Four years ago, after Daniel Bryan won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania 30, confetti poured from the top of the Superdome, sheets and sheets of it in Mardi Gras colors. I was on the floor, a handful of rows from the ring, and a couple of weeks later, back home, I crossed my legs and saw a piece of purple confetti stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I still have that disgusting piece of paper, tucked between the pages of a book. It’s one of my few wrestling mementos, or mementos in general. With good reason: that night concluded one of the most powerful story arcs in pro wrestling history, the tale of the underdog Bryan rising up against all odds, and against the wishes of the WWE front office, to take his place top the company.
It should have never happened. Bryan wasn’t seen as WWE material, both due to his height, his relatively slight stature, and his goofy grin, especially when he stood next to brawny leading men like Wade Barrett, David Otunga, and the Miz, with whom he shared screen time when he debuted on WWE television in 2010. When he became part of a group of up-and-comers who were (in story line) invading Raw, he got fired for choking the ring announcer with the announcer’s tie — advertisers complained — which was, ironically, probably the most planned thing that happened to Bryan in his career.
He went back to the independent scene with a tacit agreement to return to WWE, which he did at SummerSlam. He won the U.S. title and lost it, and was drafted to the B team on SmackDown; eventually, he beat the Big Show at TLC for the World Championship. He defended the belt in a cage match against both Big Show and Mark Henry, a charming metaphor for Bryan’s career: a supremely talented, undersized throwback in a world of giants. Bryan squeezed out of Big Show’s grasp and escaped the cage to retain his title.
Or maybe this is the metaphor: At WrestleMania 28, with the crowd chanting in unison in favor of Bryan — despite being a nominal villain — his opponent, Sheamus, beat him in 18 seconds and took the title. If WWE was trying to seed a revolution to make Bryan the face of the company, this was a masterstroke. But popular opinion didn’t favor WWE on that count — after all, Bryan wasn’t WWE’s type of star. Fans widely assumed that Bryan was being “buried.”
If he hadn’t shown enough moxy in his SmackDown run, he would prove it loudly on Raw, where he feuded with CM Punk for the WWE Championship and solidified that he could be the best wrestler in the world on the biggest stage, he played the romantic lead in his ongoing onscreen relationship opposite AJ Lee, and he partnered with Kane in a tag team that proved his comedic bona fides. If the story of his career had been self-evident to that point, here the tale takes a turn: He got a stinger during a 2013 match with Randy Orton and lost feeling in both arms. After the injury, he lost the strength in his right arm.
At SummerSlam 2013, Bryan faced John Cena for the WWE Championship. Cena had selected him personally despite the consternation of Vince McMahon, who has always relished in self-caricature. Bryan beat Cena to win the strap, but moments later, guest referee Triple H assaulted Bryan and assisted Orton in cashing in a title shot, stealing the belt, and setting the Authority story line in motion. At this point the narrative was formalized: Bryan, the undersized underdog who wasn’t supposed to ever be the face of the company, would play an undersized underdog who wasn’t supposed to ever be the face of the company. Sometimes fiction swallows reality and sometimes reality swallows fiction. Pro wrestling is a playground for the latter.
The most compelling part of the Bryan-as-underdog arc wasn’t his repeated beatdowns at the hands of Triple H and Orton; it was his feud with Bray Wyatt, because it was totally divorced from the Authority angle, and so represented Bryan’s forcible separation from the main event picture. It was at this point when the uprising that began at WrestleMania 28 reached full boil: Fans chanted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to the point of literal distraction, both to show their allegiance to Bryan and their dissatisfaction with WWE. The chants disrupted WWE programming so much that they absorbed it into the meta-reality, and “Occupy Raw” was born, as was the narrative arc that carried Bryan into the WrestleMania 30 main event. According to Bryan, who is the most honest interview in the business — the metaphor of his humanity cuts both ways — “I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the top of the card … but because of fan support, all of the sudden now I’m doing two matches and I’m in the main event of WrestleMania.”
The greatest debate in pro wrestling over the past decade is probably over whether WWE intended to push Bryan or whether its hand was forced when it realized the fans weren’t going to let them do anything else. I’m not sure there’s much of a distinction — even if WWE is famously slow at reading its audience, most pushes in pro wrestling are the result of an unexpected crowd response — and I’m even less sure there’s a difference: When the curtain went down on WrestleMania 30 on April 6, 2014, Daniel Bryan was the WWE Champion.
A month later, on May 12, Bryan announced he had to undergo neck surgery; onscreen, the Authority tried to force him to give up the title, but in real life the plan was for a speedy return. When the prognosis turned dire, WWE actually stripped Bryan of the belt — and, of course, the Authority did the deed publicly. Again, the narrative eats itself. He made a comeback in November, won the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania 31, and two weeks later was ominously pulled out of action as a precautionary measure. The next year was a heartbreaking abyss of rumors trumpeting his potential return and reality proving those rumors wrong. It was sometimes an arm issue, sometimes a nerve issue, and sometimes, finally, a concussion issue. On February 8, 2016, Bryan finally announced his retirement. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments in pro wrestling history, and I say that as somebody who saw Ric Flair bloody Ricky Morton’s head on the cement floor of the locker room.
Two notable things happened once Bryan retired. First, WWE embraced his career and presumptive legacy in a way seemingly at odds with its conflicted opinion of him during his career. This isn’t shocking; as the self-appointed ambassadors of wrestling history, they’ve embraced whatever they can deify and monetize, and it’s easier to do so when it doesn’t have to jibe with its storytelling. Second, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bryan’s retirement was subsumed into the meta-narrative of WWE irrationally holding him down. Reports have bubbled up over the past two years that Bryan wanted to continue wrestling, that he had found doctors who would clear him for work, only to be stymied by the official WWE doctors; that he was staying on to cash in on his WWE contract but that he would return to the (non-WWE) ring afterward; that WWE knew he could work but that it was more worried about bad PR from a long-shot cataclysmic injury.
And just as Bryan proved himself in every opportunity through his in-ring career, he proved himself as a fully dressed talking head in a frankly surprising way, starting with his retirement speech and continuing through his current role as SmackDown general manager — especially his freeform appearances on the post-show, Talking Smack. When he would get in the faces of the wrestlers over whom he had new onscreen dominion, it felt like an inverse of the magic that made the WrestleMania 30 build-up so powerful. Deliberately or not, WWE amplified Bryan’s ascent by making it seem as if the company were stifling it. Now it was teasing an impossibility just to needle those same fans. Instead of accidentally teasing something it didn’t want to deliver, WWE was deliberately teasing something it couldn’t deliver.
Bryan’s involvement in recent months in the story that set SmackDown commissioner Shane McMahon opposite Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn — two oddball superstars who followed Bryan’s path from the indies to the big stage — felt like the ne plus ultra of this narrative. They’d let him tease the crowd to hype up a match he’d be involved with at most as a guest referee, but the bet seemed to be that the letdown would be worth it, which, in its way, is the credo of the Daniel Bryan experiment.
Then came Tuesday, and the announcement via WWE that Bryan has been cleared to get back into the ring. It was one of the most shocking moments of my wrestling fandom, and I’ve actively fantasy-booked his return numerous times since his last match. That’s the thing about wrestling: It’s fake, so imagination doesn’t have to be tethered to repercussions. In a heartfelt parallel to his retirement speech, Bryan opened SmackDown by announcing his return to the ring.
And just like that, the realest of story lines in pro wrestling has its impossible payoff. Bryan is back and he’s more of an underdog, more of a triumph, more of a fan favorite than he was before. If WWE had meant to tell the story this way, it was a masterstroke. But this was real. The story line and reality swallowed each other.
So what’s next? Tuesday’s show ended with Bryan “firing” Owens and Zayn, only to have them attack him viciously. If there was any lingering doubt about WWE’s confidence in Bryan’s ability to perform, those were put to bed when Owens powerbombed him onto the ring apron. (One has to wonder whether this would have been more poignant without the announcement that Bryan had been reinstated, but the sensitivity of the issue is such that they had to warn us. Some things are bigger than kayfabe.) It’s a good guess that he’ll team up with Shane against Owens and Zayn at WrestleMania. After that, the sky’s the limit, continued health permitting.
The interesting question is how long fans will be content to revel in the joy of having Bryan back before reverting to the old refrain of “Why isn’t Bryan in the main event?” It’s also worth wondering whether WWE has changed so much in his absence, with the ascendance of several indie and international stars that seemed even more unlikely than Bryan, that his underdog story line has become moot. It’s been only a couple of years, but he’s coming back to a new era in WWE, with action-figure stalwarts like Cena and Orton on the wane and a generation of underdogs taking their place. Call it the Daniel Bryan Era.
Will his narrative lose its luster? Don’t count on it. Daniel Bryan is the one star who fully transcended the stereotypes of the previous era, and he’ll transcend any assumptions this one puts on him. He harnessed real life to construct the biggest hero’s journey in pro wrestling history, and then real life took over. Somehow reality has been co-opted into an even bigger triumph. After years of disappointment and heartbreak, the Bryan mantra is truer than ever: The letdown was worth it. It’s so perfect, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was scripted.