bryan stepped off the stretcher following the tease of an injury angle to take him out of the match, I stopped pacing (I was pacing) and just clinched my fists in anticipation.
Unlike at WrestleMania 20, when Benoit went over the two biggest power players of that era, Bryan went over Triple H’s two hand-picked superstars of this era. Benoit beat DX; Bryan beat Evolution. He even got in another good shot at Triple H, hoisting him on his own
petard sledgehammer before making Batista, the golden boy brought back to headline, tap out.
Four years after entering the company he was crowned champion at the biggest show of the year, on arguably the third most important WrestleMania of all time.
I don’t know if it’s because of my lack of sleep on WrestleMania night or just because I was caught up in the moment, but as someone who remembers reading about this guy in ROH and watching him tear down the house (even if the house was 750 people strong) on YouTube and just being blown away at how FAST he was, I admit I got choked up watching the video they played at the beginning of the Raw after WrestleMania 30. Seeing him move from literally baby-faced indie darling, to mid-carder, upper-carder, main-eventer, to WWE world heavyweight champion…it’s incredible what he has accomplished.
He never got to have the big title run he deserved. Injuries kept him from even defending it past one PPV. After relinquishing the title in the Spring of 2014, he slipped away, out of sight but not out of mind. He mounted a comeback in time for WrestleMania 31 and I’m so happy I was able to see him in person. I watched him win the Intercontinental title, which may have been a lesser championship, but it gave him the coveted Grand Slam in WWE. He held every title there was to hold, and even main-evented WrestleMania to boot.
Once again injuries stripped him of a title run and now it’s all over. No more come backs. No more second chances. Now we say goodbye. And now that we have said our goodbye, we can look at his WWE career as a complete picture. We can put his career and our support of him in perspective.
…he was never buried. It was always just too good to be true.
Until it was.
His is more than the story of an underdog. His is the story of OUR underdog. Not a manufactured story that they planned out and executed from the writers room to the squared circle. They didn’t pick a guy that maybe we liked or maybe we didn’t and say “this will be the guy you will cheer for on his way to winning.” No. None of that. This is the story of OUR BOY Daniel Bryan. We turned him into a monster that could not be ignored and could not be denied.
And as we say goodbye we remember his legacy. He proved that no one, no matter how small or how disrespected can be ignored if the will of the WWE universe is behind him.
So long Daniel Bryan and thanks for the memories.
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